Monday, 27 March 2023

Lent Week 5 Monday

Readings: Daniel 13:1-9, 15-17, 19-30, 33-62; Psalm 23; John 8:12-20

It is a fair attempt at ensuring due process and a fair trial, to insist, as the law of Moses did, on the testimony of two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15-21). It was an effort an ensuring that there could not be miscarriages of justice. Of course conspiracies to frame people and have them unjustly tried were always possible as long as people were prepared to get together to bear false witness. It was one of the major commandments of the law, and is one of the essential structures of any just society, that people not bear false witness but speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

We know from experience that no system of justice is perfect and that no combination of human beings involved in administering a system of justice will do so perfectly. It is one of the strongest arguments against capital punishment: no matter how good the system of justice might be, it is always administered by human beings and therefore liable to distortion and corruption. In the case of capital punishment there is no going back.

In the final days of Lent we are presented with figures who are unjustly treated even when the system of justice is being followed correctly. Susanna is one such figure and we hear about her in today's long but dramatic first reading. From the early days of the Church she has been a 'type of Christ', foreshadowing in her experience what was to happen to Jesus later on. It requires divine intervention, working through Daniel, to illuminate the truth of the situation. Here the testimony of two corrupt witnesses will be enough to condemn Susanna unless the Lord intervenes to ensure that a higher justice - the justice of truth rather than simply that of evidence - triumphs in her case.

In the final days of Jesus' life there is much focus on the justice of the trial he received. It was easy for the authorities who wanted to destroy him to find someone in his circle to betray him and it was easy for them to find others to testify against him. When false witnesses arise and speak against him they report his words but fail to see the true meaning of those words. 'He said he would destroy the Temple and raise it in three days'. 'He is telling us not to pay tribute to Caesar and that he himself is a king.' They are confused, Mark's gospel tells us, and understandably so since Jesus is trying to lead people beyond their normal categories of thought, expectation and understanding.

Who are to be the witnesses that will vindicate Him? In the passages from John's gospel which we read these days there is much about this question. We see the kind of non-judgmental judge Jesus is - his treatment of the woman taken in adultery is simply the most powerful moment in that revelation. But what of Jesus himself? Who will bear witness to Him? Who can vindicate the justice of His cause? Who will confirm the truth of His teaching?

It can only be the Father, says Jesus, He is the one who vindicates me, who bears witness to me, who confirms the truth of what I am saying. The Father knows where I come from and where I am going, Jesus says, because it is He who sent me. So the requirement of the Law, that there be the testimony of two witnesses, is fulfilled: the Father and Jesus can bear witness to who he is, to his origin and to his mission. But we might well sympathise with the confusion of the witnesses, even with disciples struggling to understand, if the logic of Jesus's argument in today's gospel reading is not immediately clear.

We need more light if we are to have any hope of understanding what Jesus is saying here. We believe that light has been given in the events we celebrate in the coming days. For the moment at least this much is clear: Jesus moves forward on the strength of his relationship with the Father. If everything else falls away, as eventually everything else will fall away, this will stand. He is sure of the Father's presence and certain too that, when the hour comes, the Father will bear witness to the Son in ways that only the creating power of God can as yet imagine.

Sunday, 26 March 2023

Lent Week 5 Sunday (Year A)

Readings: Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 129 (130); Romand 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

In the Franciscan church at Arezzo is the wonderful cycle of frescoes by Piero della Francesca illustrating the legend of the True Cross. A part of that legend is that the cross of Jesus was erected in the same place in which Adam, the first man, had been buried. One of the scenes represented in the frescoes is the death of Adam, a powerfully poignant painting. Standing around the dying man are the members of his family including Eve, his partner from the beginning. They keep vigil, as all families do sooner or later, watching over the one who is dying and giving full attention to what he is going through and to what he might say before he finally leaves them.

The difference here is that this is the first natural death of a human being. Abel had been murdered by Cain but that was something different. In watching the dying of Adam his family are witnessing for the first time the full consequences of sin, the end of human life as we know it. Faced with death, which is both natural for an animal of our kind and unnatural for a being with the capacities that we have, Adam's family are the first to be dismayed, puzzled and resigned to this most inevitable of events. They pave the way for all human beings who have followed after them and who have faced the same questions: death is so final and so undeniable but what is it?

We know that death means the end of life, of experience, of possibilities, of communication, of presence. Sometimes the suffering that has preceded it has been so deep and intense that the coming of death is a 'happy release'. In such circumstances we are more conscious of the end of suffering than of any other aspect of it. Often though death has a tragic character. It comes too soon, it comes too painfully, it is no respecter of persons, it cuts through all commitments, relationships and obligations, it removes people abruptly leaving no time for farewells, it devastates families and lovers, parents and children, friends and admirers. It leaves the aching heart, the empty place, a sense of loss without hope of replenishment, a merciless silence.

Gathered at the tomb of Lazarus is another family and another group of friends. The chief mourners are Martha and Mary, sisters of the dead man. Friends arrive, including Jesus of Nazareth, but he comes too late. 'If you had been here', Martha says to him, Lazarus would not have died. Jesus could have healed him and preserved him from death. Instead a greater sign is to be given, not the healing of a man from sickness but the restoration of a man to life.

Paul describes Jesus as the Second Adam or the Last Adam, and here he performs a sign which shows that the work he has come to do is the most radical possible, a work that complements and transcends what the First Adam had brought about. The way the world has been structured up to now, in particular the relationship between sin and death, this is to be all undone. The way in which God's original intention had been disturbed is to be overcome and a new reality, a new life, a new creation are to be inaugurated.

Jesus is fully present in the human experience of that death which is a consequence of sin. He becomes visibly upset and weeps for his friend Lazarus. And he calls him forth from the tomb, tells the mourners to release him from the tight shroud, and to let him live freely again.

Love follows death. It stays with those who have died and continues to hold them even while their bodies are corrupting in the earth. Combined with faith, love now grounds a remarkable hope, reaching beyond death, reaching up to the Lord of Life. What happened to Lazarus is not yet resurrection, only a sign of what was to happen in the tomb of Jesus.

Lazarus is restored to life, not resurrected to the new life. He is unbound, set free and given back to his people. In the raising of Lazarus death is conquered, momentarily. But in the resurrection of Jesus death is conquered definitively. There will then be no earthly body emerging from the tomb, there will be only the empty tomb. There will then be no resuscitated person needing help to be unbound and to live again, for the grave clothes will be cast aside and the appearance of the new body will be glorious. There will then be no return to life as it was before, for the new heavens and the new earth will have begun to be created.

Lazarus was not the resurrection but bears witness to the resurrection. Jesus is the resurrection, and the life, and everyone who believes in him will not die but will have eternal life. Love follows death and continues to hold the dead one. When the lovers involved are the Eternal Father and his Only Son then the Father, following Him into death, does not allow his body to see corruption but raises him from the dead, not to live again this natural life with its merciless structures of sin and death but to live in the glory of the resurrected life, in the new creation breathed into existence by the Holy Spirit.

From Piero della Francesca's fresco of the death of Adam in Arezzo we can soon turn to contemplate his more famous painting of the resurrection of Jesus in San Sepolcro, a painting complementary to that in Arezzo but so much more powerful, so much more devastating, for it means the end of this world and the beginning of a new creation.

Saturday, 25 March 2023

The Annunciation of the Lord

Readings: Isaiah 7:10-14; 8:10; Psalm 39 (40); Hebrews 10:4-10; Luke 1:26-38

In the first reading the Lord offers King Ahaz a sign, coming either from the depths of Sheol or from the heights above. This is where we would expect any decent sign to come from, from out of this world, either from the depths or from the heights, something to make us sit up and take notice.

The sign eventually given is not the one first offered, an offer Ahaz rejects. Instead it is the most natural, the most ordinary sign: a young woman will give birth to a son and her son will not only continue the line of David but will rule wisely and well. He is Hezekiah, one of the best of the kings of Judah, the son of Ahaz and the young woman.

More of the same, then, we might be tempted to say, but in the circumstances of threats against Judah, the southern kingdom, and the fall of Israel, the northern kingdom, a sign that Judah would survive and even prosper was, surely, a welcome one. And this is what the birth of this good king meant: God was still with his people.

Mary does not exactly ask for a sign when she hears Gabriel's message. 'How can this come about', she says, 'since I am a virgin?' The natural and ordinary pregnancy and birth of this child, another son of the house of David, becomes supernatural and extraordinary: the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the child will be holy and will be called 'Son of God'. Undoubtedly a sign from the heights above, then, this child who will rule wisely and well, and whose kingdom, unlike that of Hezekiah, will have no end.

What about the depths of Sheol though? Well, he is to be called 'Jesus', or 'Joshua', the one who led the people through the waters of the Jordan, out of the wilderness and into the land flowing with milk and honey. Let what you have said be done to me, Mary says, and the child is conceived in her body. The offering of the body the child receives from Mary is the sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world: this is what today's second reading teaches.

The natural and ordinary is under constant threat from the depths of Sheol. All that is, and lives, and seeks to love, is pulled down by a void of nothingness from which it has come, by the fascination of evil which distorts its desire, by a kind of gravity towards death which brings disintegration, disharmony, and utter darkness.

So the body cannot remain peaceful and serene, natural and ordinary. As he grows in strength and wisdom, so too forces of evil gather against him and the kingdom that has no end is established through a battle that pits the heights above against the depths of Sheol. Asked whether he thought Vatican Two's document on the church in the world should be more optimistic or more pessimistic Cardinal Jean DaniƩlou replied 'both'.

We are unlikely to overestimate the power of darkness - part of its power is precisely to turn us the other way, to underestimate its power (except when we see it working dramatically in others), even to forget it as applying to ourselves. But we can never overestimate the power coming from above, the power of the Spirit that overshadowed Mary, the power of the holy king who is called Son of God, the power of the Father, infinite and eternal, wise and good.

The battle is engaged in the body Jesus received from his mother. All who are incorporated into that body draw close to this battle, Mary in the first place in the sufferings she endured, all who make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ, the Church which is his body and which itself at times seems close to disintegration, disharmony, utter darkness.

We may not have asked for a sign, perhaps for fear of tempting the Lord our God. But we have been given one not in the ordinary and naturally beautiful body of the child recently born but in the body hanging on the cross, a body which Mary allowed to come about ('let what you have said be done'), a body that remains a sign of contradiction, revealing the depths of the world's sin but from whose defeated side flows the life of that kingdom that is without end, the everlasting kingdom of justice, love and peace.

You can listen to this homily here

Friday, 24 March 2023

Lent Week 4 Friday

 Readings: Wisdom 2:1a, 12-22; Psalm 34; John 7:1-2, 10, 25-30

From her work with very young children, Melanie Klein concluded that envy is a basic and perennial aspect of human experience. In her account of things, envy becomes the ‘original sin’ of humanity, a negative reaction to the source of good when it is being good towards me. It is a kind of resentment that the source of good is so good. The generosity of ‘the good breast’ is experienced as a kind of power over me which obliges me to be grateful and causes me to feel humiliated.

The first reading of today’s Mass is a powerful description of the effects of envy. The good person, simply by being good, is experienced as passing some kind of judgement on my way of living. Klein spoke of envy driving people into what she called the paranoid-schizoid position and we see these things described also in the first reading. The other person’s holiness is experienced as a threat to me even when that holiness places itself at my service. ‘Even to see him is a hardship for us’. We can presume that the just one is not making the judgements that the wicked attribute to him but their paranoia projects these judgements on to him. ‘In their thoughts they erred’: the deadly sins originate always in fantasies, thoughts that we find rising up within us without our having put them there. Of all these deadly thoughts, envy is one of the most insidious.

Envy hates to see others happy, or good, or holy. It experiences the happiness, goodness and holiness of others as some kind of deprivation. Thomas Aquinas describes it as a kind of sadness which results from feeling that God’s gifts to another person somehow take away from my worth and excellence. In this it is, of course, a kind of madness, but then all the deadly sins are forms of madness. Envy prevents me admiring and respecting others. I will feel obliged to pull them down in some way, to attribute wicked motives to them, to undermine the reputation they have for goodness.

Envy cannot bear to be grateful which is why it resents the source of good not only when it is being good to others but even when it is being good to myself. To be grateful is to acknowledge dependence and this is something envy cannot bear, it feels like a loss of self. At its worst envy becomes violent and physically destructive. The sense of humiliation and resentment that accompanies it makes it feel justified in trying to destroy the good one whom it feels has brought about this terrible feeling of denigration, dependence and even annihilation in itself. So Jesus becomes the victim of envy, the motivations of his eventual destruction at the hands of men following exactly this analysis of envy and what it leads to.

To ‘begrudge a brother his grace’ is one way of describing what arises from envy. Not only does the envious person feel that God's gifts to others are a threat to him, he also envies the Holy Spirit who is the source of grace. We see clearly the kind of madness it is, not only to resent God’s gifts to others as if this were some kind of slight in my regard, but to envy the generosity of the Spirit, the abundant kindness of God’s good breast.

Envy would prefer that all should be equally unhappy and is the most debilitating of sins. It seeks to pull everybody down to the same level of misery. After it has done its worst to others it becomes self-consuming and self-destructive. In his Canterbury Tales, Chaucer says that envy is the worst sin – all other sins are only against one virtue whereas envy is against all virtue and against all goodness.

For Thomas Aquinas the cure for envy is charity. We see how powerful a vice envy is: only the most powerful of the virtues can dissolve its power. Loving others enables us to enjoy, rather than envy, their achievements and blessings. The gifts of God to those I love I will experience as gifts in which I share. It is essential that we understand the roots of envy in us, that we understand its madness, and that we grow in the virtue of charity, which alone conquers the violence and destruction wrought by envy.

The kindergarten is a place full of sweet and innocent children. It is also a place where envy first raises its ugly head and begins to distort and destroy any possibility of communion and friendship. Our hope depends on the One who, destroyed by our envy, is raised to a new life. This new life means even more abundant kindness and blessing for the world, along with the capacity to rejoice in, rather than to resent, the love that is beyond all envy.

Thursday, 23 March 2023

Lent Week 4 Thursday

Readings: Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 105; John 5:31-47

We have heard the parable of the Prodigal Son twice recently. The elder brother disowns his younger brother by referring to him, in speaking to his father, as 'your son'. The father reminds him that they are related, 'your brother'.

We find the same thing in today's first reading. God speaks to Moses and refers to the people now as 'your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt'. 'Hold on a minute', Moses says (or words to that effect), 'what we are talking about here are your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt'. Moses calls God back to himself: remember that you are the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; remember that you are the God who made the promises to them; remember that you swore by your own name, by your own self. So why now should the Egyptians or any other foreigners pour scorn not only on this people but on the God who led them out of Egypt and now finds himself tempted to disown them?

Moses' pleading works and God relented of the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people. We came across the same theme, of God's 'conversion', in the Book of Jonah. The call to return that goes out at the beginning of Lent can therefore be understood this way: return to me as your God and I will return to you as my people.

The love involved in a covenant is pledged and the relationship thereby established cannot be undone. This is why the relationship between God and the people is like a marriage. There may be rough times with stresses and strains, there may be infidelity and desertion, but the reality established in the covenant cannot be undone. We can fail to live according to it. God may be tempted to bring it to an end as we see in this first reading but because God is faithful, in the first place to His own nature, this relationship will never cease to be.

'The one who will accuse you is Moses', Jesus says in the gospel reading. Moses is the one who knows all about the stresses and strains in the relationship between the people and God. In referring to Moses, Jesus is referring not just to the historical figure, the prophet who led the people out of Egypt, he is referring also to the text of Scripture, to the Torah, the book of the covenant and the law. And Jesus is presented to us - and this is a strong theme throughout the New Testament - as a new Moses.

We can have great hope, therefore, in the face of judgement, because Moses is the mediator, the one who intercedes with God for the people. All the more so does the new Moses, Jesus, intercede with his heavenly Father for the people. For if the law - the first incarnation of the wisdom of God - was given through Moses, grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ - the definitive incarnation of the wisdom of God.

Wednesday, 22 March 2023

Lent Week 4 Wednesday

Readings: Isaiah 49:8-15; Psalm 144; John 5:17-30

Christ is our judge, appointed to this office by the Father who has seated him at his right hand. What do we hear in the sentence 'Christ is our judge'? It may be that the word 'judge' stands out, making us fearful. Contemporary culture encourages the non-judgemental which strengthens what seems like a natural anxiety about our lives, our work, or our actions being judged.

It is, however, part of the wonderful good news that Christ is our judge. The word in the sentence that stood out for the first Christian believers was the word 'Christ' and not the word 'judge'. What a blessed relief it is, and what a gift, that the judge of our lives, our work, and our actions, is Jesus Christ. Nobody else, in the end. Of course we are all the time judging others and being judged by them. But the import of this gospel is that in the end, fundamentally, and most radically, we are judged by Christ, and by him alone.

There is even more, since for those who believe in him there will be a judgement without judgement - 'without being brought to judgement they pass from death to life' (John 5:24). Those who believe in him know the truth and there is no need for a further moment in which the relationship between their lives and the truth needs to be pointed out. In seeing the truth, those who believe see the distance between themselves and truth. They see their lives, their work, and their actions, in the light of truth, at once perfectly just and infinitely compassionate - and so they are judged without being judged.

Two great representations of the Last Judgement illustrate the point. The best known Last Judgement scene is that of Michelangelo, in the Sistine Chapel. A huge, brooding Christ comes to separate sheep and goats, just and unjust, and his presence is formidable and terrifying. The fact that this has become the best known Last Judgement scene serves to confirm that we know more about fear than we do about love.

A less well-known Last Judgement, whose theology is much sounder than Michelangelo's, is that of Fra Angelico in the priory of San Marco in Florence. There is the same separation of sheep and goats, of just and unjust, but Christ is not terrifying. He is gentle, and beautiful, and all he does is show his wounds. Those who believe in him do not need any further evaluation or criterion for assessing their lives, work, and actions. They are judged by the truth of his loving sacrifice and glorious resurrection and in the light of that truth can judge themselves: they see what is the case.

The saintly person knows that he falls seven times a day. Those of us whose consciences have become less sharp are not equipped to see the true state of our lives, work, and actions. Then judgement is needed, we need help, that things be pointed out and made clear for us. Jesus says further on in Saint John's gospel, 'the word that I have spoken will be (your) judge on the last day', the Word from the Father that is truth (John 12:48; 17:17).

Tuesday, 21 March 2023

Lent Week 4 Tuesday

Readings: Ezekiel 47:1-9,12; Psalm 45; John 5:1-3,5-16

There is a wonderful hospitality in Jesus' question, 'do you want to be well again?' It can seem a bit strange: surely the answer is obvious. But Jesus does not presume. As well as his hospitality there is his obedience in the literal sense of the term: his listening, the way he provides a space in which the other person can speak and be heard. It is at the heart of all loving, that we allow the other to be, to speak, to tell us what it is they want, to listen to what they want to say and not just hear what we think they want to say.

It makes Jesus' comment towards the end even more perplexing: 'be sure not to sin any more, or something worse may happen to you'. Worse than what, we might wonder. Worse than being ill for thirty eight years? But surely Jesus himself has been fighting hard against this connection of sin and suffering, has been trying to break that link. In Chapter 9 of St John's gospel we will find him resisting the idea very strongly, in the case of the man born blind.

'Something worse' can only mean spiritual paralysis, worse than the physical disability from which he had suffered. It brings this story close to that of the paralysed man let down through the roof to whom Jesus says 'your sins are forgiven'. Which is more difficult, to say your sins are forgiven or to say arise and walk? To forgive sins must be the more difficult, the healing of humanity at that radical level where desire is confused, understanding is clouded, and the will is distorted.

But this is the healing promised by the paschal mystery. All who have entered the waters of baptism (the Sheep Pool) are made new, born again, set right, made able to walk in the way of Jesus. He is never sentimental and always truthful. The sick man is brought into the light of that truth. He is healed but he must continue now to walk in the same light. And so the man becomes an apostle, telling them that it was Jesus who had cured him.