Monday, 22 October 2018

Week 29 Monday (Year 2)

Readings: Ephesians 2:1-10; Psalm 100; Luke 12:13-21

There are teachings about the dangers of riches that are common to Matthew, Mark and Luke. You cannot serve both God and Mammon, for example. So too the image of the camel trying to get through the eye of a needle is found in all three gospels: easier for him to do that than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

But today's parable is found only in Luke's gospel. Along with his sensitivity and compassion, indeed because of it, Luke has a particular emphasis on the dangers of riches. He does not qualify the beatitude of the poor as Matthew does, adding the phrase 'in spirit' - happy are you poor is Luke's version, and it is he who adds the woes, beginning with 'woe to you who are rich'. Jesus does not say 'woe to you who are unduly attached to your possessions', or 'woe to you who are not sharing what you have with others'. Just having things is itself problematic.

'None of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions', we read in Luke 14. And Luke 16 is all about this warning against riches. There we find the crafty steward, the rich man and Lazarus, the Pharisees described as 'lovers of money', and a strange encouragement to the disciples to use money, 'that tainted thing', for the service of the kingdom.

In Luke we find Jesus's teaching about riches at its most radical. This teaching is here made physical, we might say. It is not a question of our attitude to our possessions, it is a problem that comes with having possessions at all. The warning is that human beings inevitably begin to find meaning and security and a sense of identity in their possessions. Rather than just using them, they become us somehow and we become them. We store up treasure of various kinds (not just money) to secure our lives, to give them meaning, and to establish ourselves in a sense of identity: to be someone. If it is by what we have that we become someone, then we have lost ourselves.

Jesus reminds us in today's gospel reading that 'one's life does not consist of possessions'. To act as if it does means to lose one's life. To be genuinely 'rich' means receiving the gift of the kingdom and practising the generosity which is at its heart: letting our possessions flow through us, we might say, not counting them as our own. It is another way of saying that we are to become like Jesus who, though he was rich, became poor, so that we who are poor might become rich.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Week 29 Sunday (Year B)

Readings: Isaiah 53:10-11; Psalm 33; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45

The choice of readings heightens the dissonance between what Jesus is trying to teach the disciples and how they are still misunderstanding things. He is the servant of the Lord who gives his life as an offering for sin. He is the Son of Man who came to serve and not to be served. If the second reading offers a title, 'great high priest', that seems to invite glory in a worldly sense, such an interpretation is quickly dispelled: he is our great high priest precisely because he has been tested in every way though he is without sin. Jesus' way is not about becoming a 'great one' who can then 'lord' it over others. It is about a lordship, of course, but of a different kind. The Son of Man came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

The notion of 'ransoming' has caused problems in the course of the Church's history: if Jesus gives his life to ransom us, to whom does he give it, why is it required, and what exactly is the ransom? We cannot just ignore the idea since we find the term, or versions of it, meaning either ransoming or redeeming, in Matthew, Mark, Luke, 1 Timothy, Hebrews, and 1 Peter.

The biblical authors, unlike later theologians, focus on the redeemed and the ransomed, the great fact of human liberation achieved by Jesus. He is our redeemer and our ransomer. That liberation is from slavery and exile now understood spiritually in the first place: our alienation from God is overcome. The sacrifice of our great high priest address the root-causes of oppression and injustice, it is an offering for sin.

The content of his teaching, the content of the whole New Testament, is not firstly a doctrine or even an example that would remain somehow external to us. The content of his teaching and of the New Testament, the new covenant itself, is Jesus himself, the Son of Man and Son of God who loves the Father simply and completely, and who is obedient to the Father in serving the purposes of God for the salvation of the world.

We do, of course, continue to misunderstand, and will seek to manipulate even the throne of mercy, the grace of God. We translate it back into the language of exchange and power. Much of the drama of the Church's history is its continuing struggle with this misunderstanding. But the Word of God reminds us that we are wanderers in need of teaching and guidance. We are confined in various ways, subject to powers that limit our freedom and distort our understanding. We have been set free for a new life by the one who became our servant, taking on the condition of a slave but becoming the mighty champion who leads us through the heavens.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Saint Luke, Evangelist -- 18 October

Readings: 2 Timothy 4:10-17b; Psalm 145: Luke 10:1-9

St Paul mentions Luke, one of his co-workers, a few times — Philemon 23-24, 2 Timothy 4.11 and Colossians 4.14 where he refers to Luke as ‘the beloved physician’. There is no good reason to doubt the early Church’s attribution of the third gospel to Luke. And the Acts of the Apostles as well of course, since the Gospel of Luke and the Acts go together.

Luke seems to have been a person of particular sensitivity and gentleness. The picture of Jesus we gain from Luke is correspondingly sensitive and compassionate, with an eye always to the unfortunate and the afflicted.

Luke has been described (by Dante) as ‘the recorder of the tenderness of Christ’ and this comes through in a number of ways. Think, for example, of parables which are found only in Luke’s gospel: the good Samaritan (Luke 10), the prodigal son (Luke 15), the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16), the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18) to name just four of them. If asked to pick out stories that best summarise the good news of Christianity I bet we would all include at least the first two.

In both parables the turning point is when one human being is moved with compassion at the distress of another and does something to help. The good Samaritan, unlike the priest and Levite who passed by, is ‘moved with compassion’ to help the unfortunate man he sees on the Jericho road. The prodigal son is on his way home, and is still a good way off, when his father sees him, is ‘moved with compassion’ and rushes out to embrace him.

Luke uses the same Greek word in both places. And he uses it again in telling how Jesus encountered a funeral procession in the town of Nain, that of a man who was the only son of his widowed mother (Luke 7: it is typical of Luke to note things which deepen the sadness of situations: the ‘only’ son and she a ‘widow’.) Here, Luke tells us, Jesus himself is ‘moved with compassion’ and restores the man to life.

The miracles recorded only by Luke often have some added reason for compassion. The woman bent over (Luke 13), the man with dropsy (Luke 14), and Zaccheus the tax-collector too small to see Jesus (Luke 19), are all afflicted in ways that might well have led to them being laughed at and jeered.

Some have suggested that Luke’s medical background explains his interest in the details of various conditions. Perhaps it is enough that his sensitivity drew him to relate events which best illustrate the compassion of our Lord.

A further illustration of this compassion is in the words from the cross which Luke records (Luke 23). The first is ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’. The concern of Jesus for the plight of others remains to the very end. In the same spirit is his assurance to the good thief, ‘today you will be with me in paradise’. And his final word is a prayer, ‘Father into your hands I commend my spirit’.

Luke, recorder of Christ’s gentleness, is symbolised by a bull or ox. This is the biblical symbol (Apocalypse 4) traditionally assigned to him, because his gospel begins with Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, offering incense in the temple at Jerusalem, the place of sacrifice. The compassion which permeates Luke’s gospel may seem fragile and vulnerable before the powers of this world but we believe that this kind love which comes from God is stronger than anything in creation. The ox is a symbol of this strength.

It is always good to read the gospel of Luke, to make it our spiritual reading — if only to realise how much our appreciation and love of Jesus of Nazareth have been shaped by what we learn from this gentle physician.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Week 28 Wednesday (Year 2)

Readings: Galatians 5:18-25; Psalm 1; Luke 11:42-46

There is a beautiful image in today's responsorial psalm. The one who delights in the law of the Lord and meditates on it is like a tree planted by the water's edge. He yields fruit in due season, his leaves never fade, and all he does prospers. Such a person has well-placed roots. The spring of life and energy and action in her is healthy and reliable and fruitful.

St Paul knew this psalm very well. He is the most famous Pharisee to come to faith in Jesus and what he says about the law and the Spirit is therefore of great interest. He contrasts them, yes, but not as two alternative codes of law, one detailed and negative, the other general and positive. It is rather that any person's ability to keep the law of God - which we all ought to do - depends on his or her being planted in the Spirit, rooted in that divine gift of living water. Paul had come to realise that the positive fruits of the law could only be borne by people living in the Spirit. The law is good and wise and true as he says elsewhere. But without the Spirit any effort to live by the law will be 'fleshly', it will inevitably be partial and external, selective and more or less hypocritical.

It can be tempting to set up an easy opposition between 'old testament law' and 'new testament spirit'. But to give in to this tempation would be a very serious misunderstanding of the gospel, and of the whole history of salvation. The new law is not an alternative to the old law but is its full flourishing. The new law, of which the prophets already spoke, is the life of the faithful believer flowing from his or her communion with the Lord, the God of Israel. What will secure that communion for us?

Jesus himself warns us off this facile opposition through a couple of clues in today's gospel reading. 'These you should have done', he says, referring to justice and the love of God, 'without overlooking the others', those more minor matters of the law which the faithful person will also want to observe, because they are part of God's law.

The second clue comes in his response to the lawyer. 'You impose on people burdens too hard to carry', Jesus says. The yoke or burden is another image for God's law which guides the steps of the one who submits to it. In Matthew's gospel Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden (same term as here) is light. What makes it an easy yoke? That is does not ask very much of us? What makes it a light burden? That its demands are superficial and not radical? He is speaking of the cross and walking behind him on that way. So too is Paul in Galatians: 'far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world' (6:14). He speaks of crucifixion in today's first reading also, another warning against any understanding of Christian discipleship that would under-estimate its costliness.

The tree by the water's edge is the cross of Christ planted in our earth. Just down the road from where I now live is the church of San Clemente with its renowned mosaic of the cross as the tree of life. This dry and dead wood, irrigated by the blood of the one dying upon it, becomes a living tree from which flows the water of the river of life, the gift of the Spirit, the sacramental life of the Church. This is the light and eternally fruitful burden we are asked to accept and to carry. Its power reaches the depths of our hearts, irrigating the dry and dead places,  filling us with its own love. That love is the Holy Spirit who enables us to observe the law of God and so to bear the fruit of the cross: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, against which there is no law, but which are the fulfillment of the law of God, God's intention for His people.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Week 28 Tuesday (Year 2)

Readings: Galatians 5:1-6; Psalm 118; Luke 11:37-41

What Jesus says to the Pharisee is a bit obscure: 'as to what is within, give alms': that's the translation to which you are referred here. But what can that mean? 'Give alms from what you have' is another translation but it says nothing really: from what else could one give alms? The proper translation seems to be 'give for alms those things that are within'. It fits with what Jesus is saying about the outside and the inside. It also links neatly with what Paul says in the first reading: what counts is not circumcision or uncircumcision - things external - but 'faith working through love'.

We are being asked to give of ourselves, then, and of our deepest selves, sharing what we think, how we feel, what we believe, what it is we value. What is within must be purified in the first place, Jesus says: what we think, how we feel, what we believe, what it is we value. There are many practical consequences once we begin to consider the fantasies that occupy our minds, the disortions that trouble our feelings, the questions that challenge our faith, the ambivalences that leave our hearts divided.

The way to this purification is not simply through asceticism and willpower. It is through remaining in the company of Christ, living by His Spirit, continuing to seek the freedom for which He has set us free. The way is through prayer, that which is most within in any human being, the only place from which our faith can work through our love.

Monday, 15 October 2018

Week 28 Monday (Year 2)

Readings: Galatians 4:22-24, 26-27, 31-5:1; Psalm 113;  Luke 11:29-32

In what does the sign of Jonah consist? For Luke, it is the preaching of Jonah and the repentance of the Ninevites that is the sign for those listening to Jesus. The Queen of Sheba came to hear Solomon’s wisdom and the people of Nineveh heard Jonah’s preaching. There is something here greater than either Jonah or Solomon. You ought, then, to listen to him, to Jesus, to live by his wisdom, and to answer his call to repentance.

In Matthew, Jesus brings in the earlier part of Jonah’s adventures and points to his three days in the belly of the fish. This is the sign of Jonah, according to Matthew, a foreshadowing of the three days Jesus would spend lying dead in the tomb. Matthew’s account gives us the stronger imagery and we may be tempted to assume that Luke implies the same thing. There are few biblical images more powerful than that of Jonah in the belly of the great fish.

But there is no indication that the Ninevites knew anything about the fish! For Luke,
the sign is the preaching of Jonah and the repentance of the people. And this clears the way for us to notice something else in Jonah’s experience at Nineveh. Not only do the people repent, but God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them. God’s repentance displeased Jonah exceedingly, we are told, and he was angry.

When Jesus directed his listeners to the sign of Jonah it has to be that the divine mercy shown there is uppermost in his mind. He has come, after all, to show us the Father. The repentance of God in the Book of Jonah anticipates so many of the parables of Jesus in which the justice of God becomes puzzling because swallowed up in God’s mercy. If we feel a bit angry at the prodigal son, or the eleventh-hour labourers who are paid the same as those who worked all day, or at the thought of prostitutes and other public sinners entering the kingdom of heaven before us, then we are in the company of Jonah.

He felt used by God. His mission was a complete success, the whole city repented at his preaching, and still he was angry. This, then, is the sign of Jonah. In calling us to repentance, God is asking us to become like Him. He is always ready to be merciful, to turn towards us. Like the father in the story of the prodigal son, the first sign of repentance from the sinner wins God’s attention and mercy. (In fact we believe it would not even be possible without God’s prior attention and mercy.)

The freedom of heaven, of which Paul speaks in the first reading, is seen in God's freedom and extravagant generosity which so annoy Jonah. Grace is not confined and those who are called to be preachers of grace must never forget it. The servant of the Word is always at God's disposal, doing only his duty, preaching the call to repentance and the coming of the kingdom. There is no neat measure of the effectiveness of that preaching, no way of predicting what its results might be.

For freedom Christ has set you free, Paul says elsewhere in Galatians. As followers of Jesus we are messengers of that freedom, servants doing our duty, instruments in whatever way God judges best in alerting others to the freedom God has promised.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Anniversary Mass, Dominican Sisters of St Margaret of Hungary, 1868-2018


Homily for Anniversary Mass, Dominican Sisters of St Margaret of Hungary
13 October 2018

Votive Mass of St Dominic
Readings: Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 95 (96); 2 Timothy 4:1-8; Luke 10:1-9


When Jesus tells his disciples what they are to bring and what they are not to bring as they set out to preach his kingdom he does not say anything about typewriters. And yet at a certain moment in the history of the Dominican Congregation of St Margaret of Hungary, the typewriter was a very powerful symbol of that freedom to preach the Kingdom of which Jesus speaks in the gospel reading that we have just heard.

The typewriter was an instrument with which thoughts, ideas and information could be communicated and reproduced, and the communist regimes, in Hungary as in other countries of Eastern Europe, became paranoid about the typewriter. When we read accounts of how Dominican sisters managed to continue their apostolic work in Hungary between 1948 and 1989, we see how important the humble typewriter was for their teaching and catechetical work. In a very powerful film called The Lives of Others, set in East Germany in the same period, the hidden typewriter is crucial to the work of defending human dignity and struggling for human rights. One of the Hungarian sisters, Beata, wrote later that ‘typing was playing with fire: the secret police was very careful to seek out every typewriter, every house search started with confiscating typewriters and any typed and copied material’. I suppose it was because the typewriter was at first anonymous but also eventually identifiable that it became a serious crime to have one. But for anyone with a message to communicate, it was a very useful tool.

As a congregation dedicated primarily to education, the Dominican sisters were directly attacked by the communist regime, their schools and convents taken and their way of life terminated. The Church was regarded as an obstacle to reaching the perfect society and we can imagine accusations of ‘indoctrination’ and even ‘brain-washing’ which are sometimes made against Catholic education, an accusation which is patently false. It is false because Catholic education, confident in the truth’s ability to take care of itself as St Thomas Aquinas puts it, encourages in people a desire always to seek the truth. It encourages us to go on asking, like the little child, ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’? What is it? Where is it? Why are there things rather than nothing? Why do things work the way they do? How do aeroplanes fly, buildings stay standing, babies get made? Why do we believe to be true what we do believe to be true? And most of what we know we believe, accepting it on the authority of those we judge to be reliable witnesses, guides and teachers.

Catholic education seeks to generate in those who are taught not just an appetite for the truth but also a desire for the great virtue of charity. We know it is the heart of the teaching of Jesus: love God and love your neighbour. Charity originates in compassion for those who are suffering, a compassion that not only touches the heart or the emotions, but that finds its way to the lips as we speak up for what is right, to the hands as we work to build the kingdom, to the fingers as they type the words of truth and pass them around to all who want to hear.

A system of education which has at its centre these two great values, the love of truth and the practice of charity, can never be a system of indoctrination or brain-washing. A system of education whose fundamental principles are ‘always seek the truth’ and ‘always think of the other’ is open and not closed, it is outward looking and not introspective, it is at the service of the Church and society and not self-serving or partial.

The search for truth and the practice of charity serve the dignity of the human person. This is what is most fundamentally attacked by political and other regimes that seek to suppress either the search for truth or the reach of charity, restricting people’s access to the sources of truth or setting limits to the extent of our charity.

In the dark days the sisters established new kinds of base communities and continued to reach out particularly to young people. Even without typewriters they set off, as one of them records, ‘with faithful hearts. We carried the light of faith, the beam of hope and the warmth of love! It was not easy but we saw our mission; with this secret in our hearts we set off into the uncertain future’. In those days the sisters were asked to live the simplicity of the gospel, pared down to its essentials, and they did it, not without anxiety and sadness but also with courage and joy.

There is a temptation to dwell on the Congregation’s history between 1948 and 1989. But there have been three great periods in its 150 years of history which others will speak about with more knowledge and authority. There is the first eighty years in which the congregation became established. Its communities and its schools were thriving at the eve of the Second World War and God alone knows all the good that was done during those first eighty years. After the communist period the Congregation has enjoyed these past thirty years of re-foundation and renewal. The communities we see today are made up of older sisters who lived through the forty years of communism and younger sisters who have joined the congregation since then. This is a rich combination which is bearing admirable fruit in the communities and educational institutions which the congregation has been able to re-establish. We can say, in the words of Saint Paul in the second reading, that the Dominican sisters of Hungary have remained faithful to preaching the Word of God in season and out of season.

Another thing that is striking, even from a quick glance at the congregation’s origins and history, is its sense of belonging to a bigger Dominican family. We see that the sisters have always sought to work with the Dominican friars, for example, to live near them and to be in collaboration with them. They have worked with groups of Dominican laity as a way of sharing the charism of Saint Dominic with as many people as possible so as to involve others in their mission of teaching and preaching. The sense of belonging to a bigger Church family has also been strong, the sisters seeking always to work with the bishops and clergy of the Church, to be in solidarity and communion with all who profess the same faith, and to reach out to all people of good will who value the approach to education that the sisters take.

A powerful lesson we learn from the difficult years of the congregation’s history is how, in the end, it is the martyrs who are remembered when their oppressors are forgotten. At the time it seems like the opposite: on the day of their martyrdom or imprisonment the powerful prevail and the powerless are lost. But in God’s providence the last become first and the first last. There is a wonderful irony in the fact that our knowledge of the work of Dominican sisters in the dark years comes from the archives of the secret police. People moved by a certain obsession and anxiety have recorded for posterity the good deeds of people moved by very different concerns. In the time of persecution it might seem as if identity and dignity have been taken away. But those who serve truth and charity are never abandoned by the Lord and in His good time their good deeds are made known. Their witness shines all the brighter against the background of the darkness in which they remained faithful. As the prophet Isaiah foretells in the first reading, in many and various ways the Lord continues to lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and the ends of the earth continue to see the salvation of our God. 

Sister Armella’s file in the archives of the secret services is called ‘Disciples’. Here is another wonderful irony, for what better word would we want to describe us than this? Like Saint Dominic we are disciples, followers of Jesus. We are students in the school of Jesus, seeking always to learn from Him, consecrated in the truth and called to follow His way of love. All across the 150 years of the congregation’s life the sisters have responded generously to the same challenge: how to be true to their vocation to teach the truth of the gospel amidst changing environments and regimes, how to be faithful to the requirements of charity in changing social and economic situations.

In giving thanks for the Congregation’s history up to now we pray also for the years to come, that God will continue to bless the sisters of the Hungarian Congregation of Saint Margaret, that He will send many vocations their way, and that He will enable them by His grace to flourish ever more strongly in their service of truth and charity.

Sisters, go and preach the Good News to everyone, in every place, in every possible way, and at all times. Do not forget that you are the loving servants of the Word of God, sharing with all whom you meet the light of His truth and the joy of His love. And do not forget your typewriter, or whatever the modern equivalent is among the tools of the preacher’s craft!