Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Advent Week 2 Wednesday

Readings: Isaiah 40:25-31; Psalm 103; Matthew 11:28-30

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

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

So there are double yokes and there are single yokes. In the Bible the single yoke is an image of the Law. The Law was spoken of as a yoke laid on the people which was, yes, restricting but which was also the guarantee of the covenant which the Lord had made with them. This yoke gives guidance and direction, keeps the people on the straight path, helps them to live well.

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

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

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

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

Today's first reading urges us to carry this reflection to another level. Taking up the yoke of Christ's love not only makes heavy burdens bearable, it fills us with energy for new things. We begin to live from the divine energy which is infiinite and inexhaustible. In another memorable image from Isaiah, young men may grow tired and weary but those who hope in the Lord renew their strength. Even while carrying the yoke of love (prepare for a mixed metaphor!) they put out wings like eagles, they run and do not grow weary, they walk and, still carrying the yoke of love, they never tire. It is the strength of the Holy Spirit that energises the hearts of all who love God and transforms them into chariots of fire, vessels of the Divine Love.

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Advent Week 2 Tuesday

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 96; Matthew 18:12-14

We are so familiar with this example of the shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep in order to go in search of one stray that we fail to see how irrational it probably is. Of course if the ninety-nine are safe or are being cared for by someone else then it makes sense that the shepherd will try to find a stray. But if that is not the case, and there is the risk of losing even more of them, he will surely cut his losses and take care of the ones remaining. If the stray does then turn up of course it is an extra joy, and will feel like a bonus. But the thought of leaving ninety-nine at risk to go in search of one seems a bit crazy.

And that is the point. Luke brings it out more clearly in his version where he combines it with the story of a woman who lost a coin and searched high and low until finally she found it only to spend at least as much on a party to celebrate its recovery. And the third unbelievable story in that triad in Luke 15 is, of course, the story of the Prodigal Son, received back by his father with love and celebrations.

In modern times people often contrast faith and reason as if they were opposed to each other, which of course they are not. The real contrast generated by the gospels, however, is not so much between faith and reason as it is between love and reason. Saint Catherine of Siena talks about the madness of the Divine Love, how crazily in love with His creatures God is.

The beautiful love song that is today's first reading from the prophet Isaiah sings of this crazy love of God. Now the highway through the wilderness is not for the people returning from Babylon to Jerusalem, it is for the Lord returning to Jerusalem to dwell once more with His people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, Isaiah says, or, in another translation, speak to the heart of Jerusalem. It is a time for tenderness and a fresh start, for gentle shepherding and warm care, a time to experience once again the everlasting love of God.

The contrast between the lovers is extraordinary, on the one hand a people that is poor flesh, as enduring as the grass, here today and gone tomorrow. On the other hand is the infinite and eternal God, creator of all things, whose word stands forever and whose love is constantly searching to turn the heart of His people back to Him.

'Let creation rejoice' is another cry of the Advent season. Nature always sings for lovers: the hills are radiant and the trees dance, the rain is playful and the sea thunders praise, the meadows rejoice and even the animals know something special is going on. This is the world being transformed by the presence of God's glory, a glory He wants us to see and to share. We do it by turning again towards Him and learning His ways anew, by opening our hearts to the comfort and tenderness of our Good Shepherd.

Monday, 9 December 2019

Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary - 8 December

Readings: Genesis 3:9-15, 20; Psalm 98; Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12: Luke 1:26-38  

Mariology is the part of theology that studies what the Scriptures and the Christian tradition teach us about Mary and her place in the history of our salvation. For the great Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner the Church's Mariology is simply the most beautiful part of its theology of grace.

In fact the Christian tradition has found in the single phrase 'full of grace' everything about Mary that subsequently emerged in the liturgical and devotional life of the Church. What emerged in the course of tradition was eventually incorporated in the Church's teaching with the solemn declarations of her Immaculate Conception and her bodily Assumption into heaven.

'Full of grace' - it is the name she bears in view of her mission, the one who is highly favoured, greatly blessed. She is to be the mother of the Lord and in that sense, pregnant with Him, she is full of grace. But in being prepared for that role, and in being sustained through the joys and sadnesses of it, she was always favoured and blessed, supported by the Eternal Trinity. She was sustained in her work of bearing, rearing and teaching her son, in her work of following him not just physically to Calvary but spiritually as the first disciple, the one who heard the Word of God and believed it and kept it and practised it.

The grace of Mary is personal to herself and to her mission in the Church. But it is also paradigmatic of the grace God bestows on His Bride, the Church. This Marian grace - of hearing and conceiving the Word, of meditating and treasuring it in our hearts, of bearing it into the world and carrying it to others - this is a grace of the entire Christian people. It is why Mary is called also Mother of the Church. Just as her Son is her image, so too the Church, His body, reflects in its life and activity, her life and activity in the service of God's Word.

In this work of new creation there is always the collaboration of the human creature with the designs and actions of God. It is to be repeated often: the first creation involves only the speaking of God: 'let there be light, and there was light'. The new creation involves also the speaking of human beings: 'let what you have said be done to me'. Mary is also the first to teach us this, that our co-operation with God's grace is an essential part of how the new creation comes about and of what the new creation means.

A fear of human beings in modern times is that the coming of Christ and of God will somehow threaten our freedom, weaken it and perhaps even make it redundant. Mary teaches us that the opposite is the case. To be 'full of grace' is to enter into a new space of freedom. To be 'full of grace' means not placing any obstacle, not even the slightest one, to the working of God's grace in us and through us. To be 'full of grace' does not mean losing our freedom in order to be completely at the disposal of God as blind instruments. To be 'full of grace' means gaining that freedom so as to be completely at the disposal of God, but to be at his disposal as the creatures that we are, intelligent and free, responsive and understanding, loving and creative.

To be 'full of grace' is not to lose anything of our dignity or our freedom. It is rather to enter into full possession of that dignity and of that freedom. It makes us to be children of God, living in communion with Him, sharing the life of the family that God is, and so being available with all our energy for the service of God's kingdom of love, justice and peace.

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Advent Week 2 Sunday (Year A)

Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12

Two images stand in contrast with each other in today's readings. One is the image of the desert and the other is the image of the harvest.

The desert is the place in which John the Baptist appears, a location rich in significance for the people of the covenant. It is the place in which their hearts are tested, to see if they really do love God with all their heart, all their strength and all their might. John the Baptist is a prophet calling them back to this relationship with God as many prophets before him had done.

The portrait of the Baptist is familiar, his message, lifestyle, identity and impact. His message is the call to repentance, shown by submitting to his baptism. His lifestyle is strange, a diet of locusts and wild honey while dressing in camelskin and living in the desert. As for his identity, he is the voice crying in the wilderness, he is the Elijah who was to come before the great and terrible day of the Lord, he is not the light but one who bears witness to the light and points out the Lamb of God when he appears. His impact is significant: Jerusalem, all Judea and the whole region around the Jordan go out to him.

There is fruit to be borne out of this experience of the desert, a moral and spiritual fruit that means the people are truly living according to the covenant the Lord has established with them. There is a harvest to be saved and John the Baptist says that the One coming after him will preside over this harvest. He will winnow, thresh and gather in what is good, and he will burn what is left over and has not borne fruit.

A journey through the desert place is necessary if the harvest is to be achieved. Just as the people of Israel were brought into communion with God through their experience in the desert, so anybody who wishes to live in that communion must be prepared to visit the desert and to do it more than once. It means repenting of our sins, purifying the motives of our actions, seeing once again the ways in which we ought to be bearing fruit. It means being ready to lose everything in order to gain the complete simplicity needed to share the life that is promised.

The Messiah comes in the power of the Holy Spirit, baptising in that same Spirit and with fire. This does not simply mean punishment. It means refinement and purification, it means a deep cleansing and a new creation, it means making strong and capable of endurance hearts and minds that otherwise would be feeble and vacillating. The greatest spiritual teachers tell us that the quality of the harvest depends on the time spent in the desert.

The more we empty our lives of the things that do not really matter in order to make space for the one thing that is necessary, the more we are open to the refining fire of the Holy Spirit and the recreating power of His gifts. We will have courage for the desert, in whichever way it comes to us, and we will bear a rich harvest, loving God ever more deeply and sharing ever more deeply the communion of life and love He wants for us.

Saturday, 7 December 2019

GRACE THROUGH TIME 4

LEAPING FOR JOY

There is a particular kind of waiting that attends pregnancy and the scriptures see it as the way in which humanity waits for its full flourishing. Paul speaks of the Christian hope as a pregnancy moving towards birth: the whole creation is longing and groaning in one great act of giving birth (Romans 8:22).

The domestic scene in a town in the hill country of Judah contains a drama of eternal significance. The newly pregnant Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is already in the sixth month of her pregnancy. On the face of it, a very ordinary joy, the meeting of two expectant mothers. But it is a meeting in which the gospel is preached for the first time, and the fulfillment of the world’s hope is recognized. Mary is the first to carry the word of the Incarnation to another human being. Elizabeth is the first to hear this message, that the Word has become flesh and is dwelling in Mary’s womb.

When the sound of Mary’s greeting reached her ear – a very ornate way of describing something simple – John the Baptist leapt for joy. Elizabeth was given a sign as she heard the words of Mary’s greeting. The Spirit filled her, we are told, and she proclaimed with a loud voice – another very ornate way of describing something simple: she shouted with a great shout.

Luke clearly wants us to notice the hearing and the speaking of Elizabeth just as in the Acts of the Apostles he uses similar language to describe the hearing of the gospel and its proclamation. Faith is established in Elizabeth through physical events, an encounter, words spoken, a leaping baby, with the Spirit working through those things. Faith is established in those converted by the apostles through physical events, encounters, words spoken, signs of compassion and love, with the Spirit working through those things.

Elizabeth’s words of praise seem related to those of another woman in Luke’s gospel, the one who also shouts out, this time ‘happy the womb that bore you and the breasts you sucked’. To which Jesus replied ‘happy rather those who hear the word of God and keep it’. This is exactly what Elizabeth said to Mary: blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.

Christianity is a physical religion, the religion of the marriage of God and matter as Chesterton put it. The world is pregnant with the Word. He has been brought to birth by Mary, has been given a body in which to serve the Heavenly Father, and in his resurrection that body has been glorified. But the Word continues to dwell within the world, carried in earthenware vessels, present in his body, the Church. In Christian tradition the Church is always ‘she’, a mother pregnant with the Word of life, struggling to bring it to birth in those she encounters. (Of course, as we are constantly reminded, the bearers of this Word are the first who need to hear it.)

We live then in a time of pregnancy and expectation, the time of the Church, the time of the preaching of the gospel. If we are to be among the blessed then we must not only hear it but also keep it. Where else can we do that but here? When else can we do it but now?

This reflection was first published in The Tablet, 19/26 December 2009, p.25

Friday, 6 December 2019

GRACE THROUGH TIME 3


RIPENESS IS ALL

‘Rejoice’, our liturgies begin this week, for it is Gaudete Sunday. This year also we hear Paul’s wonderful exhortation, ‘rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice’ (Philippians 4:4). Are we to rejoice already, then? Or is our timing just a little bit off, like impatient children who want to anticipate the joy that is not yet here but very soon will be?

There are many activities where timing is crucial. In sport, successful moves and shots require perfect timing. Telling a joke can fail to achieve its desired effect if the timing is not exactly right. It is crucial in teaching, friendship, and music. The great dancers are expert in their judgments about timing. Much of the grace in beautiful dancing is in the dancer’s use of time, moving serenely, waiting, containing their energy until the moment is right, moving quickly when that moment arrives. There is then grace, and beauty, and power in the dance.

The people listening to John the Baptist were impatient for the promised kairos, the moment when the Messiah would come. They were in expectation, Luke tells us. The Baptist teaches them that it is not he, but that very soon, in what Paul calls ‘the fullness of time’ (Galatians 4:4), one will come who will baptize them in the Holy Spirit and in fire.

What makes it to be ‘the fullness of time’? For Thomas Aquinas the coming of the Messiah was at a time when humanity had grown to adulthood in its relationship with God. In fact it is this coming that finally brings humanity to that maturity. God’s people were no longer children and no longer adolescents in their relationship with God. They had been around for a while, and had undergone many things, all the time guided and educated by the law and the prophets. So they were being made ready to receive the Word when he came to his own place.

If the coming of the Word was to be appreciated, God’s people had to learn particularly about sin, Aquinas continues, and about the need for grace. In fact it is the appearing of this grace that finally enables us to understand sin.  It is not so much that we value grace because we know what sin is, as that we understand sin only if we appreciate what grace is.

And, as in graceful dancing, the unfolding of revelation and salvation must be according to a proper order (Aquinas again). The coming of the Holy Spirit follows on the glorification of Jesus who is not only baptized in water by John but also in the Holy Spirit and fire. The grace of the Messianic kingdom becomes available when that kingdom has been established through the passion, death and glorification of Jesus.

The prophet Zephaniah gives us a wonderful image of God dancing with shouts of joy over us (Zephaniah 3:17). We can presume that God’s timing (like his joy) is perfect, and that this dance of redemption has unfolded, and is unfolding, as it ought. We are invited to participate in the dance – this is something grace makes possible – and, through our love and our prayer, to move towards the one who is coming towards us. In this dance more than any other there is grace, and beauty, and power.

This reflection was first published in The Tablet, 12 December 2019, p.15 

Thursday, 5 December 2019

GRACE THROUGH TIME 2

THE WORD HAS ITS STORY TOO

The public history of the world, the succession of great events and important personalities, helps to pin down another history going on along with it, the history of the Word of God. So it was in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah, king of Judah, that the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah. It was in the year King Uzziah died that Isaiah saw the glory of the Lord. It was in the days of Herod, king of Judea, that an angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. And it was in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, that the Word of God came to John in the wilderness. Alongside public history, woven through it and within it, another history is played out, the history of God’s Word, and of the relationship between God and God’s people established on that Word.

Here are two further experiences of time, then, the history of humanity, what we normally mean by the word ‘history’, and, for those who believe, the history of God’s Word, a history of creation, salvation and new life. This second history can be forgotten in the pressures and anxieties generated by the first: wars and rumours of wars, famine and drought, economic depression and ‘man’s inhumanity to man’. While these, clearly, cannot be ignored, other things too are to be remembered and Advent is a time for practising remembering.

How wonderful it is to be remembered and kept in mind. The prophet Baruch recounts the joy of the people of Israel when, in their exile, God remembered them (Baruch 5:5). Paul tells the Philippians that he remembers each day their shared life in the gospel. He is very tender with them and tells them how much he misses them and longs for them with the compassion of Christ (Philippians 1:8). John preaches a baptism of repentance, calling his listeners to remember who they are and where they come from, to remember that their life finds its deepest meaning within the Great Story of God’s dealings with them.

Advent is a time to remember also that we are remembered: God has kept us in mind. Zechariah says this in his prayer of thanksgiving at the birth of John: this birth is a sign that God has remembered His covenant and His tender mercy has moved God to visit His people.  The birth of the Baptist is the overture of a new and definitive chapter in the history of God’s Word, which brings, as Zechariah puts it, ‘the knowledge of salvation, the forgiveness of sins, and a light to guide our feet into the way of peace’.

As in the time of the prophets, and in the time of John the Baptist, so today there are great public events and notable personalities. But there is always also the continuing history of God’s Word. Paul’s words to the Philippians reflect God’s Word to the world: I remember each day our shared life and long for you with the compassion of Christ. How goes it then with this koinonia, this shared life established for us by Christ, the Word who brings light and breathes love? Advent is a time to think about this question and so remember this other history that defines us.

This reflection was first published in The Tablet, 5 December 2009, p.13