Saturday, 24 June 2017

Birthday of John the Baptist

According to the gospel of Luke the annunciation to Mary took place ‘in the sixth month’ of the pregnancy of Elizabeth (Luke 1.26). So their two boys, John the Baptist and Jesus, are taken to have been born six months apart. We celebrate the birthday of Jesus on 25 December and so, by a certain kind of literal logic, we celebrate the birthday of John the Baptist on 24 June. (Why a day’s difference though?)

Of course we have no idea when either child was born. In the early Christian centuries the celebration of the birth of Christ came to replace the pagan celebration of the winter solstice. The shortest day of the year sees the sun turn around and begin its ascent northwards. The festival of ‘sol invictus’, the unconquered sun, was replaced in Christendom with the festival of the birth of ‘sol iustitiae’, the sun of justice, Christ the Lord.

It means also that the birthday of John the Baptist coincides, more or less, with the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.  Celebrations of Saint John’s Night owe something to the natural instinct to mark these turning points in the earth’s year. Older pagan celebrations were baptised by Christianity, taken over and given a new meaning. Already in the Bible the Jewish festivals are combined celebrations of the events of salvation history and the seasonal changes of the year, sowing and springtime and harvest.

Can we take something, then, from the fact that we celebrate John’s birth at midsummer? At a time when the light in the northern hemisphere is at its strongest and brightest we celebrate the birth of one who ‘was not himself the light but came as a witness to the light’ (John 1.8). Just as the intense light of dawn can be confused with that of sunset, it was not immediately clear whether John might not be the light promised by God. Some of his followers and some of the Jewish leaders wondered whether John might be the Messiah.

But he is clear that there is someone greater coming after him, one of his own followers, one baptised by him and that this one is ‘the true light who was coming into the world’ (John 1.9). John is a ‘herald’ who announces the arrival of someone more important than himself and he points out Jesus to his disciples, recognising him as ‘the lamb of God’ (John 1.36). We see John, in the gospels, making Jesus known, pointing him out and sending others to him.

Jesus in turn says that John the Baptist is the greatest of human beings. There is no prophet as great as he is. John is so totally given to his mission that he is called simply ‘a voice’, crying in the wilderness, calling God’s people to repent, return and prepare for the coming of the Lord. Like all the prophets John excites opposition and criticism. Eventually he will be executed at the command of Herod but before that the religious leaders had campaigned against him, accusing him of being possessed by demons (Matthew 11.18). As well as being the voice of prophetic consolation, this new Elijah is a ‘troubler of Israel’ as much as he is her comforter.

The light that shines from John the Baptist is the grace and holiness of God’s people of the old covenant. Among all those just men and women who looked forward to the deliverance of Israel, John stands at the head. He straddles two epochs in the history of God’s relationship with human beings because the preaching of the Christian gospel begins with the preaching of John the Baptist. When John appeared in the wilderness, what Saint Paul calls ‘the fullness of time’ (Galatians 4.4; Ephesians 1.10) had arrived.

From now on the days will shorten and the sun decline in the northern hemisphere. But it remains midsummer in God’s relationship with his people. Winter is over and summer has come. Sin and death have been conquered by the one to whom John points. Christ our Saviour is always with us, shining even in the darkness. This is midsummer indeed, to see ‘the light of the glory of the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4.5). The finger of John the Baptist points always to Him who is the Light that the darkness can never overcome (John 1.5).

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Week 11 Tuesday (Year 1)

Readings: 2 Corinthians 8;1-9; Psalm 146; Matthew 5:43-48

Today's readings link the grace of Christ with money, something we might hesitate about doing in such a straightforward way. But this is one of the great strengths of Saint Paul: he refers everything to Christ seeking always to illuminate problems and questions with the light of Christ and His work, the most practical of questions and the most perennial of human problems. The questions and problems then become part of their own solution because they are occasions for Paul to lead his readers deeper into the mystery of Christ.

The letters to the Corinthians are the texts in which we see most clearly how Paul does this. The problems of the young Christian community in Corinth are surprisingly familiar: not just money but questions about sex, power, authority, tradition, liturgy, factions, contrasting approaches to theology and spirituality, gossip, detraction ... the list could go on. In responding to each of these issues Paul has a consistent strategy: refer everything to Christ, understand the problem in the light of Christ, and propose a solution that comes from Christ.

The first reading today is the beginning of a two chapter appeal for money, Paul asking his communities to support the church in Jerusalem. The Macedonian Christians have given generously and freely, he says, from resources that they could not really spare and in spite of the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves. What about you Corinthians, are you prepared to be generous from your more prosperous situation? Strong as you are in faith, discourse, earnestness, knowledge and love, can you be strong also in generosity?

It might seem like he wants to put them on a guilt trip so it is important to remember the deeper motivation to which he appeals. Notice how often the term grace appears in this first reading. What the Macedonians have been able to do is a sure sign of the grace of God working in them. They were eager to share in the gracious work of the collection for Jerusalem, seeking from Paul the favour (again the term used is grace) of participating (literally being in communion) in this gracious work.

From there Paul moves immediately to the grace of Christ, his gracious work, and this is Paul's most radical use of the term charis. Though He was rich Christ made himself poor so that we who are poor might become rich. It is one of the most frequently quoted of Paul's statements and it comes in an appeal for money. Our love is not to be merely in words or aspirations but in actions and in sincerity, in concrete and practical actions.

Although the term grace is not used in the passage from Matthew that we read today, it is used frequently in Luke's version of the same passage. If you love those who love you what payment would you get, asks Jesus in Matthew? In Luke's version he says 'what grace is there in that'. If you salute those who salute you, what more is there in that? What generosity is there in it, what is unusual about it? In Luke's version Jesus says, once again, and in reply to two similar questions, 'what grace is there in that'. Instead you are to be like the heavenly Father, his children, acting beyond the call of duty, entering the realm of generosity and spontaneity, showing kindness and mercy not according to strict commerical criteria of exchange but following the law of love and compassion. Famously, Matthew has Jesus concluding that we are to 'be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect' where Luke has him concluding that we are to 'be merciful even as your Father is merciful'. This is the perfection of the heavenly Father, his mercy.

So the motivation of our generosity, the reasons why we ought to live gracefully, mercifully and with compassion, is not just in order to outdo others who are living in the same way. It is in order to be truly living the life of Christ which we have received, a life characterised through and through by grace, mercy and compassion. It is in order to be truly the children of God, to be like our Heavenly Father who is bringing us to birth in this new life, a God who is love and mercy and compassion. The generosity of God is seen in the rain falling indiscriminately and the sun shining extravagantly. The grace of Christ is seen where the rich and the powerful spend themselves on behalf of the poor and the weak.

We are the recipients of many graces and these graces call us to generous service. We can summarise the message with another statement of Paul's, this time from Ephesians (5:1-2): 'imitate God as beloved children and walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us'.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Week 11 Monday (Year 1)

Readings: 2 Corinthians 6:1-10; Psalm 98; Matthew 5:38-42

The 'second mile' is clearly recognised in Christian theology: Jesus is the one to speak of it, in today's passage from the Sermon on the Mount. Biblical critics might be quick to explain away these outrageous demands as hyperbolic language, the graphic speech of one who was, after all, a poet. They are not strictly 'laws' that Christians must obey - so the critic will continue. They are attempts to communicate the spirit of Jesus' own approach to people - a prodigal generosity, whose virtue lies in its freedom, precisely in the fact that it is not prescribed but is done out of love.

We do not depend on this one scripture text however to ground a 'theology of the second mile'. This is part not just of our Christian knowledge, of the tradition of what Jesus said, but is also part of our talk about God Himself, part of our theology in the deepest and simplest meaning of the word: discourse about God. Our God is a God who is always ready to walk a second mile with us.

The God we have come to know in Jesus Christ is, in one sense, an irrational lover. Anselm (in Cur Deus Homo II.13) speaks of the 'supreme wisdom' of the Incarnation, not just a reckless love. He is the God of the Old Testament, of course, Creator and Redeemer of Israel. He drove Adam and Eve out of Eden but himself made clothes for them before they left (Genesis 3:21). He punished Cain for his crime against his brother but marked him to protect him from being murdered in his turn (Genesis 4:15). The earth became so corrupt that God decided to annihilate it. Yet again he cannot finally desert man, for he calls Noah and saves him. He tells Noah what to do to escape the flood and when the time comes it is God himself who closes the door of the ark behind Noah and his family (Genesis 7:16).

When sin increased on the earth again God scattered the peoples of the world and separated them from each other. For the first time people spoke different languages. It is a way of explaining the emergence of different cultures, different mentalities, different traditions. It is a way of explaining the beginning of large scale mistrust, ignorance, fear, rivalry, violence. Yet it was precisely at this moment of deepest gloom, when the melting-pot of all the races of humankind emerged, that the Lord said to Abram, 'leave your country, your family and your father's house for the land I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you, and make your name great ... and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves' (Genesis 12:1-3).

This is the God of Israel. This is what He is like. He set in motion a great plan to win again the love of human beings. He called His special people out of slavery into a land of their own. He nurtured their life, protected them and made sure that they were safe to worship Him. Yet they sinned and turned from Him. They turned to gods with whom they could live in greater comfort. These were gods who would keep their covenants.

Their own God, Yahweh, did not keep His covenant. His love for His people prevented Him from implementing the curses which the covenant obliged Him to carry out in the event of their infidelity. He never did, although He was sorely tried. And when it seemed that His rejection of His people was total, and final, and they mournfully chanted by the waters of Babylon, He gave in again and made this exile the occasion for a new exodus, a new covenant, a fresh beginning for this promiscuous bride (Hosea, Ezekiel).

The story went on as before. The story goes on as before. God came again to a new beginning, a covenant which would this time be final because sealed in the blood of His Only Son - and what else is left? This was the fulness of God's time. It did not matter that men were still sinners - precisely in this was the love of God clearest, that it was while we were sinners that God sent His Only Son to be the sacrifice that takes our sins away. This was the 'second mile', the bit He did not really have to do - in fact there was none of it that God 'had to do', right back to the first stirrings of human life under the breath of God's mothering Spirit. John the Theologian draws the conclusion from God's 'second mile' - if God so loves us, we also ought to be loving one another in this way.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Corpus Christi (Year A)

Readings: Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14-16; Psalm 147; 2 Corinthians 10:16-17; John 6:51-58

Jesus tells his disciples that the difference between the bread given to the Hebrews in the wilderness and the bread he gives, which is his own flesh for the life of the world, is that the people who ate the first are dead whereas the people who eat the second will live forever. Clearly it does not mean that physical dying can now be bypassed. Everybody dies and everybody who eats the Eucharist also dies. Jesus acknowledges this as well: ‘I will raise him up on the last day’, he says, and it is only people who have died who need raising up on the last day.

So whatever the difference is between the two kinds of bread it is not that one allows its eaters to avoid physical death. What kind of immortality, then, is bestowed by eating the real food which is his flesh and drinking the real drink which is his blood? The bread given to the Hebrews in the wilderness was a miraculous sign to sustain them physically as they were being initiated into the covenant relationship with God. The bread given to the disciples of Jesus, which is his flesh for the life of the world, is a sacramental sign to sustain them in the new life they receive from Him.

In baptism the disciples die and rise to new life, and it is this new life that is sustained by the bread which is the flesh of Jesus for the life of the world. It is not simply a prolongation of our animal life, even on the far side of death, nor is it simply a new level given to this same life. It is a new and eternal life, the life which the Son draws eternally from the Father. The principle of this life, its power and energy, is the Holy Spirit sent from the Father and the Son, to animate the body which  is the Church, to embrace the world, to open the door to eternal life for all.

In the sacramental realization of this feeding the Church twice invokes the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is called down on the bread and wine so that by the power of the Spirit they might become the body and blood of Christ. The Spirit is called down on those who receive this communion in the bread and in the blessing cup, so that by the power of the Spirit they might become one body, one spirit in Christ.

The feast we celebrate today focuses on this sacramental realization of the gift of a new and eternal life. Already received in baptism it is sustained in the Eucharist. Any life requires an initial birth and then an ongoing sustenance, likewise the new life received from Jesus requires the initial birth of baptism and the ongoing sustenance which is the Blessed Eucharist.

This way of communicating life to us is adapted to the kind of creature that we are. It is we who know hunger and thirst. It is we who know the difference between longing and satisfaction. It is we who know when we are far from the energy of this life and when, by God’s grace, it is flowing strongly in us. We know all this physically. It is also how we know what is in our inmost heart and it is how we come to understand that we do not live on bread alone but on everything that comes from the mouth of God.

There is also this analogy between the miraculous gift of manna in the desert and the sacramental gift of Christ’s body and blood. In each case the food given sustains its recipients on a journey. For the Hebrews it was the journey through a wilderness full of physical dangers. For the disciples of Jesus it is a journey through a world full of challenges. The disciples are not taken out of the world and the bread we eat is the flesh of Jesus given not just for us but for the life of the whole world. His work, and our participation in his work, is the transformation of the world.

This is a work of love, yes, but it is also an onerous task. Our participation in this onerous task of love requires, in the first place, the transformation of our hearts and souls if they are to be worthy dwelling places for Him. We need to deal with our own serpents and scorpions also.

Every Eucharistic communion is therefore viaticum, food for the journey. Our final Eucharistic communion is food for the journey from this world to the Father. But every reception of Holy Communion is food for the journey of the Christian life. There are serpents and scorpions, hunger and thirst, that afflict and distract us. Often their trick or their effect is simply to turn us in on ourselves and away from our neighbor and so away from God also. But the new and eternal life, the divine life we receive from the Holy Spirit, is always an ecstatic life. This does not mean that it brings strange and unusual feelings with it. It is ecstatic because it is a life that carries us beyond ourselves, to live like Christ, always for others and for the Father. The divine life flowing in Jesus led him to give the whole of his human life, to pour it out as a sacrificial offering, expressing his love and obedience to the Father. Before that he spent his days at the service of others, teaching and healing, strengthening and redeeming. So his flesh was given for the life of the world and his blood was poured out so that people might be washed in its healing streams.

Remember, says the first reading at Mass today, and do not forget, what the Lord did for you in the forty years of your wandering in the wilderness. Do this in memory of me, Jesus says in every celebration of the Eucharist. Remember and do not forget how the new and eternal life has been won for you. Remember and do not forget how the new and eternal life is sustained in you. Remember and do not forget the body in which you share this new and eternal life, those who sit at this table with you, and all who are called to share one day in the supper of the Lamb.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Week 10 Thursday (Year 1)

Readings: 2 Corinthians 3:15-4:1,3-6; Psalm 85; Matthew 5:20-26

Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor believed that Jesus had, naively, judged humanity too highly: 'it was created weaker and lower than Christ thought'. St John's Gospel on the other hand tells us that Jesus did not trust himself to them because he knew what was in everyone. No naivety in the Incarnate Word, then, only the fulness of truth, uncompromising justice, and endless mercy.

What kind of humanity is capable of living by the Sermon on the Mount? Its demands seem unreal even for personal relationships. For social and political decision making it seems even more remote and romantic. A political leader in Britain has just resigned saying he cannot combine being a Christian and being a political leader. The saints who come closest to living it out in practice are precisely the ones who say that they are far from what it demands.

We might imagine that it is humanity redeemed that can live like this. Is it not the ethics of the kingdom that we find in Matthew 5-7, not an ethics for this fallen and corrupt world where even good people end up doing terrible things, perhaps even convincing themselves that they are acting justly? Is it not an ethics for super-humanity, people graced and gifted with the Spirit not just 'in principle', as all the baptised are, but in the realisation of the Spirit's gifts?

It is more helpful, though, to think that this is how we would live were we to be simply and truly ourselves. This is the ethics of 'normal' humanity, our best selves, the people God knows us to be, people with hearts of flesh rather than hearts of stone. Lovers find themselves not only capable of living like this for the ones they love, they rush to live like this for the ones they love. The response of neighbours to the tower block fire in London bears witness to this common ground of humanity that all share - people of all faiths and none, of all races and classes, clubbing together to help other human beings in desperate need.

We might say that it does not endure, that the old man re-asserts himself sooner or later. But we do get glimpses of life in the kingdom, of what a civilisation of love might look like, where those who are truly loved become capable of loving, and those capable of loving are truly loved. Then there is no question of murder, obviously. And there is a new sensitivity to words like 'renegade' or 'fool', a new sensitivity not just to our actions and omissions, not just to what we say, but also to what we think, to those thoughts of anger or revenge that are never far from our door.

There are of course many good reasons to be angry. There is great energy in anger. In this world it is put at the service of revenge and oppression. In the kingdom of God such energy is put at the service of justice and mercy. The Grand Inquisitor might have thought the Incarnate Word was naive but it is he who is out of touch with reality, blind to the reality of God's anger. We see the energy of that divine anger in the resurrection of the Son from the dead. And we pray that God will continue to manifest His anger at sin in precisely the same way, by bringing about a new creation, a new kingdom, a humanity restored to itself.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Week 10 Wednesday (Year 1)

Readings: 2 Corinthians 3:4-11; Psalm 99; Matthew 5:17-19

One of the best preached retreats I experienced was given by Gordian Marshall, a Scottish Dominican who had spent much time working in Jewish-Christian relations. He spoke to us about the gospels as Jewish texts and it was, if the expression can be pardoned, a revelation. He helped us to see things that have become difficult for us to see, not just because we are (most of us) Gentiles but also because our mindset has been shaped by centuries of anti-Judaism, facile contrasts between the Old and the New Testaments, always at the expense of the Old. (If it were as simple as that why do we go on reading the Old Testament in our liturgies and acknowledging it to be, for us too, 'the Word of the Lord'?)

Today's readings invite us to reflect on this question. On the one hand Paul seems to endorse an 'anti-Judaist' interpretation of salvation history: the old dispensation, carved on tablets of stone and destined to pass, has faded. It has been replaced by a new dispensation, in the Spirit and destined to endure, whose glory surpasses the old. It seems straightforward: Christianity is better than Judaism.

But what Paul is saying here is itself Jewish teaching! We find it already in Jeremiah 31 which speaks of the new covenant that will be written on the heart rather than on stone, that will teach from within rather than from without, whereby all will know God. Jeremiah also speaks of the need for a 'circumcision of the heart' (Jer 4:4; 9:26), an interiorisation of the Law's teaching which is repeated many times in the Sermon on the Mount ('you have heard that it was said ... but I say this to you ...'). Likewise Deuteronomy (10:16; 30:6) and Ezekiel (44:7,9) speak of heart-circumcision, anticipating Paul who is eventually converted to this way of understanding (Romans 2:29).

These Old Testament texts clearly anticipate Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. In fact there is nothing in the content of the Sermon that is not found already in the Old Testament. Jesus stands firmly in the line of prophetic and wisdom teaching that we find in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Deuteronomy and Hosea.

When we think of the replacement of one covenant by another, therefore, we must think of it as radical, yes, but as organic, emerging within the living reality that is already there, like the fruit appearing on the tree. That is like the image Paul uses in Romans 9-11 to speak about the way in which the Christian faith depends, for its life, on Judaism: a wild olive branch grafted in, sharing the nourishing sap from the root. Do not consider yourselves superior, Paul says to the Gentiles (how was it that this came to be so comprehensively forgotten?): 'you do not support the root but the root supports you' (Romans 11:11-24).

Christians have done a good public relations job convincing the world that the Sermon on the Mount is the specifically Christian moral teaching. (It taught Gandhi to love Jesus although he was never convinced by Christians.) But its content is already fully present in Judaism. What is new is the Teacher who not only teaches but practises what the Law requires. Where is the Law fulfilled? It cannot be in a new text: the whole point is that the Law's fulfillment is not a text but a life in the Spirit. We might say the Law is fulfilled in the new commandment Jesus gives his disciples, to love one another as he has loved them. Yes, but it is that fulfillment not simply as a proposition or as a text or as a commandment articulated in words. St Augustine glosses Paul in today's first reading saying that even the letter of the gospel kills where it is read or taught without the Spirit.

What is new is the love itself, the Spirit, by whose power the Law is now heard and obeyed and fulfilled. This is the Spirit of Jesus who is (in spite of us) building the Church but who had already - it is in the Church's creed - 'spoken through the prophets'.