If you know anything about me or have followed my journey of faith and walk with Jesus, you will know some of the story of me coming to faith in Jesus, going to seminary, being a Protestant pastor and eventually converting to the Catholic Church.
One of the first things I did on this journey, in a desire to understand what the early Christians thought about Jesus and how they interpreted Holy Scripture and lived out the faith, was to read the earliest Christian sources, other than the Bible, I could find. Those were the extant writings of the men we call the Church Fathers.
There are different eras and groups of the Fathers and I don’t want to get too much into that. But two of the earliest Fathers I spent time with were St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom, along with some random writings of some of the Desert Fathers. St. Athanasius was one of the greatest Fathers and Doctors of the Eastern Church. He was Egyptian, born in Alexandria. His work, On the Incarnation, was my introduction to the Fathers and just completely blew my mind. He is one of my heroes of the faith. He stood for the faith at a time when most of the bishops of the Church had strayed into heresy. St. Athanasius stood firm on the deposit of the faith and on who Christ was. He is, in fact, my confirmation saint.
St. John Chrysostom was another one of the early Fathers I was introduced to; again, one of the Eastern Fathers and perhaps the greatest preacher that has ever lived. He was born in Antioch, Syria and was eventually named as the Archbishop of Constantinople. His preaching was heavily influential in my life and journey into the Catholic Church.
What’s the point, you may ask?
My introduction to Catholicism began in the East. Most of the Fathers I read and studied were Eastern. By the East, I mean primarily the Greek, Antiochan, Alexandrian and Syrian Fathers; St. Irenaeus, St. Polycarp, Origen, St. Basil, St. Hippolytus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Melito and others were among my earliest exposures to the Fathers. I have always had a love for the Eastern Fathers. Early on, I considered the Orthodox Church. Frankly, I ended up not joining them because of their separation from Rome. I wanted to be in communion with the Roman Church.
So, I “swam the Tiber” and joined the Latin Rite Western Church. Early on, I knew that I wanted to be part of the oldest practice of the faith I could find. The Novus Ordo, in my mind, has significant problems and I wanted no part of that. So, I gravitated toward the Latin Mass. It is, after all, THE traditional worship and liturgy of the Western Church. I have written about my experience in the Latin Mass and so won’t belabor the point here. I have fully immersed myself in the Latin Rite, learning Latin and teaching myself to pray in Latin. The experience of stepping into the deep stream of the historic worship of the Latin Church has been very rewarding and deeply humbling.
And yet, I have always been attracted to the East. I lean toward them theologically as well. While I love the deep, contemplative rigor of the Latin Rite, it has always felt…what’s the word…sterile. By that I mean it is very organized and structured and rigid. I’m not saying that is wrong. I love the rigidity of it, actually. By nature and practice I tend to be very disciplined and rigid in my own life so the unchanging nature of the Latin Mass is appealing to me.
I say all of this because I experienced something yesterday that I want to talk a bit about. I was finally able, at the invitation of a dear friend, to attend a Byzantine Catholic Church. For the record, I didn’t know until fairly recently that such a thing existed. I assumed that all the churches in the East were either Orthodox or Roman Catholic. What do they say about assuming….?
Anyways, my buddy and I attended St. Athanasius Byzantine Catholic Church for Divine Liturgy yesterday. How ironic, that the church is named after my confirmation saint…We walked into the church and I knew instantly that this would be unlike anything I had ever experienced. The priest and cantor were praying Matins. Well, I say praying. They were chanting the prayers.
The whole setting literally felt like I had just stepped out of our world and into another realm, another time and place (think about the wardrobe in Narnia). There were dozens upon dozens of beautiful and serene icons all over the church. At the “front” was an iconostasis, a wall with three gates. It was bedecked with icons. The center gate was golden and flowery, with a red curtain drawn behind it. I could hear someone (the priest) behind the wall chanting and singing and I heard bells constantly ringing. Not loud and clanging, but tingling bells almost like sleigh bells constantly ringing. I wondered what was making that noise and didn’t have long to guess. The priest came out from the left side gate and was swinging a censer that was billowing incense. The bells were attached to the censer. It was a melodious and intriguing sound.
A deacon, noticing that we looked a little lost, came over and introduced himself to us. He was most kind and engaging and helpful in explaining some things. He informed us also on the symbolism of all that we were seeing. The icons were representative of the saints and great cloud of witnesses. The iconostasis and the sanctuary behind it symbolically represented heaven and the nave represented earth. Other than that, he said, “I wouldn’t necessarily try to keep up. Just observe. You are all free to receive the Eucharist so long as you are in good standing with the Church, as we are in communion with Rome.”
As the Divine Liturgy began, it was a sensory overload. The icons, the incense, the processions, the chanting and singing back and forth between priest, deacon, cantor and congregation, the bowing, the gates of the sanctuary being opened and closed; it was an entirely immersive experience. It was truly wonderful to be there. It felt exactly as I would imagine it would feel to be immersed in the worship scene around the throne of God in St. John’s Apocalypse. We stood almost the entire liturgy. The priest’s homily was powerful and timely.
It was at once ethereal yet earthly, transcendent yet palpable, symbolically rich yet easily accessible. It really was precisely the opposite experience of a Roman Mass and a remarkable experience of joining with the saints in glory in worship. Where the Roman Mass feels austere and severe (I don’t say that to be critical), the Byzantine Liturgy was rich and stunningly sensory. I found myself, after receiving the Eucharist, to be very emotional.
After the Liturgy, we were invited by the small congregation to have lunch with them. The people were so warm and friendly and welcoming. We will definitely return to that parish soon. I learned something yesterday.
The Church needs the East. She needs the East for the rich diversity and splendor of her Liturgy. She needs the West for the structure and discipline that so characterizes it. The Church, the Body of Christ, needs to breathe with both lungs, East and West.
Let us embrace one another and not be afraid of our differences. They make the Body of Christ rich and deep! Thanks be to God for His grace to us in our diversity!
Have you ever found joy in a strange place or at a strange time? It’s like you are in your darkest hour and suddenly find joy. An example from my life was when my sister died. It was one of, if not the, darkest times in my life. And yet, joy came from and during that dark time. During that time, my relationship with my parents was renewed. Joy in the darkness.
Our readings this week are sort of like that. In the traditional calendar, this Sunday is known as Laetare Sunday. What, you may ask, is that? Laetare Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Lent, takes its name from the Latin word which begins the entrance antiphon (introit) for that day. Laetare means rejoice, and this Sunday is marked by a relaxation of the penitential character of the Lenten season. This is Laetare Sunday when we consider the joy before us of the Easter season, joy in the solemn time of Lent.
Joy is one of those things that gets really misunderstood and is wrongly defined. We tend to think that joy and happiness are the same thing. They are not. Happiness is an emotion, a feeling that all is going well for you. Happiness, in our human experience, is largely tied to stuff; a good job, marriage is good, feeling fine, that sort of thing. Joy, on the other hand, is a much deeper thing. True joy is not based, necessarily, in the emotional realm. Joy is a deep-rooted experience that comes from a settled feeling of contentment and is usually not based on stuff.
Joy is not happiness.
So, even during a penitential season like Lent, even while we meditate on our sinfulness and mortify our flesh and do penance, we can have joy. Our joy, as followers of Christ, comes from something that is outside of us. All the readings from this week resound with this theme of joy, from the Introit to the Gradual, the Epistle and Gospel.
Epistle: Galatians 4:22-31
Gospel: John 6:1-15
Our Epistle text is really interesting as it relates to joy. In fact, you may read it and wonder how it has anything to do with joy. The situation that St. Paul is referring to in this text is found in Genesis 16. I’m not going to go into that but, if you like, you can go back and read it. What St. Paul is talking about here is primarily found in what St. Paul calls the “children of promise.” And what is meant by that?
St. Paul reminds us of the story of Abraham having two sons born to him; one from a slave woman and the other from his wife, Sarah. He says in verse 23 that the son born of the slave was “born according to the flesh” but the son (Isaac) that was born of his wife Sarah was “by promise.” What does that mean? Abraham was promised a son. Through that son all nations would be blessed. But Abraham and Sarah couldn’t wait on that promise. They took matters into their own hands, so to speak, and decided they would preempt the promise of God and have a son by the slave woman.
But God’s purpose was not be denied or thwarted, no matter how much Abraham took matters into his own hands “according to the flesh.” God’s promised son was born despite Sarah’s manipulation and Abraham’s capitulation.
There’s something here for us as well: Let us trust in the promises of God and trust His timing. Taking matters into our own hands mostly leads to disaster and sin. We can always rely on the promises of God.
But, St. Paul tells us that he’s reading this story, also, in an allegorical sense. These two sons are “the two testaments.” One, born of the slave, is born under the law. The other, born under promise, is “free.” And Paul relates this to what he calls “Jerusalem.” In Paul’s treatment of Jerusalem, we see the Church. Look at verse 26. St. Paul tells us,
“But that Jerusalem, which is above, is free: which is our mother.”
He is referring to the Church. The Church is our mother. And we, St. Paul tells us, are the new children of promise. Look at verse 28. The promise of God is salvation by the gift of grace. Isaac did nothing to earn it. He was merely born. So now, the child of promise is one who is born of faith, not of the flesh, as St. Paul tells us.
That is us. We who are of the faith are the children of promise.
In turning to our Gospel, we are tempted to think these two texts have nothing to do with one another. This is the miraculous feeding of “a very great multitude.” How many people exactly that is we do not know. What we do know is there were about 5000 men. That’s men only. Jesus miraculously feeds them by multiplying the loaves and fishes.
What we see here is a pre-figuring of the Eucharist. Jesus is giving a foretaste of what is to come after His ascension. The 1955 St. Andrews Daily Missal tells us that this is the Easter Sacrament, promised to the baptized children of the promise. What joy is ours, that THE Child of the promise, who is Christ the Lord, has become for us the Lamb that was slain on our behalf! But not just slain; risen indeed! This is the Easter promise of the Child.
There is One who, for us and for our sins, would be born. He would be the Child of promise in which Isaac is pre-figured. He would be the Seed that will bless the nations. He would be the Seed of the Woman who will crush the head of the great serpent, our enemy!
Now we, like the Psalmist can say,
“I rejoiced at the things that were said to me: We shall go into the house of the Lord.” (Ps. 121:1)
What joy is ours, we who rejoice in the promise of the Child! He, being the Firstborn of many brethren, has become for us our sacrifice. Now, with great joy, we go to the house of the Lord, to the house of our Father. There, in the Easter Sacrament, in the Eucharist, we may taste the joy of our salvation!
One day….oh, one day, dearly beloved! One day we shall see our Lord Jesus Christ face to face! One day we shall see the Eucharistic Lamb who was slain! One day we shall see the great Child of the promise, our Elder Brother, Jesus! With the Father, in the bosom of Mother Church, He has gone before us and He has won our salvation!
What promise, what joy is ours in Christ our Lord!