“The first Christians were predominantly of Jewish extraction. The way they understood the physical world around them enabled them to understand the meaning of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus in a unique way that still has implications for us today. Their primary understanding of redemption was firstly formed by the belief in the way God had created the world around them, and secondly in their belief in a universal truth. Their understanding of the physical structure of the world was, however, archaic, but the universal truth, namely that love is communicated by touch, was right. Nevertheless by putting these two concepts together considerable light can be thrown on the essence of any authentic spirituality that claims to be Christian.
HUMAN BEINGS LIVED IN A WORLD WITH THREE FLOORS
In the Old Testament human beings lived in a world with three floors. On the first floor, upheld by pillars to stop the earth from falling into the waters below, men and women lived out their lives until when, after death, they were sent down to the ground floor to live in the shadowy world of Sheol. What we would call the sky, they called the firmament. God was seated on a throne above it using it as his ‘footstool’. The firmament was visualised as something solid, rather like a transparent cooking pot that enabled God to observe how human beings were behaving. The firmament was supported on either side by the ‘eternal hills’ and had flaps strategically placed, enabling God to send down rain and snow, wind and thunderbolts, and angels too, when their services were being called for. Although the sun shone as it arched its way across the firmament, like the moon and the stars, the ground floor and the first floor had been plunged into spiritual darkness. These were now the places where the demons ruled, ever since the first man and woman had rejected God. So, in future men and women would no longer ‘walk and talk’ with God, ‘in the cool of the evening’, as they had done in the first paradise.
LAYING ON OF HANDS
When Jesus was born on the first floor, His physical presence radiated the love that shone out of Him to bring light where darkness had prevailed before. This love, like all human love, was communicated through touch, by a kiss, an embrace, by the washing of feet, all common practices in the world into which He was born. The very moment after His death on the cross, the New Testament pictured Christ descending into Sheol on the ground floor, to redeem those who had died before Him with the fullness of love that He had just received. It was believed that all who died before Christ’s coming would have to wait for His redemptive action. The same demons that were put to flight as He descended through the nether regions to release the ‘captives’ were put to flight for a second time, as He ascended through the air above, leading the captives back to His Father. Now seated at God’s right hand they could both send the Holy Spirit through the corridor made through the realm of the demons at His Ascension. This enabled the love that the apostles had already received to be surcharged on the first Pentecost Day with the Pleroma, or the fullness of love, that He had received on the first Easter Day. Now they in their turn literally handed on what they had received from Jesus to all who freely chose to receive it. That’s why all the sacraments involved the laying on of hands, so that what Christ had handed on to the apostles could be handed on generation after generation all the way down to us.
So it is absolutely true to say that the love that Jesus experienced after His resurrection is handed on to us today through the hands of the priest who baptised us, and through the hands of the bishop who confirmed us. The measure in which that love possesses us is only limited by our capacity to receive it. These physical touches that happen but twice through the priest and through the bishop can be received every day through the touch of Christ Himself in thhe sacred mysteries. That is why for St Francis this was the most profound mystery of all:
‘He shows Himself to us in this sacred bread as He once appeared to His apostles in real flesh. With their own eyes they saw only flesh, but they believed that He was God, because they contemplated Him with the eyes of the spirit. We too with our own eyes see only bread and wine, but we must see further and firmly believe that this is His most holy Body and Blood living and true. In this way our Lord remains continually with His followers, as He promised: ‘Behold I am with you all days even to the end of the world’.” (Admonition 1)
The common belief of the first Christians in a universe with three floors was, of course, erroneous, but it is worth understanding for the insight which it can give us into the essential meaning of ‘Physical Redemption’ which cannot be discarded. It is the physical presence of Christ bursting with uncreated life and energy which brought and still brings to this world the love that impelled God to create it in the first place. It is this love and this love alone that, as was revealed to St Francis on La Verna, unites us to God.
ASCETICISM OF THE HEART
Now the most powerful form of energy that was originally responsible for the creation of the world entered the world again as human love in the person of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is the story of how this otherworrldly
love gradually penetrated every part of Him, until it reached out through Him to others to transform their lives, as it had transformed His. There is [daily Holy Mass] one way to receive this love, as St Francis shows throughout his life, and that is to set aside daily quality space and time for prayer. When anyone asks me what ascetical practice they should adopt, I always answer that first and above all others you should adopt the asceticism of the heart. That is: don’t give up anything you like or enjoy (apart from sin, of course!) Except if it prevents you from giving quality space and time for daily prayer each day.
If you do that, come what may, you will eventually receive the love that will make you want to throw away all the so called pleasures and pasttimes that you once thought you could not do without, just as a miner throws away the dross when he has found true gold. The big question that was continually asked by the Fathers of the Church was not how do we love God, but what do we do to allow His love to enter into us so that He can give us the inner power and strength to love Him as we should and to love our neighbour as ourselves. As Jesus put it: First seek God and His kingdom and then everything else will be given to you. Prayer was everything in the spirituality of St Francis, all he was given, all he received, was received there.”
– This article by David Torkington was published in Messenger of Saint Anthony, March 2013 issue. For subscriptions, please contact: Messenger of Saint Anthony, Basilica del Santo, via Orto Botanico 11, 35123 Padua, Italy.
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[ NB. The greatest prayer is the Holy Mass. Those who pray well alone, however, pray also best together. And also remember to offer the Holy Rosary at least once a day in our troubled times, PLEASE. ♥ ]