Sunday, 17 September 2017

Week 24 Sunday (Year A)

Readings: Sirach 27:30-28:7 [27:33-28:9]; Psalm 103; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35

This Sunday’s readings 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 readings today tell us that forgiveness is possible not by forgetting the past but by remembering it, by remembering more about the past, and by remembering our present situation, and by remembering 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. The first reading, from the Book of Sirach, begins its teaching about forgiveness from this point. 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.

But there are other things we ought to remember as we try to forgive. Remember the end of your life, Sirach says, remember destruction and death. How will it seem looking back, we can imagine him saying, if you have not been able to find a way to forgive. Perhaps he is also reminding us of the judgement, that each of us must give an account of himself to God and where will we be then, anxious to be forgiven but not understanding what forgiveness means because we have not practised it ourselves.

Remember the commandments, Sirach continues, and remember the covenant of the Most High. ‘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 it 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) becoming compassionate as the Heavenly Father is compassionate.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Week 23 Saturday (Year 1)

Readings: 1 Timothy 1:15-17; Psalm 113; Luke 6:43-49

Must we wait then for the harvest to see whether we have borne good or bad fruit? Must we wait for the storms to come to see whether we have built our house on rock or on sand? It seems that we must wait. When we are asked to evaluate persons or movements it is often wise to give things time, to wait and see how they turn out. It is the advice of Gamaliel in the Acts of the Apostles when he offers his views about the new Christian movement: if it is from men it will fizzle out, but we do not want to find ourselves opposing God, so let us wait and see.

Saint Paul says it is only at the judgement that we will see whether what we have made of ourselves counts as gold or straw: fire will test the quality of each person’s work (1 Corinthians 3:13). And it is the criterion given by Jesus in today’s gospel: by their fruits you will know them, in the day of trouble you will know how solid is the house you have built.
It means that our life of faith is itself lived in faith. I asked an older brother once whether I could be certain that I had the faith. He replied immediately saying ‘no, you can only believe that you have the faith’. The certainty of faith about which theologians speak is a certainty found in the object of our faith which is God. Saint Paul, in the text just referred to, says that the day of judgement will reveal the quality of what we have built but the foundation on which we build is Christ. The foundation is sure, then, and secure and reliable. The certainty of our faith comes from that foundation.

Nevertheless we often try to transfer the certainty of faith from Christ, to ourselves, to our own act of believing, or to our own doctrines, or to our own teaching authorities. But all absolute certainties of salvation, all paralyzing dogmatisms and all shrill fundamentalisms: all of these have to be wrong and they are wrong because they are idolatrous. They seek to anticipate the outcome of a judgement that belongs only to God and they therefore shrink God to include him within the limits of their own criteria of judgement. We can only live in faith and hope, with the kind of trust and confidence that these gifts establish in us.

One kind of failure is easy enough to detect and Jesus also speaks about this  in today’s gospel: just because we say ‘Lord, Lord’ does not mean that we are with him. If we do not do what he asks, we can say ‘Lord, Lord’ as much as we like and it makes no difference. In fact the instructions Jesus gives in today’s gospel make no reference to us saying anything at all. Our job is to come to him, to listen to his words, and to act on them: come, listen, act. Some of us are called to preach and to teach the faith and that merely puts us in a more dangerous position, with more ways in which we can fail.
But the focus in this is on Christ and not on ourselves. He is our way, our truth and our life. So whatever confidence we have about our salvation, whatever certainty about the truth of what we believe, can only be established on him, not on our own understanding or our own knowledge or our own moral rectitude.

What is trustworthy and deserves our full acceptance, Paul says in today’s first reading, is that Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Building our life on that conviction about Christ means building our house on solid ground. Living in communion with him means we will stand when the storms come. Living in communion with him means we will bear good fruit and apart from him we can do nothing.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Exaltation of the Holy Cross - 14 September

Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 78; Philippians 2:6-11; John 3:13-17

Herbert McCabe OP once wondered why we have this feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on 14th September when, as he put it, 'we already have a perfectly good feast of the cross on Good Friday'. One reason may be that the realities we celebrate in the great Easter liturgies are so powerful and central to our faith that we have to return to them at other times of the year, to have another think about them.

The feast of Corpus Christi, for example, is another chance to meditate on the events of Holy Thursday. The feast of Christ the King is another chance to celebrate Christ's return to the Father in the Ascension and his enthronement in heavenly glory. Easter itself happens every Sunday, every day even, whenever we celebrate Mass.

Today's feast of the exaltation of the Cross allows us to meditate again on the wise foolishness and vulnerable powerof God that we see in the crucifixion and death of Jesus.

Part of the deal with capital punishment was (and is) that it happened publicly so that as many people as possible could see it being carried out. It happened very often on a gallows or a platform, high above the heads of the crowd. As many people as possible could then see what happened to those who broke the law - they were hanged, beheaded, shot, stoned, garroted, crucified, or whatever. People were lifted up, exalted we might say, so that their death could be more easily seen.

Because the cross of Christ has such a secure place among religious symbols it does not seem strange, weird, scandalous or shocking any more. We can forget that the cross was one of these platforms of torture and death. We can forget that the crucifix shows a dying human being fixed to wooden beams.

St Paul very quickly pointed out that the language of the cross is illogical and paradoxical, a sign of God's foolish wisdom and vulnerable power. It is a madness, Paul says, and an obstacle that some people cannot get over. But to those who have been called it is the power and wisdom of God.

We venerate the wood of the cross - exalt it and lift it up - because it was instrumental in the salvation of the world. Of course it is not a piece of wood as such that redeems the world but the love in Christ's heart. But the physical cross was the platform on which the great drama of the Divine Love was exposed, lifted up and shown to all who cared to look. More than a platform, this tree of death has become the tree of life for us. Through the death for love of the One who died on this tree, death itself has been defeated.

In a tiny way we experience something of this power of the crucified Christ in our experiences of love. Love always means opening up to the suffering of the one who is loved, sharing it with him or her, and so becoming vulnerable to suffering and pain that is not our own. It is a kind of exposure, it means taking some kind of risk, we leave ourselves open to rejection, perhaps to accusations of not really understanding, to being hurt in one way or another.

But this is the glory of love, this strength to be vulnerable on behalf of others. It is the strength of the Lamb of God whose blood seeping into the wood of the cross became the seed of new life for the world. It is the power and the wisdom of God that look like weakness and foolishness to us.

The cross of Jesus Christ rises above the mess humans continue to make of their world. Today's feast invites us to look to the cross and pray: Ave crux, spes unica (Hail O Cross, our only hope).

This reflection was first published in the newsletter of St Dominic's Priory, London, on 14 September 2003

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Week 23 Wednesday (Year 1)

Readings: Colossians 3:1-11; Psalm 145; Luke 6:20-26

Luke's version of the beatitudes is not as well known as Matthew's. The eight beatitudes that open the great Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's gospel have a secure place in people's knowledge of the New Testament. The fact that they are often read at funeral Masses and on other special occasions puts Matthew's beatitudes up there with 1 Corinthians 13 as one of the best known texts of the Bible.

Luke gives us just four beatitudes. Famously Jesus here says simply 'blessed are you who are poor'. We are told that the radical edge on this is already blunted a little by what might seem like a gloss in  Matthew, 'blessed are the poor in spirit'. Throughout Luke's gospel Jesus is more direct, more incisive, about the dangers riches pose for following him. It is not just our attitude to riches that might be problematic, it is the simple fact of being wealthy (in all the many ways in which human beings can be rich) that makes it less likely that people will be able to respond to his call.

Another contrast between Luke and Matthew is that here the four blessings are followed immediately by four woes or laments that mirror the blessings exactly: woe to you who are rich, who are filled now, who laugh now, of whom people speak well. Poverty, hunger, weeping and rejection are blessings because knowing these things allows people to understand what the prophets experienced. We need think only of Jeremiah and what he suffered at the hands of the people and their leaders, a passion that anticipates very clearly the passion of Jesus. The woes, on the other hand - of wealth, a full belly, laughter and esteem - these are what the false prophets received. The most radical contrast is between the true and the false, the prophet serving God's word and the prophet serving other interests.

Here is another way in which Jesus teaches 'the great reversal', the first will be last and the last first, the one who humbles himself will be exalted and the one who exalts himself will be humbled, the one who saves his life will lose it whereas the one who loses his life for my sake will find it. Happy are you when you are last, humbled, losing your life ... It is not simply a moralistic teaching, it is an analysis of what serving God's word of truth will inevitably bring.

In today's first reading Paul presents in other words this same teaching of Jesus. You have died, Paul says, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Here too the fundamental contrast is between truth and falsehood. 'Stop lying to one another', Paul says. Neither is this just a moral exhortation but the recognition of a radical falsehood that is shown up, brought out into the light, by the truth that is Christ. Paul speaks of the reversal in this way: the old self is dead, all the masks and pretences, the sad efforts at fame and fortune, the ways in which we try to save ourselves by making something of ourselves, by being some kind of effective persona in the world - all of this is empty, vain, disintegrating. But our true life, the life of the new self, is hidden with Christ in God. This new life means our re-creation in the image of the Creator, the emergence of the human being as originally intended by God.

We are to shed the old skin, let it go, with all its pathetic aspirations, and allow ourselves to live from this new source, Christ who is all and is in all. A whole series of 'behavioural changes' must inevitably follow. It is not simply effortful teeth-gritting that brings an end to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed, anger, fury, malice, slander, obscenity. It is much simpler than that: stop lying to one another. Stop lying, in the first place, to yourself. Look to Christ, walk in him, be rooted and built up in him - all that Paul said yesterday - and we begin to see things correctly, without distortion. We see that the austerity of the beatitudes recounted by Saint Luke is simply the fresh air of truthful living, the capacity to be in touch with reality, the way along which Christ will appear, and we with him in glory.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Week 23 Tuesday (Year 1)

Readings: Colossians 2:6-15, Ps 145; Luke 6:12-19

Paul gives us a series of images for our being 'in Christ'. We are to walk in Him, we are to be rooted in Him, and we are to be built up in Him, established in the faith and abounding in thanksgiving. The image of walking is found elsewhere, in Ephesians 5:2 for example. It means to live and to move, to proceed from day to day, to persevere in a way of living and acting. Walking is neither standing nor running: it means to maintain a steady course.

To be rooted is a contrasting image, taken from the natural world. It is difficult to walk and be rooted at the same time but this is what we are to do: have our roots in Christ as we walk in Him. The roots provide food and water for the organism. They give it a secure place in the world, a firm hold on things, feet on the ground.

The third image is taken from the world of construction: we are to be built up in Him. It is a common image for the Church as a whole which is often described as a building or house or even as a temple. Here Paul speaks to individual Christians, the 'living stones who make a spiritual house' as Peter puts it in his first letter (1 Pet 2:5). Each believer is constructed on Christ who is the foundation, the corner stone, the enduring support and the overall plan of the entire edifice.

When we turn to the Gospel we can bring these images with us and ask 'who does Jesus walk in? where is Jesus rooted? on whom is Jesus constructing his life?' The answer is immediately clear: 'he spent the whole night in prayer to God'. More than any of the other evangelists, Luke reminds us again and again about the prayer of Jesus. His relationship with the Father is the air he breathes. He walks always in that atmosphere. His life and mission are rooted in the Father's will ('my food is to do the will of my Father who sent me', Jn 4:34). There is no other foundation for his life than the love the Father has for him and the love he has for the Father.

The relationship of Jesus and the Father is the source, root and foundation of His life, and His life is the source, root and foundation of our lives. Elsewhere Paul puts it this way: 'you are Christ's and Christ is God's' (1 Cor 3:23). In the calling of the apostles recounted in today's gospel we begin to see how this relationship with Christ and with God is to take shape within human relationships. The apostles are taken up into the mission of Jesus. As soon as they are called, the fruit of that night of prayer, they are faced with the apostolic task: a large gathering of disciples and a great crowd of people who want to hear Jesus, to be cured of their illnesses and to be freed from unclean spirits.

The people wanted - and still want - to touch Jesus because power comes from him to cure us all. It happens now through His Church, in the sacraments it celebrates, the faith it preaches, and the charity it practises. This is most clearly experienced in the lives of the saints, the people who do these things best, walking in Christ, rooted and built up in Him, established in the faith and abounding in thanksgiving. We pray that God will raise up saints for our time in the Body of Christ. We pray that by His grace we may be counted among them.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Week 23 Monday (Year 1)

Readings: Colossians 1:24-2:3; Psalm 62; Luke 6:6-11

Mass for the feast of Saint Dominic often begins with the antiphon In medio ecclesiae, 'in the middle of the Church', or 'in the midst of the assembly' ... he opened his mouth. In the very remarkable first reading Paul speaks of life at the heart of the Church, within the mystery hidden from before the ages but now revealed: Christ with us, Christ in the midst of us and we in the midst of Christ, a simple identification of Christ and His body the Church. 'In my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his Body, which is the church'.

The struggle of Paul at the heart of the mystery that now contains him is in the first place about faith,  knowing and understanding the mystery within which we have been called to live. We know from elsewhere that this was a personal struggle for Paul. It is not just that he, like Jesus, has to work hard to initiate the disciples into an understanding of the mystery. Paul has to work hard to keep himself within that mystery, focused on what it means and what it requires of him personally.

It is about faith then, knowledge and understanding of what has been revealed, and the struggle to remain with that, to be in Christ and in his Church, to find Christ and his Church in us.

The gospel reading is also about something happening 'in the midst of the assembly'. The man with the withered hand is asked to stand in the middle and the hand is healed. The impotent hand has lost its ability to do the things hands do: to reach out, to offer peace, to lend a hand, to help, to pick people up. The outstretched hand can symbolise charity and all the practical and concrete ways in which we can love others. Once healed and restored all these things are possible again. Then faith can work through love. What is in our mind and heart, what is on our lips, can find its way also to our hands so what we have come to believe about Christ and his presence with us can be practised in love.

So faith, and love, and hope too. Paul gives us another famous phrase in today's reading: 'Christ in you, the hope for glory'. In all the struggles of life this is the foundation of our hope and its surest guarantee. It is not just a question of optimism or confidence but of being established in Christ, Christ dwelling in us. So faith, hope, love, as Paul says in the opening verses of Colossians, give shape to the Christian experience: knowing the mystery through faith, living it in love, persevering in the struggle on account of the hope that is ours.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Week 23 Sunday (Year A)

Readings: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 95; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew18:15-20

Some years ago theologian Peter Candler published an article with the arresting title 'Outside the Church there is no Death'. What could he possibly mean? He meant that it is only within a Christian understanding of human experience that the full reality of death can be appreciated. Only the person with the theological virtue of hope, and the understanding of the human person that is required by such a virtue, can look death straight in the face and see its full horror.

Most of the time we believers join our contemporaries in denying, in various ways, the reality of death. We speak of it as if it were no big deal, just passing from one room to another, imagining life continuing more or less as before except without headaches or indigestion, without blood or sweat or tears. The person of hope on the other hand does not have such a picture with which to console herself. The direct object of our hope is God, not some future form of human life. The object of hope is God who is love and who is life, in whose Word we trust when he speaks to us of a share in his eternal life. But we know practically nothing about what that will be or how that will be except that it will be a life, that it will be a life of love, and that it will mean the company of Christ and the saints.

Just as you can only be really courageous when faced with something fearful, so you can only be really hopeful when faced with something that presents extreme difficulty. Just as fear and courage are not incompatible but require each other, so too sadness and anxiety on the one hand, and hope on the other, are not incompatible but require each other. In fact hope makes true sadness possible just as courage gives us a true appreciation of what we fear. This, I think, is what Candler meant in saying that outside the Church there is no death: only within a Christian understanding of human  experience can we taste fully the reality of negative things such as fear, anxiety, sadness and loss.

The gospel reading today is about excommunication, the sad and difficult situation where the Christian community comes to the conclusion that one of its members, for reasons of belief or lifestyle, is no longer in full communion with the Church. We prefer not to think about such things, as we prefer not to think about the reality of death. In fact excommunication is a kind of death, a terrible wound in the body of Christ, a real sadness and a profound loss. It means we have failed to maintain the communion to which Christ calls us and for which he prayed in his last great prayer to the Father.

The gospel reading says we are to try everything to maintain that communion: talking privately with a person first of all, talking with them in the presence of one or two other people, and only if it is absolutely necessary bringing a matter to the attention of the whole Church. The conclusion is chilling and we might even wonder 'is it Christian'? Surely we can find a way to stay together, to remain in communion? But truth presses in also, not in order to serve some structure of power or to maintain some artificial conformity. Truth presses in because it is the truth of that communion itself: what if the basis on which we are joined is undone by what a person believes or by how a person lives? Our communion dies.

This passage of Matthew's gospel is about the difficulty of staying together and it reflects how, even in the early Church, it was realized very quickly that there would be problems in staying together. Sometimes people will do things, or will come to believe things, that even the Church cannot see as compatible with the life of the gospel. Of course we hesitate to use the word ‘excommunication’ but in human relations it is sometimes, sadly, the reality. Even having done our best, we do not see how some can be contained within the life of the community. Some ways of living and some convictions are not compatible, as far as we can see, with life in the Church. More often than not it is people themselves who make the decision to separate from the Church because they no longer share its beliefs or are no longer convinced about the goodness of its teaching. Much more rarely the Church itself makes this decision about a person or a group of people.
We can never be happy about the exclusion of a brother or a sister. It is a death and death is terrible, the last enemy of human flourishing, a final failure. But within the context of Christian hope, exclusion can never be the last word about a person or about our relationship with them. They remain always children of the heavenly Father called to be brothers and sisters of Jesus. I like to think that the two or three gathered in Christ’s name at the end of this gospel reading are the same two or three who have earlier confronted the erring brother or sister. They are praying, and prayer is the characteristic act of the virtue of hope. What is on their minds as they pray must be that same brother or sister whom the Church has decided it must relate to as if he were a pagan or a tax-collector. And there is Christ in the midst of them.
Outside the Church there is no death because the Christian life makes us more sensitive to the truth of what death really is. But outside the Church, we can say, there is no outside, because the prayers of the Church, like the anxiety of loving parents, follow her children everywhere. Even when we cannot see how unity and reconciliation might come about, we must continue to hope for those things, to pray for those things, and to work for those things. All the commandments are summed up, Saint Paul says, in this saying: 'you shall love your neighbour as yourself'. We know that our neighbour is everyone, those who are living and those who are dead, those who are sick and those who are well, those who are in joyful communion with us and those who are in sad separation from us. We reach the limits of our capacities but we know that the Lord, who was crucified for our reconciliation, stretches his arms across the widest horizons of this creation in order to gather in all the scattered children of God.