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[23] First Sunday of Lent

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Readings: Genesis 9:8-15 / Psalm 25 / 1 Peter 3:18-22 / Mark 1:12-15

Noah plays the part of a new Adam.  Just as in the creation story, Adam is given charge over creation and names every living thing; Noah preserves the animals from destruction and he and his family will make a new beginning.  The spirit of God hovers over the waters of creation and he breathes life into all living beings.  Whereas life comes from the waters, so too does death.  The covenant that God established with Noah includes the promise that God will never again wipe out the world through a flood.  This pattern is revisited with Christ and the new covenant:  we die with Christ in the waters of baptism so that we might live or rise with him.  The rainbow is left as a sign of God’s covenant with Noah.  The sign of the cross will be the mark or lasting sacramental of Christ’s saving covenant.  Baptism makes us adopted sons and daughters of the Father, brothers and sisters to Christ, heirs of the kingdom and members of the Church.  The Church is often reckoned as or compared to the Ark of Noah.  Salvation is found in Christ and in his Church.  As pilgrims who must sail through the dangerous storms of this world, our Lord guides and protects us as our captain in his boat or ship.  Our rations are signified by the Eucharist, food taken from the Promised Shore.  The story of Noah, like the story of salvation in Christ is both about judgment and mercy.  Even if many are lost, some will be saved.  Those who listen to the Lord will be spared.  Those who turn away will face his terrible justice.

The psalm asserts, “Your ways, O Lord, are truth and love to those who keep your covenant.”  Those who claim God will in turn be claimed by him.  It is as simple as that.  Covenants are contracts but also much more.  Jewish covenants were made in blood.  An animal would be slain and blood sprinkled.  It was understood that if one broke a covenant, a promise would become a curse.  Literally placing one’s life and that of the family on the line, one implored that if this covenant were broken then “let happen to me” what was suffered by this sacrificed lamb or goat or bull.  Jesus would be the Lamb of God who “lays down his life” for sinners.

Despite our infidelity, Jesus is faithful.  He takes upon himself the sins of the world.  He dies that we might live.  The psalm asserts that “truth” comes with the covenant.  God reveals himself and establishes a relationship with us.  Jesus is the revelation of the Father, showing us the face of God.  The psalm also states that the covenant expresses love.  It is love that calls us into existence.  It is for love that God saves a remnant in the days of Noah.  It is love that is nailed to a tree and that proves stronger than the grave.

The second reading from Peter’s epistle speaks of Christ’s singular oblation for sinners.  Jesus heals the breech between heaven and earth with is death, rises from the dead and then he preaches “to the spirits in prison.” These are the righteous dead in the limbo of the fathers.  This number includes Adam, Noah, Abraham, indeed all the ancient patriarchs and prophets.  They have waited from the beginning of the world for the promised Messiah— the one who would be reckoned as the Way and the Truth and the Life. Peter says that the story of Noah prefigures “baptism, which saves you now.”

As a contrast to the rain and waters in the story of Noah, our Lord experiences the heat and dust of the desert for forty days.  Gone is the life-filled garden of the first Adam.  Death has entered the world.  Our Lord is tempted by the devil.  Fortunately, this time we have an Adam who will not fall.  Jesus begins the work for which he comes into the world.  He comes to Galilee preaching the Good News:  “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” All of salvation history converges upon Christ and his three years of ministry:  teaching, healing, and forgiving.  God will keep his promise to send a Savior.  He comes not to rescue the righteous or the good, but sinners or the bad.  Despite our infidelity, age after age, God is forever faithful.

We came into existence wounded in the womb.  Our ancestors through sin contracted suffering and death.  All inherited these painful mysteries and needed healing.  We were the purloined property of a fallen angel.  While our Lord ransomed us back from the devil, Satan still takes delight in tormenting our wound, introducing a spiritual infection and distracting us from the divine physician.  Indeed, some have become so duped that they forget God and no longer believe that Satan exists.  History is only transformed if we turn to our saving God; otherwise, we find ourselves contaminated by an essential malignancy.  It is only with the Lord that we can find spiritual healing and life.  While frustrated in his temptation of Christ, the same demon makes his appeal to us.  While he has lost an entitlement to the world and to the race of men, he can still exploit his eternal spite.  Jesus may have won the war, but the devil can yet abscond with his particular casualties.  Christ might claim you but you are not safe until you claim him.  Satan would have us mingle with the indifferent crowd, only believing in the strength of what flesh might attain apart from Christ.  He tells us to gorge ourselves with earthly riches and proximate pleasures.  “Do not worry about what is right or wrong, no matter whether it be in reference to stolen goods, oppressed immigrants or aborted children.  The only choices that matter are the ones that satisfy your needs.” The demon tempts and mocks us all while hiding at the periphery of our life and awareness.  Like the roaches that scurry when the lights are turned on, we need to allow Jesus who is the Light of the World to dispel all that hides in the darkness.  Repentance makes room for believing and loving as we should.

  • As people of the covenant, do we keep our promises to God and others?
  • Do we sufficiently ponder the price that was paid for our sins?
  • Do we go to confession and is our contrition perfect or imperfect?
  • Have we read the Gospels or any book about the life of Christ?
  • Do we take seriously the discipline about fasting and abstinence?

 

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The Real Meaning of Power

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The world is so very wrong about power.  From swords and spears to guns and bombs, the world has always been wrong.  Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and more recently Hitler, Hirohito, Mussolini, Stalin, and Mao— the names change and the kingdoms rise and fall but they all measured power in terms of violence and intimidation.  However, power is ultimately not measured by blood that is stolen but by blood that is freely surrendered.  Real power is eternal.  Genuine authority and power is not taken by the military arms of short-lived empires but by an eternal kingdom that is inaugurated with a naked and vulnerable child in the straw of a manger.  The great I AM becomes one of us to save us.  No longer the apparition of a bush on fire, he is a human-boy-child with all the fire of God’s love within him.  The LIGHT OF THE WORLD comes to dispel the darkness.  Finite power can destroy, divide, wound and kill.  Infinite power can create, atone, heal and resurrect.  While secular history is filled with kings willing to allow their subjects to die for their ambitions of dominion; sacred or salvation history gives us a king who both makes his subjects members of his royal household and then lays down his life on their behalf.

There are no self-made men.  We imagine that we are substantial and strong.  But in truth, we are next to nothing.  We emerge from nothingness and are utterly dependent.  Most are born and die and the world takes little notice.  However, the Child of Bethlehem is of another sort.  He resembles us but he is the eternal Word.  Before anything was created, he was with God and was God.  He is existence or being itself.  He is the eternal entering into the ephemeral.  He is a sublime innocence that like a blanket will put to sleep and cover all the sins of the world.  What he will accomplish in a few moments in time will have eternal consequences.  All who would approach the divine Child must become children themselves.

We read in Matthew 18:1-5: “At that time the disciples approached Jesus and said, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child over, placed [him] in their midst, and said, ‘Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.’”

Do we really appreciate the full importance of this direction from Christ?  We must reflect the innocence of the Christ Child.

My father shocked me with a question after my confirmation.  He asked me, “Do you understand the full meaning and consequences of your confirmation?” I asked what he meant.  He responded, “Confirmation means that you can now go to hell.”  I did a double-take… what did he mean?  No one before or since had described the sacrament in this way to me.  As was common years ago, the sacrament was described in terms of maturity in our holy religion, of becoming an adult fully initiated into the faith of the Church.  He said children can only commit little venial sins.  Adults are the ones who can commit mortal sins.  Most priest-confessors would probably agree.  Adults are guilty of far greater transgressions than failing to take out the trash, stealing a cookie or pulling a sibling’s ponytail.  All of us must return to the innocence of childhood if we want a place in Christ’s kingdom.  I suppose that is why our Lord spoke about faith and regeneration as being “born again.”  The old man or woman must be put aside for the new child born in Christ’s likeness.  While we might be adults in years, we must become spiritual children.  Paradise is populated entirely by children.

If we grow old in the world, maybe souls grow younger in purgatory— perfected by the fire of God’s grace?  Nothing of cynicism or sin can enter through the gate of heaven.  Any who would cling to earthly power would similarly be barred. The path to paradise is strewn with earthly weapons rendered as harmless and worldly treasures subtracted of any and all value.  Like a child entering this world, we must enter the next naked except for the wedding garment of the Lamb.

 

[71] Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

This homily will not be preached Sunday as it will be replaced by the message for the Cardinal’s Appeal…

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Readings: 1 Deuteronomy 18:15-20 / Psalm 95 / 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 / Mark 1:21-28

Moses tells his people that prophets like him will be taken from their number and will lead them.  If we are to properly understand what he is saying, then we must look to the prior verses not included here against false worship and divination.  We read: “Let there not be found among you anyone who causes their son or daughter to pass through the fire, or practices divination, or is a soothsayer, augur, or sorcerer, or who casts spells, consults ghosts and spirits, or seeks oracles from the dead” (verses 10-11). Moses is emphasizing several important points:

  • They must not corrupt their faith with the worship of other or false gods.
  • They do not have to look outside of themselves as the chosen people for prophets (God speaks to them through their own).
  • They trust the providence of God and do not seek forbidden knowledge.

Echoing the commandments, any violation of these points is condemned as an abomination before the Lord.  Fearful of any direct confrontation with almighty God, the people will be guided by the Lord through his intermediaries.

This pattern is still pursued today in the Christian community.  The new People of God or the Church is called by God and given shepherds who govern and speak in Christ’s name, empowered to extend the ministry or work of Jesus.  The Mass is our great worship where the sacrifice of Calvary is re-presented in an unbloody manner at our altars.  The bishops in union with the Pope constitute the authentic teaching authority of the Church.  We are anointed at baptism into a nation of prophets.  It is that commission that makes us missionary disciples.  Outside the Catholic community, there is no guarantee to any message proclaimed and no assured efficacy to divine mysteries or sacraments.  Catholic Christians, like their Hebrew counterparts of long ago, are warned to steer clear of false worship and the occult.

True religion signifies the end of magic.  Judaism (a natural religion) and Catholic Christianity (a supernatural religion) are both instigated by the same one true God.  We are forbidden to engage in voodoo, oriental mysticism, new age religion, naturalist religion, and conventional witchcraft or Satanism.  Divination of the future is interpreted as a distrust of God’s will for us.  Black magic or spells is condemned because one invokes the demonic spirits.  Similarly necromancy is condemned; an important admonishment when there is a new fascination with ghost hunting.  Christians are warned to avoid Quiji boards, tarot cards, palm readers, and séances.  All of it violates the first commandment of the Decalogue.

The Canaanites worshipped Molech, a false deity judged by the fathers of the Church as a bloodthirsty demon.  Indeed, sometimes his name is still mentioned in Christian circles in regard to the sins of abortion and infanticide. Molech demanded child sacrifice.  Heated with fire, the idol was a bronze statue into which the victims were thrown. The pagans believed that favors and special protection could be merited by such sacrifices.  Might the abortion of millions of children constitute the return of the demon Molech’s reign?  Just another name for Satan, it may be that the devil hides his thirst for human blood behind the semantics employed to disguise the true nature of abortion.  Consciences are numbed to the terrible truth that we are murdering our children.  There is no pro-Choice or pro-abortion Christianity.  Such opposition to the Gospel of Life is not only immoral but renounces the Christ and the God of Abraham.  It assumes the mantle of idolatry. The responsorial psalm also speaks of the need to replace rebellion with fidelity and idolatry with right worship.  Our minds must be opened and our hearts softened to the truth. We are admonished, “Harden not your hearts as at Mariah….” God’s people of old turned away as faithless, fearful and selfish. People today are also tempted away from true faith.  They are afraid to take responsibility for their actions, even parenthood.  They give preeminence to their own wants, even over the needs of others, as with the dignity of persons and the sanctity of life.

The second reading mentions some of the fears or anxieties that can afflict us. While they should be an occasion for heightened fidelity, the opposite is what often occurs.  People forget the goodness that God has shown them. Others get angry or doubt when God does not answer their prayers as they would like.  They wrongly postulate prayer as a demand instead of as a humble request.  It is just such a situation that led people of old astray.  St. Paul urges that believers should be “free of anxieties,” as the concerns of the world might distract us from the Lord and from his service.

The Gospel chronicles our Lord’s visit to the synagogue in Capernaum. He encounters someone possessed by a demon.  Jesus immediately rebukes him, “Quiet! Come out of him!” The “unclean spirit” makes a loud cry and leaves.  The onlookers are amazed both at his power and that he speaks with authority.  As prophets, we can invoke this same authority and power in casting out the demon that secretly devours the lives of our children in abortion.  As prophets, we can proclaim that Jesus is Lord and invite others into the Catholic community of faith.  We are summoned to speak the truth about justice and charity to an oppressive and selfish world.

  • Do we place confidence in the Lord who calls us to take up our crosses and to follow him?
  • Are we prophets— faithful, courageous and strong in proclaiming the truth?
  • Have we been the voice for the voiceless, especially the marginalized and the unborn?
  • Do we avoid the occult and any “false gods” that would compromise our witness?
  • How have we sought to bring the light of Christ against the darkness or demonic in the world?

Unity in the Divine Child

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There was a popular movement in psychology advanced a few years ago for people to come into contact or to know their “inner child.” All sorts of self-help books were published that promoted this Jungian archetype.  But I would like to suggest a spiritual dynamic to the hidden child in all of us.  When we recalled our earliest experiences, there was a profound innocence and trust.  Most parents protected their children from the dark side of life and from evil.  That time of innocence resonated with the holiness and perfection of God.  It was easy to believe.  We trusted our parents and felt safe.

While we may not fully maintain our innocence, we should never forget that God is our heavenly Father and that we will always be his children.  What the world strips away, God can restore.  I suspect our yearning and pursuit for holiness is also a remembrance of what we were.  When an infant is baptized, the minister of the sacrament will speak of the child as a young saint in our homes.  Our life and discipleship seeks a recovery of this spiritual trust and perfection.  As Christians, we remember the Christ Child in the manger.  God enters the human family as weak and vulnerable and yet there is something powerful about the child. What will this child become?  What shall he do? How will he change the world?  Everything that God assumes in Jesus Christ takes on an eternal dimension.  God is the everlasting child.  Our restoration into the likeness of grace signals a profound unity with the divine child.  Jesus speaks about this mystery as being “born again.”

Our Lord tells us that to follow him we must become like little children.  All the sacraments, not just baptism, make this possible.  When the old man in sin enters the confessional box, a child with his conscience made clean exits to offer his penance.  The body grows old but the soul is made ever-new.  The burden of the world is cast aside.  Of course, God’s mercy does not leave a vacuum but rather fills with grace what was once possessed by iniquity.

The little-known but courageous figure of Shimei cursed and threw stones at King David, shouting, “Get out! Get out! You man of blood, you scoundrel! … And now look at you: you suffer ruin because you are a man of blood.” Faulted for the blood of Saul, David’s rule was now challenged by his son.  David stayed the hand of his henchman, ready to kill the courageous and vocal critic.  He acknowledged the possible judgment of God upon him. (see 2 Samuel 16:5-14)

Like David, we are all men and women of blood.  Our innocence is spoiled by our sins.  We look upon the crucifix and must acknowledge that we have blood on our hands.  We are the murderers of Christ.  We are all guilty.  Our maturity in years does not necessarily mean that we have grown in the Lord.

I recall a frustrating teacher in school who told his pupils that they all began as “A” students with 100%.  However, with every test and assignment, the points began to be subtracted.  It was only with extra-credit assignments that lost ground might be regained.  When it comes to our heavenly report card, it is only by divine mercy and grace that we might be restored to an earlier purity and perfection.

Darkness & Light

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We find it much easier to appreciate Lent than Easter.  We might get glimpses of Easter but for many it requires an exercise of the imagination where we negate the things of darkness so as to envision the light.  Critics might contend that this is a rather backward way of dealing with things.  Usually it is harder to see in the dark than in the light.  Lent is the season that commemorates the struggle that all mortal creatures must endure.  We know all too well the jagged edge of existence: suffering, betrayal, loss, sadness, sickness, pain, grieving and death.  Many might suppose that these elements epitomize that which is most real.  The cynic or pessimist thus might categorize contentment, belonging, comfort, happiness, fidelity, peace and life as either fleeting or as aberrational to human existence.  Those who deny the Easter mystery might abandon themselves either to despair or to a libertine search for pleasure, making no distinction between the joys that comes with the acquisition of a real or an apparent good.  Of course, they would also be quick to mention the price that one pays to be happy or to anesthetize from pain.  Alcohol brings the hangover and drugs a case of withdrawal.  Sex results in pregnancy and sometimes in venereal diseases.  Gambling brings a thrill but often empties bank accounts.  Sloth weakens muscles and often incurs in homelessness. Gluttony brings to the fore the full ramifications of gravity.  What we do not know and what many disbelieve is the prospect of eternal life, joy, reunion, and contentment.  Those who reject the resurrection necessarily repudiate heaven.  They might reject hell but if life be hard they might accept the existence of more of the same.  Easter requires us to look beyond what we know.  Heavenly happiness is usually reckoned as an extrapolation from transitory pleasure to something lasting and complete.

There is a peculiar commonality between children and the elderly.  The child may be gullible but often easily trusts that there is a world unseen from which God calls us and out of which he sends his angels to watch over us.  We must be cautious that children will be able to distinguish the matters that are real and those which are fanciful like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.  The elderly may be discouraged but there is still a profound turning toward the divine mystery.  They are aware that there are more days behind them than before them.  Time in this world is running out and urgency strips away the distractions that many pursue.  They prepare for the world to come and desire to experience the unseen realities that were first presented to them as children.  Is there an ageless guardian angel still by their side?  Will God give back all that the world and evil men have taken away?  Trusting that God is a loving Father, many begin to yearn for the beatific vision and the reunion on the other side of the grave.

 

The Sacred Encounter

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I am troubled that our young people have an intensely truncated sense of history and reality.  They cannot imagine a world without digital phones, tablets, home computers, widescreen HD televisions, video game consoles, and the internet.  Despite tremendous access to information, their focus has narrowed and there is an almost pejorative view of the past and the historical elements of our culture and values.  Current sports figures, musical performers and media actors are idolized while true heroes are neglected or forgotten.  Figures that tout atheism will point to science as the enlightenment of the future while lamenting religion as the superstition of the past.

Given this as the problem we face with secular history and a deficient assessment of Western culture, the situation is no better when it comes to salvation history and our encounter with Christ in Scripture.  A history book or biography tells us about someone.  The Bible actually introduces us to someone.  There is an important difference but the difficulty is the same— few are opening the books.  I use the image of a book, but the issue remains even if we are talking about a lecture or the proclamation of the Word from a pulpit.  Many of our brothers and sisters are becoming comfortable with a truncated view of history and the meaning of life within our society.  They are getting their religious views from authorities fascinated by scandal but not with any dimension of sacred truth.  Those who excuse themselves from the pews and who gather dust on their bibles, have little to nothing by way of a living relationship with the Lord.

What do such people say about Jesus?  Some even question whether he existed or not.  Others suspect that he was a nice man who was wrongly put to death.  They view the sepulcher as the end of the story.  The dead stay dead.  The rest is the stuff of fairytales.  Certain secular humanists will laud Jesus as one who wanted to make a difference for the oppressed and the poor.  They define him as a well-meaning social worker or community activist.  However, if they were to look closely at Jesus, their verdict would have to change.  He told people to love their enemies and to forgive those who hurt them..  He claimed the power to forgive sins.  His assertions would even including making himself out as God.  If these non-believing critics were honest, then their assessment would be that Jesus was either a stark raving madman or and outright liar.  They have left themselves no middle ground.  The believer holds out another possibility— that Jesus is as he claims— the Son of God and the Savior of the world.

Men are born, live and die.  Every biography seeks to fill in the bits in-between.  But this pattern is broken with Jesus.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The story of Jesus begins before he is conceived in the womb and the Word became flesh.  He would be born and soon thereafter heralded by shepherds, magi and angels.  He would live as other men had lived.  However, one day he would put the quiet life behind him and engage in three years of provocative and supernatural ministry.  He would be embraced by some and rejected by others.  He would reach out to the weak, vulnerable and denigrated.  He would forgive sins and heal bodies.  He would be betrayed, tortured and murdered.  He would die but he would refuse to stay dead.  He promises his friends a share in his victory and life.  He promises to send the Holy Spirit and that he will never abandon us.

Jesus keeps his promises.  We are not orphaned.  He comes to us in his proclaimed Word and in the administration of the sacraments.  Indeed, he is present as the mystical body of the Church.  Other historical figures come and go.  But Jesus still makes possible a real and saving encounter.  His disciples do not know Jesus as a figure locked in past history.  Rather, Jesus is really present and maintains a spiritual relationship or friendship with his own.  There are no aging bones or blackened ashes of Christ.  There are no relics as we have from the saints.  Jesus has awakened from his sleep and calls out to us.  His message is still that of love.  Indeed, if his resurrection were not real then love would be a lie and life a mere taunting respite from endless death.  We look upon crosses in our churches and appreciate that this mystery of redemption has changed all human history, sacred and secular.  Jesus dies once-and-for-all and never again, and yet this mystery holds us in suspension at Calvary where we also offer ourselves.  We come to the cross or its great sacramental exemplar the altar and we bend the knee.  While the spiritually blind are oblivious to its meaning, we know the truth.  This is the watershed event for all time.  Nothing will ever be the same again.  Flowering horizons come not merely with computers, telescopes and mathematics, but with ancient parables, heartfelt prayer and a man who was so much more on a dead tree.

The Mystery of Love & Life

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We all want to love and to be loved.  We are drawn to Christ because he exhibits a perfect love to which we yearn and yet are unable to find in our ordinary personal experience.  Our own efforts fall short and too often what we call love is a mere posturing with hidden pragmatic and selfish motivations.  The Christian definition of love seems oddly connected to two apparent contradictions:  joy and sacrifice.  We seek happiness and yet all that appetite and passion has to offer is a fleeting exhilaration.  This is even true in the lives of human lovers.  The body can only hint at the happiness the spirit might know.  Ordinarily we regard sacrifice as loss and not as gain. We strive to escape its grasp.  It is most often associated with pain and injury.  Jesus demonstrates one who embraces the darkness, not in despair but as a witness to hope and a light we would not otherwise see.  While he agonized in the human flesh, his divinity transformed the Cross from a sign of defeat into one of victory.  It is in our participation or personal offering in that oblation that we might begin to find the consolation and joy that has for so long eluded us.  It is the path or doorway to an eternal elation of the soul— where we can know the prospect of no more sorrow, no more pain, no more sickness and no more death.  The union begins as a seed with Calvary and blossoms as a flower on Easter morning.  We die with Christ so as to live with him.  Our hearts bleed for a love that is perfect, lasting and real.  It is only when our hearts are joined to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary that this love can be realized.  Hearts must be pierced so as to allow divine grace to enter inside.  At Christmas true Love is born into our world.  That same Love on Good Friday ruptures the membrane or wall separating this world from the next.  It forces its way to where none have gone before.  The dead are given entry into heaven and Easter joy invites all to a share in the life of the kingdom.  We shall abide within the Trinity, where the angels and saints see God face-to-face.  Everything changes with the mystery of Christ.  Nostalgic and pious memory is replaced with the appreciation that God knows our names. We are listed in the roll book of heaven.  We do not have to fear the oblivion of the grave.  The grave no longer means eternal silence but rather our participation in the chorus of heaven.  The love for which we yearn is real and attainable.  It is measured by the infinite sacrifice of the Cross and yet its joy eternally resounds with a share in the divine love and life.  The love that we crave is only consummated or genuine in union with Christ and in the accompanying communion of the saints.