Sunday, March 16, 2014


Mass should be like the Transfiguration: a beautiful glimpse of heaven here on earth. Yet so often when I look out over the congregation, the expressions on people's faces don't say that they just got a good look at heaven, but that they're on a long forced trip to...well...let's just say "somewhere else." 

One of the most beautiful things on all of planet earth is the human smile. When we're at Mass, our faces should say, as did St. Peter on the mountaintop, "It's so good to be here!" So, smile when you're in church and thus make the liturgy that much more beautiful. It's a simple enough contribution, and one we can all afford. 

God certainly deserves it, and the world desperately needs it.

   Second Sunday of Lent   A 

All eyes are on the Ukraine these days,
and we do well to pray for peace in that troubled region.

This is, of course, far from the first time
that corner of the world has been affected by violent unrest.

I’d like to take you back—way back!—more than a 1,000 years.

Prince Vladimir Sviatoslavich was born around the year 956,
the son of the grand duke of Kiev and his housekeeper-mistress.
His native land was in a near-constant state of civil war.
Vladimir’s rise to power there
involved much treachery and bloodshed,
including the assassination of his own half-brother…
…who himself had previously slain another half-brother.
Vladimir was a brutal ruler in an even more brutal society.

After consolidating his control
over a wide swath of eastern Europe in 980,
he noticed how the local pagan religions
gave rise to so much of the chaos and violence.
So Vladimir sent out envoys to Muslims, Jews, and Christians
dwelling in other kingdoms,
searching for a way to break the cycle of slaughter,
searching for the true way to worship God.
Having encountered the majesty of Christian worship—
the glories of the Divine Liturgy—
his ambassadors came back testifying:
            We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. 
            For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty,
            and we are at a loss how to describe it. 
            We know only that God dwells there among men.

And so, in 988, Vladimir was baptized.
(It didn’t hurt that he was required to do so
when he asked to marry the Christian emperor’s daughter!)
Many of his subjects soon followed suit,
accepting the faith for themselves.
Vladimir removed the old pagan idols from the land,
and cleaned up his own act—morally speaking.
He built churches and monasteries,
and established a remarkable measure of peace with neighboring rulers.
The splendors of the Church’s liturgy continued to work on him,
and when he died in 1014,
this man once feared for his vicious brutality
was instead revered for his great holiness.
He is now honored as Saint Vladimir of Kiev. (cf. J. Janaro)

Beauty had proven its amazing power 
to convert the most barbaric of hearts.

Traditional theology points to three distinct doorways
which lead men and women to God.

The first doorway is truth.
God is Truth itself, and truth attracts us.
Because of this, the Church is responsible
for what is arguably the most widespread and effective
educational system on the planet—
dedicated to the pursuit of truth.
But many people today have a rather fluid understanding of truth:
“That may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.”
And so they’re unable to pass through the first door.

The second doorway is goodness.
God, of course, is perfectly good,
and what is good draws us in, too.
As a result, the Church maintains
an unbelievable network of charitable organizations—
hospitals and homeless shelters and soup kitchens—
second to none, and dedicated to doing much good.
But since we often find it such a struggle to be good ourselves,
folks stay standing outside of that door, too.

The third doorway is beauty.
We don’t consider this one nearly as often
as we do truth and goodness—
and that’s a shame
because genuine beauty irresistibly disarms us.
The Church once had a real corner on the market
when it came to beauty, too:
most of the masterpieces of sculpture and painting,
of music and architecture, produced by western civilization
were created with the patronage of the Church
and for the service of the liturgy.
But you don’t have to look very far
to see that our approach has radically changed in recent years:
old churches have been stripped;
new churches have been built very plain—even severe;
sacred vestments aren’t too rich; sacred vessels don’t sparkle;
sacred music sounds more and more
like every other kind of music we hear.

There are a few explanations for this remarkable shift.
Ours is a scientific, technological, rational age;
we prefer things we can take apart and understand.
The arts don’t work that way.
Our era is a utilitarian one;
we like things to be practical, useful, and efficient.
When it comes to the liturgy,
that means we’re willing to settle for the least required,
rather than strive for the very best possible.
And our times also place immense value
on the things we find most entertaining. 
(Just consider how much we’re willing to pay
athletes, Hollywood personalities, and rock stars!)
While sensual enjoyment easily gratifies,
true beauty requires much of us—
both in its creation and its appreciation.

The question that lingers in my mind is:
If Vladimir had sent out envoys today,
would his kingdom have ever been converted?

Jesus took Peter, James, and John…
…and led them up a high mountain.
Jesus takes his closest companions to a beautiful place.

And he was transfigured before them;
his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.
Jesus is now seen by these three friends
in the radiance of his divine beauty.
In pagan mythology,
it’s common enough for the gods to change their form—
to take on the likeness of a human being or an animal
in order to move about on earth undetected.
In Jesus, quite the opposite takes place:
the true God becomes true man
(rather than simply appearing to be one),
not so as to disguise his glory,
but in order to allow that eternal splendor to shine through.

Peter said to Jesus…, “Lord, it is good that we are here.”
Peter has been captured by beauty,
and wants to capture it himself—
ironically hoping to preserve this extraordinary moment
in three rather ordinary and transitory tents.
It’s the same instinct which once motivated Christians
to make their considerable investment in the arts.

We’ve all seen what happens to a society
that substitutes popular opinion for honest truth,
and which strives only to be nice, rather than to, in fact, be good:
before long, it looks a lot like the chaotic, violent country
into which St. Vladimir was born.
We suffer, too, for lack of real beauty:
when deprived of its lofty spiritual benefits,
we turn instead to base carnal pleasures.
(Or, as someone put it quite cleverly:
“The more mediocre the show,
the greater the consumption of refreshments.”)  (cf. M. Huddleston)

There can be nothing more beautiful than God—
the God who has shown us his radiant face
in Jesus Christ.
Let’s be sure that our worship
is always the best possible reflection we can muster
of that all-surpassing beauty.
It should have a glory like heaven come to earth…
…since that’s precisely what’s taking place!
Beautiful liturgy is God’s due.
And it has the incredible power besides
to convert even the most savage heart.


Unknown said...

I love reading your sermons. Thank you so much for sharing them.

Fr. Joe said...

You're welcome! And you're very kind.