Sunday, November 18, 2012

Embracing & Holding Fast "the Blessed Hope of Everlasting Life"

Picture credit: Missionaries of the Precious Blood, Dayton, OH

In the Collect for Proper 28 we pray: “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ...” That’s the Church’s whole agenda behind having the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures proclaimed to you and me at every celebration of the Eucharist.
We’re to hear them, which implies opening our minds and hearts to be willingly receptive. We’re to read them, either quietly in personal prayer or aloud in the liturgy, distinctly and coherently, conveying our comprehension of the words in context to others. We’re to mark them. Perhaps you’re a reader like me who keeps a pencil or pen handy to literally mark words and passages, but more importantly is the marking of the Word indelibly on our hearts and on our daily actions. Through the hearing, reading, and marking we’re meant to learn something, not simply let the words pass through one ear and out the other.  And we’re to inwardly digest them, to ruminate on what’s read or spoken, exactly like a cow chewing its cud to promote good digestion of food. 
The Collect further notes the two-fold purpose of this very defined and thorough process: 1) that we may “embrace”, to wrap the arms of our being around “the blessed hope of everlasting life,...our Savior Jesus Christ”, and 2) to “ever hold fast” this blessed hope. In a way, that’s the very thing our Bishop’s Bible Challenge to us in the Diocese next year is all about. Isn’t it ironic, though, that you and I would have to be “challenged” to do something so basic and so taken for granted in one who claims to follow Jesus the Christ?
Hearing, reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting Holy Scripture is by no means always easy. A perfect example is the first reading’s passage from Daniel with allusions unfamiliar and strange to us, which I’m certainly going to avoid here! Other passages are a bit more manageable, such as the last six verses of today’s Epistle, taken from the Letter to the Hebrews.
Modern scholarship pretty much agrees that God only knows who wrote the Letter to Hebrews. For sure, the author’s Greek and literary style is very sophisticated, perhaps the best in the Christian Scriptures. He was brilliant and knew the Hebrew Scriptures exceedingly well. Best guesstimates are that he wrote this document, not a typical letter, possibly a sermon, probably in the 80‘s or early 90‘s C.E. His audience was a particular, unnamed community, probably consisting of Christian Jews or “God-lovers”, most likely both.
Today’s passage from Chapter 10 deals with Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice, which the writer neatly summarized previously in v. 10: “ is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” He goes on to tell us that our confidence, our “blessed hope of everlasting life”, is anchored “by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh)” as our great high priest.     
For 13 years as a seminarian and four years as a Catholic priest, I was formed and nurtured by the theology of the Blood of Christ as a member of the Society of the Precious Blood. I have to confess that devotion to the Blood of Jesus wasn't always easy for me to understand clearly. Only progressively through the years, thanks to prayerful reflection and further insights by many gifted teachers, writers, interpreters and spiritual models, both within and outside of the Society, and through my later involvement in the Order of Julian of Norwich, did I learn to better appreciate and sometimes experience the depth and richness of this particular mystery of our faith.
One of those guides was John XXIII (1881-1963), who was Pope for only five short years during my time in seminary. His Apostolic Letter of June 30, 1960, On Promoting Devotion To The Most Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, quotes the words of a verse from St. Thomas Aquinas' famous hymn, Adoro Te devote = Devoutly I adore Thee. This hymn refers to:

 '...Blood whereof a single drop has power to win 
All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.' 
(Translation by Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.) 

"How truly precious is this Blood", Pope John says, "is voiced in the song the Church sings with the Angelic Doctor...Unlimited is the effectiveness of the God-Man's Blood -- just as unlimited as the love that impelled him to pour it out for us...Such surpassing love suggests, nay demands, that everyone reborn in the torrents of that Blood adore it with grateful love..."

During her grave illness, "in the year of our Lord, 1373, the 8th day of May", as she herself notes, Blessed Julian of Norwich experienced sixteen shewings or revelations from Our Lord. Since they concentrated on Jesus' suffering and death, mention of his Blood is no surprise. When I became an Oblate of the Order of Julian 15 years ago, naturally I was intrigued by Julian's references to the Blood of Christ, in view of my previous training. Early in Julian’s Revelations, she summarizes the purpose of the 1st Showing as " teach our soul wisely to cleave to the goodness of God." (Chapter 6) That reminded her of the current custom, when people prayed, to create, as she said, "many intermediaries". Julian fears that this can lead us to misunderstand the full reality of our relationship as human 
creatures with the God of goodness and love. We often pray, she says, "by His Holy Flesh and by His Precious Blood, His Holy Passion, His dear worthy Death and Wounds, by all His blessed Human Nature...we pray to Him by His sweet Mother's love who bore His Holy Cross that He died on...and in the same way, all the help that we have from special saints and all the blessed company of heaven..." Julian even affirms that God provides such intermediaries to help us, "of which”, she says, “the chief and principal intermediary is the blessed Human Nature that He took from the Maid..." (Chapter 6)

Nevertheless, she continues, "...if we create all these intermediaries, it is too little, and not complete honor to God", unless we acknowledge that "...all the whole of it is in His goodness, and there absolutely nothing fails." The grace of God is Godself, Goodness itself, in us and for us, always. The act of creating us, Julian says, is God loving us, enwrapping us in this goodness and love which God is. This is, according to Julian, an endless reality: God makes us, God keeps us, God loves us. As human creatures, we emerge in goodness and love from our beginning; we're sustained throughout our human lives in that goodness and love; and we return, at the moment of human death, to endless goodness and love. My friend, Dr. Fred Roden, in his Love's Trinity: A Companion To Julian of Norwich (Liturgical Press, 2009, p. 23), puts it thus: "Incarnation is the extension of goodness." Through Jesus the Christ, through his coming among us as a real human being as well as God's Son, God's grace, goodness, and love is held out to and embedded in our very human nature and being.

Julian goes on to elaborate in her Revelations how the humanity of Christ, specifically his Blood, is part of the ongoing process of being "oned" in God. As she contemplates the shedding of Jesus’ Blood in the 4th Showing (Chapter 12), Julian uses the metaphor of liquid, of water, in recalling how the Creator has provided humankind with "plentiful waters" to assist us and "for our bodily comfort because of the tender love He has for us". The reference to “pure water”, and to sprinkling and washing in v. 22 of  the Letter to the Hebrews today comes immediately to mind. We can also think of the oceans, lakes and rivers surrounding us, and their importance in the thriving of the ecosystem, the refreshment and delight they provide for our re-creation, as well as the inspiration and inner images which they fire up in our spirits. "...But", Julian says, "it still pleases Him better if we accept most beneficially His blessed blood to wash us from sin. There is no liquid that is made which it pleases Him so well to give us, for just as it is most plentiful, so it is most precious (and that by the virtue of His blessed Godhead). And the blood is of our own nature, and all beneficently flows over us by the virtue of His precious love. The dear worthy blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, as truly as it is most precious, so truly it is most plentiful..." (Chapter 12)

For Julian of Norwich human nature and God's grace are of one cloth. In God the Creator we have our being; in God, through the humanity of Jesus, flesh and blood, we have our growing; and in God the Holy Spirit we have our completing.  All that has been created shares being-in-God from God who shares being, goodness and love which is Godself. In creating us God knits us to Godself; in taking flesh, through Jesus, God is knit to humankind. Thus, in our human existence you and I are made in and "oned" with the Persons of the Trinity and with Jesus the Christ.

In talking about our human nature as created by the goodness and love which God is, Julian distinguishes a "higher part" and a "lower part": in our essence or nature, we're complete; in our fleshliness, we're insufficient. Made in the image of the God, One-in-Three, Julian says that she sees no difference between the triune God and our substance, though, she clarifies, "God is God, and our substance is a creation of God. (Chapter 54) In Julian's view, human beings are "two-fold in God's creation": essential and substantial, but also fleshly and sensual. It's how we exist in the world, body and soul. It includes our embodied, spiritual nature. This is precisely where you and I experience the mercy and grace of God in Christ and the Holy Spirit. Our fleshliness is God's dwelling place, the place where we're "oned" with God. Though complete in our essence, yet insufficient in our fleshliness, nevertheless Julian believes that God completes our insufficiency by mercy and grace. Though inadequate and incomplete, we're never separated from God's goodness, love and grace. Julian assures us that Christ, who knits in himself both our essence and our sensuality in a perfect balance, will restore us and make us complete by the working of God's goodness and love, embedded in our nature. And the way he effects this is through the instrumentality of his Precious Blood, the sign and symbol of life communicated. "Thus", says Julian, "when we by the mercy of God...come to harmony with both our human nature and grace, we shall see honestly that sin is truly more vile and more painful than hell, without comparison, for sin is opposite to our fair human nature!...But let us not be afraid of this...but humbly let us make our moan to our dear worthy Mother, and He shall all besprinkle us with His Precious Blood and make our souls very pliant and very gentle, and restore us to health...In the taking of our human nature He restored life to us, and in His blessed dying upon the cross, He birthed us into endless life." (Chapter 63)

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews encourages us to “approach [God] with a true heart in full assurance of faith”, our hearts and bodies renewed in the living waters of Holy Baptism. He further urges us to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for [Jesus the Christ] who has promised is faithful.” But the writer also goes beyond simply one’s personal relationship to Christ. Appreciating that you and I, and indeed all who follow Jesus, are in this together, he challenges us to “consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” You and I come here each Sunday and at other times to hear the Word of God proclaimed, to eat together the Body of Christ, to drink together the Blood of Christ. We then “go in peace, to love and serve the Lord” in our sisters and brothers. Ultimately, that’s what it means to “embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life...given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.

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