Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Week 3 Tuesday (Year 1)

Readings: Hebrews 10:1-10; Psalm 40; Mark 3:31-35

We heard last Saturday that Jesus' relatives, hearing what was happening, set out to seize him because they believed he was 'out of his mind'. Today, it seems, they have tracked him down and are outside, waiting. Presumably their care for him is sincere, though they may also be moved by humiliation and embarrassment (what were the neighbours saying, we can wonder). Presumably also they wanted to take him home and ask him to rest until whatever was going on inside him and around him calmed down.

Sigmund Freud thought that all religious belief and practice were symptoms of mental disturbance. Faced by too much anxiety, unable to bear too much reality, paralyzed by fears, people club together in the collective neurosis of religion and so find security and comfort. It is striking how often religious people are patronised by others who reassure them that they are tolerant of their need for 'the comfort religion gives'.

But the last thing true religion gives is comfort. There may be ersatz forms of religion that offer some passing comfort, ways of finding identity and meaning through group rituals and shared convictions - these are found everywhere in human life, not just in the cultural phenomena that are called 'religion'. Think of football crowds, political demonstrations, pop concerts, and many more: religions too of course can be used in this way.

But in response to those who tell him that his family is waiting outside, Jesus says that true religion means doing the will of God. There is no peace in doing the will of God, except the peace that the world cannot give. The will of God is that we have life and have it to the full: that means movement, growth, change, learning, adaptation, suffering, sacrifice. In Sunday's gospel we heard again the opening words of Jesus' preaching: 'repent and believe in the gospel'. It means 'change your mindset, see things differently, open up to what is coming and to what is beyond'. Far easier to rely on the external practices of religion and the artificial comfort they give - animal sacrifices and vegetable offerings, sin offerings and burnt offerings - than to accept what the will of God asks, namely the offering of ourselves (heart, mind, soul, strength) out of love for Him and for His people.

Today's first reading helps to spell it out: Jesus has come to do the will of the Father, and the will of the Father is that we be consecrated to Him, and that consecration is established for us (who could never do it for ourselves) in the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all. This is the heart of the Catholic faith, the once and for all sacrifice of our sweet and adorable Saviour by which the world is redeemed.

But it may be that what strikes some most about this gospel passage is the presence of Mary, alongside his brothers and sisters, outside asking for him. We see that she who had given herself completely to the will of God was also called to enquire, to wonder, to question, to seek him out. We can take her 'asking for him' to mean that she needed to ponder once again in her heart the things that were being said about him, much more difficult and ambiguous things now than the splendid mystical prophecies that accompanied his birth.

But so it is always for the believer, for the one who seeks, as Mary did, to do the will of the Father. It means remaining open to what is yet to be revealed, paths along which we are yet to be called. It means being ready to think again and adjust the picture of the world which we have already constructed. It means being prepared for deep disturbances of heart and mind (like Mary, at the annunciation) if we are to enter into the height and depth, the breadth and length, of the mystery of God's love. It means turning away from sin which shuts doors and ends stories, and believing in the gospel which opens doors and begins new things.

The cost, of course, is 'not less than everything'. And that price will be regarded, normally, as crazy.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Week 3 Sunday (Year A)

Readings: Isaiah 8:23b-9:3; Psalm 26/27; 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17; Matthew 4:12-23

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about cloning, the division of individual animals (or even humans) so that the guy next to me would be an exact genetic copy of myself. An  American scientist commented that if he or his colleagues do suceed in cloning human beings they will be exercising a power equivalent to God’s.

But the point, and the wonder, of God’s creative power is that, far from making clones, God creates unique individuals. There are billions of human beings but no two faces are exactly alike. No two sets of fingerprints, no two DNA codes are exactly alike. Certainly no two experiences of life and love are exactly alike. Creation is about variety, distinctiveness, uniqueness and individuality, not about sameness, uniformity, repetition and monotony. When God creates you or me he throws away the mould. There is no other being who enjoys the existence which is God’s unique gift to me.

Some forty years ago Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit, developed a (slightly eccentric) vision of creation evolving towards a fulfilment which he called ‘Omega point’, a moment or level of reality in which the entire universe will be taken up into Christ. For Teilhard, as for the Fathers of the Church, humanity leads all creation towards God. Physical evolution is followed by moral and spiritual progress which involves greater individuality and greater unity.

This may seem strange at first. Surely greater individuality means greater disunity since the more each of us becomes ourselves the more different we are from everybody else? And greater unity must involve the sacrifice of individuality as we agree to let go some of our distinctiveness for the sake of unity? Not so, says Teilhard, because the power by which creation is evolving is the power of love. What does love do? Hold together what is the same? Introduce clones to each other (so that well known songs become ‘the first time ever I saw my face’ and ‘some enchanted evening, you may see yourself, across a crowded room’)? On the contrary. The power of love holds together and unites things that are different.

Teilhard is on solid ground here, basing himself on what the New Testament says about the work of God’s Spirit of love. In 1 Corinthians 12 Saint Paul speaks of a variety of gifts within the people of God but one Spirit. He says there are all kinds of service to be done but always to the same Lord. Working in all sorts of different ways in different people, it is the same God working in all of them. For Saint Paul love establishes things in their unique individuality even while uniting them more strongly with all that is different. In the text referred to he continues by speaking about the human body, a symbol for the unity of Christ, a body made up of different parts and functions but animated and held together in unity by one Spirit.

It is a central Christian prayer that all may be one, but this surely cannot mean some kind of collapse or reduction of variety, uniqueness and individuality into a monotonous sameness. We have just finished the annual week of prayer for Christian unity. It is not clear yet what kind of institutional unity may be possible between the followers of Christ who are currently divided from each other. It certainly will not involve a kind of ‘religious cloning’ so that the different approaches to prayer and worship, different theological styles and emphases, different spiritualities and traditions of religious life — it cannot mean that all this will collapse into just one way of doing things.

At the same time there must be some fundamental agreement between individuals and groups if they are to be at one with each other. The impetus towards greater respect and deeper understanding of other Christian denominations must continue at full strength. A central task of the time in which we live is promoting greater understanding between the world’s great religions and on-going dialogue with all who ‘seek God with a sincere heart’ (Eucharistic Prayer IV).

Any unity we enjoy resides in the first place in God, source of all life and love. We are allowed, and enabled, to share in the unity which is God’s, to have some glimpse of it in our own experiences of love. Even in God unity does not mean dull uniformity and monotonous sameness for within God’s absolute unity there are three Persons, the Father and the Son and the Spirit of love who is their bond of unity. And within our own experience is the reality of marriage, which is a privileged place of love and unity where two who are delightfully different, the man and the woman, become one while remaining always themselves.

This homily was first published in the newsletter of St Dominic's Priory, London

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Week 2 Sunday (Year A) - 15 January 2017

Readings: Isaiah 49:3, 5-6; Psalm 39; 1 Corinthians 1:1-3; John 1:29-34

'I did not know him', says John the Baptist in today's gospel. He says it twice and yet he also points him out as the Lamb of God. In Matthew's account of the baptism of Jesus, which we read last week, John knows him very well. So how are we to take these two declarations, 'I did not know him'?

They have to mean something like this: 'I needed him to be pointed out to me first so that I could point him out to you'. Or: 'I did not know the full significance and meaning of his coming'.

One can have knowledge of Jesus Christ, know about him, and this knowledge can be extensive and accurate. A person might know a lot about the Biblical titles that are given to Jesus: Messiah, Lamb of God, Servant of the Lord, Chosen One of God, Light of the Nations. It is relatively easy to gather this knowledge and to understand how these titles are used throughout the Bible, how they were developed by Christians, how they might have been used by Jesus himself.

Perhaps John means 'I did not know how he would fill and complete and expand the meaning and content of ancient prophecies and titles'. It is only from what we know already that we can move to the knowledge of something new. So even with the knowledge of these Biblical titles, there is nothing apart from the Spirit of Jesus that would enable a person to conclude from them to the fact of Jesus, his work, his identity.

We might even claim to know more than John the Baptist in knowing what Jesus himself revealed and what the Church later came to believe about Him.

'I did not know him myself' is how one translation puts it. It then seems to mean 'I did not now him by myself', or 'I did not know him out of myself'. John needed a particular help of the Holy Spirit in order to recognise Jesus. And we can put on his lips these words also: 'I did not know the full reality of His divine mystery because that would be to claim to know God'. Whatever knowledge of God we can claim to have is only had through signs and witnesses and the inner teaching of the Holy Spirit. How else could we come to 'see' not just the human being pointed out by John, Jesus from Nazareth, but who He is?

Nevertheless John pointed him out. The defendant in a courtroom is the one pointed out by witnesses, to be sure of his identity. It is a particular person that is indicated. There is a famous pointing of the finger by Jesus in Caravaggio's Call of St Matthew. John, without knowing many things about Jesus, was nevertheless the one who picked him out, presented him to society, we might say.

'I did not know him'. I did not then know his significance for my life and for the life of the world. Knowing by addition will never get me there. It is another kind of knowing that we seek, another kind of enlightenment, the knowing we call faith. All who believe can endorse what the Baptist says: 'I did not know him by myself'. A particular kind of help is needed if we are to believe. It is with other eyes that we see the One on whom the Spirit remains and from whom the Spirit is given. But coming to believe, like all ways of knowing, requires teachers, signs and God teaching within, He who is the source of our capacity to appreciate truth. All who believe in Him become children of God which means witnesses in the power of the Spirit that illuminates, clarifies and brings to light, the Spirit of truth.

You will find here another homily for today

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Week 1 Saturday (Year 1) - 14 January 2017

The all-seeing eye of God was a device used to remind people that God is everywhere, knows every thought, hears every word and sees every action. He is also aware of every omission so that our confession of our sins to God, whether by thought, word, deed or omission, is not really news to him: he knows it all already.

It can seem a bit terrifying and it did indeed strike fear into the hearts of many, to be under the constant surveillance of a celestial ‘big brother’. ‘I was raised a Catholic and I have the guilt to prove it’, people sometimes say. (The same is said from within various forms of Protestantism and from within other religious traditions also.) It is strange how Christian communities came to position themselves, or to be positioned, at the service of a Victorian and puritan morality that managed simply to reverse what Jesus says in today’s gospel, convincing people that he had actually come for the healthy rather than for the sick. The sick, especially the morally sick, were despised and rejected, cast out by society, a casting out that was often led by Christian congregations serving the interests of that society.

As the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of it, this scrutiny by one to whom we must render an account, can easily be heard as a kind of threat.  It sounds quite surgical: a sword penetrating between joints and marrow, between soul and spirit. However, the universal and particular providence of God, which we hear about in both readings today, ought to be good news for us. We can imagine that the interest which parents and others take in a newborn child is a good analogy for the interest God takes in his children, watching over their every breath and examining every detail of how they are. Every hair on your head is counted: what if this is a testimony to love rather than an incitement to fear?

Hebrews immediately points us to Christ and to the way in which in fact God’s universal and particular providence has been exercised. This providence is working God’s purpose out through one who knows our weakness and has been tempted in every way that we are. Likewise in the gospel reading, we see how his knowledge of sinners leads Jesus to the office of Levi, a tax collector. He is criticized then by the monitors of public morality for eating with tax collectors and other sinners: how can it be that one who purports to be a teacher and guide mixes with such people?

Let us make this simple reversal instead, that the gospel is about love rather than fear, a perfect love that casts out all fear. Jesus really has come for the sick, to call them to be with him and to accompany him in building the kingdom. He has come to carry the Father’s love into the lives of sinners like Levi and if he is to do that he is obliged to mix with them, to live among them, to pass his days in their company. He must know them and in doing so he teaches us that the divine knowledge of all things follows from the divine love of all things. It is the same Spirit who searches the depths of God and who searches human hearts, helping us to see not a sword hanging over us but the gifts we have received, the gifts he yet wishes to bring to us.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Week 1 Thursday (Year 1) -- 12 January 2017

Readings: Hebrews 3:7-14; Psalm 94; Mark 1:40-45

The hardened heart is a kind of interior leprosy, at least in its consequences. Hardening the heart leads to isolation and to confusion in relationships. It locks us into ourselves. The person whose heart is hardened lives apart from human interaction even when he is surrounded by people.

There is much about the heart in the scriptures. There are warnings, as today, about the hardening of the heart. Jeremiah calls for a circumcision of the heart. Ezekiel speaks of the need for hearts of stone to be replaced with hearts of flesh.

But there is encouragement in today's scripture readings also. Each today, as long as today lasts, is an opportunity. The Church begins its prayer each day with the psalm quoted in the first reading from Hebrews. Like a gardener who tends his garden each day, we may not see the fruits of our work (God's work) immediately. We may not appreciate what is being kept at bay and under control by this daily praying. As we strive to keep our hearts open we are at least disposed towards something new and fruitful. If we do not do that every day then we will miss the day on which it does happen.

Even deeper encouragement is found in the fact that Jesus identifies with the leper, at least in taking on himself the consequences of being a leper. Last Sunday's feast, of the Baptism of the Lord, celebrated his solidarity with sinners in being baptised. That solidarity is seen even more clearly in his agony and desolation. Although he is God's loving kindness made flesh he tasted the bitterness of hard-heartedness. He tasted it all the more deeply precisely because his own heart is tender with the tender love of God. He experienced the darkness of God-forsakeness while yet remaining sinless. Again, he experienced that all the more keenly for being the eternal Son of the Father of Light.

We have a Lord who has sent his Spirit into our hearts, removing the hearts of stone, giving us hearts of flesh instead. Today - why not? - he may change us, making us open-hearted and compassionate as we were not before.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Feast of the Epiphany

Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 71; Ephesians 2:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12

After they have met publicly with the chief priests and scribes, Herod is anxious to meet the wise men ‘secretly’. It is how politics tends to be done, through secret deals and meetings outside meetings. But today’s feast is about the opposite of secrecy. The mystery hidden in God from all eternity is made known to the world in the birth of Jesus. It is a mystery of light, a revelation, and an illumination. Like all politicians, Herod is anxious to control events and he is already devising his strategy. But another hand is guiding these events, another mind is revealed in how they unfold, and a different power is at work here for a purpose beyond anything Herod can imagine. God’s plan – for it is the hand and mind and power of God that are being revealed – will not be frustrated by Herod.

There had always been a universalist strand in Jewish thought. We find it in the prophets, who issue frequent reminders that the choosing of Israel, and her re-establishment after the Exile, are not just for Israel but are, through her, for all the nations. So the first reading already provides much of the imagery and meaning of today’s feast: your light has come, the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. In the darkness of this world’s night the nations see and are led by the light that has risen over Israel. This universalism is there from the beginning, in the original call of Abraham. He is promised a land and a people so that all the nations of the earth might be blessed through him.

With the birth of Jesus the mystery of God’s love for humanity is revealed definitively and uniquely. In this mystery, the Gentiles, represented by the three pagans who present their gifts to the Holy Family, are fellow heirs with the chosen people, members of the same body and partakers of the same promise. Following their own best understanding of how truth is to be sought, they find their way to Bethlehem. All who seek truth with a sincere heart will, sooner or later, find their way to Bethlehem. The clamorous human world gathers at the feet of this Child, not just the Jewish world of Mary, Joseph and the shepherds but the Gentile world from Midian, Ephah and Sheba. The revelation and the promise are for everybody.

[First published in The Pastoral Review, Jan-Feb 2007]

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Weekday of Christmas - 3 January

Readings: 1 John 2:29-3:6; Psalm 98; John 1:29-34

Jesus cannot be understood apart from the history of Israel. God's covenant relationship with the chosen people -- 'I will be your God and you will be my people' -- is the golden thread running through that history. Everything recounted in the Old Testament, whether in the law or in the prophets or in the writings, records the fortunes of that covenant-relationship and looks forward to its consummation in the coming of Messiah, the Christ. Jesus himself tells us that 'salvation is from the Jews' (John 4.22).

In identifying him, John the Baptist describes him as 'the Lamb of God' (John 1.29). Lambs were slaughtered and eaten by the Hebrews in the moment of their deliverance from the land of Egypt. The blood of those lambs marked the houses that the Lord 'passed over'. The annual remembrance of the Passover that began their journey towards a promised land, still involved, in Jesus's day, the slaughtering of lambs in the Temple.

In Jesus's day also the title 'lamb of God' had become a way of referring to the 'servant of God', the figure who is the subject of four great poems in the Book of Isaiah (chapters 42, 49, 50 and 52-53). The servant is 'the beloved' and 'the chosen one of God', another description used by the Baptist to identify Jesus (John 1.34). These titles are uttered by the Father at the baptism and transfiguration of Jesus, according to Matthew 3 and 17, Mark 1 and 9, Luke 3 and 9.

These are thoroughly Jewish titles, then, and they take us to the heart of Jewish experience and faith. Jesus is the lamb, the servant, the chosen one, and the beloved. In Jesus the promise of an everlasting covenant (Jeremiah 31) is fulfilled. In Jesus, God visits His people in a 'once and for all' sealing of the covenant (Hebrews 7.27), its establishment on a foundation that can never be shaken.

We can even say that Jesus is Israel. The servant of Isaiah is an individual from among the people but represents the whole people, and stands for them so that what happens between him and God is happening between the whole people and God. But this Jewish messiah, this servant of the chosen people, carries through a work that is not just for the Jews but is for all human beings, for all creation even. He is to bring back Jacob and to gather Israel but he is also to be the light of the nations so that God's salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

The Christian faith presents us with this paradox, that it is particular and universal. It is a call of particular individuals and communities to be witnesses to the light of Christ in the world and in its history. But this call has a universal reach because God's salvation is to reach the ends of the earth. The journey taken by Jesus in response to his call was from the outlying reaches of the Holy Land, Galilee of the nations, through Samaria and Judea to Jerusalem with its temple. There, in that very particular place, a particular story reached its climax, the covenant-history of the God of Israel.

We believe that climax to be of universal and eternal significance, relevant to all people in every time and place. From Jerusalem the word goes out, the news of our reconciliation, and it is preached in Judea, in Samaria, in Galilee and eventually to the ends of the earth (Acts 1.8).

The phrase lumen gentium has become very familiar in recent decades as the title of Vatican II's constitution on the Church. Christ is 'the light of the nations' and the Church is the sacrament -- sign and instrument -- of Christ in bringing that light to bear on human lives everywhere. 'He is their Lord no less than ours', Paul says, referring to all who are called to take their place among all the saints everywhere (1 Corinthians 1.3). He takes away not only the sins of his own people ('ours the sins he bore, ours the sufferings he carried', as Isaiah puts it). He takes away 'the sin of the world' (John 1.29).

We are in Christmastide, between the great feasts of Nativity, Epiphany, and Baptism. We see Jesus revealed to his own people -- Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, Simeon, Anna. We see Jesus revealed to foreigners and outsiders -- the magi who followed their understanding to find their way to him. Those of us who believe have seen his glory as the only Son from the Father. We have, therefore, a responsibility to be 'phosphorescent'. We are called to be 'carriers of light', signs and instruments of the light and love which the Lamb of God has brought into the world.

This homily was first composed for the Second Sunday of Year A which has the same gospel reading. It may be found also on torch.op.org.