Thursday, 22 March 2018

Lent Week 5 Thursday

Readings: Genesis 17:3-9; Psalm 105; John 8:51-59

In the first reading God seems like an enthusiastic lover, pleading his suit with the one he wishes to be with him. Let's live together, you and I, here in this place. We will be fruitful and for many generations and can make our home together here. It will be wonderful and we will be happy together. At the end of the reading, almost as an afterthought, he adds 'of course you must keep the covenant as well'.

It recalls Pope Francis' comments in the early days of his papacy that we will grow tired of asking for mercy before God grows tired of showing mercy. God seems more engaged and more involved in the work of establishing this covenant than do the human beings who are to be the partners in the relationship.

Abraham always reminds us of the covenant and of the faith that is required if we are to be loyal to the agreement God has made with His people. Abraham figures in the discussion between Jesus and the Jews in today's gospel reading. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus - there are these high points marking the journey of the covenant across the centuries and through the pages of the Bible. Each moment in which the covenant is endorsed and renewed involves God becoming more involved with the people, coming ever closer to them, being ever more intimately involved in their lives. And each such moment obliges God, so to speak, to reveal more about himself.

When Jesus says 'before Abraham was, I am' he is clearly making the most explicit claim about his mission as Messiah and about his nature as the Son of God. He uses the Divine Name to speak about himself which explains the fierce reaction in his hearers. Because he is 'I am', he is the heart and foundation of the covenant established with Abraham. He is the suitor seeking to be in relationship with his beloved, standing at the foundation of the covenant, 'before' it then, the One.

We believe the covenant established in Jesus is the final and definitive one, the new and eternal covenant. God could not have become more involved in the life and history of His people than He has done in Jesus. And God cannot reveal more about Himself than He has done in opening His heart to us in the paschal mystery of Jesus.

We are called to be participants in this story, interlocutors of God in the unfolding of His relationship with human beings. It is a story whose origins are lost in the mists of time - before Abraham was - but it is a story established in the present eternal moment - I am. Whoever keeps this word, the covenant promise, will never taste death for, as the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel said, to say 'I love you' is to say 'you will not die'. And God says to us 'I love you' and I want to establish with you an everlasting pact.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Lent Week 5 Wednesday

Readings: Daniel 3:14-20, 91-92, 95; Daniel 3:52-56; John 8:31-42

Today we have another set of readings which relativise human structures of power, authority and justice. The three young men in the fiery furnace are one more 'type' of Christ, saved as they are by divine intervention because they are servants of the true God and refuse to worship any other god. They are at odds with Nebuchadnezzar and with his system of power, authority and justice, just like so many thousands of martyrs across the centuries who gave their lives rather than serve or worship gods other than the Lord, the God of Israel and the Father of Jesus, the one God who is living and true.

One of the most often quoted statements of the gospel is found in Jesus' comments about this same matter: 'the truth will set you free'. In his life of Saint Dominic the English Dominican Bede Jarrett (who died on St Patrick's Day in 1935) shows how Dominic confirmed for his first followers the truth of this gospel principle: by seeking the truth in the way Dominic taught them (and in this he is simply 'dominicus', the Lord's man), the first Dominicans did not 'find' the truth (since who can contain God?) but they did become free, they found a new freedom of joy and love in their service of the Word of God which is the truth.

It is important to quote the full statement of Jesus: 'If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free'. This freedom that comes from the truth is found by remaining in the word of Jesus. It means by living as his disciples, following his way, living out in our own lives the way of loving the Father and the world which is the heart of Jesus's life and mission.

We have seen Jesus appealing to Moses, teaching his interlocutors that fidelity to Moses should lead them to faith in him. Now he appeals to Abraham, teaching them that fidelity to Abraham should lead them to faith in him. It is not on the basis of some esoteric exegesis that he argues in this way with them but simply on the basis of the Father's presence in the life of Moses and in the life of Abraham. Is Moses your father? Is Abraham your father? There is one who is 'the Father', Jesus says, the Father of Moses and the Father of Abraham, and my Father too, the one who sent me and because of whom I am here.

Jesus is struggling to convince them to lift their eyes beyond Moses and beyond Abraham, beyond their own traditions and laws, beyond their own structures of power, authority and justice, to look up and beyond and within to the One who sustains all things, who confirms all goodness, who establishes all truth. It is He, 'First Truth' as Thomas Aquinas will call him, who sets free, who draws our minds and hearts through the contingent and passing concerns of this world, to rest in Him, in his power, his authority, his justice - the reality we will see revealed in the greatest of the Son's works, his glorious resurrection from the dead. There is the truth waiting to be revealed. There is the place of true freedom.

Let us remain with Jesus, living as his disciples, so that we will know this truth and enter already into the freedom which comes with our thirst for it.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Lent Week 5 Tuesday

Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 102; John 8:21-30

The birth we are witnessing has many consequences. One of them is new life - eternal life - for those who come to believe in Christ, those who come to believe that he is, as he says twice in this gospel passage, the 'I am'. He is the Lord, the presence of God, the one who reveals the Father to the world.

The salvation of humanity and the healing of the world: these are consequences of this birth whose labour pains are steadily stronger as we move through the fifth week of Lent. And these things come about alongside another consequence of infinite significance: we are given a new understanding of God. The One Jesus refers to as 'the Father' is made known to us and we glimpse what he is like.

The contrast between two pictures of God in today's readings brings this out very clearly. In the Book of Numbers God is vindictive and punishing, a 'big man' whose patience is limited, who speaks the language of sin and punishment, who is trapped, it seems, within the same recurring dynamic as the people. If they are ungrateful and complaining then he will punish them and this time he does so by sending deadly snakes among them.

We will, of course, sympathise with the people who are trying to understand God's way of working in their lives. God continues to act like an unsteady 'big man' who is at times sentimental about his people and at times angry with them. Here, when they show signs of repentance also, he immediately repents of the evil he is doing them: they kiss and make up and the story continues.

Jesus also associates sin and death. He speaks of people dying because of sin, or rather of people dying in their sins. But he does not say that the Father is out to kill them. Sin brings death with it. Sin is itself a kind of death. Who will rescue us from this body of death?, Saint Paul cries. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The bronze serpent, by a kind of sympathetic magic, cures people who have been bitten by the real serpents. Jesus lifted up on the cross is a kind of bronze serpent taking into himself all the power of sin and evil and death, so that whoever comes to believe belongs with him where he is in the company of the Father. Believing in the Son of Man lifted up is the equivalent of looking at the bronze serpent.

Jesus is also pleading with us to understand what the Father is like, that he is not the primitive god of tribal religions anymore than he is a lifeless idol. He is the one who sent Jesus and that already tells us much about him. He is the one who sent Jesus not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him.

Our ego will have us focusing on the consequences for us of this birth. But the more important consequences are simply the revelation of the Father (what God is like: the only Son alone can teach us this) and the revelation of the union between the Father and the Son (I do nothing on my own, I say only what the Father taught me, he is with me, and I always do what pleases him).

Let us try to forget ourselves and to think only in the second place of the consequences for us of this birth into which Jesus is entering. Let us try instead to keep our minds and hearts fixed on him, the loving servant, the beloved son, the one who is teaching us that the life of God is love, the unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Just as sin is already a kind of death, so seeing this divine mystery is already eternal life. 'This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent' (John 17:3).

It is no longer simply the case that God beholds the earth from his heaven. Now he leads us in our journey from this world into the kingdom of eternal love. It is a journey that will take him to Gethsemane and to Golgotha before it takes him to Easter and Pentecost.

Monday, 19 March 2018

Saint Joseph

Readings: 2 Samuel 7:4-5a, 12-14a, 16; Psalm 89; Romans 4:13, 16-18, 22; Matthew 1:16, 18-21, 24a / Luke 2:41-51a

Joseph was a just or righteous man.This is high praise in the Bible and places him among the greatest of the patriarchs, prophets and kings. It puts him in the first place in the company of Abraham, whose faith was reckoned to him as righteousness. Abraham's faith was to hope against hope. He trusted in God as the One who gives life to the dead and calls into being what does not exist. Supernatural revelations led Abraham to leave all that was familiar and to journey beyond the boundaries of his homeland. Supernatural revelations led Joseph to marry Mary and to care for her son as his own, sharing with them the perilous experiences of the first years of Jesus' life.

The promise to Abraham, transmitted not by physical descent as much as by spiritual affinity, is given to those who believe that with God all things are possible, with God nothing is impossible. Joseph, clearly, belongs with those who believe in this way.

Joseph is great precisely as a man, not just as a human being. His role in the history of our salvation is to be the husband of Mary and the father of Jesus, things only a man can do. He is the protector of his wife and child, charged by the Eternal Father with the task of keeping them safe and providing for them a home in which they might flourish. In that home Mary has the serenity in which to ponder in her heart all that is being revealed about the Child. She has the security of Joseph's respect for her chastity, the unique way in which she was the Bride of the Spirit and the Mother of God. In that home established by Joseph, Jesus has a safe place in which to grow in wisdom and in strength. Who knows what reflection of the Eternal Father he saw in the features and in the character of Joseph.

We can say then that Joseph was great for doing well the ordinary things men are called to do, and for doing these things for the two human creatures whom God loves above all others. Umberto Eco finishes one of his novels with the hero of the story deciding that the meaning of life is to be found in 'loving a woman and having a child'. Joseph lives this vocation to the full, and lives it in the most extraordinary circumstances. With Chesterton, and developing earlier traditions about his role, we can speak of Joseph as the greatest of Knights, the perfect fulfillment of the medieval ideals of chivalry. Those ideals included respect for women, care for the weak, strength in protecting the vulnerable, courage in fighting for what is just.

As Mary is entrusted to the disciples to be their Mother, the Church has come to regard Joseph as protector and provider not just for the family at Nazareth but for the whole Church. As well as praying to him for the grace of a happy death - this good man who died, tradition reasonably believes, in the company of Mary and of Jesus - we are encouraged to pray to him for all our material needs, for the wellbeing of our households, and for the happiness of our families.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph together make up a very unusual family. On one side this Holy Family is an earthly reflection of the Eternal Family of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. On the other side it is the perfect human family, the first domestic Church, a nuclear family whose life is established simply on faith, and hope, and love. Joseph is often forgotten as the Mother and Child take centre stage. Pictures representing Joseph holding the Child are rare and all the more wonderful for that. Often he is to one side, or in the shadow, sometimes an elderly paternal figure compared with Mary, sometimes (more likely) a strong man in his prime, charged with an exceptional mission.

The scriptures and the Christian tradition have some few things to say about Saint Joseph, the just man, wise and faithful, who was put in charge of God's household. What has been handed on to us is enough to give us a clear sense of a very good man who loved his woman and cared for his child. The fact that the woman is the ever-virgin Mary and the child is the world's Redeemer transforms this ordinary goodness into an extraordinary holiness.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Lent Week 5 Sunday B

Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ps 50/51; Hebrews 5:7-9; John 12:20-33

This passage takes us back to the very beginning of John’s Gospel. Philip is there and Andrew. There is the desire to see Jesus. There is a reference to the hour which has now come, there is a reference to Jesus being lifted up, and there is a reference to glory. All of these things we find in the opening pages of John’s gospel.

‘Lifted up’ is a theme that recurs in the gospel. When Philip brings Nathanael to meet Jesus at the beginning, Jesus says to him that he will see even more wonderful things, he will see the Son of Man, heaven opened and the angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man.  In chapter 3 Jesus told Nicodemus that the Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. And here now in chapter 12, Jesus says that he is to be lifted up, and will draw all to himself indicating now by this reference the way in which he was to die.

The hour had not yet come when Mary asked Jesus to work a sign at the marriage feast of Cana, at the beginning of Chapter 2 of John’s gospel. We are told twice again, in chapter 7 and in chapter 8, that the hour had not yet come. But now with the request of these Greeks to see Jesus, suddenly this seems to be the catalyst. The hour has come, Jesus says, for the Son of Man to be glorified, an hour which it is difficult to embrace but which he must embrace because this is the reason why he has come into the world, to come to this hour.

This is the hour of his glory but it is also the hour of the glory of the Father. These can never be separated, the glory of the Son and the glory of the Father.  The Father’s name is to be glorified as the Son of Man is glorified. ‘I have glorified it and I will glorify it again’, the voice says from heaven. Already he has glorified his name. When? In the old testament, in all that God had done in preparing his people for this hour. And again in the new testament, in what has been done through Jesus. Or perhaps it refers to all that Jesus has already done, the signs which he has already worked, through which the Father’s name has been glorified. And the great sign which is yet to come, the sign of his death, the climax of this revelation of the glory of God.

We are then given a rich, concentrated summary of the teaching of Jesus. ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains just a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit.’ ‘Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world keep it for eternal life.’ ‘Whoever serves me must follow me and where I am my servant will be also and the Father will honour.’

The seed about which he had spoken in the parables, which sown in the earth bears fruit, the word of teaching, the word of wisdom, is now to become him, he himself, Jesus, sown in the earth, to become the fruit-bearing one, the bread of life which is his teaching is to be complemented, to be supplemented, by the living bread which he is to become, the word sown in the earth, the word who is to bring life, eternal life to the world.

This rich concentrated summary continues because it seems as if here in this short passage we find echoes of the baptism of Jesus, of the transfiguration of Jesus, of the agony in the garden, none of which is recounted in any detail by John and yet all of them here in this one short moment, the heart of these moments in the life of Jesus is here, where he is revealed as the servant, the chosen one, the beloved, the only son from the Father, the one who is to give life from the Father.

The one who saves his life loses it, the one who loses his life in service and in love keeps it for the eternal life. This teaching is given flesh in the way followed by Jesus, our saviour and our champion. He is the one who loses his life in service and in love, he is the one who keeps that life for eternal life, the one who becomes the source for us of eternal life.

So in this moment, this turning point in the gospel, we are given a glimpse beforehand of our champion ‘lifted up’, the warrior God come to engage the powers of evil and of death. And the hour of that engagement has arrived. The one in whose dying the world is judged. The one in whose dying the ruler of this world is driven out. The one in whose dying God’s glory is revealed. The one whose dying bears much fruit drawing all, men and women, to himself and so to the Father.

You can listen to this homily being preached here

Saturday, 17 March 2018

17 March - Ireland's Noble Sinner

Like Father Christmas dressed in green, Saint Patrick has become the focus of many myths and legends. What we can be sure of, however, are two texts composed by Patrick, a bishop from Britain who preached the gospel in Ireland in the 5th century.

Patrick’s Confession is a defence of his life and work. His Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus protests at the scandalous attack of a Welsh king on a community of Christians and shows his passion for the people with whom he had come to identify himself. These documents are marked on the one hand by anxiety as Patrick acknowledges his weakness in the face of life’s difficulties and on the other hand by a strong and enduring trust in God’s care.

‘I am Patrick, a sinner’, the Confession begins. We could even think of it as meaning ‘I am a noble (patrician) sinner’. What gives Patrick’s confession its nobility is his simplicity and truthfulness: ‘my life is not as perfect as other believers’, he writes, ‘but I confess it to my Lord and I do not blush in his sight because I am not telling lies’. Born in the humiliation of slavery, Patrick’s humility is that of the man with nothing left to lose. What if men muddy his name? In one of his graphic images Patrick speaks of himself as a stone lifted out of mud by God’s grace.

We probably all remember the story of Patrick’s enslavement and of his escape back to Britain and on to France where he studied for the priesthood. He speaks of the benefits and grace the Lord conferred on him in the land of his captivity. There is a kind of freedom, he says, which is only gained through suffering. Later he hears the voice of the Irish calling him back to a new kind of slavery, to become ‘the servant of a foreign race’. He chooses to ‘sell his nobility for the good of others’ and returns to the Irish as a preacher of the Word of God. Having been their slave, he becomes their servant.

It is interesting to reflect on the course of Patrick’s vocation. Like Saint Paul in Acts 16:9 he meets a man in a dream who asks him to ‘come and walk among us once again’. In prayer he believes he receives the endorsement of Christ and the witness of the Spirit confirming his plan to return to Ireland. But then comes the time of testing. Patrick must struggle with the difficulties involved in a mission beyond the civilised world of the Roman Empire. Worse than that, he ends up ‘resented and very much despised’ by colleagues in the British church for reasons that remain unclear.

Patrick’s strength in all this is his unwavering faith in God. Although the shamrock is a later invention Patrick’s sense of God is always Trinitarian. He speaks of the Father’s providence, of Christ’s companionship ‘in’ or ‘beside’ him and of the Spirit’s presence ‘in’ and ‘over’ him. His Confession contains a wonderful early Christian creed. He sees the hand of God in the haphazard turns and twists of his life. The presence of the Trinity is his protection from the dark, from superstition, and from demons: ‘I leave myself in the hands of Almighty God who rules everywhere’.

The daughters of Leogaire are curious to know where Patrick’s Trinitarian God dwells and he teaches them that God resides in all creation. In terms reminiscent of Saint Paul’s speech in Acts 17 Patrick says that we, and all things, live and move and have our being in God. Such teaching helped to strengthen an appreciation of creation as alive with the presence of God, a key characteristic of ‘Celtic’ spirituality.

Patrick believes that dreams and visions give him guidance and illumination and he tells us much about his prayer in the Confession. The famous Breastplate of Saint Patrick – Christ be beside me, Christ be before me, and so on – although it dates from long after Patrick’s time may still be taken as a reliable witness to the way of prayer taught by Patrick and his generation. While God’s answer to our prayer may not be the one anticipated, prayer cannot but bring us into God’s presence to restore confidence and courage.

In the Confession of Patrick we meet a fascinating and endearing personality, at once humble and great in the service of God. ‘Although I am imperfect in many ways I want my brethren and relatives to know what kind of man I am, so that they may understand the aspirations of my life’, he writes, ‘My success was the gift of God and this is my confession before I die’.

This homily was first published in the newsletter of St Dominic's Priory, London

Lent Week 4 Saturday

Readings: Jeremiah 11:18-20; Psalm 7; John 7:40-53

We are well into the second part of Lent. We have left far behind our concern with ourselves and with our efforts at repentance. The concern now is Jesus and the growing opposition to him. The first readings tell us of innocent people unjustly persecuted – Joseph, Jeremiah, Susanna, the just man of yesterday’s first reading – while the readings from Saint John's gospel show how the pressure is mounting on the leaders of the people as the questioning about the identity of Jesus grows more intense.

Today’s gospel reading ends strangely: ‘then each went to his own house’. It seems like an insignificant detail, as if it were to say ‘then they went home for their supper’. There is a contrast between the ordinariness of this return home and the significance of what they had been talking and arguing about.

One of the main questions for now is this: ‘where is Jesus’ home?’ Some prophecies said he would come from Bethlehem while others seemed to indicate that he would be a Nazarene. The gospels give reasons for believing that he comes from each of those places, Bethlehem the home in which he was born, Nazareth the home in which he grew up.

But there is a growing contrast between these ordinary senses of ‘home’ – the comfort of knowing where people come from gives us the comfort of knowing something of their identity – and a sense that the true origins of Jesus are mysterious. They are mysterious not just in the sense that historical scholarship will fail to prove things one way or the other. They are mysterious in a much more profound and transcendent sense. The true home of Jesus is the one he shares with the Eternal Father. The true origin of Jesus is his being sent from the Father. When St John says that ‘each went to his own house’ it means in the case of Jesus that he went to the Father. For the moment he does this in prayer and prayer permeates his life: he is always in the presence of his Father. As the story unfolds he will return home to the Father in the mystery of his death, resurrection, and ascension.

Jesus is more and more a stranger whom the people and their leaders try to pin down, to find out whether or not he is the messiah, whether he is the prophet who was to come. Jesus simply gets on with his work, which is to open the doors of his home to all who will become his disciples. We are being prepared for further instruction about the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity in the hearts of believers. If we keep his commandments and live according to his way of love, then God will dwell in us and with us. God will share His home with us, so that where the Son is, when he goes home at the end of His day, we will be there also to share the glory that was His before the world was made.