Monday, 27 March 2017

Lent Week 4 Monday

Readings: Isaiah 65:17-21; Psalm 29; John 4:43-54

Here we are told that Jesus is going down well with the Galileans. Perhaps it was only in his home town of Nazareth that he was not welcomed. But a mis-match continues between people's expectations and desires on the one hand, and the teaching and call of Jesus on the other. We find it here again. The man's request seems innocent and straightforward: his son is ill and he would like him to be healed. It is now Jesus who seems to get it wrong: 'so you will not believe unless you see signs and portents'. We can imagine the poor man saying, 'well no, actually, I just want my son to be well again'.

But Jesus receives the expression of any desire - for healing, for teaching, for more wine - as a desire for faith and seeks to lead all who approach him to the deeper level of faith. So it is with the disciples, the Samaritan woman, the man born blind, Martha and Mary, even his mother Mary. God's gift is not simply the meeting of our need. Faith is a gift that opens us beyond our need to the reality and truth of God.

So all gifts of God also have the character of 'signs and portents' because they always point beyond themselves to God who is infinite and eternal. God is not just 'our size'. He has become our size - the Word was made flesh - in order that we might grow beyond our immediate needs and basic desires. The theological virtues of faith, hope and love open us up in this way. These are the capacities or virtues of the new creature, the one who is being transformed by God's grace, the one who is being divinised.

So the court official receives the gift of his son's healing but he - and all his household - also receive the gift of faith in Jesus. From now on the liturgies of Lent focus more and more on the coming paschal mystery through which Christ not only fulfills the thirst of creation but reveals the thirst of God for creation. The fulfillment of that divine thirst is the new creation established in the Resurrection, a new heavens and a new earth, a city that is 'Joy' and a people that is 'Gladness', things beyond what the human heart can imagine, what God has prepared for those who love him.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Lent Week 4 Sunday (Year A)

Readings: 1 Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a; Psalm 22(23); Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

John 9 is masterly in showing how those who cannot see are led to ever clearer sight and those who think they can see become uncertain, confused and eventually blind. The central characters are Jesus and the man who was born blind. The blind man’s journey takes him from darkness to light. He comes to see not just the things around him, which he had not seen before, but the reality of Jesus.  At first he refers to him simply as ‘the man called Jesus’. Under pressure from the Pharisees he comes to see further: ‘he is a prophet’. Further pressure leads to him saying ‘if this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything’. Finally, meeting Jesus now as one who can see, the man is asked whether he believes in the Son of Man. ‘Who is he that I may believe in him’, he asks. Just as he revealed himself to the woman of Samaria so now Jesus says ‘You have seen him, the one speaking to you is he’. And the man believes, and worships, ‘I do believe, Lord’.

The people wonder whether it is the same man or not. Their confidence in the testimony of their own eyes is shaken. It looks like the man who was born blind, and some are certain it is he, but others are not so sure: ‘it only looks like him’. Appearances and reality become confused, and people’s confidence in the testimony of their eyes is weakened.

But the parents and their son speak confidently of what they know without exaggeration and without ambiguity. They seem to be holy people rather than sinners, since they are simply honest and are not moved by the intimidation of the powerful. The parents of the man born blind are involved from the beginning, referred to in the opening question of the disciples: ‘who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ This confident way of seeing the world, to which both disciples and Pharisees subscribe, is immediately and decisively rejected by Jesus. This is not at all how he sees things: the man’s blindness, far from being evidence of somebody’s sin, is rather for the sake of making visible the wonders of God.

Like their son, the parents answer simply and honestly about what they know to be certain. They are not prepared to get into theological arguments with the Pharisees but simply speak what they know, what the witness of their own eyes tells them, and they do not lose confidence in that. ‘He is old enough, ask him’, they say. The blind man likewise is not disposed to speculation (which is a kind of imaginary seeing) but stays simply with what he knows to be true. It makes the witness of his faith at the end all the more compelling: here is a man prepared to speak only what he is certain to be true and he has come to believe in Jesus as the Son of Man.

The Pharisees begin with supreme confidence in how they see the world. For them it is obvious that somebody has sinned here, either the man or his parents, and this explains his blindness. His healing by Jesus disturbs their world. Once again he has acted on the Sabbath, but that is only the beginning. They try to force the man, and then his parents, to confirm that the Pharisees’ way of seeing things is correct and that what is going on must be from the evil one rather than from God. The man and his parents resist this pressure as we have seen: a simple and straightforward ‘whatever about all that (theological speculation), what we know is this …’

The Pharisees stand on their authority to teach and interpret the law and so cannot receive the man’s testimony. They must squeeze his experience into their way of seeing and cannot allow what has happened to illuminate the world in a new way. They persist in thinking they are the ones who see correctly and that the man, his parents, Jesus, the disciples – these are all getting it wrong, colluding in sinful activity rather than making visible the wonderful works of God.

But the transformation in their case is as complete as the transformation of the man born blind. He was blind and now he can see. They thought they could see, persist in their belief, and so are blind in a way that is more difficult to heal. The whole story is rounded off by Jesus directly contradicting the premise with which it began: ‘if you were blind you would have no sin’, he says to them, but because you persist in saying ‘we see’, your sin remains.

So what position do we take up in all this? Are we among those confident of their own way of seeing the world to the point of being closed to any new revelation or illumination? Have we identified ourselves so completely with our way of seeing things that it would require a miracle to shift us to something broader, wider, and deeper? In the presence of Jesus, the light of the world, are we among those who reach out for his help in order to see, or do we prefer to stand like bats in the sunlight, relying on our familiar way of seeing, unaware that we are still dealing only with shadows, images, vain speculations?


Saturday, 25 March 2017

The Annunciation of the Lord -- 25 March

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 Daniélou 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 2017

Lent Week 3 Friday

Readings: Hosea 14:2-10; Psalm 81; Mark 12:28-34

‘Take with you words’, the Lord says through the prophet Hosea. ‘Prepare a speech’ is another translation of the phrase. Like somebody trying to figure out the best words for a difficult meeting with another person, we are to think hard and decide on the best thing to say. ‘You have collapsed through your guilt’, the prophet says, which will make the people feel powerless and probably speechless. If it is so – and it is so, very often – what words can ever be adequate to bring with us into God’s presence?

And yet a simple effort at repentance, acknowledging their helplessness, immediately wins the Lord’s renewed attention and His renewed care. ‘I have humbled him but I will prosper him’. This in response to words that are ordinary, honest, and not dramatic. It means that any turning back towards the Lord immediately wins his forgiveness. Once again the father in the story of the Prodigal Son comes to mind, watching out for the first sign of the son’s return, ready to rush out to welcome him back.

We now say each day at Mass ‘say but the word and my soul shall be healed’. What word is it that will immediately heal the soul? One candidate is, clearly, the Word of God Himself, the Word incarnate in Jesus. Is this the word uttered by the Father and which effects the healing of our souls? Yes has to be the answer: Jesus is the one who saves us from our sins. It might also be the word ‘love’ or ‘come to me’ or ‘do not fear’ or ‘your sins are forgiven’ or ‘I will, be healed’. All of these simple words effect great things in the gospels: all that is needed on our side is the acknowledgment of our need and the request for help (however fumbling our words).

This faltering conversation between God who speaks a word to us and we finding words with which to come to him means we are ‘not far from the kingdom of God’. As long as the exchange continues we are in the right place. The temptation is to give up on the exchange, to stop the conversation, and then we are really lost. Pope Francis says that we tire of asking for forgiveness long before God tires of showing mercy. In fact God is tireless – infinite – in showing mercy. It encourages us to continue the Lenten journey, to continue trying to find words even when we know that what really counts is the word that comes from God. ‘Say but the word and my soul shall be healed’.  Or (Hosea puts these words too on God’s lips) ‘because of me you bear fruit’.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Lent Week 3 Thursday

Readings: Jeremiah 7:23-28; Psalm 94; Luke 11:14-23

The best known 'finger of God' is the one painted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Across the gap between the tip of God's finger and the tip of Adam's finger the mysterious energy of creation is transmitted. The phrase has also become part of the hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus as a title for the Holy Spirit who is dextrae Dei digitus, the finger of God's right hand.

The image is not used very often in the Bible but whenever it is, it is in relation to the most significant things. In the Book of Exodus, the magicians of Pharaoh describe the power working through Aaron as the finger of God (Exodus 8:19). The law or wisdom of God was inscribed by the finger of God on the tablets of stone given to Moses (Exodus 31:18). Psalm 8 celebrates God's power as Creator: 'when I see the heavens, the work of your fingers'. 

So in creation, in the giving of the Law, in mysterious events, in the casting out of demons, the 'finger of God' means the power of God is at work.

There are two other references, less clear but each of them intriguing. At Belshazzar's feast, as recounted in Daniel 5, the writing on the wall is done by the fingers of a human hand. But it is another divine intervention, a revelation of God's providence for the people concerned. In John 8 Jesus wrote on the ground with his finger in the presence of the woman taken in adultery. Nobody knows what he wrote or what the gesture meant but presumably something to do with God's providence in relation to the woman and to her accusers.

So an ordinary thing, the finger, applied to God as an image, is used rarely in the Scriptures but always in contexts of great significance: creation, revelation, covenant, providence. As a result it finds its way into one of the great hymns of the liturgy and onto the ceiling of Christianity's most famous chapel.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Lent Week 3 Wednesday

Readings: Deuteronomy 4:1, 5-9; Ps 147; Matthew 5:17-19

The 'end', or 'purpose', of the Law is that the holiness of God be revealed, and that a people living according to that law might be brought into communion - a sharing of life and love - with God who is holy. What does the word 'holy' mean? We know it means infinitely just and loving, and we know this from Christ who is the fulness of the Law.

The verses of Matthew read today are said to be the most controverisal in that gospel. If we have a narrow understanding of law and of what the term refers to here, then these verses are very difficult to reconcile with, for example, some of Paul's statements about the Law. But if the term 'law' is understood more profoundly, as it is for example in Baruch or in Psalm 119/118, then it refers to God's wisdom, God's word, God's way for His people. We know where that way, that truth, and that life, are revealed fully. It is he, Jesus, who is the fulness of the Law, he is the one who keeps it to the letter, because he is himself the Word (= wisdom; = law).

Two words in the gospel support this interpretation. Jesus says he has come not to abolish but to complete or fulfill the Law, to bring it to its pleroma. He is the pleroma, the fulness of time and the fulness of things, and God's wisdom, word and way are all complete in him.

The other phrase is variously translated. Nothing disappears from the law 'until its purpose is achieved', or 'until all things are accomplished'. At this point in Lent we cannot but think of Jesus' 'hour', the fulness of time, when all that has been foretold and all that has been promised will be fulfilled. God's holiness will be revealed as never before, God's heart of justice and love exposed as never before.

The new and eternal covenant sealed in his blood does not replace the old but brings it to its full flourishing. The Lord our God is nearer to us now than when we first believed, is how Paul puts it, the wisdom of God's Word now dwelling in our hearts through the Spirit that has been poured into them.

As we turn the corner of this mid-point of Lent we begin to look away from ourselves and our own spiritual and moral efforts, to look simply at Christ in whom those efforts dissolve on the one hand (come to their end) and in whom they find their destination on the other (fulfill their purpose).

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Lent Week 3 Tuesday

Readings: Daniel 3:25, 34-43; Psalm 25; Matthew 18:21-35

Today's parable challenge two pieces of popular wisdom. The first is that a person who has had a particular negative experience will automatically be sympathetic and understanding towards another person having a comparable experience. Much pastoral care and counselling support operates on this basis and it seems reasonable. We expect that those who have experienced a particular loss or anxiety will be better placed to help others undergoing that loss or feeling that anxiety.

But the servant in the gospel parable has no sympathy for the man who owes him money even though his own creditor had just released him from a much greater debt. His action is astonishing to those looking on and it remains astonishing to us, to the point where we may well be unmoved by the torture to which he is subjected at the end. We might even find ourselves rejoicing in that torture and saying ‘well good enough for him’.

And here is the wonderful trap set by this parable, because we then find ourselves behaving as he did. Who is he except a character in a story with a fictional debt, and who are we except real sinners who have been released by God from a real debt, the consequence of our sins. We might imagine the wicked servant turning his head on the rack, looking towards us with bloodshot eyes, and saying ‘so you think you are different from me? Which of you, even though you have been released by God from the debt of your sins, has not sometimes refused to forgive others, has not borne grudges and nursed hurts, has not manoeuvred to get away with things yourself while calling others strictly to account?’

The other piece of popular wisdom challenged by the readings is that human beings make progress by forgiving and forgetting. Once again it seems reasonable, the advice often offered to people who cannot leave behind some sad experience or painful betrayal: ‘try to forgive and forget, you’ve got to move on and not allow this thing to continue to poison your life’. But the scriptures tell us that forgiveness is possible not by forgetting the past but by remembering it, by remembering more about the past, as well as by remembering our present situation and our future destiny. If popular wisdom says ‘forgive and forget’, biblical wisdom, coming to a climax in Christ, says ‘remember and so learn forgiveness’.

The wicked servant’s colleagues are astonished that he could so quickly forget the mercy he had been shown. If you or I find it difficult to forgive somebody, then we can begin here, by remembering the times we have been forgiven. It is not reasonable to expect forgiveness and mercy if you are not prepared to show them. It is absurd to continue to ask mercy of God if you are not prepared to show mercy to others. We need to remember at least that much.

In his prayer which is the first reading today, Azariah, from the heart of the fire, remembers the God of his ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 'For your name's sake', he says, calling on God also to remember his honour and to remember his covenant. ‘Do this in memory of me’, Jesus says at the last supper. Remember the covenant of the Most High, the new and everlasting covenant, sealed not by a (fictional) heartless servant stretched on the rack, but by the (real) Son of God nailed to the cross. If you want to learn forgiveness remember how the human heart of the Eternal Word was pierced. Remember how that blood dissolved the walls of hostility between people and established peace. It is not a case of forgiving and forgetting. It is a case of remembering, remembering many things, and so learning what forgiveness means.

Those who believe in Jesus are to be ambassadors of forgiveness in the world, and messengers of reconciliation. But forgiveness is not easy to do and the capacity to forgive is not one that is wilfully achieved. No matter how powerful we consider our willpower to be we cannot force ourselves into forgiveness. In the end it is a gift from God as Alexander Pope intimated in his famous comment that ‘to err is human, to forgive divine’. Perhaps forgiving is not strictly speaking something we ‘do’ but something we find ourselves capable of experiencing, a fruit of the Holy Spirit in us, a sign of the life of Christ in us, a participation in the divine nature, a way of relating to others in which we find ourselves (by God’s grace) being compassionate as the Heavenly Father is compassionate.