25 March 2023

Tolkien Reading Day: On Tuor and the sea-longing

Today, being – in addition to many other and more important events – is the anniversary of the destruction of the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom. This makes today Tolkien Reading Day, the theme of which this year is Travel and Adventure.

When this theme was first announced, my thoughts turned first to Tuor and his wanderings to the city of Gondolin. We find his story in Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth and a mention of it in The Silmarillion.

The story of Tuor speaks to me because of the sea-longing that awoke within his heart. In Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, we read Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin:

But now Tuor was dismayed by the fury of the strange waters, and he turned aside and went away southward, and so came not to the long shores of the Firth of Drengist, but wandered still for some days in a rugged country bare of trees; and it was swept by a wind from the sea, and all that grew there, herb or bush, leaned ever to the dawn because of the prevalence of that wind from the West. In this way Tuor passed into the borders of Nevrast, where once Turgon had dwelt; and at last at unawares (for the cliff-tops at the margins of the land were higher than the slopes behind) he came suddenly to the black brink of Middle-earth, and saw the Great Sea, Belegaer the Shoreless. And at that hour the sun went down beyond the rim of the world, as a mighty fire; and Tuor stood alone upon the cliff with outspread arms, and a great yearning filled his heart. It is said that he was the first of Men to reach the Great Sea, and that none, save the Eldar, have ever felt more deeply the longing that it brings (emphasis mine).

Jenny Dolfen, And his heart was filled with longing

If you have ever stood upon a cliff overlooking the sea at the hour of sunset, you know something of that great sea-longing that Tuor felt.

Indeed, the sea-longing never leaves those who first experience it, both in our world as well as in Tolkien’s sub-creation. In The Silmarillion, we are told that in the heart of Earendil, the sun of Tuor and Idril Celebrindal, “the Sea spoke ever in his ear and hart, even as with Tuor his father.”

The sea-longing that awakens also in our hearts is not simply a longing to look upon the depths of the waters. This is why as Tuor “felt old age creep upon him … ever a longing for the deeps of the Sea grew stronger in his heart. Therefore he built a great ship, and he named it Eärrámë, which is Sea-Wing; and with Idril Celebrindal he set sail into the sunset and the West, and came no more into any tale or song” because he set sail to the Undying Lands.

The sea-longing calls us beyond the circles of this world into the mystery of eternity. The vastness of the sea reminds us both of our own littleness and of the immensity of God. Our travelling and adventuring in this world are only a pilgrimage to God. It pertains to us now to abandon ourselves to the sea-longing, to our yearning for God, so that we, too, might set sail at the end of days for the great harbor of heaven.

23 March 2023

Homily on the Stench of Lazarus

The Fifth Sunday of Lent (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, by now there will be a stench” (John 11:39). Her words sound more than a bit blunt to our sensitive ears in an age that attempts to disguise and hide the stark reality of death. Most of the Fathers of the Church read her words in the literal sense of Scripture and noted that they simply confirmed the fact that Lazarus was, indeed, dead - should anyone have any doubt. Saint Augustine of Hippo, however, heard these words in a different sense.  

Detail, Duccio, The Raising of Lazarus

Rather than recognizing in Martha’s words the certainty of a physical death, the Doctor of Grace recognized instead the certainty of a sinful man. “But whoever has become habituated to sin,” he said, “is buried and has it properly said of him, ‘he stinks.’ For his character, like some horrible smell, begins to be of the worst repute.”[1] So it is that we have before us today two stenches, and one is surely worse than the other.

In contrast to the stench of sin, we know that many of the saints had a certain odor of sanctity about them. This was first noticed - so far as we know - with Saint Polycarp, who smelled like frankincense as he was burned alive in the year 155.[2] To be sure, this odor of sanctity can be either physical or symbolic, as when we say of someone, “She had the odor of sanctity about her.” Ideally, though, both the physical and the symbolic would be true or any one of us who claim the name of Christian.

We can be certain that both the stench of sin and the scent of sanctity will be revealed when the voice of the Lord at last resounds, not simply outside of Bethany but throughout the entire cosmos, when he commands: “…come out” (John 11:43)! Yes, we, too, will come out of our tombs and stand before the Lord, or, more properly, fall down before him and worship him (cf. Matthew 2:11, Revelation 19:10).

When he calls us forth, will someone say of me, “By now there will be a stench”? Will someone say of you, “She stinks”? When the Lord Christ summons us from our graves, will we be marked with the stench of sin or with the scent of sanctity? We must ask ourselves, “Of what do I smell today?,” because today may be our last. We cannot know, but that is no reason to remain with a stench.

If we notice someone keeping his or her distance from us, do we not often ask in jest, “What? Do I smell?” If we inquire about our physical odor in these earthly and passing occasions (even as a joke), how much more should we inquire as to the scent of our souls!

It is against the backdrop of this very question that today we pray to the Father, asking that “we [may] walk eagerly in that same charity with which, out of love for the world, your Son handed himself over to death.”[3] When it comes down to it, sin is nothing more than a failure to love authentically and fully, to love God in and through all things and to love our neighbor in and through all things; sin is a lack of charity and those who are without love, those whose souls are stained with sin, stink.

Following this insight of Saint Augustine, it seems the scent of sanctity did not permeate Lazarus’ life, but rather the stench of sin. Perhaps, though, this is putting things too strongly. At the very least, it seems his own sister did not think the scent of sanctity issued forth from him. Yet Jesus nonetheless counted Lazarus among his friends and wept out of love for him (cf. John 11:35). In this, there is hope for us, too, for if Lazarus remained a friend of Jesus despite his sin, we, too, can also remain friends of Jesus!

If we are honest, I daresay we all have about us the stench of sin more often than the scent of sanctity, yet the Lord loves us nonetheless and weeps for us when our sins bury us and we begin to stink. For this reason, we must return frequently to the bath of confession to wash away our stench. Here we arrive at the intersection of these two senses of Martha’s words, because “nothing moves a sinner to amend one’s defects and correct one’s sins as much as the knowledge and memory of death.”[4]

You and I will each die; there is no sense denying it or attempting to hide from it. For the Christian, for the one who has already died with Christ Jesus in the waters of Baptism; for the one who has eaten and drunk the Body and Blood of the Lord; for the one who humbly confesses his sins and receives absolution, there is nothing at all to fear in death. In death, we may close our eyes to this world, but we will open them again to look upon the Face of God who says to us, “O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them” (Ezekiel 37:12).

Duccio, The Raising of Lazarus

Even today, the Lord Jesus calls to us, “Come out! Come out of your selfishness! Come out of your self-absorption! Come out of your sin! Come out of your death and enter into my life!” But, you ask, “Why do I not hear Him calling me?” The answer is simple: You have not quieted yourself or allowed yourself to be still. The Lord calls us in the silence of our hearts, but if we are not still and quiet, so many distractions drown out His voice.

Yes, “The teacher is here and is asking for you” (John 11:28). Will you rise quickly in your heart and go to him (cf. John 11:29)? Will you speak plainly and honestly to him? Will you humble yourself in love before him and allow him to wash away the stench of your sin?

If you do, you will learn that he is indeed the Resurrection and the Life (cf. John 11:25). Today, let us return to the Lord so the stench of our sin be removed from us and changed into the scent of his holiness. Thus, we shall know his “mercy and the fullness of redemption” and our hearts will be finally at rest (Psalm 130:7)! Amen.

[1] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 49.3. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament Vol. IVb: John 11-21. Thomas C. Oden, et al, eds. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2007), 26.

[2] The Martyrdom of Polycarp,15.

[3] Roman Missal, Collect for the Fifth Sunday of Lent.

[4] Saint Bonaventure, Sermon 38: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, 12. In Works of St. Bonaventure, Vol. XII: The Sunday Sermons of St. Bonaventure, Timothy J. Johnson, ed. (Saint Bonaventure, New York: Franciscan Institute Publications, 2008), 416.