Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Week 06 Wednesday (Year 2)

Readings: James 1:19-27; Psalm 15; Mark 8:22-26

I have a friend whose eyesight is poor. She needs glasses if she is to see anything, near or far. Sometimes, when being driven in a car or sitting in a meeting, she takes her glasses off. 'I like to see the world through a haze every now and then', she says. It is a way of relaxing, a way of stepping back a little from the full impact of reality. Perhaps it is true about many of us regarding spiritual and moral things: we prefer to see hazily, or partially, or selectively, rather than see all that can be seen and see it clearly. 'Human kind cannot bear very much reality', T.S. Eliot wrote.

However we understand the unfolding of the miracle in today's gospel, this much is clear: there is a stage between total blindness and seeing perfectly clearly. Perhaps, as at dawn or dusk, there is a spectrum along which we can place different kinds of seeing, different kinds of clarity.

The first reading, from the Letter of St James, also speaks about seeing. 'Look steadily at the perfect law of freedom', he says, and make that contemplation the basis of your actions in the world. Using a different vocabulary to what we find in Mark, James also speaks about other kinds of vision - imaginary and deceptive illusions, for example. His call is simple and clear: the word is planted in you, contemplate it with a steady and sustained gaze, and then act in accordance with that word which is the law of freedom and the word of truth.

The gospel reading also speaks of different kinds of seeing using a number of variations of the simple Greek term 'to see'. Emerging from his blindness the man has hazy and uncertain sight, but then comes to looking steadily, beginning to see, and eventually seeing clearly.

The concern in both readings is for a vision that is reliable and enduring not just occasional and sporadic. Our contemplation should become habitual, establishing in us a persevering sense of the truth we have seen and of what it asks of us. Do not listen and then ignore what you have heard, says James, do not look and then forget what you have seen. Do not stop at the point where you are seeing something of reality but in a hazy, ill-defined way. Do not let your religion remain at the level of imagination and deception but bring it strongly and straightforwardly from hearing and seeing the word to practising and implementing it.

Pope Paul VI described contemplatives as 'the clear eyes of the Church'. They are people called to give all their attention to the Lord, listening to his word and coming to see its truth and meaning. There are what we might call 'professional' contemplatives in the Church, men and women whose way of life is set up in such a way that it can support them in this kind of mindfulness. But we are all called in different ways to be hearers and seers, practitioners and doers of the word, seeing the needs of those around us, seeing the ways in which the world will only confuse our vision and impede our listening. What does it take to move us from seeing people as 'trees walking about' and instead to see them as widows and orphans and others who need our help?

Monday, 17 February 2020

Week 6 Monday (Year 2)

For the next two weeks the first reading at weekday Masses is taken from the Letter of Saint James. Here are some thoughts on James that might be helpful in preparing homilies during these days.

The Letter of St James comes to mind when thinking about community life. Invariably young men coming to find out about the Dominicans mention community life as one of the things they want, one of the things that attracts them to our way of life. But then we know from experience that community life often becomes problematic later on, some come to find it heavy, unhelpful, and a burden that seems not worth bearing. James is about this, about people who believe in Christ trying to live together, and the difficulties they experience. He has many comments relevant to community life in his discussion of vices and virtues, of anger and partiality, of control of the tongue, of jealousy and ambition. It is a very practical letter.

James puts his finger on the attitudes and dispositions that make life together difficult. People are usually relieved to be given a diagnosis for a problem even before they are told whether there is any treatment for it and what that treatment might involve. To understand where problems arise, why there are problems in the first place, is already a growth in wisdom. James does this for us. The letter belongs firmly within Jewish traditions of practical wisdom, drawing on the sapiential and prophetic literature of the Old Testament. This brings him close to much of the earliest gospel material. His teaching is similar to what we find in Matthew and Luke, about beatitudes and woes, attitudes to the Law, not judging others, prayer, the danger of riches, and so on.

James is very clear that problems in communities arise as a result of problems within individuals: 4:1ff. So it is not a Marxist-style analysis that we find here, seeing problems originating in systems or structures or other people's use of power, but rather a spiritual and even psychological analysis, seeing how problems for living together arise from conflicts internal to individuals. This is why desire is such a central concern in the letter. He is not just referring to lust but to 'having' in general, and to 'wanting' in general, to the kind of having and wanting that can only be fulfilled at the expense of others. ‘Where you find jealousy and ambition you find disorder’, he says in 3:16. This is where things go wrong. In Old Testament terms it is foolishness, manifesting itself as bitter jealousy and selfish ambition. I want to have - but my wanting to have sets off these negative things in me: jealousy and ambition. His analysis seems to anticipate the kind of thing RenĂ© Girard talks about in his analysis of desire and its destructive consequences for human societies.

There is, however, also a 'socio-political' level to the analysis we find in James. He speaks of the danger of riches, and power, the way we are with the rich and powerful, and the way we are with the poor and lowly. It is still the case that we respond differently to neat and tidy well-dressed people, and to dirty and untidy smelly people. We will find ourselves reacting differently to people whom the world has decided are important and to those whom it has decided are not important. We can translate that into our dealings with each other in families and communities: who counts? what’s the pecking order?

So what to do? Prayer is one of the things to do and James talks about it quite a few times for such a short letter, and not only in the famous passage which the Church sees as establishing the sacrament of anointing, the prayer of faith for the sick person. And there is an interesting twist because James warns us that we can even put our prayer at the service of our desire. You might say, 'well, is that not what we are supposed to do?' Thomas Aquinas calls prayer 'the interpreter of desire'. But, James says, ‘you ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions' (4:3). The passions he has just been talking about are jealousy and ambition so we have to watch out that we do not try to put our prayer at the service of these.

As we read through the letter we will probably find ourselves wanting James to be more Christian – to say something about Christ, and about love, and about grace. He does not say much about Christ, he mentions love of neighbour as the ‘royal law’, and he echoes Old Testament passages which say that God gives His grace to the humble.

For one who talks a lot about mercy, his analysis is fairly merciless. He invents a word for his readers – you are dipsuchos, he says, double-minded, split, your desire fragmented, and here is the root of your problems. ‘Above all’, he says in 5:12, and we expect something big after that, ‘above all do not swear by heaven or earth or anything else. Let your yes be yes and your no be no’. It is a bit disappointing after the lead in ('above all'), but maybe the world would be transformed, and our community life improved remarkably, if we used our tongues with the care James recommends, and if when we did speak we did it with the integrity and directness he encourages.

Although he does not get round to spelling out solutions as clearly as other moralists of the New Testament (Paul, 1 Peter), James brilliantly diagnoses the problems of community life and reminds us of the need to cast ourselves humbly on God’s grace: James 4:7a,8,10.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Week 6 Sunday (Year A)

Readings: Sirach 15:15-20: Psalm 119; 1 Corinthians 2:6-10; Matthew 5:17-37

The opening verses of today's gospel reading have been described as the most controversial in the New Testament. Jesus says that he has come not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. Not an iota or dot of the law will pass from it until it is accomplished. But Paul - and Jesus elsewhere - speak and act as if the law has, very definitely, been surpassed to be replaced by faith and grace.

Jesus teaches that there is at least continuity between the first covenant and the new covenant, between the law given to Moses on Sinai and the law taught by Him in the Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus presents the fullness of the law once given to the Hebrews at Mount Sinai. Give full weight to the term 'presents': he presents it in the sense of teaching it and expounding it, but he also presents it in the sense of making it present to those who are listening at the present moment of their encounter with Him.

There is continuity between the old law and the new law. In a series of illustrations Jesus, an excellent teacher, points out how the Law is to be fulfilled: 'you have heard that it was said ... but I say to you'. He does this for killing, adultery, divorce, oath taking, vengeance, and love for others. These are the central commandments of the Mosaic law (as well as being the primary precepts of the natural law). These commandments remain but they are to be observed in a particular way. They are to be interiorized, lived not simply as a matter of external obedience or out of fear, but as a matter of internal conviction and out of love.

Just as there is no new commandment in the Sermon so there is nothing that is not found already in the prophets, especially in Jeremiah, Hosea and Ezekiel. We might be tempted to say that Jesus here turns the religion of Israel into a religion of the heart whereas before it was a religion of 'rules and regulations'. This is a profound misunderstanding (and has been one of the roots of anti-Judaism in Christian history). Read these prophets and you will find already everything Jesus says about observing the Law from one's heart. What's the point of circumcising your flesh if you do not circumcise your heart? That's Jeremiah. What you need is a new heart and a new spirit (implication: not new laws, you already have all you need): that's Ezekiel. The problem is that you have forgotten the law God has already given you, you have no real understanding of it, or of the divine love and mercy in which it originates: that's Hosea.

So what does the fulfillment of the law mean? If Jesus adds nothing to the commandments of the law and adds nothing to what the prophets had already taught about its spiritual character, is there anything new here? Of course there is. The new thing here is the teacher. This teacher of the law is also the one who observes it fully; in his own person he perfects it, he fulfills it, he accomplishes it.

The term 'pleroma' means completion or fullness. Jesus says that the law stands until it reaches its fullness, its end. And what is the end of the Law? It is the manifestation of the holiness of God, and a communion established on that holiness between God and God's people. So the Law is not fulfilled until that holiness is manifested and that communion is established, things to be done precisely by one who observes the Law ('salvation is from the Jews'). In giving the Law to His people God revealed His mind and heart, He shared with them His words and His love, His wisdom and His truth. The law was given through Moses, grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ: we know this from the prologue to John's gospel. Wisdom and teaching were already given through Moses, Jesus Christ is the one who enables a life according to that wisdom and teaching. He is the Spirit-filled One who gives the Spirit, poured into our hearts as love, so that we can observe the Law in the ways in which he asks us to do it - not just in our words but from the depths of our hearts.

'Love is the fullness of the law': so Paul says in his letter to the Romans (13:10) and once again the term 'pleroma' is used. In other words Jesus Christ is the fullness of the law. Not a dot or iota will pass away 'until all things have taken place', 'until all is accomplished'. In the moment in which Jesus breathes forth the Spirit he says 'it is accomplished' (John 19:30). Then everything is finished, perfected, fulfilled.

The Sermon on the Mount is a wonderful text, often taken to be the finest summary of the specifically 'Christian' moral teaching. It can be a bit of a shock to realize that there is nothing in it that is not already in what Christians call the 'Old Testament'. If we go looking in it for a new teaching, a new doctrine, a new commandment, or even a new reason for observing the law, we are barking up the wrong tree. We have not listened to Jesus: 'I have come not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them before which not a dot or iota will pass away'.

The great, extraordinary, mysterious fulfillment of the Law which is given in the Sermon is not in the teaching but in the Teacher. This is where the law is fulfilled and this is where it is accomplished. Here is the obedient One who lives completely from the love of the Father, manifesting the holiness of God in everything he says or does, establishing between the Father and humanity the communion that was God's intention from the beginning. God gave the law to Moses, to help the people to live in communion with God. The Father sends his Son into the world, full of grace and truth (the divine attributes of steadfast love and faithfulness), so that all who live in His presence might be children of God. Jesus comes not just to help us but to enable us to live according to God's law.

You have heard that it was said 'observe the commandments of the law and you will live'. But I say to you, 'all who believe in Him will live the kind of life He lived, will be set free by the truth, and they will never die'.

Friday, 14 February 2020

Week 5 Friday (Year 2)

The Aramaic term used here, Ephphatha, has found its way into the baptismal liturgies of the Church. One of a series of gestures and symbols that bring out the meaning of baptism, the ephphatha means the newly baptised infant has his or her mouth and ears touched to indicate that the Church looks forward to the day when they will hear the Word of God for themselves and profess the faith with their own lips.

The miracles of sensation recorded in the gospels - the blind see, the deaf hear, the dumb speak - are all connected with faith, and so with baptism. It is not just that they come about as a result of faith, they also symbolise faith. Faith means hearing human words bearing God's Word. It means seeing created reality revealing God's reality. It means confessing with our lips what we have come to believe in our hearts.

He has done all things well, the people say of Jesus, he makes the deaf hear and the dumb speak. Through the gift of faith, celebrated in baptism, he continues to do this - enables the deaf to hear God's Word, the dumb to speak God's praise, the blind to see God's presence.

Of course Eve and Adam had their eyes opened in another way, as we are reminded by today's first reading. They wanted to gain wisdom, something the serpent promised would come to them by eating the fruit in disobedience to God's command. They would become like gods, he says, knowing good and evil.

And they do come to know good and evil, but from the perspective of evil. They seek to lay their hands on wisdom and in doing so distort their fuller vision even as it is born.  The mission of Jesus is to enable men and women to receive the wisdom he brings which means seeing good and evil but now from the perspective of good. This is the more comprehensive knowledge, deeper, more radical, stronger and more coherent.

The distorted wisdom gained through the fall of Adam and Eve disturbs all hearing, all seeing, all speaking. The anxiety generated by their realisation of nakedness can be taken to refer to a more extensive unsettling of an earlier equilibrium, an unsettling that leaves them unhappy in their bodies and so not seeing, not hearing, not speaking well.

The line is clear, then, from God's original intention in creating man and woman in His image and likeness. The plan is disturbed by the serpent's cunning and human weakness. Jesus restores the balance, but not without a great struggle. He is the choicest fruit of the Father, good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom.

All who need help in hearing, seeing or speaking can come to him. Ephphatha, he says, be opened, so that we may hear the Word of life, see the truth He brings, speak words of wisdom and compassion learned from Him.

You can listen here to this homily being preached

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Week 5 Tuesday (Year 2)

Readings: 1 Kings 8:22-23, 27-30; Psalm 84: Mark 7:1-13

Ephesians 6:2 says that the commandment about honouring our parents is the first commandment to have a promise attached: ‘honour your father and your mother that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land which the Lord your God gives you’ (Deuteronomy 5:16; Exodus 20:12). The matter is taken very seriously in the Old Testament: ‘every one of you shall revere his mother and his father’ (Leviticus 19:3); to strike or even curse one’s parents is an offence punishable by death (Exodus 21:15, 17; Leviticus 20:9; Deuteronomy 27:16).

Jesus refers to this commandment in controversy with the Pharisees and scribes who, he says, have effectively rejected the commandment of God by introducing a ‘get out clause’ into their own laws: if somebody dedicated property for religious purposes then this freed him from his obligations to his parents. But this is corruption, says Jesus, all the worse for posing as piety: ‘you reject the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition’ (Matthew 7:10; Mark 15:1-9). We need to be careful that we do not end up doing something similar, giving more importance to human traditions than to God’s commandments.

At the same time Jesus makes it clear that faith in him is more fundamental even than our relationship with our parents. We are not to ‘prefer’ them to him if we are to be worthy of him (Matthew 10:32-40; Mark 10:28-31; Luke 9:57-62; 14:25-35). Blood is thicker than water, we say. The Book of Leviticus identifies this as the reason why cursing one’s parents is a capital offence: if you curse your parents ‘your own blood is upon you’ (Leviticus 20:9). But Jesus teaches that there is something thicker than blood. ‘Who are my mother and my brothers’, he asks when told that they are at the edge of the crowd seeking him (Matthew 12:46-50). Those who hear the word of God and do it, he replies. The woman who praises Mary – ‘blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts you sucked’ (Luke 11:27-28) – gets the same reply: ‘blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it’. This is the strongest bond of all, our becoming brothers and sisters of Christ, our adoption as children of the Father, our shared life in the Spirit.

It is sometimes assumed that this commandment is for children. Ephesians 6:2 even adds the word ‘children’ at the beginning. But the original commandment does not contain the word ‘children’ and experience shows that people have more difficulty with it as they grow up. Children tend to observe it naturally (while testing the boundaries), since mother and father are the source of so many good things for them. For most children their parents fill the horizon and are as reliable as the sunrise. Adult children find it more difficult to respect their parents as they come to realise how limited and flawed they are. Just as children can be a disappointment to their parents, it seems that the opposite is also often the case, at least for a time. This is when we need to remember this commandment.

Under this commandment belong other requirements of the virtue of ‘piety’. This was the pagan world’s version of the commandment, a part of justice whereby we show honour and gratitude to those who have done for us things we can never do for them: our parents, our teachers, the communities which helped bring us to maturity (the patria, or fatherland). The pagan virtue of religion itself is the natural debt of honour and gratitude we owe to God. Of course as Christians we believe that Jesus has brought us into a radically new level of intimacy with God through the theological virtues of faith, hope and love.

The exchange between the adolescent Jesus and his human parents in the Temple at Jerusalem may seem shocking: ‘how is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ (Luke 2:49). But it serves to introduce the meaning of his mission, in which the old commandment remains in force while being taken up into the new commandment, to be given new power there. In Christ we are asked not only to honour our father and our mother, we are to love them.

This reflection was first published in Saint Martin Magazine

Monday, 10 February 2020

Week 5 Monday (Year 2)

Readings: 1 Kings 8:1-7, 9-13; Psalm 132; Mark 6:53-56

Ten days ago we heard about David’s plan to build a house for the Lord, a suitable dwelling for the Ark of the Covenant. But through the prophet Nathan, David learned that he would not be the one to build a temple for the Lord. In the first place, it was the Lord who was constructing a house for David, not the other way round. The dynasty of David, his royal house, would last forever and the temple in Jerusalem, when it did come to be built, was constructed by Solomon, David’s son.

The Books of the Kings open with an account of the death of David and the succession of Solomon. He asked for wisdom above all other gifts, enabling him to rule in such a way that peace broke out and the kingdom rested from warfare. It was now time to build the Temple and Solomon gathered the best craftsmen and artists to work on this great building which was to be the place of the presence of God. It was to house the Ark of the Covenant, the Tent of Meeting, the tablets of stone containing the Ten Commandments, and the other treasures that sealed the covenant between the Lord and the people of Israel.

The Temple was to be the place of prayer, the meeting place between the people and God. It was to be the place of sacrifice and the centre in which the great liturgies of Israel were celebrated. We have been hearing about the planning and building the Temple, and today’s reading tells us about the liturgy during which the Temple was dedicated. The first great act of this liturgy was to bring the Ark of the Covenant from Mount Zion, the City of David, to the Temple and to enthrone it in the Holy of Holies, under the protecting wings of the Cherubim. Inside the Ark are the stones containing the Ten Commandments, at once the revelation of God’s wisdom for his people and the contract of their relationship with God. As the Ark is placed in its new dwelling the dark cloud in which God dwells came to settle around it, filling the Holy of Holies. This mysterious cloud both revealed and hid the presence of the Lord. It was the sign that the glory of God had come to dwell in the midst of God’s people.

There is a paradox at the heart of faith which is at once strong and certain in its grasp of truth, and at the same time obscure and mysterious. Faith, as Saint Paul says, means ‘seeing in a glass darkly’. This paradox is expressed very powerfully by the dark cloud in which God dwells. The presence of God is certain – who could doubt the presence of a dark cloud? But the nature of God, what that cloud contains, the ‘face’ of God, remains hidden. No one can see God and live, the Bible tells us, and in another text ‘truly you are a God who hides yourself’.

And yet this hidden God revealed himself to Moses and to David. At least he revealed his will for his people which gives us some understanding of what God himself is like. We are to be righteous as God is righteous and holy as God is holy. The ‘shekinah’, which was the clouded space above the Ark and between the Cherubim was regarded as the holiest place in creation. But it was simply an empty space: the people could be sure that God was there even though God’s glory was revealed simply as a dark cloud.

By contrast today’s gospel reading tells us that people ‘recognised Jesus immediately’ and flocked to him for healing. Many New Testament texts teach us that Jesus is the ‘new Temple’, the new place of the presence of God, the new meeting place between God and the people. At the moment of Jesus’ death the curtain in the Temple was torn in two. What does it mean? That holiest place is opened up to our gaze. The cloud disperses to reveal the face of God. And what do we see? We see Jesus, the human face of God. We see Jesus dying on the cross, the definitive revelation of God’s love. We see the blood poured out and the Spirit breathed forth, by which a new and everlasting covenant is established with humanity.

The only Son, who comes to us from the Father’s heart, has now revealed God to us. This Son of David establishes in his own blood the Kingdom that will last forever.

Sunday, 9 February 2020

Week 05 Sunday (Year A)

Readings: Isaiah 58:7-10; Psalm 112; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Matthew 5:13-16

With a range of imagery the Bible speaks about a choice presented by the Word of God to those who hear it.

According to the Book of Deuteronomy the choice to observe the commandments of God or not to observe them is a choice between life and death, between a blessing and a curse. For much of the 'wisdom literature' the choice is between walking in the way of wisdom or descending the path of foolishness, depending on how we relate to others and to God.

In his preaching Jesus speaks more starkly of this choice. It is between a narrow gate opening onto a hard road and an easy and broad road which leads, however, to perdition (Matt 7:13-14). Paul contrasts life according to the Spirit and life according to the flesh, while John is fond of the imagery of light and darkness.

This Sunday's readings give us a physical and very concrete image for the choice we face between two contrasting ways of living: the clenched fist and the open hand.

Think of the difference between being confronted with a clenched fist and being offered an open hand. The clenched fist signifies threat, rejection, arrogance, exclusion, refusal, anger and violence. The open hand means friendship, help, peace, sharing, communication and connection.

Isaiah encourages his listeners to 'do away with the yoke, the clenched fist, the wicked word', and to do it by 'sharing your bread with the hungry and clothing the man you see to be naked'. Psalm 111 continues the theme: 'the good man takes pity and lends … is generous, merciful and just … open-handed he gives to the poor.'

Where the clenched fist is ungenerous, unreceptive and closes things down, the open hand is generous, welcoming and vulnerable.

Paul pleads his own openness and vulnerability among the Corinthians. I was with you in fear and trembling, he says, and in my preaching I avoided the complexities of 'philosophy'. 'All I knew among you,' he continues, 'was Jesus as the crucified Christ.'

The crucified Christ opened his hands and arms and heart on the cross to give us the definitive revelation of God. This heart open to the world contains a love beyond all expectation and beyond any natural hope, a love beyond any singing or telling of it. The God who opens wide his hand to satisfy the desires of all who live (Ps 145) has now opened wide his heart to bring to eternal life all whom He has chosen (Eph 1:11).

There may be many reasons why, at times, we choose the way of the clenched fist rather than the open hand: hurt and disappointment, tiredness and indifference, fear and misunderstanding, selfishness and disdain.

Whatever the reasons, the clenched fist always involves turning from our own kin and denying, in effect, that others are of the same kin. The open hand, however, means turning towards others as our kin, fellow human creatures, brothers and sisters, children of the same heavenly Father sharing a common call and a common hope.

Just as the presence of salt and light cannot be hidden and their absence will be noticed, the kindness of the good person cannot be denied and the shock of the clenched fist will stop us in our tracks. The good works of the open-handed shine forth so that people might praise the Father for the holiness they glimpse in His creatures. We have come to know that this is what God is like, causing his sun to rise on bad and as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest as on dishonest people (Matt 5:45).

In many parts of the world the sign of peace at Mass is a simple handshake and often its exchange is perfunctory and lazy. But it symbolises something crucial, the difference between two ways of approaching our neighbour and of approaching life.

Are we to turn in and close ourselves away, hardening our heart and clenching our fist? Or are we to follow Christ by opening our hands and our hearts, by reaching out to others in generosity and justice? What is the point in opening our hands in prayer to God if we do not lend a hand of kindness to our brothers and sisters in their need?

This homily first appeared on Torch, the preaching website of the English Dominican Province