Readings: Acts 13:46-49; Psalm 116; Luke 10:1-9
Whenever I attend a big event at St Peter's in Rome I end up thinking about that moment in the gospel where James and John asked Jesus for the best seats in the kingdom. At St Peter's everybody wants to get to one of the best seats and will be very happy to tell you when they do get a good place. It means a place in front of everybody else. One year for Ash Wednesday I had a ticket which not only guaranteed me a very good seat but allowed me to receive ashes from the Pope. I found myself becoming quite jealous of this entitlement, wondering what would happen if by some misfortune somebody else took my place. I wondered whether I should make an early Lenten sacrifice and offer my ticket to somebody else. In the end I held on to it, accepted the privilege, promising that if I am offered such a ticket next year I will offer it to someone else. Although it might be a new Pope ...
I don't know how the brothers James and John got along for the rest of their lives. Paul and Barnabas are mentioned in the first reading, brothers in the faith working together, but it was not to continue like that forever. Paul was not easy to get along with. The gospel reading tells us that the disciples were sent out in pairs. The readings are chosen for the feast: we celebrate Cyril and Methodius, blood brothers and brothers in the faith who worked together in the preaching of the gospel.
We should not underestimate what an achievement of grace it is where brothers manage to work together. René Girard's analysis of the origins of civilization is well known: so many cities are founded on the blood that flows from fratricide. Cain, the first murderer, was a builder of cities. Jacob and Esau, Romulus and Remus: Augustine already talks about this in his City of God. Perhaps Girard pushes a valuable insight too far. But it is true that the vision of brothers dwelling in unity is realised only where grace triumphs over the egoism that nibbles away in each of us. Inevitably we compare ourselves with others, what they've received, how they are treated, whether they are being preferred to us. Melanie Klein identified envy as the most fundamental truth about human relations, their primary motor. Girard sees it in what he calls 'mimetic rivalry', envy in other words. Am I my brother's keeper? The one I admire, who shares my bread, very easily, and almost inevitably, becomes my rival.
Some are suggesting that Pope Benedict, at the moment of announcing his resignation, was speaking about this fact of life when he referred to a disunity that mars the face of the Church. This is what he said, thinking about difficulties facing the Church: 'Penso in particolare alle colpe contro l’unità della Chiesa, alle divisioni nel corpo ecclesiale' (I think particularly of attacks against the unity of the Church, of divisions in the ecclesial body). Is it the reason for his resignation, some asked, that he became tired of tedious infighting, bickering and jockeying among people who are supposed to be brothers serving the same Lord, preachers of the same gospel. I have no idea whether that is what he was hinting at. I took it to be a more general comment about the scandal of division among Christians that weakens our testimony to the gospel. But we all know the potential of envy and rivalry to disturb and distort human relations. We all know it in the first place in ourselves. We know how we need to work, with God's help, to cope with feelings of envy and rivalry.
Cyril and Methodius were brothers preaching the same gospel, co-workers in the Lord's vineyard. Celebrating their feast as we do each year close to the beginning of Lent reminds us that what we are invited to do in this season is not just to be reconciled with God, but to be reconciled with our brothers, and with ourselves.