The Old Testament Prophet and the Profound Mystic of the Cross

[Homily:  Live-streamed Mass, 14 December 2020]

Today is Monday of the Third Week of Advent.  The day we have been awaiting is near. Our entrance hymn proclaims, “Our Savior is coming. Have no fear!”

This is undoubtedly the message of the first reading for today from the Book of Numbers.  The Book of Numbers, you may recall, recounts the wanderings of the Chosen People in the desert on the way to the Promised Land.  Two remarkable Old Testament personalities figure in this reading, both of them not belonging to the Chosen People, but both of them mysteriously interacting to provide for us the key revelation for today.  The first is Balak, the King of Moab, who feared the Chosen People; they had entered Moabite territory coming from their exile far away Egypt; they were fearsome to Balak because of their victories against the Amorites. (cf Numbers 22.-24.).  So Balak calls on Balaam the prophet to put a curse on the Chosen People. 

The Star and the Scepter

Balaam was not a Jew, but he is resolutely loyal to the will of God the Most High.  When Balak tells Balaam to curse the Jews, God tells Balaam not to, no matter the insistence and bribes of Balak, because this People coming from the South is blessed.   In three oracles before the one read in today’s first reading, instead of cursing the Chosen People, Balaam blesses them: “How can I curse whom God has not cursed?  How to denounce whom God has not denounced?” he cries. “Here is a people that lives apart and does not reckon itself among the nations.  Who has counted the dust of Jacob, or numbered Israel’s wind-borne particles?” (23:9-10).  In a second oracle, Balaam declares, “Misfortune is not observed in Jacob nor misery seen in Israel.  The Lord, his God, is with him, and with him is the triumph of his King” (23:21).  In a third oracle: “How godly are your tents, O Jacob; your encampments, O Israel! … It is God who brought him out of Egypt, a wild bull of towering might.  He shall devour the nations like grass…  Blessed is he who blesses you and cursed is he who curses you”  (24:5.8-9).  Balak is enraged by these prophetic utterances, but Balaam is able only to proclaim what the Lord moves him to say. 

In the fourth oracle of today’s first reading, Balaam, seeing far beyond the Chosen People before his eyes, speaks of that which God allows him to see: “I see him, though not now; I behold him, though not near.  A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff [scepter] shall rise from Israel, that shall smite the brows of Moab, and the skulls of all the Shutthites” Balaam proclaims (24:17).  From the trials of Israel’s wanderings in search of the Promised Land, the prophet Balaam sees not just the star and scepter of King David who would smite the Moabites (2 Sam. 8:12), but the star and scepter of the long-awaited Davidic Messiah.  When the wise men from the east would come to pay homage to the Messiah in the Manger, they would say, “We have seen his star in the East” (Mt 2:2).

St John of the Cross’ Dark Night

But today, as we continue to await the coming of the Messiah, we also celebrate the memorial of St. John of the Cross, who with St. Theresa of Avila was a co-reformer of the Carmelite order and co-founder of the Order of Discalced Carmelites (OCD).  To introduce the profundity of this mystic, let me quote a paragraph from the book of Fr. John Venard, OCD, on the Spiritual Canticle[i]:

“It is this mysterious but real knowledge of God which St. John of the Cross presents and explains to us in the Spiritual Canticle.

“It is not a way of spiritual consolations or extraordinary manifestations; certainly not a way of visions or revelations.  These happen if God wills it, and St. John refers to, without describing, raptures and ecstasies which may occur at a certain stage.

“But like St. Therese he is at pains to point out that these phenomena are not necessary, and should not be desired.  If God allows them, they will be of profit to the person who receives them humbly – they are not a sign of great holiness in themselves, rather they could be proof of weakness.

“The Saint makes it clear that God draws each soul differently.  He has mapped out a way to God of which he and many others have had personal experience, and he invites us to follow;  it will be the way of the Cross, in which a certain darkness in Faith is to be expected, and preferred, ‘inasmuch as God does not communicate some supernatural light, He is intolerable in darkness when He is near.’ We will know the sufferings of unrequited love, the seeming absence of God, the experience of his transcendence; but if we are courageous and persevering, there awaits us the ineffable joy of union with the Beloved.  Beyond the Cross and Resurrection, the lived experience of God’s immanence of ‘God with us.’”

Through the Dark Night, John of the Cross maps out the journey from the moment of one’s call or vocation to the Beatific Vision in the holy darkness – or sanctifying desolation – that is his gift in love to those hoping in humility – discalced, barefoot –  to approach him. 

We Embrace Your Holy Night

We often quietly sing of this Dark Night in the song of Dan Shutte “inspired by John of the Cross.”[ii] entitled “Holy Darkness”.  Let us be introduced to John of the Cross’ Dark Night of God’s love in its lyrics:

Holy darkness, blessed night,
Heaven’s answer hidden from our sight,
As we await you, O God of silence, we embrace your holy night.

God’s talking to us:

I have tried you in fires of affliction; I have taught your soul to grieve,
In the barren soil of your loneliness, there I will plant my seed.

I have taught you the price of compassion;  you have stood before the grave,
thought my love can be like a raging storm.  This is the love that saves.

Were you there when I raised up the mountains?  Can you guide the morning star?
Does the hawk take flight when you give command?  Why do you doubt my pow’r.

In your deepest hour of darkness, I will give you wealth untold.
When the silence stills your spirit, will my riches fill your soul?

Our response:

As the watchman waits for morning, and the bride awaits the groom,
so we will wait to hear your footsteps, as we rest beneath your moon.

Whether from the prophecy of Balaam or the profundity of John of the Cross, we wait… and the Savior comes as God with us – as our redeemer in glorious Light, as our Lover in the Dark of night.

[i] John Venard, OCD, The Spiritual Canticle of St. John of the Cross  (QC: Claretian Publications, 1980) pg. xii

[ii] Composed by Dan Schutte, originally in the Album and Scorebook, Prayers in the Upper Room, included in Bayan Umawit, (QC, Jesuit Communications Foundation, 2015), song #262.

In this Mass we played the beautiful rendition of Holy Darkness by Srs. Bubbles Badojo rc and Sasay Valdez, rc included in, Holy Darkness: the Ignatian Spirit in the time of Covid 19, 2020, available on YouTube.  While Sts. Ignatius, Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross were batchmates in canonization, properly St. John of the Cross should be acknowledged in Holy Darkness..

About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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