Heaven and earth are full of your glory

imagesThe glory of God might seem an odd topic for reflection during Lent. After all, we omit the Gloria at Mass, and we direct our attention to the Lord’s temptation and his passion. But the Sanctus reminds us, week by week—even during Lent—that ‘heaven and earth are full of [God’s] glory’. We don’t always recognize that glory: it is hidden. As John’s gospel tells us: ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father’ (1.14). Jesus makes God known to us; all the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell—hidden—in Christ. Peter, James and John glimpsed that glory at the transfiguration of the Lord. They learned to see in Jesus, even after his brightness subsided, the radiance of divine glory. So also we learn to see the world differently as the eyes of our hearts are trained by faith: to see Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, for example; or to see his face in the faces of the poor and the marginalized.

Learning to see in this way does not give way to full vision, however. The mystery of God’s presence in the world is like the mystery of the Incarnation itself. How does God become human without eliminating or overriding the human? The Old Testament reading from the third Sunday in Lent gives us a way in to contemplating the mystery: Moses encounters a bush that burns, but is not consumed. So also God’s presence with us and in us throughout creation enlivens and enlightens us, but does not consume us. Only that which is incompatible with God’s presence (that is, sin) cannot survive the coming of the Lord. The flame of God’s holiness burns in us—as in the burning bush—but all it consumes is sin.

As we sing ‘pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua’ (‘heaven and earth are full of your glory’), let’s remember that ‘caeli et terra’ includes us. We strive for holiness in the hope that the glory of God may one day be revealed in us as well.

why God can do that with stuff–a postscript

The day after my Corpus Christi post I was thinking about ‘stuff’. It’s not exactly a technical term, is it? But it serves an important function in the account of sacraments I was sketching there. God can do that with stuff–change it completely without making it appear as anything other than what it was before–because God is already sustaining everything that is. I realized this morning how much I owe my understanding of sacraments and sanctification to John McDade’s essay on the incarnation. He borrows Peter Geach’s phrase to describe the presence of God in the world: ‘God sustains the world as a singer sustains his song.’ Thanks also to McDade (and to his reading of Aquinas) I think about sacraments and sanctification together with the incarnation and transfiguration. God has a way with creatures that allows them to be creatures, and yet to be wholly alive only as God’s creatures.

If God is already so intimately present to us, already keeping us in being from moment to moment, it doesn’t make much sense to think of ourselves as somehow competing with God for ‘control’ of our lives. The breath of God enlivens us, makes us who we are. I am who I am because of the mysterious interaction of God’s life and the human being–body and soul–who appears and thinks and speaks in the world. God transforms me–just like the Eucharistic elements–without violence.

I thought about this all in a different way as I read the account of Transfiguration that JK Rowling gives in the first Harry Potter book. (I admit to being a decade and a half behind with this. I am a loyal citizen of Narnia, and somehow it felt like treason. Now, I have to attend to the world of Harry Potter because of my children.) Hermione remarks that she’s looking forward to Transfiguration, which she glosses as (something like) how to turn something into something else. No, I thought (I might even have said it out loud…) that’s not really what transfiguration is, at least not as I remember and celebrate it on the 6th of August. That’s not why it is my favourite of the Luminous mysteries. And it isn’t why I connect transfiguration with holiness and the sacraments. When Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, his disciples see him as Jesus. The point is not that he’s suddenly something other than what he was before; rather, his identity becomes clearer to them as a result of his being temporarily, blindingly bright. So, I think, it is with us as God transforms us into the image of Christ. Our identity in God becomes clearer, even as we remain recognisably ourselves.

I’m told that Rowling’s account of Transfiguration becomes more nuanced as the series goes on. Guess I’ll  just have to keep reading.

Corpus Christi

Or, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ–the day we give thanks particularly for the gift of the Eucharist. Of course I don't give homilies, but that doesn't mean I don't ever think about what I might say. I know what I would have said today. So if the kids had asked what it was all about…
When I teach on the sacraments, I always talk about the stuff–the water, the bread, the wine. We have the necessary recitation of the standard definition–'a visible sign of an invisible grace'. The great thing about the stuff is that it still looks and feels and seems in every way just like the same old stuff that it was before the priest or bishop blessed it. So the bread and wine still look and taste like bread and wine.
Now, you might say (especially if you happened to be my son Thomas, who thinks about these things) that it would be better if something visible and tangible changed about the bread and wine. Then you'd be certain that something had really happened. If it is different, maybe it should seem different.
Maybe. But maybe not. Because the stuff God uses to apply grace to our mortal bodies is just like those bodies: ordinary, created, material. When we're baptised, we don't look different. We don't look different after confirmation. We can look in the mirror before going to confession and after doing penance, and we won't look different (at least not so very different). And this, I think is a good thing. The bread and wine retain their basic qualities, and, to all our senses, are still bread and wine. God can make these simple things instruments of an incredibly powerful grace, so very, very gently that we cannot detect any difference.
So also, I think, with us. God can fill us completely with that grace, and transform us by the power of the Holy Spirit, so gently that we look in the mirror and see the same person we saw yesterday. Not only that, but somehow all the grace-inspired things we do are still ours. We are still the ones loving, believing, hoping, caring, praying…and at the same time it is the Holy Spirit's indwelling that moves us. Living by grace isn't an either-or kind of life. It isn't that I become less myself as I decrease so that Christ's life can increase in me. No: my 'self' is even more 'me' as I become more fully Christ-like. Because God can do that with stuff. If the Holy Spirit can do that with bread and wine and water, I can hope that the same Spirit can do that same sort of thing with me.
'Now it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me'–may it be so.

with angels and archangels

We never had a plan for taking the children to Mass, beyond taking them to Mass. I've read the strategies of really organized parents, in awe of their attention to detail and advance preparation. I am not that organized, and I take full responsibility for that. If walking around outside with the toddler is what it takes, then that's what we do. And we have had some pretty unpleasant moments with the children during Mass.
I remember going to church with my mom when I was a child. We always sat in the front row (effective, I think–at least there you're bound to notice something, as my kids sometimes do). She gave me lifesavers, tropical fruit flavor, which were really quite effective. (Banana and coconut were my favorite.) My kids don't particularly like sweets (which is otherwise great), so that's not really an option for me.
As they get older, the still-and-quiet routine gets easier. Getting them really to attend to what's happening, though–that's another story. One Sunday recently Iain (just before he turned 7) dug my iPhone out of my bag and started playing can knockdown during the liturgy of the Eucharist. However displeased I was, I wasn't willing to incite loud and angry protest in the front row. So he might have looked like he was kneeling piously….but no.
That's not to say I don't have certain hard-and-fast rules. Everyone stands and says the Our Father. And that makes me happy. (Honestly, it does.) I am always trying to strike a balance: on the one hand, I want the children to begin to grasp the significance of what's happening; on the other hand, I don't want to make the experience of going to Mass into an hour-long prison sentence every Sunday. And I find myself holding in tension the need to express my own spirituality by engaging with the Mass, and the need to attend to the children, who are engaging on a very different level.
Sometimes I fail. (Shocking, I know.) But those moment are the moments when I am most grateful for the liturgy of the Catholic Church. Last Sunday, between policing Iain on the iPhone and discouraging Anna from trying to engage the kids behind us in conversation, I completely lost track of where we were…until suddenly my attention was grabbed again, just in time to join in the Sanctus: '…with angels and archangels…'
Joining in. That's what it is about. It is about taking part in the ongoing praise of God that happens in eternity, for eternity. Not about perfectly behaved children, or about the quality of my singing (I'm terrible). I think some weeks I depend completely on the angels and archangels to glorify God, as I am working to keep my children from storming the sanctuary. 'Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church…' indeed: the faith of the Church, like the liturgy, does not depend on me. It is. However focused or distracted I am, the worship happens, the Mass happens. Knowing that is incredibly humbling as it is freeing.
In his 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei, Pope Pius XII wrote:
Jesus Christ burned with zeal for the divine glory; and the offering of His blood upon the cross rose to heaven in an odor of sweetness. To perpetuate this praise, the members of the Mystical Body are united with their divine Head in the Eucharistic sacrifice, and with Him, together with Angels and Archangels, they sing immortal praise to God and give all honor and glory to the Father Almighty (71).
'Zeal for the divine glory' seems pretty far from many of my Sunday experiences. If I am burning with anything, it is probably way less holy than that. But I know that's what it is about: participating in the self-offering of the Son to the Father, in the Holy Spirit. All we do is respond to the love of God as it comes to us through Jesus. And even our response is helped by the Spirit (my attention just happened to be drawn back to the liturgy at the Sanctus…).
Deo gratias.