18 August 2007

An evening of renewal

Last night I celebrated Mass for the De Colores movement as they commissioned the lay directors for the coming year.

When I was invited to be the presiding celebrant for the Mass I was told that they hoped the evening would also a be a time for renewal and asked me to preach more than I usually do. I was, of course, happy to oblige :) What follows is, more or less, what I said last night.

As we gather this evening to commission the lay directors of the upcoming weekends and to pause for a bit of renewal for each of us, we might well ask what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. We speak of it often, but what is a disciple? What does a disciple do?

First and foremost, a disciple is a student, a learner, but not simply so in the modern sense. For us, a student goes to class, listens to the teacher and learns from him, and then returns home. Not so with a disciple. A disciple stays with his teacher and learns all manner of things from him and become more and more like him.

This evening, I want to propose Saint Clare of Assisi to you as a model disciple for our imitation so that we might grow closer to Jesus Christ through her spiritual wisdome.

Saint Clare of Assisi maintained deep friendships with a great many people throughout her life, most notably with her spiritual brother, Saint Francis of Assisi. Among those with whom she maintained such a strong and spiritual friendship – although the two likely never did meet – is Blessed Agnes of Prague.

Agnes was born in 1203 to the king of Hungary. She was betrothed when she was only three years old, but Boleslaus – whom she was to wed – died soon after their betrothal. The Emperor Frederick II then attempted to secure her hand in marriage, but his advances failed because Agnes found another love.

When Agnes was nineteen years old a group of Franciscans came to Prague preaching the Gospel. Their words and example must have made a profound impact on the young noblewoman for she soon saw to the construction of a church, a friary, and a hospital, all dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi.

In fact, their preaching left such a strong imprint upon her soul that just two years later, in 1234, Agnes consecrated her life to God and entered a monastery where she then began her correspondence with St. Clare, whose example she so dearly desired to follow. After some fifty-four years as a vowed religious, Agnes died in 1282 and was beatified in 1874.

St. Clare rejoiced to hear of Agnes’ entrance into the monastery. She wrote to Agnes,
You, more than others, could have enjoyed the magnificence and honor and dignity of the world, and could have been married to the illustrious Caesar with splendor befitting You and His Excellency, [but] You have rejected all these things and have chosen with Your whole heart and soul a life of holy poverty and destitution. Thus You took a spouse of a more noble lineage, Who will keep Your virginity ever unspotted and unsullied, the Lord Jesus Christ.[1]
I do not wish to focus today upon Blessed Agnes of Prague or on Saint Clare of Assisi as great and holy virgins or as vowed paupers – although I very easily could; rather, I wish to propose these two holy and dedicated women to you as lovers of the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, both of whom we can follow and imitate for they both can say, as did Saint Paul, “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ” (I Corinthians 11:1).

In her second letter to Blessed Agnes, Saint Clare offers to her this profound and holy counsel, this spiritual advice that we would each do well to follow because in doing so we would all be drawn into greater conformity with Christ. She admonishes us:

Look upon him who became contemptible for you, and follow Him, making yourself contemptible in the world for Him. Your Spouse, though more beautiful than the children of men (Psalm 44:3), became, for your salvation, the lowest of men, despised, struck, scourged untold times throughout His whole body, and then died amid the sufferings of the Cross. O most noble Queen, gaze upon [Him], consider [Him], contemplate [Him], as you desire to imitate [Him].[2]

In these beautiful words, Saint Clare proposes a four-fold way to follow after Christ Jesus: to gaze upon him, to consider him, to contemplate him, and, lastly, to imitate him. We know that the ultimate aim of the Christian life is to imitate the Savior. Saint Clare tells us we will imitate him if we seriously and prayerfully gaze upon him, consider him, and contemplate him.

The Gaze of Love

A most fitting way to gaze upon Christ is to gaze, of course, upon a crucifix. For Clare and her sisters the crucifix of choice would certainly have been the crucifix of San Damiano, through which Christ Jesus spoke to Saint Francis of Assisi telling him to rebuild his Church. It is a depiction flooded with imagery and packed with meaning.

Gazing upon the body of Christ in this crucifix we see both the sufferings of Christ in the nail marks in his hands and feet, as well as in the blood, which flows out from these wounds. We see also the Centurion, Longinus, holding his lance, which will pierce the side of the Savior from whose side blood and water will flow, symbolizing the Church and the Sacraments, both of which come from the side of Christ himself.

We see also Mary and John and the other women standing at the foot of the cross, as it were, gazing upon the crucified body of the one they love so dearly. We place ourselves with them, uniting ourselves with the suffering of the Redeemer.

As we look upon the face of Christ, though, we see something that is perhaps unexpected. His face bears no sign of suffering, nor does it bear signs of torment or pain. We do not see the agony of abandonment or the loss of hope. Rather, we see Jesus gazing out quite serenely and lovingly, for he knows that death is not the end; he knows the Resurrection is close at hand. In fact, the face of Jesus on the original crucifix extended out from the main part of the crucifix so as to gaze down upon those who knelt before it in prayer.

This is how we gaze upon our Lord: humbly and upon our knees, gazing up at his body, bruised and broken for us, lifted high upon the Cross for the redemption and salvation of the entire world. As we gaze upon his body we then come to the next step to following Jesus: we move from gazing upon him – from simply looking at him from a distance – to considering him upon the Cross.

Consider the Cross

As we consider the cross we come to see the great love of God for his people because we come to ask the question, “Why is this man hanging on the Cross? What did he do to deserve such a harsh and gruesome punishment and execution?” The only answer to this question is that he loved, he loved like no man or woman has ever loved before and he loved like no man or woman will ever love again.

His love led him to search out the lost sheep who had wandered away from the safety of the fold. Reflecting on this dimension of his love, Pope Benedict XVI said,

The human race - every one of us - is the sheep lost in the desert which no longer knows the way. The Son of God will not let this happen; he cannot abandon humanity in so wretched a condition. He leaps to his feet and abandons the glory of heaven, in order to go in search of the sheep and pursue it, all the way to the Cross. He takes it upon his shoulders and carries our humanity; he carries us all - he is the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.[3]

His love led him, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, to humble himself and take upon himself our mortal, human nature. His love led him to unite himself fully with us for our salvation.

At the same time, we hear the Lord Jesus say to each of us, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). He says, also, “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

After considering the Son of God upon the Cross we come to understand the reason he hangs on the Cross: it is because of love, and the fact that not all people could bring themselves to accept his love. Having understood this we come to begin to experience the deep love that is displayed for us upon the Cross. The fire of his love is kindled within us and we come to contemplate the Crucified Lord.

Contemplate the Crucified

When we contemplate the Crucified Christ, gazing upon his Cross and considering his purpose, we will – if we open ourselves and allow it – be overcome with the power of his love. We will be moved by the great gift that he gives to us, a gift that we do not deserve and a gift that we cannot fully return.

Indeed, as we contemplate the moving wounds of the Savior we come to see his beauty, a beauty that cannot be disguised or hidden by the horror of his bloodied body. Says St. Clare to Blessed Agnes, “His beauty the sun and moon admire; and of His gifts there is no limit in abundance, preciousness, and magnitude.”[4] For those who see with the eyes of faith, there can be no more beautiful sight than the Crucified Lord, for faith sees the full reality of the gift that is offered on the wood of the Cross. Faith looks beyond the unsightly exterior and sees there the love that created and redeemed all things.

When we contemplate the Cross of our Lord we come to realize that we should be hanging on that Cross in his place, for “he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed. We had all gone astray like sheep, each following his own way; but the LORD laid upon him the guilt of us all” (Isaiah 54:5-6). Some may suggest that this contemplation of the Cross, of the Crucified Savior, might lead to a sort of depression, that it is a pessimistic behavior that ignores the reality of the Resurrection, but not for Saint Clare and not for Blessed Agnes.

Saint Clare quite beautifully described the emotions of the one who contemplates the Cross each day, saying,

Happy, indeed is she to whom it is given to share this sacred banquet, to cling with all her heart to Him
Whose beauty all the heavenly hosts admire unceasingly,
Whose love inflames our love,
Whose contemplation is our refreshment,
Whose graciousness is our joy,
Whose gentleness fills us to overflowing,
Whose remembrance brings a gentle light,
Whose fragrance will revive the dead,
Whose glorious vision will be the happiness of all the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem.”[5]
Giving serious and prayerful contemplation to the suffering and death of the One who died for us lifts our hearts from the suffering of this world and into the peace of heaven. This happens because, as Pope Benedict XVI says,

By contemplating the pierced side of Christ, we can understand [that] “God is love” (I John 4:8). It is there that this truth can be contemplated. It is from there that our definition of love must begin. In this contemplation the Christian discovers the path along which life and love must move.[6]
Here, then, upon the Cross we see a sort of mirror. Saint Clare urges Blessed Agnes to look into this mirror daily “and continually study your face within it, so that you may adorn yourself within and without with beautiful robes and cover yourself with the flowers and garments of all virtues.”[7] Saint Clare can say this because when we gaze upon the Cross, when we consider it and when we contemplate it, we see the image of all virtue; here, on the wood of the Cross, is displayed the perfect model for us to follow (cf. John 13:15). Saint Clare further urges Blessed Agnes:

Then, in the depths of this same mirror, contemplate the ineffable charity which led Him to suffer on the wood of the Cross and die thereon the most shameful kind of death. Therefore, that Mirror, suspended on the wood of the Cross, urged those who passed by to consider, saying: ‘All you who pass by the way, look and see if there is any suffering like My suffering!’ (Lamentations 1:12).[8]

The more that we contemplate his pierced side the more we hear the Lord call to us, saying, “Behold, I stand at the door at knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, [then] I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20).

We will come to realize quite profoundly that the Lord God himself wishes to dwell within us. He wants to live within us who have sinned against him and who he has redeemed by the price of his own blood. He calls us to himself that we might be united with him, for as Saint Clare reminds us, “the heavens with the rest of creation cannot contain their Creator. Only the faithful soul is His dwelling place and [His] throne, and this [is possible] only through the charity which the wicked do not have.”[9] Jesus himself exhorts us, “Remain in me, as I remain in you” (John 15:4). And so, we come to her final admonition: to imitate Christ Jesus.

As we contemplate Christ we come to experience his love, we come to experience him and we are given peace, for as Saint Clare said, our contemplation of Christ Jesus “is our refreshment.”[10] It is here at the Cross that we come to realize, as our Holy Father reminds us in his Encyclical Letter, that “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”[11] This new horizon and decisive direction is the imitation of Christ Jesus the Lord.

The Imitation of Christ

Saint Clare urges Blessed Agnes, and each of us who seek to be disciples of Jesus Christ:

O dearest one, look up to heaven, which calls us on, and take up the Cross and follow Christ Who has gone on before us: for through Him we shall enter into His glory after many and diverse tribulations. Love God from the depths of your heart and Jesus, His Son, Who was crucified for us sinners. Never let the thought of Him leaven your mind but meditate constantly on the mysteries of the Cross and the anguish of His mother as she stood beneath the Cross.[12]
Once we have gazed upon the Crucifix, once we have considered why Our Lord hangs on the wood of the tree, once we have contemplated him who “first loved us,” (I John 4:10) we can began to imitate the “Master and Teacher” (John 13:14). Amen.

[1] The First Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague, 5-7.
[2] The Second Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague, 19-20.
[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Inaugural Homily, 24 April 2005.
[4] The Third Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague, 16.
[5] The Fourth Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague, 9-13.
[6] Pope Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, 12.
[7] The Fourth Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague, 14.
[8] The Fourth Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague, 23-25.
[9] The Third Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague, 22.
[10] The Fourth Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague, 11.
[11] Pope Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, 1.
[12] Letter to Ermentrude of Bruges, 9-12.

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