Saturday, 25 February 2017

Week 7 Saturday (Year 1)

Readings: Sirach 17:1-15; Psalm 103; Mark 10:13-16

Today's first reading is another beautiful passage from the Book of Sirach. It gives us a 'theological anthropology', a portrait of the human being illuminated by his relationship with God. The human being is created in the image of God: this is one of the few places between Genesis and the New Testament where this description is found. It means the human being is alive and intelligent, knowing good and evil and having free choice in relation to them. The human being rules over all other creatures because he is reflective, inventive, and understanding. He is spiritual and wise, and ought to know God through the works of creation. So man gives glory and praise to God, lives within the covenant, and has received precepts from God to guide his actions.

There is no suggestion of anything like eternal life here. The human being participates in all these good things as long as he is alive but his days of life are limited and he returns to the earth from which he was made. One thing that pushed Hebrew thought in the direction of resurrection was the frequency with which this serene vision of human life as powerful, knowledgeable, effective, creative, and moral, was known not to be the reality. The equation of such serenity with good living was often subverted by experience: good people, wise and spiritual, did not enjoy good things during the course of their lives, whereas people who chose evil and wicked ways, neglected God's commandments, and failed to praise Him, did well in the course of their lives. Where then was justice? How could God show Himself to be righteous if not through a resurrection, of the good to life (which seems to be simply more of the same, a kind of re-incarnation) and the wicked to judgement.

We must wait for the New Testament to get a clear teaching about the resurrection of the dead. Jesus teaches it many times, speaking of the resurrection of all to judgement, the good to be rewarded for their goodness and the wicked to be punished for their wickedness. We might be tempted now to dismiss this kind of talk as childish. Surely that's the infantile stage of moral development, to think in terms of rewards and punishments? It is true that it can reflect a childish understanding of morality as well as a monstrous image of God. But we are to become like little children, Jesus says in today's gospel. Childlike, not childish, as preachers frequently rush to point out.

Children, if memory serves correctly, do have a strong sense of a parallel world, within or beneath or behind the world available to the senses. Through the looking glass, into the wardrobe, rub the lamp, and another dimension opens up, a magical, supernatural dimension that encircles and contains the reality in which we are living our lives. We are to accept the Kingdom of God like a child. 'I would bring you into my childhood home, and there you would teach me', is one translation of Song of Songs 8:2. 'Like a weaned child on its mother's breast, even so is my soul', says Psalm 131. The mother will forget the child at her breast and have no compassion for it, before I forget you, says the Lord, or fail to show you compassion (Isaiah 49:15-16).

Again today the readings combine to draw us beyond the adult, philosophical, reflectiveness of the Wisdom literature to the radical, colourful, surprising world of the child. That serene and knowledgeable man described in the first reading, dutiful and admirable, is invited to grow up into a new kind of childhood, to be 'born again' as Jesus says to Nicodemus, to return to the childhood home of the one who loves him in order to be taught a new way of being, starting from a new beginning. The resurrected life is not just a continuation of what we experience here, another turn of the carousel. It is new in every way, a new heavens and a new earth, where justice will be at home, where the Eternal Child leads us along everlasting paths of discovery.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The Chair of St Peter -- 22 February


The city of Rome continues to be regarded as the historical and geographical centre of Christianity. Jesus predicted the spread of Christianity as far as Rome – to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8; 28:14, 30-31). But it was not just because Rome was the capital of the empire that it came to have a central place in the Christian Church. At Rome, Saint Peter and Saint Paul preached the gospel, taught the faith, and witnessed to it by their love and by their martyrdom. The Christian community at Rome was privileged. It guarded the memory of these two great apostles. It protected and venerated their tombs. It could trace its understanding of the faith back to Peter and Paul.

Among the many churches founded by the apostles, Rome thus came to have a special place because its Christian life was founded on the preaching of Peter and Paul, and on their blood shed out of love for Jesus. Other churches had been founded by Saint Andrew or Saint John or some other apostle, but Rome very quickly had a special place. Saint Ignatius of Antioch, writing to the Church of Rome about 110 AD described it as 'having the chief place in love'. Seventy years later, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons referred to the Church at Rome as 'the greatest and oldest Church'. If Christian faith and love were taught authentically anywhere then they were taught authentically in Rome. This was not because it was Rome but because the faith and love of Peter and of Paul were the seed from which the life of the Christian community in Rome had grown.

When the apostles died, their ministry in the Church was passed on to 'bishops'. So the bishops, the leaders of local Christian communities, are described as 'successors of the apostles'. In the same way as Peter and Paul were regarded as having a special place among the apostles, and the Church at Rome was regarded as having a special place among the Churches, so the bishop of Rome was regarded as having a special place among the bishops. As leader of the Christian community at Rome he was, in some sense, the ‘successor of Saint Peter'. He presided over the Church which was regarded as the greatest and the oldest, the one holding the chief place in love, the one referred to for help in times of disagreement or division or crisis in other churches.

It is clear from the gospels that Saint Peter was the spokesman among the apostles. Peter was the first to express clearly his faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God. On the rock of this faith, on Peter, Jesus said he would build his church. In Saint John's gospel, it is on the strength of his love that Peter is chosen. As a symbol of Jesus giving authority to Peter, there is a reference to the keys of the kingdom. In the Jewish understanding, for Peter to hold the keys meant for him to have the authority to decide what was in accordance with the teaching of Jesus and what was not; and also to decide who should be admitted to membership of the community.

The bishop of Rome, as successor of Saint Peter, has inherited this special authority in the Church. It is not a personal privilege for the man who happens to be Pope. It is an awesome responsibility, to teach the message of Christ faithfully, to be the leader in faith and in love, to preside over the Christian community at Rome, and, together with his fellow bishops, over the whole family of believers throughout the world.

Today's feast celebrates the authority of Saint Peter and the authority of his successors. It is an opportunity to pray for the Pope, asking God to bless and strengthen him in his witness of faith, hope and love.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Week 7 Tuesday (Year 1)

Readings: Sirach 2:1-11; Psalm 37; Mark 9:30-37

The first part of today's first reading seems to reflect Stoic values and attitudes. Life will be difficult so be prepared. In adversity be patient and accept whatever befalls you. Good people are refined in the furnace of suffering and humiliation. Why should we act like this? So that we will be wise in all our ways.

But the second part puts it in a distinctively biblical perspective. That means a personal, responsive, perspective. God is not just the impersonal pervading power of the Stoic universe but is personal, creative, waiting. His people can relate to Him in fear and hope, in love and trust. They can expect from God not just the relentless unfolding of an iron fate which they are best advised to adapt to rather than bang their heads against it. But here they can hope for mercy and compassion, acceptance and protection, forgiveness and salvation.

It is quite a different picture of how the universe is governed and, paradoxically, the key to it is the fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom. For the Stoic it is irrational to fear life, God, the universe, or, it seems, anything at all. These things are as they are, and it is absurd to fear them. Of course human beings experience fear but, so the Stoic says, the intelligent person knows that fear is the result of a misunderstanding, and the virtuous person moves beyond his fears as quickly and decisively as possible.

The Bible on the other hand encourages us to fear the Lord. There are realities greater than ourselves and our own rationality. There are gifts that can be lost, a promise that can be missed, a joy that can pass us by. There is a beauty that would leave us speechless were we to glimpse it, a love that would melt our hearts were we to experience it.

Jesus once more puts the child at the centre of things. The child has not lost a capacity for fear and distress which means it has not lost a capacity for awe and wonder. We can try to be the 'greatest', calm and rational like the Stoic, controlled and undisturbed. But Jesus invites us instead to be like children: impulsive, energetic, responsive, imaginative, fearful, spontaneous, affectionate. The virtues of the Christian life emerge there: faith and trust, hope and prayer, love and compassion. They are the opposite to hardening ourselves against the slings and arrows. They require us rather to soften our hearts and to open them in compassion and mercy.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Week 7 Monday (Year 1)

Readings: Sirach 1:1-10; Psalm 93; Mark 9:14-29

My studies in preparation for the priesthood included a course called 'cosmology'. It was only one of a number of strange words we had not seen before but accepted as part of venerable, if sometimes quaint, traditions. At that time the word was not much used in general scientific or popular writings. Now, however, it has come back into vogue: a Google search for 'cosmology' produces almost 14 million hits (in less than half a second!), a search for 'new cosmology' almost 12 million. So we are encouraged to look again at the Bible and Christian traditions through the lens of this term. Recent years have also seen 'the care of creation' being added to the earlier concerns of justice and peace.

Texts such as we find in today's first reading are plentiful throughout the Bible. Each of the great wisdom books contains poems or hymns in praise of the divine wisdom revealed in creation. Besides Sirach 1, read today, there is Sirach 24, Proverbs 8, Wisdom 7-8, as well as Genesis 1 of course, some psalms, and the hymn of the three young men recorded in Daniel 3. The tradition of celebrating the Creator in his creation is found also in the prophets and continues in, for example, Celtic spiritual writings such as the Breastplate of Saint Patrick.

The world of nature, explored in physics, chemistry, biology and the other sciences, reveals a wisdom, intelligence, appropriateness and beauty which, for many, point simply to the Creator. As St Paul says in Romans 1:20, God's 'invisible nature, his eternal power and deity' are 'clearly perceived in the things that have been made'.

The cosmos is wonderful in being seen and this is another aspect of wisdom. It is not just that things are, but that they are known to be as they are, and are admired by some mind somewhere. Wisdom resides not just in the order of things but in the mind that understands and appreciates that order. This is true of the human mind, of course, but is also seen by the Biblical writers as applying first to the divine mind.

God conceives a word or wisdom - 'he created her through the Holy Spirit', our first reading says - and any created mind that knows, understands and appreciates the world shares somehow in the wisdom of this originating source.

The gospel reading tells of a conflict within the creation, a point where creatures are in conflict in a way that is unnecessary and injurious: what can be done about this? We see Jesus then, the Lord of Creation, present within the cosmos, its own originating mind, wise and compassionate in relation to the creation. He heals it and sets it right, smoothing out this particular kink. The possessed boy is caught in a cosmic drama, a place where the natural order has gone awry. This kind of problem, says Jesus, can be rectified only by prayer.

Human ingenuity has found solutions to many problems within the creation and has learned how to harness its resources. But the same ingenuity can lose a sense of the gratuitousness and wonder of creation, can treat it purely materialistically, forgetting its spiritual origin and character. People can come to think of all natural things as inert and meaningless, simply waiting to be discovered and exploited by us.

Coming to it in prayer, however, means retaining a sense of wonder at the world and a sense of respect for its laws and integrity. It stimulates a sense of amazement at the 'all-powerful creator-king and truly awe-inspiring one' and a sense of gratitude for creation's many gifts. Contemplating the cosmos in prayer generates a sense of faith in its symbolic and sacramental character, seeing that it is very good in itself and its use for our salvation by Christ, in the mysteries of His incarnation.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Week 6 Thursday (Year 1)

Readings:  Genesis 9:1-13; Psalm 102; Mark 8:27-33

The first question Jesus asks the disciples - 'who do they say I am?' - leaves them (and us) free to relate what others say about him, believers or unbelievers, students of history, philosophy or religion, without themselves (ourselves) ever becoming involved in an answer. But Jesus then turns and says, 'who do you say that I am?' This is a very different kind of question. It cannot be answered in a detached way. This second question confronts them, as it confronts us, with a decision about our way of life, about our faith: 'who do you believe this man was - and is?'

Peter answered for all the disciples when he said 'you are the Christ'. The Christ means the Messiah, the Anointed One, the chosen one of God promised in the Old Testament and passionately hoped for by the Jewish people. He would be a new David and a new Moses, a great leader who would restore the fortunes of the people and introduce a reign of peace and prosperity. In effect what Peter says is 'you are the one who will release us from our bonds, restore to us the fullness of life, and give us again a lively sense of being God's people'. We might say today, 'you are the healer, the teacher, the guide, the one who will enable us to find truth and freedom'.

Jesus then began to deepen his disciples' understanding of who he was, referring to himself as the 'son of man' and as the 'servant of the Lord'. It is as if Jesus said to Peter, 'yes, I am the Christ, but the fulfillment of that promise will be in a way that is radically different from anything that has been imagined up to this'. Or as if he said to us, 'yes, I am teacher, healer and guide, but in a way that explodes the limits of your expectations and opens up an unimagined and wonderful mystery'. Jesus is the one who teaches us what love is, not only as a doctrine but as a 'way' to be followed.

There is a deep paradox here. The way to his kingdom is through acceptance of suffering, rejection, and death. Anyone who becomes a servant of this Lord is indescribably weak, and yet incredibly strong, because he has placed his trust in the Lord. The one who saves his life loses it and the one who loses his life for his sake saves it. The one who dies will rise again. What can this mean? Strong is weak and weak is strong?

Jesus showed us that God is love - an infinite openness and concern for the other, enabling others to become themselves by allowing them to dwell in him. The love of God in human terms is Jesus Christ, the only Son of the Father, the Word become flesh, the savior of humankind.

To believe that Jesus is the Christ, the teacher, or the servant, means to follow him. We show what we really believe about Jesus by our works of love. So our answer to the question, 'who do you say that I am?', is given not only with our lips, or our pen, but, first and last, with our lives.

First published in the Sunday Letter, published by Rollebon Press, Tallaght, Dublin, for the 24th Sunday of the Year, 15 September 1991.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

SS Cyril and Methodius -- 14 February

Readings: Acts 13:46-49; Psalm 116; Luke 10:1-9

Whenever I attend a big event at St Peter's in Rome I end up thinking about that moment in the gospel where James and John asked Jesus for the best seats in the kingdom. At St Peter's everybody wants to get to one of the best seats and will be very happy to tell you when they do get a good place. It means a place in front of everybody else. One year for Ash Wednesday I had a ticket which not only guaranteed me a very good seat but allowed me to receive ashes from the Pope. I found myself becoming quite jealous of this entitlement, wondering what would happen if by some misfortune somebody else took my place. I wondered whether I should make an early Lenten sacrifice and offer my ticket to somebody else. In the end I held on to it, accepted the privilege, promising that if I am offered such a ticket next year I will offer it to someone else. Although it might be a new Pope ...

I don't know how the brothers James and John got along for the rest of their lives. Paul and Barnabas are mentioned in the first reading, brothers in the faith working together, but it was not to continue like that forever. Paul was not easy to get along with. The gospel reading tells us that the disciples were sent out in pairs. The readings are chosen for the feast: we celebrate Cyril and Methodius, blood brothers and brothers in the faith who worked together in the preaching of the gospel.

We should not underestimate what an achievement of grace it is where brothers manage to work together. René Girard's analysis of the origins of civilization is well known: so many cities are founded on the blood that flows from fratricide. Cain, the first murderer, was a builder of cities. Jacob and Esau, Romulus and Remus: Augustine already talks about this in his City of God. Perhaps Girard pushes a valuable insight too far. But it is true that the vision of brothers dwelling in unity is realised only where grace triumphs over the egoism that nibbles away in each of us. Inevitably we compare ourselves with others, what they've received, how they are treated, whether they are being preferred to us. Melanie Klein identified envy as the most fundamental truth about human relations, their primary motor. Girard sees it in what he calls 'mimetic rivalry', envy in other words. Am I my brother's keeper? The one I admire, who shares my bread, very easily, and almost inevitably, becomes my rival.

Some are suggesting that Pope Benedict, at the moment of announcing his resignation, was speaking about this fact of life when he referred to a disunity that mars the face of the Church. This is what he said, thinking about difficulties facing the Church:  'Penso in particolare alle colpe contro l’unità della Chiesa, alle divisioni nel corpo ecclesiale' (I think particularly of attacks against the unity of the Church, of divisions in the ecclesial body). Is it the reason for his resignation, some asked, that he became tired of tedious infighting, bickering and jockeying among people who are supposed to be brothers serving the same Lord, preachers of the same gospel. I have no idea whether that is what he was hinting at. I took it to be a more general comment about the scandal of division among Christians that weakens our testimony to the gospel. But we all know the potential of envy and rivalry to disturb and distort human relations. We all know it in the first place in ourselves. We know how we need to work, with God's help, to cope with feelings of envy and rivalry.

Cyril and Methodius were brothers preaching the same gospel, co-workers in the Lord's vineyard. Celebrating their feast as we do each year close to the beginning of Lent reminds us that what we are invited to do in this season is not just to be reconciled with God, but to be reconciled with our brothers, and with ourselves.