Saturday, 22 July 2017

St Mary Magdalen - 22 July

Readings: Song of Songs3:1-4 or 2 Corinthians 5:14-17; Psalm 63; John 20:1-2, 11-18

The story of Mary Magdalen involves conspiracy, religion, and sex. She always has a place in the (fictional) conspiracy interpretations of Christianity. Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code was just the latest in a line of such interpretations. They usually involve also the Knights Templar, the Holy Grail, the Priory of Sion, other secret societies, corrupt clergy, secret information, and a Catholic Church desperate to keep hidden some knowledge about its beginnings that would destroy it and bring its historical mission, finally, to an end.

Conspiracy itself is part of the excitement. It seems that we prefer to believe that some of what happens in organisations and institutions is the result of conspiracy (thoughtful and clever planning) whereas what we are trying to explain is often simply the outcome of incompetence, bad management, and disorganisation. But there seems to be a 'paranoia gene' in the human mind that prefers conspiracy. Or perhaps it is a childish wish for security, that somebody somewhere knows what is going on, even if they are not telling us about it. If the conspiracy can be attributed to the Catholic Church, this makes it even more compelling, it seems.

The other two ingredients essential for this kind of best seller are religion and sex. That combination always catches the eye and has a particular frisson that either by itself would not generate. Once again, if the religion involved is the Catholic Church, then it is of even greater interest. If Jesus and Mary Magdalene did get married, and had children who were the ancestors of the Merovingian kings of France, then it is certainly a story worth telling. The predictable reactions of condemnation from the Church usually serve only to generate greater interest in the book or film.

Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Mary Magdalene. And her story, as we see from the gospel reading, really does involve conspiracy, religion, and sex. The conspiracy - somebody somewhere knows what is going on; what is happening is the outcome of thoughtful and clever planning - is one hatched in the mind and heart of God before the ages began. This is how Paul speaks about the conspiracy or, as he calls it, 'the mystery'. The gospel is preached openly, the Word is broadcast for everyone to hear, and there is nothing esoteric in the teaching of the Church. But what that teaching means is continually being uncovered. There are always depths to be explored. There are hidden treasures in Jesus Christ, and our true life is hid with Christ in God. Only very slowly do we come to realise the truth of what is going on.

What better conspiracy could we be involved in? We do not yet know everything about it but we know enough of what it means for us, and we know enough about the One behind it, to embrace that teaching and to enter into that mystery, with confidence and enthusiasm, even if also with fear and trembling.

Mary Magdalen was also, clearly, in a love affair with Jesus. He became the centre of her life. And today's gospel reading is about the most intimate moment in that love affair. Wherever her memory is celebrated as a feast, one of the readings recommended by the Church is from the Song of Songs, in which the bride searches for her beloved, the one her heart loves, the one she has lost. In the early dawn, in the garden, with the guards hovering nearby, a tryst involving anxiety, desire and mystery: this is the atmosphere in which Jesus and Mary Magdalene meet again.

Lovers, we might say, create each other. Love enables us to be more fully, and more truly, ourselves. It creates the space in which the loved one can be, can flourish, and can grow. In the case of Mary encountering Jesus it is not just a matter of a new life - as Dante described the experience of falling in love with Beatrice - it is a matter of a new creation, a new world, a new human being with a new deepest happiness and fulfillment. The conspiracy is unlocked by Jesus saying 'Mary'. This is the magic word, to call her by her name. She recognises him, called by her name she is immediately taken into his world, and she begins to live as a creature of the Resurrection.

Tradition says that Mary Magdalene went on to be a preacher of the gospel at Marseilles before retiring to a cave in the mountains outside that city. In that moment in the garden after the Resurrection, she is the new woman encountering the new man in the garden of the new creation. This is the kingdom of which Jesus had spoken, where they no longer marry and have children, but in which a different kind of communion and fruitfulness are found. 'Do not touch me', Jesus says to her, 'for I have not yet ascended to the Father'. The plot thickens.

You see how the truth of this mystery is far more interesting than the fiction of the conspiracy theorists. You see how the religion and union of persons involved here is far more profound than anything novelists manage to describe. In a way she never expected, Mary Magdalene, searching for the one her heart loved, was found by Him. He called her by her name, 'Mary', as if he had said 'let there be Mary'. And in the light of His recognition of her, she saw the Lord.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Week 15 Friday (Year 1)

Readings: Exodus 11:10-12:14; Psalm 116; Matthew 12:1-8

The sentence in the gospel on which comment is usually made is the last one, 'the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath'. It could be that the more radical statement in this passage comes a little earlier, although at this point in the ministry of Jesus its full implications are not clear, either to the Pharisees or to the disciples. Jesus says 'there is something greater than the Temple here'.

We know - because we know how this story develops - that this was the claim that would be brought against Jesus at his trial: he said he would destroy the Temple and replace it.

We can easily imagine the debates and arguments of scribes, pharisees and lawyers about the application of sabbath laws. Jesus himself appeals here to two exceptions from the history of Israel which show that those laws were not absolute. We can imagine other teachers doing the same. Jesus takes a position on the interpretation of those laws which might encourage people to think of him as liberal rather than rigid in his interpretation of them. But there is nothing there to provoke wrath and fury.

His comment about the Temple is more radical, and is seen as such when its implications begin to sink in. The Temple was the place of prayer, sacrifice, and the presence of God. 'There is something greater than the Temple here', Jesus says, meaning himself. So he is claiming to be the new place of prayer, of sacrifice and of the presence of God. When we think about prayer or sacrifice now we cannot do it without reference to Jesus, without reference to his prayer and to his sacrifice. Any prayers or sacrifices we might imagine can only be made now 'through him, and with him, and in him'.

Similarly for the presence of God. If we wonder now where God is to be found the answer is 'in Jesus'. This is the place of God's presence in the world. What about creation, history, my neighbour, other people, the presence of God in my heart and soul? Yes, God is present in all these places, but once again we cannot understand that presence, we cannot appreciate it, except with reference to God's presence in Jesus, to what God did in the body of Jesus Christ once and for all. And the way in which God has called all men and women to find Him there.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Week 15 Thursday (Year 1)

Readings: Exodus 3:13-20; Psalm 105; Matthew 11:28-30

It is a short gospel reading with a strange invitation: if you are tired and burdened, come and take this yoke on your shoulders, a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light. So what is this new weight which actually makes lighter, this yoke or harness which actually brings freedom?

If you do a Google Images search for 'yoke' you will find that the first set of pictures are of a double yoke, the kind that binds two oxen together as they plough or pull a cart. Only on scrolling down do you begin to see the single yoke for one animal, or perhaps for a person carrying two buckets, that kind of thing.

So there are double yokes and there are single yokes.

In the Bible the single yoke is an image of the Law. The readings from Exodus these days are moving inexorably towards those two great events, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. The Law was spoken of as a yoke laid on the people which was, yes, restricting but which was also the guarantee of the covenant which the Lord had made with them. This yoke gives guidance and direction, keeps the people on the straight path, helps them to live well.

This yoke becomes easy and light when it is carried out of love. If it is understood as a burden imposed from without, and its reasonableness is not understood, then it will be experienced as a heavy weight, a demanding master. But where its purpose is seen, and the life it protects is valued, and the relationship it seals is the centre of our lives, then to carry this yoke is not a burden. 'He ain't heavy, he's my brother' found its way into a popular liturgical song many years ago. Carrying one another's burdens not only fulfills the law of Christ, as Paul says, it is also easy when it is inspired and enabled by our love for one another. Carrying burdens becomes easy and light; we even find rest in doing so because it is an experience of love, and it is in love that human beings delight and find joy.

But perhaps we are to think also of the double yoke, the one that binds animals in pairs as they work together on a common task. If, in inviting us to take his yoke on us, Jesus means a double yoke of this kind, then when we look to the side to see who is in the harness with us, it is Jesus himself since it is his yoke. We are alongside him and partnering him in this work of being obedient to the Law. He is alongside us and partnering us and so, once again, it becomes easy, light, desirable, and joyful.

Take my yoke on you and learn from me, he says. What is it we are to learn? We learn that the heart of all reality is God who is love. We learn that God has set his heart on a people and that he seeks them out. As today's first reading puts it, God is concerned about His people. We learn in this yoke of Jesus that God has first loved us, taken on himself the yoke of our sins, so that anything we do in partnership with Him always has the character of a response, an acceptance, an act of gratitude for far greater gifts won through a far more demanding sacrifice than any we might be asked to make.

This double yoke in which we are harnessed with Christ so as to share in His work then clearly anticipates that moment in the passion when Simon of Cyrene stood alongside Jesus and helped him to carry his cross. He is with us always. If we take his yoke on us and learn from him then we are with him always, shaping our lives according to his way, and giving our hearts according to a love that is, in the first place, his.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Week 15 Wednesday (Year 1)

Readings: Exodus 3:1-6, 9-12; Psalm 103; Matthew 11:25-27

What is it about children that allows them to receive when the learned and clever cannot receive? One of the things I remember clearly from my schooldays was our commerce teacher (later the subject was called 'business organization') telling us that the two most powerful words in advertising are 'free' and 'new'. It is still the case, to judge from the frequency with which these words appear in advertisements. So the gospel, which is 'new' and 'free', ought to be one of the easiest products in the world to 'sell'. God is always new and always free - the kind of joy in the Word that is infectious flows from this newness and freedom of the gospel.

Patrick Kavanagh, in his poem called Advent, catches one aspect of the childlikeness that enables children to receive. He speaks of the wonder there was in every stale thing when we looked at it as children. Any stale thing, any old thing, any familiar thing, is wonderful in the eyes of the child. Perhaps the child is seeing it for the first time. Certainly the child comes to the world with a sense of wonder, ready for adventure, open to possibilities, strong in hope (the child has a long life ahead of it and so is naturally full of hope, says Thomas Aquinas). 

So too for freedom. We may find ourselves, as stale adults, envying the freedom and spontaneity of the child. Not yet fixed in their ways, children are not restricted to the world's currencies, the established and obligatory protocols that reduce possibilities, restrict freedoms, shorten horizons. There is a trustingness, an openness, a readiness to learn in the child. Of course carrying dangers with it, and it is partly as a result of those dangers that we become cautious, and careful, and less spontaneous. 

Growing up, we become learned and clever and it becomes more difficult to receive the gospel with the wonder and freedom of the child. Augustine laments that he comes late to the love of God - 'late have I loved you, O Beauty, every ancient and ever new'. He is writing at the age of 45 about his late conversion at the age of 32! What hope for those in their 50s, or 60s, or worse. And yet my father, for example, kept a sense of childlike wonder to the end of his life, when he was almost 80.

As life challenges our sense of wonder and our sense of freedom, it is crucial to remember that we are talking about spiritual childhood, the level of life in the Spirit, where we draw our sense of wonder and freedom not from ourselves but from God who is 'ever ancient and ever new', who is absolutely faithful and yet infinitely free. What if God is the tiniest thing around, asks one of the Greek fathers, trying to loosen the hardening arteries of our theology. What if God is the youngest thing around, we can add. What if it is as if He has just arrived on the scene?

One way of trying to get at this is to talk about a 'God of surprises'. He certainly surprised Moses by appearing and speaking in a burning bush - what a wonder! Children love surprises where adults tend to be apprehensive. ('Stay away from it, dear.') Children like the thrill of the unexpected where adults wonder what's behind it. But we must remain ready for new things if we are to remain open to conversion. How are we to have a new mind about anything if our learning and cleverness shut down all flexibility, all uncertainty? Learning and cleverness are all very well but will they help us to remain free as we mature?

Those who knew him say that the French Dominican Marie-Dominique Chenu retained, even into his 90s, a childlike enthusiasm and wonder about things. He certainly celebrates Thomas Aquinas as 'an innovator in the creativity of a new world'. In the article where he speaks of the newness in Thomas's theology he quotes a poem by the Flemish Beguine, Hadewijch of Antwerp. It catches very well what today's gospel reading invites us to think about:

May God give us the new sense of a freer and more noble love
that in Him our renewed life may receive every blessing;
that the new life give us a fresh taste
as love can give it in its pure freshness;
love is powerful and is the new reward
for those in whom life is renewed for Him alone,
you who desire to know anew,
in the new springtime, the new love.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Week 15 Tuesday

Readings: Exodus 2:1-15; Psalm 69; Matthew 11:20-24

A friend returned from a visit to the Holy Land shocked by two things. One was the way in which Christians jostle each other at the holy places. This is at its worst in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where centuries-old feuds between different Christian groups are re-enacted in how they relate to each other in the building even today. It is good to be warned about that beforehand as otherwise it can be quite scandalising. It confirms, if confirmation is needed, that the Holy Sepulchre is not a place in which to look for the presence of Jesus!

The other thing that shocked my friend was how ordinary and how small the Holy Land is. The shock here is interesting for different reasons. The mysteries of redemption and the history of human salvation were enacted in this small and ordinary corner of the world.

One implication of this is that any small and ordinary place might have been the setting for those mysteries and that history. In fact every small and ordinary place has become the setting for those mysteries and that history. Wherever human beings are to be found these mysteries - of creation and grace, sin and redemption - are being enacted and are being enacted each day.

It means also - following today's gospel reading - that we can say 'Woe to you Drogheda! Woe to you Nemi! Woe to you High Wycombe! Woe to you Greenwich, Connecticut!' There is no need to go to any special place to find the mysteries of redemption and the history of salvation. The place in which I find myself is the Holy Land because it is a place where the Word is preached and the sacraments are celebrated. The place in which I find myself is the centre of salvation history because here too the drama of sin and the call to repentance are played out.

The text condemning Chorazin and Bethsaida was first composed by Isaiah to express delight at the fall of a tyrant, an enemy of Israel and of God's people. Jesus applies it to those quaint lakeside towns, those harmless lakeside towns we might say, in which his preaching was ineffective.

So let us not presume one way or the other. Our own ordinary place is as important as any other from the point of view of redemption or damnation. We cannot presume to stand on what has been the case up to now. It is easy to apply to our own situation, then, what Jesus says about Gentiles (not the chosen people) acceping the Word of God in Tyre and Sidon (pagan cities, modern Sodoms and Gomorrahs). Prostitutes and tax-collectors are entering before the ones who think they should be entering first.

It is familiar stuff, strongly put. By all means visit the Holy Land - there are many blessings to be received by doing so. But don't forget that everything essential that you find there is already available where you are. And if you feel that you live in a special place, special from the point of view of holiness or salvation, then think again. Your privilege, if you think you have one, means at least a more severe judgement.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Week 14 Thursday (Year 1)

Readings: Genesis 44:18-21, 23b-29, 45:1-5; Psalm 105; Matthew 10:7-15

It might seem strange to quote a military person when the readings today are about reconciliation among brothers and preaching the gospel of peace. But the instructions of the American general Petraeus to his field commanders in Iraq in 2003 were quite striking. They can even be adapted for the preachers of the gospel. Petraeus' instructions went as follows: 'Secure and serve the population. Live among the people. Promote reconciliation. Walk. Move mounted, work unmounted. Situational awareness can only be achieved by operating face to face.'

The speaker and the context might encourage us to be skeptical - a subsequently disgraced general leading an illegal invasion with whose apocalyptic consequences twelve years later the people of Iraq and surrounding countries continue to live. The Christian communities there also, but not only these.

Jesus' instructions to his field commanders, the apostles, are more radical than those given by the general. The American soldiers arrived fully armed and well protected. From a position of overwhelming strength they sought to be among and with the people, to build good relationships with them. The apostles are to do something similar, seek to build good relationships with the people by living among them. But this is not part of a political or military strategy, it is in order to share with whoever they meet the gifts they themselves are receiving from Jesus.

And rather than speaking and acting from a position of overwhelming strength the apostles are to be vulnerable. In fact they are to practise an extreme vulnerability: no money, no sandals, no walking stick, no change of clothes, no food supplies. They are to trust completely in God's care working through the response of the people. Once again it is not part of a strategy but rather appropriate to the nature of their mission: 'you received without cost, you are to give without cost'. In order to preach grace you must live in grace.

The West invaded Iraq - so it was said - to establish freedom and democracy. The apostles bring the message of a much more radical freedom, the freedom of the gospel, the freedom of grace. All that is asked of the people they meet is that they receive the apostles and listen to their words. No other demand is being made on them except the demand that is contained in their words: 'the kingdom of heaven is at hand; you received without cost, give without cost'.

Human beings continue to struggle to serve the kingdom of heaven while living in a deeply sinful world, finding that world also within themselves. The divine message of generosity, freedom and peace seems too fragile and too vulnerable in a world that finds itself more at home with commerce, control and confrontation.

But God is working his purpose out through the preachers of the gospel even when their mission seems to carry little weight in the world. Joseph lost everything when he was sold into slavery by his brothers. But the providence of God, working through his extreme vulnerability, is seen at the end of the story: 'it was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you'.

So too with the preaching of the gospel. The disciples of Jesus remain a source of life in the world and for the world. There may be times when the world shows little interest or understanding of what is being preached. There may be times when the world's values seem opposed to what the gospel promises. But we must stay faithful to the instructions of our 'general' - 'serve the population, live among the people, promote reconciliation, walk, work face to face, take nothing for the journey, give without cost, share the gifts you have received, proclaim 'the kingdom of heaven is at hand'.' It is for the sake of saving lives that God sends out the preachers of the gospel. In more traditional language they are sent to preach 'for the salvation of souls'.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Week 14, Wednesday, Year 1

Readings: Genesis 41:55-57; 42:5-7, 17-24 ; Psalm 33; Matthew 10:1-7

The story of Joseph, sold into Egypt by his brothers, but then rising to a position of supreme importance in the government of that country, being in a position to save his family from famine, and finally being reconciled with them, remains one of the most popular Bible stories. We have only to recall the success of Lloyd-Webber's musical Joseph and The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat to see how popular this story remains.

But although it is a story from the Bible, there are very few references to God in it. It is quite a contrast to what we read about the other patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or about Moses and David later on. In their lives God was much more directly and consistently involved, talking and arguing with them, arranging things and demanding things that will ensure their perseverance in the relationship with him. In the case of Joseph it is more like life as we experience it from day to day, dominated by ordinary human interactions and needs, with faith, yes, in the overall providential care of God for the people, acknowledging that from time to time, but for the most part getting on with the tasks and demands of each day.

This occasional reference to God in the narrative about Joseph should not deceive us however. Coming as it does today, along with the gospel reading in which we hear about the call of the apostles, invites us to compare Joseph and Jesus in their responsibility and care for the people. The twelve apostles are the patriarchs of the new Israel where the twelve sons of Jacob were the patriarchs of the first Israel. Just as Joseph ends up as giver of the bread that feeds and sustains God's people - and so ensures that the covenant continues - Jesus is giver of the bread that feeds and sustains the Church, the new Israel.

It is surprising that the New Testament does not refer to this giving of bread by Joseph in Egypt but it is a link we can make. For Joseph became a kind of saviour of the world for his capacity to distribute food for everybody in a time of universal famine. Jesus is the true saviour of the world for his capacity to give life to the world through the sacrifice of his body and blood, the bread and wine broken and poured out so that all might live.

The apostles are called to share in this mission of Jesus, to be his assistants and co-workers in distributing the gifts of God to the people. In this they are like Joseph. Many of us have the privilege of participating each day in the Eucharistic meal, eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ for the life of our own souls and for the life of faith we are called to share with others. But even if we do not have that privilege, we receive each day the gifts of God in ordinary food. Usually now we take this for granted and God appears explicitly as rarely as he does in the stories about Joseph. But it does not mean that he is not present, feeding us not just in the sacrament but also in the ordinary food and drink for which we give thanks and which we receive as signs of his continuing care. He is constantly feeding us also through the teaching of the Church in which he nourishes our minds and hearts, strengthening in us the life of faith, hope and love, which is our true life hidden with Christ in God.