Circular Letter: March 2007

“Wake, O Soul! Rise and follow Me!”

Lent is a time of spiritual renewal, of prayer, penance and conversion. In this holy season, the Church invites us through her Liturgy to contemplate the love of God for us as seen in Christ, tempted, tried and crucified. “God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). We are called to step out once again from our daily concerns and follow Jesus on the road to Calvary. It “is a favorable time to learn to stay with Mary and John, the beloved disciple, close to Him who on the Cross, consummated for all mankind the sacrifice of His life (cf. Jn 19:25). With a more fervent participation let us direct our gaze, therefore, in this time of penance and prayer, at Christ Crucified who, dying on Calvary, revealed fully for us the love of God” (Benedict XVI, Message for Lent 2007).

The Two Loves

The love of God for man can be described by two terms: agape and eros. Pope Benedict XVI defines agape as that “self-giving love of one who looks exclusively for the good of the other” (ibid.).­ Eros is that love which “desires to possess what he or she lacks and yearns for union with the beloved” (ibid.). Normally, we see this latter expression of love between married persons or those tending towards marriage. It is the love of the bridegroom for his bride. Each desires to give him or herself totally to the beloved and in turn to totally possess the beloved. While agape looks principally to the good of the beloved eros thirsts more emphatically for reciprocity, a mutual giving of self and a mutual acceptance of the gift.

It is clear that God loves us with the love of agape. Though He had absolutely no need of creatures, He created us and even more generously redeemed and sanctified us. Eros, however, is also an expression of the love of the Creator for His creatures. This love is directed in a special way to man and angel, for only these creatures are created in the “image and likeness” of God with intellect and free will, thus capable of entering into friendship with God. Only angel and man are created with “the capacity of having a personal relationship with God, as ‘I’ and ‘you,’ and therefore the capacity of having a covenant” (John Paul II, Dominum et Vivificantem = hereafter, DeV, 34). God created angel and man precisely with this covenant in view; for all eternity, God wants to give Himself totally to man and angel and to possess each of them in an eternal union of love.

God Gives Himself in the Holy Spirit

This gift of self to His creatures, and in a particular way to man and angel, is made by God in the Holy Spirit. For since the Holy Spirit “is the personal expression of this self-giving” between the divine Persons of the Father and the Son, within the Blessed Trinity the Spirit “is Person-Love. He is Person-Gift” (DeV, 10). Giving and loving become the defining qualities of the Person of the Holy Spirit within the Blessed Trinity. But “not only is He the direct witness of their mutual love from which creation derives, but He Himself is this love. He Himself, as love, is the eternal uncreated gift. In Him is the source and the beginning of every giving of gifts to creatures” (DeV, 34).

God gives to creatures in the Holy Spirit first of all existence at their creation. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…and the Spirit of God (ruah Elohim) was moving over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:1-2). But Pope John Paul sees in this passage more than just the creation of the cosmos. “This biblical concept of creation includes not only the call to existence of the very being of the cosmos, that is to say the giving of existence, but also the presence of the Spirit of God in creation, that is to say…[we] see in the creation of man the first beginning of God’s salvific self-giving commensurate with the ‘image and likeness’ of Himself which He has granted to man” (DeV, 12). Already at creation, God begins to give Himself in the Spirit and to invite man into a covenant with Himself, a covenant of love and union based on man’s capacity to know and to accept freely God’s gift of self.

The Rejection of God’s Gift through Sin

Though Pope John Paul does not specifically address the question of angels in this context, this concept applies to the angels as well. For as we have seen, the angel is also an intellectual creature with free will, called to an eternal union of love with God already from the very beginning of its existence. But already from the very beginning of creation, this loving invitation and self-communication is rejected by His first creatures, the angels. “Sin has intervened, sin which is in contradiction to the presence of the Spirit of God in creation, and which is above all in contradiction to God’s salvific self-communication” (DeV, 13). By sin the creature, both man and angel, rejects God’s gift of self and turns away from the love of God to the love of self.

The Sin of the Fallen Angels

Though all angels were created good, it was through their own will and choice that they turned from God. Just as man on earth is on trial, to see whether he will freely choose God over all else, so tradition generally agrees that the angels too were subject to a trial at the first instant of their creation. It is commonly held that the trial of the pure spirits concerned the Incarnation. The angels apparently received a vision of God’s plan to take on human nature.

In Revelation we read, “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth” (Rev 12:1-2). The woman can be said to be Mary, “clothed with the Sun.” The Sun is the ancient and biblical symbol of divinity. So the woman is enveloped by the divinity through her divine conception of a Child who was “caught up to God and to His throne” (Rev 12:5). According to this interpretation, then, God presented this “sign” of the Incarnation to the angels at the beginning of time. He would pass over, so to speak, the angels who are by nature higher than man in the hierarchy of being, and be “born of a woman” (Gal 4:4), taking on the nature of the “younger brother,” man. The angel would consequently have to serve God as a lowly man!

Satan or the “dragon”, however, was deeply disturbed by this plan of God. He preferred that God remain God and keep the order in heaven straight! Therefore, he “refused to submit to his Creator, and proudly exulted as if in a private lordship of his own, and was thus false and deceiving. For the dominion of the Almighty cannot be eluded; and he who will not piously submit himself to things as they are, proudly feigns, and mocks himself with a state of things that does not exist” (St. Augustine, City of God, XI, 13). The sin of Satan, then, was disobedience and a refusal to accept God’s plan. He became the “father of lies” (Jn 8:44) and distorts reality to fit his own conception of “order” (placing himself, of course, on top). He becomes, as it were, a god unto himself, instead of surrendering himself to God’s will.

In essence, it was pride that prevented Satan from accepting the divine will. He pretends to be happy in the artificial world which he invented for himself, but in reality, he is miserable at having thus been separated from the source of all truth and happiness, God. Rather than give himself wholly to God’s loving plan in trust and love, he refused to “die” to his own will and love of self. In other words, he refused to make of himself a “gift” for the Other. Moreover, by rejecting God’s will, he rejected God Himself who desires to give Himself to His creatures and to dwell in and with them. And thus the devil was left miserably alone, turned in upon himself in sulky selfishness. Therefore, his sin was not just disobedience and pride, it was a rejection of love, of God’s love.

The Gift of Self of the Faithful Angels

The faithful angels, on the other hand, clung to God by His grace through love. They were willing to lose everything rather than lose God. So when faced with this same trial, instead of “I will not serve!” St. Michael cried out, “Who is like God?” in humble submission to the divine will. This submission of intellect and will expressed his total, loving gift of self in response to the divine call to love. “Then war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon. The dragon and its angels fought back, but they did not prevail and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan…was thrown down to earth, and its angels were thrown down with it” (Rev 12:7-9). To our misfortune then, earth became the landing place for the devil and his minions, who in turn became an integral part in the test of the human race.

The Sin of Man and the Broken Covenant

The first sin of man has many of the same characteristics as the sin of the fallen angels. The serpent first seduces Eve to suspect the motives of the Creator. “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees of the Garden? …You will not die. For God knows when you eat of it you will be like God [like gods], and your eyes will be opened, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:1, 5). The serpent leads her to believe that God is a jealous God, careful to guard His position of authority. So he tempts her to pride with the same lie he invented for himself saying, “You will be like gods! You will know good and evil for yourself. You don’t have to rely on Him! He just wants to make you think you do.”

Rather than surrendering themselves totally to God, therefore, and to His word and will, Eve along with Adam gave themselves to the lie, to their suspicion of God, as well as to their own ambition and the desire to “know.” They sought independence, to be “like gods”, free from the constraints of His moral order. God had set “limits” on man and his activity, but man wanted to be “free” from these limits. And so God is for them no longer a Father, but their oppressor. From now on, they wanted to judge for themselves what is good and what is evil.

Like the sin of the devil, man’s first sin was a sin of pride and disobedience, but it was also a rejection of God and His love. For as we have seen above, at creation God gave more than just existence to Adam and Eve. The fact of having been created in the state of grace with the gifts of intellect and free will, reveals to them a calling: “that as the ‘image and likeness’ of his Creator, [man] is called to participate in truth and love. This participation means a life in union with God, who is ‘eternal life’” (DeV, 37). God created them with the capacity to live in a covenant relationship with Himself. He invites man therefore to live in friendship with Himself, in a bond of love with God! This union, which is made possible by grace, is the true “divinization” God had in mind for man. For grace is a participation in the divine life which finds its greatest expression in this life in faith, hope and charity.

Sin, however, says “no” to this high vocation of love and truth. It is a rejection of God as Father and moral authority, and of the true freedom He offers them in His order of love. He had wished to communicate Himself and His love to them, but instead of “loving God to the contempt of self”, they chose to “love themselves to the contempt of God” (St. Augustine, City of God, XIV, 28).

The Possibility of Forgiveness

But given our human weakness—God knowing that we “are but dust”—the sin of man was not definitive as in the case of the fallen angels. For the angels, being pure spirits, do not rely on the step by step process of reason, but with a pure intellect see things and their implications at once. Therefore, they understood their decision in all its ramifications. With their whole being, with one decisive, irrevocable decision, they said “no” to God and refuse to recant for all eternity. Man, on the other hand, because of the limits and slowness of reason cannot know the full implications of the choices he makes. Therefore, at one moment he can say “no” to God, but he is naturally capable of remorse and a reconsideration of bad choices.

The Struggle with Sin and the Triumph of the Cross

The problem is, he who sins becomes a slave to sin. We all know from experience the warring of the flesh and the spirit which we inherited from original sin (cf. Gal 5:17). Vatican II teaches, “Man is split within himself. As a result, all of human life, whether individual or collective, shows itself to be a dramatic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness. Indeed, man finds that by himself he is incapable of battling the assaults of evil successfully, so that everyone feels as though he is bound by chains” (Guadium et Spes, 13).

But we are not left without hope. This hope is rooted precisely in the Paschal Triduum and the salvific dimension of the Cross:

In His infinite mercy God loved us, not permitting Himself to be blocked by the grievous state of separation to which man had been consigned by sin. He graciously stooped down to our weakness, and made it the cause of a new and still more wondrous outpouring of His love. The Church does not cease to proclaim this mystery of infinite goodness, exalting God’s free choice and His desire not to condemn man but to draw him back into communion with Himself.

(John Paul II, Message for Lent 2002)

Through the triumph of the Cross, God’s love is once again given free access into the hearts of men. “The ‘departure’ of Christ through the Cross has the power of the Redemption—and this also means a new presence of the Spirit of God in creation: the new beginning of God’s self-communication to man in the Holy Spirit” (DeV, 14). Yet this gift does not come to all men ipso facto; the promised Spirit, the “gift” of God, can only enter into our hearts through the door of repentance, faith and Baptism.

After Baptism we also have the unfortunate experience of personal sin as well, which again may close the door to God’s gift of merciful love. For this reason, the Church dedicates this season of Lent every year as a time of spiritual renewal, penance and conversion. Conversion consists in a “turning one’s back on sin” and a turning to God “in order to restore truth and love in man’s very heart” (DeV, 45). Unless there is a sincere inner contrition and a firm purpose of amendment, there can be no forgiveness. For without contrition, the “heart is hardened” in its “no” to God.

Therefore, only when man, with the help of God’s grace, sincerely recognizes the evil in himself—be it great or small—and turns to God in trust, only then can he open his heart to a new outpouring of God’s mercy in the Holy Spirit. Sacramental confession has the advantage that, even when our contrition is imperfect, it is perfected by the Sacrament and we receive the forgiveness of God. Lent is therefore a particularly propitious time for renewing our frequent reception of this Sacrament which so powerfully removes the obstacles to growth in charity.

Contemplating and Being Transformed by the Love God Has for Us

Further, because love is the “antidote” to sin, the Holy Father invites us to pray and contemplate more fervently in this holy season the love God has for us, His eros, expressed in the Cross of Christ. “Is there a more ‘mad eros’ than that which led the Son of God to make Himself one with us even to the point of suffering as His own the consequences of our offenses? …On the Cross, it is God Himself Who begs the love of His creature: He is thirsty for the love of every one of us” (Benedict XVI, Message for Lent 2007).

But to follow Christ is more than just to meditate on His life and love. We are to take this mystery of God’s love into ourselves and allow it to transform us, that we may love others with the same mercy and forgiving love that Christ has for us. “The love of God poured into our hearts ought to inspire and transform who we are and what we do” (John Paul II, Message for Lent 2003). Because God has loved us even unto the total gift of Himself in Christ, we too ought so to love our neighbor, to give and serve others freely and with our whole being.

Entering into Christ’s Self-giving in the Eucharist

We enter into this self-giving love of Christ most profoundly through participation in the Holy Eucharist. For the Mass is nothing other than the “making present” of Christ’s loving self-sacrifice on Calvary. “The Eucharist draws us into Jesus’ act of self-oblation. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of His self-giving. The imagery of marriage between God and Israel is now realized in a way previously inconceivable: it had meant standing in God’s presence, but now it becomes union with God through sharing in Jesus’ self-gift, sharing in His Body and Blood” (Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, 13). In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we unite our small gift of self, our labors and trials, to the one Sacrifice of Christ, His great gift of Self to the Father. In HIM, then, we as His Body are accepted by the Father and enter into loving communion with the Blessed Trinity.

Moreover, by this communion with His Sacrifice, we are transformed more and more into Christ. The Holy Father therefore encourages us to “live Lent as a Eucharistic time in which, welcoming the love of Jesus, we learn to spread it around us with every word and deed” (Benedict XVI, Message for Lent 2007).

Mary, the “Mother of beautiful love” and Mother of the Eucharist, comes to our aid as we strive to give ourselves ever more unconditionally to the loving Heart of God. By her “yes” beneath the Cross she helps us to pronounce our “yes” to God, even when His will is dark and beyond our understanding. She will help us to learn to die to ourselves in renunciation and surrender wholly to God; to give ourselves to others out of pure, untiring love for God. The holy angels will be our guide to this self-less love, until we can one day sing to our Beloved,

Lord, make me a channel that transmits the living waters of Your helping grace. Make me a little white, silent linen with which You dry the tears of the afflicted. Let me become Your echo so that when You call “you,” I joyfully answer: “YOU!” (OA)

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