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Vol.V, Aug.'99

 

To Serve With a Pure Heart

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

The present text on the ministry of the Holy Angels refers again to the census of Israel ordered by David, which we reflected upon recently (cf. Circular V,1; 2 Sam 24). Should we pass over it for that reason? Do we not lend our ear anew even in human discourse, when some event is brought up again a second time? Reasons for repetition are many: simply out of admiration or gratitude, sometimes to reflect over on the elements involved; at other times similar events recall something from the past and the lessons we had won on that occasion. "History and experience", are said, "to be the best teachers". Would it be prudent, then, to ignore the repetitions which God inscribed in Scripture? Of course not.

1. Are there differences we can observe?

a) First, we can see that the general context of the two narrations is different. The theme in the first narration (2 Samuel) was the history of David as king. It comes to an end in three points: a) with David's Psalm of thanksgiving for the divine deliverance from his enemies: "The Lord is my rock, and my strength and my savior,..." (ch. 22); b) with David's last words, praising his men and protesting the modesty of his own house: "Neither is my house so great" (ch. 23,5); and  then, c) with the narration of the census (ch. 24), which shows both the foible (vanity) of David and his subsequent greatness (humility). The census, then, is seen as the bad fruit of vanity, a moment of weakness in which David wanted to shine in his own glory independent of God. And God severely condemned this act.

The context of the second narration (1 Chr 21-22), which we are considering now, is more historical and religious.  It begins with the list of generations from Adam to Judah and briefly mentions to Saul's in punishment for his disobedience (ch. 1-10). Then, follows the pre-history to the building of the temple and the formation of the cult in the temple: the kingship of David; the transportation of the arc of the covenant into Jerusalem; David's wish to build a temple for the Lord, which was refused by God, Who, nonetheless, promised to establish the house of David forever; his son would build the temple (ch. 17,11ff). Finally, the site where the temple should be built was fixed at the place where God stayed the hand of the plague-Angel, sent to punish the sin of David. This was more than reason enough to look back and recall again the circumstances, how it came to the plague and the sacrifice at that certain place.

b) A second difference between these two texts lies in the more express inclusion of the spiritual dimension, namely the causality of the Holy Angels and demons in this historical episode. Thus we find that the 'inspiration' which moved David to undertake the first census of Israel came from the devil: "Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to number Israel" (21,1). Joab, the commander of the army, tried to dissuade: "Why does my lord seek this thing, which may be imputed as a sin to Israel" (21,3). But David was blinded and obstinate. Only after the deed did David's heart smite him:  "I have sinned exceedingly in doing this. I beseech You, [O God] take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have done foolishly" (21,8).  Similarly, the prophet's words come from the Angel: "Choose which you want: either seven years of famine, or three months to flee from your enemies, ... or else three days of the sword of the Lord, pestilence upon the land, and the Angel of the Lord destroying throughout all the territory of Israel. Now, decide ..." (v. 12).

Particularly with regard to the Angel, executor of the divine judgment, the narration here is more explicit: "And God sent the Angel to Jerusalem to destroy it. ... And David lifted his eyes and saw the Angel of the Lord standing between earth and heaven, and in his hand a drawn sword stretched over Jerusalem" (v. 16).
Furthermore, "the Angel of the Lord commanded Gad to say to David to go up and build an altar..." (v. 18). More explicit, finally, is the description of the offering burnt by David at the site indicated by God, where the future temple should be built: "David built there an altar ... and He answered him with the fire from heaven upon the altar of burnt offering. Then the Lord commanded the Angel; and he put his sword back into its sheath. ... David was afraid of the sword of the Angel of the Lord. Then David said, 'Here shall be the house of the Lord God and here the altar of burnt offering for Israel'" (v.21,26-22,1).

2. In the meditation of the first narration, on 2 Sam 24,15-17, we pointed out "pride" as the fatal fault and reflected on the exemplary, humble obedience of the Angels, whose imitation might have prevented the spiritual blindness of David. The second narration ends with the determination of the temple of the Lord.

a) The circumstances of this narration bring us nearer to the sanctuary, that is nearer to the Holiness of God. This demands a great purity of heart on the part of man, for nothing impure enters in the Heavenly City (cf. Rev 21,27). Closeness to God demands greater purity on the part of His ministers. This is brought home by the new narration of the sin of David. The pride of David, his self-glorying vanity, shows that truly spiritual sins are fully incompatible with the Divine Liturgy.  In order to offer the Divine Liturgy worthily we need to pray: Lord, "Create for me, O God, a clean heart" (Ps 50,12) that is to say, purify our thoughts and our love! Pride is subtle because it is often committed without any exterior deed. The servant of God needs to be cleansed from it in order to worthily appear before God.  Only interior acts of contrition and humility can accomplish this.

b) The mirror of self-adulation penetrates only too easily even into the 'temple of God' during the Divine Liturgy.  It arises during a sermon, or in the tone of voice, or in one's posture, or even how one turns a page. Suddenly, one is no longer the servant; the servant has turned himself into the Lord, and made His Lord, his servant. There may be too many "I's" in the sermon and too little of Christ,... or with the confessor banking more on his own wisdom than on the light of the Holy Spirit. Another priest may start counting Mass attendance on Sunday or the number of confessions, whereby he has his eye on his own poll rating.

The frightful thing about this is how easily we are blinded to this fault. Therefore we do well to ask our Guardian Angel to enter into 'judgment' with us quickly before this deadly fault grows.  What satisfaction can there be for a pastor in the fact that in his area there is a 60% Mass attendance while in other countries attendance stands at 10 or 20%? The Good Shepherd goes out in search of the lost 1% until he finds and brings it safely home.  And even when we have done our duty, we are still "useless servants" since in all humility, we can know that with the same grace others would have served Him much better.

Ministerially, we need to help others to this purity of heart as well.  With confessions down, we need to make the best use we can of the purifying penitential rites of the Church. The use of holy water, during Mass or in the holy water font at the entrance of the Church, is a mini-renewal of the baptismal vows which cleanses the soul. The penitential rite at the beginning of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass could be well prepared to help dispose the faithful to benefit more deeply from this great grace. For the Holy One serves only the holy.

3. Every repetition in sacred rites and in Scripture is a renewed offering of grace and, frequently, the indication that we have come to something very basic and, moreover, easily overseen or underestimated.  Thus, the emphatic intervention of the Angel to chastise Israel for David's sin was to purge away the scandal and the evil of the sin. David cooperated with grace and humbled himself before God. The fact that the temple was erected at the site where the sight of the Angel elicited  David's plea, O Lord, "It is I that have sinned,..[not this flock] Lord my God, let Your hand be turned, I beseech You, upon me,...î (21,17) reminds us that our liturgy is always meant to be the encounter of humble sinners with the merciful God, and that the priest, together with Christ is called to be a victim for the sins of the people of God.  Surely these words of David prophesy the victimhood of Christ the Lamb, who was typified by every sacrifice offered in the temple.

Note also, that the Angel was not only the minister of the chastisement, but it was also he, who through the prophet ordered David to build an altar and offer sacrifice to the Lord at the place. The owner of the threshing floor offered both the place, the animals of sacrifice, the wheat for the bread and even the wood for the holocaust free of charge.  But David responded in an exemplary fashion: "It shall not be so, but I will give thee money as much as it is worth: for I must not take it from thee, and so offer to the Lord holocausts free of cost" (21,24). David's holocausts and peace offerings were pleasing to God, Who sent down fire from heaven upon the altar to consume the gifts.  If David's sin had been the cause of evil, his cooperation with the Angel and grace was the cause for the salvation of Jerusalem from the deadly plague. For at that point, "the Lord commanded the Angel: and he put his sword back again into the sheathî (21,27).

Just as David's salutary encounter with the Angel inspired him with "an exceeding great fear [at] seeing the sword of the Angel of the Lord" (21,30), even so may the Lord inspire us with a holy fear of the Lord and a deep pastoral concern for the faithful entrusted to us, for "if the just man scarcely will be saved, where will the impious and the sinner appear?" (1 Pt 4,18).

4.  Dear Brothers in the Priesthood,  as you know, scarcely anyone, out of reverence for our office, ever dares to call attention to our faults and foibles.  This is a crying shame, since in a few minutes we could receive insights that years of self-examination might fail to yield. Perhaps, we have a spiritual friend whom we could ask in the name of Christ to speak openly to us about our faults. Our Angel would also gladly enlighten, particularly about old bad habits which displease God and disedify our neighbor.  However, the silence of the Angel in the interior life is frequently a sign that we have resisted his admonitions in the past, that we were not ready to do the violence to ourselves that promised substantial progress in the spiritual life.  Hence, a recommitment to the pursuit of holiness is a prerequisite to close, intimate friendship with our own Angel.  Finally, we could examine ourselves about our vanity and how often it has insinuated itself into our priestly ministry.  Or how often do we choose to follow our Lord and the saints in their example of humility.  It is a painful dying to self, but a glorious resurrection to spiritual freedom; moreover, the springs of grace for our ministry are opened afresh.

Fr. Titus Kieninger, ORC