Sunday, 24 June 2018

Birthday of John the Baptist

According to the gospel of Luke the annunciation to Mary took place ‘in the sixth month’ of the pregnancy of Elizabeth (Luke 1.26). So their two boys, John the Baptist and Jesus, are taken to have been born six months apart. We celebrate the birthday of Jesus on 25 December and so, by a certain kind of literal logic, we celebrate the birthday of John the Baptist on 24 June. (Why a day’s difference though?)

Of course we have no idea when either child was born. In the early Christian centuries the celebration of the birth of Christ came to replace the pagan celebration of the winter solstice. The shortest day of the year sees the sun turn around and begin its ascent northwards. The festival of ‘sol invictus’, the unconquered sun, was replaced in Christendom with the festival of the birth of ‘sol iustitiae’, the sun of justice, Christ the Lord.

It means also that the birthday of John the Baptist coincides, more or less, with the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.  Celebrations of Saint John’s Night owe something to the natural instinct to mark these turning points in the earth’s year. Older pagan celebrations were baptised by Christianity, taken over and given a new meaning. Already in the Bible the Jewish festivals are combined celebrations of the events of salvation history and the seasonal changes of the year, sowing and springtime and harvest.

Can we take something, then, from the fact that we celebrate John’s birth at midsummer? At a time when the light in the northern hemisphere is at its strongest and brightest we celebrate the birth of one who ‘was not himself the light but came as a witness to the light’ (John 1.8). Just as the intense light of dawn can be confused with that of sunset, it was not immediately clear whether John might not be the light promised by God. Some of his followers and some of the Jewish leaders wondered whether John might be the Messiah.

But he is clear that there is someone greater coming after him, one of his own followers, one baptised by him and that this one is ‘the true light who was coming into the world’ (John 1.9). John is a ‘herald’ who announces the arrival of someone more important than himself and he points out Jesus to his disciples, recognising him as ‘the lamb of God’ (John 1.36). We see John, in the gospels, making Jesus known, pointing him out and sending others to him.

Jesus in turn says that John the Baptist is the greatest of human beings. There is no prophet as great as he is. John is so totally given to his mission that he is called simply ‘a voice’, crying in the wilderness, calling God’s people to repent, return and prepare for the coming of the Lord. Like all the prophets John excites opposition and criticism. Eventually he will be executed at the command of Herod but before that the religious leaders had campaigned against him, accusing him of being possessed by demons (Matthew 11.18). As well as being the voice of prophetic consolation, this new Elijah is a ‘troubler of Israel’ as much as he is her comforter.

The light that shines from John the Baptist is the grace and holiness of God’s people of the old covenant. Among all those just men and women who looked forward to the deliverance of Israel, John stands at the head. He straddles two epochs in the history of God’s relationship with human beings because the preaching of the Christian gospel begins with the preaching of John the Baptist. When John appeared in the wilderness, what Saint Paul calls ‘the fullness of time’ (Galatians 4.4; Ephesians 1.10) had arrived.

From now on the days will shorten and the sun decline in the northern hemisphere. But it remains midsummer in God’s relationship with his people. Winter is over and summer has come. Sin and death have been conquered by the one to whom John points. Christ our Saviour is always with us, shining even in the darkness. This is midsummer indeed, to see ‘the light of the glory of the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4.5). The finger of John the Baptist points always to Him who is the Light that the darkness can never overcome (John 1.5).

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Week 11 Tuesday (Year 2)

Readings: 1 Kings 21:17-29; Psalm 51; Matthew 5:43-48

It happens from time to time that the two readings assigned for Mass give us contrasting and even contradictory understandings of God.

In the first reading today, God is presented as if he is simply 'the biggest thing around'. He seems to be locked into the same mechanisms of fear and threat, revenge and violence, that govern the behaviour of the smaller things around, animals and human beings. It is like a slap in the face at the end, hearing that God will dispense Ahab from the retribution coming to him because he has done penance and instead will bring disaster on his children. What kind of monster is that? What kind of bully?

The gospel reading, from the Sermon on the Mount, tells a completely different story. Here God is free. He is beyond the iron reign in which human beings are usually caught. 'Love your enemies', says Jesus, 'be like your heavenly Father, perfect, letting the sun shine on good and bad alike, giving rain to honest and dishonest alike.' He is not trapped. He is not caught. He is not subject to the dynamics of fear and revenge, but supremely free, always gracious, never anything except loving.

Has something happened in the meantime, in the centuries that separate these two readings? It can seem as if God has been learning through his experience of dealing with human beings. Irenaeus of Lyons speaks in that way. Through dealing with human beings God learns that he is not one of them and that he is not caught, as they are, in the iron reign, the cycles of revenge and violence that seem to be the best human beings can manage when it comes to trying to establish justice. We hear the divine voice speaking through the prophets, expressing this realisation: 'I am God and not man. My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways.'

Jesus reveals that there is a freedom, a grace, a love, in the Father - that this is what the Father is - and it opens up new possibilities also for relationships between human beings.

We can err in many directions in thinking about God and here are two extremes we need to avoid. One is to speak about God as if he is simply the biggest bully around, more knowing and more powerful than anybody else, determined to protect his rights against all comers. And if he does not take it out on the person who has offended him he will take it out on someone else, that person's children for example. It becomes incredible, a God one cannot believe in, a monster. But the other extreme is to turn God into something so soppy that he becomes incredible for other reasons, another God one cannot believe in, a God who seems indifferent to suffering and injustice.

We need to return always to the sending of the Son and to the way in which God has actually engaged with our world. What has God needed to do to struggle with sin and its consequences? We believe that he has pitched his tent inside the iron reign created by sin. From there, through the sacrifice of the Son, he has opened up the space of freedom, grace and love. The perfection to which Jesus calls us is not any kind of human perfection but a perfection that is of God who is love. Love in this sinful world is crucified because love is always true and just. This is what we learn from the Divine Teacher. It is how the Divine Teacher has saved us.

Monday, 18 June 2018

Week 11 Monday

Readings: 1 Kings 21:1-16; Psalm 5; Matthew 5:38-42

The 'second mile' is clearly recognised in Christian theology: Jesus is the one to speak of it, in today's passage from the Sermon on the Mount. Biblical critics might be quick to explain away these outrageous demands as hyperbolic language, the graphic speech of one who was, after all, a poet. They are not strictly 'laws' that Christians must obey - so the critic will continue. They are attempts to communicate the spirit of Jesus' own approach to people - a prodigal generosity, whose virtue lies in its freedom, precisely in the fact that it is not prescribed but is done out of love.

We do not depend on this one scripture text however to ground a 'theology of the second mile'. This is part not just of our Christian knowledge, of the tradition of what Jesus said, but is also part of our talk about God Himself, part of our theology in the deepest and simplest meaning of the word: discourse about God. Our God is a God who is always ready to walk a second mile with us.

The God we have come to know in Jesus Christ is, in one sense, an irrational lover. Anselm (in Cur Deus Homo II.13) speaks of the 'supreme wisdom' of the Incarnation, not just a reckless love. He is the God of the Old Testament, of course, Creator and Redeemer of Israel. He drove Adam and Eve out of Eden but himself made clothes for them before they left (Genesis 3:21). He punished Cain for his crime against his brother but marked him to protect him from being murdered in his turn (Genesis 4:15). The earth became so corrupt that God decided to annihilate it. Yet again he cannot finally desert man, for he calls Noah and saves him. He tells Noah what to do to escape the flood and when the time comes it is God himself who closes the door of the ark behind Noah and his family (Genesis 7:16).

When sin increased on the earth again God scattered the peoples of the world and separated them from each other. For the first time people spoke different languages. It is a way of explaining the emergence of different cultures, different mentalities, different traditions. It is a way of explaining the beginning of large scale mistrust, ignorance, fear, rivalry, violence. Yet it was precisely at this moment of deepest gloom, when the melting-pot of all the races of humankind emerged, that the Lord said to Abram, 'leave your country, your family and your father's house for the land I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you, and make your name great ... and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves' (Genesis 12:1-3).

This is the God of Israel. This is what He is like. He set in motion a great plan to win again the love of human beings. He called His special people out of slavery into a land of their own. He nurtured their life, protected them and made sure that they were safe to worship Him. Yet they sinned and turned from Him. They turned to gods with whom they could live in greater comfort. These were gods who would keep their covenants.

Their own God, Yahweh, did not keep His covenant. His love for His people prevented Him from implementing the curses which the covenant obliged Him to carry out in the event of their infidelity. He never did, although He was sorely tried. And when it seemed that His rejection of His people was total, and final, and they mournfully chanted by the waters of Babylon, He gave in again and made this exile the occasion for a new exodus, a new covenant, a fresh beginning for this promiscuous bride (Hosea, Ezekiel).

The story went on as before. The story goes on as before. God came again to a new beginning, a covenant which would this time be final because sealed in the blood of His Only Son - and what else is left? This was the fulness of God's time. It did not matter that men were still sinners - precisely in this was the love of God clearest, that it was while we were sinners that God sent His Only Son to be the sacrifice that takes our sins away. This was the 'second mile', the bit He did not really have to do - in fact there was none of it that God 'had to do', right back to the first stirrings of human life under the breath of God's mothering Spirit. John the Theologian draws the conclusion from God's 'second mile' - if God so loves us, we also ought to be loving one another in this way.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Week 10 Thursday (Year 2)

Readings: 1 Kings 18:41-46; Psalm 65; Matthew 5:20-26

Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor believed that Jesus had, naively, judged humanity too highly: 'it was created weaker and lower than Christ thought'. St John's Gospel on the other hand tells us that Jesus did not trust himself to them because he knew what was in everyone. No naivety in the Incarnate Word, then, only the fulness of truth, uncompromising justice, and endless mercy.

What kind of humanity is capable of living by the Sermon on the Mount? Its demands seem unreal even for personal relationships. For social and political decision making it seems even more remote and romantic. A political leader in Britain has just resigned saying he cannot combine being a Christian and being a political leader. The saints who come closest to living it out in practice are precisely the ones who say that they are far from what it demands.

We might imagine that it is humanity redeemed that can live like this. Is it not the ethics of the kingdom that we find in Matthew 5-7, not an ethics for this fallen and corrupt world where even good people end up doing terrible things, perhaps even convincing themselves that they are acting justly? Is it not an ethics for super-humanity, people graced and gifted with the Spirit not just 'in principle', as all the baptised are, but in the realisation of the Spirit's gifts?

It is more helpful, though, to think that this is how we would live were we to be simply and truly ourselves. This is the ethics of 'normal' humanity, our best selves, the people God knows us to be, people with hearts of flesh rather than hearts of stone. Lovers find themselves not only capable of living like this for the ones they love, they rush to live like this for the ones they love. The response of neighbours to the tower block fire in London bears witness to this common ground of humanity that all share - people of all faiths and none, of all races and classes, clubbing together to help other human beings in desperate need.

We might say that it does not endure, that the old man re-asserts himself sooner or later. But we do get glimpses of life in the kingdom, of what a civilisation of love might look like, where those who are truly loved become capable of loving, and those capable of loving are truly loved. Then there is no question of murder, obviously. And there is a new sensitivity to words like 'renegade' or 'fool', a new sensitivity not just to our actions and omissions, not just to what we say, but also to what we think, to those thoughts of anger or revenge that are never far from our door.

There are of course many good reasons to be angry. There is great energy in anger. In this world it is put at the service of revenge and oppression. In the kingdom of God such energy is put at the service of justice and mercy. The Grand Inquisitor might have thought the Incarnate Word was naive but it is he who is out of touch with reality, blind to the reality of God's anger. We see the energy of that divine anger in the resurrection of the Son from the dead. And we pray that God will continue to manifest His anger at sin in precisely the same way, by bringing about a new creation, a new kingdom, a humanity restored to itself.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Week 10 Tuesday (Year 2)

Readings: 1 Kings 17:7-16; Psalm 4; Matthew 5:13-16

Ernest Hemingway wrote a short story which consisted of just six words: 'For sale: baby shoes. Never used'. Another great author of the last century, John Steinbeck, pointed out how we use very short words for the most significant human experiences: war, peace, life, death, love, hate.

Today's readings are simple in this way. Elijah is hungry and thirsty, the woman offers him what she has, meal and oil. Add a little water and there is bread. Jesus speaks about salt and light, simple words and simple realities but things of great power.

We have the simplest words for the most important things: God, Abba, God is love.

And yet we move towards complication. Why do we need to complicate our lives so much? Is this something sin wants to do, to pull us away from a simple appreciation of the gifts we have?

I had a vivid experience of recovering the simple during a Holy Week retreat at Quarr Abbey some years ago. The place was cold, the hours of praying were long, and the food was Lenten. After two days the simple breakfast of homemade brown bread, butter and coffee was the tastiest and most satisfying meal imaginable. I knew again what it meant to be hungry. I knew again what it meant to be tired and appreciated sleep. I knew again what it meant to be cold and appreciated heat. And - this is what we hope for in going on retreat - I knew again what it meant to be without God, and appreciated the need to seek Him.

We are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. It is perfectly simple and so easy to understand. But something else enters in. The salt loses its savour. When we experience empty blandness again we return to appreciating salt. The light is allowed to weaken and even to go out. When we experience darkness again we return to appreciating light.

The widow of Zarephath, who helped Elijah, gets honourable mention in the preaching of Jesus. Her jar of meal and jug of oil have been taken to symbolise the sacramental life of the Church. These sacred mysteries are always on offer - reconciliation and the Eucharist - to restore and sustain our life, to make us salty again, to make us radiant again.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Week 9 Thursday (Year 2)

Readings: 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Psalm 24; Mark 12:28-34

Some years ago an English actor did the round of theatres in Britain and Ireland with a one-man show. He simply spoke the King James version of St Mark's Gospel from beginning to end. As an actor, an interpreter of scripts, he brought out all kinds of subtleties and shades of colour that our normal public reading of scripture never captures. Where most liturgical reading is solemn and a bit monotonous, he illuminated the story in a remarkable way bringing out the humour, anger, irony, sarcasm, gentleness, poignancy, bitterness, and many other things that lie hidden in the text. It was a stunning performance.

So what about today's gospel reading from Mark, what moods or shades of colour might be found in it? The scribe seems a bit patronising or perhaps he is simply naive. Is he condescending? His repetition of Jesus' summary of the law adds to it and changes it in subtle ways: is he correcting the amateur rabbi from Galilee? Is there a barb in Jesus' answer - you are not far from the kingdom of God - effectively telling him that he has hit the nail on the side? Is this what the scribe is saying to Jesus, you got it almost exactly right? Is it what Jesus is saying to the scribe, you are 'not far' from the kingdom? How near is 'not far'?

The answer to that question depends on what we are talking about. Augustine in his Confessions tells about a moment when he was not far from the kingdom of God. His spiritual condition was like a man who from a wooded summit can glimpse the homeland of peace for which he has long searched, he has it now in his sights, but there is still the question of how to get into that kingdom from where he is. What will carry us across, bridge the gap, when a person is not far from the kingdom of God? For Augustine it is the cross of Christ by clinging to which he makes the journey from his viewing point home to the kingdom. Charity is established in the humility of Christ, he says. If we want to live by the great commandment we must embrace the humility of Christ, his cross. The pride of man - all that gets in the way of our loving God and loving one another - is only undone by the humility of God. The cross is the key that unlocks the door of our pride and opens us to love.

'Beautiful' is how we might translate the scribe's comment to Jesus when he summarises the great commandment: 'you are right'. Jesus sees that the scribe's answer is wise and intelligent. So perhaps there is more understanding between them than might seem at first. Love opens up the space in which the other can be, and can flourish. It begins with the understanding a person already has and invites him or her to embrace that understanding more fully, to test its depths, to see where its truth leads.

Of course another meaning of 'not far' is that it refers to the scribe's physical proximity to Jesus himself. In John's gospel the great commandment takes the form 'love one another as I have loved you'. The content of the new commandment is not a written law, not even a sacred and hallowed piece of scripture. Most of us can easily quote the text and tell others what the great commandment is. But its content is Jesus Christ, the one who has fulfilled the law in every detail. He loves the Father with all his heart, soul, mind, strength, and he loves his neighbour as himself. He shows us what these things involve but, more than that, he is the only teacher who can enable us to carry it out.

So to be 'not far from the kingdom' is to be not far from Jesus. To be living the life of the kingdom is to be living in Him, sharing the same Spirit, the Spirit of God's love which is the only power that enables us to observe the greatest of the commandments.