Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Feast of St Andrew -- 30 November

Readings: Romans 10:9-18; Psalm 19; Matthew 4:18-22

Andrew is like the butler in the first group of disciples. It seems that his task is to lead others to Jesus, talking to them about him and to him about them, making introductions. In John's Gospel this happens three times. Towards the end some Greeks who want to see Jesus approach Philip but he goes first to Andrew who is then responsible for organizing the meeting with the Lord. In the sixth chapter, it is Andrew who leads the boy with the loaves and fishes to Jesus for the miracle of the multiplication. And at the beginning of the gospel, the most significant introduction, having 'met the Lord and received the gift of faith', Andrew then said to Simon, his brother, 'we have found the Messiah' and he brought him to Jesus. 

Here we see a way of understanding the apostolic mission of preaching the gospel. Our duty, which is also our joy, is to speak of Jesus in whom we find the Christ, our Lord, and to facilitate in every possible way the meeting of other people with him. In the first reading Saint Paul, another great butler of the early church, speaks about the mouth, the heart, and the feet as the places, the faculties as we might say, of this apostolic preaching. These faculties in us are activated by our faith in Christ. What does this mean? We can say that the preaching, beginning on the lips of someone already sent to preach, ends up on our lips, but not without taking root in our hearts and finding expression in our way of life, in the sincerity of our prayers and in the path along which we walk. As they say in English, it is not enough 'to talk the talk', you must also 'walk the walk'. 

It is from the lips of the preacher, the teacher of the faith, that we first hear the proclamation of the gospel. We need someone to open their mouth and to speak for us, or with us, of Christ. On this day of Saint Andrew, my godparents took me to the church of Saint Andrew in Dublin for baptism and there they spoke for me. Later they, my parents, and others spoke to me about Christ. And I learned to believe and, in turn, to speak to others about him. But faith is not only confession with the mouth, it is also believing with the heart. As St. Paul says, 'the heart has only to believe if we are to be justified, the lips have only to confess if we are to be saved by faith'. And then quotes a passage about preachers from the prophet Isaiah, 'how beautiful are the feet of those who bring glad tidings of good'. 

If the apostolic life is a life of words, a sermon, this life and preaching are activated, says St. Paul, by the word of Christ. The lips, heart, and feet: in the first place and fundamentally it is these faculties in Jesus from which the river of preaching, testimony, and fidelity flows, into Saint Andrew, Saint Paul, Saint Dominic ... into everyone who testifies to their faith in Christ by means of the word, by prayer, and in love.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Advent Week 1 Tuesday

Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72; Luke 10:21-24

We have been having some very beautiful evenings in Rome the past week or so. There are few clouds and it gets dark early. There are lots of stars in the winter sky including that big one (Venus? the Christmas star?) just below the moon. On the footpaths the few remaining dead leaves glisten in the moonlight. Living here one is restricted to imagining the frost in lands further north, frost settling for another night.

Presiding over these quiet winter evenings is the moon. It contributes significantly to our peaceful nightscape although it cannot itself really be described as a peaceful place. This is because there is no life on the moon. Where there is no life there is no struggle, or anxiety, there is no need, or threat, or fear. If the moon is peaceful then it is the peace of the graveyard, the kind of peace found in dead places and not the full, rich, reconciled, healed, and justice-based peace that the Bible calls shalom.

The earth is not at all like the moon. Here there is life, many kinds of living things, and so there is much struggle, and anxiety, there is need, and threat, and fear. Where there is life there is the possibility of it being damaged, wounded, and even lost. Living things are aware of their surroundings and must keep watch and be attentive. Living things are always anxious or at least alert and they are always needy, for food, shelter, or a mate. Where there is life there is also threat and fear, even (perhaps especially) from other living things of the same kind.

Today's first reading paints a picture of paradise, the restoration of all things to an original peaceful cohabitation, the lamb entertaining the wolf, the calf and the young lion resting together, the children safe with no more hurt, no more harm. The great, groaning act of giving birth is over, and the creation settles into the shalom which comes with salvation.

But before that the earth, in particular the human world, is a place that needs justice, some kind of management and balancing of struggle and anxiety, of need and threat and fear. Inevitably, we contend with each other. We jostle with each other for food and influence. We are aware of each other as potential partners and friends and collaborators but also as different, as rivals, as perhaps not fully trustworthy, not really ‘on my side’.

The human world remains a place where we must strive for justice although justice often seems to be beyond us. Where people take action to restore or introduce justice they often end up doing some fresh injustice. Where one kind of exclusion, discrimination and inequality is removed, fresh kinds of exclusion, discrimination and inequality appear in their place.

Jesus lived in Palestine, the place where Europe, Africa and Asia meet. It was a key province of the Roman Empire, guarding the great trade routes to the East and to the South. For centuries it had been fought over by Egyptians and Assyrians and Persians and Greeks and Romans. Even today ‘Palestine’ presents the knottiest of human problems. It is the place where Jews, Christians and Muslims struggle to live together in justice and in peace. There are many other places where cultures, languages, races, and religions meet and where they must find out how to live together. But ‘Palestine’ is symbolic of them all, in particular of the difficulties they all face.

Jesus was born into this knot in the world’s history and geography. We believe him to be the Messiah promised in the scriptures, the one who has initiated God’s reign of shalom. The word means peace but not just in the sense of no fighting. It means a rich, reconciled, healed, justice-based peace, the peace that comes with the Messiah and is won, as it turns out, through His rejection, death and resurrection. ‘He himself will be peace’, the prophet Micah tells us. ‘In his days justice will flourish and peace till the moon fails’, says the great messianic Psalm 72, speaking about the kingdom of a future son of the House of David. Through him the earth has been filled with the knowledge of the Lord.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote the first book to be called Politics and in it he says that human community and civilization are built on communication. It is by talking and listening that we recognize and establish justice. Thomas Aquinas liked the idea: ‘communication builds the city’, he says, commenting on Aristotle’s text. It is part of human greatness that we understand the need for justice and can work together to try to build it. And we build it through listening and talking.

The Word became flesh in Palestine in the first century. Into the knot of human struggle and anxiety, of need and threat and fear, God entered to speak His Word. Jesus is God’s contribution to the human conversation about justice and peace. We will find peace, he says, only by loving our enemies. People laughed at this, of course, but he has shown us that it is the only way: you must love one another as I have loved you. We celebrate his birth because he is our hope. He is the light shining in this world’s darkness. With the birth of this Child the time has arrived in which justice has begun to flourish and his peace grows till the moon fails.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Advent Week 1 Sunday (Year A)

Readings: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:37-44

We have tested and tasted too much, lover – 
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.

These are the opening lines of a poem called Advent, written by Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967) and learned by every Irish schoolboy and girl of my generation. The adult who is experienced, compromised and perhaps a bit cynical envies the wonder and amazement that characterise the child’s soul. So the poet speaks of ‘the newness that was in every stale thing when we looked at it as children’. He hopes that ‘the dry black bread and the sugarless tea of penance will charm back the luxury of a child’s soul’. 

As children we have a strong and natural sense of wonder. Part of the price of growing up seems to be the loss of the freshness and clarity that goes with it. The world becomes ordinary. It becomes less magical and more serious. It becomes indifferent and perhaps even hostile. Something is lost, a sharpness, an edge, a light, in which even the most ordinary things are magical and the most ordinary events mysterious. We find it briefly again, perhaps, by going to see Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings but the point is whether it can be found again in our real lives and not just in the flickering images.

What about a bridge, a boat, a river bank, a field, a red bus (now there’s a wonder!), early morning sun on a distant sea, unused tram tracks, tar bubbling on a summer’s day, the buzz of insects, the Christmas lights – and many other ordinary things and what they meant to the child you once were.

Grown-ups still ‘get’ something of wonder at second hand, through their children. The excitement and amazement of children, especially at Christmas time, is contagious. Through their eyes we glimpse again what we once knew – the excited waiting of the Advent season, the longing, almost beyond bearing, for a great day ahead.

The season of Advent invites us to return and rediscover something we have lost. This is what the word ‘repent’ means – turn back, turn around, return. We are to do this not just to lament what has been lost but to re-discover a sense of excitement, to be alert and keen and awake and attentive once more. We are to be open to the wonders that the Lord will yet reveal in our lives (tired and cynical as we may be at times), the wonders he will yet reveal in our world (unjust, violent and corrupt as it often now is).

We have tested and tasted too much. The cares and worries and sad events of life overpower us. Distractions keep us from settling deeply into our own hearts. It may be that the hardening and darkening that follow sin have overtaken us. Whatever the state of our adult heart, Advent holds out the promise of again living in a wonder-full way.

This note of joyful expectation and keen wonder is sounded throughout the liturgy of the Advent season. Let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, rejoicing as we approach his house. Swords will be turned into ploughshares, spears into sickles. There will be no more training for war. Wake up because it will soon be daylight and the time of dreary darkness will be over. Stay awake! Stand ready! Be alert and keen and expectant because the coming of the Son of Man will be sudden and full of significance.

Often people say that Christmas is for children. It is more true to say that Christmas is for adults who have not forgotten what it means to be a child. It is for those who have suffered ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ and have not allowed it to destroy their wonder or joy or hope. Christmas is a time to rekindle our faith that our God will return, paving a way through the valleys and mountains of our lives, making possible what seemed impossible. He is, after all, the God who raises the dead.

The child in us has no difficulty believing such wonders and all we need do is trust that that child is seeing something true. We are to be the adult children of our Heavenly Father, charming back the luxury of the child’s soul through prayer and reconciliation, penance and right living. It is not really a luxury, this child’s soul in us. It is essential for our maturity since unless we become as little children, we shall not be ready to enter the kingdom of heaven when He comes.

This reflection was first published in the parish newsletter of St Dominic's, London

Friday, 25 November 2016

Week 34 Friday (Year 2)

Readings: Apocalypse 20:1-4, 11 - 21:2; Psalm 84; Luke 21:29-33

The fundamental battle of the Apocalypse is the battle between life and death, and it is also the final battle. The passage we read today speaks of the death of death and of hell. The One who is risen from among the dead now holds the keys of death and of hell. He is for life, and is Life Itself. To Him is brought the Book of Life in which the names of the just are written. The just are raised from the dead for the moment of vindication when all that has been unjust will be rectified, all that has been oppressed will be liberated, all that has been trampled down will be allowed to grow and flourish once again.

Another image is that of the bride. She is the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven, the holy city established in the new heavens and the new earth, prepared as a bride to meet her husband. The city is the place teeming wth life. It is the place of society and community and communion. Marriage is about life too, a fulness of personal life in this highest of friendships which marriage is. There is no human communion that brings us closer to the Divine mystery of love. There is no human relationship that serves as well to illustrate how God is towards His people.

And the bride and groom want life for each other. They celebrate each other's life and they celebrate their life together. One of the mysteries closest to us is the conception of children, the fruit of this kind of love and friendship, actual new lives being produced from the love of bride and groom, their love translated in the form of new human beings. The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel wrote that to say 'I love you' is to say 'you will not die'. The lover cannot contemplate the death of his beloved. Not just sentimentally but metaphysically: to love another person and to think of that person ceasing to be are contradictory, incompatible thoughts.

My words will not pass away, Jesus says in the gospel reading. This generation will not pass away before these things come to pass. He speaks to us of immortality, of realities that will not cease to be. The life he brings, the life he is, will not cease to be. And its power is seen most clearly in the moment that seems like its greatest weakness. Entering into death the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, the Son of Man who will come on the clouds of heaven, destroys death forever. He restores life, and a fulness of life, calling us forward into that same experience, to die with him to sin and evil and the powers of death in order to rise to life and light in the holy city where our joy will be to sing forever the glories of our Beloved.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Week 34 Thursday (Year 2)

Readings: Apocalypse 18:1-2, 21-23, 19:1-3, 9a; Psalm 100; Luke 21:20-28

We had a visit recently from some Iraqi Dominican sisters. These are women who have been through a great persecution. Just over two years ago they were uprooted overnight from their homes and forced to leave with nothing, to take refuge with thousands of other Christians in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. They had already been obliged to leave once before, to move from Mosul, their base for over a century, to the towns of the Nineveh plain and to continue life there.

Now the situation is changing again. The Islamic State has been pushed back from these towns of the plain into the city of Mosul which will soon, it seems, be conquered by Iraqi forces. The sisters have been resilient and dedicated. They have adapted themselves, and have helped their people to adapt, to a time of exile. They have continued to educate the children, to heal the sick, to gather the people for prayer and to take care of the elderly. They have seen many people deciding to leave for good. But they have stayed on and have helped their community to carry this great burden.

It is easy to talk in apocalyptic terms and to play with the images which the Book of Revelation contains. It is easy to toy with images of destruction, the collapse of cities, cataclysms of great violence, the end of ordinary life. It is a far different matter to live through an experience like that, as these sisters have done. There was heartbreak as the people were forced to abandon their homes and towns. But there is heartbreak again now as they visit the homes they left two years ago and see the destruction that has been done there, the hatred that has been expressed there, the desecration that has been visited on family homes and places of worship.

It is easy to say 'at the heart of the great drama of the Apocalypse stands the Lamb who opens the seals, the key to history, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world'. It is easy to say, of the apocalyptic texts we find in the gospels, that always at the heart of these dramas is the Son of Man, coming on the clouds with power and great might.

Of course we believe these things to be true. And a voice like mine, saying these things from a place of comfort and security, is one thing. A voice like that of the sisters, faithful through these years of loss, and keeping faith in the Lamb of God and the Son of Man - well that is a very different thing. These are voices speaking from the midst of destruction and persecution. These are voices that have inspired and encouraged all who have heard them during these past years. These are voices that have continued to say to us, in the darkest of moments, 'raise your heads, trust in the Lord, because your redemption is always near at hand'.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Week 34 Wednesday (Year 2)

Readings: Revelation 15:1-4; Psalm 98; Luke 21:12-19

When the time for its judgement comes, the world will be judged by fire. This fire of the presence of God is on the one hand a fire of judgement, consuming all that is arrogant and evil. On the other hand it is a shining 'sun of righteousness', coming with healing in its rays. It is the fire of God's fury and of God's victory, the fire of God's love which both consumes and heals.

The crucifixion of Jesus is the moment of judgement, the world's crisis, dilemma or crux, the paradox in which all the good things of the old order are consumed along with all its evil, and a new order is established at least in principle, in the principle that is Jesus Christ, the source of all grace. The cross will forever render us confused and uncertain, wondering and pondering like Mary standing at its foot.

At the heart of this new revelation of God's love and anger is a violent act. This is what we expect in apocalyptic writing. But the violence is not in the end a violence perpretated by God or by the agents of God. It is rather a violence undergone by God and by the agents of God, a violence endured, so that the old order, the spiral of hatred, is finally undone and a new order, a sea of glass, is established on which those who are being transfigured by this redemptive fire can stand and praise the glory of God.

Jesus warns his followers that it will be for them as it has been for him but it is an opportunity to bear witness. That means an opportunity to participate in revealing to the world what God is like, the Living God, the Father of Jesus. What will seem at first like loss, uncertainty and confusion, being struck dumb, will turn out not to have been loss at all (not a hair on your head will be destroyed). Hated by all for the sake of Jesus' name, the martyrs are the great witnesses to the enduring of this love in the world's history.

We pray for the courage to stay with Jesus as he leads us into the mystery of the Divine Love. We know that this fire will be dangerous for us, burning away the old man, dissolving all arrogance and evil in us. But we know too that it is the sun of righteousness, the radiant light of God's own life, a holy and a blessed fire, come with healing in its rays.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Week 34 Tuesday (Year 2)

Readings: Revelation 14:14-19; Psalm 96; Luke 21:5-11

There is confusion and uncertainty in the two apocalyptic passages we hear today, the one from the Book of Revelation and the one from the Gospel of Luke. It is how the text might also leave us feeling, confused and uncertain. We might feel there is danger here, so much violence, usual in apocalyptic literature, but how are we to receive it? What are we to make of it?

The Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder argued that only an oppressed people, in the time in which they are suffering oppression, can understand the Book of Revelation. Christians who have become in any way comfortable in the world, particularly in terms of power and wealth, find it increasingly difficult to hear the Book of Revelation and to know what to do with it.

What has it got to do with us? From our position of comfort we might be tempted to feel that these readings are not at all relevant to ourselves. They are about either the distant past or the distant future. We know there is a connection with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Roman armies in 70AD. And we do not really expect Jesus to return soon, do we?

On the journey with him towards Jerusalem we were, at times, confused and uncertain about what he was getting at. And still we stayed with him because we saw or sensed something crucial in him, something crucial for our lives. So now, when we have arrived with him at his destination, and the events of his passion begin to unfold, we are asked to stay with him to the end. (Having loved his own who were in the world he loved them to the end: so Saint John's gospel, and we are asked to love him to the end.)

The journey reaches its conclusion not just in the city, Jerusalem, but in the heart of the city, the Temple. So the last part of Jesus' public ministry is conducted there (Luke 19:45-21:38). This is where, for Luke, the drama is centred. Luke's gospel begins and ends in the Temple, the old Temple. The Acts of the Apostles speaks about the new Temple, Jesus Christ, raised from the dead and living now in those who believe in him, spreading out from Jerusalem, up and down the Holy Land, and eventualy across the known world.

The destruction of the physical building by the Romans confirms a more radical collapse of the old Temple. The way in which God had, up to then, been present to His people is dissolved (the curtain is completely torn in two, from top to bottom) and in its place is the new way in which God is present to His people. Jesus is the new place of the presence of God, firstly in his own body and word and life, and then, when his Spirit has been sent on the apostles, in the church, the community of believers which is now the privileged place of God's presence.

It is why all those great prophetic texts about the Exile - the loss of the land, the fall of Jerusalem, the departure of God's glory from the Temple - can all be applied by Christians to the events of Jesus' suffering and death. All is being undone, creation disembodied, the order of the world is shaken, the centre cannot hold, confusion and uncertainty reign - and through the mist and dust and danger of all that comes the Son of Man, come to judge the world and its peoples, come to strip us completely of the clutter of our idols in order to lead us into the presence of the Living God.