The daily Mass readings for Eastertime, from the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of John, are so different in tone. The Acts of the Apostles is a fast-moving account of a developing church spreading rapidly through the world through people like Paul of Tarsus and his companions. Blazing new trails and visiting new places, they’d be frequent flyers today, always on the go.
The supper-room discourse of Jesus from the Gospel of John, on the other hand, seem to move slowly, repeating, lingering over the words of Jesus to his disciples. Listen, be quiet, sit still, they say. Don’t go anywhere at all.
St. Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists, was inspired by St. Paul, the Apostle, to preach and to teach. Many of his letters end telling readers he has to go, he’s off to preach somewhere. He was a “frequent flyer.”
But the Gospel of John also inspired him; it was the basis for his teaching on prayer. Keep in God’s presence, in pure faith, he often said. Enter that inner room and remain there. Don’t go anywhere.
“It’s not important for you to feel the Divine Presence, but very important to continue in pure faith, without comfort, loving God who satisfies our longings. Remain like a child resting on the bosom of God in faithful silence and holy love. Remain there in the higher part of your soul paying no attention to the noise of the enemy outside. Stay in that room with your Divine Spouse…Be what Saint John Chrysostom says to be: silent clay offered to the potter. Give yourself to your Maker. What a beautiful saying! What the clay gives to the potter, give to your Creator. The clay is silent; the potter does with it what he wills. If he breaks it or throws away, it is silent and content, because it knows it’s in the king’s royal gallery.” (Letter 1515)
The Passionists celebrate two feasts immediately before Ash Wednesday. Last Friday it was the Solemn Commemoration of the Passion of Jesus Christ. On the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the Prayer of Jesus in the Garden.
My intuition is that both feasts come from our missionary founder, St. Paul of the Cross, who spent lent for many years preaching in the villages and towns of the Tuscan Maremma, announcing the graces the lenten season promises.
It was a challenge. The Tuscan Maremma was a place where grace and good news seemed gone. An area in Central Italy facing the Mediterranean Sea of almost 2,000 square miles– roughly the size of Long Island and New York City together– it was the poorest, most troubled part of Italy in Paul’s day. Only gradually, towards the end of the 1700s, after his death, did it begin inching towards recovery.
The Tuscan Maremma is now a popular tourist destination; then it was an unhealthily mix of hills and swamplands. Malaria was widespread, roads were often impassible, dangerous because of bandits. Farmlands were abandoned; beggars were everywhere. The population in isolated villages and hill towns suspected outsiders.
Paul and his companions preached there for many years. Every year it was the same; it never seemed to change. You need other eyes and another kind of heart to work in a world like that and not get tired.
And so as they packed their bags for their lenten journey into the Tuscan Maremma they had to remind themselves what was there before them: the mystery of the Passion of Christ. They needed to pray so they wouldn’t forget. That’s what Jesus did before the mystery of his Passion.
It’s still so today. These are two feasts for tired missionaries.
“Then going out Jesus went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. When he arrived at the place he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not undergo the test.”
The Passionists remember The Prayer of Our Lord in the Garden in their liturgical calendar on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Lent is a time for prayer. At this time, St. Paul of the Cross and other Passionist missionaries prepared for their ministry in the lenten season. Leaving their “retreats” they went out to awaken “those who sit in darkness…through the trumpet of God’s word.”
That can’t be done without prayer.
On the Mount of Olives Jesus prayed in the Garden before his arrest and crucifixion, while his disciples slept a short distance away. The executioners had not yet come, no scourging, no thorns, no nails had touched him, but here in the dark, Jesus faced death..
He saw before him the awful death by crucifixion, which a criminal faced. The Romans used that kind of death to frighten and keep order. They crucified their victims openly outside the city gate, a place chosen for all to see.
Jesus faced death in other forms too. There was the question the prophets faced: “Have I toiled in vain?” The sleeping disciples nearby, the towns that forgot his healing and teaching, the powerful enemies who rejected him. “Have I toiled in vain? Have I failed, have I accomplished anything ?”
Jesus does not pray in many words. He prays to God who cares for him–“Father, let this cup pass from me, but not my will but yours be done.” He gives himself into God’’s hands.
His fears are real, so real that “his sweat becomes like blood falling to the ground.” St. Vincent Strambi says Jesus’ bloody sweat is “the voice of his heart, proclaiming his great love and sorrow.”
“An angel came to strengthen him.” God hears and cares for and strengthens those who pray. “Pray, persevere in prayer.”
Light and darkness. They’re important in the Genesis story. They’re also important in our morning and evening prayers. The Genesis story offers a pattern for daily prayer.
“God saw light and said it was good.” the Book of Genesis says. God creates light, then sunlight, first. Then, holding this bright lamp, God goes about creating the world day by day in the darkness. Each day ends in darkness, but God goes to work the next day, light in hand, and new things come to be. Like us, God works day by day.
“Send forth your light and your truth, let these be my guide.” The morning psalms each day repeatedly ask for light to continue God’s work.
“Your word is a lamp for my steps, a light for my path.” The evening psalms prepare us for the darkness of night, when we rest. But God’s work will go on. Night for us is a time for trust and leaving the world in God’s hands. “Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace, As a child in its mother’s arms. even so my soul.” (Psalm 131, Tues.3)
Before television and radio and the complex scientific weather reports we get now, I think we looked out the window more to see the dawn, the dusk, the light and darkness. Should we stop looking out the window?
I don’t think so. Maybe we should look out the window more each morning and evening and try to see the light and darkness as the Book of Genesis suggests. We learn from them. God works day by day. So, “What am I going to do today?” Whatever we do, we should do it thankfully, by the light of God’s grace.
And don’t forget how the days of Genesis end. God rests and says it’s good. Something of God’s rest and appreciation, praise and thanksgiving, should be in us as we go through our days of creation.
In the New Testament, Jesus Christ, the Word of God, is called “the true light that enlightens everyone who comes into this world.”
The everyday sun promises the Sun that enlightens everyone.
To your eyes a thousand years are like yesterday, come and gone, no more than a watch in the night.
.One good olive.
There are so many factors.
The altitude. The light. The soil. The temperature. The rainfall. The wind. The dew point and humidity. The age of the tree.
Then there are those factors that we can control: pruning, watering, fertilizing, fanning, netting, and wrapping chilly trees with burlap or fleece.
And of course there are those other factors, those that fall somewhere in-between, between our control and our complete lack thereof: most of these relate to the sneaky work of numerous little thieves—animals, birds, insects, and perhaps even fellow farmers or other hungry travelers who just happen to pass by.
But when all is said and done—when all the factors are poured into the olive equation, mixed-up well, and left to unify or settle out—the fruit that’s produced by the world’s most nostalgic, symbolic, and romantic of trees means very little (at least in digestive terms) if it’s simply left to shrivel up and fall to the ground.
Picking an olive is perhaps the highest part of the art.
When to do so? And toward what end?
If too early, great potential is squandered.
If too late, great taste is lost.
If indecisive, we might as well let nature enjoy it for the time being—for one way or another—God’s process will eventually return it to the earth.
And yet, we’re still not done, for even if the olive is picked at just the right time, from just the right tree—the one that has grown in all the right circumstances—when it comes to the culmination of olive production, all is moot if the precious fruit of the womb is never squeezed.
For no matter how good the olive, without applied pressure, there’s nothing left to be labeled “pure extra virgin”.
.But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a women…
(Note: This post was originally published on December 24, 2011.)
We have not put up a tree in years.
For nearly a decade we have been moving—no longer than two years in any one house and no less than ten different not-so-humble abodes. Between and during the moves we were very much engaged with the world. A seemingly endless movable beast.
This December marks one year in our current house. I am happy to say it is our home. The Lord has blessed us with great peace. And with that peace comes a tree. A simple, well-shaped tree. Fittingly, a dear friend offered it to us as a gift.
Francesca could not be more ready to be initiated into the act of trimming. Before the tree arrived, her two-year-old fingers pointed out every tree, artificial or real, that graced the pages of a holiday flyer or the commercial floor of a Rite Aid or Dollar Store.
Up the stairs came the evergreen, into the old stand that has been in storage since my father last used it several decades ago. I cut off the mesh and out popped the branches.
We hung the lights and old glass ornaments that my mother-in-law washed a few days before.
The main attraction for Francesca was the Nativity.
Not since St. Francis of Assisi assembled the first Nativity in Greccio in 1223, has there been such admiration for each and every witness who Our Lord assembled to adore His Son that first Christmas two millennia ago. Francesca kissed and hugged every shepherd, sheep, donkey, angel, and king. Most of all she adored the Holy family, calling Mary and Joseph, Ma-ma and Da-da, respectively. And Jesus, He was simply called: “ba-be.”
She carried them around the apartment. I did not want to ruin her fun, but they are ceramic. I explained a few times to be very careful.
“Gentle, Francesca…gentle…”, I harked a host of times.
Boom. To the wood floor went the shepherd. Amazing, grace held him intact. I took that as a great sign to put an end to her carrying the animals, angels and representatives of mankind.
I was fixing my coffee when I turned to see Francesca with Baby Jesus in her tiny hands. But He is so small, so tiny, what harm could come from holding Him? So I let her get away with carrying the Savior.
As I stirred my spoon Christ crashed to the floor, the tile floor. Francesca immediately looked at me, as if expecting all hell to break loose. I think I sighed but that was about all. It is Christmas, right? And it is, after all, only a ceramic figure purchased at Target.
After assuring Francesca not to worry and guiding her toward a few coloring books in the living room, I bent down to retrieve the broken Christ.
St. Francis was told by a Crucifix in an old abandoned chapel: “Restore my Church.”
In my small one-bedroom apartment, I found Baby Christ, broken into exactly three: The Head, the Torso, and the Crossed Legs.
“Restore the Trinity,” was spoken to me.
For half of my forty years I can honestly say I have tried to pursue Truth, wherever it lie. In philosophy, in scripture, in literature, in art, in nature, in history…
Now, the entire Gospel of Christ lie naked on my kitchen floor.
We separate, we distinguish, we categorize, we breakdown. The Fall of Adam was a fall into denomination.
Christ’s body is One. His Church cannot be broken. Only mere men can get things so wrong.
I think of the great “Angelic Doctor” of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, who after spending a lifetime in unparalleled pursuit of human understanding, said after glimpsing a vision of what Our Lord has in store for those who love God:
“All that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me.”
Yes… “straw”…my brother Thomas…merely straw. Straw that lines the manger within which Our Savior is laid bare.
It is tradition to leave the crib empty until Christmas morning. Only then do we place the figurative baby Jesus into the scene, after all until that moment he was not yet brought forth from Mother Mary’s womb.
This Christmas morning I will glue together a Broken Baby Christ. The Head, the Torso, and the Crossed Legs will again be One.
Like the world after the birth of Christ, I will never be the same.
For what has now been revealed to me, no fall can break apart.
Howard Hain is a contemplative layman, husband, and father. He blogs at http://www.howardhain.com