Thursday, 14 December 2017

Advent Week 2 Thursday

Readings: Isaiah 41:13-20; Psalm 145; Matthew 11:11-15

Poor John the Baptist. He is 'wheeled out' at this time every year. After a few outings in the liturgy it seems that everything that needs to be said about him has been said. And he is permanently playing second fiddle. We know already that it will be the same next year. And the year after that.

But today's gospel reading warns us that it is not a competition between the Baptist and Jesus as to which of them is greatest, a competition in which we know (because we are 'Christians' rather than 'Baptists') who will come off best. One cannot imagine that either John or Jesus ever thought in that way in relation to each other. It was the sons of Zebedee who engaged in that kind of tedious competitiveness, and were very quickly slapped down for doing it.

Instead we are being taught that there is a radical discontinuity between the way God is present in John the Baptist and the way God is present in Jesus. There is none greater than the Baptist if what you are thinking about is the raising up of prophets to teach and guide the people.  But if you are thinking about what St Paul later calls 'a new creation', which comes with the Incarnation and Redemption achieved by Jesus, then you see clearly that things have shifted radically. We are in a new kind of place and a new kind of time. God has not only visited his people, he has dwelt amongst them, he has pitched his tent among them, the Eternal Word became flesh. He is in our hearts and on our lips, he is in our neighbour and his Spirit dwells in the very air we breathe, his saving work continues in the preaching and sacramental life of the Church.

The Old Testament prophet whose texts we read this week was a prophet of God the Creator and Redeemer. These ideas were refined through the experience of exile, the people losing all the familiar ways in which up to then they were assured of God's presence (the land, the city, the temple). They needed a new kind of comfort and consolation which comes with a new and more sophisticated understanding of God. He is no longer simply a tribal God, no longer simply 'the best god around'. He is the only God, and not just the 'top god'. He is the Creator of all things in heaven and on earth, and not just the Lord of Israel. He is the Redeemer who will call people from east and west, north and south, to the banquet of an eternal and universal kingdom, and not just the champion of one small part of creation (though he cherishes all small parts, the boundaries, the ends, of all times and places).

Second Isaiah, as this prophet is sometimes called, struggles to find the best poetry in which to describe the radical discontinuity, the new reality, the future that is breaking in. In today's reading it is in terms of a dramatic transformation of the desert which becomes a place of water. It becomes not just damp or wet, but filled with streams and fountains, gushing water, unstoppable rivers, a botanical garden supporting the whole array of beautiful trees: cedar, acacia, myrtle, olive, cypress, plane tree and pine.

In such poetry the prophets sensed what came to be realised between John the Baptist and Jesus. God will act in a new way. God will be present in a new way. Creation will be renewed and remade in ways beyond imagination. They knew that they could not describe adequately how it would be, or what it would mean, but they give us some of the most wonderful poetry in the world in their efforts to describe it beforehand. John the Baptist is not the least among these prophets. In fact he is as great as any of them. But the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is because the last and least of us living in the light of the Incarnate Word dwells already within this new creation.

It is not that human beings have suddenly become more moral or holier than they were before the time of Jesus. It is that God has acted in a new way in Jesus. God has revealed himself in a new way in Jesus. God is present in the world's history in a new way in Jesus Christ. More dramatic than a desert suddenly transformed into a forest of rich vegetation - so is the drama of Christ's coming. We continue to scratch the surface for the most part, but we must continue to preach this because there are people somewhere in the world who are being prepared by the Holy Spirit to live it more fully than we do. Perhaps God can use our words as he used those of the Baptist to prepare the way for the One whose sandals we are not worthy to untie.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

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, 12 December 2017

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, 11 December 2017

Advent Week 2 Monday

Readings: Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 84; Luke 5:17-26

From time to time during Advent we hear about the great highway which will be constructed to facilitate the return of the people to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon. Restored to their own land they will once again rejoice in the presence of God with them. The valleys will be filled in and the mountains brought low, the way will be wide and direct, facilitating their return, and making their journey easy. The blind will see and the lame will walk.

In today's first reading this highway is referred to as the 'Sacred Way'. Other ancient cultures had Sacred Ways. There is one in China, for example, connected with the journey of the Emperors to heaven. There is one in Greece, from Athens to Eleusis, the way to the joyful celebration of religious mysteries. And there is one just ten minutes from where I live, the Via Sacra that runs through the Roman Forum, from the Colosseum to the Capitol.

There is a striking contrast between the Roman Sacred Way and the one spoken about in the reading from Isaiah. The Via Sacra was the final stage of the triumphant journey made by victorious Roman generals as they returned with their booty, their captured kings, their enemies enslaved. The rejoicing along that road was at the humiliation and weakness of others. The triumph celebrated the power and glory of Roman military might, culminating in the execution of many of the captives, thrown to their deaths from the Capitol.

Isaiah's Sacred Way is also about triumph and rejoicing but not at all 'alla Romana'. Here no enemy is needed to support the rejoicing. If anybody has been defeated it is the people themselves in their sinfulness and forgetfulness of God. The road is open to everyone and is not about humiliation and the despising of weakness. On the contrary it is about life and new strength and a welcome not just for God's chosen people but for all the peoples of the earth who will come from east and west, from north and south, to take their places on Mount Zion.

Today's gospel reading can be brought in also. There are obstacles for people getting to Jesus. How are they to find the way to the Way? A crowd of people prevents the paralysed man getting to Him. In fact the paralysed man needs the help of others if he is to have any hope of getting to him. And his friends engage in a piece of pastoral creativity, opening the roof and letting him down directly into the presence of Jesus.

A few thoughts here. Will we have the humility to allow ourselves to be helped along the way? Of course we want to walk on our own two feet, to find our way to God by ourselves. But inevitably we need the help of others and will we be ready to accept it? We need the help of the Church, the community of those who believe in Jesus. (It could be that the friends who bring the man to Jesus are the first apostles, recently called, and getting down to their task. It could be also that the crowd preventing access to Jesus can also be understood as the Church: the scandalous lives of believers are a major stumbling block for people.)

Another thought: where is the place, in ourselves, that will be ready to open so that we can be in the presence of Jesus? The most difficult of the deadly sins are the ones that close us down and cut us off, imprisoning us within ourselves: pride, anger, and envy. What is needed if we are to open up? What is needed if we are not to despise weakness in ourselves but are to be gracious and humble in accepting how God works for us through others?

In John's gospel Jesus describes himself as 'the Way' and it is one of the names used for the primitive Christian movement in the Acts of the Apostles. Advent invites us to search again for the way, to return to the Lord, to reflect on the things that prevent this return, the things that paralyse us and block our access to Jesus. Advent reminds us also that there are people who can give us directions, who are travelling the way before us and with us.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Advent Week 2 Sunday (Year B)

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Psalm 84; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8

It can be difficult to explain, especially to the sceptical questioner, why the Christian faith continues to ‘hold’ us. One reason why it is difficult to talk about it is because it is a matter of the human heart, a question of where we are being drawn to give our hearts. There is a natural modesty about revealing our hearts to too many people and certainly not in public places. There is something very sad about those television programmes in which people feel they must speak about the intimacies of their lives to huge audiences. There is an appropriate, and virtuous, modesty about any ‘affair of the heart’. In today's first reading God instructs the prophet Isaiah to ‘speak to the heart of Jerusalem’ (Isaiah 40:2).

A further complication in talking about our sense of call to follow Christ is because it has to do, not only with the human heart, but also with that heart in its relationship with God. God himself is always, and increasingly, mysterious to us. It should not be surprising, then, if we find it difficult to be articulate about His ways with us, about the involvement with Him into which God has led us, about what God has done with our hearts.

Some of the first Christian teachers, because their language was Greek, noticed a connection between the term for ‘call’, kaleo, and the term for ‘beauty’, kallos. Although it does not show up in English, it is a helpful connection in trying to understand the sense of being called that believers experience. It is like being drawn, or attracted, to someone, or to something. We know that the attraction of what is beautiful is undeniable and irresistible. This is true not only of people we find beautiful, but also of art (pictures we go to look at again and again), music (songs we listen to over and over again), landscapes (parts of the country we never tire of visiting), and so on.

One of these early Christian writers says that God is rightly called beauty because ‘beauty bids all things to itself and gathers everything into itself’ (Pseudo-Dionysius, Divine Names IV.7). It is because there is something beautiful in the figure and teaching of Christ that people are drawn to try to follow him and that they keep going in spite of many difficulties. The bidding or call of beauty is not intrusive, aggressive or violent. It is not an imposition forcing us in a direction in which we would prefer not to go. But it is undeniable and irresistible, no less powerful for working in the way it does.

We may find little of beauty in the figure and preaching of John the Baptist. His is a strange lifestyle. He points to our sins and to our need for repentance. He points to the ways in which we fall short of the goodness and beauty of God’s holiness. But for Christians he is just the forerunner, come to herald the arrival of the Christ. John is not the light but the one who points us towards the light. ‘I baptise you with water’, he says, ‘but (the one following me) will baptise you with the Holy Spirit’ (Mark 1:8).

The light, of course, is Jesus. He is the one to whom the Baptist bears witness. Jesus is ‘the consolation of Jerusalem’ and the definitive revelation of the glory of God. He is the one about whom we are called (drawn) to shout: ‘here is our God (Isaiah 40:9)’. We believe Jesus to be the beauty of God made flesh. Simply in virtue of who he is, and what he means, he bids us come to him, to follow him, and to share his ways. He ‘calls’ us to become like him and – the deepest of the mysteries we teach – to share His divine life, becoming partakers in His divine nature.

The real beauty of Advent and Christmas is not the pretty decorations we add to the outside of our lives but the radical call implied in the birth of this child, who is the Eternal Son of the Heavenly Father. How are we to relate to this ‘light of the world’? What are we to make of this ‘sender of the Spirit’? What is our response to the challenge he gives us? Of course we continue to await the fulfilment of his promises in that ‘place where righteousness will be at home’, as today's second reading puts it (2 Peter 3:13). But in the meantime we are all called to give our lives to building his kingdom of justice and glory, where mercy and faithfulness meet, and where justice and peace embrace. This is the vision, or call, of beauty that supports our faith and our hope.

Friday, 8 December 2017

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.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Advent Week 1 Tuesday

Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72; Luke 10:21-24

We have been having some very beautiful evenings in Rome the past week or so. There are few clouds and it gets dark early. There are lots of stars in the winter sky including that big one (Venus? the Christmas star?) just below the moon. On the footpaths the few remaining dead leaves glisten in the moonlight. Living here one is restricted to imagining the frost in lands further north, frost settling for another night.

Presiding over these quiet winter evenings is the moon. It contributes significantly to our peaceful nightscape although it cannot itself really be described as a peaceful place. This is because there is no life on the moon. Where there is no life there is no struggle, or anxiety, there is no need, or threat, or fear. If the moon is peaceful then it is the peace of the graveyard, the kind of peace found in dead places and not the full, rich, reconciled, healed, and justice-based peace that the Bible calls shalom.

The earth is not at all like the moon. Here there is life, many kinds of living things, and so there is much struggle, and anxiety, there is need, and threat, and fear. Where there is life there is the possibility of it being damaged, wounded, and even lost. Living things are aware of their surroundings and must keep watch and be attentive. Living things are always anxious or at least alert and they are always needy, for food, shelter, or a mate. Where there is life there is also threat and fear, even (perhaps especially) from other living things of the same kind.

Today's first reading paints a picture of paradise, the restoration of all things to an original peaceful cohabitation, the lamb entertaining the wolf, the calf and the young lion resting together, the children safe with no more hurt, no more harm. The great, groaning act of giving birth is over, and the creation settles into the shalom which comes with salvation.

But before that the earth, in particular the human world, is a place that needs justice, some kind of management and balancing of struggle and anxiety, of need and threat and fear. Inevitably, we contend with each other. We jostle with each other for food and influence. We are aware of each other as potential partners and friends and collaborators but also as different, as rivals, as perhaps not fully trustworthy, not really ‘on my side’.

The human world remains a place where we must strive for justice although justice often seems to be beyond us. Where people take action to restore or introduce justice they often end up doing some fresh injustice. Where one kind of exclusion, discrimination and inequality is removed, fresh kinds of exclusion, discrimination and inequality appear in their place.

Jesus lived in Palestine, the place where Europe, Africa and Asia meet. It was a key province of the Roman Empire, guarding the great trade routes to the East and to the South. For centuries it had been fought over by Egyptians and Assyrians and Persians and Greeks and Romans. Even today ‘Palestine’ presents the knottiest of human problems. It is the place where Jews, Christians and Muslims struggle to live together in justice and in peace. There are many other places where cultures, languages, races, and religions meet and where they must find out how to live together. But ‘Palestine’ is symbolic of them all, in particular of the difficulties they all face.

Jesus was born into this knot in the world’s history and geography. We believe him to be the Messiah promised in the scriptures, the one who has initiated God’s reign of shalom. The word means peace but not just in the sense of no fighting. It means a rich, reconciled, healed, justice-based peace, the peace that comes with the Messiah and is won, as it turns out, through His rejection, death and resurrection. ‘He himself will be peace’, the prophet Micah tells us. ‘In his days justice will flourish and peace till the moon fails’, says the great messianic Psalm 72, speaking about the kingdom of a future son of the House of David. Through him the earth has been filled with the knowledge of the Lord.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote the first book to be called Politics and in it he says that human community and civilization are built on communication. It is by talking and listening that we recognize and establish justice. Thomas Aquinas liked the idea: ‘communication builds the city’, he says, commenting on Aristotle’s text. It is part of human greatness that we understand the need for justice and can work together to try to build it. And we build it through listening and talking.

The Word became flesh in Palestine in the first century. Into the knot of human struggle and anxiety, of need and threat and fear, God entered to speak His Word. Jesus is God’s contribution to the human conversation about justice and peace. We will find peace, he says, only by loving our enemies. People laughed at this, of course, but he has shown us that it is the only way: you must love one another as I have loved you. We celebrate his birth because he is our hope. He is the light shining in this world’s darkness. With the birth of this Child the time has arrived in which justice has begun to flourish and his peace grows till the moon fails.