My taxi driver the other day happened to be a young British Pakistani man that I knew in East Oxford when he was a little boy. In this week in which so much news has been filled with horror stories, from the blowing up of the Malaysian air liner by  fanatics in the Ukraine to the threat by Extremist Muslims to execute Christians in Mosul; it was welcome and important  for the survival of our planet to meet a devout Muslim who believed strongly that he should do all he possibly could to counteract the bad impression of Islam that the media so often presents by highlighting these extremists This young man had been inspired by  a talk in London by Cat Stevens in which he emphasised that believers in Islam must hold as imperative their need to be educated in the faith as a means of combating ignorance and misinformation. He had been emphatic that this was not simply about their personal survival but that of good relations between east and west; and that it is the task of educated Muslims, (and also of course Christians), to know their faith and practise it properly.

Now what has this got to do with our Readings this Sunday? Quite a lot really, because St Paul in our 2nd Reading (Romans 8:28-30) makes it clear that God can make something of every effort we make for goodness and love however small. He writes “We know that by turning everything to their good God co-operates with all those who love him” So God can use the good will of my Muslim friend who clearly loves God because every little action of his, as of ours, makes a difference.

 

I was delighted to see another person I know via Facebook responding to his local church’s invitation to go and meet the local Muslims. Before he went, he had been expressing some rather anti-Islamic views, but he was bowled over by the welcome and kindness he was offered and has completely changed his tune.  It is so easy to condemn others if they are different from us rather than exploring what they have to offer us in this strangely mixed up human world of ours.

 

Jesus brings this out in a different way in the fourth of the 4 parables in our Gospel  (Matthew 13:44-52) It is worth remembering that these 4 parables were not originally spoke together as they appear now in the text. The Gospel writers were using material that came from the memories of those who lived with Jesus during his 3 years of public ministry. Each of these parables was probably given on a separate occasion and they therefore have different messages for us. Trying to get the same message from all four is a complete mistake. The first two are about how important, how precious the Kingdom of God is – like a great treasure or a precious pearl. The third is about how God allows the bad and the good to exist together as in the weeds and the wheat from last week. The fourth challenges the assumption that the message of Jesus is either old or new. He points out that it can be both, that God can take both old ideas and new ones and use them both in the building up of his kingdom. That is true wisdom, he sort of wisdom Solomon prayed for, in which God works in and through all sorts of things and all sorts of people, not just the people and the ideas we feel comfortable with.  

 

Jesus is encouraging us to open our minds to everything that happens around us.  Some Christians sadly would want to say that nothing good can come from a Muslim but when they do that they are as bad as extremist Muslims who think nothing good can come from anyone who is not a Muslim.

 

For me, it was a wonderful example of this truth as I  heard this young Muslim taxi driver talking about all of us working together – Muslims and Christians and Jews – to build a better world

 

Frances writes on this weekends readings :- On our return from holiday last week we weary travellers took a taxi from Oxford to Eynsham. Our driver turned out to be a young Muslim man full of passionate convictions. In this week in which so much news has been filled with horror stories, from the blowing up of the Malaysian air liner by  fanatics in the Ukraine to the threat by Isis to execute Christians in Mosul who refuse either to convert or pay protection; it was welcome and important  for the survival of our planet to meet a devout Muslim fully convicted of his faith and obedient to it; and who was also committed to fostering good relations between peoples of Islamic beliefs and the West, Christian, Jew and non believers. This young man had been inspired by  a talk in London by Cat Stevens in which he emphasised that believers in Islam must hold as imperative their need to be educated in the faith as a means of combating ignorance and misinformation. He had been emphatic that this was not simply about their personal survival but that of good relations between east and west; and that it is the task of educated Muslims, (and also of course Christians), to know their faith and practise it properly. Discernment was and is the message of the time, and our readings for this week demonstrate that this is precisely what was and has always been required.

 

Our Old Testament reading, 1 Kings 3:5, 7-12 shows this cardinal virtue in the young Solomon. Now Solomon had inherited the united kingdoms of Israel and Judah; he was wealthy and powerful; a great leader of the people in his time. We know that foreign royalty and dignitaries visited his court and that under his inspiration an expedition was undertaken with Tyre to circumnavigate Africa, seeking out possible trading partners and routes. The young king could easily have become consumed by his own importance, yet here we see him praying to God for discernment and guidance from God.

 

Our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:28-30 explores this issue of the meaning of good and right behaviour, suggesting that it is when, and only when, our behaviour is in accord with God’s, with the love of God, that it can truly be good and right. When we actually live with the generosity and grace of God himself towards others, rather than selfishly or for our own personal ends; and only then we are discerning the truth and being truly loving, and when we live like that we become in Paul’s language “True images of his Son.” Moreover, he continues, when we do this we are truly members of the community of the Son, who is “The eldest of many brothers”; then we are justified, made capable of a full and proper relationship with the Father.

 

Our Gospel, Matthew 13:44-52, explores this in parables, or metaphors.  Parables are never about the literal material mentioned, be it treasure, vineyards or fish, but are picturesque language by which we come to appreciate what ‘heaven’, our life in and with God, is truly about. We are here presented with three images of the kingdom.

 

The treasure hidden in the field was presumably found by a labourer who had the sense to know that if he just took it he could be accused of theft and slung into prison. Instead, prudently, he bought the field and became entitled to the treasure. Similarly with the discerning pearl dealer; clearly not all pearls are of the same quality, and it takes knowledge and ability to pick the real gem – the crowning glory of his career. Those are a pale reflection of what the joys of the kingdom of heaven will be like.

 

When we come to the third parable, the haul from the dragnet, the tone appears to darken as real judgement is called for, and the fishermen select good fish and discard the rest of the catch. Those of us familiar with Leviticus 11 and its details of clean and unclean foods will recall that ‘fish’ are those with fins and scales and are acceptable food, whilst other sea creatures, like crustations; or squid; or lobsters or octopus, and mammalian sea creatures, are forbidden to Jews as food. Indeed, they are described as ‘detestable’ by the Torah. I presume this division is again about discernment, as the believer is called to know himself and use his God-given abilities to find his way through life, here seen as the sea lest at the end he find himself condemned by God’s angels. Just like the wise householder, the discerning Christian, here a Jewish Christian, has to use prudence in the management of his household to arrive at his final destination, life in God. There is no space here for a sloppy liberalism which just dumps everything onto God and allows us to continue in the sinful ways of the world

 

So I suggest that our readings this week are an effort by Jesus to compel the faithful to careful action both in the management of their own lives and that of their families and also an insistence that we educate ourselves in the faith we hold so dear. Otherwise, as our young Muslim taxi driver was trying to say, we fail to build a just and true humanity, and in our ignorance create a world of crucifixions, and fail to live by God’s Holy Spirit, and do what he made us to do and be in the name of his Son.

I had time to think about the natural world during my holiday for the last two weeks deep amongst the woods and trees of a National Park in Central France. For those of you who are into this sort of thing, I claim a clear sighting of a Pine Marten crossing the road in front of the car! Magic! The Gospel today, and last week, on seeds and sowing and reaping and weeding (Matt 13:24-43) reminds us how often Jesus uses examples from nature and agriculture to speak about God. Of course we must first remember that Jesus does not want us to take his examples literally. A bit further on from the passage we heard today, he warns his disciples about yeast (Matt 16:5-12) and they take him literally and think he is talking about bread. His response is quite sharp “Oh you of little faith”, he says, “Why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? ……. How is it you do not understand that I was not talking to you about bread?

But Jesus does want us to recognize that in the mystery of the workings of nature, indeed of the whole created Universe, we see glimpses of the mystery that is God. This is why I am infuriated when atheists try to use the Big Bang Theory of the beginning of the Universe – a theory first put forward by a Catholic priest and physicist – to try to prove there is no God. What is extraordinary to me, and probably to you too, is that they can work out, using very complicated Mathematics, how old the Universe is and how far away the Sun and the Stars are from us. How they do it beats me, as I have only to see a very simple Maths formula and immediately get confused, but the fact that they can do it, that there is an order in the Universe that they can discern and calculate from, is just one more reason for believing that there is a God, a power, behind the whole thing.

This idea of God as the power underlying the Universe is a fairly constant theme of mine, isn’t it? People tend to think it is a modern idea, getting rid of a rather childlike view of God, a response to the Scientific discoveries of the 20th Century. It is therefore interesting to note that a well-known hymn written way back in the 1830’s also uses this theme. Let me remind you :-                         

Immortal invisible, God only wise                                                                                                                                                                                                                 In light inaccessible hid from our eyes               

Most of what the scientists now know about light wasn’t known then, and yet the author gets right to the heart of it and places God there, underlying all that was later discovered about the Universe he created.

In the Gospel today however, Jesus talks also about things that go wrong in the natural world. Again we need to be careful not to take literally his description of the devil planting the weeds deliberately. He is using the story to remind us that the world is a place where all is not well, a place where there is evil as well as good. And that is certainly an important thing to remember. It is always dangerous to underestimate evil, not least the way it can be at work in us, often without us realizing it.

It is all too easy for me and you to go all dreamy about the beauty of nature and the wonder of the stars, and forget all the troubles we all face both personally and in the world as a whole. Surely the point Jesus is making is that if we zoom out from the things that are wrong and sad, and look at the glory of the created world as well, we will find it easier, not to understand, but at least to cope with all the sad things our world has to face. It is right for example that we should be really sad about the conflicts and cruelties going on in the world, but we must never forget all the unreported good things going on in the midst of all this. The acts of love, heroism and self-sacrifice that happen daily but are rarely reported. That’s surely what Jesus is getting at when he says that if we try to rip up the weeds we will pull up half the wheat as well. We might of course contemplate what the Universe would be like if there were no difficult things to face but what’s the point of that, since there is nothing we can do about it. Somehow we have to live with both the good and the bad, to face the fact that this is what Creation is like, and get on with making the best of it. For what else can we do?

So let’s look at the glory and goodness of the world that God has given us to live in, and use it to inspire us to work for a growth in the good crop even in the midst of the weeds – a crop which is love, kindness, gentleness beauty and truth. Let us be good farmers rather than stupid moaners! Let’s remember encouraging words from our 1st Reading (Wisdom 12:13)  There is no God, other than you, who cares for everything”,  and when we do get down, let us hear St Paul reminding us that in our weakness the Holy Spirit of God is within us and will come to us and help us to go on. (Romans 8:26)

On Life and Death

July 13, 2014

Strange how cruel the natural world is. Or is it us who think it cruel by imposing our sentimentality on to it?  I have been watching a pair of Black Redstarts dashing back and forth feeding their young on the nest, and reminded myself that all this effort may be wasted as a Sparrowhawk or a Cat may eat the baby birds once they fly. That’s what the world is like. It is the same thing when we sow seeds as in the Gospel today (Matthew 13:1-23). Any gardener knows that once the seeds spring up you will have to prick out and throw away quite a few of them to allow the others room to grow. I sometimes get quite sentimental at those little helpless seedlings that I have to destroy, but that is the way things are, and being sentimental is not much use!

It is intriguing how many of us will love badgers and fight for them not to be killed, but happily want to see rats got rid of even though the Brown Rat is actually just as attractive as a Badger. We will squash that Wasp if it gets into the house and might sting us, but save that Butterfly, and our reasoning why we do one and not the other is quite illogical.

Part of us longs for a world where there is no pain and no death, yes. But we need to think seriously what a world like that would be like. If animals and people kept being born and there was no death,  the world would have filled up long ago. Death and decay are part of the way life moves on, and endlessly trying to avoid death, for anyone or any animal that we like, is to miss the point of life.

Notice that I say anyone because during this current debate about whether assisted suicide should be legal in the UK, some people forget, or never knew that the Catholic Church teaches that striving too hard keep people alive is not what we should be doing. Indeed The Catechism says “Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of “over-zealous” treatment.”  

However helping people to commit suicide is not a good idea, not least because we humans are not animals and so have memory and imagination so that what happens to one human being actually affects all of us. It is, of course, terribly terribly difficult when someone we love has an incurable condition and is dying, especially if they are young; but the problem is that once you allow one person to die, you open the flood gates for more and more deaths, as they are discovering in Holland. One of my ex-students pointed out that it is much cheaper to kill people than to look after them until they die. What appears to be compassionate eventually becomes horrific. Think also how many people facing some kind of illness, especially but not exclusively mental illness, often express a wish to die when they have lots to live for once they get better. Are we to start assisting everyone who wants to die? Finally there are the elderly who would begin to feel that their increasing frailty was putting too much pressure on their family. Should we encourage them to commit suicide too?

Note that none of these arguments have anything to do with our faith in God. Many good humanists and atheists who are against Euthanasia or Assisted Suicide would use the same arguments. The point is that this is just what our World is like. There is life and there is death and if we start getting sentimental about it, we are missing the point. If we want people to respect and care for our life, and the life of our loved ones, we must be very careful not to move into a world where anyone who is in the way can be killed. That was the kind of world Hitler argued for where all sorts of people – the disabled, the mentally ill, the homosexuals as well as the Jews – were killed because they offended his view of what human society should be like.

Every human life is a precious gift and must be cared for and protected. For as soon as we allow one to fall others will follow. But equally death must be accepted as a part of life. To want to help people die who are still alive or to keep people alive when they should be allowed to die are both part of a sentimental view of the world that we Christians should avoid at all costs. The disciples wanted to stop Jesus from facing the possibility of his death, but he would not allow this. Looking at Jesus dying on the cross should help us to face death but not to seek it. Our personal feelings must not get in the way here, however hard that may be. What we feel is often not what is actually the right thing to do,

 

I was at a Mass at Chalus in France today and from what I could understand with my limited French, the priest was saying that being a Christian is all about love, not about being intellectual. He was, of course, using the Gospel for today (Matt 1:25-30),where Jesus says “I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children.” The problem is that if we leave it at that, if we say that all we have to do is love one another and love God, then we actually haven’t got very far. The next question we might ask is “But how do I actually love others in real life situations?”

Indeed not just this question but any number of other questions actually follow from almost anything Jesus says; and maybe that is why he said that we should be like little children. Those of you who have had to deal with little children will know what I mean. There is a wonderful stage in their lives, before they learn to be careful and a bit more like us so-called learned grown-ups, when they ask endless questions – sometimes embarrassing ones – of their poor parents. It is clear then that to be true to Christ must mean asking lots of questions even ones that the grown-up bit of us thinks might be regarded as stupid or silly. Lots of us fail to ask questions because we fear that they might show up our ignorance ; but as St John says “Perfect love casts out fear.”(1 John 4:18). So if to be a Christian is to love, and yes it is, then to be a Christian must mean being prepared to ask questions even if they make us look silly.

Sometimes I long for people to do this. We have a Group in Eynsham that meets every Thursday evening to look at the Bible Readings for the coming Sunday. We do it by reading them aloud first and then after a few minutes of silent meditation on them, I ask each person in turn to share something from the Bible passages that means something to them. Some people pick just one word or phrase and leave it at that. Others will try to identify a theme that can be found in all the readings. But we have one lady, thank goodness, who almost always asks a question. I am so pleased when we reach her, not least because it is often a question others would have liked to ask, but did not want to in case they looked silly.

Priests have the same problem. Many do not like to be asked questions in case they do not know the answer. I have heard how some people have been told off for asking questions after Mass on Sunday. How sad that is. Unless we become as little children we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, and that definitely includes priests! I still wish more people would ask me questions, and that includes those questions to which I haven’t got an answer. Surely it is good for people to hear the priest say “I am sorry, but I will have to go away and think or pray about that.” How sad if people get the idea that the faith is like a series of questions that every priest has the answers too, rather than a pilgrimage, and adventure into God, where there is always something more for everyone to learn.

One of the reasons I like using the Internet for my Homilies and Facebook is because people seem less scared of asking questions online than face to face. Either way, let’s encourage one another to be more childlike in our faith – to ask and ask away on any number of topics, and never be entirely convinced by the answers.

“The learned and clever” condemned in the Gospel today are therefore not those who use their minds to explore the faith as well as their hearts to love God. No, the learned and clever are those who think they know all the answers and are indignant if anyone trips them up.

To be humble is therefore not to be mealy-mouthed and subservient. True humility, the humility that Jesus recommends, is surely something very different. Look at him challenging all sorts of people in positions of power and influence. He is loved by ordinary people precisely because he asks the questions that others are too frightened to ask, and then tells simple stories which, instead of giving direct answers, make people ponder on the mystery that is God. That must surely be the way to go for those of us who wish to call ourselves the children of God.

 

I was a very stubborn little boy! Persuading me to do something I didn’t want to do was very difficult. Some of you may say that it still is, although I think I am a little better than I was back then! Rather like the story of the sun and the wind competing to get a coat off a man’s back, the more people tried to force me to do something, the more grimly I resisted. What would persuade me was not force but love, and thus my mother would persuade me to do all sorts of things that I would otherwise have resisted – including having lessons in public speaking from the age of 4 onwards!

Most of us have gates in our lives. Things we refuse to do. I hated swimming as a child after one unpleasant ducking. Again it took the love and care of one person when I was at University to show me it could be fun. And now I am a fanatic!

When people are depressed they can feel that there is no way out of the darkness that they are in; and perhaps this is what St Peter felt like in our 1st Reading (Acts 12:1-11) when this little group of the 1st Christians was being persecuted. He was in prison and expecting to be executed just as James had been. Then, in the darkness, a light suddenly appeared, and in some marvelous way he found the gates of the prison were opened for him, and he was free. Do remember, that this is a story for anyone who feels there is no way out of their particular darkness. Sometimes a way out will be offered in a way we never expected, and we need to look out for these things.

But we Christians must not expect miraculous deliveries from our problems all the time. Sometimes we are simply meant to struggle on with whatever challenge we face. We see St Paul talking about this in our 2nd Reading (2 Tim 4:6-8 17-18) where he compares life to a battle “I have fought the good fight”, or a race “I have run the race to the finish”. But it isn’t all struggle and sweat! Paul points out that God supported him through all he had to face.  So he writes “The Lord stood by me and gave me power”, thus reminding us that we too can find support from God for the challenges and struggles life will throw up for us.

Finally, in the Gospel (Matthew 16:13-19) we heard what an amazing challenge the Christian life is. It is easy to think that “You are Peter, and on this Rock I will build my Church” is simply addressed to St Peter, and by extension to those who have succeeded him in leading the Church. Yes, we might say, and quite rightly, we must pray today for Pope Francis. For leading the Catholic Church made up of Millions of people all over the world is a daunting task. Pope Francis was however quite right to turn the tables on the crowds on the night he was elected. They were waiting for him to bless them, but he told them to pray for him, and made them all go silent as he bowed his head for their prayers.

That action reminds us that each one of us is called to BE the Church. It is no good thinking the Church is simply there when we need it, to help us and bless us. The Church is also us, you and me, here for other people to help and bless them. I remember once getting to a death bed after a person had died, and the lady actually apologised that she had said prayers for her mother, and given her a blessing. I told her she was quite right. Of course it is wonderful if a priest can be there when a person dies, but you must always remember that you too are called to bless others.

That woman, far from doing the wrong thing, had in her prayers and blessing, opened the gates of heaven for her dying mother. She was, without realizing it, acting on the words Jesus first uttered to Peter “You are Peter…. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against you.”

We must remember this when we die. When we come to the gates of heaven, (metaphorical gates of course) and are asked why we have the right to come in and be with God, we must be careful what we say. If we start listing the things we did to help people, we may find a list given to us of all the things we failed to do. No! When we are asked that question we simply reply. “I have tried to be a follower of Jesus, to be a friend of Jesus.” And once we have said that, then immediately the gates of heaven will be thrown open, and like Peter who even denied once that he knew Jesus, we will be with God in his light for ever. Then, like Peter being helped out of prison, we may well say “Now I know it is all true”. What I sometimes doubted, is now a reality for me.

God helps in a crisis

June 27, 2014

Frances writes on Sunday’s readings :- All of them today are about periods of crisis in the life of the Early Church. What struck me about them all was the clarity and sense of focus those incidents brought to those involved, and it occurred to me that many of us too at moments of crisis in our own lives also find a focussing on the true priorities, as other less significant things recede into the background.

In our reading from Acts (12:1-11) we find Peter imprisoned by Herod and expecting his execution at any moment. It is at this time that he has what for Peter is a rare moment of absolute obedience and comprehension of what and who he is, and therefore of what the Lord was asking of him. As a result of his ‘liberation’, both literal and metaphorical, he would be able to embark on his missionary activities and eventually witness and die a martyr in Rome. It is significant that Peter was not expecting release, restrained as he was by the manacles and the four squads of soldiers. Indeed, he seems to have been quite resigned to his fate, before the Lord intervened to save him. So I suggest it’s all about his state of mind, one in which the Lord can finally and truly act to get Peter to be the person he was always designed to be.

When we meet Paul’s Letters to Timothy (2 Tim 4:6-8. 17-18), we meet another crisis. Paul is in deep despair. Clearly from these letters there was considerable disunity among the Christians of the Province of Asia, and Paul seems to have parted company with many of his former helpers who had gone off to do work on their own. It does not appear that Christianity had collapsed; more that there were disagreements between Paul and his fellow workers as to the manner of their mission and work. Clearly he is both deeply depressed and distressed by this situation; “My life is already being poured away as a libation.” Yet within his great unhappiness is the absolute certainty that he has done the right thing, that his life’s work is an acceptable offering, ‘a libation’ to the one true God. Then he uses a metaphor drawn from the Greek games: “I have run the race to the finish.” indicative of the sole winner in the Olympics who gained eternal renown, since, “Now the crown of righteousness (is) reserved for me…” Victors in the Games were literally crowned with a fillet of laurels and their name inscribed for eternity on the stones of Olympia or Delphi or Corinth. They would have been lauded by their cities and given abundant gifts, made rich for life. Such then is Paul’s confidence that he has completed the mission laid on him by the Lord. It is this clarity which leads him on; confident that even in the midst of crisis all will work out well.

There is a similar situation in our gospel (Matthew 16:13-19). Jesus has been in serious conflict with the scribes and Pharisees and has returned to the North of the country, away from Jerusalem, and he asks the disciples who they think he is since they too have witnessed his teaching and his miracles. The disciples raise the suggestions made by others, that he is the Baptist resurrected, or Elijah, with whom the eschaton might be brought in, or other of the major prophets of Israel from their past, but these suggestions are not accepted. Peter acclaims Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the one who will deliver the nation from slavery and restore God’s full rule on earth, he is “The Son of the living God.”  Jesus remarks that this insight is not derived simply from Peter’s thought and analysis of things, but is divinely given knowledge, a moment of divine insight. In response, he proclaims Peter the head and leader of the Church and it is in the strength of this acclaim that Peter is able to go ahead with his duties, despite further future serious and damaging lapses, as we know from his behaviour when Jesus announced his passion and even worse, at the arrest and trial of the Lord.

Such moments of crisis-driven clarity are then times to be treasured and stored up, moments of incredible grace. They will not protect us from harm, even death, and still less will they prevent us from terrible sins and failure; but they are nevertheless part of the building blocks of what we are, what we are meant to become in the Lord, and the example of SS Peter and Paul assure us, that like them, we will do the right thing in the end.

I shall be asking the First Communion children this Sunday why Jesus chose to be especially present to us in bread. After all, he could have told us that he would be specially present when we ate our favourite food – cake – chocolate etc!  But instead, he chose dull ordinary bread – even duller, because it is unleavened bread with no yeast to puff it up and make it tastier.

I think we can see three answers in our readings this Sunday. The First Reading (Deut 8:2-16) reminds us that dull ordinary bread is the one thing that keeps you alive when everything else fails – as in the desert. Poor people today largely live on cheap bread, or its equivalent. So Jesus chooses, what we English speakers sometimes call “the staff of life”, precisely to remind us that he is God the life-giver, available to support us when all else fails. All of us face times when we will be in the desert, when our lives will feel empty, and everything will be a big struggle. Getting into the habit of receiving Communion regularly is a preparation for those moments of challenge when we will really need God to support us and take us through.

The Second Reading (1 Cor 10:16-17) reminds us that Jesus choose bread because it is something we can all share. Nowadays, we sometimes miss that point, as we are all too busy eating our own food, especially our own favourite food, and thus forget that food is something that we share together. Indeed, sharing food with our family and our friends and with those in need, is one of the great things about being alive. In our rich culture, we learn it now most often when we share cake, for example on our birthday, when we have the great joy of blowing out our candles and cutting the cake so that we can hand it out and share it with everyone who is celebrating with us.

That is surely what St Paul is getting at with his image of the loaf. “The fact that there is only one loaf means that though there are many of us, we form a single body because we all have a share in the one loaf.” It is always a bit sad when we hear people talk of making their Communion, as if it were something they did alone, as if it were something just for them. In fact, it is called Communion precisely because it is not only Communion with God but Communion with one another. We all need to remember that we come to Mass as much for each other as for ourselves. When we miss Mass we are letting down everyone else who is at Mass. They miss us, and if enough people decide to do something else, then the absence of all these people becomes something we can all feel.

The third reason why Jesus chooses to be especially present for us in bread is best explained by reminding ourselves that Holy Communion is sometimes called the Medicine of Immortality. This is a term we first hear used by St Ignatius of Antioch who was writing in the early 2nd Century. I am reminded daily of the significance of this concept, since I have to take various pills to stay alive and healthy – pills to keep my blood pressure down and my thyroid level up etc etc. Taking these pills is very boring, and remembering to take them especially when other more exciting things happen in my life, can be very difficult. Yet if I fail to take them, then I know that gradually my physical body will fail.

It is surely the same with Holy Communion. It is not always very exciting to be at Mass, especially when there is something more exciting to do. And when we miss Mass we do not notice that we are any the worse off – after all think of all the people in the world who seem to survive without ever receiving Communion? But nonetheless it is the medicine of immortality, and whether we notice it or not, in the long run, received regularly and prayerfully, it draws us closer and closer to God – it prepares us for immortal life when we will be one with God for ever.

Thus Jesus says in the Gospel today (John 6:51-58) “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever.” Those who do not meet Jesus in this wonderful way are missing out on a great gift from God. The Church teaches that such people may get to God after death in ways we do not know, for our God is a God of love and mercy for all men and women. But it is sad that this one wonderful way towards God is not something they share in. We need to remember what a great gift Holy Communion is, and to treasure it.

Sharing in Christ

June 20, 2014

Frances writes on Corpus Christi :- Words are not ‘flat’ things, complete in themselves; they convey meaning and invite thought and understanding. Words that we cannot fathom require us to search for meaning, they are means of development and engagement, and they lead us into the depths of things, words then are signifiers. Words are not ‘who-dunnits’ requiring an answer, so much as means of entering into something, in our case, the mystery of God; and not to want to go on this journey is a tragedy and a rejection of the Creator.

This was the experience of Moses as recalled many hundreds of years later by the Deuteronomic historians. (Deut 8:2-3.14-16). They have Moses talking about the experiences of God of the people of Israel; reminding them of his goodness to them during the Exodus, providing them with food and succour. But the writers realise that the manna, and the other material gifts from God, actually stand as a ‘language’, a means by which the Lord communicates with his people. “To make you understand that man does not live by bread alone but that man lives on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”  The Exodus journey was not simply a survival exercise, nor a team-bonding experience for Israel; it was a journey in which they discovered their relationship with God. Through their bodily, material appreciation of God’s goodness and salvation, they slowly began to understand their immaterial relationship with the God who is wholly other, outside his creation, and has a purpose for them.

When Paul wrote to the Christians of Corinth (1 Cor 10:16-17) he too was involved with this question of the meaning of language, words and actions, and what they signify. The context of this statement is part of his dealing with the question of their eating meat which had previously been sacrificed to the pagan gods, which was the way most meat came onto the market. At this time the Eucharist was always part of an ordinary meal so the problem of what was happening – what it all signified – was very important. When the newly converted Christians celebrated the Eucharist and ate and drank the body and blood of Jesus Christ, what did it mean for them also to eat meat previously part of a pagan sacrifice to the gods? Clearly in this context understanding what one was doing, what the words of the Mass, of the meaning of the bread and wine, was all about. It followed that entering into the sacrifice of Christ’s body, and being filled with his real presence, was quite incompatible with involvement with pagan sacrifices to the gods. Paul made the point that as the gods do not exist for Christians nothing significant occurred when one ate such meats. But, and this was the important thing, for many of the newly converted, who had previously believed these sacrifices vital to their lives, and that of society, it quite clearly meant a great deal. There was a strong possibility that they would understand belief in the Christian God as simply one more in the long list of new deities to the pagan pantheon rather than as the unique and only true understanding of God. They would in other words fail to understand the unique significance of Christ.  Paul’s solution was to avoid eating meat. The controversy illustrated vividly the significance of our understanding what we are doing, and how important it is to have some real appreciation of the mystery in which we are partaking at the Eucharist; that in it we are truly made one with Christ and the rest of the community and they with us, and that this is something which brooks no dilution or additions but demands our full commitment.

Our gospel (John 6:51-58) is part of John’s famous explanation of the meaning of the Eucharist, ‘The Bread of Life Sermon’. In it Jesus gives a startling and revolutionary explanation of his own body and his gift of it for the world: “Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life….lives in me and I live in him.” There is a starkness to his language which deliberately resists any ‘spiritualisation’ of what Jesus means. He will die, ripped to shreds for us in a human, physical body. At the Eucharist, it is this event we celebrate in all its raw materiality now made immaterial and divine for us by the power of the Spirit; the same Spirit by which God raised him from the dead. The language used here affirms this by its choice of the word sarx (in Greek) for flesh where the alternative, soma represents the more rounded and enigmatic sense of the human person. Instead, our text speaks of the messy materiality of Christ’s body, in which God the Son is wholly united to us and thereby raises us through our reception of him in our so fleshly bodies to life with Father, Son and Spirit.

In receiving the risen Christ into our bodies we share in his risen and eternal life both now, immediately, and in expectation of our risen life with him when we die. The feast of Corpus Christi is then both a celebration of what Christ has already achieved on the cross, and of his intention for each of us. It is as it were God’s autobiography, his story, written out in the words and actions of the Mass for the faithful to perform and affirm at every celebration. It is where we meet Jesus, our Saviour and Lord, and where we love and adore him, hope for the final fulfilment of his promises, and continually recommit ourselves to his life.

On God as Trinity

June 15, 2014

The first time I downloaded music onto my MP3 player I realized how often we humans use words in strange ways. Having put one of my favourite CD’s into the Computer, I was confronted with the option either to “rip” or to “burn”. As you can imagine, unless you are clever with computers and take such jargon for granted, I did not want to hurt either my CD or my Computer – I did not want to see them being ripped or burnt – and so I stopped doing it and waited for help!

I often use this example when talking about the words we use when we Christians talk about God. After all, God is a million times more complex than a computer, so everything about God must be metaphorical. As St Paul wrote 2000 years ago “We teach… the things that no eye has seen and no ear has heard, things beyond the mind of man, all that God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor 2:9). The idea that they believed everything literally then, and that we must do the same, is frankly quite ludicrous.

This is why I get somewhat irritated with people who complain about the difficult words in the New Translation of the Mass. Someone complained to me about the word “consubstantial” the other day – that  They preferred to say in the Creed that Jesus was “of one being” with the Father “Because” they said “People could understand that.”  

Now that’s actually the problem with the old translation! It is the idea that we can understand the things we say about God, especially about God as Trinity that we celebrate today – that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The early Christian fathers actually created the word “consubstantial” to describe, as best they could, something that no ordinary words can describe – how Jesus can be separate from God the Father, and yet entirely one with him.

My way of describing the Trinity is very simple, not because it explains the Trinity, but because it only explains the most obvious ways in which we experience God, and leaves it at that. First then God is the creative force underlying the Universe – that we call “God the Father”. Second the same God chooses to become a real human being called Jesus of Nazareth – that we call “God the Son”. Third the same God is the God we experience working deep within us in various ways – that we call “God the Holy Spirit.”

We see the use of these terms – “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” in our 2nd Reading (2 Cor 13:11-13) and in our Gospel today (John 3:16-18), but we need to remember that although we trip them off our tongue so readily -  “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”-  as we make the sign of the cross; none of these names for God mean what they say- just like rip and burn on the computer do not mean what they say either. So, God is not really a “Father” in the normal use of that term, and since God is a power and not a human being, Jesus cannot be described literally as his son. No. We call God Father, because although God is an immense power, we believe, as taught us by Jesus, that God actually cares about us, as (and that’s the crucial word here) as a good father cares for his son. And we call Jesus God’s Son, because he taught us that his oneness with God the Father, is like being his son.

Or we could put it the other way round. We could say that a good father is in being a father a little bit like God – that true fatherhood is something God-given – that comes from his very being – as does true motherhood. And we could also say that God has created us in our family relationships of love and care and concern for one another to be a bit like him, to share something of what he is. After all we heard God declare this to Moses in our 1st Reading (Exodus 34:4-6 8-9) “The Lord… a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness and faithfulness.”

In the end almost every word we use when talking about God and about our faith in him, is simply a surface word that hides beneath its surface an immense mystery. As I often say to people, if I told you I was heart-broken, I would think you were stupid if you took me literally and called an ambulance to take me off for heart surgery. It is not just religious words that are metaphorical, almost all the words we use about things that really matter to us, have to be deeper than their surface meaning. So the words in our Gospel : “God loved the world so much that he gave us his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” have a depth of meaning that we will only really begin to understand on the day when we are one with him beyond death. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Cor 13:12)