Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Week 25 Wednesday (Year 2)

Readings: Proverbs 30:5-9; Psalm 119; Luke 9:1-6

The readings speak of two different kinds of trust in God. The reading from Proverbs asks God to arrange the circumstances so that I will not be faced with the temptations that come from being either rich or poor. If I am rich I may forget God, if I am poor I may curse God. It is one way of trusting in God, to believe that he will arrange things so that I am protected from such temptations. If he takes care of the circumstances, I will be able to manage, I will live well.

The other kind of trust is clear in the gospel reading. The Twelve are 'entrusted' with authority and power to teach and heal. They are to be grown up children of God, responsible and taking initiatives. They are not now to be dependent on God to arrange congenial circumstances for them. Rather do they trust God to give them a share of His Spirit so that they will be able to engage appropriately with whatever circumstances they encounter.

They are to be co-workers, sharing in the Lord's ministry of teaching, healing and casting out demons. They are not guaranteed favourable circumstances. Their dependence and trust in God is deeper. It is internal rather than external, to do with what they are becoming in their hearts and minds rather than with the external situations and relationships in which they find themselves.

Saint Paul speaks very well of this second kind of trust in his letter to the Philippians: 'I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me' (4:11-13).

Sunday, 20 September 2020

Week 25 Sunday (Year A)

Readings: Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 145; Philippians 1:20-24, 27; Matthew 20:1-16

As humanity becomes ever more sophisticated in technology, in science, in communications, and so on, it sometimes seems as if it stays fixed morally and spiritually, at an infantile stage of development. when we see the level of political debate at present, the absence of good leaders, the increasing influence of the most basic human emotions - greed, envy, fear, rivalry - and the appeal being made to them by the leaders we do have - it can seem that we are living Lord of the Flies except with computers, drones, and nuclear weapons. We have good reason to be apprehensive and fearful - which further feeds the way in which politics is being played at present.

The instinctive reaction to today's parable - that those who spent the whole day working should receive more than those who only worked the last hour, or else that these latter should receive less - comes from that base level of understanding and feeling. There is a kind of justice in it, we will feel. The landowner's decision to pay everyone the same seems like a too simplistic, a too univocally mathematical, understanding of equality. Or perhaps it is we who want to apply a too univocally mathematical an understanding - equal pay for equal work, more pay for more work, less pay for less work. How else can things be done fairly?

One difficulty with that - as the landowner points out - is that it leaves no room for generosity but the gain there is in that exclusion is that it leaves no room either for envy and so might head off at least some of the reasons why human beings are so violent. All is clear when it is a matter of Xa for X1, Xb for X2, etc. Is the landowner a patronising capitalist, wanting to show off somehow, throw his wealth around, sow division, provoke envy, keep the workers of the world divided?

How can there be a place for generosity and gift - for grace - where a certain kind of iron mathematics determines how 'equality' is to be understood? How honour diversity at the same time as respecting equality? How leave space for the requirements of fraternity alongside those of equality? (It will be interesting to see what Pope Francis's new encyclical has to say about these questions.)

The needs of human beings are basically the same and in important ways varied. Can we imagine that the landowner is applying the criterion - known in early Christianity and in monastic communities - 'from each according to their ability, to each according to their need'? Or will such an ideal always be subverted by the baser emotions, especially envy, which will always see it as a kind of injustice, a kind of discrimination. Which it is, in favour of meeting human needs.

Putting the first reading from Isaiah 55 alongside the parable encourages us to interpret it along these lines - the landowner being 'God', his ways and thoughts not our ways and thoughts. Why be envious (angry, jealous, resentful ... sexist, racist, etc.) because God is generous (also in his creativity, spontaneity, freedom, in his delight in difference and variety and multiplicity, etc.)

The Lord is close to all who call him, the psalm says, ready to be found. But how ready are we to live in his kingdom? Is the 'first Adam' in us still so powerful - and we see it in the infantile passions that determine so much of human behaviour - that we are not even at the beginning of understanding the thoughts and ways of generosity and grace? What new way of seeing, what new way of thinking, do we need if we are to understand the economics of that kingdom, the value of each person, whether it comes to our attention in the dawning light of that kingdom's day or in the evening when the time of judgement has come nearer?

Saturday, 19 September 2020

Week 24 Saturday (Year 2)

Readings: 1 Corinthians 15:35-37, 42-49; Psalm 56; Luke 8:4-15

Some parts of the west of Ireland have become overrun with gunnera tinctoria. It is called either Chilean rhubarb or giant rhubarb and has spread like wildfire in places, forcing out the indigenous shrubs and bushes. It produces seed pods by the thousand which explains of course why it has been able to spread so quickly. It has also, it seems, found lots of favourable soil in which to flourish.

Nature is not mean when it comes to seeds. Flowers and animals produce them by the thousands, even by the millions, with extravagance and what might seem like recklessness. There is a profound desire somewhere that nature should continue, that what is alive should increase and multiply and fill the earth

The first meaning of the famous parable of the sower is simply this then: as in nature, so in the dissemination of the Word of God. It is freely available, shared extravagantly and recklessly, cast upon the earth here, there and everywhere, preached to people everywhere, public, free, available.

Often the interpretation Jesus gives is taken to refer to different kinds of people but it might be more true to understand it to refer to four different moments in anybody's reception of the Word. All hear the Word, nobody is deaf to it, not even those represented by the stones. At different times and in different circumstances we who have heard the Word relate to it as if we were stones, or thorn bushes, or pathways, or good soil.

There are obviously also two different meanings of the term 'life' and two different terms are used in the gospels. One is the kind of life (zoe) God wants for His creatures, the life he gives to all things by his spirit,  the life he wants his human creatures to have in all its fulness. And there is another kind of life (bios) whose cares and riches and pleasures prove too much of a distraction for us and take us away from our service of the Word of God.

The call of Jesus to us is to allow the Word find its way to our life in its deepest sense so that we are not just existing but living, so that we are not just living biologically as if we were only animals, but are living spiritually also, living the life not just of the first Adam but of the last Adam, a life that takes us beyond what we can imagine might be possible for us.

The different moments of our relationship with the Word of Life require different kinds of pruning. There are struggles to be engaged, things to be learned, insights to be painfully gained. So it must be, for all living things, they must learn to live in their environment. If we are to live in the environment that is called the kingdom of God then it can only be by receiving his Spirit which prepares the ground of our hearts, making them to be good and honest places where fruit is brought forth in patience.

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Our Lady of Sorrows - 15 September

Readings: Hebrews 5:7-9; Psalm 30(31); Luke 2:33-35

Along with these two short readings about the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of Mary, the Church's liturgy for today also proposes the sequence, the famous Stabat mater dolorosa, so beautifully set to music by many great composers, most recently by the Scottish composter James Macmillan.

How can such beauty - think also of Pergolesi's setting of the Stabat mater - be built on such unpromising foundations? It is all about pain and loss, sorrow and abandonment. These are not things we seek out or try to provoke. They constitute suffering which in its literal meaning refers to what comes to us, what is imposed on us, what we can only either accept or protest.

In another powerful and beautiful work of art, Oscar Wilde's letter from prison called De profundis, he explains that he came to see suffering as a revelation. His words about it are quite extraordinary. Clergymen get as far as describing suffering as a mystery. But it is a revelation. We find Oscar Wilde repeating, unconsciously it seems, the words of Simeon, that through the suffering of Jesus and Mary the secret thoughts of many are laid bare. 'In suffering', says Wilde, 'one discerns things one never discerned before. One approaches the whole of history from a different standpoint. Sorrow is the supreme emotion of which man is capable, it is simply true and it wears no mask.'

'There is no truth comparable to sorrow', continues Oscar Wilde, 'there are times when sorrow seems to me the only truth. Other things may be illusions of the eye or of the appetite, made to blind the one and cloy the other, but out of sorrow have the words been built, and at the birth of a child or a star, there is pain.' 'The secret of life is suffering', he concludes.

The clergyman proposing suffering as a mystery might use the same words - the secret of life is suffering - and struggle then to show how suffering and love go together. But the suffering man or woman who has tasted sorrow to the depths can speak these words with authority: the suffering man or woman who has had this revelation, can say this with authority: the secret of life is suffering.

Oscar Wilde again: 'Now it seems to me that love of some kind is the only possible explanation of the extraordinary amount of suffering that there is in the world. I cannot conceive of any other explanation. I am convinced that there is no other, and that if the world has indeed ... been built of sorrow, it has been built by the hands of love, because in no other way could the soul of man, for whom the world was made, reach the full stature of its perfection.' In no other way than suffering could the soul of man, for whom the world was made, reach the full stature of its perfection. So sorrow must be the work of love, and Jesus too, although he was Son, as we read in the first reading, learned to obey through suffering, and having been made perfect, became for all who obey him, the source of eternal salvation.

This homily has been largely given by Oscar Wilde, speaking de profundis, out of the depths of pain, sorrow, loss and abandonment. It is better to quote him than to repeat banal and hackneyed phrases about the mystery of suffering. He speaks of what it revealed to him. And that unites immediately with Mary's pain as she stands at the foot of the Cross and with Jesus' pain in the garden and on the Cross.

Our celebration of the Eucharist today, when we meditate on Mary's pain and sorrow, could well be followed, later, by listening to Pergolesi's or Macmillan's setting of the Stabat mater, or by reading Oscar Wilde's De profundis, and in doing so praying to God for all who today are asked to realise the revelation that lies hidden in suffering.

Monday, 14 September 2020

The Triumph of the Cross -- 14 September

Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 77 (78); Philippians 2:6-11; John 3:13-17

With just one exception, whenever the Bible refers to an only child, it is in reference to the child’s death. (The exception is Proverbs 4.3). In the Book of Judges, for example, we read of Jephthah, a judge, who made a foolish vow. If the Lord helped him in a particular campaign, he would sacrifice the first living thing he met on his return home. To his dismay, this turned out to be his daughter who was his only child (Judges 11.34).

The prophets speak of the particular sadness involved in mourning for an only child (Jeremiah 6.26 and Amos 8.10). Zechariah in particular speaks of a time when a spirit of supplication will be poured out on the inhabitants of Jerusalem and a fountain will be opened to cleanse them. When they ‘look on the one whom they have pierced’, he says, ‘they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps for a firstborn’ (Zechariah 12.10; 13.1).

This sense of special sadness continues in the New Testament, particularly in the Gospel of Luke who notes that three of the children restored to life by Jesus were the only children of their parents: the widow’s son at Nain (chapter 7), the daughter of Jairus (chapter 8), and the teacher’s son (chapter 9).

The most important of the only children of the Old Testament is Isaac. He was the child miraculously given to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. The promises made to Abraham, through him to the Hebrews, and through them to the whole world, rested on Isaac. Bizarrely, God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22). He is to take Isaac, ‘your son, your only son, whom you love’ and offer him as a burnt offering to God. Isaac himself carries the wood for the sacrifice though he is unaware of who the victim is to be. At the last moment God intervenes, satisfied that Abraham has passed the test, and a ram is offered in place of the boy.

The Jewish people believed that the promised Messiah would be raised up by God as a reward for the faith Abraham showed on that occasion. This is what Saint Paul is thinking of when he says that ‘God did not spare his own son but gave him up for us all’ (Romans 8.32). He spared the son of Abraham but he did not spare his own son.

The most important references to an only son in the Christian scriptures are those passages in the writings of John where Jesus is described as the only son of the Father. Keeping the story of Abraham and Isaac in mind helps us to understand what is happening between the Father and Jesus.

God so loved the world that he gave his only son, we are told, so that everyone who believes in his name may be saved through him (John 3.16-18). The first letter of John famously declares that ‘God is love’. We know this because ‘God sent his only son into the world so that we might live through him’ (1 John 4.9). The promises first made to Abraham are fulfilled in ways beyond anything old father Abraham could have imagined. Just as Isaac carried the wood for the sacrifice, so Jesus takes the cross upon his shoulders (John 19.17).

The prophecy of Zechariah is fulfilled in the moment of Christ’s death. His side is pierced with a spear. The inhabitants of Jerusalem look on the one whom they have pierced (John 19.37). The fountain opened in the heart of Jerusalem is the blood and water flowing from the side of Christ. John tells us that the glory of Jesus is the glory ‘of a father’s only son’ (John 1.14). This means death, the death of a beloved child, in all likelihood a sacrificial death.

It seems strange that we must look to the cross of Jesus to see his divinity. What glory is there in this man dying without beauty, ‘from whom others hide their faces’ (Isaiah 53.3)? We think we know what God is, what is appropriate for God and what is not. So we transfer the ‘glory’ to some other moment in the story. We cannot see it in the cross. But no one has ever seen God, John tells us, so how can we be so sure of what is or is not fitting for God? ‘It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ (John 1.18).

It is in the death of Jesus that God is revealed because it is in his death that the love which God is, the love of a Father and his only Son, is finally revealed to the world.


 You will find here another homily for today's feast.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Week 24 Sunday (Year A)

Readings: Sirach 27:30-28:7 [27:33-28:9]; Psalm 103; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35

This Sunday’s readings challenge two pieces of popular wisdom. The first is that a person who has had a particular negative experience will automatically be sympathetic and understanding towards another person having a comparable experience. Much pastoral care and counselling support operates on this basis and it seems reasonable. We expect that those who have experienced a particular loss or anxiety will be better placed to help others undergoing that loss or feeling that anxiety.

But the servant in the gospel parable has no sympathy for the man who owes him money even though his own creditor had just released him from a much greater debt. His action is astonishing to those looking on and it remains astonishing to us, to the point where we may well be unmoved by the torture to which he is subjected at the end. We might even find ourselves rejoicing in that torture and saying ‘well good enough for him’.

And here is the wonderful trap set by this parable, because we then find ourselves behaving as he did. Who is he except a character in a story with a fictional debt, and who are we except real sinners who have been released by God from a real debt, the consequence of our sins. We might imagine the wicked servant turning his head on the rack, looking towards us with bloodshot eyes, and saying ‘so you think you are different from me? Which of you, even though you have been released by God from the debt of your sins, has not sometimes refused to forgive others, has not borne grudges and nursed hurts, has not manoeuvred to get away with things yourself while calling others strictly to account?’

The other piece of popular wisdom challenged by the readings is that human beings make progress by forgiving and forgetting. Once again it seems reasonable, the advice often offered to people who cannot leave behind some sad experience or painful betrayal: ‘try to forgive and forget, you’ve got to move on and not allow this thing to continue to poison your life’. But the readings today tell us that forgiveness is possible not by forgetting the past but by remembering it, by remembering more about the past, and by remembering our present situation, and by remembering our future destiny. If popular wisdom says ‘forgive and forget’, biblical wisdom, coming to a climax in Christ, says ‘remember and so learn forgiveness’.

The wicked servant’s colleagues are astonished that he could so quickly forget the mercy he had been shown. If you or I find it difficult to forgive somebody, then we can begin here, by remembering the times we have been forgiven. The first reading, from the Book of Sirach, begins its teaching about forgiveness from this point. It is not reasonable to expect forgiveness and mercy if you are not prepared to show them. It is absurd to continue to ask mercy of God if you are not prepared to show mercy to others. We need to remember at least that much.

But there are other things we ought to remember as we try to forgive. Remember the end of your life, Sirach says, remember destruction and death. How will it seem looking back, we can imagine him saying, if you have not been able to find a way to forgive. Perhaps he is also reminding us of the judgement, that each of us must give an account of himself to God and where will we be then, anxious to be forgiven but not understanding what forgiveness means because we have not practised it ourselves.

Remember the commandments, Sirach continues, and remember the covenant of the Most High. ‘Do this in memory of me’, Jesus says at the last supper. Remember the covenant of the Most High, the new and everlasting covenant, sealed not by a (fictional) heartless servant stretched on the rack, but by the (real) Son of God nailed to the cross. If you want to learn forgiveness remember how the human heart of the Eternal Word was pierced. Remember how that blood dissolved the walls of hostility between people and established peace. It is not a case of forgiving and forgetting. It is a case of remembering, remembering many things, and so learning what forgiveness means.

Those who believe in Jesus are to be ambassadors of forgiveness in the world, and messengers of reconciliation. But forgiveness is not easy to do and the capacity to forgive is not one that is wilfully achieved. No matter how powerful we consider our willpower to be we cannot force ourselves into forgiveness. In the end it is a gift from God as Alexander Pope intimated in his famous comment that ‘to err is human, to forgive divine’. Perhaps it is not strictly speaking something we ‘do’ but something we find ourselves capable of experiencing, a fruit of the Holy Spirit in us, a sign of the life of Christ in us, a participation in the divine nature, a way of relating to others in which we find ourselves (by God’s grace) becoming compassionate as the Heavenly Father is compassionate.

Thursday, 10 September 2020

Week 23 Thursday (Year 2)

Readings: 1 Corinthians 8:1-7, 11-13; Psalm 139; Luke 6:27-38

According to Saint Paul,  knowledge 'expands' and carries the danger with it of becoming egoistic and excluding. Knowledge swells our heads. It is confident, assertive and domineering. Love on the other hand 'builds up', not just expanding but including, not forgetting the other and his needs. Love opens our hearts and makes us sensitive to the impact of our knowledge on others.

The measure of these expansions and upbuildings, today's gospel reading tells us, is to be a measure we learn from God. We are to be compassionate as God is compassionate, merciful as God is merciful. We are called, therefore, to live in a very spacious place, to live within the (infinite) dimensions of the divine compassion.

Knowledge is knowledgeable and might well remain simply knowledgeable: expert, skilled, confident. Love however includes knowledge, embraces and transforms it. For love also knows, and understands, and is wise. Love's knowledge will feel more risky than mere knowedge does (skill, expertise, competence) because love's knowledge is more a matter of being known than of knowing. Love is in the first place, and fundamentally, about being known rather than knowing: 'if anyone loves God he is known by God'.

By knowledge we take the world inside ourselves and learn how to master and control it. By love we venture out into the world to taste it, to learn not so much how we might master it as how we might joyfully live in it. The pursuit of knowledge is one kind of adventure: we become masters of our universe. The pursuit of love is a very different kind of adventure: we step into God's universe and seek to live there by God's standards. Knowledge might well make progress without love but love cannot but include knowledge also.

Julian of Norwich says that 'by love may he be gotten and holden, but by thought never'. By love we come to know not only God and ourselves but also God's world, and the principles that rule it, and the others whom God loves.