Sunday, December 6, 2020

The End Is In The Beginning

Today we begin the Gospel of Mark, which we will follow throughout the coming liturgical year. It opens with: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”

As we know, the first line of Mark serves as a title for his whole Gospel. From the first Mark lets us, his readers, in on his secret: Jesus, meaning the Lord saves, is the Christ, the anointed one, the fulfillment of the hope of Israel, the long-awaited Messiah.  And he is Son of God. Mark will unfold for us what this last title means gradually, as we follow along with him through the course of his narrative. Mark’s end is in his beginning and his beginning is in his end. Jesus Christ, the Son of God. On our part, the beginning and end is faith.

We’ve all already heard Mark’s story countless times. From the beginning we can respond to Jesus’ question to his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” with the same answer as Peter: “You are the Christ.” And with the centurion under the Cross, we can say, “Truly, this man was the Son of God!” Yet, at the same time, we take up this Gospel as ourselves beginners, aware that whatever our level of knowledge may be, it is only the entry point into an ever-greater mystery, which we have only begun to grasp, whose depths are inexhaustible and will always lie beyond our capacity to penetrate. We also recognize that however much good God has done in our lives, we remain sinners very much in need of redemption, who long to see his promises fulfilled in ourselves, in our community, and our world. At the same time, we come as men who love God, who desire not just to know who the Lord is, but to have an encounter, ultimately, to see his face.

Mark wastes no time in showing us the starting point, which is: heed the voice of the one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” John the Baptist makes this preparation concrete: those who wish to be ready for the Lord’s coming must undergo a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Again, the end is in the beginning and the beginning is in the end. Our life in the Church begins with baptism for the forgiveness of sin and at the end of our journey she sends us off with repentance for the forgiveness of sins. At no time do we ever cease to heed the call to prepare the way of the Lord and make straight his paths. As we move through Mark’s Gospel this coming year, we will need to keep this word present to us, if our journey is to bear fruit.

This presupposes that we carry with us an awareness of the need for the forgiveness of sins, which calls for a certain level of self-knowledge. Which brings us to a spiritual theme very dear to our Cistercian tradition: if we are to know God and see his face, we must first look within, return to our hearts, and let ourselves be drawn by the Spirit to God along the path of self-knowledge.

I thought that along with John the Baptist pointing out the way, it might be helpful to look at this path from self-knowledge to knowledge of God taking St. Bernard as our guide. This a rich and fairly comprehensive theme in Bernard, so I decided to focus on Sermon 36 of his commentary on the Song of Songs. There Bernard says,

“I wish that before everything else a man should know himself.” For two reasons: one, because of its “usefulness” to us, and two, because “right order” demands it.  “Right order” because our first concern ought to be “what we are”. Self-knowledge is ‘useful’ to us because progress on the road of knowledge of “what we are” leads to ‘humility’, and as we grow in humility, we shed our sense of ‘self-importance’. These two, knowledge of “what we are” and “humility” provide the basis on which to build. “For, unless there is a durable foundation of humility, the spiritual edifice has no hope of standing.”

Behind this statement lie two scripture quotes: the first is from St. Paul: “If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw…” and so forth. “This foundation” is Jesus Christ, as Paul declared in the previous verse: “For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. It is the humble man who gets this. Jesus Christ and humility are the durable foundation on which his spiritual edifice may be built. The self-important man, on the contrary, has laid his own foundation, which is himself. It is impossible to begin on a foundation other than Jesus Christ and humility and arrive at the goal, which is Jesus Christ reigning in the humble soul. The second scriptural quote comes from Mark: “if a house is divided against itself, it cannot stand”. The self-important man is a ‘divided house’; in this house, Christ is not the all-important one, rather the self-important self vies with Christ for dominion. Only in the humble soul is Christ able to take up his rightful place of honor and reign in peace.

Again, the end is in the beginning and the beginning is in the end. As Paul goes on to say, on the final “Day the work of each will come to light 14 If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. 15 But if someone's work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.”

Bernard continues, “And there is nothing more effective, more adapted to the acquiring of humility than to find out the truth about oneself. There must be no dissimulation, no attempt at self-deception, but facing up to one’s real self without flinching and without turning aside.” If God is to act, he needs this clarity from us; he needs us to engage in the sincere search of the truth about ourselves.

Bernard goes on to say that when we do dare to take stock of ourselves in the clear light of truth, we discover that we have forfeited our original likeness to God. We discover that we live rather in a region of unlikeness, a regio dissimilitudinis. Seeing ourselves in this clear light we “groan from the depths of a misery to which we can no longer remain blind”. From this depth we are driven to cry out to the Lord like the Psalmist: “In your truth, you have humbled me”.

“How, says Bernard, can he escape being genuinely humbled on acquiring this true self-knowledge, on seeing the burden of sin that he carries.” Behind this statement, lies the verse from 2 Timothy: “For some of these corrupt men who will appear in the last days slip into homes and make captives of women weighed down by sins, led by various desires…” and so on, The humble man, seeing his own burden of sin knows that he is no different than these women. He is aware of the oppressive weight of his mortal body, the corrupting influence of sensual desires; he sees his blindness, his worldliness, his weakness, his embroilment in repeated errors…that he is one to whom vice is welcome, virtue repugnant, and so on. For Bernard, then, these women would represent the fallen state of humanity without the grace of Christ.

“As for me, Bernard says, as long as I look at myself, my eye is filled with bitterness (Job 17:2). But if I look up and fix my eyes on the aid of the divine mercy, this happy vision of God soon tempers the bitter vision of myself, and I say to him: ‘I am disturbed within so I will call you to mind from the land of the Jordan.’”

Bernard continues, “This vision of God is no little thing. It reveals him to us as listening compassionately to our prayers, as truly kind and merciful, as one who will not indulge his resentment. His very nature is to be good, to show mercy always, and to spare. By this kind of experience, and in this way, God makes himself known to us for our good. When a man first discovers that he is in difficulties, he will cry out to the Lord who will hear him and say: ‘I will deliver you and you shall glorify me’. In this way, your knowledge will become visible to you according as his image is being renewed within you And you, gazing confidently on the glory of the Lord with unveiled face, we will be transformed into that same image with ever-increasing brightness, by the work of the Spirit of the Lord.”

In conclusion, when we persist within this rhythm of returning to ourselves and undergoing the inevitable bitterness of self-knowledge that leads to humility and from that position, looking up, call out to God as our only aid, experiencing his compassionate listening, kindness , and mercy, we will find real and substantial changes occurring in our life. Not only changes in behavior, on the moral level, but perhaps more importantly, a new way of regarding ourselves, our brother, and our God; less burdened, less preoccupied, less subject to temptation, discouragement, anger, sorrow, disappointment, and resentment, and the whole gamut of vices and their consequences. Perhaps we will be released from old habits or perhaps they will remain, but their claim on us will not be so relentless and domineering. We will find ourselves more available to others, easier to be around, less quick to judge, quicker to forgive, infused with a light and a joy that we know does not have its source in ourselves but comes from above. All this belongs to the fulfillment of God’s promise to deliver us that we may glorify Him, which is his pleasure. This is the path to gazing on the Lord’s face with our face unveiled, a face that has nothing to hide because everything is already known to both parties, God and ourselves. In this new vision, there is only delight in the mutual gaze.  

Today's homily by Father Timothy.