Thursday, 9 December 2021

Advent Week 2 Thursday

Readings: Isaiah 41:13-20; Psalm 144; Matthew 11:11-15

The public ministry of Jesus begins ‘from the baptism of John’ (Acts 1.22) whose appearance in the wilderness of Judea, preaching and baptising, marks the fulfilment of a number of biblical prophecies.

John the Baptist is ‘a voice crying in the wilderness’. This was a phrase used in Isaiah 40 for the one who announces the return of the people from exile in Babylon. That return meant a fresh beginning, an end to the alienation between God and his people and the establishment of a new covenant between them. The end of the exile was of great importance for the people as a practical sign of God’s continuing care.

For the prophets the forty years Israel spent wandering in the wilderness was the honeymoon of her relationship with God, an idyllic period of young love, innocent and loyal. In returning from exile in Babylon, says Isaiah, the wilderness through which the people pass exults and brings forth flowers, water flows in the dry lands, and the wasteland rejoices and blooms.

So renewal and new beginnings in the relationship between God and his people are associated with the wilderness. The wilderness is the place to look for signs that new things might be about to happen. The first sign that the exile in Babylon was ending was Isaiah’s ‘voice crying in the wilderness’. The first sign that Jesus, the Messiah, was about to begin his mission was the voice of John crying in the wilderness and proclaiming ‘repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand’.

A second strand of Old Testament expectation focused on the prophet Elijah and is also applied by Christians to John the Baptist. The biblical tradition is that Elijah did not die but was swept up to heaven in a fiery chariot. In some Jewish circles there was a belief that before the final visitation of God, Elijah would return to warn the people that this ‘great and terrible day’ was about to dawn.

This prophetic tradition gives voice to a passionate desire for justice, the hope that God will come as judge to set right all that has been distorted by injustice, cruelty, oppression and wickedness. We know how difficult it is for human beings to live together in justice. Whose justice? Whose truth? Is there any redress for all the cruelty and violence that people suffer? To whom can the poor of this earth turn for help, truth and justice if they cannot turn to God?

John the Baptist is the heir to this tradition also. He warns that the time has come for people to get their lives in order. Judgement is under way.

Jesus begins his preaching with the very same message, ‘repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand’. But, in the mouth of Jesus, these words have greater depth and power. John points to the one who is to come but Jesus is that one. John warns people of the imminence of the kingdom but Jesus is its presence. John baptises with water for repentance but Jesus baptises in the Holy Spirit and fire for new life, new creation. What is promised in the words of the Baptist is realised in the words, actions, teaching, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.

In Jesus the prophecies are fulfilled, as always, in unexpected ways. Who would have thought that God would engage with injustice, oppression and violence by allowing his Son to become the innocent victim of injustice, oppression and violence? Who would have thought that the blossoming of new life in the wilderness of human hearts would be more radical and more demanding than planting vegetation in a desert? Who would have thought that love could be more demanding than justice? Who would have thought that our judge would first be our saviour?

Yet all this is true in the kingdom established by Jesus Christ. John the Baptist stands at the threshold of that kingdom. He is its herald and the first sign of its imminent arrival. He is not only the greatest of the prophets but the greatest of human beings according to Jesus. But the least of those who believe in Jesus have access to something greater. Our hold on it may be weak but even the tiniest flicker of faith gives us purchase on a wonderful reality: the presence of God among us in Jesus Christ, our saviour and our judge.

Wednesday, 8 December 2021

Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Readings: Genesis 3:9-15, 20; Psalm 98; Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12: Luke 1:26-38  

Mariology is the part of theology that studies what the Scriptures and the Christian tradition teach us about Mary and her place in the history of our salvation. For the great Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner the Church's Mariology is simply the most beautiful part of its theology of grace.

In fact the Christian tradition has found in the single phrase 'full of grace' everything about Mary that subsequently emerged in the liturgical and devotional life of the Church. Already in the undivided Church of the first thousand years Mary was universally honoured as Mother of God (Theotokos) and Ever-Virgin (Panagia). What emerged in the course of tradition was eventually incorporated in the Catholic Church's teaching with the solemn declarations of two other dogmas, her Immaculate Conception (1854) and her bodily Assumption into heaven (1950).

'Full of grace' - it is the name she bears in view of her mission, the one who is highly favoured, greatly blessed. She is to be the mother of the Lord and in that sense, pregnant with Him, she is full of grace. But in being prepared for that role, and in being sustained through the joys and sadnesses of it, she was always favoured and blessed, supported by the Eternal Trinity. She was sustained in her work of bearing, rearing and teaching her son, in her work of following him not just physically to Calvary but spiritually as the first disciple, the one who heard the Word of God and believed it and kept it and practised it.

The grace of Mary is personal to herself and to her mission in the Church. But it is also paradigmatic of the grace God bestows on His Bride, the Church. This Marian grace - of hearing and conceiving the Word, of meditating and treasuring it in our hearts, of bearing it into the world and carrying it to others - this is a grace of the entire Christian people. It is why Mary is called also Mother of the Church. Just as her Son is her image, so too the Church, His body, reflects in its life and activity, her life and activity in the service of God's Word.

In this work of new creation there is always the collaboration of the human creature with the designs and actions of God. It is to be repeated often: the first creation involves only the speaking of God: 'let there be light, and there was light'. The new creation involves also the speaking of human beings: 'let what you have said be done to me'. Mary is also the first to teach us this, that our co-operation with God's grace is an essential part of how the new creation comes about and of what the new creation means.

A fear of human beings in modern times is that the coming of Christ and of God will somehow threaten our freedom, weaken it and perhaps even make it redundant. Mary teaches us that the opposite is the case. To be 'full of grace' is to enter into a new space of freedom. To be 'full of grace' means not placing any obstacle, not even the slightest one, to the working of God's grace in us and through us. To be 'full of grace' does not mean losing our freedom in order to be completely at the disposal of God as blind instruments. To be 'full of grace' means gaining that freedom so as to be completely at the disposal of God, but to be at his disposal as the creatures that we are, intelligent and free, responsive and understanding, loving and creative.

To be 'full of grace' is not to lose anything of our dignity or our freedom. It is rather to enter into full possession of that dignity and of that freedom. It makes us to be children of God, living in communion with Him, sharing the life of the family that God is, and so being available with all our energy for the service of God's kingdom of love, justice and peace.

Tuesday, 7 December 2021

Advent Week 2 Tuesday

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 96; Matthew 18:12-14

We are so familiar with this example of the shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep in order to go in search of one stray that we fail to see how irrational it probably is. Of course if the ninety-nine are safe or are being cared for by someone else then it makes sense that the shepherd will try to find a stray. But if that is not the case, and there is the risk of losing even more of them, he will surely cut his losses and take care of the ones remaining. If the stray does then turn up of course it is an extra joy, and will feel like a bonus. But the thought of leaving ninety-nine at risk to go in search of one seems a bit crazy.

And that is the point. Luke brings it out more clearly in his version where he combines it with the story of a woman who lost a coin and searched high and low until finally she found it only to spend at least as much on a party to celebrate its recovery. And the third unbelievable story in that triad in Luke 15 is, of course, the story of the Prodigal Son, received back by his father with love and celebrations.

In modern times people often contrast faith and reason as if they were opposed to each other, which of course they are not. The real contrast generated by the gospels, however, is not so much between faith and reason as it is between love and reason. Saint Catherine of Siena talks about the madness of the Divine Love, how crazily in love with His creatures God is.

The beautiful love song that is today's first reading from the prophet Isaiah sings of this crazy love of God. Now the highway through the wilderness is not for the people returning from Babylon to Jerusalem, it is for the Lord returning to Jerusalem to dwell once more with His people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, Isaiah says, or, in another translation, speak to the heart of Jerusalem. It is a time for tenderness and a fresh start, for gentle shepherding and warm care, a time to experience once again the everlasting love of God.

The contrast between the lovers is extraordinary, on the one hand a people that is poor flesh, as enduring as the grass, here today and gone tomorrow. On the other hand is the infinite and eternal God, creator of all things, whose word stands forever and whose love is constantly searching to turn the heart of His people back to Him.

'Let creation rejoice' is another cry of the Advent season. Nature always sings for lovers: the hills are radiant and the trees dance, the rain is playful and the sea thunders praise, the meadows rejoice and even the animals know something special is going on. This is the world being transformed by the presence of God's glory, a glory He wants us to see and to share. We do it by turning again towards Him and learning His ways anew, by opening our hearts to the comfort and tenderness of our Good Shepherd.

Monday, 6 December 2021

Advent Week 2 Monday

Readings: Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 84; Luke 5:17-26

From time to time during Advent we hear about the great highway which will be constructed to facilitate the return of the people to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon. Restored to their own land they will once again rejoice in the presence of God with them. The valleys will be filled in and the mountains brought low, the way will be wide and direct, facilitating their return, and making their journey easy. The blind will see and the lame will walk.

In today's first reading this highway is referred to as the 'Sacred Way'. Other ancient cultures had Sacred Ways. There is one in China, for example, connected with the journey of the Emperors to heaven. There is one in Greece, from Athens to Eleusis, the way to the joyful celebration of religious mysteries. And there is one just ten minutes from where I live, the Via Sacra that runs through the Roman Forum, from the Colosseum to the Capitol.

There is a striking contrast between the Roman Sacred Way and the one spoken about in the reading from Isaiah. The Via Sacra was the final stage of the triumphant journey made by victorious Roman generals as they returned with their booty, their captured kings, their enemies enslaved. The rejoicing along that road was at the humiliation and weakness of others. The triumph celebrated the power and glory of Roman military might, culminating in the execution of many of the captives, thrown to their deaths from the Capitol.

Isaiah's Sacred Way is also about triumph and rejoicing but not at all 'alla Romana'. Here no enemy is needed to support the rejoicing. If anybody has been defeated it is the people themselves in their sinfulness and forgetfulness of God. The road is open to everyone and is not about humiliation and the despising of weakness. On the contrary it is about life and new strength and a welcome not just for God's chosen people but for all the peoples of the earth who will come from east and west, from north and south, to take their places on Mount Zion.

Today's gospel reading can be brought in also. There are obstacles for people getting to Jesus. How are they to find the way to the Way? A crowd of people prevents the paralysed man getting to Him. In fact the paralysed man needs the help of others if he is to have any hope of getting to him. And his friends engage in a piece of pastoral creativity, opening the roof and letting him down directly into the presence of Jesus.

A few thoughts here. Will we have the humility to allow ourselves to be helped along the way? Of course we want to walk on our own two feet, to find our way to God by ourselves. But inevitably we need the help of others and will we be ready to accept it? We need the help of the Church, the community of those who believe in Jesus. (It could be that the friends who bring the man to Jesus are the first apostles, recently called, and getting down to their task. It could be also that the crowd preventing access to Jesus can also be understood as the Church: the scandalous lives of believers are a major stumbling block for people.)

Another thought: where is the place, in ourselves, that will be ready to open so that we can be in the presence of Jesus? The most difficult of the deadly sins are the ones that close us down and cut us off, imprisoning us within ourselves: pride, anger, and envy. What is needed if we are to open up? What is needed if we are not to despise weakness in ourselves but are to be gracious and humble in accepting how God works for us through others?

In John's gospel Jesus describes himself as 'the Way' and it is one of the names used for the primitive Christian movement in the Acts of the Apostles. Advent invites us to search again for the way, to return to the Lord, to reflect on the things that prevent this return, the things that paralyse us and block our access to Jesus. Advent reminds us also that there are people who can give us directions, who are travelling the way before us and with us.

Sunday, 5 December 2021

Advent Week 2 Sunday (Year C)

Readings: Baruch 5:1-9; Psalm 126; Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11; Luke 3:1-6

The public history of the world helps us to pin down another history. The record of great events and important personalities has woven into it another history, the history of the Word of God and of the relationship between the world and God. So it was in the reign of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, Kings of Judah, that the Word of God came to the prophet Isaiah, son of Amoz. In the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah, King of Judah, the Word of God came to Jeremiah, son of Hilkiah, and continued to come to him until the eleventh year of the reign of Zedekiah, King of Judah. In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, the Word of God came to John the Baptist, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. It might seem that this history of salvation depends on the framework of 'secular' history within which it is found but the reality is the opposite: it is the history of salvation - creation, covenant, promise, redemption, expectation - that sustains the world's history. The events and personalities of the sacred history, even if they made little impact on public history, are the ones of greatest significance for the meaning of this world's history.

So how goes it now, this career of the Word of God in the world, this relationship between the world's people and God the Creator and Redeemer? In some places it will be going very well, in the lives of some individuals and communities who allow its power to touch and correct and transform their lives. For other individuals and communities it is in danger of being forgotten, or at least its power is doubted. The readings today talk about the importance of remembering. In the reading from Baruch, the sons of Israel, gathered to the east (the wilderness, where the Baptist was later to appear) were jubilant because God had remembered them. Of course this is the fundamental remembering on which our hope is established, not that we remember God but that God remembers us.

Paul tells the Philippians that he remembers them each day, their communion in the gospel, their shared life. And he is very tender and emotional in telling them how much he misses them and longs for them 'in the entrails of Jesus Christ' (sometimes translated 'in the bowels of Christ' - it is a reference to compassion, or to what we might call an experience 'in the guts').

And the Baptist preaches a baptism of repentance, a call to remember and to call to mind who you are, where you have come from, what it is you have received, what it is you are called to. How wonderful it is to be remembered, to be thought about, for someone to say 'I have missed you' - in other words you have been in my thoughts even while you have been absent. This is how Paul speaks to his community at Philippi, and this is how we are to understand God in relation to us: remembering us, keeping us in mind - dare we say it? - missing us. As Paul has been personally involved with the Philippians, God is personally involved with his people.

We are in it together with God, his fate in the world is ours and our fate in the world is his. His glory is our glory and our glory is his glory. This is what this communion means. We are tied together, in a communion of shared life, because the Word became flesh. Just as in the time of the prophets and in the time of the Baptist there were great public events and personalities, so in our own time there is the public history, the events and people who count, who make the news. But there is also, deeper down and for the most part hidden, the continuing history of the career of God's Word in the world, of God's presence with his people, of their continuing relationship.

How goes it then with our koinonia, our shared life, shared between us and with God? Advent is a time to think hard about this question.

Saturday, 4 December 2021

Advent Week 1 Saturday

Readings: Isaiah 30:19-21, 23-26; Psalm 146; Matthew 9:35-10:1,6-8

The Lord builds up Jerusalem and brings back Israel's exiles, heals the broken-hearted and binds up all their wounds. So today's psalm. The first reading is very similar, speaking of healing and restoration, a new moment of security and plenty. We can imagine Jerusalem, like a city destroyed by warfare, and the Lord moving around in the streets of that city, finding the sick and needy, the starving and the abandoned.

One thing noted in the first reading that is not mentioned in the psalm is that it is the Lord who has inflicted on his people the suffering from which he is now rescuing them! He is, Isaiah says, their teacher, showing the way to the people, and he is their doctor, healing the bruises his blows have left.

It raises questions about the meaning of suffering and why evil things come on people. 'I must have done something really bad to have ended up like this', a sick cousin said to me one time. The proposal from Isaiah today is that we see a pedagogical purpose in suffering, it is not simply a punishment for sin. There are things we must learn, virtues to be acquired, ways of seeing to be corrected, realities to be appreciated. And it seems that often, perhaps always, it is only through suffering that human beings learn and acquire and correct and appreciate.

The gospel reading continues along this line but adds to it in significant ways. Here Jesus is moving around the towns and villages, doing what the first reading and the psalm speak about. He heals and he teaches, is moved with compassion, sees the devastated spiritual landscape in which the people are wandering, harassed and dejected.

One change from what we have seen already is that Jesus delegates the work of healing and teaching to the twelve disciples. They have been with him, being taught and healed themselves, and now they are ready to participate in the gathering of the harvest. He gives them extraordinary powers, to cure illness and cast out demons, to cleanse lepers and even raise the dead. the works which God does among the people are to be undertaken by the people themselves or at least by those called from among them to serve the Lord's work on their behalf.

Another significant change is that the Lord, the Messiah, will take on himself the sufferings of his people, entering into them in a way not seen before. It is more for Lent and Easter than for Advent and Christmas, this point about a new participation of the Lord in the sufferings of his people. It is something yet to be revealed about how the kingdom of heaven, that reign of healing and renewal, is finally established. But it is important to recall it already, as we gaze across the devastated landscape of the world in December 2021.

Today's opening prayer says that the Son comes to free the human race from its ancient enslavement, and to offer us true freedom. May we be ready to receive the gifts he brings, be ready to learn and suffer with him, be ready for the service of each other which he wishes to delegate to us.

Friday, 3 December 2021

Advent Week 1 Friday

Readings: Isaiah 29:17-24; Psalm 26; Matthew 9:27-31

Of course they talked about him all over the countryside. How could it be otherwise? I was blind and now I see: I have to share this extraordinary good news.

Enabling the blind to see is the work of the Messiah most frequently mentioned in the texts that look forward to his coming. The passage from Isaiah 29 which is the first reading today is one such text: the deaf will hear, the blind will see, on the day that is coming, in a very short time. Erring spirits will learn wisdom, it says, another kind of seeing, and murmurers will accept instruction, another kind of hearing.

The most puzzling line in the readings today is the stern warning from Jesus to the blind men now cured, 'take care that no one learns about this'. Various explanations are offered. It seems to contradict what Isaiah promises, that wisdom and instruction will also be offered on that day.

The saying of Jesus is a kind of koan, a religious riddle. Is he saying that broadcasting this about him will not help people to see him accurately? Is it that the political situation advises caution about his mission and identity? Is it that the time is not right for a fuller revelation of who he is? Is it part of the drama of the gospel, as in a novel or a play, to let his identity be revealed slowly?

The scholars offer these possibilities but nobody really knows. So we can take his warning with us and let in simmer in our minds, see what it produces as the day goes on. You and I have come to see when we were blind before. We have emerged from shadow and darkness. But tell no one. Why not? Is it that we must also learn about the light in which Jesus and his works are to be seen, not just any light (hey, I can see!), but the light of the resurrection (my Lord and my God!). And for that we must wait.

Hence the advice about not telling now - healing physical blindness is a sign, but it is not even half the story!