Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Presentation of Mary -- 21 November

In Praise of Older Women

The Book of Sirach invites us ‘to sing the praises of famous men, our ancestors in their generations’ (44.1). I would like to change that very slightly and sing the praises of famous women, the other half of our ancestry. I do this because during the second half of November the Church celebrates the memory of a number of great women, outstanding for learning and holiness. As married women, as mothers, as religious sisters or as single women, these heroines of the Christian people continue to inspire, if not in the universal church, then at least in some part of it.

Margaret of Scotland (d.1093), wife, mother and queen is remembered on November 16th as is Gertrude (d.1301), philosopher, scholar and spiritual teacher. November 17th is the feast of Elizabeth of Hungary (d.1231), wife of a German prince, mother of a large family, a woman devoted to prayer and the care of the poor.

November 22nd is the feast of Saint Cecilia, a Roman martyr who became (through a mistranslation of the account of her death, it must be admitted) patron saint of music and of musicians in the Church. The Passion of Saint Cecilia recounts the circumstances of her martyrdom and there has been a basilica in her honour at Rome since the 5th century.

Towards the end of the month in the old calendar came the feast of Saint Catherine of Alexandria (November 25th). There was a remarkable cult in her memory throughout Western Europe for many centuries. And she gives her name to a firework, the ‘catherine’ wheel. Legend has it that Catherine was a brilliant philosopher who confounded the pagan teachers of Alexandria with the depth and skill of her thinking. Sadly this Catherine, Christian philosopher, cannot be mentioned without speaking of her pagan counterpart, Hypatia, also of Alexandria, who died about 400. She too was a woman of great intelligence and religious insight, one of the last great philosophical teachers of the ancient world whose students included at least one Christian bishop, Synesius of Cyrene. It seems undeniable that Hypatia’s cruel murder came about through the envy and resentment of an ignorant Christian mob.

Gertrude the Great, already mentioned, stands at the centre of a group of remarkable women scholars and mystics of the high middle ages. She was taught by Mechtild of Hackeborn (d.1298) and they were later joined by Mechtild of Magdeburg (died about 1290), to name only the most famous of them. Although these women did not pass through the normal school system that was not always a disadvantage. They gave an independent slant to what they were learning, for example in being free not to follow Augustine in all he had to say about hell. For these women the love of God in Christ is stronger than any resistance it encounters and so it is Christian to hope for the salvation of all.

But back to November, and to today, November 21st, the day on which the Church celebrates the Presentation in the Temple of the Blessed Virgin Mary, her dedication to God from her earliest years. It is fitting that this remembrance of great women should end with reference to the Mother of the Lord, she who is ‘blessed among all women’. Certain kinds of piety and devotion sweeten her image and make her seem unreal, ethereal, idealised, a woman, yes, but hardly a woman of flesh and blood and so of less use to us than she ought to be.

The gospel texts about Mary paint a different picture. Her trust in the ways of God, her love and fidelity towards her Son, her prophetic praise of God in the Magnificat — all of this places her among the heroines of Israel: people like Esther and Judith, the mothers of the kings, Hannah and many other women, under the old and the new covenants, who have been courageous in faith, reliable in wisdom, and tender in love. We pray that we may be like her, like them.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Week 33 Monday (Year 1)

Readings: 1 Maccabees 1:10-15, 41-43, 54-57, 62-63; Psalm 119; Luke 18:35-43

The readings from Maccabees have a modern feel. There are issues of national identity and religious tolerance, with which the world still grapples, and already they are proving tricky to negotiate. It seems at first as if Antiochus Epiphanes is the model of an enlightened secular ruler: 'all should be one people'. But the price of this is that each should 'abandon his particular customs'. Modern secularists do not begin from this point: they will want to assure us that everybody can retain and celebrate his particular customs. So far so good.

Likewise Antiochus' plan makes good progress, non-Jews seem to have no difficulty with it. But as things develop it becomes clear that his 'secularism', as it must be, is in reality another religious position which, to be true to itself, must begin to impose its values and practices on everybody. And that means eliminating values and practices that are too strongly identitarian, that seem to be exclusive, and so threaten the universalist, pluralist project. So they trespass on Jewish holy places and begin to destroy Jewish holy books, punishing with death anybody who insists on observing the 'particular customs' that belong to the Jewish law. Presumably the Maccabees and their supporters will have been branded as fanatics as they might continue to seem fanatical to enlightened modern ears.

Such ideas and movements continue to present huge challenges to human societies. Jesus does not give any specific answer to this set of questions and concerns. He does not engage in political philosophy, still less in politics. What he does do is restore sight to the blind and perhaps that is the most fundamental need of humanity in all the difficulties it faces. We need to see, to see more, to see more clearly, to see more calmly, to see together, to see each other, to open up spaces of freedom and conversation where human beings can share their deepest desires and fears. 'Live and let live' is a good starting point but it only takes us so far in a world of competing interests, a world with such a deep chasm between power and powerlessness, between the rich contentment of the developed world and so much poverty and oppression elsewhere, so much exclusion and humiliation.

Humiliation - it seems to be the most powerful force in the genesis of violence. The humiliation of the Jewish people by Antiochus Epiphanes provokes the violent rebellion of the Maccabees. The people with Jesus wanted to keep the blind man quiet, in the background, out of the way. He had to assert himself, shouting all the louder. Jesus receives him as He wants to receive every man and woman, saying to them what he says to the blind man, 'what do you want me to do for you?'

This week, as we reflect on the problems of our world and their terrible cost in human suffering, it is good to keep this question in mind, a question from the Son of God to all human beings: 'what do you want me to do for you?' And we know, if we see anything clearly, that our answer cannot include the humiliation, exclusion, or destruction of other creatures. We must find ways not just to live and let live, but to live together, to walk together on the road of life. It is what Jesus makes possible for the blind man: at the end he is no longer sitting by the way but following Jesus on that road. It is what the Lord of life wants for everybody, that we seek constantly to overcome our blindnesses and so learn to walk together on the road of life.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Week 33 Sunday (Year A)

The parable of the talents is a hard parable about a hard man. This is how the phrase 'a demanding person' is sometimes translated; he was 'a hard man'. He is a businessman, clever and prudent, looking for results, and ruthless in dealing with what would nowadays be called 'losers'. The poor man to whom one talent was given seems like a bit of a loser - it may explain why he was only given one talent in the first place. (At the same time this businessman still holds the quaint view that banks are safe places in which to deposit money!)

How are we to receive this parable? Hearing it in English can send us very quickly in a certain direction because the term 'talent' has come to refer to personal gifts and abilities. The obvious homily then becomes 'use your talents, use the gifts God has given you'. Or else. (Or else what?) But this is not the original meaning of the term 'talent'. Like the word 'pound', it referred originally to a weight, of silver or gold, that served as a unit of currency: money in other words.

What weighs like silver and gold for the Bible and for the Christian tradition? God's word, we are told, is like silver from the furnace, seven times refined. And love is described as a weight by both Augustine ('amor meus pondus meum') and Aquinas ('amor est pondus animae'). God's wisdom and love, given to human beings, are like weights, or inclinations. They bring with them a certain gravity or tendency. It seems we are to think firstly, then, of God's gifts, not of our own. Given to human beings, these gifts, of wisdom and love, bring with them a certain inclination or tendency. They carry a certain weight and pull us in a certain direction. The nature of these gifts is that they be handed on and shared around. They are to bear fruit and not be buried in the ground. The businessman in the parable 'entrusted' the talents to his servants and God entrusts His gifts to us.

The servant who is described as not just lazy but also wicked does not do his job which is to make money for his master. He is over-cautious and fearful, and simply returns what he has been given. There has been no development, no initiative, no fruit. In the sense in which we are receiving the parable, the wicked and lazy servant has failed to understand the nature of a gift from God. The gifts of wisdom and love are 'liquid' and flowing, they spread out and are generative. They are diffusive of themselves by nature, giving and sharing, developing and living, growing and bearing fruit. If what we have received of wisdom and love is not being shared and developed, then we have not truly received these divine gifts at all. It is not possible to be on the receiving end of these divine gifts and remain sterile. God's glory (another term that comes from 'weight') is always fertile, always creative, always radiating. The first reading uses the good housewife as an analogy for this: with what she has received she is hard working, creative, productive.

A risk-taking Master is served well only by risk-taking servants. There is truth, then, in the popular reception of this parable: use your talents to the best of your ability. But it refers not in the first place to the gift of playing the piano or of drawing pictures. (At the same time all such 'talents' can be made to serve the glory of God.) It refers firstly to gifts that are properly divine, wisdom and love, the currency in which our relationship with God is established. They incline us towards the service which pleases God. All we have to do is follow the direction in which wisdom nudges us, follow the inclination which love places in us.

To receive the gift of God is always also an onerous task. Paul reminds us of this in the second reading,: we are not in the business of hiding away but rather belong to the light. It means accepting responsibility, having a care for how things are going for people, participating in the Lord's joyful service of His people.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Week 32 Saturday (Year 1)

Readings: Wisdom 18:14-16; 19:6-9; Luke 18:1-8

It is tempting to take this parable as a kind of self-contained teaching about prayer, in which case the final comment of Jesus, ‘when the Son of Man comes will he find any faith on earth?’, will seem like a kind of retaliation in advance in case you have not received what you’ve prayed for: ‘well did you have enough faith’, something like that. But this is to misunderstand the parable and the significance of that final comment which is not just tagged on. Because what it does, this final question from Jesus, is bind the parable securely into the longer section of the gospel that precedes it and which we have been reading at Mass all this week. That whole section is about the coming of the Son of Man and the parable is about the kind of attitude we ought to have in relation, not just to anything we might want or desire, but in relation precisely to that coming, the coming of the Son of Man. We are to long for it, and seek it from God, as earnestly and as confidently as the widow pesters the unjust judge.

If this is the context then it is not accidental that what the widow is seeking is justice. She is not looking for a new washing machine or a Christmas holiday in the Canary Islands. There is another time and place to think about that kind of praying. But the kind of praying she is involved in here is eschatological. It is about the end of the world as we know it. What she is looking for is justice, in other words the judgement of God, that final act in which God will reveal himself as the champion of the poor and oppressed, the Father of the orphans and the widows whose God he has long promised to be. In a parallel parable in Luke about a man disturbing his friend at night we read that God will give not just ‘good things’ to his people as Matthew puts it, but ‘the Holy Spirit’. In Luke it is very clear that God knows what we need and that we can be brought to pray not just for what we want but for what we need: in the one case the Holy Spirit, in this case justice.

The unjust judge is a kind of foil, an absurd comparison with God, so that Jesus can underline that we can confidently look to God, a judge who is absolutely just, to hear the cry of those who call out to Him for justice. He will answer speedily. Or will he? The text gets a bit confused and the translations vary because it seems to say that God will answer speedily even if he delays. But when he does answer it will be quickly. Or something like that.

This confusion about what we might call the timeline involved here is another thing that alerts us to the fact that what Jesus is speaking about is the coming of the Son of Man. When will this widow’s prayer be answered? It will be answered on the day of the Lord, for it is the justice of that day that she seeks. At what time will this widow’s prayer be answered? It will be answered at an hour you do not expect. Just as we heard earlier this week that the kingdom of God is neither here nor there but is in the midst of us, so the kingdom of God is neither now nor then but is coming upon us. Space and time are refashioned as we are taken into this kingdom of God that is already among us and for whose consummation we are to pray.

The first reading speaks of the power of God’s Word to leap from his throne in heaven and to come as a stern warrior carrying the sword of death and with the power to re-fashion creation. This strange world, the world of the end times, the world of the apocalypse, is the world in which this widow is praying. Surely she is another feminine figure representing the Church, representing all of us. Jesus presents her to us as an example of the faith and confidence we need to persevere in prayer in this world. She is praying in a wild world of corruption and justice seeking, where goodness and evil do battle, and where cries of distress call out for a re-fashioning of things that can only come, it seems, from God himself. The world in which she is praying is a terrible one that seems God-forsaken and yet she continues to cry out for justice. She keeps faith and hope that she will surely be vindicated even though the world in which she prays is this world in which we are living.

Of course we could continue these reflections in the direction of Jesus’ own experience of dereliction and injustice, his cries of distress in Gethsemane and from the Cross. In that hour in which goodness and evil are most dramatically ranged against each other we believe that the justice of our just judge has been revealed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The divine re-fashioning of creation has begun. We enter into that strange world which is already here whenever we celebrate the paschal mystery in the Eucharistic sacrifice.

And we try to be obedient to what Jesus teaches us in this parable because each time we celebrate the sacred mysteries we declare ourselves to be waiting in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, the Sun of Justice.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Week 32 Friday (Year 1)

Readings: Wisdom 13:1-9; Ps 19; Luke 17:26-37

On the face of it, the instruction of Jesus that we should ‘remember Lot’s wife’ (Luke 17.32) is a bit strange. ‘Do not forget the one who was turned to salt because she could not forget’, is what he seems to be saying to us. Keep in mind this woman who suffered because she was keeping something in mind, turned into a pillar of salt because she looked back.

Although it is found in that section of Luke that is most distinctive (Luke 9.51-18.14), the passage in Luke 17 in which Jesus refers to Lot’s wife has a parallel in Matthew 24. Both texts speak about the coming of the Son of Man and the events associated with it. Both refer to the days of Noah when people ate, and drank, and married until suddenly the flood came and destroyed them all (Luke 17.27; Matthew 24.37-39). The warning is given in apocalyptic terms: life will go on pretty much as normal until suddenly the end comes.

Luke adds a further Old Testament reference. ‘Just as it was in the days of Lot’, he says, ‘they ate, drank, bought, sold, planted and built. But on the day Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulphur destroyed them all and so it will be on the day the Son of Man is revealed’ (Luke 17.28-30). The message is the same as that drawn from the reference to Noah: life will go on pretty much as normal until suddenly the end comes.

On that day, Jesus continues in Luke 17.31, people will be on the housetop or in the field. They are not to re-enter the house or turn back. This instruction is mentioned elsewhere in Luke (21.21) and also in Matthew 24.17-18 and Mark 13.15. The immediately succeeding verse, however – ‘Remember Lot’s wife’ (Luke 17.32) – is unique to Luke who then strengthens the general warning by citing two sayings familiar from elsewhere in the gospels. The first of these is that ‘whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it but whoever loses his life will preserve it’ (Luke 17.33; Matthew 16.25; John 12.25). The second is ‘there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left … there will be two women grinding meal together, one will be taken and the other left’ (Luke 17.34; Matthew 24.40).

This is the only reference to Lot in the gospels and there is only one other reference to him in the New Testament (2 Peter 2.7). It is easy to see why Lot’s wife comes to mind in a text warning that the appearing of the Son of Man will be as unexpected, for most people, as was Noah’s flood or the destruction of Sodom. The instruction to leave what you are at and not turn back brings Lot’s wife immediately to mind.

The other New Testament reference to Lot is also an apocalyptic text, a warning about wrath and judgement to come (2 Peter 2.7). God, we are told, is quite capable of sifting and picking out the few or solitary righteous ones from a mass of sinners. We know this from the stories of Noah and Lot (2 Peter 2.4-10).

Lot’s wife is to be remembered as one who looked back to, and was held by, what she was being asked to leave behind. It paralysed her and meant that she missed the moment. This is how preachers have often used Lot’s wife and the warning of Jesus to remember her. A certain kind of attachment makes it impossible for us to enter the kingdom. We must be alert, watchful, detached, ready to go out to meet the Son of Man when he comes.

Jesus had already made the point earlier in the gospel of Luke when he said that ‘no one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of heaven’ (Luke 9.62). According to Jeremiah 46.5, warriors fleeing in terror do not look back, and there are other Old Testament texts which speak about ‘not looking back’ in situations of fear, terror and threat (Exodus 14.10; Joshua 8.20; Judges 20.40; 1 Samuel 24.8; 2 Samuel 1.7; 2.20).

Luke 17.20-37 contains elements that are found elsewhere but combined with elements that are not, and in an order that is distinctive, it gives us a unique teaching about apocalyptic and vocation. For example, although Luke 17.31 and 17.33 are found elsewhere in the New Testament, they are never linked in the way that they are here and it is the instruction to remember Lot’s wife that provides the link. The saying of Luke 17.33 about losing one’s life and gaining it is a very familiar saying of Jesus but nowhere in the New Testament, perhaps, is its radical requirement so clear as it is here, illustrated by the case of Lot’s wife.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Week 32 Thursday (Year 1)

Readings: Wisdom 7:22-8:1; Psalm 119; Luke 17:20-25

We find intimations of the Blessed Trinity throughout the books of the Old Testament. The Lord, the God of Israel, is revealed in His wisdom and in His spirit. At times it is a question of Wisdom and Spirit, with capital letters, personifications of qualities or characteristics of God that refer to different aspects of God's presence in creation and of creation's relationship to God. And at times these aspects are spoken of in 'personal' terms, in terms of awareness, responsiveness, and action.

Today's first reading is a remarkable hymn to Wisdom, a litany of her qualities and activities within creation. But at times it might be regarded also as a hymn to the Spirit of God. In fact it opens by telling us that 'in wisdom is a spirit, intelligent, holy, etc', and wisdom is 'a spirit that pervades all spirits'. Mobile beyond all motion wisdom penetrates and pervades all things by reason of her purity. While renewing all things - a work of the Spirit according to other texts of the Bible - Wisdom herself remains.

Who says that the Hebrews were not as well able for philosophy as the Greeks! Who says that the 'primitive' peoples of the ancient world were not as capable of sophisticated thought about theology as modern people consider themselves to be! Here is an effort to describe the divine presence in creation. God is not one of the things within the creation but stands before all of them. God is not an aspect or power or element or force within the creation but stands beneath all aspects, all powers, all elements, all forces. God is not finding himself in creation but stretches from end to end of it: in other words is its goal as much as he is its source. But this is not to push God out of the creation, to say that God has no place in it just because he is not part of it. It is to say rather that while God is transcendent of the creation, above and beyond it (obviously not in any spatial sense: this would be to pull God back into the universe and place him somewhere), God is also immanent, the deepest reality at the heart of all things.

The Bible adds a personalisation of the Divine Wisdom to what theologically minded philosophers already saw. This refers not just to those biblical texts where God's Wisdom is spoken of as a woman who invites her clients to come, be wise, learn from her, eat her bread and drink her wine. It refers also to the ways in which the Divine Wisdom comes to dwell in holy souls, lives and works in them, dwells in human persons to produce friends of God and prophets. It refers to the ways in which God dwelt in Abraham and Moses, in David and Isaiah - the Word or Wisdom of God placed in them by God's Spirit who thus spoke through these prophets.

Christians reading through these texts see a wonderful build up to what is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. Here is one who is more than a friend of God or a prophet. Here is the one who is the Messiah. More than that, here is the one in whom the Spirit of God is at work in a unique way, one who is himself the Wisdom or Word of God. The end of today's first reading tells us that wisdom takes precedence over light, for light is conquered by darkness whereas wickedness cannot prevail over wisdom: this re-appears in the prologue of Saint John's gospel which tells of the Incarnation of the Word of God - the light who has come into the world, through whom all things were made, the life of human beings, a light that the darkness cannot overcome.

'Wisdom reaches from end to end mightily and governs all things well'. It is the only biblical text quoted in the famous work of Boethius On the Consolation of Philosophy. Wisdom governs all things well and reaches from end to end.

Today's gospel reading fits perfectly with this. The kingdom of God (God's presence and power) is not here or there but is present among us. It cannot be identified with this or that because it is in and through all things. The revelation of that kingdom in the presence and the return of Christ fulfills what is spoken of in the text from Wisdom. 'Just as lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day.'

Here is the final personification of the Wisdom of God, revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. But - strangest mystery of all - he is destined first to suffer greatly and be rejected. In the wise foolishness of God Jesus stretches his arms on the cross, from one side to the other, governing all things sweetly from that master's chair, carrying us beyond anything revealed before then about God's Wisdom and Love. All philosophy is contained there, all our understanding and knowledge of God. It is why Edith Stein wrote about the knowledge that comes only through the cross. It is why Thomas Aquinas says that he learned everything, all his philosophy and theology, from his contemplation of Christ crucified.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

St Albert the Great -- 15 November

Readings: Sirach 6:18-21, 33-37 OR James 3:13-18; Ps 118 (119):9-14; Matthew 25:14-23

Albert the Great belongs to that band of university students and teachers who joined the Dominicans and Franciscans in the early decades. Born at Lauingen near Ulm he studied at Padua where he joined the Dominicans. He taught at Dominican houses throughout Germany and was professor at Paris. Thomas Aquinas was his student there and later his assistant in founding the Order’s house of studies at Cologne.

Occupying himself with the full range of philosophical and theological questions, Albert took particular delight in the empirical observation of the natural world. ‘Experiment is the only safe guide in such investigations’, he wrote. At the same time he says that ‘the whole world is theology for us’. He stands alongside so many monks, nuns and friars who not only contemplated the natural world as an expression of God’s glory and wisdom but became vintners, bee-keepers, gardeners, farmers, collectors, apothecaries and so on. His interest in natural science means Albert was more like Aristotle than Thomas ever was. In fact it was Albert who led Thomas and others in ‘making Aristotle intelligible to the Latins’.

Albert undertook administrative responsibilities as provincial of Germany and as Bishop of Regensburg (1260-62). The Dominicans were generally reluctant to become bishops - Dominic himself, and Thomas, had refused. Humbert of Romans tried to dissuade Albert from accepting a bishopric fearing it would make it impossible for him to preach from that base of poverty which for Dominic was essential. ('I would prefer to see you dead in your coffin than a bishop', Humbert wrote to Albert.) A change of Pope made possible Albert’s early return to preaching, teaching, and writing although he agreed to preach a crusade in Germany at the request of the new Pope and attended the Council of Lyons in 1274.

Albert was drawn into many controversies, particularly those concerned with the interpretation of Aristotelian philosophy and the bitter disputes with secular clergy who felt threatened by the arrival of the friars. In 1277 he defended Thomas’ teaching which had been declared suspect by the Bishop of Paris.

Albert stands at the head of a German Dominican school which differs in important ways from the Thomist school. Ulrich of Strasbourg, Dietrich of Freiberg, and Berthold of Moosburg developed Albert’s work using newly available neoplatonist sources while their interest in speculative mysticism led Meister Eckhart, John Tauler, and Henry Suso to develop themes dear to Albert such as the incomprehensibility of God and the importance of self-knowledge. Albert wrote commentaries on some Biblical books as well as on the works of Pseudo-Dionysius. The popular De adhaerendo Deo and other works of spirituality and piety attributed to Albert are now regarded as works of later authors.

Known as ‘the Great’ even before he died, Albert was canonised in 1931 and declared a Doctor of the Church. Patron of natural scientists, he continues to inspire those fascinated by the natural world, whether for its own sake or as a way of contemplating the Creator. One of the greatest of the early scientists, Albert continues to be honoured as an exceptional genius. He has a typeface named after him and also, because of his love for the natural world, a plant species and an asteroid (as well as an award winning Kentucky stallion). In 1998 Deutsche Bundesbahn named one of its most powerful locomotives ‘Albertus Magnus’.