Sunday, 22 October 2017

Week 29 Sunday Year A

Readings: Isaiah 45:1, 46; Psalm 96; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b; Matthew 22:15-21

Beginning with flattery (what the Irish will recognise immediately as plámás), Pharisees and Herodians question Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar. If he says 'pay' he is in one kind of trouble, if he says 'don't pay' he is in a different kind of trouble. Instead, and as usual, he takes the ground from beneath their feet and changes the basis of the question completely. Whose image is on the coin to be paid? Caesar's. Then give Caesar what is his. And give God what is His.

Sometimes this has been taken to mean that human life and affairs can be divided between a realm that belongs to Caesar (the state, political matters) and a realm that belongs to God (the Church, religion). But there is something wrong about the idea that there might be an area of human life that does not belong to God. And Jesus endorses our suspicion by what he says. Not explicitly, but very clearly.

If whatever bears the image of Caesar belongs to Caesar then whatever bears the image of God belongs to God. What is there that bears the image of God? If the image of Caesar is found on coins, where is the image of God to be found? We know from the Bible that it is the human being that bears the image of God. So it is the human being that belongs to God. And this cannot mean only some parts or aspects or activities of the human being, it must mean the human being in his or her entirety, in all her activities and relationships, in all his projects and commitments. It must mean also each and every single human being since no distinction is made: each and every one is created in the image and likeness of God.

It is a supremely clever answer. While seeming to divide human affairs between two masters Jesus does exactly the opposite, relativising our loyalty to 'Caesar' while acknowledging it, making it abundantly clear that such loyalty is always within a deeper, more all-embracing, and transcendent loyalty, that which is given to God alone. Give to God what belongs to God: in other words, everything.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Week 28 Saturday (Year 1)

Readings: Romans 4:13,16-18; Psalm 105; Luke 12:8-12

In today's gospel Jesus is particularly concerned with our speaking, what we say, how we say it, what we ought to say. Believers are called to speak about the Son of Man, and about the Spirit. If they are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities they are not to be anxious about how or what to say. The Holy Spirit will teach them in that very hour what they ought to say.

If we deny the Son of Man, we will ourselves be denied by him. We have taken up a position in relation to him which, we can say, he is ready to acknowledge. That seems bad enough but is not yet the most serious situation. If we sin against the Son of Man we can still be forgiven but if we blaspheme against the Holy Spirit we will not be forgiven. How are we to understand this when we are often re-assured that there is no sin too great to be forgiven?

Some years ago George Steiner wrote a very stimulating book called Real Presences. It's subtitle is 'Is there anything in what we say?' More than ever we are swamped and close to drowning in a flood of words that stream over us and around us every day. In all these millions of words spoken, written, broadcast, is there any depth, any meaning, any truth? We may be left confused, uncertain and tentative at the plethora of opinions, the mountains of information, the overwhelming extent of it all. We might take denying the Son of Man to mean this experience of confusion, uncertainty and scepticism: we deny the Word, that meaning and truth are to be found in it.

To deny the Holy Spirit would then signify taking a further step. It means not only are we unable to identify any meaning or truth in all that is flowing around us, we deny that there can be any meaning or truth-making significance in what is flowing around us. There is no breath sustaining all these words. There is no foundation in them on which to build anything. There is no significance that can be drawn out and admired through meditating on all these words. Perhaps it is the move from agnosticism to atheism.

In the face of this which is more likely, that we will be presumptuous or despairing? Presumption often seems more likely, as people assert, often quite dogmatically, that there is no deep meaning or truth to be found. We set the limits ourselves to the significance of our words and dismiss anybody who, in faith, proposes that a wiser heart calls us beyond those limits. Despair is deeper and darker and it brings conversation to an end: if people are consistent in their skepticism then no thought, no conversation, is possible. There is nothing in what we say, so say what you like or say nothing, it is all the same.

In this context, presumption and despair become two ways of saying the same thing: there is no final meaning in what we say or do. How we live, what we say, what we do: it does not really matter. And this is the sin against the Holy Spirit which cannot be forgiven because it does not allow space for a source of forgiveness, there is no place in which conversation can continue.

The Holy Spirit promised by Jesus and sent from the Father becomes the hope of believers. This hope rests on faith in God who, as Paul says in today's first reading, gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In his faith Abraham hoped against hope and so became the father of many nations. These were not just empty words, futile promises, but words filled with meaning and sustained by the Holy Spirit. George Steiner's argument is that the human conversation carries meaning and truth only where it remains open to transcendence. We can put it like this: where we seek to bear witness to the truth we must stand with the Son of Man, the Wisdom and Word of the Father, and the Holy Spirit will teach us what we ought to say.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Saint Luke, Evangelist -- 18 October

Readings: 2 Timothy 4:10-17b; Psalm 145: Luke 10:1-9

St Paul mentions Luke, one of his co-workers, a few times — Philemon 23-24, 2 Timothy 4.11 and Colossians 4.14 where he refers to Luke as ‘the beloved physician’. There is no good reason to doubt the early Church’s attribution of the third gospel to Luke. And the Acts of the Apostles as well of course, since the Gospel of Luke and the Acts go together.

Luke seems to have been a person of particular sensitivity and gentleness. The picture of Jesus we gain from Luke is correspondingly sensitive and compassionate, with an eye always to the unfortunate and the afflicted.

Luke has been described (by Dante) as ‘the recorder of the tenderness of Christ’ and this comes through in a number of ways. Think, for example, of parables which are found only in Luke’s gospel: the good Samaritan (Luke 10), the prodigal son (Luke 15), the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16), the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18) to name just four of them. If asked to pick out stories that best summarise the good news of Christianity I bet we would all include at least the first two.

In both parables the turning point is when one human being is moved with compassion at the distress of another and does something to help. The good Samaritan, unlike the priest and Levite who passed by, is ‘moved with compassion’ to help the unfortunate man he sees on the Jericho road. The prodigal son is on his way home, and is still a good way off, when his father sees him, is ‘moved with compassion’ and rushes out to embrace him.

Luke uses the same Greek word in both places. And he uses it again in telling how Jesus encountered a funeral procession in the town of Nain, that of a man who was the only son of his widowed mother (Luke 7: it is typical of Luke to note things which deepen the sadness of situations: the ‘only’ son and she a ‘widow’.) Here, Luke tells us, Jesus himself is ‘moved with compassion’ and restores the man to life.

The miracles recorded only by Luke often have some added reason for compassion. The woman bent over (Luke 13), the man with dropsy (Luke 14), and Zaccheus the tax-collector too small to see Jesus (Luke 19), are all afflicted in ways that might well have led to them being laughed at and jeered.

Some have suggested that Luke’s medical background explains his interest in the details of various conditions. Perhaps it is enough that his sensitivity drew him to relate events which best illustrate the compassion of our Lord.

A further illustration of this compassion is in the words from the cross which Luke records (Luke 23). The first is ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’. The concern of Jesus for the plight of others remains to the very end. In the same spirit is his assurance to the good thief, ‘today you will be with me in paradise’. And his final word is a prayer, ‘Father into your hands I commend my spirit’.

Luke, recorder of Christ’s gentleness, is symbolised by a bull or ox. This is the biblical symbol (Apocalypse 4) traditionally assigned to him, because his gospel begins with Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, offering incense in the temple at Jerusalem, the place of sacrifice. The compassion which permeates Luke’s gospel may seem fragile and vulnerable before the powers of this world but we believe that this kind love which comes from God is stronger than anything in creation. The ox is a symbol of this strength.

It is always good to read the gospel of Luke, to make it our spiritual reading — if only to realise how much our appreciation and love of Jesus of Nazareth have been shaped by what we learn from this gentle physician.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Week 27 Saturday

Readings: Joel 4:12-21; Psalm 97; Luke 11:27-28

This is probably the shortest gospel reading in the Church's liturgical year. But it packs a punch. Like Elisabeth earlier in Luke's gospel this woman 'raises her voice'. She is a preacher but unlike Elizabeth her message misses the mark. Jesus corrects her: my mother is to be praised in the first place for her faith, for hearing the Word of God and for keeping it.

It is as if the woman is still caught on the level of the first creation. The fruitfulness of the womb and the nourishment of the breast, these are blessings of that first creation. Hearing the Word of God and keeping it, these are blessings of the new creation. The first creation blesses but confines us. (Paul says in the first reading for this day in year 2). It is the new creation that sets us free, the kingdom of faith and of the Spirit. New relationships are established in this kingdom and on a new basis: 'my mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it', Jesus had explained earlier (Luke 8:21). It is not just about hearing the Word, and being able to parrot it back perhaps, it is about 'keeping' and 'doing' the Word (cf Luke 6:46-49).

Mary herself wondered about this transition from the first to the new creation. 'How can it be', she asks the angel of the annunciation. The first creation required only God's Word: 'let it be', and so it was. But the new, second, creation requires the words and believing hearts of human beings - Mary who says 'let it be done to me according to your word', Jesus who says 'my food is to do the will of my Father who sent me'. Such is the dignity bestowed on the creature by God, that we are made participants in the construction of the new creation, builders with Him of the kingdom that is coming.

Life remains difficult for us even when we believe and seek to do what the Word asks of us. This is because we belong to both creations. We belong to the Second, the Last, Adam who for freedom has set us free, but we still belong also to the First Adam. The 'old man' remains alive in us as long as we are pilgrims in this world and our work of being transformed is still underway. The 'new man' is already created and has come to birth in us. But we continue to struggle to convert our minds fully to what Christ has done for us, and to walk purely and simply in the way he has mapped out for us.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Week 27 Tuesday (Year 1)

'Mammy, Jane is not helping with the dishes.' 'Daddy, Sam has left me to do it all by myself.' We can easily imagine such a scene happening in the house of Martha and Mary. Jesus found himself caught up in a very ordinary, domestic, moment. One of his hostesses was busy preapring the meal and she complained that her sister was not helping out. She was just sitting, listening to him.

The story follows a pattern which is characteristic of St Luke's gospel. Many incidents and parables, as he recounts them, involve two poeople between whom there was some kind of conflict or separation, e.g. the Pharisee and the publican, the prodigal son and his elder brother, the rich man and Lazarus - these are all characters we only come across in the gospel of Luke. These parables put us on the spot because almost inevitably we find ourselves identifying with one or other of the characters. Who is the 'goodie' and who is the 'baddie'? But perhaps that is too simplistic a reading and what a parable really challenges us to do is to find all its characters somewhere in ourselves, in our attitudes or actions or aspects of our character.

The two sisters, Martha and Mary, show us two ways of being with Jesus, two ways of serving him. Martha wanted to welcome him into her house in the normal way, by offering him a meal. This was her way of loving him. Mary sat and listened to what he had to say. She was keen to learn from him and this was her way of loving him.

In the Christian tradition Martha and Mary were not the only pair of women to represent action and contemplation. Leah and Rachel, wives of Jacob, were also often used in the same way. Dante, for example, in Canto 27 of his Purgatorio, introduces us to Leah who talks about the difference between herself and her rival: 'she with seeing, and I with doing am satisfied'. These two women are found on either side of Moses on the tomb of Pope Julius II, made by Michelangelo. The way they are represented there is comparable to the representation of Plato and Aristotle in Raphael's famous painting, the School of Athens, Plato (Rachel) looking towards heaven, Aristotle (Leah) looking towards the earth.

Head in the clouds and feet on the ground, we might be tempted to say. Likewise for Mary and Martha. The sisters came to symbolise two ways of living the Christian life and stand for two paths to Jesus (or two ways of travelling with him). Martha stands for those called to serve Christ in practical and concrete ways - through acts of charity, through involvement in the life of the world. Mary stands for those called to serve Christ as contemplatives - through lives dedicated to prayer, through standing back from the world.

Many of the great teachers of the Church have used Martha and Mary to stand for the 'active' and the 'contemplative' paths. But unfortunately, too many have also decided that Mary's way was better. After all, Jesus does seem to dismiss Martha's complaint when he says that 'Mary has chosen the better part'.

Meister Eckhart, the medieval Dominican theologian, is the only one I know who proposed that Martha's way was better, because it was the more mature. Is he wiser than Jesus then? No, just that he understands Jesus' remark to mean 'Mary has chosen what, for now, is best for her'. Martha is the more grown up of the two. Her union with Jesus and her understanding of him make her ready for works of compassion and service. Mary is at an earlier stage in the Christian life. She had yet to grow and more to learn, she needed to spend more time absorbing what Jesus had to teach, before she could give herself, like Martha, to the generous service of her brothers and sisters. It was Martha, then, who was further along the path to Jesus, and this, says Eckhart, is what Jesus was helping Martha to understand.

But Eckhart was the exception that proved the rule. Most Christian teachers believed that Masry was following a better way than Martha. And others (Thomas Aquinas, for example) have suggested that a mixed way would be even better, a way that combines the prayerful attention of Mary with the compassionate service of Martha. To be a teacher in the Church, for example, not just contemplating but passing to others the fruits of one's contemplation.

Perhaps such a stark choice is not really necessary, not really possible. A complete activism would be no longer human. There has to be thought and prayer to support action, there has to be reflection and evaluation afterwards if our action is to be fully human. 'Don't just do something, sit there', we might be tempted to say to someone in danger of losing themselves in unreflective action. 'Don't just sit there, do something' is what we will be tempted to say to the Marys who prolong their contemplation when the needs of charity require them to turn towards their neighbour.

Perhaps the contrast between Mary and Martha, Rachel and Leah, (Plato and Aristotle?), is one we find within ourselves. Everyone who seeks to follow Jesus must have something of each within them. How can you be a Christian without listening to Jesus who is the Word, and without seeking to be with him in prayer? How can you be a Christian without caring for your neighbour in whatever practical way is needed (last week's gospel of the good Samaritan reminded us of this)?

The story of the two sisters encourages us to think about our faithfulness to these two aspects of following Christ. Whether we are good at praying or good at serving we should work at it with all our hearts and minds. We must also, of course, take care of Christ in the needy and the poor. We must use our gifts to serve others. But we must pray so that our actions have a properly human and Christian depth, we must pray and be with the Other if we want to be truly with, and for, others.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Week 27 Sunday (Year A)

Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 79; Philippians 4:6-9; Matthew 21:33-43

As Flann O’Brien, or perhaps Father Ted, might put it, there was a time when Ireland was overrun with absentee landlords. Having been taught about the iniquities that invariably attend this form of ownership and management, one will be a bit troubled at the thought of God as an absentee landlord, as the traditional reading of this parable seems to require. Galilee at the time of Jesus had its share of absentee landlordism, rich Syrians and Egyptians who kept estates there, worked by tenants, the landlords sending their agents (their slaves as the parable puts it) to receive the profits at the appropriate time.

There are other things that puzzle about this parable. One is the fact that the traditional reading seems to fall a bit too easily into the conclusion that the Jews have blown it and it is time for the Christians to take over (‘it will be taken from you and given to another nation’). One recent commentator says that the interpretation of this text is now crucial in Jewish-Christian relations and one can see why.

A third puzzle to put alongside God as an absentee landlord, and the potential for anti-Semitism, is the strange change Jesus makes in response to the Jewish leaders' summary of what the parable means. They take it as a story about an unreliable leadership and regime being replaced by a more reliable leadership and regime, possibly thinking of themselves, and that the settlement between Romans, Herod and the Jewish religious leaders was a better thing than the corrupt kingship which had led to destruction and exile many centuries before.

It is amazing to us that they show no interest in who the son of the parable might be. For Christians hearing it, of course, his appearance is the climax of iniquity in the story and we know exactly who is intended and what imminent events – the death and resurrection of Jesus – are hinted at in this parable.

It is likely though, that the reference to the stone which appears from nowhere – not just the reference to it but the stone itself according to the Book of Daniel – that this is actually the key and the clue to the meaning of the parable.

The chief priests and the elders of the people show no interest in the son. They see the point of the story however: any absentee landlord worthy of the name will very quickly dispose of those wicked tenants and replace them. They say this themselves: ‘he will bring those wicked men to a wretched end and lease the vineyard to tenants who will come up with the goods’.

Then Jesus talks about the stone and it seems like a complete non sequitur. The Hebrew may be some help, for in Hebrew son is ‘ben’ and stone is ‘eben’. But the context is even more helpful. This is a parable told in Jerusalem and not just in Jerusalem but in the Temple. This is a parable told just after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his cleansing of the Temple. Things are coming to a climax in the life of Jesus. The stakes are getting higher and he is being quite provocative, baiting the chief priests and the elders with what he is doing and with the justification he is giving for what he is doing.

The kingdom of God – Matthew rarely uses this expression – will be taken from you, Jesus says, and given to a people who will produce its fruit. The kingdom of God is the kingdom spoken of in the Book of Daniel, represented by a stone that comes from God knows where, to crush the earthly kingdoms and replace them with a kingdom that will never end (see Daniel 2). Jesus combines this with texts that refer to a rejected stone that becomes the keystone (see Isaiah 28:16; Job 38:6; Jeremiah 51:26; Psalm 118:22). Apparently the stone the prophets had in mind when they used this expression was not very far away from Jesus as he spoke, for it was the stone that formed the pinnacle of the Temple, a stone cast aside that found its way to the place of greatest honour.

And this perhaps helps us to see how radical and unsettling is the parable of Jesus and his challenge to the Jewish leaders at this moment. It is radical and unsettling and a challenge not just to them but also to us who listen and try to understand what is going on here. The people to whom the kingdom is to be given cannot be simply identified. It is not as simple as saying non-Jews will replace Jews. It is not as simple as saying that one group of Jewish leaders who became followers of Jesus will replace another group of Jewish leaders who refused to become followers of Jesus. That’s the story of the world’s empires and institutions from time immemorial.

But we believe that something radically new is established in what is happening to Jesus and what is happening through Jesus. The early Church quickly finds itself obliged to talk about a new birth (as Jesus had done) and even of a new creation. Jesus himself talked about a different basis of identity and relationship, a family established on the basis of faith in him. The point of the parable, with the strange conclusion about the rejected stone, is that it is not just a change of management that is envisaged, not just emptying the house and filling it with new tenants, but something much deeper. We are to think not just of a new earthly power replacing an old one but of a new kind of power which continually cuts across our established and traditional ways of seeing things, calling us ever on to new life.

Elsewhere in the New Testament we read about a vineyard in which the vines are pruned if they do not bear fruit and we hear Jesus saying things to his disciples about going out and bearing fruit, fruit that will last. That reference to the vine, in John 15, also reminds us of the identification Jesus makes between himself, the vine, and ourselves, the branches. The first reading of today’s Mass is a beautiful poem but perhaps misleads us when we come to think about the parable that echoes it. For it is the whole vine that is destroyed by God according to Isaiah not just the leadership at its head.

And the deepest mystery of these events unfolding in the last days of Jesus’ life is how he becomes Israel, he is Israel, taking on himself, although he is just and innocent, the punishment that Israel’s sins have deserved and ours too. The coming disruption of the community of Israel, played out historically in the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple of which there are also echoes in this parable, is first played out in the body of Jesus, destroyed on the cross, but in three days rebuilt. The stone that is rejected has become the corner stone: this is one of the great resurrection texts of the early Church (see Romans 9:32; Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:4-7).

As an older but still valuable commentator, C.H.Dodds, puts it, ‘Jesus did regard his own ministry as the culmination of God’s dealings with His people … the guilt of all righteous blood from Abel to Zechariah would fall on that generation’. The climax of iniquity that is the killing of the Son becomes the setting up of the Stone, rejected by men but established by God. The winepress in the vineyard, says Thomas Aquinas in his commentary on this parable, is the altar of sacrifice. We continue to participate in these mysteries of sin and guilt, of redemption and love, as we offer the sacrifice of the Son and pray that through our sharing in it we will bear fruit that is of the kingdom of God.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Our Lady of the Rosary - 7 October

Reading: Luke 1:37-49

A story goes around among us that one of our younger and more traditional brothers, in response to John Paul II’s decision to introduce five luminous mysteries of the Rosary, placed a notice in the church where he was assigned. In one column he listed the twenty mysteries of the Rosary ‘as recommended by John Paul II’, the joyful, luminous, sorrowful and glorious mysteries. In another column he listed the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary ‘as recommended by the Blessed Virgin Mary’, the traditional joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries without the modern addition of luminous mysteries.

Many preachers and teachers had probably worked out a rationale for the three sets of joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries. From the joy of Galilee and the romantic preaching and healing ministry of Jesus, through the darkness of his passion and death in Jerusalem, to the glory of the resurrection and his return to Galilee, his return then to the Father from where he sends the Spirit to establish the Church and disseminate in the world the new and risen life of the Kingdom. It was a pleasing pattern, from joy to sorrow to glory.

Back to the drawing board then, to break open this pattern and include also five luminous mysteries. I suppose some people had already thought it strange that the traditional mysteries took us straight from the finding in the Temple, when Jesus was twelve years old, to the agony in the garden, on the eve of his death. Surely there were mysteries to be contemplated in the time between, in the public ministry of teaching and healing, of miracles and exorcisms.

Dominicans particularly, for whom today’s celebration of Our Lady of the Rosary is a major feast, should have been aware that Thomas Aquinas divided the mysteries of the life of Christ into four sets, the mysteries of his coming into the world, those of the progress of his life in this world, those of his departure from the world, and those of his exaltation after this life. Although not exact in every detail this general division corresponds with what we now know as the joyful, luminous, sorrowful and glorious mysteries of the Rosary.

But ‘every action of Christ is for our instruction’ is a saying handed on in the tradition so that we could conceivably continue to gather sets of five mysteries. We could, for example, meditate on five great parables. Or on five remarkable healings. Or on five ways in which God is present to his people. Or on the actions of five characters in the passion of Christ. And so on.

The use of beads and repeated short prayers is found in most of the world’s religions and we could meditate on other sets of mysteries as we seek to enter more fully into the richness of Christ. What is absolutely sacred is the Lord whose life and light we receive through praying the Rosary.  It is a way of contemplating and it is a way of preaching. It is a way of contemplation and a compendium of Christian doctrine for everyone. We might be tempted to consider ourselves too sophisticated for something that is more at home in popular religious devotion. But it has made great contemplatives over the centuries, and it has made great saints.

We are in the company of Mary as we pray the Rosary, just as the apostles and disciples were in her company as the Church waited for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Mary participates in a unique way in the mysteries of her Son’s life, keeping all these things constantly in her heart as she shared personally in so many of them. She becomes a teacher of prayer for us, leading us into the mysteries of Christ, mysteries that are inexhaustible sources of life and light. She becomes a preacher of the Word for us, the one who first brought the good news of the gospel to another person when she visited her cousin Elisabeth. 

The Rosary is very near to us, as close as the fingers on our hands. It is a prayer that can be said anywhere. We can bring to it our own experiences of joy and learning, of sorrow and exaltation. And as we contemplate those mysteries of light in which we meditate on Jesus the teacher we place ourselves in the position of students and disciples, keen to learn what all these mysteries mean, keen to imitate what they contain and keen finally to obtain what they promise.