Sunday, 25 September 2016

Week 26 Sunday (Year C)

Readings: Amos 6:1,4-7; Psalm 145; 1 Timothy 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31

For the final ten years or so of his pontificate, John Paul II made constant use of a set of three ideas whenever he spoke about Christian life, the Church, or particular vocations within the Church. These three ideas are those of contemplation, communion and mission. He spoke of them so often and in such a way that they seemed to represent for him what we might call the Christian ‘gene’. In calling them the Christian gene what I mean is that this threefold reality will be found wherever there is Christian life. The structure of that form of life, its DNA if you like, is always contemplation, communion and mission. No matter what a person’s vocation or state in life, whether married or single, lay person, deacon, religious, priest or bishop, all through every instance of Christian life will be found some form of contemplation (prayer, thoughtfulness), some form of communion (friendship, love, being with others), and some form of mission (reaching out, witness, teaching).

The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus shows us what life is like without contemplation, without communion and without mission. It shows us the ‘anti-Christian life’, life outside the kingdom Christ came to establish. Instead of contemplation there is blindness. Instead of communion there is an unbridgeable gulf. Instead of mission there is paralysis and the death, it seems, of any hope.

The rich man did not see Lazarus until the urgency of his own situation in Hades led him to look up. Then he saw him. But when the poor man was lying at his gate, he did not see him. He presumably knew he was there, saw him physically as he passed in and out, but in any significant sense he did not ‘see’ him. He was blind to the man’s need, oblivious to the injustice of their situation. This is what riches do – Luke’s gospel has been telling us this again and again this year – riches, of whatever kind, tend to blind the one who is rich. It is not just our attitude to riches, Luke’s gospel teaches, but the simple fact of being rich that tends to coarsen people and make them insensitive.

If contemplation is the first element, communion is the second in the Christian gene, the DNA of Christian life. Again the parable shows us its opposite. There is no communication between the rich man and the poor man. There is no shared life, no communion. The most the poor man can hope for is the scraps from the rich man’s table, those pieces of bread used by the rich man and his guests to wipe their plates before throwing them on the ground for the dogs. The most the rich man can hope for is that Abraham might send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water to cool his burning tongue. But even then the rich man does not speak directly to Lazarus. He speaks instead to Abraham.

How sad it all is. It is the sadness of being strangers to one another, of not talking to one another, of misunderstanding and betrayal. It is the difficulty of coming to trust where there seems to be no basis for trust. These difficulties are found everywhere, in families and workplaces, in religious communities and in the Church itself, but that does not take away from their sadness. Instead of common ground there are unbridgeable chasms and gulfs that cannot be crossed, situations for which, it seems, there is no solution.

But God, as revealed in Jesus, is communion. The eternal happiness of God is the knowing and loving of one another of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We have been called to share that life, the communion of mutual knowing and loving that God is. But we do not share it if we are not prepared to be in communion with one another: if we say we love God while hating our brother we are liars, Saint John tells us (1 John 4:20). We believe, though, that the unbridgeable gulfs and chasms that keep people apart and that even lead them to think of each other as enemies have been bridged by Christ. This is why we call him our Saviour and Redeemer. Saint Catherine of Siena was very fond of the image of Christ as a bridge, a pontifex, establishing communion between heaven and earth, a bridge that reaches from side to side to unite what seemed irreconcilable. The bridge, of course, is the cross of Christ, stretched across those gulfs and chasms, by which he has reconciled all things to God and enemies to one another, drawing all into one communion of love (Ephesians 2:11-22).

The third element of the Christian gene is mission. The Church as a whole, and all its individual members, live a life (or are called to be living a life) marked not only by contemplation (good seeing, prayer, thoughtfulness) and communion (shared life, friendship, love) but also by mission. Once again the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is helpful because it presents us with two people who are disempowered for different reasons. Remember, what we see in the parable is the ‘anti-Christian life’ and so there is no sense of mission here. The poor man is passive throughout, seems listless, not just when he is on earth allowing the dogs to lick his sores but in the afterlife also, as he reclines on the bosom of Abraham. The rich man is also impotent, paralysed. In this life he was blinded by his wealth, in the next he shows some concern, if only for his own brothers, but there is nothing, it seems, that he can do.

The person who believes in Christ, on the other hand, and who is therefore living this life of contemplation and communion, will not be powerless. There is always something that can be done. The life Christ gives us is about action, bearing fruit, following him, going and doing likewise, taking up our own cross, keeping his commandment of love. It is not just that we decide we should do something because we have received so much. It is just that the form of life we are talking about is of itself fruit-bearing and action-producing. If it does not do that then the gene is somehow defective, the DNA is missing some of its parts. If there is contemplation and communion then there will be mission also.

Sometimes people think Christianity is a recipe for passivity in this world. Although the lives and sometimes the teaching of Christians have on occasion contributed to this view, it remains a profound misunderstanding. There is always something to be done. If the life we are living is one of contemplation and communion leading to mission there will be some fruitfulness in our lives. We can seek the truth, for example. We can pray. We can think about things: how the world would change if more time and space were given to good thinking. Was it not Pascal, the French philosopher, who remarked that half the world’s problems would be solved if only people could sit quietly in a room for an hour (or words to that effect). We can study. We can hold others in mind. We can try to know ourselves better. We can try to know and love others better.

Sometimes when we think of ‘doing something’ we think immediately of the public, social world, even the political world. God knows there is great need for a Christian presence in the public world, not just the presence of Christians but the presence of those things that characterise Christian living, once again contemplation and communion.

If Lazarus is listless and the rich man is trapped we are always full of confidence. It is a confidence based not on our own abilities. It is based on the life Christ has shared with us and it flows naturally from that life when it is healthy, a life of contemplation and communion bearing fruit in our service of Christ and of his Church.

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