Thursday, 21 February 2019

Week 6 Thursday (Year 1)

Readings:  Genesis 9:1-13; Psalm 102; Mark 8:27-33

The first question Jesus asks the disciples - 'who do they say I am?' - leaves them (and us) free to relate what others say about him, believers or unbelievers, students of history, philosophy or religion, without themselves (ourselves) ever becoming involved in an answer. But Jesus then turns and says, 'who do you say that I am?' This is a very different kind of question. It cannot be answered in a detached way. This second question confronts them, as it confronts us, with a decision about our way of life, about our faith: 'who do you believe this man was - and is?'

Peter answered for all the disciples when he said 'you are the Christ'. The Christ means the Messiah, the Anointed One, the chosen one of God promised in the Old Testament and passionately hoped for by the Jewish people. He would be a new David and a new Moses, a great leader who would restore the fortunes of the people and introduce a reign of peace and prosperity. In effect what Peter says is 'you are the one who will release us from our bonds, restore to us the fullness of life, and give us again a lively sense of being God's people'. We might say today, 'you are the healer, the teacher, the guide, the one who will enable us to find truth and freedom'.

Jesus then began to deepen his disciples' understanding of who he was, referring to himself as the 'son of man' and as the 'servant of the Lord'. It is as if Jesus said to Peter, 'yes, I am the Christ, but the fulfillment of that promise will be in a way that is radically different from anything that has been imagined up to this'. Or as if he said to us, 'yes, I am teacher, healer and guide, but in a way that explodes the limits of your expectations and opens up an unimagined and wonderful mystery'. Jesus is the one who teaches us what love is, not only as a doctrine but as a 'way' to be followed.

There is a deep paradox here. The way to his kingdom is through acceptance of suffering, rejection, and death. Anyone who becomes a servant of this Lord is indescribably weak, and yet incredibly strong, because he has placed his trust in the Lord. The one who saves his life loses it and the one who loses his life for his sake saves it. The one who dies will rise again. What can this mean? Strong is weak and weak is strong?

Jesus showed us that God is love - an infinite openness and concern for the other, enabling others to become themselves by allowing them to dwell in him. The love of God in human terms is Jesus Christ, the only Son of the Father, the Word become flesh, the savior of humankind.

To believe that Jesus is the Christ, the teacher, or the servant, means to follow him. We show what we really believe about Jesus by our works of love. So our answer to the question, 'who do you say that I am?', is given not only with our lips, or our pen, but, first and last, with our lives.

First published in the Sunday Letter, published by Rollebon Press, Tallaght, Dublin, for the 24th Sunday of the Year, 15 September 1991.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

SS Cyril and Methodius -- 14 February

Readings: Acts 13:46-49; Psalm 116; Luke 10:1-9

Whenever I attend a big event at St Peter's in Rome I end up thinking about that moment in the gospel where James and John asked Jesus for the best seats in the kingdom. At St Peter's everybody wants to get to one of the best seats and will be very happy to tell you when they do get a good place. It means a place in front of everybody else. One year for Ash Wednesday I had a ticket which not only guaranteed me a very good seat but allowed me to receive ashes from the Pope. I found myself becoming quite jealous of this entitlement, wondering what would happen if by some misfortune somebody else took my place. I wondered whether I should make an early Lenten sacrifice and offer my ticket to somebody else. In the end I held on to it, accepted the privilege, promising that if I am offered such a ticket next year I will offer it to someone else. Although it might be a new Pope ...

I don't know how the brothers James and John got along for the rest of their lives. Paul and Barnabas are mentioned in the first reading, brothers in the faith working together, but it was not to continue like that forever. Paul was not easy to get along with. The gospel reading tells us that the disciples were sent out in pairs. The readings are chosen for the feast: we celebrate Cyril and Methodius, blood brothers and brothers in the faith who worked together in the preaching of the gospel.

We should not underestimate what an achievement of grace it is where brothers manage to work together. René Girard's analysis of the origins of civilization is well known: so many cities are founded on the blood that flows from fratricide. Cain, the first murderer, was a builder of cities. Jacob and Esau, Romulus and Remus: Augustine already talks about this in his City of God. Perhaps Girard pushes a valuable insight too far. But it is true that the vision of brothers dwelling in unity is realised only where grace triumphs over the egoism that nibbles away in each of us. Inevitably we compare ourselves with others, what they've received, how they are treated, whether they are being preferred to us. Melanie Klein identified envy as the most fundamental truth about human relations, their primary motor. Girard sees it in what he calls 'mimetic rivalry', envy in other words. Am I my brother's keeper? The one I admire, who shares my bread, very easily, and almost inevitably, becomes my rival.

Some are suggesting that Pope Benedict, at the moment of announcing his resignation, was speaking about this fact of life when he referred to a disunity that mars the face of the Church. This is what he said, thinking about difficulties facing the Church:  'Penso in particolare alle colpe contro l’unità della Chiesa, alle divisioni nel corpo ecclesiale' (I think particularly of attacks against the unity of the Church, of divisions in the ecclesial body). Is it the reason for his resignation, some asked, that he became tired of tedious infighting, bickering and jockeying among people who are supposed to be brothers serving the same Lord, preachers of the same gospel. I have no idea whether that is what he was hinting at. I took it to be a more general comment about the scandal of division among Christians that weakens our testimony to the gospel. But we all know the potential of envy and rivalry to disturb and distort human relations. We all know it in the first place in ourselves. We know how we need to work, with God's help, to cope with feelings of envy and rivalry.

Cyril and Methodius were brothers preaching the same gospel, co-workers in the Lord's vineyard. Celebrating their feast as we do each year close to the beginning of Lent reminds us that what we are invited to do in this season is not just to be reconciled with God, but to be reconciled with our brothers, and with ourselves.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Our Lady of Lourdes -- 11 February

Make Way for the Sick

I first visited Lourdes in 1970 with the Dublin Diocesan Pilgrimage. I was a member of a youth group whose tasks were to care for sick pilgrims, especially the younger ones, and to perform ceremonial duties. These mainly involved carrying flags in the processions and normally one of our group fainted during the hot afternoon with an impressive clatter of flagpole onto tarmac.

Many things impressed me but none more than the way in which the sick were regarded. It was as if Lourdes was really for them and everything was organised round them. The world generally seems to be organised for the able-bodied, energetic and self-sufficient. The sick, disabled and unwell must try to fight for a place in it.

In Lourdes this is reversed and the able-bodied take second place. The magic words ‘pour les malades’, for the sick, opened all doors to the sick pilgrim with his able-bodied helper in tow. It was as if the sick person was king or queen in this town, his able-bodied helper merely his servant.

The apparitions at Lourdes began on 11 February 1858. Through Saint Bernadette, Mary called on people to repent of their sins, to come for healing to the water flowing from the grotto of Massabielle, and to build a church there in which people could pray. At the last apparition Mary described herself as the Immaculate Conception, a doctrine about the graces uniquely given to Mary to prepare her to be the mother of Christ. It had been proclaimed four years earlier by Pope Pius IX and people were amazed that Bernadette could manage these words, and in her own dialect too.

Of all the Marian shrines Lourdes is the most famous. This seems right because the good things that go on there come straight from the heart of the gospel. As we listen to Luke’s account of the beatitudes, for example (Luke 6), we see how great crowds of people sought out Jesus. They were sinners, cripples, people with various physical ailments, people tormented by inner demons. They sought out the kind teacher to listen to his words and to be touched by him, to find healing. As in Galilee, so in Lourdes.

Jesus teaches them about the ‘kingdom of God’, a time or situation when God’s spirit will fill men and women, freeing them from sin so that they might live together with an understanding and a love that comes from God. This kingdom will be organised in a way that is radically different from ‘the kingdoms of this world’. The poor, the hungry, those who mourn, those who are persecuted and disregarded — these are the ones who are ‘blessed’ in this kingdom because their longing and need keeps them pointed in the right direction. The rich and well-fed and content and self-sufficient — well there is great danger that this kind of success and regard will turn them away from the right direction.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, understands these biblical promises fulfilled through her Son. From her lips come the words of the Magnificat: ‘his mercy is from age to age ... he scatters the proud-hearted ... casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly ... fills the starving with good things, sends the rich away empty’ (Luke 1). As in Galilee, so in Lourdes. It is a gospel place where the lowly and the needy gather to be with their Lord in prayer, to heed the call to repentance, to care for the sick and the poor, to look for healing.

Many wonderful things continue to happen at Lourdes. There has been, on average, one authenticated miracle every two years, happenings which medical science cannot explain. But each year there are thousands of healings which are never reported. People find peace within themselves, are reconciled with God or with others, find faith and hope again. Lourdes is a place of conversion, re-birth and new life. It is a place of prayer, many people experiencing ‘the peace beyond all understanding’ as they watch through the vigils of the night. The visit to the baths is a powerful reminder, and often a re-kindling, of the life of faith first given in baptism.

As in Galilee, so in Lourdes. Oh, except for one thing. Another clear-as-day memory from my first visit is seeing Cardinal Gray of Edinburgh walking along a crowded street in his scarlet finery, pulling hard on a cigarette. May Mary and all the saints welcome him, cigarette or no, to the heavenly kingdom.

This reflection was first published in the parish newsletter of St Dominic's, London NW5

Week 5 Monday (Year 1)

Readings: Genesis 1:1-19; Psalm 104; Mark 6:53-56

For many philosophers and religious thinkers the beginning of the world is imagined as either a re-arrangement of some raw material already there, or an out-flowing from God's own substance. The Bible offers a third view: creation began simply and solely in the wise love of God.

Today, the view of modern scientists about the beginning of the world seems to be edging closer to religious ideas. Physicists speak about the 'big bang', about infinity, and about a 'singularity' of which nothing can be said scientifically. Christianity speaks about the 'mystery’ of creation, about a moment in which all things began (including our space/time, so it is not really a 'moment') and about a unique change (which is not strictly speaking a change at all) from nothing to something, to something very beautiful.

We read in the Bible that creation came about through the word of God. God simply said 'Let there be light' and so it was. The word of God, on which creation depends, originated in the heart and mind of God. God is an artist whose wisdom and intelligence are reflected in whatever God creates.

The people of Israel believed that from the very beginning, the word or wisdom of God was involved in creation. They went further: they believed that the Law given to Moses brought the wisdom of God into the hearts of those who hear it and fulfil its demands with generosity and love. It is in your mouth, in your heart, for your observance (Deuteronomy 30).

Christian faith goes further again. The word of God became flesh in Jesus Christ. This man, our brother, is the Word and Wisdom of God present within creation and history. Jesus is the firstborn of all creation, all things were created in him, through him and for him, and he holds all things in unity (Colossians 1). This is a remarkable belief, that Jesus, sent by the Father, makes present within creation the wise love which is the source and sustaining power of creation itself.

For Christians, the word of God is not simply some cold and rational intelligence. The word of God is a Word breathing love. So creation should be seen not only as an act of power but also as an act of mercy. God, taking pity on what is not anything at all, calls everything into being.

This is a restoration more wonderful than that of the man who had fallen into the hands of robbers, and it is more wonderful than the calling forth of Lazarus from the dead. The act of creation, by which God makes things to be and maintains them in being, is a work of compassion, a free and generous act of love. The compassion of Jesus towards the sick is the compassion of the Creator made flesh.

The word of God is in God. The word of God is within creation holding it in being. The word of God is in the scriptures which contain God's law and the promise of God's Spirit. The word of God became flesh and we have come to know him, Jesus Christ. The word of God is in human understanding, particularly when we understand something of God as creator and redeemer.

This places the human being in a unique position in regard to creation. Not only do we receive it from God but we are asked to care for it, to understand its nature and to guide it towards fulfilment. Since we are the image and likeness of God our creator, the word of God in us makes us creative creatures who experience but who also share the wise love of God.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Week 5 Sunday (Year C)

Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 137; 1 Corinthians 15:1-22; Luke 5:1-11

There is nothing wrong about feeling unworthy in the presence of God. In fact it seems like a healthy reaction. Which of us, faced with the glory of God’s perfect love, would feel able to stand? Isaiah experienced that glory in a vision he had in the Temple at Jerusalem, and felt unworthy. Peter experienced it in his encounter with Jesus, and felt sinful. They fell to their knees, dismayed by their poverty.

That Peter reacted to Jesus as Isaiah did in the Temple reminds us of something central to the New Testament. God’s dwelling is not now a religious building in a particular place: God’s dwelling is Jesus Christ. The glory experienced by Isaiah is hidden within Jesus. Our dealings with God, and God’s dealings with us, take place now through the body of Jesus Christ. It is because we have been made members of that body through baptism that we have access to the Father when we pray in the name of the Son. But Peter has not yet learned all this. For the moment all he knows is that the power of God is working through Jesus and he is not worthy to stand in its presence.

Saint Catherine of Siena, a great mystic of the 14th century, quotes God saying to her ‘I am He who is and you are she who is not’. Saint Paul puts it like this in the second reading today: ‘by grace I am what I am’. If he worked harder than any of the other apostles, it was ‘not I but the grace of God that is with me’. This is a lesson that is learned only with great difficulty. Isaiah has a burning coal placed against his lips: thus purified he can speak the Word of God to the people. Peter has many trials and difficulties to undergo in following Christ. Paul too gained his wisdom through much suffering. And of course Jesus himself, although he was Son, learned obedience through what he suffered. 

Like Peter we are invited to ‘put out into the deep’, to be courageous and generous in our efforts at following Christ. We will fail often, and perhaps seriously, as Peter did. But we are in good company, for so many have walked this path before us, the path to our true identity: ‘by grace I am what I am’.

First published in The Pastoral Review, January-February 2007

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Week 4 Saturday (Year 1)

Readings: Hebrews 13:15-17, 20-21; Psalm 22; Mark 6:30-34

We have been reading the Letter to the Hebrews, a text of extraordinary richness. One of its main themes is the 'once for all - ness' of the sacrifice of Christ. In place of the sin-offerings of the temple, offered each day, for the priest himself as well as for others, not guaranteed to be effective, there is the sacrifice Jesus offered once, for all, as the perfect high priest, able to sympathise with sinners in their weakness although he is himself without sin, a sacrifice that achieves the eternal perfection of all whom he is sanctifying.

I once heard Thomas Torrance, a distinguished Protestant theologian, rejecting attacks on Catholic teaching and practice from fellow Presbyterians. He knew, and he told them, that the best modern theology in defence of the uniqueness of the sacrifice of Christ, its 'inalienability', is from Catholic theologians.

And yet in the liturgy and in spirituality we continue to speak of ourselves offering sacrifices: the sacrifice of praise offered each day in the Liturgy of the Hours, for example, the sacrifice of good works, thanksgiving, charity, penance, offer it up, works of reparation, the Mass itself as a sacrifice: so many activities and virtues of the Christian life are thought of as 'sacrificial'. Saint Augustine writes about sacrifice in his work On the City of God. There he says that anything can be a sacrifice, any act designed to unite us to God and any human work done for the sake of God. Of course we offer all these sacrifices, as we offer all our prayers, through Christ our Lord and in union with him. There is no true sacrifice apart from his sacrifice just as there is no true prayer apart from his prayer.

The section of Hebrews we read today speaks about this. The sacrifice of praise means referring everything to God, continually, at all times and in all places. It is to be unending, our only obsession. There is also a sacrifice of obedience implied in what the author says about leaders in the community: defer to them as they carry a responsibility before God for you.

Leaders speak as we see from the gospel reading. They come up with words. The apostles reported all they had done and taught. Jesus' compassion moves him to teach the people at length, to give them knowledge, meaning, wisdom, words. The sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving requires words. But sometimes we are lost for words because our experiences are profound and we are in awe or afraid or overcome. When lost for words with which to offer our praise and thanksgiving we turn to leaders, teachers, pastors, healers - they provide us with words.

According to the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is the 'pioneer and perfecter' of our faith, the Leader and Teacher, the Pastor and Healer, the Word who continues to generate words in us so that we can express our desire for Him and give voice to our praise of His glory.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Week 4 Friday (Year 1)

Readings: Hebrews 13:1-8; Psalm 27; Mark 6:14-29

So who is the prisoner and who is the free man? Obviously John the Baptist is the free man and Herod is the prisoner. Justice, integrity and truth shape the soul of John the Baptist and make him free. Lust, pride and gluttony shape the soul of Herod and turn him into a fumbling, dangerous fool. John lives in the freedom that comes from being convinced of the truth. Herod believes he can shape reality to suit his own desires and purposes and so lives in permanent slavery. He twists and turns, perplexed by John but wanting to listen to him, dismayed at the girl's request but afraid of seeming weak in front of his guests.

The martyrs often die, in the end, for defending something that others might thing not worth dying for. Refusing Henry VIII's oath of supremacy? Condemning Herod's adultery? Refusing to burn incense to an idol? Why should good people give their lives for things like this? Surely some compromise, some acceptable toleration or interpretation could be found that would spare good people for the world. Choose a lesser evil, some might say. Don't let the best get in the way of the good. 'God will understand.'

But there is for us only this bodily life. This is where we find meaning and purpose, truth and integrity. These are not just ideas that are abstract, detached, and disincarnate. We only experience them embodied, either in the physical body or the social body, the body of the family or the body of the Church, the political body or the body created by our commitments and relationships. The first reading today anticipates so much of later Christian morality. We should act as it directs, we are told, because 'we also are in the body'. The life of faith is lived out in hospitality, care for prisoners, respect for marriage, contentment with what you have, loyalty to good leaders. None of these things can be done in theory only, they must be done in practice. That means they must be done in our bodies, acted out physically.

It remains the case: all the characteristically 'Catholic' issues in ethics are about the right treatment and use of bodies. This is a point on which the Church and modern thought have now diverged significantly. The Church believes not just that human beings have souls but that human beings are bodies. Many people will think that modern thought champions the body whereas Catholicism is 'spiritual' and not in the real world. But the opposite is the truth because the Church 'remembers its leaders', its apostles and teachers and martyrs, other parts of the same body who teach us how to live in that body.

The Church believes not just that human beings have souls but that human beings are bodies. We see the truth of this very clearly in the flabby shape of Herod disintegrating as a human being because of the things he does in the body, the things he does with the bodies of other people. We see it very clearly also from the other side in the heroic shape of John the Baptist, because of the things he does in the body, preaching and baptising, as well as the things that are done to him in the body. Whenever the Church celebrates its martyrs, it remembers them not just as victims of cruel persecution in what was done to their bodies but as people who remained completely free in what they did with their bodies, in the service of Christ and his people.