Thursday, 21 March 2019

Lent Week 2 Thursday

Readings: Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; Luke 16:19-31

There is a sting in the tail of both readings today. At first sight they seem very familiar and easy to receive. There is the beautiful image in Jeremiah of the tree planted by the side of the water, an image repeated in the psalm. The man who looks to the Lord is like such a tree compared with the one who puts his trust in the powers and values of this passing world, and who finds himself withering at the root, trying to survive in a parched land. There is the story of the rich man and Lazarus, which seems to repeat the same moral: trust not in the wealth of this passing world but in the true riches which are to be found in heaven with God.

The sting in the tail of the first reading is the sudden reflection on the perversity of the human heart: tortuous, beyond remedy, who can understand it? In other translations the heart is devious above all things and desperately corrupt. So the beautiful comparison presented earlier in the reading, the contrast between the tree planted by the water and the tree trying to flourish in the desert, which seems like an easy and obvious choice, is not so easily pursued, considering the perversity of the heart.

The sting in the tail of the gospel reading is the curious comment that if people do not believe what is given to them in the scriptures, neither will they believe it if someone were to rise from the dead. And it seems to amount to the same thing. It is easy to understand the choice you are facing, not so easy to make that choice and to persevere in it.

Lent is a time to think again about the mystery of sin. We can use the word 'mystery' advisedly: sin is a theological reality, an evaluation of human thoughts, words, actions and omissions in the light of God's holiness. The Bible presents us with two main traditions about sin and they remain accurate descriptions of our experience of this mystery.

On the one hand sin is something deliberately chosen, a human choice, made with awareness and freedom, choosing what is evil in preference to what is good. We should be grown up enough to accept responsibility for such things and to ask forgiveness for them.

On the other hand there is something mysterious about sin, which is a power at work in us and through us while not being completely under our control. It is connected with desire and the distortions of desire. It is connected with the phantasies that inevitably arise in the human mind and that are the roots of the deadly sins: pride and envy, lust and anger, gluttony and covetousness, sloth and vainglory. It is the power which Paul catalogues along with the Law and Death as the enemies of humankind, sin crouching at the door, disturbing our thinking and our choosing so that we end up doing the evil we do not want to do.

The choice is clear enough: sink your roots by the water's edge and flourish or go off into the wilderness and perish, put your trust in the Lord and the riches he promises and not in this world's wealth and power. It is more difficult to make the right choice and to stay with it. Desire, addiction, humiliation, fear, the complexities of the heart and its waywardness - all of this is always present also, nudging and pulling us, distracting and paralysing us.

Clearly we need to pray ever more urgently for the grace of conversion, a conversion established not on the strength of our own feeble efforts but one that comes as a gift from God, a compelling and life-changing encounter with His goodness, an encounter already available to us in the words of the Scriptures. If we do not listen to Moses and the prophets neither will we be persuaded even if someone were to rise from the dead. The devious heart would quickly find another explanation for it and return to its sad self-absorption.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Lent Week 2 Wednesday

Readings: Jeremiah 18:18-20; Psalm 31; Matthew 20:17-28

There is a shift in the focus of the Lectionary readings that begins today. We are two weeks from Ash Wednesday and up to now the daily Mass readings have spoken about the works of Lent, prayer, fasting and alms-giving. The readings of Ash Wednesday set the tone: return to God for this is a favourable time and give shape to your repentance by praying, fasting and giving alms. From now on though, and slowly at first, the focus shifts to Christ, and in particular to his destiny, to what is to happen to him.

So we begin to hear about Old Testament figures who, as innocent people unjustly persecuted, become types or anticipations of Christ. Today's first reading, for example, tells us about the passion of Jeremiah. In the coming weeks we will hear of others such as Susanna, and Joseph the son of Jacob, whose treatment prefigures the passion of Christ.

It reminds us of what our asceticism is for. We are to pray, fast and give alms not just to cultivate a spiritual ego instead of a worldly one. Nor are we to do these things for purely negative reasons. It is good, obviously, to avoid sin and to live a good life. But our asceticism has a further, positive, purpose. We are trying to prepare ourselves, as far as within us lies, to be friends and companions of Christ. Will we be able to stay with him in what lies ahead? Will we be ready to enter his kingdom? This is the real goal of our penances and spiritual practices, trying to be fit for the kingdom of Christ.

Which is very difficult, as today's gospel reading makes clear. The disciples, even the apostles, constantly fail to understand what that kingdom means. How could they understand immediately? It takes time - a lifetime - to understand something of the paradoxical logic of the cross. In the kingdom of Christ who is great? Who is first? Who is deserving of honour? The ones who dies to themselves in order to be more and more completely available to others, the ones in whom all ego dies and love reigns.

But we have been given another year for this, thank God, another opportunity for these Lenten works and for this kind of Lenten reflection. Perhaps this year we will come to understand the mystery of Christ's kingdom a little bit more profoundly. We may understand a little bit more clearly what it means to die with him so as to live with him.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Saint Joseph

Readings: 2 Samuel 7:4-5a, 12-14a, 16; Psalm 89; Romans 4:13, 16-18, 22; Matthew 1:16, 18-21, 24a / Luke 2:41-51a

Joseph was a just or righteous man.This is high praise in the Bible and places him among the greatest of the patriarchs, prophets and kings. It puts him in the first place in the company of Abraham, whose faith was reckoned to him as righteousness. Abraham's faith was to hope against hope. He trusted in God as the One who gives life to the dead and calls into being what does not exist. Supernatural revelations led Abraham to leave all that was familiar and to journey beyond the boundaries of his homeland. Supernatural revelations led Joseph to marry Mary and to care for her son as his own, sharing with them the perilous experiences of the first years of Jesus' life.

The promise to Abraham, transmitted not by physical descent as much as by spiritual affinity, is given to those who believe that with God all things are possible, with God nothing is impossible. Joseph, clearly, belongs with those who believe in this way.

Joseph is great precisely as a man, not just as a human being. His role in the history of our salvation is to be the husband of Mary and the father of Jesus, things only a man can do. He is the protector of his wife and child, charged by the Eternal Father with the task of keeping them safe and providing for them a home in which they might flourish. In that home Mary has the serenity in which to ponder in her heart all that is being revealed about the Child. She has the security of Joseph's respect for her chastity, the unique way in which she was the Bride of the Spirit and the Mother of God. In that home established by Joseph, Jesus has a safe place in which to grow in wisdom and in strength. Who knows what reflection of the Eternal Father he saw in the features and in the character of Joseph.

We can say then that Joseph was great for doing well the ordinary things men are called to do, and for doing these things for the two human creatures whom God loves above all others. Umberto Eco finishes one of his novels with the hero of the story deciding that the meaning of life is to be found in 'loving a woman and having a child'. Joseph lives this vocation to the full, and lives it in the most extraordinary circumstances. With Chesterton, and developing earlier traditions about his role, we can speak of Joseph as the greatest of Knights, the perfect fulfillment of the medieval ideals of chivalry. Those ideals included respect for women, care for the weak, strength in protecting the vulnerable, courage in fighting for what is just.

As Mary is entrusted to the disciples to be their Mother, the Church has come to regard Joseph as protector and provider not just for the family at Nazareth but for the whole Church. As well as praying to him for the grace of a happy death - this good man who died, tradition reasonably believes, in the company of Mary and of Jesus - we are encouraged to pray to him for all our material needs, for the wellbeing of our households, and for the happiness of our families.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph together make up a very unusual family. On one side this Holy Family is an earthly reflection of the Eternal Family of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. On the other side it is the perfect human family, the first domestic Church, a nuclear family whose life is established simply on faith, and hope, and love. Joseph is often forgotten as the Mother and Child take centre stage. Pictures representing Joseph holding the Child are rare and all the more wonderful for that. Often he is to one side, or in the shadow, sometimes an elderly paternal figure compared with Mary, sometimes (more likely) a strong man in his prime, charged with an exceptional mission.

The scriptures and the Christian tradition have some few things to say about Saint Joseph, the just man, wise and faithful, who was put in charge of God's household. What has been handed on to us is enough to give us a clear sense of a very good man who loved his woman and cared for his child. The fact that the woman is the ever-virgin Mary and the child is the world's Redeemer transforms this ordinary goodness into an extraordinary holiness.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Lent Week 2 Monday

Readings: Daniel 9:4-10; Psalm 78; Luke 6:36-38

We are still in that first part of Lent where the liturgy speaks of conversion from our sins and returning to the Lord, about the works of Lent, prayer, fasting and alms-giving. Once again we are reminded that these are not three independent activities but that each is involved in the other two.

What is added today is a reference to the measure by which we want to be measured in regard to these things, our relationship with ourselves, with others and with God. Jesus implies that we are free to choose this measure, reminding us that what we become accustomed to as counting for justice and compassion will also become our criterion for receiving the justice and compassion of God. Of course in relation to ourselves and in our dealings with God we will want to be dealt with according to the divine measure. The question is whether we manage to use the same measure in our dealings with others, forgiving as we have been forgiven, showing compassion as we have received compassion, etc.

So we are free to choose. But there is also God's proposal of a measure, in the Law and the teachings of the prophets and above all, now, in the teaching and life of Jesus. This is the measure God offers us, the translation into human relationships and affairs of the divine mercy.

So that's the thought for today, the measure by which we will be measured. We are free to choose it. It will then become our capacity for receiving as much as for giving compassion. The measure proposed to us by the Law, the Prophets, and the Messiah is the one that promises greatest freedom for it asks us to be compassionate as our Heavenly Father is compassionate.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Lent Sunday 2 (Year C)

Readings: Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 9:28b-36

This year we read Luke's account of the Transfiguration. There are a number of things found only in his account: the reference to the 'exodus' which Jesus was to accomplish at Jerusalem is the one most often mentioned. But there is also a reference to the sleep, or better the 'half sleep', of the disciples: only Luke tells us about this. What is the meaning of this half-sleep of the disciples?

The liturgy provides an interpretation for us by linking the Transfiguration with the story of God sealing the covenant with Abram. It is a strange story about God consuming divided animals while Abram has fallen into a trance. Is it a dream? Is it happening in another dimension? It is the sleep of revelation, the sleep of divine encounter, which we hear about not only in relation to Abram but also to Jacob, his son Joseph, the priest Eli, the prophets Elijah and Daniel, Mary's husband Joseph, and others.

The sleep of the disciples at the Transfiguration belongs in this biblical line: in this trance something is being revealed, God is being encountered. The term used refers to a half-sleep, like twilight, but more precisely it refers to the kind of light there is as the dawn approaches. As they woke up, it says, in the dim but pregnant light of dawn. The disciples are being brought from living under one light to living under a different light. They have dozed through the revelation, through the conversation between Moses, Elijah and Jesus, but will very slowly come to understand more about it.

It seems that disciples tend to be sluggish. The spirit of sleep comes easily on them, dulling their eyes and their ears (Deuteronomy 29:4; Isaiah 29:10; Romans 11:8; Matthew 13:15; Mark 13:36). The most notorious moment is their sleep in the Garden of Gethesemane: 'could you not stay awake, watch one hour with me?' So often Jesus calls his disciples simply to wake up, 'rise and pray', 'watch', 'be alert', 'stand ready'. The virgins awaiting the bridegroom must stay awake because they do not know at what hour he will come. But Israel's watchmen sleep (Isaiah 56:10). Luke tells us that in Gethsemane the disciples slept because of their grief. But at the Transfiguration he gives no reason for their sluggishness.

So there is a sleep that is the occasion of revelation and encounter, and there is a sleep that means sluggishness and inattention. And there is also the sleep of death. The daughter of Jairus is dead, say the people. She is asleep, says Jesus, and they laugh. Lazarus sleeps until Jesus calls him back to life. Jesus too slept and woke, as Jonah did, in a storm-tossed boat. 'The night is far gone, the day is at hand. It is time to wake from sleep because salvation is nearer now than when we first believed' (Romans 13:11-12). In the New Testament sleeping and waking are about dying and rising, they are about being saved and being brought into glory. 'Awake O sleeper and rise from the dead and Christ will give you light' (Ephesians 5:14).

Today's second reading, from Philippians, speaks of the disciples as candidates for transfiguration. They are to prepare themselves for a new, wide-awake, life. The same power with which Christ subdues the whole universe - his power as the Creator - will transform our lowly bodies into copies of his glorious body. God acts again in Jesus to bring the disciples from sleep to wakefulness. He leads them from the kingdom of darkness into the new light that is already shining.

God does not sleep. There are some beautiful passages in the scriptures that assure us of this. Mendelssohn set one of them to glorious music, Psalm 121 which tells us that the One who watches over Israel 'slumbers not nor sleepest'. The night of the exodus from Egypt was a night of watching by the Lord (Exodus 12:42). The Transfiguration teaches us that the night of Jesus' passion and death will also be a night of watching by the Lord, the God of Israel. 'Awake, do not cast us off forever', we cry out in Psalm 44, 'rise up, redeem us because of your love'.

The half-sleep of the disciples alerts us, awakens us, to a rich strand of thought that weaves its way through the Scriptures. Adam, the first man, sleeps, and God creates Eve from him. God pours gifts on His beloved while they slumber. On the cross Jesus gives up his spirit, sinking into the sleep of death, but His heart is awake (Song of Songs 5:2) for His love is stronger than death. The Church is born from His side as he sleeps, and when he awakes, raised from the dead, he has become the first fruits of all who have fallen asleep, all whom the Father has entrusted to Him.

An ancient Christian inscription, using the same Greek term as Luke uses here for the disciples' awakening, speaks of Christ as 'the awakening light'. He is the Light of the world, fully awake in Himself, but also the Light that awakens all others to new life, new understanding, a new love.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Lent Week 1 Saturday

Readings: Deuteronomy 26:15-19; Psalm 118; Matthew 5:43-48

The Lord gives the people laws, customs, ways, statutes, commandments, ordinances, decrees and precepts. It is a lot of stuff and what is it all about? It is about helping us to see what God's righteousness and holiness will look like when translated into human affairs and into human relationships. So the law given through Moses is not an arbitrary collection of rules and regulations, a kind of obstacle course to see whether or not we can do what we are told. It is, rather, as is said later in the Old Testament, the wisdom of God being shared with God's people and coming to dwell with them. It is a first incarnation, the word or wisdom of God coming to dwell amongst the people.

The reason God is pleased with them when they observe his laws, statutes, precepts, etc., is because they thereby manifest to the other peoples of the earth what the Lord, their God, is like. They become a revelation of God. The deal between God and the people, the covenant they seal with each other, has these conditions. Once again they are not arbitrary conditions but simply aspects of the way of living that marks out those who entrust themselves to God. The payoff? 'He will set you high above all the nations he has made and you will be a people consecrated to the Lord, as he promised.' If that is something you want, then here is how you should live.

The Sermon on the Mount, from which today's gospel passage is taken, contains the laws, customs, ways, statutes, commandments, ordinances, decrees, precepts, beatitudes and counsels which Jesus gives to the people of God being newly re-shaped by him, by his teaching and by his presence. The concern is exactly the same: where are the people who by their way of living will become a revelation of God? Christian interpreters of scripture sometimes feel they must find some teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that is not to be found in the Old Testament. But there is nothing. It is all there already, in Jeremiah, Hosea, Deuteronomy, and other books of the Old Testament. Jesus is a Jewish teacher, working out of that strand of Jewish prophecy and wisdom.

The only difference (the only difference!) is that the man who now teaches these things is the one, the only one, who fulfills these laws, statutes, precepts, etc., with all his heart and all his soul. He is also the only one whose grace is such that he enables others to fulfill them too. He is the one with whom the Father is well pleased. He is the one set high above all the nations, the one consecrated to the Lord. In him we see, translated into human affairs and into human relationships, what the mercy and grace of God are like. He is the revelation of the Father's heart, full of grace and truth. 'You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect' is Jesus' conclusion according to Matthew. Luke is saying nothing different when he replaces 'perfect' with 'merciful'. For it is in this that God's perfection consists, mercy, love (even for those who hate Him), and grace (anticipating our efforts to live like this and enabling those efforts to succeed).

Friday, 15 March 2019

Lent Week 1 Friday

Readings: Ezekiel 18:21-28; Ps 129/130; Matthew 5:20-26

It sometimes happens that the Lectionary reading is too short and in danger of being misunderstood without its context. This is true of the first reading today, from Ezekiel 18. Really, it is necessary to read the whole chapter to see what the Lord is saying through his prophet. The main point in the section we do read is that each individual person carries his or her own moral responsibility: our standing in the sight of God seems to depend, then, on what we ourselves have done, good or bad, and not on the behaviour of the family from which we come or the people to which we belong. Think of how outraged we rightly feel where a family is punished for the crimes of one of its members. It is clearly just that individuals be asked to carry moral responsibility for their own actions: they cannot blame anybody else and nor should anyone else be blamed.

Or is it as simple as that? Human communities and societies continue to seek justice, equality and fairness, but these things prove elusive. A strictly just society might seem like the best thing to aim for but scripture often warns us against such a thing and does so by showing us what a strictly just society would be like. Many of the parables of Jesus do exactly this.

'What the Lord does is unjust', Ezekiel imagines people saying in response to his clear presentation of individual responsibility. 'Is it', the Lord says in response, 'or is it not what you do that is unjust, with your attempts to shift responsibility'.

An argument about justice: 'get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit' is what the Lord says at the end of this chapter of Ezekiel, anticipating a later, more famous text, where he speaks of the heart of stone being removed to be replaced by a heart of flesh instead. The heart of stone is strictly just, the heart of flesh is compassionate and merciful. If there is to be hope for humanity, strict justice is not enough: we need compassion and mercy also.

The gospel reading shows us where this heart of compassion and mercy is to be found. It may seem at first that the teaching of Jesus recorded here is simply an even stricter justice than that taught in the Hebrew scriptures - not just murder but anger towards a brother, humiliating a brother, cursing a brother - all of these merit the strictest condemnation and punishment.

So what hope have we? Well none if we want to stay within the canons of strict justice. So, Jesus continues, stay away from the altar and stay away from the court until you are reconciled with your brother. Leave your offering, be reconciled first, before you get to the court which can only offer you strict justice, a justice that is blind and, in its blindness, cruel.

It is in Jesus and from Jesus that a new heart and a new spirit are available to human beings. Of ourselves the best we can manage is an approximation of justice. The new heart and spirit brought by Jesus are those of the Father and the Holy Spirit, the divine life that is the source and destination of the world and its history.

St Thomas Aquinas puts it beautifully when he says: 'The work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy in which it is rooted. Divine action is always characterised by mercy as its most radical source'. This is revealed already in the prophets, often by simply reminding us of the impossibility of human justice. The divine life of justice rooted in mercy is established as the heart of the world's history by the teaching and actions of Jesus, the merciful and compassionate Sun of Justice, and Son of God.