The readings are the most difficult that we have encountered so far. In fact some of us in the group preparing the liturgy were tempted to ignore these readings and look for others. The first reading is about killing, a killing of human beings that seems to be sanctioned by God. The gospel reading is about division in the community and what we might call the ‘tragedy of excommunication’.
But we have decided for a number of reasons to stay with the readings given. In the chapter you are talking these days about ‘present reality’ and these readings are the present reality of the Church’s liturgy. All over the world today people will be hearing and struggling with these texts. Another reason is that murder and division are the present reality of so many people. Even since the chapter began there has been a war in Georgia in which many people, perhaps thousands, have been killed. There is a danger that we go looking for nice, comforting readings but in doing so turn our faith into something unreal, romantic and sweet, but not including and not embracing the more difficult realities in human life.
Let us see if this scroll, so bitter on the lips, might somehow become sweet in our bellies.
We would require an hour’s Bible study to speak about all that is involved in the first reading. Being marked with a sign on their foreheads and so being spared when the angel of the Lord passes through the people – this evokes passages in the Old Testament such as those from Deuteronomy that speak about placing texts of Scripture on one’s forehead and those from Exodus that speak of marking doors with blood in order to be spared when the plague of the first-born happens. The Book of Revelation later speaks about those who are marked on their foreheads with the name of God. Most of the Book of Revelation is found in Ezekiel (and Exodus), there is very little in the last book of the Bible that is not to be found earlier in the Bible. What we never find in earlier apocalyptic visions, however, is the lamb. At the centre of the Christian apocalyptic drama is the lamb slain before the foundation of the world. There is still much violence and turbulence, creation turned upside down and terrible things happening, but at the centre now is this gentle figure which is not found in earlier apocalyptic visions.
The Ezekiel reading also speaks of people being marked with a ‘thau’. This is the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, sometimes written (it seems) in the form of a cross. The Christian hearing it will immediately be struck by it, though we cannot read later things back into this text. But we made this mark on our foreheads just now as the gospel was read and it is suggestive for us.
In this first reading the glory of the Lord is leaving the temple in Jerusalem. It is hovering in the air above the city, supported by the cherubim. It is as if God is saying that he cannot see how they can stay together, how God’s glory and human sinfulness can be compatible. So that glory hovers over our world. What we believe has happened with the coming of Christ is that the glory of the Lord has taken up residence within our world, at the heart of our world, for its salvation. We believe that the Son, the Lamb, has allowed everything of human sin to be thrown at him, even to the point of being killed, but that through his resurrection the Father has vindicated him and the world has been redeemed. But it is the full human world that has been indwelt by the glory of God and that has been saved. A Christianity that is too sweet and nice will leave us uncertain about what we can do with more difficult things: anger, hatred, violence, perversion, division, betrayal, cursing, fear – all these things that are part of the human reality, what are we to do with them? The coming among us of the Lamb, the becoming flesh of the Word, means that nothing of the human reality is left untouched by God’s glory which now dwells at the heart of that reality.
The gospel reading is also about the difficulty of staying together and reflects how even at the time of Jesus and in the early Church it was very quickly realized that there would be problems in staying together. Sometimes people will do things or will live in ways that even the Church cannot see to be compatible with the life of the gospel. I hesitated about using the word ‘excommunication’ but one of the sisters said ‘no, use it because it is the reality’. Sometimes, even having done our best, we do not see how some people can be contained within the life of the community. Of course we must make judgments about suitability for the Order, for the Congregation, all that. Some ways of living are not compatible, as far as we can see, with life in the Church. But we can never be happy about the exclusion of a brother or sister. It can never be the last word about a person and our relationship with them.
I like to think that the two or three gathered in Christ’s name at the end of the gospel reading are the same two or three who have earlier confronted the erring brother or sister and that what is on their minds as they pray is that same brother or sister whom the Church has decided it must treat as a pagan or a tax-collector.
All we can do is continue to point to the cross, the ‘tau’ raised up within our world. There, Christ died for the sake of reconciliation and unity between God and humanity, between one human being and another. He broke down the dividing walls between us and made us one but at the price of his blood. We do not see how this unity and reconciliation can be fully achieved but we trust that it will be so. Ave crux, spes unica, was one of Edith Stein’s favourite sayings, ‘hail O Cross, our only hope’.
This homily was first preached on 13 August 2008, during the general chapter of the Dominican Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart.