Welter and waste and darkness over the deep

Sermon preached in the Carmel Mayerling, Easter Sunday, 2015.

The heathen tribes that lived here in central Europe before the coming of Christianity thought that human life was ultimately doomed. In the end cold and darkness would win. For a time light a space of light and order could be defended against the forces of chaos, the monsters of the dark, but in the end evil would win out. The sun that warms this earth would be eaten by a great wolf. “Then the other wolf shall seize the moon, and he also shall work great ruin; the stars shall vanish from the heavens. Then shall come to pass these tidings also: all the earth shall tremble so, and the crags, that trees shall be torn up from the earth, and the crags fall to ruin; and all fetters and bonds shall be broken and rent.” At last, the land would sink into the chaotic floods of the sea. Perhaps though the land would rise again, and the whole story will repeat itself. (A story reminiscent of some current theories). The nomadic tribes of the ancient Levant, among whom the patriarchs lived, are supposed to have had similar ideas.[1] For them too the world was a chaotic wasteland, a desert in which demons of the dark wandered about ready to kill. Human life had to be defended against the powers of darkness. It is thought that at the first full moon of spring there was a feast of new year in which human life was to be begun a new. The tents were surrounded with a circle of lamb blood to protect them, from the terrors of the night.

There is an important element of truth in all these pessimistic views of the world. The world was created out of nothing, and there is a certain tendency in created things to pass away again into the nothingness from which they came. God created the world good, but his creation was not complete at once: “the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep.” In the six days of creation He orders the world making of it a garden, a house, and a temple— a place of order and beauty, a fit habitation for human life, and a mirror of His glory. But then our first parents sinned, and the world threatened to fall back into chaos. But God does not abandon mankind to the fate they deserve—goodness and light and order will win in the end, not evil and darkness and chaos. Through His covenants He begins to restore the creation that man has marred. In passover of Egypt He adopts elements of the ancient nomadic New Year feast, but gives them a greater meaning. The angel of death, the terror of the night, becomes a means of deliverance for the people, bringing death to their enemies. For the people of Israel the lambs are killed in their stead, buying back for them the lives they deserve to lose. And then, in the crossing of the Red Sea, the chaotic floods of water become a means for destroying evil and saving good.

As Ratzinger notes[1], the passover continued to be celebrated in the home, even after the establishment of the temple. The lambs were slaughtered in the temple, but then taken home, and the houses were marked with their blood. The restoration of creation each year began with the little world of the home, marked off from the darkness, and the chaos. The restoration next moved to the level of the whole city of Jerusalem: no-one was allowed to leave the city during the passover night, so that the city became a house sealed off from the dark.

Our Lord to celebrated the passover in a house within the holy city, but then He got up and “went with his disciples out be­yond the brook Cedron,” that is, beyond the borders of the city into the outer darkness and chaos. He is later brought back into the city, but then taken out again, and He dies outside the city. And by that death He conquers death and chaos. He rises to new life, as the beginning of the definitive new creation—full of light and beauty.

When Mary Magdalene meets the Risen one she thinks He is the gardener. Superficially this is an error, but in a deeper sense she is quite right; He is indeed the gardener of creation who is remaking the whole world, healing all chaos, disorder, and death. But His restoration begins small with the seed of His body that will slowly grow into a tree that can shelter all of creation. The Church is the garden in which His new creation begins. It is shielded on all sides from the powers of evil by the blood of the lamb, but open for Him.

And a Carmelite convent is a little Church— a space closed off from the chaos of the world, a garden in which you can meet the Risen Lord and be remade by Him. Each of you must seal your own heart off from evil, and allow the heavenly gardener to root out all the weeds of you soul, so that in you that new creation can begin, which will be completed when the He comes again in glory, and celebrates His final triumph over all evil: “And He shall dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God Himself shall be among them and shall wipe every tear from their eyes, and death shall not be any more, nor shall sorrow nor lamentation nor pain be any more, be­cause the first things have gone. And He who sat upon the throne said: Behold, I make all new.”

[1] Cf. Joseph Ratzinger, “The Passover of Jesus and the Church: A Meditation for Holy Thursday,” in: Behold The Pierced One: An Approach to a Spiritual Christology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986).

An Easter Sermon for Contemplative Nuns

Christ drying the eyes of the Church

Christ drying the eyes of the Church

(The following is a translation of the sermon that I preached yesterday at the Carmel in Mayerling).

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb  (John 20:11). Dom Mauro Giussepe Lepori, Abbot General O.Cist, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land earlier this year. Afterwards he wrote the following:

From those first days in the Holy Land, particularly in Jerusalem at the basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, I was deeply moved. At the same time, however, the more I went to the holiest sites of Christianity, the more I had to admit that I was not really aware of what they represented, nor of the events that had happened right there: that there in that place Christ had died, that there he had been buried and there he had risen, that there he had met Mary Magdalene and the other women, that Peter and John had ran there…. I felt that the Lord wanted to offer me something more than just simple emotions. On the morning of the third day, after having celebrated the Eucharist at half past four on the Tomb of Christ, I went to Calvary to pray Vigils. […] The first reading of the monastic Vigils [was] from the Song of Songs. One sentence struck me deeply, as if Jesus himself was telling me it from the Cross: “You have seized my heart, my sister, my bride, you have seized my heart with a glance of your eyes” (Song 4:9).

In this verse Dom Mauro saw the whole mystery of salvation summed up: God allows his heart to be taken by by his people. Everything that He does in the created world He does out of the vehemence of this love:  “The whole Gospel and the whole history of Christian mysticism witness to how much the Lord, on every occasion, has incarnated and expressed his passionate love for the human person, his unreserved giving of himself.”

This love is so great that it could not be defeated by the unfaithfulness, the heartlessness, the cruelty of God’s people: “For a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you.” A love so great that it causes the eternal Son to descend into the darkness of this world to pursue His beloved. A love so great that it causes Him to live the poverty and drudgery of our existence for thirty years. A love by which He takes our punishment on Himself. A love so great that it turns the other cheek to our enmity in order to transform it. He who longed for a glance of love from the eyes of His bride saw therein the terrible glint of cruelty as we tortured and killed Him. A love so great that it moved Him to enter the darkness of the tomb. But a love so great that not even death itself could conquer it. He rose to new life in order to give us new life, in order to transform our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh that we might love Him again.

The Church is Mary Magdalene in the garden; the sinner who has repented and who now weeps with love for her Lord. And who then sees Him alive beyond hope. This is the life of the Church, the vocation of Christians; to weep for the Lord, and then to meet Him, to look at Him, to take his heart with that glance of the eyes, and to receive His love. And this is above all your vocation, venerable sisters, here in the Carmel, at the contemplative heart of the Church. It is your vocation to give your whole lives to the one thing necessary: the glance of the eyes that wins the heart of the bridegroom. It is not an easy vocation, since we cannot hold Him fast until He returns on the last day, but it is the most beautiful vocation. And today it is pure joy; today He comes and dries your tears, and calls to you, venerable sisters, with a love so strong that it shakes the earth to its foundations and melts the mountains like wax, a love that conquers death and bursts open the grave: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come” (Song 2:10-12).

Easter and Spiritual Freedom

The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:26)

The Risen Lord shows a remarkable freedom with respect to earthly things. Not only is he entirely free from all weakness and suffering, but not even locked doors are no barrier to him, His body is full of intese and perfect life, and everything is easy to Him. Having conquered sin and death He has won for Himself the perfect peace of victory.

“Peace be with you.” The peace that He has won for Himself He gives to us. Perfect freedom from all mortality and suffering will come to us only after our own bodily resurrection, but even now we share in Christ’s freedom through the holiness given us in Baptism.  Blessed Columba Marmion teaches (Christ in His Mysteries, ch. 15) that holiness consists in two elements: first perfect freedom from sin and detachment from all creatures, and second belonging totally to God. Both elements are luminously manifest in the Resurrected Christ: For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God

The readings for this season emphasize again and again that we, having died to sin with Christ, must now live entirely “to God.” If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. (Col 3:1-2) The joy of the Resurrection should enable us to delight in God alone and to achieve a total freedom from all attachment to creatures. “Get rid of the old leaven.” (cf. Col 3:1) Put away all the disordered desires and attachments that are the roots of sin and death, and rejoice only in God. This is what St Ignatius calls “indifference.”

St Bernard of Clairvaux in a remarkably stern Easter Sermon warns his monks, that having passed through the Red Sea with with Christ, they must take care not to look back to the carnal consolations of Egypt:

Woe to you, whoever you are, if like a dog you turn back  back to your own vomit, and like a pig you wash only to wallow again in the mire! (cf 2 Pet 2:22) I speak not only of those who bodily return to Egypt, but also those who return in their hearts, who seek after the joys of this world, and so lose the life of faith, which is love (caritas). For, “if any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him.” (1 Joh 2:15)

In another sermon he warns his monks not to abandon the freedom they have won through the hard fast of Lent:

Nothing of the spiritual exercises [of Lent] should be lost or diminished at the coming of the Holy Feast of the Resurrection. Let us rather strive to pass over to a better life. For any one who, after the tears of penance, does not return to the consolations of the flesh, but advances to trust in the Divine Mercy and enters into a new devotion and joy in the Holy Spirit; any one who is not so much tormented by the memory of past sins, as he is full of delight and inflamed with desire for the eternal rewards; such a one is he who rises with Christ, who celebrates the Pasch, who hastens to Galilee. You therefore, dearly beloved, if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God; set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. (Col 3:1-2) Just as Christ rose from death through the glory of the Father, so might you too walk in the newness of life. (cf. Rom 6:4) You should pass from temporal joy (saeculari laetitia) and the consolations of this world by compunction and godly sorrow, to holy and spiritual devotion passing over with rejoicing and exulting. May He grant this to you who has passed over from this world to the Father, who draws us after Himself, and deigns to call us to Galilee to show us Himself, who is over all things, God, blessed for ever. Amen.

The Eyes of Christ

The cross above the altar in Heiligenkreuz (a copy of a Romanesque cross in Sarzano, Italy) show the Lord with wounded side, but with His eyes open– that is, it is a depiction of the Risen Lord. The video embeded above shows the cross being unveiled during Gloria of the Easter Vigil, last night.

In his address in Heiligenkreuz,  in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI (sitting under the cross) referred to the open eyes of the crucified:

Our light, our truth, our goal, our fulfilment, our life – all this is not a religious doctrine but a person: Jesus Christ. Over and above any ability of our own to seek and to desire God, we ourselves were already sought and desired, and indeed, found and redeemed by him! The gaze of people of every time and nation, of all the philosophies, religions and cultures, ultimately encounters the wide open eyes of the crucified and risen Son of God; his open heart is the fullness of love. The eyes of Christ are the eyes of a loving God. The image of the Crucified Lord above the altar, whose romanesque original is found in the Cathedral of Sarzano, shows that this gaze is turned to every man and woman. The Lord, in truth, looks into the hearts of each of us.

More Pictures of the Easter Vigil in Heiligenkreuz

Herr and Frau Ingenieur Franz and Franziska Besau kindly sent me the photos they made during the Easter Vigil:

Easter Sunday

The Gospel, photo: http://www.stift-heiligenkreuz.org/

The Gospel; photo: pkw

On account of the snow the Easter Procession, in which the Risen Lord, “really, truly, and substantially present” in the Monstrance,   is carried under a golden canopy, and which usually takes place out of doors, took place in the cloisters.

Since the Easter Mass is celebrated together with the Parish of Heiligenkreuz, the brass band of the village of Heiligenkreuz played for the procession. They played the greatest of all German Easter Hymns, “Der Heiland ist Erstanden”– a march of  tremendous triumph, with such heroic majesty, and with such Germanic seriousness, violence almost.

Easter Vigil in the Snow

Last night it snowed so hard that it was decided not to have the Easter fire in the outer court of the monastery, but in the “hortus conclusus,” the “paradisus claustralis,” the garden at the center of the monastery, so that the people could stand in the cloisters, and only the deacon had to venture out into the blizzard. Not so much fronde nemus gramina flore favent then, but benedicite, glacies et nives, Domino and stolis salutis candidi; in its own way a fitting sign of the unleavened bread of sincerity, of which the epistle of Easter Sunday speaks, the purity of the new life in Christ.

Update: P. Thadaeus, O.Cist., from Vietnam, made the following photos:

transire gaudeatis exsultationem

“Nec quidquam in nobis pereat aut minuatur de exercitio spirituali sacrae resurrectionis adventu, sed transire magis et excrescere studeamus! Quicunque enim post lamenta poenitentiae non ad carnales redit consolationes; sed in fiduciam divinae miserationis excedit, ingreditur novam quamdam devotionem et gaudium in Spiritu sancto; nec tam compungitur praeteritorum recordatione peccatorum, quam delectatur memoria et inflammatur aeternorum desiderio praemiorum: is plane est qui cum Christo resurgit, qui Pascha celebrat, qui festinat in Galilaeam. Vos ergo, charissimi, si consurrexistis cum Christo, quae sursum sunt quaerite, ubi Christus est in dextera Dei sedens; quae sursunt sunt sapite, non quae super terram (Coloss. III, 1, 2): ut quemadmodum Christus resurrexit a mortuis per gloriam Patris, ita et vos in novitate vitae ambuletis (Rom. VI, 4); ut a saeculari laetitia et consolatione mundi per compunctionem et tristitiam, quae secundum Deum est, ad devotionem sanctam, et spiritualem vos transire gaudeatis exsultationem, ipso praestante, qui transivit ex hoc mundo ad Patrem, et nos quoque trahere post se, et in Galilaeam vocare dignatur, ut semetipsum nobis ostendat, qui est super omnia Deus benedictus in saecula, Amen.” (S. Bernardus Claraevallensis, In die sancto Paschae)