Wednesday 29 May 2024

Week 08 Wednesday (Year 2)

Readings: 1 Peter 1:18-25; Psalm 147; Mark 10:32-45

Someone once described the history of Christianity as a history of the many ways in which Christians have tried to run away from the Cross of Christ, to tone down its message, to draw its sting.

The earliest Christians searched the Old Testament for images and symbols, hints and clues, as to the identity of the Messiah for whom they waited, and the purpose of his mission. In the Book of Isaiah they found long, poignant and beautiful passages about a Suffering Servant. He was to be the servant of God who would carry the sins of all. His life and death would be a victory, not just for himself, but for the many who would become one with him. These passages are in the Book of Isaiah, chapters 42, 44, 49 and 52-53. John the Baptist, and Jesus himself, knew these passages which helped them to understand their mission.

The 'Lamb of God', the 'Son of Man', the 'Servant of the Lord', came on earth not to be served but to serve, and to suffer, to die and to give his life as a ransom for many. Some of the language in today's gospel reading will feel foreign to us, some of it strange, and as it has been interpreted in Christian history, perhaps even scandalous. To speak of drinking a cup is okay but to talk of a ransom is a bit odd. Ransom to whom? Why? What price? A phrase like 'the Lord has been pleased to crush him with suffering' (Isaiah 53:10) sounds positively obscene. What could such a sadistic God have to do with the heavenly Father, merciful and compassionate, in whom we believe?

For some reason we need the shock which the suffering servant gives us. We could easily, through familiarity, forget the horror of the crucifixion, the desolation of Gethsemane, the failure of Calvary, the night of 'my God, why have you forsaken me'. The 'suffering servant' is a constant reminder of what Good Friday involved: strange that it remains one of the days of the year that draws many people to the liturgy who would not otherwise go.

What does it mean to call Christ a suffering servant? What moves our heart and mind when the cross is placed before us in all its solitude and sadness? The cross speaks of human sinfulness. Compare this with the comical concern of James and John as to who would have the best seats in the kingdom - the 'price' of entry to the kingdom was the passion and death of Christ! God's anger is not a defence of his own wounded pride, but rather a sadness at the damage we do to ourselves and to one another. This is the seriousness of sin: lack of love, injustice, cruelty, selfishness.

But the cross speaks also of the great love of God, God's humility and vulnerability, the lengths to which God is prepared to go for those for whom God cares. The suffering of Christ is a cry for our love, a cry echoing down the ages in the hearts of all who seek to love. To call Jesus the 'suffering servant' is to recognise in him the one whom God sent to save his people. Jesus has saved us by his teaching and example. He has saved us by showing us the way of love. He has saved us by breaking through the knot of sin and death in which we were trapped. He has saved us by living in truth, without compromise, even when this meant his own death. He showed that, serious though sin is, love is more serious and more powerful. It is love which creates a place where all can live in integrity and justice, in joy and at peace - what we call the Kingdom of God.

Tuesday 28 May 2024

Week 08 Tuesday (Year 2)

So what's the deal, Peter asks. His question reminds us of how difficult it is to change our minds, be converted, and open up to living according to grace. Peter's interest is the exchange rate, the currency, in which the relationship with Jesus is to be evaluated: 'what about us, we have left everything and followed you'. His question comes immediately after Jesus' comment about the impossibility of a rich person entering the kingdom and Peter, in spite of himself, shows that he is still 'rich', still keen to know 'the bottom line'.

Has he really left everything to follow Jesus if this question still troubles him? At first Jesus seems to respond in the terms set by Peter: those who have left everything will receive everything back, and receive it a hundredfold (an impressive rate of interest). So there's the deal: give it all up and you will get it all back, and get it back with its value enhanced. This invites us to think in terms of a spiritual economy. St John of the Cross, for example, develops an understanding of detachment from all things, embracing the nada, the nothing, of the cross, but then being given everything back: 'I have the mountains, the quiet wooded valleys, the perfect solitude'. Give it all up for Christ and you receive everything back with Christ.

Meister Eckhart talks in a similar way: the one who detaches himself from all things becomes all things so you own everything in a much more radical way if you decide not to own anything. You will love your family more if you become detached from them, Eckhart says in commenting on today's gospel reading (Book of Divine Comfort, Part II): they become a hundred times dearer to you than they are now. As well as that, everybody else becomes dearer to you than your family is by nature and so you find yourself with many fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters.

It might seem irreverent, presumptuous, to question the interpretations of such spiritual geniuses as John of the Cross and Eckhart. But the question remains as to whether there is something in the teaching of Jesus that resists being contained even by their spiritual logic.

One qualification Jesus adds is that this detachment is to be 'for my sake and for the sake of the gospel'. What needs to happen if we are to find ourselves capable of such motivation? Just because I think that is why I want to do it does not mean that it really is why I want to do it. When can a person honestly say 'this is the reason for my action, Jesus and the gospel'? If we still harbour Peter's question somewhere inside ourselves we are still not understanding the terms in which Jesus is speaking.

A second qualification Jesus adds is this: 'with persecutions'. This is part of the deal as well, then. If glory is on offer then it is not without suffering, a suffering that attends any birth. And if we are to be born into a new way of living how can we know what that will be before we are born into it? How 'do a deal' when we are still in the womb and do not know what life will be like outside the womb, what 'eternal life' might mean? The first reading today uses the term 'grace' and then explains it in terms of glory and hope, a glory that attends suffering and is accompanied by suffering, a hope that means looking beyond the desires of our ignorance, and how are we to do that?

The third and final qualification added by Jesus seems to subvert not just Peter's ordinary, understandable question but also the solutions of spiritually sophisticated teachers like John of the Cross and Eckhart. There are many who are first who will be last, and the last, first. This seems to blow all logic out of the water, destroy all attempts to develop an 'economy' of the relationship with Christ. The first will be last and the last first: does it not draw a line under all measuring and evaluating of how we are doing and catapult us into the puzzling world of grace and holiness, a world in which we are strangers (no matter how hard we try to reduce it to more manageable terms).

We are to be holy as God is holy, the first reading concludes. How is it possible to be in the presence of the holiness of God, to perceive it, to understand it, not to be completely confused and overwhelmed by it? We can only allow it to reveal itself to us, to reveal its ways to us, to give us the courage to follow and entrust ourselves to its laws and criteria. The first reading teaches us that the power or capacity to do this is 'the Spirit of Christ' or 'the Holy Spirit' working in us. It is what we are searching for, as angels and prophets have searched for it, but in finding it we lose ourselves and we come to live for others even to the point of forgetting ourselves. Is it wise to think in such terms? Is God's holiness foolish? Have we really given up anything to follow Christ?

Sunday 26 May 2024

Trinity Sunday

Readings: Deuteronomy 4:32-34, 39-40; Psalm 32; Romans 8:14-17; Matthew 28:16-20

'If you want to know me, come and live with me'. I often heard it said when I was growing up. It is only by sharing life that we really get to know one another. Living closely together we become familiar with each other's thoughts and feelings, how we react and respond in various situations and circumstances. We can say that it is only through living together that we come to know what is on a person's mind and what is in a person's heart.

It is in such ordinary experience that the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity is revealed. In Jesus, God has come to live with us and we have come to know Him. We have been given a glimpse of God's inner life, coming to know what is on God's mind and what is in God's heart.

Already in the Old Testament there is an understanding that this God, the Lord, the God of Israel, was different. Where other gods might be thought of as interfering in human affairs, the Lord, the God of Israel, became involved in human affairs. A distant divinity might be thought of as interfering but God who becomes involved cannot be thought of as distant. God has ventured, the first reading today reminds us, identifying himself with a particular people in its struggles and history. With this people (but always with a view to all the nations of the earth), God established a covenant in which he would be their God and they would be his people.

A long process of 'getting to know you' then follows, years of wandering in the wilderness, years of settling in the land of Canaan, different forms of government and religious worship, different moments of sin and faithfulness - through all the vicissitudes of history the relationship continues to be forged, a relationship whose story is recorded in the historical, sapiential, and prophetic writings of Israel. It comes to its climax with Jesus, the Christ, who establishes a new and everlasting covenant with God's people. The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us, showing us what the Father is like. Nobody has ever seen God, it is the only Son who is closest to the Father's heart, he has made him known.

On his return to the Father he has sent the Spirit so that we might not only know about God - as if we were outsiders and spectators looking in, as if God were still distant - but that we might be memebrs of the family of God, children of God, able to say, with Jesus, 'Abba, Father'. He has come to share our life so that we might come to share God's life. The process of 'getting to know you' continues as we search the mysteries of Christ and allow him to search our minds and hearts.

We have come to know the mind and heart of God, the Word and the Spirit, and this has happened because he has shared our life and sent his Spirit to dwell in us. 'Sharing life' is necessarily reciprocal: in sharing our life God has taken us into sharing his life.

According to the gospel reading, our task is missionary, to go out and preach the great good news. We are to bear witness to it, telling everyone that the kingdom of God has come. It is good news, great news, that all are invited to live fully as members of the family of God. The dignity of the children of God consists in this: we are to get to know God by living with God. God makes this living together possible and the place in which we learn what it means is the family he has established in human history, the community we call the Church.

Saturday 25 May 2024

Week 07 Saturday (Year 2)

Readings: James 5.13-20; Psalm 141; Mark 10.13-16

Learning to receive is key to any successful human relationship. This seems to be the message of what Jesus has to say about children. He speaks of receiving them and of receiving like they do. They have no claim to power or status to defend or to confuse the purity of their receiving. Creation itself is such a gift if only we could restore in ourselves the wonder of a child's soul and receive it with the same wonder and joy with which Adam received Eve: At last! Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.

Would that we could bring the same cry of joy into our relationship with Christ. He is flesh of our flesh and bone of our bones. And we can imagine him saying the same thing to us: you are flesh of my flesh and bone of my bones. This is the great grace, the remarkable gift of his coming among us, to be of the same flesh and blood as ourselves. It is a kind of fraternity, even of marriage. And because it is, first and last, a matter of grace or gift, entry into the kingdom he establishes can only be by way of receptivity. This is why it is a kingdom that can only be entered when we become like little children.

For Jesus the children are not unreasonable creatures or objects to be trained, they are persons who receive good things with spontaneity and gratitude, with joy and wonder. By receiving children in the way Jesus did - acknowledging them, respecting them, blessing them - we learn from them how to receive. And so we are made ready for the greater gifts, made ready to join Christ in his kingdom.

Friday 24 May 2024

Week 07 Friday (Year 2)

Readings: James 5.9-12; Psalm 103; Mark 10.1-12

The image of God is male and female: this is what we learn from the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis. She is equal to him. In fact she is in a way superior for she is made not from soil, as the man himself was, but from soil already inbreathed by God's spirit - the living man. Nothing made directly from the soil is satisfactory to the man until the woman appears who is made from him. So she is other than him and at the same time his equal: this at last, he says, is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. Between them, therefore, friendship and love are possible, things not possible for the man with any of the other creatures that have been made.

The image of God that the man and the woman constitute together is seen in one way in their shared fertility. Together they generate offspring as God himself (we will learn this much later) generates a Son. They are the image of God also in the possibility of love between persons who are other than but equal to each other. Both terms are important, 'other' and 'equal', though it is sometimes difficult to hold them together in a proper way.

Everybody knows the anxieties about marriage that are raised by the disciples. There is the ideal and there is the reality. Already within the New Testament the question of divorce comes up and whether the ideal reaffirmed by Jesus is too difficult for some, perhaps most, people. 'Hardness of heart' afflicts all human relationships and marriage is no exception. In fact because of the intimacy involved, sensitivity is heightened and the consequences of a hardening of the heart is therefore all the greater.

At the beginning, it was not so, Jesus says. In the future, it will not be so. But what about now, the present moment, in these present conditions of human life? Learning to receive is key in every relationship and it is what Jesus will speak about tomorrow, when he moves on to speak about children.

For now we can say this: nobody enters properly into marriage with the thought that it might end. The desire and the intention is that it will continue forever. If somebody were to enter into marriage without that desire or without that intention then it would not be a marriage at all. But still things can go wrong. People may be incapable of living up to the responsibilities that go with it. People may be lacking in understanding or freedom at the moment in which they enter into it. People may experience of a hardening of their heart for one reason or another, a situation that makes it seem impossible for them to continue in relationship with another person.

So it is, and the Church seeks to respond to such situations with justice and compassion, while continuing to promote the gift of marriage which, Jesus says, is the desire and intention of God for his human creatures.


Monday 20 May 2024

Mary, Mother of the Church (Monday after Pentecost Sunday)

Readings: Genesis 3:9-15, 20 OR Acts 1:12-14; Psalm 87; John 19:25-34

There are few enough homilies that are really memorable. For each person I suppose there are a few that stay in the memory, perhaps more because of a personal significance they have for each person than for anything else about them. Sometimes, though, it is the originality of a homily that causes it to stick.

One such homily for me was given by Herbert McCabe OP, preaching on today's gospel reading, chosen for this new memory of Mary, Mother of the Church. We normally work with this text in its final form, as it is in our Bibles, in which Jesus sees his mother and the disciple he loved, and says something to each of them, things that seem like a neat pair of sayings going perfectly together - woman (Mary) behold your son (the beloved disciple), behold (beloved disciple) your mother (Mary). But Herbert proposed that the original form of this word from the cross was simply between Jesus and Mary: seeing his mother he said 'woman, behold your son'.

His comments about it are in a homily entitled 'The Wedding Feast at Cana' (God, Christ and Us, 2003, pp.79-82). He develops his thought about it from the fact that the words of Jesus to Mary and to the beloved disciples in John 19 has many echoes of the wedding feast of Cana in John 2. There are many links between the two texts, most notably Jesus addressing his mother as 'woman' and speaking of his 'hour'. In saying 'behold your son', referring to himself, he is showing her what she was really asking when, at Cana, she asked him to anticipate this hour.

It remains a very apt reading for today's memory, whether we go with the normal interpretation or the more eccentric McCabe one. Mary is Mother of the Church as mother of Jesus, for the Church is the Body of Christ. Mary is Mother of the Church in her care for and her being cared for by the disciple Jesus loved, for the disciples of Jesus, baptised into him, are members of that body which he had from her and so they are entitled to Mary's maternal care.

'Behold your son' Jesus says to Mary, showing her and all of us the kind of Messiah he was destined to be. Here is the hour in which the Father is glorified by him. Mary has a particular place in that story, in relation to Jesus and in relation to all who belong to Jesus. Mary is with the members of Christ's body in prayer and in charity but she is also with them in suffering as each one is asked to take up his or her cross and to follow the way of her Son. She has first place among the disciples in this also.

And it is what the McCabe interpretation seeks to underline. Mary is Mother of the Church, yes, but only because she is in the first place Mother of Jesus, mother of the Messiah, sharing his hour with particular force so that she could be maternal in her care for the beloved disciple, for all the apostles and disciples of the Lord, for all men and women who have been, or are, or will be, members of his Body.

It is because of her relationship with Jesus that Mary is Mother of the Church and, each day, our life, our sweetness, and our hope.



Sunday 19 May 2024

Pentecost

Readings: Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 103; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7,12-13; John 20:19-23

The Jewish feast of Pentecost, the feast of the 50th day, comes seven weeks after Passover. It recalls the giving of the Law whose purpose is to establish good relationships, binding the people to each other and to God. The Christian feast of Pentecost, the feast of the 50th day, comes seven weeks after Easter. It recalls the giving of the Spirit whose purpose is to establish good relationships, binding the people to each other and to God. Because it is the Spirit sent by Jesus from the Father, the Spirit's work is to seal these relationships in and through Jesus Christ.

Following Paul and the Letter to the Hebrews in what they say about the replacement of the law by the Spirit, of the old covenant by a new covenant, Christian teachers - Augustine, Aquinas, for example - set up a contrast between an 'old law' which was written on stone, worked its effect from outside the person, was effective through coercion, and depended on fear and a 'new law' which was written on the heart, worked its effect from within the person, was effective through attraction, and depended on love.

It is essential to stress immediately that both kinds of law are known already in the Old Testament. It would be all too easy, and it has often been done, to turn this into a contrast between Judaism and Christianity. But the witness of wise and holy Jews across the Christian centuries, and the scandal of unwise and unholy Christians across the same time period, is enough to warn us off making that move. It is Jeremiah who provides the key text for the Christian teachers, the text that promises a new covenant written on the heart and a new law working in the way described. What God promised his people through the Hebrew prophets is now fulfilled in the preaching of the Jewish apostles: this is what Christians believe. Thomas Aquinas was clear that people living in the 'time of the old law' might already be living according to the new law and that people living in the 'time of the new law' - as we all now are - might still be living according to the old law. (We only have to think of the many kinds of legalism, puritanism, Jansenism, etc. that have blighted, and still blight, people's experience of Christianity.)

The point is often made at Pentecost that the gift of the Spirit, enabling people to understand each other across cultural and linguistic differences, reverses the experience of Babel. At Babel, the Lord scattered a united people who were building a city to make a name for themselves. At Pentecost, the Lord unites a scattered people to live in the city of God for the glory of God's name. Babel is a babble, the city of man without God, a place of confusion and disunity. It is what Jesus often refers to in John's gospel as 'the world'. Pentecost is another babble, the city of God in the hearts of human beings, a place of diversity and unity. Each person understands in his or her own language. Each one receives the one Spirit differently (different gifts, different forms of service, different workings) but united in the common faith that 'Jesus is the Lord'.


When human beings do find unity the principle of that unity is often external, an enemy who generates fear, a common project which generates pride. The Church has its unity from an internal principle, the Spirit, which is as internal as our breathing, as a drink we have consumed and incorporated into our flesh, as a fire burning in our hearts and needing to find expression on our lips. The gift of the Spirit achieves what Ezekiel promised, that the Lord would remove the heart of stone from His people's bodies and give them hearts of flesh instead.

In the Sequence for the liturgies of Pentecost we pray:

Light immortal, light divine, / Visit thou these hearts of thine; / And our inmost being fill:
If thou take thy grace away, / Nothing pure in man will stay; / All his good is turned to ill.
Heal our wounds, our strength renew; / On our dryness pour thy dew; / Wash the stains of guilt away.
Bend the stubborn heart and will; / Melt the frozen, warm the chill; / Guide the steps that go astray.