Sunday, 19 May 2019

Easter Week 5 Sunday (Year C)

Readings: Acts 14:21-27; Psalm 145; Revelation 21:1-5a; John 13:31-33a, 34-35

‘April showers bring forth May flowers’ was one of our chants as children. I think it was part of a skipping rhyme, to accompany the beat of the rope against the cracked pavements of Dublin 12. Or perhaps it was just a saying we threw at one another to show that we were finding our bearings in this part of the world, the temperate rather than the tropical zone and all that. For the winter just past, of course, we have to add March showers, and February showers, and all the other showers that have fallen since last October.

May has attracted more attention than most of the months of the year. It is a time of extraordinary fertility after the death of winter. New life appears through what feels like a kind of miracle. From nowhere, so it seems, fresh young green sprouts on bushes and trees. May’s ‘darling buds’ are suddenly everywhere. The cherry blossom explodes to scatter its pink snowflakes along the streets. Insects re-appear and the birds turn their minds to homebuilding and singing.

May has long been regarded in the Church as Mary’s special month. May and flowers, flowers and Mary seems to be one link between the Mother of Jesus and this month of the year. For the Christian Church she is the most fragrant of God’s creatures and is given Biblical names like ‘rose of Sharon’ and ‘lily of the valley’. It was she, after all, who gave birth to Jesus, the ‘noble flower of Judah’ who is the source of all life and the source of all renewed life.

Mary is identified in the Church with Wisdom or ‘Sophia’, who describes herself in Sirach 24 as a cedar grown tall on Lebanon, as a cypress on Mount Hermon, as a palm in Engedi (that delightful pocket of life on the shores of an otherwise Dead Sea), as a rose bush of Jericho. The Wisdom of the Lord, we read, is like an olive, like a plane tree, like the acacia, like a vine putting out graceful shoots. Imagine all those trees and shrubs growing together, intertwined, the rich fragrance of their scent, their flowers, their fruits.

Fruitfulness then, of May and of Mary. But May and maid, maid and Mary is another link between Mary and the month we will soon be in. The fruitfulness of May seems like a kind of virginal fruitfulness. Where has all this new life come from? The fresh green, the young lambs, the newborn chicks – they represent a kind of innocence and purity, something unspoilt and as yet unsoiled.

At Mass each day we address Mary as ‘the Virgin, Mother of God’. (Or is it ‘the Virgin Mother of God’?) Either way she has been thought of as the virgin-mother, a paradox which points to the creative power of God who brings things into being without loss, without need, without violence.

Every culture has its thoughts and feelings about virginity and ours is no exception. Feminist criticisms of male ways of thinking about women oblige us to think again about our images of Mary and the implications we draw from them. But the scriptures themselves invite us to think of her in this way because they invite us to think of the Church in this way.

So the second reading at Mass this Sunday speaks of the Church coming down from God out of heaven ‘as beautiful as a bride all dressed for her husband’ (Apocalypse 21.2). This Church is the community of believers who have been through the great persecution (Apocalypse 7). The woman pursued by the devil symbolises this community and for us this is also Mary the first among believers (Apocalypse 12). The devil, enraged at her rescue, devotes the short time he has left to harassing and persecuting her children.

This may seem a bit, well, apocalyptic. The important point for now is this: that the community of believers who make up the Church is a community of the battered and tattered and spoilt and soiled. Paul and Barnabas remind their listeners that ‘we all have to experience many hardships before we enter the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14.22 – today’s first reading). May flowers only come after April showers.

What shines through in us is not the innocence of lamb or nestling but the power of God to create and to re-create. ‘Now I am making the whole of creation new’ God says through the seer of the Apocalypse (21.5). What seems paradoxical to us is not so for God. Sin will be no more. Death gives way to life. The virgin is also a mother. The Church which some believe to be 'beyond redemption' is the ark of redemption for a fallen world. The community that experiences many hardships, and has grown old and ill under their weight, is journeying towards a promised land where ‘everyone is a firstborn son’ (Hebrews 12.23).

Friday, 17 May 2019

The Third Commandment


God commands the people to rest after six days of work and to keep the seventh day as a Sabbath to the Lord. According to the Book of Exodus the reason for this is that the Lord made all things in six days, rested on the seventh, and so blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (Exodus 20:8-11). According to the Book of Deuteronomy, the reason is so that the people might remember that they were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord brought them out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm (Deuteronomy 5:12-14).

The great acts of God – creation, redemption – are to be remembered on the seventh day and this is why the people are to rest and keep it holy. They are to remember God, God’s gifts, and God’s actions on their behalf. They are to remember that it is in God’s world they live and that their history too is within God’s care.

Christians, of course, no longer observe the Sabbath day. Instead they keep holy the Lord’s Day, Sunday, the first day of the week. Not that they have forgotten the great work of creation. Christians see creation transformed by God’s power into the new creation that begins with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Nor have they forgotten the great work of redemption, when God led the people out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in a promised land. Christians see this first exodus as pointing towards a greater exodus, the one accomplished by Jesus when he passed through death into the freedom of eternal life.

The Lord’s Day is both the first, and the eighth, day of the week, the day of creation and new creation, the day of redemption and eternal redemption. Christians believe they have even more reason to celebrate this day, remembering God and the wonderful things God has now done in Christ for all people.

In many places Sunday has become a day for remembering shopping rather than God. More and more, Sunday seems to be Mammon’s day rather than the Lord’s. It can seem old-fashioned and fuddy-duddy to say that Sunday should be kept different from other days of the week. Common sense ought to tell us that life will become very tedious indeed if every day is exactly the same, if we have no feasts, no times for rest, no interruptions to the ordinary run of days. But the ‘iron reign’ of commerce tends more and more to invade the days of rest. Already the holy days that used to remind people of the more important kingdom to which they belong – Epiphany, Whit Monday, Ascension Thursday, Corpus Christi – these are being pushed aside by the demands of business and bureaucracy.

What is in danger of being lost is a sense of grace, of free gift, of God’s sheltering wings beneath which we are invited to rest. Sometimes people think that pushing God away will leave more space and freedom for human beings. But experience shows that it is exactly the opposite. A God-less world inevitably becomes inhuman. We need God to teach us how to be human. Human beings flourish only in the light and warmth of love, grace, gratitude, generosity, friendship and peace. The Sabbath of the Old Testament and the Lord’s Day of the New Testament guarantee that there will be free time each week to remember these things, to enjoy and celebrate them, and to think about the One who is their source.

The most important way of keeping the Lord’s Day holy is through attendance at the Eucharist. From the earliest times this has been the practice of Christians. ‘Leave everything on the Lord’s Day’, an early writer says, ‘and run diligently to your assembly, because it is your praise of God. What excuse will they make to God, those who do not come together on the Lord’s Day to hear the word of life and feed on the divine nourishment which lasts forever?’

In 1998 Pope John Paul II published Dies Domini, a letter about keeping the Lord’s Day holy. It is a wonderful meditation on the spiritual riches of Sunday, riches freely offered so that people might enjoy the rest they long for.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

The Second Commandment


God names the first great creatures that come into being at his all-powerful word – night, day, heaven, earth and seas (Genesis 1:4,8,10). The human creature then names the birds and animals (Genesis 2:19). This is another way of saying that the human being is in God’s image, given dominion over all else that is on the earth. The human creature shares in God’s understanding of creation in ways that other creatures cannot. That appreciation is seen in the human capacity for knowledge and truth. In this we are like God.

To abuse our gifts for knowledge and truth is a betrayal not only of our own nature but also of God who is the truth of all things. The first commandment prohibits the making of images to represent God and this extends also to the language we use about God. We must not turn that language into a kind of idol, as if it ‘contains’ God. At the same time we have to use some language to refer to God even though we know it is not adequate. We call God ‘Creator’ and ‘Father’, ‘Wise’ and ‘Good’ but we do not really know what these words mean when applied to God.

The second commandment is concerned not so much with the adequacy of our language about God as with the use we make of it. In particular it prohibits perjury and all other forms of false witness. To lie is bad enough, but to call God as a witness to one’s lying (‘so help me God’) adds a deeper level of wickedness to it.

In contrast to idols that are dead and misleading, the God of Israel is alive and true. To attach God’s name to falsehood is to abuse it in a very fundamental way, putting it at the service of something that is directly contrary to what God is. If I swear to something using the name of God I am calling as a witness to my swearing the one who is Truth itself and always faithful. If what I am saying is false then clearly I am doing something perverse in claiming that Truth itself endorses my lie.

The hour of Jesus’ paschal mystery is the final showdown between the kingdom of Satan and the kingdom of God. In St John’s Gospel these two kingdoms are contrasted in a number of ways – life and death, light and darkness, truth and falsehood. Satan is ‘the father of lies’ whereas Jesus is ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (8:44; 14:6). In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus speaks about the practice of swearing oaths and says that in his kingdom of truth such swearing should not be necessary. ‘All you need say is ‘Yes’ if you mean yes, and ‘No’ if you mean no; anything more than this comes from the evil one’ (Matthew 5:37).

Saint Paul later echoes this teaching. A worldly person says ‘Yes and No at once’, Paul writes. ‘Jesus Christ was not Yes and No but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why we utter the Amen through him, to the glory of God’ (2 Corinthians 1:19-20).

Thus we see the point of the second commandment. God is faithful and true and so the name of God should only be used in relation to what is faithful and true. To misuse that name, to ‘take it in vain’, is to distort reality intolerably, to act in a way that is deeply confused and confusing, for it means trying to make God a party to falsehood.

Jews have always sought to honour the name of God and to respect the holiness of that ‘great name’, in line with the second commandment. Christians try to live in the same way but see it extended now to include the name ‘Jesus’. Why should this human name, shared with Joshua in the Old Testament, be included in a commandment about God’s name? The answer is because it is the human name of the Son of God. Jesus is the eternal word and wisdom of the Father. We ought always to honour the name of Jesus and use it only with reverence.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

The First Commandment


There are many similarities between the code of laws by which the people of Israel lived and those by which their neighbours lived. One striking difference, however, is the absolute prohibition of any attempt to make an image of Yahweh, the God of Israel.

The reason for this is that Yahweh wished to enter into a direct and living relationship with His people. The central reality of the Old Testament is not some mysterious statue in a temple, but is rather the "covenant" or "agreement" established between God and His people. "I want to be your God and I want you to be my people."

The Bible also teaches that the best image of God to be found in the world is the human being. This is the climax of the account of creation in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis: 'Let us make the human being in our image and after our own likeness'.

To try to make an image of this God using some material taken from the natural world is, then, an insult both to God who remains free of all such representations, and to ourselves who are the living images of God.

Of course there were statues and images used to decorate the Temple in Jerusalem, but none of these was of God. In the Holy of Holies, above the Ark of the Covenant, the outstretched wings of two golden angels supported – an empty space! This was regarded by the Hebrews as the best physical representation of Yahweh's presence with his people. Like the angels on the Ark of the Covenant, the human heart, human life, is 'open', waiting, looking for its fulfilment from beyond itself, in the relationship of love which God has established with us.

The first commandment comes to us in the form of law, a rule as to how we should behave. But in this case, the lawgiver, and his relationship to his people, can never be forgotten. The lawgiver loves his people. The judge is also the father of his people. Moses knew this better than most.

The Lord was tempted to disown his people when they disobeyed the first commandment and worshipped a golden calf as if it were their god. He said to Moses, 'your people whom you brought out of Egypt, have apostatised'. But Moses knew that this was not the reality, and he reminded God of this: 'Lord, why should your wrath blaze out against this people of yours whom you brought out of the land of Egypt'. Moses reminded God of the covenant, of the promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, promises which God had made 'by his own self'. Faced with this, God relented.

It is an extraordinary episode. No appeal could be made on the basis of the law, since the people were obviously not obeying the law. Moses appealed to the Father and lover of his people, to the covenant which he had made with them, to the way in which Yahweh had committed himself to his people – and faithful to Himself, Yahweh relented.

How could such a God be represented by stone or metal or wood? It is only in his dealings with his people in his mercy and compassion, in his patience and tenderness, that Yahweh, the God of Israel, the Father of Jesus, is 'seen'.

Jesus' story of the Prodigal Son is a powerful representation of what our God is like. No statue, no picture, could capture this God who is 'prodigal' and infinitely generous with his mercy and forgiveness. It is Jesus Christ who is the most perfect image or ikon of God, turning the Father's heart towards his children to reveal God's love, turning the hearts of men and women towards their Father. Our God is who He is and there is no image of Him save the relationship of love which the Father, in his Son, has established also with us. It is an image that is tenderly human, infinitely kind: Jesus Christ who came to show us the eternal King, the undying, invisible and only God.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Saint Matthias - 14 May

Readings: Acts 1:15-17, 20-26; Psalm 113; John 15:9-17

St John Chrysostom says that Peter could have appointed someone to take Judas's place but he chose not to and consulted the disciples. 'In any case he had not yet received the Spirit', Chrysostom adds. Thomas Aquinas says that it was acceptable to choose Matthias by casting lots because the Spirit had not yet been poured on the Church. After Pentecost, however, it is not appropriate to choose spiritual leaders in that way. Now spiritual leaders must be chosen through the reflection, conversation and decision of colleges of human beings because this is the normal way in which the Spirit works in the Church.

It is a politics of friendship, if you like. It is a fulfillment of the friendship with God which Jesus has established. From it arises also a new kind of friendship between human beings, all of whom share the same Spirit. It is not just a new friendship with God that Christ makes possible but a new kind of friendship among men and women.

No longer servants, we are friends of Christ and so friends of God. Friendship with God is another way of naming grace. It implies equality, mutuality, sharing, communication, loving. But it implies all those things understood Christologically. We can sometimes fall back into reducing the Christian faith to a kind of philosophy, a set of ideas which have a certain, abstract, truth, ideals that it is good to aspire to and to live by.

But the Christian faith is qualitatively different from even the best philosophy because it is centred not on an idea or even on an ideal but on a Person. It is about persons in relationship: the Father with the Son in the Holy Spirit; the Father and the Son come to dwell in the disciples by the power of the Spirit; Jesus in the disciples and they in him; the Blessed Trinity abiding in the hearts and minds of those who love Him; human beings called to abide in the word and commandment and life and love of Jesus, and to bring all that into their relationships with each other.

Put much more simply, keep an eye out for the little word 'as' in the discourses of Jesus recorded in John's gospel. In today's gospel passage alone we find it a few times. As the Father loved me so I have loved you. If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love as I have kept the Father's commandments and remain in his love. Love one another as I have loved you. Christ is the key, the link, the mediation between the Divine Love and Friendship and the human participation in that Love and Friendship.

An apostle is one who has been with Christ from the beginning. He has been in the community of formation that is the band of disciples and apostles, witnessing and hearing everything from the baptism of Jesus by John to his resurrection from the dead. It is not just a matter of time spent in the company of Jesus. It is about being one of the friends to whom Jesus has made known everything he has learned from the Father. One of the greatest blessings of friendship is the joy of knowing and being known, trusting enough to share oneself with one's friend, experiencing the security of entrusting oneself completely.

The Church is Apostolic in this sense, a community of men and women who have become the friends of Jesus, who have spent long years in his company, who have entrusted their lives and their hearts to him as he has entrusted his life and his heart to us. It is only ever through Christ, and with Christ, and in Christ, experiencing things as He experienced them, knowing as He knows, seeing as He sees, doing as He does, being as He is, loving as He loves. And persevering in this friendship until we know even as we have been known, and then become capable of loving even as we have been loved.