Jesus built his Church on the Rock of Peter

Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter by Pietro Perugino (1481-82), Fresco, Sistine Chapel. Wikimedia.

Jesus built his Church on the Rock of Peter (Matthew 16:18) and promised that the “gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Here is the context:

When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?

And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.

He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?

And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.

And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:13-19; KJV)

Therefore, we should have confidence in Jesus, that He knows what He is doing in building His Church, even with the imperfect men–all–who must occupy the See of Peter. Mark Mallett (in the video below) explains that the confusions in teaching that Christ has allowed at this time have made it a time of sifting (Luke 22:31), like that Jesus spoke of during the Last Supper.

And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat:

But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.

And he said unto him, Lord, I am ready to go with thee, both into prison, and to death.

And he said, I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me. (Luke 22:31-34)

Peter was “sifted” and sorely tempted by Satan. He denied his Lord three times. But Jesus prayed for him, knowing this would happen, and instructed him that when he repented (i.e., converted, turned back to Jesus), he should strengthen his brethren. That is the role of the Pope among the Bishops and priests even today. Imperfect men will fail our Lord, and their flocks, and need to repent and turn back to him, not once but many times. The Pope was charged by Jesus to be the Rock, guarding the deposit of faith, so that he might strengthen his brethren and all the faithful in times like these, through all time, until Jesus returns.

Through the successor of Peter, Jesus remains “a sign which shall be spoken against,” “that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34,35). Mallett explains well how to distinguish when the Pope–any Pope–is teaching infallibly (ex Cathedra), when he is teaching in his ordinary magisterium, and when he is speaking off the cuff or giving his own opinions; the first (and rarest) requires our complete assent of faith, the second is for our edification in faith and morals, and the third may justly elicit our respectful disagreement. Even the ordinary magisterium may be subject to the respectful correction of brother Bishops, if it should depart from the constant teaching of the Church in the deposit of faith and tradition (see 2 Thessalonians 2:15; KJV: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.”)

Jesus established his Church, which is beginning to go through its own Passion.* Therefore, staying close to Christ, we are wise to stay close to what He established, and its “true magisterium” in the constant deposit of faith, so that we may be found faithful to Him to the end.

See Mark Mallett, “Remaining on the Rock”:

I also recommend this excellent article at Catholic Stand, “The Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the Church (Part 1),” by Karol Orsborn. She considers the proper attitude of the laity toward their Popes, at all times, but especially during this time of terrible scandal, sin, and confusion in the Church, and the obligation to pray for our Pope. We as laity must pray for Pope Francis, the bishops, and priests throughout the Church, as Jesus prayed for Peter in his night of temptation before Good Friday.

A Church in Crisis: Pathways Forward by Dr. Ralph Martin is an excellent book for getting perspective on the crisis in the Church and in the papacy, along with sound teaching on the best ways we can respond.

Note:

*See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which explains this necessary time in the Church, “The Church’s Ultimate Trial,” prophesied in Scripture (especially, Revelations 19 to 21).

Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the “mystery of iniquity” in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh. [CCC, 675]

The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection. The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God’s victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven. God’s triumph over the revolt of evil will take the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world. [CCC, 677]

Resources:

Catechism of the Catholic Church (second edition). Promulgated by Pope John Paul II. New York: Doubleday, 1997. Also online at https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM . Article 7 of the Creed includes the discussion of the Church’s ultimate trial and passover.

Mark Mallett, “Remaining on the Rock,” Queen of Peace Media, Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ejo2vNvwaEg , April 2, 2021.

“The Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the Church (Part 1),” by Karol Orsborn, Catholic Stand, September 27, 2018.

A Church in Crisis: Pathways Forward by Ralph Martin. Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2020.

“Yet Will I Trust in Him”: A Meditation on Job’s Immovable Faith

Job [detail], Gonzalo Carrasco (1881). Wikimedia.

***

Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him. (Job 13:15; KJV)

Job is praying in his great affliction. In a series of sudden and catastrophic events, Job, who is described in the very first verse as “blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil,” loses nearly everything that makes up his life: first, his oxen, donkeys, sheep, camels, and all his servants who tended them; then, his daughters and sons; and finally, his own health and reputation. His wife blames him. His friends deride him and suspect him of some hidden sin. Hardest of all to bear, God seems to have deserted him, after blessing him for so many years. Without Job’s awareness, God has consented to let Satan test him in the most severe of trials, just short of taking Job’s life.

Yet, his statement of faith and trust is one of the strongest in all of Scripture. It is worth much long reflection and prayer. The arguments that Job and his friends exchange about God and the nature of suffering are sublime and revelatory–especially after Job’s climactic dialogue with God himself–but the linchpin of this profound book is Job’s unwavering faith. It is inexplicable to his friends, yet it plunges him into the heart of God, provoking an even deeper confession of faith at the end. God knew Job, as he knew Jeremiah (“before I formed you in the womb I knew you” Jeremiah 1:5), and He trusted Job–enough to honor Job’s righteous questioning with an answer from the whirlwind, a manifestation of God’s glory so powerful that Job was led to “repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). What is inexplicable to Job’s censorious friends must become explicable to us, if we seek to trust the Lord as Job did.

Job’s Tormentors, William Blake (c1785-1790). Wikimedia.

In his book Hebrew Word Study: Revealing the Heart of God, Chaim Bentorah devotes a full chapter to this verse and explains how the Hebrew verbs chosen, here translated as “slay” and “trust,” reveal the force and conviction of Job’s declaration.

The root word for “slay” is a rare word, qatal (קָטַל).* Bentorah says that it “can mean not only a physical killing but also a killing of the spirit or the killing of all hope” (p. 341). The root of the verb used for “trust,” yachal (יָחַל) is also rare, and has the connotation of “waiting with expectant hope.” In other words, Job, though fully expecting to die, utterly bereft of God’s support–still he will persist in trust and hope, never breaking the relationship himself.

For comparison, consider Psalm 27, a Psalm of David, in which, surrounded by adversaries, with a host of enemies encamped around him, David begs the Lord not to cast him off:

Hide not thy face from me.

Turn not thy servant away in anger,
    thou who hast been my help.
Cast me not off, forsake me not,
    O God of my salvation!
For my father and my mother have forsaken me,
    but the Lord will take me up.

Teach me thy way, O Lord;
    and lead me on a level path
    because of my enemies.
Give me not up to the will of my adversaries;
    for false witnesses have risen against me,
    and they breathe out violence.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
    in the land of the living!
Wait for the Lord;
    be strong, and let your heart take courage;
    yea, wait for the Lord!
(Psalm 27:9-14; RSV)

Job’s trust is like this, and extends even beyond death, when earthly hope seems exhausted. Job waits and hopes even when the Lord withdraws from him and seems poised to wrench him from the land of the living. He trusts the Lord even into the unknown future.

What is the basis of Job’s trust and can we base our trust on the same foundation?

Job was not an Israelite, but rather from the mysterious land of Uz. He did not have the promises of the God’s covenant with Abraham, nor the further covenant with Moses. Lawrence Feingold describes Job as a “just pagan” and highlights the importance of his outsider status:

“He represents the upright man outside the influence of God’s revelation. His experience of suffering is heightened by the fact that he is not comforted directly by the hope of Israel, but only by the common patrimony of natural religion present in what is best in human culture.” (The Mystery of Israel and the Church, Vol. 2, p. 72)

Nevertheless, he feared God and even had the habit of making atoning sacrifices for his children’s possible sins. He had come to a natural understanding of God’s created order that finds echoes in the other Biblical writings. With the Psalmist Job could say, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.  My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1-2). This was Job’s state in prosperity, but after he suffered God’s testing he might have said, with Isaiah:

All the nations are as nothing before him,
    they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
    Has it not been told you from the beginning?
    Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
    and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
    and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;
who brings princes to nought,
    and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
    scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
    and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
(Isaiah 40:17, 21-24; RSV)

Job had been a sort of “prince” of Uz with wealth, many animals, many children, and many servants in his care, and indeed God permitted Satan to blow on them and carry them all off like stubble. When they were all gone, he proclaimed:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong. (Job 1:21-22)

When his wife despairs and urges him to give up and curse God, Job replies, “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). With all his blessings, Job had also acquired wisdom and fortitude, and possessed a philosophical mind sharpened by self-examination.

In his level of trustful acceptance of God’s will, he reminds me of Abraham, the prototypical giant of faith, who accepted God’s test of his faith, when the Lord commanded him to prepare to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac (Genesis 22). When the Lord stayed Abraham’s hand and provided a ram for the sacrifice instead, He recognized Abraham’s faith and promised him a superabundant blessing: “because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore” (Genesis 22:16-17). But Job’s predicament was quite different. Job’s children were suddenly taken away without his consent, and God’s apparent favor was replaced with unspeakable suffering. Yet the collision of his suffering with his faith yielded a new level of faith and trust, raised to a supernatural degree.

Natural trust may depend on blessings and promises fulfilled, but supernatural trust must come from within, from a heart bonded in relationship to God. By the end of the Book of Job, he knows more deeply who God is and who he is in relation to God. The promises of God are seen in a new light as well–as fulfilled but not without the persistent element of mystery, the veil that still separates the humble creature from the Creator.

In his discussion of Job’s words, “though he slay me, yet will I trust in him,” Chaim Bentorah argues persuasively that Job’s faith goes well beyond the realm of promised gifts or favors in this life. Indeed, he says that Job is saying the opposite: even if God appears to break all his promises, yet will I trust in him. Such trust suggests an unshakable love. How else could it survive on so little visible food? Moreover, he was confident in God’s justice, and insisted on a hearing before God: “but I will maintain mine own ways before him. He also shall be my salvation” (Job 13:15-16; KJV). Job would defend his own uprightness, resting assured that God himself would acquit and save him from an unfair judgment.

Bentorah also remarks that the Epilogue (Job 42:10-17), in which Job’s goods and family are doubly “restored” to him, does not contradict the theme of Job’s supernatural faith and fidelity. It never depended on such a visible restoration. He concludes:

“The theme of the story of Job is that when everything was taken away from him, and it seemed like his life was going to end in poverty and shame, he still trusted God; he was waiting and hoping expectantly to be with the God whom he loved.” (p. 343).

So, we can say that love is the basis for Job’s unshakable trust, and it should be ours as well.

The restoration of Job’s possessions, prosperity, and family life may seem to be proof of God’s justice in the end (notwithstanding the irremediable loss of his first sons and daughters). But it was not the sort of just validation that Job had sought. God was just to Job when he heard the cries of anguish from his faithful servant and responded to them, speaking to him out of the whirlwind (Job 38-42). God adjudicated the dispute with Job’s friends, rejecting their simple notion of retribution for sin as the cause of human suffering, and instead ratifying Job’s insistence on God’s justice, truthfulness, and goodness, however hidden they might be from our full understanding. The Lord pronounced his verdict and sentencing to Eliphaz the Temanite:

“My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:7-8)

It couldn’t be plainer. All the long-winded speeches of the three friends are swept aside by the voice of God from the whirlwind. The mystery of human suffering remains. But it is equally clear that God hears our cries in suffering, and He is moved. Far from condemning Job, He comes to his defense. He engages Job in dialogue and reveals Himself, as much as his human creature can bear. Perhaps it is merciful that God’s presence is not so dramatic for most of us, as it was for Job. But he is the same God who hears the cries of our hearts in prayer.

In the Bible, there are so many occasions where great promises and blessings to Israel, secured through God’s Covenants (with Noah, Abraham, and Moses), alternated with almost unbearable sufferings for the people, whether attributed to their disobedience or to other evils that God permitted. The kind of faith that survived Israel’s Babylonian exile and return, for example, emerged from this churning of hope and suffering and hope, again and again. Nevertheless, the people of God held fast to one ultimate promise: that peace and justice, mercy and truth, would one day prevail, most especially through the eventual coming of the Messiah. This would be true for the individual soul, a soul like Job, as much as for God’s people as a whole.

Behold, I will bring them from the north country, and gather them from the coasts of the earth, and with them the blind and the lame, the woman with child and her that travaileth with child together: a great company shall return thither.

They shall come with weeping, and with supplications will I lead them: I will cause them to walk by the rivers of waters in a straight way, wherein they shall not stumble: for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.

Hear the word of the Lord, O ye nations, and declare it in the isles afar off, and say, He that scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him, as a shepherd doth his flock.

For the Lord hath redeemed Jacob, and ransomed him from the hand of him that was stronger than he.

Therefore they shall come and sing in the height of Zion, and shall flow together to the goodness of the Lord, for wheat, and for wine, and for oil, and for the young of the flock and of the herd: and their soul shall be as a watered garden; and they shall not sorrow any more at all. (Jeremiah 31:8-12; KJV)

In the New Testament, Saint Peter, the apostle, would speak of the “precious and very great promises” (2 Peter 1:4; RSV) of God, by which Jesus Christ would rescue from eternal death all those who kept faith in him, through trials and persecutions, and he would make them partakers of the glory which was his by nature but became ours by grace. Job prefigures and exemplifies to a very noble degree such persevering faith, which endured throughout his sudden and severe sufferings, and ventured into the hope beyond death, the hope of life eternal.

Job never received an “explanation” from God for the specific sufferings he had to endure. He was never privy to the dialogue between God and Satan in Heaven (Job 1:6-2:8). Rather, he was shown something greater by being drawn more deeply into God’s presence. He saw God’s face in the whirlwind, he heard his voice, and he received a powerful new infusion of “fear of the Lord,” one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit enumerated in Isaiah 11 in one of this prophet’s great Messianic prophecies:

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
    the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the spirit of counsel and might,
    the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
(Isaiah 11:1-3)

Job was already singled out for his exemplary piety and reverence for the Lord, but this personal encounter with God confirmed him in humility, wisdom, and understanding. If we are to be more like Job, we must be constant in prayer, asking for these gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are offered to all who ask with love. Furthermore, our trust must be willing to accept the uncertainty of not knowing, for now, how much we will see fulfilled “in the land of the living” (Psalm 27) here on earth and how much must await “the new heaven and the new earth” promised in the Book of Revelation (or, the Apocalypse of John), where “God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4).

Note:

*For Hebrew words, I used the Blue Letter Bible online, which gives word-by-word analysis of the Masoretic text, with pronunciation and roots, and its lexical entries are keyed to Strong’s Concordance numbers. See entry for Job 13:15.

Resources:

Hebrew Word Study: Revealing the Heart of God by Chaim Bentorah. New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2016.

The Mystery of Israel and the Church, Vol. 2: Things New and Old by Lawrence Feingold. St Louis, MO: Miriam Press, 2010.

Related post:

The Faith of Abraham and His Seed, Numerous as the Stars

Loving God With Our Whole Heart

This morning, a church that I have been “visiting” online (St John Cantius,* in Chicago) was doing a Forty Hours Devotion in preparation for their patronal feast tomorrow. In this devotion, the Blessed Sacrament (in a monstrance) is exposed continuously for Eucharistic adoration. Those participating agree to be present to adore the Lord in the Eucharist for a certain number of hours, in order that all 40 hours are covered. It is based on the traditional forty hours between Jesus’ being placed in the tomb on Good Friday and his Resurrection Easter morning. The number 40 already carries much sacred significance in recalling the forty days of the Great Flood, and the forty years of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness between the Exodus and their entrance into the Promised Land. Moses fasted for forty days on Mount Sinai while speaking with the Lord and receiving the tablets of the Law (Exodus 34:27-28). Likewise, Jesus fasted for forty days in the desert (where he was tested by Satan) before beginning his public ministry (Matthew 4:1-11).

I have never participated in a forty hours devotion but I have made a Eucharistic Holy Hour as part of 24-hour adoration days. Today, after watching the livestreamed Mass, I decided to spend some time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament at another favorite online spot, the Fundación Nevi livestream.

The YouTube landing image quotes Psalm 99:5:

Extol the Lord our God;
    worship at his footstool!
    Holy is he!

Eucharistic adoration during a Holy Hour generally consists of a combination of saying written prayers from a prayer book, meditating on Scripture, and offering personal prayer and meditation. I found a beautiful prayer specifically for the Forty Hours Devotion. It was written by Saint Alphonsus Liguori and begins this way:

O most lovely, most sweet, and dearest Jesus! life, hope, treasure, and only love of my soul! Oh, how much has it not cost Thee to remain with us in this Sacrament. It was necessary for Thee to die in order to remain afterwards upon our altars; and how many injuries hast Thou not been made to suffer in consequence of this presence among us! But Thy love, and Thy desire to be loved by us, have surmounted all. Come then, Lord, come and occupy my heart and afterwards close the gate to it for ever, so that no creature may ever enter again to take away a part of this love which belongs entirely to Thee, and which I am unwilling to give to any other. Do Thou alone, my dear Redeemer, reign over me!” —The Roman Missal (1962), Baronius Press, p. 1869

The lines I have highlighted in bold struck me as being such a powerful prayer in itself, and more than enough to inflame deeper love and inspire meditation. These words might sound as if we no longer open our hearts in love to our neighbor–to our family or friends or others we encounter in life. But that cannot be so, since the Lord has commanded us to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourself (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:37-39). When Jesus taught in the Temple in Jerusalem, he affirmed this dual command to love God and neighbor:

And there came one of the scribes that had heard them reasoning together, and seeing that he had answered them well, asked him which was the first commandment of all. And Jesus answered him:

The first commandment of all is, Hear, O Israel: the Lord thy God is one God. And thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind, and with thy whole strength. This is the first commandment. And the second is like to it: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is no other commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:28-31)

If we reserve all our heart for God, inviting the Lord to “come and occupy my heart and afterwards close the gate,” as St Alphonsus prays, then we will be bound to love our neighbor with that very love, with God’s love itself, which has taken residence in us.

Thus, St Paul could say, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Galatians 2:20). Here is the whole verse:

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Paul’s statement of being thoroughly filled with Christ’s life points back to the Crucifixion, where Christ gave up his life for us. Paul felt the full force of this gift personally. Christ’s self-emptying on the Cross was an act of love that called forth a corresponding self-emptying gift from Paul, thereby making room for the Christ life, and Christ’s supernatural love, to flood his interior being.

The Eucharist, which Jesus instituted at the Last Supper with His disciples, is the re-presentation of this Paschal Sacrifice that Jesus made on the Cross. By this once-and-for-all gift, which firstly accomplished our redemption, Jesus also found a miraculous means to be with us always (Matthew 28:20) in the Blessed Sacrament.

Therefore, it is appropriate indeed to pray for the love of God to fully occupy our hearts as we contemplate the Eucharistic Lord. It may take much prayer, and a big helping of God’s grace, for us to learn to open our hearts and receive all the love God wishes to give us. But then, filled with His love, we have the best of all possible gifts to give to those we meet.

Note:

*St. John Cantius Church offers livestreamed daily and Sunday Masses in both the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms. Visit their YouTube channel.

Related Posts:

The Preeminence of Love

Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938). Source: thedivinemercy.org.

In a striking passage from the Diary of St Faustina, she writes:

I know well, O Lord, that You have no need of our works; You demand Love, love and once again, love of God – there is nothing greater in heaven or on earth. The greatest greatness is to love God; true greatness is in loving God; real wisdom is to love God. All that is great and beautiful is in God; there is no beauty or greatness outside of Him. O you sages of the world and you great minds, recognize that true greatness is in loving God! Oh, how astonished I am that some people deceive themselves, saying: There is no eternity! (Diary, 990)

Thus, this saint, who received from God a very high degree of mystical insight, asserts the preeminence of Love — the greatest thing we can ever do for God or offer to God, the practice above all practices. Is she right? Let us examine this question as if coming to it new, as if it were not already the conviction of our own life, which it may well be. Let us go to the Holy Bible and read, with fresh and joyous eyes, about the love of God and how we should return our love to Him who created us. Let us also see what a few other saints have to say about it too. Fundamentally, the Bible is the story of God’s love reaching out to us, His beloved ones. We could point to a thousand verses–from the Torah, the Psalms, the Writings, and Prophets, from the Gospels and Epistles–we could mine words of wisdom from nearly any saint–and never be done, but we can at least begin.

‘Love, Love, and Once Again, Love of God’

Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament agree that the greatest duty of human beings is also the most profound expression of love for God. Moses taught the people of Israel the Lord’s unequivocal commandment, the Shema Yisrael (“Hear, O Israel”):

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; RSV)

Jesus affirmed this preeminent tenet of Jewish faith when asked to assert the greatest commandment, and he paired it with the further command in Leviticus 19:18, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40)

For God is love (1 John 4:8, 16), and Our Creator reached out to love us first; therefore, the correlative command to love our neighbor follows from God’s overflowing love for us. Sinful though we proved to be, right from the start in the Garden of Eden, God sent Jesus, the Son and Messiah, to reconcile us to Himself for eternity. St John the Evangelist proclaims this great dynamic of love (1 John 4:7-21) in a chapter that rivals in poetic beauty and power the famous “love chapter” of St Paul (1 Corinthians 13).

Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

We love, because he first loved us. If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also. (1 John 4:7-12, 19-21; RSV)

Regarding these two intertwined loves, commanded by God for our good, St Teresa of Avila wrote:

The most certain sign, in my opinion, as to whether or not we are observing these two laws is whether we observe well the love of neighbor. We cannot know whether or not we love God, although there are strong indications for recognizing that we do love Him; but we can know whether we love our neighbor. And be certain that the more advanced you see you are in love for your neighbor the more advanced you will be in the love of God, for the love His Majesty has for us is so great that to repay us for our love of neighbor He will in a thousand ways increase the love we have for Him. I cannot doubt this. (Collected Works, Vol. II, p. 351; i.e., Interior Castle, V:3, no. 8)

Thus, love of God is the “root,” as she says, but love of neighbor is the visible fruit and measure of both loves and their progress. Again, it is not in great deeds or projects but in humble day-to-day loving and bearing with our neighbor (and ourselves) that we grow in love (see Interior Castle, V:3, nos. 9). It is intriguing to me that she identifies love of God as both the impetus and the reward of love of neighbor. There is a supernatural, reciprocal bond at work here.

Now let me return to the New Testament and let St Paul have his say on love too, in his own unforgettable testimony.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

“For thy sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39; RSV)

Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. Make love your aim… (1 Corinthians 13:8-13; 14:1)

If we yoke our Love to God’s love and our thoughts and actions to loving each other, we participate in something imperishable, something infinitely valuable, even now in this life. “Only love has meaning; it raises up our smallest actions into infinity” (St. Faustina, Diary, 502).

Loving in Difficult Times

We are living in difficult times. Who would doubt it? We may not be shipwrecked, stoned, or beaten and run out of town as St. Paul was, but each of us, according to our state in life, has a full helping of undeniable struggles, sorrows, and trials to bear. Many of us are enduring sufferings of seeming “Biblical” proportions: fire, flood, hurricanes, pestilence, persecution and injustice, even martyrdom. This is certainly true around the world too, where one must add locusts, desperate famines, and war. If we have been spared most of these things, depending on our circumstances, each of us still faces a host of challenging tasks (short- and long-term) that constitute our work and our daily life, conducted in the midst of family and friends, interacting with co-workers and anyone we chance to meet. But behind these overt life tasks, as a sort of hidden foundation and support, is our vocation to love. St. Thérèse of Lisieux discovered this for herself even in her very circumscribed existence as a Carmelite nun. In fact, it was this realization that catapulted her into a worldwide spiritual fellowship that has continued burgeoning to this day.

Thérèse in 1886, age 13. Wikimedia.

For years, she had been feeling powerless and supremely frustrated, since her desires to serve and love God far outstripped what she felt were her natural abilities. As she herself said, she was not made for great penances and she even fell asleep saying her rosary. She was conscious of her faults and weaknesses in an acute way (so often true of the saints). One day she turned to reading St. Paul, his first letter to the Corinthians, chapters 12 and 13, on the different spiritual gifts, and she hoped to find an answer there. She did! She read that all the other gifts depended on love and were nothing without them. In her letter to her sister Marie (Sept 8, 1896, MS B) she declared:

I understood that LOVE WAS EVERYTHING, THAT IT EMBRACED ALL TIMES AND PLACES…. IN A WORD, THAT IT WAS ETERNAL!

Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: O Jesus, my love …. my vocation, at last I have found it…. MY VOCATION IS LOVE!

Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is You, O my God, who have given me this place; in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be Love. Thus I shall be everything, and thus my dream will be realized. (Story of a Soul, Chap. IX, Manuscript B; Study Edition, p. 302)

The capital letters are all Thérèse!–the outpouring of her joy. Thérèse suffered considerably during her short life, dying of tuberculosis at age 24. But she had found the secret of doing everything as an offering of merciful love to God, a return of the love she received as his “little child.” She is so well-known and loved by people now because her “little way” is not inaccessible but open to all. Like Faustina, she could say, love, love, and once again love. Doing this, we are doing all. Loving God and loving each other in the smallest daily actions and sacrifices, we are doing God’s will and trusting in His mercy for our frailty. As it turns out, love is enough, more than enough, the universal vocation we were all born to take up. Even if we are able to do nothing else, that path is open to us.

Resources:

Divine Mercy in My Soul: The Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska. Stockbridge, MA: Marian Press, 1987. (First Polish edition, 1981)

Fr Seraphim Michalenko. Homily on St Faustina’s mission (and her sufferings) to proclaim the Divine Mercy of God and intercede for humanity. https://youtu.be/LxapTL5mvwc Fr Seraphim was the postulator for the cause of sainthood for Sr. Faustina (canonized April 30, 2000).

“The Shema: The Daily Declaration of Faith” https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/705353/jewish/The-Shema.htm

The Collected Works of Saint Teresa of Avila: Volume Two. The Way of Perfection, Meditations on the Song of Songs, The Interior Castle. Trans. by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez. Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1980.

Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St Thérèse of Lisieux. A Study Edition. Trans. by John Clarke; Study ed. prepared by Marc Foley. Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 2005, 2016.

Hunger and Generous Gleanings: The Book of Ruth*

iStock. Credit: IakovKalinin.

Recently, I saw a news story asking for volunteers to collect “gleanings” from the local fields, in order to help feed hungry people. To glean a field is to gather the grain or other produce left behind in a field after it has been harvested. Collecting the gleanings is an ancient practice, to alleviate hunger and avoid waste. Since the economic hardships of this spring, and now into the summer, we have seen people line up for hours to receive the produce from free farmers’ markets, such as this one supported by Rolling Harvest Food Rescue. Food banks and school meal programs have been operating steadily and quietly for a long time, but this new phenomenon shows the increased state of hunger and economic need in America today.

I was reminded that this same practice of gathering gleanings from a field was a crucial element in the Book of Ruth in the Bible. It became the occasion for God’s mercy and the care of his people to extend even beyond Israel. It was also the occasion for the descent of God’s blessings on human beings; these blessings crucially linked Ruth to the lineage of Jesus (see Matthew 1:5-6). Let’s review the chief events in the moving story of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, and consider how this ancient practice of gleaning a field might connect us to some of the themes of this short but compelling book.

The Story of Ruth

Ruth in the Field of Boaz (1828), Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld. Wikimedia.

The story of Ruth begins with hunger. It takes place during the period of the Judges in Israel and it happens to be a time of famine. Elimelech, a man of Bethlehem in Judah, leaves his home in search of food, taking with him his wife Naomi and their two sons. They resettle in the country of Moab but after a while, Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi a widow. Her grown sons, Mahlon and Chilion, each marry women from Moab, Ruth and Orpah, respectively. After ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion die. Naomi feels she has lost everything: her husband, her sons, and the possibility of having grandchildren.

She decides to return home to Judah, where, she has heard, the LORD has visited his people and given them food (Ruth 1:6). Her daughters-in-law begin to journey with her but before they go far, Naomi decides to send the two young women back to their mothers’ homes in Moab, where they might have a chance to remarry and have children. Naomi blesses them and kisses them: she is treating them with kindness and mercy, just as they treated her and her sons with kindness during their marriages. Both Ruth and Orpah burst into tears and protest that they will accompany Naomi, but Naomi is firm that this is best for them. Reluctantly, Orpah kisses Naomi and turns back toward Moab, but Ruth makes no such move, but rather clings even closer to her mother-in-law. Naomi says, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law” (1:15) but Ruth refuses, declaring her intentions in these beautiful words:

“Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you.” (Ruth 1:16-17; RSV)

These unmistakable words have the force of a covenant-oath, a binding promise in which Ruth commits herself to Naomi, Naomi’s home, her people, and her God. She will live and die with Naomi and her people from now on, until her own death, and she also swears to a covenant curse, should she fail in her promise, or even depart from the land after Naomi’s death.

The depth of this commitment cannot be exaggerated. Ruth’s hunger clearly goes beyond her physical hunger, which can be assuaged by physical food. She has a hunger for lifelong family fidelity, a true kinship of hearts based on loyalty, mutual kindness, and love. Ruth also evinces a deep spiritual hunger for the true God, whom she has begun to know through her mother-in-law and husband. Her conversion to the God of her new people is total and unqualified.

Naomi accepts her daughter-in-law and they continue together to Bethlehem. Although she is greeted by friends there, her heart is still heavy. She tells them: “Do not call me Na′omi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty” (Ruth 1:20-21). The Hebrew name Naomi means “my delight” or “pleasant” whereas Mara means “bitter.”** Ruth’s name, meaning “she who comforts,” is also apt, expressing her role as well as her desire be a steady consolation to her mother-in-law.

Ruth begins her new life with Naomi by seeking to provide for their food. She asks her mother-in-law’s permission to go and glean in the fields of grain. She sets to work at this task, and happens to glean in the fields belonging to Boaz, a near kinsman of Naomi’s. Boaz notices the unfamiliar young woman and asks about her among the other reapers. He learns she is Ruth, the daughter-in-law of his kinswoman Naomi, and he is pleased because Ruth’s good reputation for kindness and loyalty is already known among her new adopted people. He addresses Ruth with gentleness and politeness and adjures her to continue to glean only from his fields, staying close to the other young women who are reaping there. He assures her of his protection: none of the men working there in his fields will bother her. When she bows and even prostrates in gratitude, asking Boaz why she, a foreigner, has found such favor in his eyes, he explains and blesses her:

“All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. The Lord recompense you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!” (Ruth 2:11-12; RSV)

He gives her some bread dipped in wine at mealtime, and when she rises and goes away to continue gleaning, he instructs the repears to leave extra ears of grain for her to gather, pulling out some of the grain from their own bundles, and not to rebuke her in any way.

When she returns home to her mother-in-law, Naomi is overjoyed to learn that Ruth has been gleaning in the fields of Boaz, her kinsman. She praises God and blesses Boaz: “Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” (2:20). She approves greatly of the whole matter, and Ruth continues gleaning in Boaz’s fields for the rest of the barley and wheat harvests.

At the time of the threshing, Naomi proposes that Ruth make it known to Boaz that she is seeking his protection as a “redeeming kinsman” (Hebrew, go’el). According to Naomi’s direction, Ruth waits until Boaz has eaten and laid down on the threshing floor to sleep for the night. She uncovers his feet in the dark, and lays down at his feet. Startled to find someone there, he asks, Who is there?

And she answered, “I am Ruth, your maidservant; spread your skirt over your maidservant, for you are next of kin.” And he said, “May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; you have made this last kindness greater than the first, in that you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. And now, my daughter, do not fear, I will do for you all that you ask, for all my fellow townsmen know that you are a woman of worth.” (Ruth 3:9-11)

An upright and honest man, Boaz explains to Ruth that there is one other man who is a closer kinsman, with whom he must settle matters first. He seeks out this other man immediately and offers him control of the inheritance left by Naomi and her sons, as his due portion as next of kin. At first this man agrees, until he learns that he would be further obliged to marry Ruth, in order to continue Elimelech’s family and lineage–that is, he must take on all the just obligations of the go’el, the redeeming kinsman. But this other man declines, relinquishing his right, and sealing this decision by handing Boaz his sandal in front of witnesses (an ancient custom). Therefore, Boaz becomes free to marry Ruth, which was joyful news, not only because of the duty fulfilled, but because of the mutual love and regard that was clearly growing between Ruth and Boaz. Their marriage also brings joy to Naomi, who cares for the infant son born to them. The women of the neighborhood name the boy Obed and speak this blessing to Naomi:

“Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next of kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” (Ruth 4:14-15

I love reading these exuberant words of praise for the Lord’s blessings, for Boaz, and for Ruth’s great value, “worth more than seven sons”–high praise indeed in a society where sons were the invaluable protectors and heirs of their families.

The book ends with a genealogy:

Now these are the descendants of Perez: Perez was the father of Hezron, Hezron of Ram, Ram of Ammin′adab,  Ammin′adab of Nahshon, Nahshon of Salmon, Salmon of Bo′az, Bo′az of Obed, Obed of Jesse, and Jesse of David. (Ruth 4:18-22)

Thus, the line from Ruth and Boaz would lead to King David, and this lineage would appear again in the first chapter of Matthew to show the familial descent of Jesus, who is Messiah and “son of David.”

The Role of Generosity

The sequence of events that leads to the marriage of Ruth and Boaz is facilitated at several crucial points by Naomi, who gives wise counsel to her faithful daughter-in-law. When the harvest time is nearing its close, Naomi says to Ruth, “My daughter, should I not seek a home for you, that it may be well with you?” (3:1). In a footnote to this verse, David Stern comments that once again Naomi is watching over Ruth’s interests, not merely her own. She generously seeks opportunities to help her. In fact, he says, all three main characters–Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi–are consistent in showing chesed–“mercy, constant grace, and generosity toward one another” (Complete Jewish Study Bible, p. 1193). This is one of the most beautiful concepts in the Bible. It is a quality displayed by God toward his people; therefore, when people display it toward each other, they are living in accord with God’s will.

Without doubt, Ruth showed mercy and generosity of spirit toward Naomi; she would not let her widowed, childless mother-in-law return from Moab alone. Naomi felt she had lost everything and instead she gained a daughter beyond price, who served their humble needs willingly and adopted everything about Naomi’s home and faith as her own. Naomi, in turn, had the opportunity to exercise generosity in welcoming Ruth into her family in Bethlehem and, furthermore, in doing what she could to help Ruth make a new start in her new life.

As legendary as these women are for their mutual kindness, the one who is most surprising in his exercise of chesed, his mercy and graciousness, is Boaz. On one level, everything he does is prescribed by Jewish law. He allows Ruth to glean from his fields according to the laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy:***

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:9-10)

“When you reap your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow; that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.” (Deuteronomy 24:19)

In their chapter on Ruth, John Bergsma and Brant Pitre comment that Ruth fulfills all of the criteria to be eligible for gleanings. She is a poor sojourner and a widow, without a father to defend her. Boaz is praiseworthy to follow the law here, but clearly he goes beyond this in generosity, even before marriage becomes an issue. He promises her safe passage while she gleans his barley fields, and makes sure she receives good food and drink for herself, and extra grain to take back to Naomi. He is also demonstrably kind and gracious to her, never treating her as only a servant.

Once the subject of Ruth coming under his direct protection as his wife is broached, Boaz knows his duty as a potential goel, and he carries it out with exactitude. But I would submit that he is also generous, first in deferring to the nearer kin, if he should desire to marry Ruth and have the inheritance. Clearly, Boaz’s feelings are already involved and this would have been a personal sacrifice for him, if the other man had stepped forward to marry Ruth. I also sense generosity toward both Ruth and Naomi in the speed with which he removes any lawful obstacles to his offering Ruth marriage. He doesn’t hesitate and he doesn’t delay, but promptly follows the protocols with tremendous dignity.

Finally, all of them, including the women of the neighborhood, acknowledge the mercy and providence of God in bringing everything to such a blessed conclusion. The reader knows that the blessings God bestowed on them bore amazing fruit for generations to come.

“for I was hungry and you gave me food”

Feeding the hungry starts with one hungry person. Jesus addressed hunger, thirst, sickness, and other human needs with great compassion, and he expected his disciples down through the centuries to do the same, just as if he, Jesus, were the one in need:

Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’  (Matthew 25:34-40; RSV)

The King, who is also Judge, blesses those who do these generous things when they encounter someone in need. He rewards them with eternal life (Matt 25:46). They have shown by their actions that they desire to live within the “economy” of love whereby love of God is also expressed through love of neighbor, especially for the poorest and least powerful, those in dire straits as Ruth and Naomi were. In the time of the Judges, Boaz was living this commandment to love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18), which Jesus would elevate alongside the Great Commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might (Deuteronomy 6:4-5; see Matthew 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-31). God blessed him with a virtuous wife in Ruth and he became the progenitor of the line of the kings of Judah and Israel. In the first chapter of Matthew, where the genealogy of Jesus is outlined, it says: and Salmon the father of Bo′az by Rahab, and Bo′az the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king (Matt 1:5-6).

Generosity begets blessings, which are not always apparent right away to those who are doing the acts of kindness, because, of course, these generous acts are done out of love rather than for some kind of gain. God sees and blesses nevertheless. May God bless those who feed the hungry of our time with “generous gleanings” from the harvests.

Notes:

*I thank Naomi Backer, for her insights into the character of Boaz, and Elizabeth Page, for encouraging me to pursue the connection between the news story on Rolling Harvest Food Rescue and the Book of Ruth.

**Most English translations footnote the contrasting meanings of Naomi and Mara in Ruth 1:20. The Navarre Bible (p. 194n) gives the meanings of the names of the rest of the major figures in the first chapter: Elimelech (“my God is King”), Mahlon (“pain”), Chilion (“destruction”), Orpah (“she who turns back”), and of course, Ruth (“she who comforts”).

***See The Navarre Bible, p. 197, note to Ruth 2:1-17; A Catholic Introduction to the Bible, p. 343.

Resources:

“Ruth” in The Navarre Bible: Joshua–Kings, pp. 189-205. Four Courts Press/Scepter Publishers, 2005.

The Complete Jewish Study Bible: Insights for Jews and Christians (David H. Stern, Trans. & Rabbi Barry A. Rubin, Ed.). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998 and 2016 (updated).

A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament by John Bergsma and Brant Pitre. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2018.

The Call of July 4th

He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:8; NKJV)

These words from the prophet Micah are simple and clear: do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God. They call individuals to a higher standard, enacting both justice and mercy, and tempering them both by humility, as we walk with the Lord, our God.

This resounding verse is also a call to nations to practice these same virtues. Do individuals always live up to justice, mercy, and humility in their dealings with God and with each other? No. It is a call for us to keep trying, with prayer and fasting, and the help of God’s grace. We pledge to repent when we fail and to try again. Likewise with nations. Do countries practice these virtues as they should? No, certainly not yet. The call of July 4th is an annual reminder to examine ourselves as a nation: for injustice, to remove it swiftly; for mercy, to extol and extend it; and for humility, to increase it. All the while let us remember that God walks with all peoples of the world, to help and guide them, if they choose to seek His holy will.

Praying for Our Nations

Saint Faustina Kowalska, receiving Divine Mercy message. Catholic Online.

In May of 1938, Jesus instructed Sr. Maria Faustina Kowalska, a nun of the Congregation of Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, to pray for her native Poland. She wrote:

As I was praying for Poland, I heard the words: I bear a special love for Poland, and if she will be obedient to My will, I will exalt her in might and holiness. From her will come forth the spark that will prepare the world for My final coming. (Diary, 1732)

One can notice several things about Jesus’ words here. First, Jesus is approving of Sr Faustina’s prayer intention, praying specifically for her country of Poland. By extension, we should feel confident in praying for our own nations (Fr. Chris Alar, MIC pointed this out today in his homily at the Shrine for Divine Mercy, Stockbridge, MA). On July 4th, we pray not only for peace, justice, and mercy to flow over the whole world but we can pray specifically for the United States to do much better at exemplifying justice, mercy, and humility, and we can practice those virtues personally as we take actions to reform our institutions to serve all our citizens equitably, taking special care to redress racial injustices done to those who have suffered most in the past, and still–Black people and all people of color, and Native American people.

Second, there is a conditional promise: if the country is obedient to God’s will, she will be exalted in might and holiness, and she will send out sparks to prepare for Jesus’ final coming. Faustina wrote these words in her Diary in 1938, on the brink of World War II. Soon, Poland would be conquered, occupied, and governed by the ruthless military of Nazi Germany, and it would be the main site of the world’s most brutal genocide of six million European Jews in horrific death camps, the worst of which was Auschwitz, a whole network of extermination camps in Poland. Tragically, this genocide was carried out with the cooperation or complacency of too many of the Polish people. How could this scarred and suffering nation, then, send out any effective sparks of goodness, let alone Divine Mercy?

We know from the Hebrew scriptures that God would spare invoking his full wrath on a place if there were but a handful of righteous men there (Genesis 18:22-33) or especially if its people repented and turned back to Him in obedience (Jonah 3). Were there such people living in Poland at the time Faustina wrote? It seems there were, because of at least three huge sparks that the country of Poland sent out to the world. The first of these was St. Maximilian Kolbe, born in 1894, who became a Conventual Franciscan friar and later a priest. He had a tremendous devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary in her Immaculate Conception, the “Immaculata.” In 1917 he founded the Militia Immaculatae (a devotional organization) and published extensively about Marian devotion in Poland and later in Japan where he founded a second friary. After the German occupation began, his publishing work was suppressed and he was imprisoned, but upon his release, he returned to his friary at Niepokalanów where he sheltered and hid 2,000 Jews from arrest. Fr. Kolbe was himself arrested in February 1941, and he died in Auschwitz-Birkenau in August 1941, after volunteering to take the place, in an underground starvation bunker, of a married man with children who had been selected to be transferred there. He has continued to have a seminal influence on the theology of Marian devotion and the need to consecrate ourselves to Jesus through Mary, especially in our times of rejection of faith.

The second spark was St. Faustina herself, who was born as Helena Kowalska in 1905 and died in 1938, having fulfilled Jesus’ call for her to be the “apostle and secretary” of His Mercy. She recorded her mystical experiences and Jesus’ words and instructions to her in her Diary, as her spiritual directors had requested. Furthermore, she made Jesus’ wishes for the Divine Mercy image, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and the Feast of Divine Mercy understandable to her confessor Fr. Michael Sopoćko, so that he could help her and follow through on making them known after her death.

The third spark was young Karol Józef Wojtyła, now known as St. John Paul II, who was born in Wadowice in 1920. He experienced both the Nazi occupation of Poland during WWII and the Russian Communist occupation in its aftermath. He studied for the priesthood in an underground seminary in Krakow during the War. He often had to hide from arrest and many of his fellow students were arrested and killed. He had occasion to help a 14-year-old Jewish girl who had escaped a Polish labor camp, and “B’nai B’rith and other authorities have said that Wojtyła helped protect many other Polish Jews from the Nazis” (Wikipedia). He was ordained in 1946, and so began his ecclesiastical service that led to his selection as pope in 1978. With his defiance of Communist repression as Archbishop of Krakow and his influential support of freedom as Pope, he was able to witness the end of Communism in his country. During his papacy, he would canonize both Maximilian Kolbe (October 10, 1982) and Sr. Faustina (April 30, 2000); on that same day (April 30, 2000), he would institute the Feast of the Divine Mercy for the entire Roman Catholic Church; it was to be observed each year on the Sunday following Easter Sunday, starting in 2001.

I have gone into this example in such detail to urge prayers for one’s native country and to ask for God’s mercy, when even a few people seek to walk in God’s ways and try to achieve His purposes of love for human beings. So, let us pray on July 4th, and always, for our country and for ourselves as individuals. Earlier that same month of May 1938, Jesus told Faustina:

If souls would put themselves completely in My care, I Myself would undertake the task of sanctifying them, and I would lavish even greater graces on them. There are souls who thwart My efforts, but I have not given up on them; as often as they turn to Me, I hurry to their aid, shielding them with My mercy, and I give them the first place in My compassionate Heart. (1682)

Let us pray to have more of God’s grace to conquer racism in ourselves and racial injustice in our countries: “if My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14). Amen.

***

Resources:

To learn more about Saint Faustina, see this brief video:

To learn more about St Faustina, Divine Mercy, and the Diary, visit divinemercy.org and this page on the Diary of St. Faustina, as well as her tremendously rich and inspiring Diary:

Divine Mercy in My Soul: The Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska. Stockbridge, MA: Marian Press, 1987. (First Polish edition, 1981)

St. John Eudes on the Everlasting and Boundless Love of God

The Sacred Heart of Jesus by Saint John Eudes (Loreto Pubs, 2011).

Key Verses:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you”
(Jeremiah 1:4)

I have loved you with an everlasting love.” (Jeremiah 31:3)

Love never ends. (1 Corinthians 13:8)

God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. … We love, because he first loved us. (1 John 4:16, 19)

Everlasting and Boundless

the amiable Heart of Jesus loves us at every moment with all the love wherewith it has ever loved us and shall love us throughout all eternity. Thus we can see the difference between God’s love and ours. Our love is a passing act; the love of God is constant. The love that God has exercised towards us for a hundred thousand years remains in His Heart together with that which He will dispense a hundred thousand years from now. Eternity implies that in God there is nothing past nor future, but all is present, so that God loves us now with all the love wherewith He has loved us from all eternity and wherewith He will love us forever. (The Sacred Heart of Jesus, Saint John Eudes, pp. 120-121)

Saint John Eudes (1601-1680) was a French priest, born in Normandy, and the founder of the Congregation of Jesus and Mary (Eudists) in 1643. His Mass and Office for the Sacred Heart were written about three decades before the revelations of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to Saint Margaret-Mary Alacoque. His books on The Sacred Heart of Jesus and The Admirable Heart of Mary make inspiring devotional reading, and they are grounded in careful theological reflection and argumentation. Above all, Eudes’ love for God the Father, God the Son, and the Mother of God is so radiant that it fans the flame of love in the reader’s heart. He emphasized the unity of the Two Hearts of Jesus and Mary and devoted his life to preaching and writing about them in all their many attributes–love, truth, purity, mercy, grace, and more. These “divine perfections” orginate in the Heart of Jesus but become beautifully reflected in the “admirable heart” of His “peerless Mother.”

After elucidating the everlasting love of God, he added a beautiful prayer of praise and personal resolve to expand the soul’s return of love.

O eternity of love! O eternal love! If I had existed from all eternity, I should have been bound to love Thee from all eternity; and yet, my God, I have not begun to love Thee as I should. But at least let me begin now, O my Saviour, to love Thee as Thou wouldst be loved. O God of my heart, I give myself to Thee to be united to Thy ceaseless love for me from all eternity. I surrender myself to Thee to be united to the love wherewith Thou lovest Thy Father before all centuries, so as to love the Father and the Son with an eternal love. (p. 121)

It is not enough to know that God’s love is eternal, that is, boundless in time; it must also be recognized that it is boundless in space, as we understand it. It is unlimited by space, because God is unlimited; he loves us not only in Heaven, but also on earth, Eudes says. “He loves us in the sun, in the stars and in all created things. He loves us in the hearts of all the denizens of heaven and in the hearts of all persons that have some measure of charity for us on earth” (p. 121). He asserts that God’s love is so pervasive, He can even love us through our enemies. Perhaps one might think here of chastisements for sin, but I think Eudes has in mind a great trust in the ultimate sovereignty of God’s love throughout his Creation.

I would suggest that the expression of this love may often depend not on our enemies’ ill will itself, but on our own response to it: whether we remain united with God’s love in our own hearts, and follow Jesus’s exhortation to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’” (Matthew 5:44). One can think of examples such as Joseph welcoming his brothers in Egypt, Moses praying for the Israelites who had strayed from the LORD, the prophets fulfilling God’s call to warn and advise kings at the peril of their lives, and the disciples and apostles of Jesus accepting martyrdom out of fidelity and love for Him. They are challenging examples indeed of the possibility of God’s love working through someone, even in the midst of great evil and persecution. And this sort of sacrifice continues to this day, among those who have tasted the boundless mercy and love of God in their lives, who have felt the touch of an eternal love.

God’s love knows no boundaries, it seems to me, except for those walls of exclusion that souls sometimes choose to set up around themselves, barring the grace of God from entering. Human beings can sometimes reject God and turn away from His love. God will not oppose them in this tragic choice, since he gave them free will, creating them in His image.

This is one reason why Mary’s Immaculate Heart is such a perfect realization of the proper response of the human person to God’s offer of an everlasting love. By cooperating with God’s miraculous will for her life, and giving her fiat at the Annunciation (“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word”; Luke 1:38), Mary secured her role of complete unity of heart and purpose with her Son, into eternity. Clearly, this did not spare her from suffering. St. John Eudes writes of her:

Hence the divine Heart of the Only Son of Mary was the source of all the pious thoughts and feelings of His Blessed Mother, of all the sacred words she spoke, of all the good deeds she performed, of all the virtues she practised, and of all the pains and sorrows she suffered in order to cooperate with her Beloved Son in the work of our Salvation. (p. 124)

Yet Mary’s own unique personhood made this possible. The Gospels say of her that, at crucial moments in her life with her Son, she “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19; after the shepherds worshiped the newborn baby Jesus). Later, after she and Joseph found the boy Jesus “in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions,” once again “his mother kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:46, 51). She meditated on the meaning of everything relating to her Son. Her freely chosen cooperation with Him continues to be the motivating force and authority behind her maternal care of us, her children, today. She acts as Mediatrix of all the graces that draw us closer to her Son’s heart, helping us to live in greater obedience to the Father’s will, and rendering us more sensitive to the workings of the Holy Spirit in our lives. She remains truly the loving, prayerful, wise, and beautiful Mother that Christ gave to us at the foot of His Cross.

In closing, to honor this week’s Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on Friday and the Memorial of the Immaculate Heart of Mary on Saturday, I offer these two ecstatic prayers straight from the heart of this great lover of God, St John Eudes:

Praise eternal, O my Jesus, to Thy divine Heart! O my Redeemer, in thanksgiving for the great wonders of grace that Thy filial Heart hath wrought in Thy glorious Mother, I offer her maternal Heart flaming with love for Thee.

O Jesus, I offer Thee all the boundless love of Thy Heart, of the adorable Heart of Thy Divine Father, the lovable heart of Thy holy Mother, and of all the hearts that love Thee in heaven and on earth. I ardently desire that all creatures of the universe be transformed into flaming fires of love towards Thee. (pp. 124, 122)

Resources:

The Sacred Heart of Jesus by Saint John Eudes. Loreto Publications, 2011.

The Admirable Heart of Mary by Saint John Eudes. Buffalo, NY: Immaculate Heart Publications, 2008. (also available through Loreto Publications.

God’s Heart Is Truly With Us (Immanuel) in the Blessed Sacrament: A Bible Study

Sacred Heart panel painting, Church of Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais, Paris. Châtillon / CC BY-SA

God With Us

God is truly with us (Immanuel,  עִמָּנוּאֵל Hebrew, “God with us”). When we come to Him for worship, for Scripture study, for meditation on His mysteries, or with a question or petition vital to our lives, we can meet Him and speak with Him heart to heart. As far above us as He is, He desires to be with us intimately. We know this from Moses and the Prophets, and we know this from the Incarnation of God the Son as our Lord Jesus. God’s Heart is present to us in the celebration of Mass and in the reception of Holy Communion, but not only then. When we come to the Blessed Sacrament well disposed to pray, God is with us, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The promise of God-with-us has a powerful Biblical resonance.

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14; KJV)

behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and his name shall be called Emman′u-el”
(which means, God with us)
. (Matthew 1:20-23; RSV)

In The Complete Jewish Study Bible, David Stern explains how these two prophetic passages, coming from different historical contexts, can still be fundamentally connected. Isaiah gave his prophecy to Ahaz, king of Judah, who was concerned that the Northern Kingdom, Israel, had allied with Syria (Aram) to fight against Judah. Although God was impatient with Ahaz, who refused to ask for a sign, the Lord chose to announce a sign anyway through his prophet. This sign–the birth of a child named Immanu-El, “God with us”– was a means of comfort for the future. Stern shows that Matthew was using an accepted means of interpreting Scripture by analogy or “symbolic hints” in his account of the birth of Jesus.*

By pointing back to Yesha’yahu’s [Isaiah’s] account, Mattityahu (Matthew) reminds the people of his day that, in the same miraculous way God gave the people of Y’hudah [Judah] a sign of comfort, the miraculous birth of another young boy, Yeshua, is a miraculous sign to God’s people. (Stern, “The Virgin Birth,” in The Complete Jewish Study Bible, 497)

Indeed, news of the miraculous birth of Yeshua, Jesus, was meant to be a comfort not only to the troubled heart of the righteous man, Saint Joseph, but also to the whole Jewish people who were awaiting their Messiah, especially in those times of the Roman occupation of Israel. When Jesus walked among his people, preaching and teaching, he offered the hope of salvation unto eternal life. Before he left them for Heaven, Jesus commissioned his Apostles (and their spiritual descendants) with the great task of spreading the Gospel from Israel to all the nations (Matthew 28:18-20), thereby fulfilling the prophecy to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3) that all the nations would be blessed through him and the people God chose for Himself.

However, Jesus knew that his disciples all over the world would have a long time to wait for this to be completed. His Word would need to spread to the ends of the earth and down through many centuries, so that as many people as possible could choose faith and friendship with God, their Father, for eternity:

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3: 8-9)

At the end of time, there would be the great sign of Jesus’s Second Coming, foretold in the Book of Daniel (7:13-14): And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory (Luke 21:27). But he would not leave them orphans until then. Far from it. He promised to send them another Counselor, the Holy Spirit, to dwell with them and be in them (John 14:16-17). He also left them himself in an intimate way in the Holy Eucharist, which he instituted at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-20; see also John 6:25-69, the Bread of Life discourse). When duly ordained priests consecrate Bread and Wine, acting in persona Christi (in the person of Christ), they repeat the same words of institution that Jesus spoke. They are empowered to call down the action of the Holy Spirit, which makes Jesus truly and wholly present to us in the sacred elements, albeit in a hidden way.** Whether we consume the Host in Holy Communion or adore it during Mass or at a later time, Jesus is truly present to us, as he promised:

lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. (Matthew 28:20b; KJV)

There are many ways to explain and defend this mystery of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Catechism of the Catholic Church does this very well, and relates it to this reality of “God With Us”:

It is highly fitting that Christ should have wanted to remain present to his Church in this unique way. Since Christ was about to take his departure from his own in his visible form, he wanted to give us his sacramental presence; since he was about to offer himself on the cross to save us, he wanted us to have the memorial of the love with which he loved us “to the end” [John 13:1], even to the giving of his life. In his Eucharistic presence he remains mysteriously in our midst as the one who loved us and gave himself up for us [cf. Galatians 2:20], and he remains under signs that express and communicate this love… (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition, 1380)

Thus, Jesus in the Eucharist, or the Blessed Sacrament (as it is called outside of Mass), is a new sign of Immanuel, God being with his people. After two thousand years, any person can still experience this sense of God being truly present, not only in his Word, the Bible, but also in the Eucharist: just walk into any Church which keeps the Blessed Sacrament in its Tabernacle on the altar, open your heart, and begin to pray. This happened to me about 11 years ago, when I walked into Cîteaux Abbey, near Dijon, France. I knew something was different from the churches I had grown up in, sincerely devout as they were. I was never the same after that, and there in that Church began a longing for the “bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die.” Jesus said, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51). In the end, it is all about a meeting of two hearts, God’s heart and ours.

God’s Heart and Our Hearts

In his essential book, The Devotion to the Sacred Heart, Fr. John Croiset expressed well the connection between the Blessed Sacrament and Jesus’ enduring love for us:

What motive induced Jesus Christ to remain with us after the work of our redemption was accomplished, and after His glorious Ascension into Heaven? Why does He return to our earth every day in an invisible manner? Why does He remain day and night in a humble and obscure state on our altars, except that He cannot endure to be separated from men; that His delight is to be with the children of men? (p. 191)

When we do find it in our hearts to come to God–whether we are praying at home, attending worship, or visiting the Blessed Sacrament in an adoration chapel–it is often in a spirit of repentance and supplication. We ask the Lord to repair and heal our wounded hearts and fill us with Himself–with his Spirit, with his love. The penitential Psalm of David, especially this verse, expresses this desire well:

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and put a new and right spirit within me.
(Psalm 51:10)

In our hearts, we hope that God will respond by renewing his promises within us:

I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
(Jeremiah 31:3)

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. You shall dwell in the land which I gave to your fathers; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezekiel 36:26-28)

The longings of our hearts are more than matched, indeed far surpassed, by the longings of God’s heart for each of us, his children.

“Can a woman forget her sucking child,
    that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget,
    yet I will not forget you.
Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands”
(Isaiah 49:15-16)

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

The revelations of the Sacred Heart of Jesus were given to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque during her times of prayer and adoration in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. There she met Jesus in his Real Presence, the great gift sustaining his Church during the long years from his Ascension to his Second Coming, which we still await.

“Being before the Blessed Sacrament one day…, I received from my God signal tokens of His love, and felt urged with the desire of making Him some return, and of rendering Him love for love” (The Autobiography of Saint Margaret Mary, p. 95)

Jesus spoke to her heart about his own, and repeated to her what he wished her to do, in order to make his Heart more loved and better understood. The fire of love in his Heart for humanity was so great, he wished to wake people from their indifference so that they might come to receive the lavish but unappreciated graces that flowed continually from his Heart.

“Behold this heart which has loved men so much, that It has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming Itself, in order to testify to them Its love; and in return I receive from the greater number nothing but ingratitude by reason of their irreverence and sacrileges, and by the coldness and contempt which they show Me in this Sacrament of Love. … Therefore, I ask of thee that the Friday after the Octave of Corpus Christi be set apart for a special Feast to honor My Heart, by communicating on that day and making reparation to It by a solemn act, in order to make amends for the indignities which It has received during the time It has been exposed on the altars. (The Autobiography of Saint Margaret Mary, pp. 95-96)

And this was back in June 1765! Presumably this was an era of more widespread faith in God than we see around us now, and still, Jesus felt the coldness accorded to his Heart in the Sacrament of his Love. Love growing cold among God’s believers is nothing new, in Biblical terms. In Revelations 2, we read Christ’s complaint from Heaven to the 1st-century church at Ephesus:

I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first. (Rev 2:3-5)

This passage at the end of the Bible joins a long list of prophecies, in which God entreats his people, Israel, to return to their first love, their bond of mutual loving friendship with him, as it was meant to be. God holds repeated dialogues with his people through his prophets.

Hosea: God’s Call to Return in Love

The passages in the book of the prophet Hosea are particularly poignant, illustrating well these sacred exchanges between God and his people. After speaking at length about his people’s unfaithfulness, their “adultery” with other gods (the Ba’als), the Lord disclosed his persistent plans to win them back and love them again:

“Therefore, behold, I will allure her,
    and bring her into the wilderness,
    and speak tenderly to her.
And there I will give her her vineyards,
    and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth,
    as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.

“And in that day, says the Lord, you will call me, ‘My husband,’ and no longer will you call me, ‘My Ba′al.’ For I will remove the names of the Ba′als from her mouth, and they shall be mentioned by name no more. (Hosea 2:14-17; RSV)

But the people did not repent, so the Lord was moved to utter more expressions of His anger and predictions of the judgments to come. At last, Israel said, “Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn, that he may heal us; he has stricken, and he will bind us up” (Hoses 6:1). The Lord, however, knew their fickleness:

What shall I do with you, O E′phraim?
    What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
    like the dew that goes early away.
(Hosea 6:4)

God must teach human beings to recognize all the ways they have strayed:

Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,
    I have slain them by the words of my mouth,
    and my judgment goes forth as the light.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
    the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings.
(Hosea 6:5-6)

Yet, God’s heart continued to be moved by love, and He professed His mercy:

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
    and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
    the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Ba′als,
    and burning incense to idols
.

Yet it was I who taught E′phraim to walk,
    I took them up in my arms;
    but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of compassion,
    with the bands of love,
and I became to them as one
    who eases the yoke on their jaws,
    and I bent down to them and fed them
. (Hosea 11:1-4)

The Lord knew that Assyria would soon conquer Israel, the Northern Kingdom (also called Ephraim), that He would allow this misfortune and chastisement. Yet God’s heart was wounded at the thought!

How can I give you up, O E′phraim!
    How can I hand you over, O Israel!
How can I make you like Admah!
    How can I treat you like Zeboi′im!
My heart recoils within me,
    my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger,
    I will not again destroy E′phraim;
for I am God and not man,
    the Holy One in your midst,
    and I will not come to destroy.
(Hosea 11:8-9)

The final chapter (14) of Hosea is all about God’s plea for reconciled love. He pleaded once again for his people to return to Him, and He even gave them the right words to say. His offer of loving care and blessings, as ever, would greatly exceed their asking. Here is just the first part of what the Lord promised:

I will heal their faithlessness;
    I will love them freely,
    for my anger has turned from them.
I will be as the dew to Israel;
    he shall blossom as the lily,
    he shall strike root as the poplar;
his shoots shall spread out;
    his beauty shall be like the olive,
    and his fragrance like Lebanon.
(Hosea 14:4-6)

This promise was for ancient Israel; through Abraham and through Israel’s Messiah, this promise of blessing also extends to us today, if only we return to Him. If we come and ask for his saving help, He will dwell with us and make His home in our hearts.

Closing Thoughts and a Prayer

One place to have this prayerful meeting with God is before the Blessed Sacrament during a time of Adoration. We can come to the Blessed Sacrament as to a “refuge,” and “dwell in the shelter of the Most High” (Psalm 91:1), and ask for the Lord’s protection in whatever we are facing.

Because he cleaves to me in love, I will deliver him;
    I will protect him, because he knows my name.
When he calls to me, I will answer him;
    I will be with him in trouble,
    I will rescue him and honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him,
    and show him my salvation.
(Psalm 91:14-16)

In one of his sermons, St. Bernard comments on part of verse 15, “I will be with him in trouble,” marveling at the unheard-of gift inherent in this promise. Bernard goes so far as to ask, “why do I seek anything but times of trouble? It is good for me to be at God’s side, and not only that, but to have the Lord as my refuge” (Navarre Bible: The Psalms, p. 313n). Bernard goes on to recall that God “delights” to be with us, and therefore he, Bernard, wishes to be nowhere but with God:

“He is called Emmanuel, which means ‘God-is-with-us’. He comes down from heaven to be close to those whose hearts are troubled, to be with us in our times of trial. […] For me, Lord, it is better to suffer distress with you than to reign as king without you or to live in peace without you or to win glory without you. It is better, Lord, that I unite myself more closely to you in times of trouble, to have you by my side though the tests of fire, than to be without you in this present life or in heaven.” (p. 313n)

Until Heaven is our home, we have God-with-us, Immanuel. God the Son, Jesus, is with us in Holy Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. He is with us when we pray, especially when “two or three” gather for prayer. He is with us when we love one another as he loved us. He is with us when we listen to the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit in the temple of our own hearts. And, He is with us in the special way that He left to us, the Eucharist, and in the Blessed Sacrament. We may not always hear an answer to the questions we put to His Heart; many times we are simply called to rest on it, in a more peaceful knowing that He is with us, in loving faithfulness.

Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God. (Psalm 90)

In her Diary, St Faustina recorded these words of Jesus to her:

I want to tell you that eternal life must begin already here on earth through Holy Communion. Each Holy Communion makes you more capable of communing with God throughout eternity. (1811)

If we are not able to receive Holy Communion, as it has been for some months now in the worldwide Church, or if we cannot receive sacramentally for any reason, we can still make a spiritual communion, asking the Lord to come into our hearts, to stay with us, and never to leave us.

May the Heart of Jesus in the Most Blessed Sacrament
be blessed, adored and loved with grateful affection,
at every moment, in all the tabernacles of the world,
even to the end of time.
***

Notes:

*Remez (symbolic hints) understand that meaning is sometimes provided both within and beyond the historical setting of a word or concept” ( David Stern, The Complete Jewish Study Bible, p. 497).

** For further explanation of the Eucharist and the Real Presence of Christ, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd ed.), New York: Doubleday, 1995, especially paragraphs 1333-1344, 1373-1381; see also the Online edition, with flipbook. On the inherent relation of the Sacred Heart to the Eucharist, see especially Devotion to the Sacred Heart by Fr. John A. Hardon and The Devotion to the Sacred Heart by Fr. John Croiset.

***A closing prayer of the Chaplet of the Sacred Heart.

Resources:

The Complete Jewish Study Bible: Insights for Jews and Christians (David H. Stern, Trans. & Rabbi Barry A. Rubin, Ed.). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998 and 2016 (updated).

The Autobiography of Saint Margaret Mary by Margaret Mary Alacoque. Charlotte, NC: TAN Books, 2012. (from 1930 English edition, by Sisters of the Visitation)

The Navarre Bible: The Psalms and the Song of Solomon. Four Courts Press/Scepter Publishers, 2003.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart by Fr John A. Hardon. Bardstown, KY: Eternal Life, 2009.

The Devotion to the Sacred Heart by Fr. John Croiset. TAN Books, 2007. (Originally published 1689)

The Living Flame of Love and the Two Hearts

***

The Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus are spiritual realities. They have a unique similitude and union. As the first and most perfect disciple, Mary is the living example of Jesus’ teaching in his last discourse to his apostles:

“I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (John 14:18-20)

Both hearts burn with the flame of love, the eternal fire of holiness and love that is not consumed, like the Burning Bush that announced the Holy Presence of God to Moses (Exodus 3:1-4:17). What is this flame like, when God chooses to bestow it as a gift to a human heart? St. John of the Cross wrote his incomparable poem, The Living Flame of Love (1585-86), to convey, as much as any words can, the nature and actions of this ineffable gift to the soul. In but four short stanzas, he offers a glimpse of an experience occurring only in the most elevated reaches of prayer. The first two stanzas declare,

O living flame of love
That tenderly wounds my soul
In its deepest center! Since
Now You are not oppressive,
Now Consummate! if it be Your will:
Tear through the veil of this sweet encounter!

O sweet cautery,
O delightful wound!
O gentle hand! O delicate touch
That tastes of eternal life
And pays every debt!
In killing You changed death to life.

(From The Collected Works of St John of the Cross, pp. 639-640. Read the full poem here.)

In his beautiful, poetic Commentary on this poem, St. John of the Cross wrote “the soul now feels that it is all inflamed in the divine union, its palate is all bathed in glory and love” (p. 641). This Flame continues and consummates an even deeper purification that nearly tears the veil separating earthly existence from eternal life. Psalm 68:2 says “as wax melts when near the fire, so the wicked perish when God approaches” (Jerusalem Bible). This fire, this living flame of God’s love, approaches so close to the soul that it starts to melt, and nothing “wicked”–nor the smallest venial sin–could continue long in its presence. St John of the Cross describes this melting in love, and likens it to some words of the Bride in the Song of Songs.

Since this flame is a flame of divine life, it wounds the soul with the tenderness of God’s life, and it wounds and stirs it so deeply as to make it dissolve in love. What the bride affirmed in the Song of Songs is fulfilled in the soul. She was so moved that her soul melted, and so she says: As soon as he spoke my soul melted [Song 5:6].* For God’s speech is the effect he produces in the soul. (Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, p. 643)

In some sense, this operation of the Living Flame was the Blessed Virgin Mary’s natural state for much of her earthly life, so closely was she united with the heart and will of her Son. She “pondered” and kept much within her heart, likely devoting herself often to prayer and being in prayerful union with her Son as she did her daily work. Although she had no debt of sin to pay, such close union with Jesus, during his many trials and ultimately his Passion, must necessarily have been felt as a keen wound, a “cautery” of love. The sword which passes through her Immaculate Heart reveals her own wound of love, the mingled joys, pain, and sorrows she has suffered, beginning with the prophecy that Simeon spoke, when she and Joseph presented the infant Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem:

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
according to thy word;
for mine eyes have seen thy salvation
which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to thy people Israel.”

And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,

“Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel,
and for a sign that is spoken against
(and a sword will pierce through your own soul also),
that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.”
(Luke 2:29-35)

But after her Assumption into Heaven, this bittersweet taste of eternal life was consummated and fulfilled. St. John wrote, “This flame of love is the Spirit of the Bridegroom, who is the Holy Spirit.” How fitting to associate this Living Flame of Love, the Bridegroom, the Spirit, with Mary’s Immaculate Heart and her own flame of love, which continues to burn. She is the Spouse of the Holy Spirit, inflamed with divine love at the Annunciation, having already been immaculately conceived herself, protected and purified by the prevenient grace of Christ.

At Pentecost, tongues of fire come to rest on Mary and the Apostles in the Upper Rooom, enflaming each one with the powers and virtues of their particular apostolate. For Mary, the Mother of God, this flame of Pentecost further prepared her to extend her spiritual maternity to the whole human family, birthing, in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, the Flame of Love in each baptized person and in those who ardently long for and worship the true God. The Immaculate Heart is espoused to this Living Flame of the Spirit forever, and it radiates from her in love over the whole world.

Miraculous medal (reverse) showing the Two Hearts, the M entwined with the Cross, and Mary’s Crown of Twleve Stars. Association de la Médaille Miraculeuse.

In the World Centre of Prayer for Peace in Niepokalanów, west of Warsaw, a most beautiful Adoration Chapel features a new sculpture called the Star of the Immaculate (play the video below to see the chapel in livestream). For me, it captures these interwoven realities very powerfully. In this work by Mariusz Drapikowski, Mary’s own Immaculate Heart is itself the monstrance for the large Host, the focal point of Adoration. Thus, Mary’s Heart and the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament are visually fused, making their spiritual unity palpable. Even Mary’s own gaze is fixed on the joining of the Two Hearts. The twelve lilies that encircle her are her crown of twelve stars, the sign of her Immaculate Conception. And then there are those encircling rays, which are bathed in a brilliant light that changes color from yellow to green to blue at intervals throughout the day. The light emanating from her Heart and from the Lord’s Heart leaves the viewer transfixed in prayer.

The living flame of love is implicit in their joined hearts blazing with rays of healing light and warmth. Can one’s own heart not be melted in their presence? A Franciscan Friar of the parish of Niepokalanów had these words to say about it: “No photograph can reproduce the beauty of this place and God’s presence, which you can experience there. When I walk into the chapel, it is as if God were touching me” (National Catholic Register, Jan 1, 2019)

Note the ways that the Star of the Immaculate resembles a much earlier icon of Mary, the beloved Ostrobramska, or Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn, of Vilnius, Lithuania. Our Lady is covered, all but her face and hands, in a protective reza of gilded silver embossed with a profusion of different flowers, representing an enclosed garden to symbolize her viriginity and purity; she wears a gilded double crown with colored inlays.**

Ostrobramska, or Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn (from 1630), Vilnius, Lithuania. Wikimedia.

Her hands are folded protectively over her heart and womb, and her head is inclined slightly to her right and downward, as if in deep contemplation and almost unaware of the radiance around her.

The painting Virgin Mary of the Flame of Love (1977) by Erwin Schöppl shows Mary in a similar attitude of prayer and regard for her children. But in this case the flame of love from her Immaculate Heart is most prominent, as if bursting forth. It appears as the cover image for the English translation of the important spiritual diary of Elizabeth Kindelmann (1913-1985), a Hungarian layperson.

Cover of Elizabeth Kindelmann’s spiritual diary, with painting Virgin Mary of the Flame of Love, Erwin Schöppl, 1977.

From 1962 to 1981, Elizabeth received a call from both Jesus and Mary, who spoke to her in prayer, to spread a new devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Jesus taught her especially about the necessity of prayer and personal sacrifice on behalf of others to release the full power of his mother’s Flame of Love, which is one with the Spirit of Truth. Mary taught Elizabeth about the Flame of Love itself, how it issues from her Heart, which is always united to her Son, how to honor and spread it, and the great benefits that would come to humanity to bring people back to God in this time of lukewarmness among believers and widespread unbelief as well. The Hearts of Jesus and Mary are both crushed with sadness that so many are not finding God and clinging to Him. Jesus said that “the Flame of Love of the heart of My Mother is Noah’s Ark” (March 1981, Flame of Love diary, p. 294). This comparison certainly brings out the seriousness of this call to honor her Flame of Love and practice this devotion, for the sake of the salvation of humanity.

But exactly what is this devotion? On April 13, 1962, Mary told Elizabeth:

“I would like to place in your hands a new instrument… It is the Flame of Love of my heart… With this Flame full of graces that I give you from my heart, ignite all the hearts in the entire country. Let this flame go from heart to heart. This is the miracle becoming the blaze whose dazzling light will blind Satan. This is the fire of love of union which I obtained from the heavenly Father through the merits of the wounds of my Son.” (pp. 27-28, 297)

On October 19, 1962, Jesus explained to her further:

Have confidence and always refer to the Flame of Love and My Holy Mother because the Three Divine Persons [Holy Trinity] are obligated to her. Through her, you can receive the graces you ask for. She is the Spouse of the Holy Spirit and her love warms up the hearts and souls which have grown cold in the world. Then, waking up with renewed energies, you will be able to rise towards God.” (p. 100)

A diary entry from October 1962 explains the kernel of the devotional practice during the saying of the Rosary:

I am going to record what the Blessed Virgin told me in this year, 1962. I kept it inside for a long time without daring to write it down. It is a petition of the Bessed Virgin:

Mary: “When you say the prayer that honors me, the Hail Mary, include this petition in the following manner:

‘Hail Mary, full of grace…Pray for us sinners, spread the effect of grace of thy Flame of Love over all of humanity, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.'”

Note: The competent bishop asked Elizabeth: “Why the very old Hail Mary should be recited differently? –On February 2, 1982, the Lord answered:

Jesus: “It is exclusively thanks to the efficacious pleas of the Most Holy Virgin that the Most Holy Trinity granted the effusion of the Flame of Love. By it, ask in the prayer with which you greet My Most Holy Mother:

‘Spread the effect of grace of thy Flame of Love over all of humanity, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.’

So that, by its effect, humanity is converted.”

The Most Holy Virgin added:

Mary: “I do not want to change the prayer by which you honor me [the Hail Mary]; by this petition, I want rather to shake humanity. This is not a new prayer formula; it must be a constant supplication.” (Flame of Love, p. 101)

Adding a petition to the Rosary has occurred before, in 1917, when Our Lady of Fatima requested of the three shepherd children, Lucia, Jacinta, and Francisco, that the following prayer should be added after each decade: “Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell, and lead all souls to Heaven especially those in most need of Thy Mercy.”

We can also note that it took a long time before Elizabeth was able to bring the new devotion to the Bishop and other authorities beyond her personal confessor priests. As is usually the case, the Church is slow to adopt new devotions or to credit locutions such as Elizabeth experienced to a supernatural origin without careful investigation, of the character and holiness of the person receiving them and of the fidelity of the messages to the Bible and the traditional teachings of the Church. In 2009, Elizabeth’s diary (in Hungarian) received the imprimatur from Cardinal Péter Erdő, the Archbishop of Budapest and Primate of Hungary. This approval means that that the book may be propagated and taught to the faithful.

In November of the same year (1962), Mary told Elizabeth:

“My little one, you are the first one showered by the effect of my Flame of Love full of grace, and in union with you, I am extending it to all the souls. Whenever someone does adoration in a spirit of atonement or visits the Blessed Sacrament, as long as it lasts, Satan loses his dominion on the parish souls. Blinded, he ceases to reign on souls.” (p. 103)

Elizabeth was specially willing to accept sufferings, and the repeated torments of Satan, on behalf of spreading Mary’s Flame of Love, which would release many souls from Satan’s grasp and enable them to receive the redemption won on the Cross by her Son–by his Passion, Death, and glorious Resurrection. The Flame of Love emanating from the Two Hearts is indeed a glorious flame because it is the fire of Love and also the “peace of God, which passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). Mary offers these rousing words: “We will put out fire with fire: the fire of hatred with the fire of love” (Dec 6, 1964, pp. 236, 297).

The Flame of Love Rosary adds a new petition as Mary and Jesus instructed, but it is not a new devotion. In one sense, it is the spark to ignite a New Pentecost, the descent of the tongues of fire of the Holy Spirit, to lift all of God’s people back to the Father, calling them to deeper union with His Eternal Love.

The Book of Hebrews ends with this memorable description, “Our God is a consuming fire” (12:29). St. Peter Julian Eymard makes a helpful connection between the fire of God’s love and His veiled presence in the Holy Eucharist, where his full glory is hidden, so that we may approach and speak to Him, heart to heart, without fear.

He veils His power which would frighten us all. He veils His sanctity, the sublimity of which would discourage our little virtues. A mother lisps with her child and comes down to his level so as to lift him up to her own. In the same way Jesus makes Himself little with the little in order to lift them up to Himself, and through Himself to God.

Jesus veils His love and tempers it. Its ardor is such that it would consume us were we directly exposed to its flames. Ignis comsumens est. “God is a consuming fire.”

…There is no greater proof of love than this Eucharistic veil. (The Real Presence, p. 97)

The Lord God showed this same tender love to Moses when He met him at the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:1-6) and later when He gently put him in the cleft of the rock and covered him with His hand as He passed by, “for man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20-23).

The Love of God is never itself consumed, but rather perpetual, as shown in the Burning Bush, whose flames burned without consuming the bush. Likewise, the eternal flames in the Sacred Heart of Jesus are a “Burning Furnace of Love,” as it says in the litany of the Sacred Heart. This fire was communicated to Mary and sustained in her Immaculate Heart by her Son and by the Holy Spirit. The touch of her Flame of Love is both gentle and powerful. It consumes anything that is not of God in our hearts–sin, despair, hatred–while enriching our virtues, mercy, and love. It prepares us to live eternally with God in Heaven.

For me, this fire of love illuminates so many aspects of our living faith and its coherence in all its parts. The fire of sacrifice offered by Israel in faithful Covenant with God was never lost, but was fulfilled in the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God, on the Cross, and then perpetuated in the Eucharistic sacrifice, as it continually re-presents the events of our Redemption. The Risen Christ bears within his Heart an eternal flame, which he longs to share with us. He longs for us to accept this flame of love as Mary his Mother did with such humility, fidelity, and willing self-oblation. She continues to distribute its graces and spread this flame over all of humanity.

This Pentecost, let us open our hearts to receive this Living Flame of Love to illumine, warm, and purify our hearts–to sanctify us and heal our world. Then truly we may be able at last to follow the Great Commandment to love God with all our mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourself. Let us cherish and protect the flame within, and then share it, anticipating the joy of that day when we may be invited to dwell close to God’s Heart forever.

Note:

*Some translations say “my soul failed me” (Revised Standard Version) or “my heart failed me” (Complete Jewish Bible) for this phrase in Song of Songs 5:6. However, the Douay-Rheims version translates it as “my soul melted when he spoke” and this agrees with the verse as St. John of the Cross cited it in his Commentary, paragraph 7, of “The Living Flame of Love.”

**See also the beautiful Lithuanian site (in English) with excellent information about The Gates of Dawn (Aušros Vartai) Chapel and shrine and especially about the Aušros Vartai (Ostrobramska, in Polish) Madonna, the painting’s history and decoration. It says: “According to the latest research, the painting was created around 1620-1630, on the basis of a picture by the Dutch artist Martin de Vos, dating to the second half of the 16th century, which had been based on an engraving of Thomas de Leu (1580).”

Resources:

“The Living Flame of Love,” pp. 631-715, in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross (Rev. ed.; Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD, Trans.). ICS Publications, 1991.

The Living Flame of Love,” by St. John of the Cross. Full poem can be found online at the website of the Boston Carmel: https://carmelitesofboston.org/prayer/carmel-poetry-as-prayer/st-john-of-the-cross/the-living-flame-of-love/

The Flame of Love of the Immaculate Heart of Mary by Elizabeth Kindelmann. Flame of Love Movement in Canada, 2019. (Original diary in Hungarian received Imprimatur in 2009)

“Adoring Christ With Mary: Eucharistic Devotion and the Mother of God,” Filip Mazurczak, National Catholic Register, Jan 1, 2019. This article describes the creation of the Star of the Immaculate chapel and the larger project of which it is a part.

The Real Presence by Peter Julian Eymard (Paul A. Böer Sr., Ed.). Veritatis Splendor Publications, 2013. (Originally published 1906)

Flame of Love Rosary (one voice, no music). Marian News, YouTube. Stunning vintage holy cards in glorious colors accompany this recitation of the Rosary with the Flame of Love petition.

Loving What Jesus Loves

Christ on the Mount of Olives by Josef August Untersberger (1864-1933). Wikimedia.

“Jesus loved ancient Israel…and I love what Jesus loves.”

–Fr. Joseph L. Ponessa, S.S.D.*

***

These words open the first talk of the Come and See Bible Study titled The Rise and Fall of Ancient Israel, which covers the time from the crossing of the Jordan (led by Joshua, after Moses’ death), to the lines of the kings of Israel and Judah, through Jeremiah to the Babylonian exile. Fr. Joseph Ponessa speaks with emotion of the importance of this subject to him, and he explains why. Let me quote him at greater length:

I am…inviting you to begin a journey of memory and love recounting the history of the rise and fall of ancient Israel. God loved ancient Israel, and I love ancient Israel too. Jesus loved ancient Israel as he ascended the throne of that kingdom, and I love what Jesus loves. So let us go back to the beginning, when a Chosen People first appeared in history and rose out of obscurity into importance in the Middle East… (The Rise and Fall of Ancient Israel, DVD, Disc 1, “Entering Land”)**

I found this quote a very inspiring way to begin this study of Israel’s history, and I too began to love it. I was also gripped by the idea of “loving what Jesus loves.” I wanted to do that too, and I began to think over all the things Jesus loves, from what we know about him.

We know Jesus loves ancient Israel from his preaching, which showed his intimate knowledge and deep affection for Holy Scripture. Jesus taught from the Hebrew Bible, his Bible, and drew examples from this record of ancient Israel–the Torah, the historical writings, the wisdom books, and the Prophets. For example, when he was challenged for allowing his hungry disciples to pluck grain from the fields on the Sabbath, he replied, “Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?” (Matthew 12:3-4; referring to an incident in 1 Samuel 21:1-6). In that same chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, he referred to the sign of Jonah and the wisdom of Solomon. The life of ancient Israel, his own people, and the record of them in the Bible were always close to his heart and his thinking.

We know that Jesus loved Jerusalem because he wept for it (Luke 19:41). He loved its people, even when that love was not returned: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Luke 13:34).

Above all, Jesus loves God the Father, and he spent many nights alone praying to His Father, often retreating to the Mount of Olives or other lonely places. In his last discourses to his disciples, Jesus said: “I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father (John 14:31). When Jesus was asked, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” (Matt 22:35), he answered (citing Deuteronomy 4:5 and Leviticus 19:18):

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40; RSV)

Jesus loves his mother, Mary. We know that Jesus as a youth obeyed his mother and his devoted foster-father Joseph, after he was lost to them three days, until they found him at the Temple talking with the teachers and asking them questions (Luke 2:41-51). As an adult, his compassion for the suffering of mothers and widows was evident in his raising of the widow’s son at Nain (Luke 7:11-17). This widow had lost her only son and she was weeping and following his funeral procession. Jesus stopped to help her:

And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” And he came and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up, and began to speak. And he gave him to his mother. (Luke 7:13-15)

It is often remarked that Jesus’ compassion for this widow and his response to her were so great because he knew that his own mother was soon to be like her. We can infer that Mary was by then a widow, since Joseph is not mentioned in Jesus’ adult ministry, as he was in his infancy and childhood. We also know that Mary would lose her only son, Jesus, to the Roman execution and she would suffer greatly. Jesus’ heart ached for the widow of Nain and for his own mother whom he loved so much. He knew his “hour” would come, resulting in his Passion and death. At the foot of the Cross, the Blessed Mother Mary stood in sorrow and in steadfast love, along with the beloved disciple, John. Before he breathed his last, Jesus made sure to entrust his mother and this disciple to each other. Here is this tender moment:

When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:26-27)

There is sometimes a misunderstanding about Jesus’ use of “Woman” to address his mother Mary (here, and in the scene of the Wedding at Cana, John 2:4). This is actually an exalted title, because it hearkens back to Genesis 3:15, in which the Lord God promised that “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” As the Woman faithful to God’s will in all things, Mary would undue the rupture with God precipitated by Eve’s disobedience, and crush the head of the Serpent through her son, Jesus. In Revelation 12, John’s apocalyptic book, the Woman appears again, clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars, and she gives birth to the child who will defeat the dragon, the serpent.

The Catholic Church celebrates her Assumption into Heaven, for one thing, because Jesus’ love would not permit the body of his Immaculate mother to undergo corruption. This is not unprecedented, as Elisha saw his master Elijah assumed into heaven on a chariot (2 Kings 2:10-11). In Heaven the Blessed Virgin Mary was crowned Queen of Heaven and Earth by her Son. The Assumption of Mary and the Coronation of the Virgin are the fourth and fifth Glorious Mysteries of the Holy Rosary, and each has inspired some of the greatest painters of the world to depict them.

Coronation of the Virgin (1432, detail), Fra Angelico. Uffizi, Florence. Wikimedia.

God the Father and Mary, his mother, were the two great personal loves of Jesus, and they should be ours too, in imitation of him. We can ask Jesus to show us how to love God more, and we can ask him to love the Father through us. We can pray to love Mary with Jesus’ tender love for her and to hold her in the same high esteem he had for her; and likewise, we can ask Mary to bring us closer to her Divine Son and to love him more, with a love closer to her own love.

Let us now consider more people that Jesus loved, as evidenced in the Gospels.

John the Baptist

Jesus held John the Baptist in high esteem as well, and taught his disciples to do the same: “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11a). After John was killed by Herod the tetrarch, “his disciples came and took the body and buried it; and they went and told Jesus. Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a lonely place apart” (Matt 14:12-13). This is surely a poignant picture of Jesus, choosing to grieve in private over the death of his much loved cousin.

Lazarus, and his sisters Mary and Martha

“Now a certain man was ill, Laz′arus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.  It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Laz′arus was ill.  So the sisters sent to him, saying, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’  But when Jesus heard it he said, ‘This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.’ Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Laz′arus” (John 11:1-5). Jesus did not go there immediately because he knew it would be the occasion of his performing a miracle (raising Lazarus) that would bring many people to faith and prepare them for his own Resurrection. But when he at last arrived, Lazarus had been dead four days and entombed. Mary and Martha were grieving for their brother. Jesus was greatly moved. “Then Mary, when she came where Jesus was and saw him, fell at his feet, saying to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’  When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled; and he said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’  Jesus wept.” (John 11:32-35)

After Jesus’ Resurrection, Mary Magadalen (usually identified with Mary, the sister of Lazarus) was the first disciple to whom he appeared (Mark 16:9-11; John 20:11-18). At first she didn’t recognize him, and asked him to tell her where the missing body of Jesus was, but when he said her name, “Mary,” she knew it was her teacher. “Rabboni!” she cried. One can only imagine the gentleness with which he said her name, to relieve her distress.

The rich young man

And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’”  And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth.”  And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. (Mark 10:17-22) Jesus looked on him with love and pity because he knew that his attachment to his wealth was a stumbling block. We also see Jesus’ humility, teaching the young man that all goodness has its source in God alone.

The poor, the sick, outcasts

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.” (Matt 11:2-6)

Even when he went apart in a boat, grieving for John the Baptist’s death, Jesus had compassion for the sick: “But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. As he went ashore he saw a great throng; and he had compassion on them, and healed their sick” (Matt 14:13-14). When evening came he performed the miracle of multiplying the five loaves and two fish to feed them all: “And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children” (Matt 14:21).

No one was more an outcast in Jesus’ time than a person afflicted with tzara’at, which is typically translated as leprosy (but see this discussion of the disease in Biblical times). Jesus did not retreat from lepers but rather touched and healed them: A man afflicted with tzara‘at came to Yeshua and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Yeshua reached out his hand, touched him and said to him, “I am willing! Be cleansed!” Instantly the tzara‘at left him, and he was cleansed. (Mark 1:40-42; Complete Jewish Bible)

The Prodigal Son

In the beautiful parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), Jesus shows his love for all three pivotal characters in the story: the wayward, or prodigal son, who squanders his inheritance on loose living; the faithful, but unforgiving brother; and, above all, the generous father, who looks for his lost son, and is overcome with joy at his return–this affectionate father is the truest image of God the Father’s mercy and love for his children, even those who have strayed very far away from him.

Matthew and Zacchaeus, the tax collectors

Both Matthew and Zacchaeus were employed by the Romans as tax collectors; understandably, they were viewed with suspicion by their own Jewish communities. Jesus gave each of them, in a different way, a second chance to amend their lives. Matthew was called to leave his tax office and follow Jesus as a disciple (Matthew 9:9-13; Luke 5:27-32). Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector at Jericho. After his encounter with Jesus (Luke 19:1-10), he was completely changed: And Zacchae′us stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:8-10)

Children

Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people; but Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:13-14). In the Gospel of Mark, the same incident is told, but with Jesus observing, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them (Mark 10: 15-16).

His disciples

Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end (John 13:1). During supper, Jesus taught them, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:9-11;15). He promised to send them the Holy Spirit, the Counselor, to comfort them and remind them of all he had said, so they would understand better the Good News left in their care for the whole world (John 14:15-17, 25-27).

Peter

Jesus prayed for Peter and foretold his denials of Jesus: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” And he said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” He said, “I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you three times deny that you know me.” (Luke 22:31-34)

When Jesus was arrested, Peter followed after him at a distance. After he had vehemently denied knowing Jesus three times (out of fear), the cock crowed: And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly (Luke 22:61-62). Jesus turned and looked at Peter, not with accusation, but with love, and not a little sadness. Jesus knew all this ahead of time, for he had prayed for Peter that his fall would not be irreparable, but would lead him to “turn again” (repent) and strengthen the other disciples. Indeed, Peter did repent and wept bitterly.

In one of his Resurrection appearances, Jesus, out of mercy, gave Peter the opportunity to reaffirm his love and fidelity three times (John 21:15-19), asking him each time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter’s answered, “Yes, you know I love you, Lord,” ever more fervently, and in response, Jesus charged him to “Feed my lambs,” to “Tend my sheep,” and finally, to “Feed my sheep.” In this way, Peter was able to atone for his threefold betrayal of his master and, at the same time, receive anew his call to be the Shepherd, in Jesus’ place, of his flock on earth when it was time for Jesus to leave and ascend to Heaven. Ten days after the Ascension, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon Peter and the disciples gathered together in prayer, with the Blessed Virgin Mary. Jesus sent his Holy Spirit to guide Peter and all his disciples, present and future, to empower them to spread the Good News and lead lives of holiness, and he would continue to be with them in prayer and in the Eucharist. He would be with them even when they fell during their life’s journey; if they repented, he was always nearby, ready to restore and reconcile them to Him through His mercy and forgiveness.

His flock

Israel had long given thanks and praise to God for being the loving Shepherd of his people, for example:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;
   he makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters;
   he restores my soul.
(Psalm 23:1-3a)

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the lands!
    Serve the Lord with gladness!
    Come into his presence with singing!

Know that the Lord is God!
    It is he that made us, and we are his;
    we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
(Psalm 100:1-3)

Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd (John 10:1-18). Who are the sheep in his flock? They are those who hear his voice and follow him. He calls them by name and they know his voice and follow him out of the sheepfold. “And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16). The Good Shepherd gives his life to protect them, he loves them so. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11), to save them from the wolf who would snatch and devour them. The wolf is traditionally taken to be the devil, who seeks to take souls from Jesus’ flock into perdition.*** He gives his life because of the deep bond with his sheep, which is like the bond with his Father. “I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:14-15).

His enemies

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (John 5:43-48) Striving to love even one’s enemies was a call to a more perfect and self-giving love, and closer to the love of God for his children.

Jesus practiced this perfect love from the Cross. As he was dying, he could see some of those who had condemned him, and he continued to endure insults and jeering from them and from the Roman soldiers. But his response signaled the great love of the Son of God, appealing to his Father to have mercy on his accusers: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Stephen, the first Christian martyr, imitated this lesson from his Master, with his own plea of mercy for those who were stoning him: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).

Those who trust in his mercy

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
    nor will he keep his anger for ever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
    nor requite us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
    so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
    so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
(Psalm 103:8-12)

The Psalms and verses throughout the Old Testament tell of God’s mercy and “steadfast love toward those who fear him.” Fear of the Lord is a combination of awe and reverence, as befits the Creator. But it is also a form of trust borne of the reliable promises of God. God sent his Son to reconcile the world to himself, and because of this great mercy, and Jesus’ obedience to it, we can likewise trust in him. This is confirmed in the countless examples throughout his ministry of his mercy to sinners who came to him for healing of body and soul.

From Heaven, Jesus continues to ask us to trust in his mercy, and the testimony of the saints and mystics confirms this. Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938) was specially chosen by him to be “the secretary of My mercy,” as he called her, for this present age. His many communications to her in prayer are recorded in her spiritual Diary, and he stressed over and over that men and women must come to him and trust in his mercy:

Mankind will not have peace until it turns with trust to My mercy. Oh, how much I am hurt by a soul’s distrust! … My Heart rejoices in this title of Mercy. Proclaim that Mercy is the greatest attribute of God. All the works of my hands are crowned with mercy. (300, 301)

Tell [all people], My daughter, that I am Love and Mercy itself. When a soul approaches Me with trust, I fill it with such an abundance of graces that it cannot contain them within itself, but radiates them to other souls. (1074)

Souls who spread the honor of My mercy I shield through their entire lives as a tender mother her infant, and at the hour of death I will not be a Judge for them, but the Merciful Savior. At that last hour, a soul has nothing with which to defend itself except My mercy. Happy is the soul that during its lifetime immersed itself in the Fountain of Mercy, because justice will have no hold on it. (1075)

The graces of My mercy are drawn by means of one vessel only, and that is–trust. The more a soul trusts, the more it will receive. Souls that trust boundlessly are a great comfort to Me, because I pour all the treasures of My graces into them. I rejoice that they ask for much, because it is My desire to give much, very much. (1578)

Jesus and God, the Father, are inseparable in love, inseparable in mercy. I love this thought that trust, our trust in God, is the vessel that draws this great mercy and love, this living water for eternal life. It is our whole life’s work, in some sense, to increase and strengthen our trust in God, so that we can be instruments of his Holy Will, in our lives and for the blessing and benefit of other people.

Those who open the door of their heart to him

In the final book of the Bible, the Risen and glorified Christ in Heaven tells St. John to “write what you see, what is and what is to take place hereafter” (Rev 1:19). He is told to write to the angel of each of the seven churches in Asia minor. To Laodicea, he writes this famous sentence:

 Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3:20)

The Light of the World (1853), William Holman Hunt. Keble College, Oxford.

Jesus waits at the doors of our hearts because of–what else?–his great and patient love for us. In this beloved painting, the door has no outer handle; we must open it from the inside. If we open the door in love, returning his love, we will enjoy the everlasting banquet, and eternal communion of hearts with Him.

Notes:

*The Rise and Fall of Ancient Israel (Come and See Catholic Bible Study) by Father Joseph L. Ponessa, Sharon Doran, and Laurie Watson Manhardt. Book and DVD published by Emmaus Road Publishing, 2015. Quote taken from first DVD lecture, Disc 1, by Fr. Ponessa.

**Perhaps a word of explanation is needed to understand Fr. Ponessa’s referring to Jesus as “ascending the throne” of Israel. For Christians, although Jesus, as Messiah, was rejected by the authority figures in Israel at that time, he in fact ascended the throne when he was lifted up on the Cross. This interpretation was confirmed by the inscription, in three languages, which was ordered by Pilate to be nailed above his head on the Cross, saying “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (see John 19:19-20). The Latin, Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum, often appears on a Crucifix in abbreviated form as INRI. After the Resurrection, he reigns from Heaven as Christ the King over a universal kingdom.

***See The Gospel of John (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture) by Fr. Francis Martin and William M. Wright IV, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015, p. 192. They cite Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, and Thomas Aquinas as sources for this interpretation.