December 8, 2013
Did any of you hear that true story recently about a very aggressive Alsatian dog who met a goose? Somehow they made friends and became inseparable, and the dog stopped being aggressive. This story came back to me as I read our 1st Reading from Isaiah (11:1-10) about the wolf living with the lamb and the panther with the kid. Of course Isaiah is using these animal metaphors to help us hope for a world where violence and intolerance is done away with, but it is interesting that even in the animal world strange friendships can take place. It can happen to us humans too! Think how Nelson Mandela managed to forge friendship with his gaolers, and with the white people who had oppressed and tortured him and his people. He even invited his principal gaoler to his inauguration ceremony as President!
So though our Psalm response “In his days justice shall flourish, and peace till the moon fails” seems a hopeless dream, it is surely a dream that we have to keep on dreaming. As Martin Luther King said in his famous speech “I have a dream”, and we have seen how much that speech, as well as the life of Mandela, has changed the world, even though there is a long long way still to go.
St Paul has it in our 2nd Reading too (Romans 15:4-9) when he tells us never to give up the dream. He writes that “people who did not give up were helped by God.” And then, as if he knew about people like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, he writes, “And may he who helps us when we refuse to give up, help you all to be tolerant with each other, following the example of Christ Jesus.” This dream of a world of love and kindness where we learn to get on with people who are different, even to care about them, is surely a dream given to us by God. Each time we find something to moan about, something to make us angry or despairing of our fellow humans, we have to remember this dream, this hope that we have in our hearts, that we are called to put into action daily.
Surely this is why St John in his Gospel goes to such lengths to describe the dignified encounter between Jesus and Pontius Pilate. He wants to show us this supreme example of love where the condemned man is able to say, from the agony of the cross, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
You might think then that our Gospel (Matthew 3:1-12) strikes a different note, as John the Baptist attacks some of the Jews as a “Brood of vipers”. Well yes, he is fierce, but he doesn’t give up on them does he? Instead he clearly believes that even these, the worst of men, can repent, can change their ways, can be drawn into the glory and power of God’s love that he calls the baptism of the Holy Spirit; not just to be cleansed by water but to be purified by spiritual fire. We have to remember this truth, not just for ourselves, but much more for those who we want to dismiss as too evil ever to be forgiven.
Think then today of those you really dislike. Who is it to be? Those bankers with their enormous bonuses? Those people killing one another in the Middle East? Those politicians who seem only to be trying to get re-elected with their clever sound-bites? Those council officials with their petty bureaucracy? Those people who litter the streets or write horrid graffiti on walls? Or is it someone nearer home. Someone at work maybe, a colleague or a boss who is just a complete pain. Whoever it is, we Christians must never give up hoping and praying for a better world, and believing that God’s love is at work and can be effective in places and amongst people that just make us angry or afraid.
So repentance does not just mean us being sorry for our sins, it also means turning ourselves round and looking at the world in a different way. If we give up believing and hoping, then we are failing to recognise the power of God, the power of God’s love, to change people, to change situations, where all seems hopeless and dark at the moment. Light coming into the darkness is one of the great themes of Advent and Christmas isn’t it? As we will hear on Christmas morning, Jesus the Word is “the light that shines in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower….. and to all who did accept him he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:1-14) May it be so for us.
December 6, 2013
When we read all these Advent readings we have a tendency to go all gooey, thinking how lovely they all are. But in fact they all speak to much harder situations; to division, estrangement and separation. It is a picture all those refugees from Syria today will find very familiar. They speak of God’s will for unity and wholeness, for an end to enmity and strife and for an urgency for this to take place. Our job this Advent, as we await the Lord this Christmas, is to play our small part in the realization of this vision.
When 1st Isaiah wrote in the 8th century BC (11:1-10) he knew that the line of David, whose father was Jesse, had failed. The Assyrians had conquered and overrun Israel and Syria in punishment for their rebellion and taken many captives off to their lands in Iraq. Tiny Judah looked very vulnerable and prone to the same fate. Small wonder then that our prophet poured out his longing for a true king, one up to the job; one filled with “the spirit of the Lord”, one on whom God’s “spirit of wisdom and insight…counsel and power”… and above all the “Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord” should rest. This is not just beautifully contrived poetry, it is the prophets desperate cry to the heavens for help when all else has failed. Isaiah reflects a time of great injustice in the land as he prays for a ruler who “does not judge by appearances, of one who gives no verdict on hearsay but judges the wretched with integrity and with equity gives a verdict for the poor of the land.” What a mess it appears the state was in! Injustice clearly thrived and its victims were the poor, those harshly taxed and enslaved if they could not pay up, while the rich got richer at their expense, and justice was not available to the weak. Those in power, from king and courtiers, magistrates and officers of the state, religious elite and law makers had all turned away from their true role and abandoned their duties to serve their own interests. Isaiah speaks with longing to a situation changed out of all recognition in which he pictures a little child playing by a snake’s den and suffering no harm at all: a new heaven and earth.
In his Letter to the Romans, (15:4-9) St Paul argues that the way to achieve this harmony even here and now, was by a recognition of the equality of every human person. “It can only be to God’s glory, then, for you to treat each other in the same friendly way as Christ treated you.” He reminds them that God in Christ worked through human history, being born into the Jewish race in order to bring both Gentile and Jew to the knowledge of his grace.
Yet, at the same time, the Christian message has radically altered human history. Ancient society, both pagan and Jewish was deeply divided on lines of class, status, citizenship, gender and race. It was a world similar to that of Isaiah, in which the poor were exploited for the benefit of the rich, and in which they were accorded fewer civic rights. Paul’s radical message of the fact that in our salvation in Christ we are all one and that in Him there are no more male and female, Jew and Greek, slave or barbarian did require some considerable shifts in the manner of the treatment Christians measured out to each other. We see this in his teaching on marriage; in relation to slaves and social inferiors; and whilst not enforceable in law it did carry powerful moral implications which the Church had to come to terms with over the centuries. By the fifth century we would see the Christian elite using their fortunes to establish schools, hospitals and monasteries, or even freeing thousands of their slaves, much to the horror of the pagans.
This radical message is reflected in our gospel story of John the Baptist. (Matthew 3:1-12) We tend to assume that the ‘wilderness’ was a desert, an uninhabited area, but we know from archaeology that such places, especially in Palestine were in fact agricultural areas, covered with flocks or dates, olives and wine as well as wheat fields. What is reflected in the messages both of Isaiah 40 (the quote), and from John’s situation is a powerful divide between town and country, between those who worked laboriously in the sun and the rain, and those who dwelt in towns and cities and looked down on the poor workers, some of whom would have been slaves, others daily labourers. These would have been despised by the Pharisees and the Sadducees precisely because their work meant they were continually contaminated, ‘unclean’ and therefore, ‘sinners’, anawim who could not in consequence offer sacrifice in the temple. Contamination by contact with animals or manure would have cut them off from the temple. According to the rigid rules of these elitists they could never participate fully in the life of Israel. This is why John the Baptist dressed in the garb of someone excluded and ritually unclean, and why he addresses the elite with such stunning violence. Solidarity with the poor and excluded runs throughout Jesus’ message of redemption, and it can be no accident that John speaks of the salvation Christ brings precisely in contaminating agricultural terms: “His winnowing-fan is in his hand; he will clear his threshing-floor and gather his wheat into the barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out. We can be in no doubt precisely as to whom John was referring to as chaff. The message of our Advent readings is then very clear. We are required to take Christ’s message of our human solidarity very seriously, for it is the very stuff of our redemption.
December 1, 2013
So what was it like in Noah’s Day? Of course we don’t know. The story of Noah is just that – a story written in ancient times, probably with folk memories of an ancient flood by those who survived – but still just a story. But to understand fully what Jesus is saying in our Gospel today (Matthew 24:37-44) we need to remind ourselves of some of the details of that story. Most of you will know that he built a boat called an ark in which he kept the animals. You may even have a toy ark in your house – I was playing with one only the other day as I entertained a certain baby – but that, of course, isn’t the bit of the story Jesus is talking about.
Nor is Jesus talking about the bit of the story that explains the flood as a punishment from God. Jesus explicitly rejects the idea (Luke 13:1-5) that bad things happen to punish bad people, by telling us that we’re all sinners who need to repent. There are no good people, like Noah, who will escape floods or storms or even death because they are good. No! God, as Jesus says “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45)
What Jesus is referring to is the relationship between Noah and God. Some of the Medieval Mystery Plays have the rest of the people laughing at Noah, mocking him, as he builds this great big boat. They often even present his wife as equally scornful. They have her saying in effect “Why should I leave my lovely house for your crazy boat?” And the point is that Noah puts God first, and does what he believes God wants. He listens to God and he listens very carefully. Indeed, in the Bible story, (Genesis 6:9-22) Noah is even given the exact measurements of the ark – so long – so wide – three decks and a door on the side. Noah gets on with it. He builds his ark, and when the floods come, he and his wife, and his three sons and their wives and all the animals go into the Ark.
Do you know the story Jesus tells of the man who built his house on the rock? It’s the same message. In the children’s song it goes like this, and with actions “And the rains come down and the floods rose up….(repeat twice) and the house on the rock stood firm.” In both stories the point is that only with God’s help can we be safe when troubles come. I was praying with an old lady who was dying on Friday. It wasn’t easy for her, but the prayers calmed her and assured her that even in death she was in the hands of God. St Paul says the same in our 2nd reading (Romans 13:11-14) when he says “Let your armour be the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Three images – an ark, a house on rock, and armour – all making the same point. When troubles or even disasters come, most especially when death comes, there is no-one who can support and strengthen us except God. But notice one more thing about the Noah’s Ark story. It isn’t a matter of Noah just saying a few prayers and feeling God is close and will protect him from the flood. Prayer, being in a relationship with God, leads to action. He builds the ark as God has told him to, and then he gets everyone inside before the floods sweep everything away.
It’s the same with us in all the everyday events of our lives. We have to listen to God as Noah did, to work out what God wants, at work, at home, with our family and friends, and with everything else we do. In all things we must rely on God. But God expects us to turn this relationship we have with him into action. Very occasionally that can happen just as it happened to Noah. Once I was praying in the Chapel at Brookes, and suddenly God gave me a vision of a door in the wall so that people could come and pray in the Chapel whilst the house itself stayed locked. Not being as clever a builder as Noah I got in a builder to do it for me, but I could point to the wall and say “Put a door here.” And he did.
For us Christians the Ark that God has asked us to build is not just our individual faith in God. No, that can vary such a lot. One day we feel strong in the faith, we may have a specific word from God as Noah and I did, but on another day we may feel we have no faith at all. No, the Ark is the faith of the Church. It is the faith of Our Lady and all the Saints and of all our fellow Christians. We have to let this great family BE the Ark for us, BE the House built on Rock, BE the Armour that is Christ. For, as St Paul says, it is the Church – the whole family of God – that is the Body of Christ and we are parts of it. (1 Cor 12:27) Staying awake for God is something we do together, especially in Advent. Never alone!
November 29, 2013
Frances writes on this weekends readings that they are all about time and the expectation of events that time will bring. She continues :- But not all time is the same, as the different readings make clear, nor should our reactions to it be the same.
Why should Jesus take his listeners right back into their most ancient past, to the time of Noah, a mythical time with its story of an immense flood with its ensuing destruction which swept all away? (Matthew 24:37-44). The context of this story is perhaps the most telling. Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem, and just before his passion he engages in a series of disputes with the scribes and Pharisees over their wish to make everyone follow the law in a rigorous manner, imitating the temple priests. He has just uttered what we know as his ‘lament’ over Jerusalem, for its failings to follow the truth in killing the prophets and stoning those sent from God throughout their history. Jerusalem and its devotees have failed; failed to see the works and words of God in those sent to them, just as they will reject and kill Jesus. They had failed to recognise the workings of God among them as they had done from time immemorial: the time of Noah. We begin to see that ‘time’ is not about the period during the day when something occurs; chronological time; it is about Kairos; God’s breaking into the present through those sent to the people. The point is that in Jesus, the Son of Man, God has definitively broken through into human life and story. Jesus begs those who are enthusiastically following him to ‘stay awake’, to grasp that Kairos, that in-breaking of God through and with and in himself. Not to let it go through fear or cowardice – as they will at his crucifixion. It is a message which has travelled down through the ages, a message of equal relevance to all of us today, as we engage in the business of daily life: eating, drinking, taking wives and husbands and ignoring the signs of the Kairos; failing to engage with God. Lest this message might be too hard, too serious for his followers, he spells out the need for constant vigilance through the witty story of the householder and the burglar, a commonplace incidence and something everyone could grasp and identify with. Act Now! Man your walls! Guard your property against the predations of those pesky robbers!
Our reading from St Paul’s letter to the Romans (13:11-14) gives us practical advice as to how to live in what is already Kairos – God’s dimension. He insists that the time has come, as indeed it has for all of us in the Incarnation, the presence in chronological time of Jesus Christ who has already lived his life among us and died for our redemption on the cross. He is the Kairos! Accordingly, he advises those Christians of Rome about the manner of their living as they await the final revelation of Christ. Quite clearly, for many Christians of the Early Church, just as for us now living as the new community of the resurrection, as Kairos people was difficult. There was and can be a big gap between faith and practice, between our alleged commitment to Christ and our personal behaviour. Many of the new Christians would have been pagan converts for whom a relationship with God had not formerly required any reformation in their ways of living and behaving. How very relevant his advice is today too: “Let us live decently, no drunken orgies, no promiscuity or licentiousness, and no wrangling or jealousy”. We might like to pretend that these things have no relevance to us, that they merely addressed the behaviour of those wicked 1st century Christians; but when we pause to unwrap his remarks we may begin to realise that we are not so different. After all, with easy internet access to what are politely described as ‘Adult Channels’; or the evidence of recent surveys of sexual behaviour in the UK; or when we think about our jealousy of others and the consumerism it provokes, or the ease with which we get into damaging disputes with others, we can begin to see that this Kairos advice is very relevant indeed.
By way of contrast, our Old Testament reading from 1st Isaiah (2:1-5), is rooted very precisely in chronological time. In the late 8th century BC Syria and Samaria, the Northern kingdom of Israel, fell to the Assyrians and Judah in the South was threatened by the same catastrophe. The two Northern kingdoms had rebelled against their Assyrian overlords and wanted Judah to follow suite. Our prophet identified the problem as lying with the desertion of the God of Israel and turning to Baal, the powerful storm god of the area. He advised a time of repentance and renewal with dire consequences for failure. For he saw, quite rightly that the power of the Assyrian war machine was so overpowering that survival lay with compliance rather than futile rebellion. Indeed, the example of the ruin and devastation of once powerful trading nations like Tyre were ample proof that he was right. However, as Jesus some 800 years later pointed out, Jerusalem had a penchant for killing its true prophets and the evidence is that Isaiah met a violent end brought about by his own people and that his advice was ignored. The nation’s failure to appreciate the usefulness of prophecy given in chronological time, as well as that relating to the Kairos, is a reminder that we do well to listen to these voices of the past and the present, for they have much to tell us about the situations in which we live.
November 24, 2013
I was not a happy person when I was a teenager. The school I went to made no attempt to encourage boys to be anything more than thugs and it took me a long time to discover a few, a very few people, hidden away like me, who disliked this oppressive regime as much as I did. In one sense I was lucky. Because I was so different, I had to learn to stand against the accepted way of doing things; and one of the main things that helped me then was my discovery of a man who I could look up to, who also stood up against the rest of the world. His name was and is Jesus Christ.
The rest of the world sees leadership and kingship in terms of power and influence just as we see in our 1st reading (2 Samuel 5:1-3). King David and his son King Solomon were very successful leaders, indeed King David could be described as a thug as well as a King; but they were both lucky in the political situation they faced at the time. And because they were successful in worldly terms, people afterwards looked back on them with nostalgia as they longed for a promised new King – a Messiah – who would give them back the power they had lost and get rid of all their oppressors.
Many of the followers of Jesus thought this is what he would be like. They discovered that his parents were of the line of David, and that he had been born in Royal David’s City, Bethlehem. But Jesus from the first, with the help of Our Lady, challenged this view of what the Messiah would be like. Instead, as I have been describing in the last few weeks, Jesus chose a kingship which who would bring his people a different kind of freedom, by suffering and dying for them on the cross.
Actually, his stand against the ways of the world had already started, before he called his disciples and appeared in public, because he clearly chose not to get married. This was very unusual indeed for a young Jewish man, but as Jesus says in one passage “there are those who have chosen to be eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 19:12) Young people today don’t have the pressure on them to get married, but they do have the pressure to get into a relationship. “Go on” says the boy friend “Everyone else does”, and thus what might seem like freedom is just a way of persuading someone to conform, rather than a really free choice.
Again and again in the Bible we see Jesus challenging the world’s way of thinking about things. The thief hanging on the cross in today’s Gospel (Luke 23:35-43) only asks for Jesus to “Remember him” when he comes into his kingdom. But Jesus breaks through this conventional way of thinking, and says, “Today” (not at the end of the world or when the kingdom comes) but “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” In St John’s Gospel, just before he was crucified, we hear Jesus explicitly contradicting the worldly view of power expressed by the Roman governor. He says “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36) This does not mean, of course, that God’s kingdom does not affect this world, for it certainly does, but it is not a kingdom of power in the way the world thinks about such things.
Pressure from others, exertion of power and persuasion to make people conform, especially young people, is the way of the world. Sometimes the Church has been guilty of behaving like this, as if Christianity was an ideology to be imposed on people. Happily most people in England would laugh at the Church if we tried to do that here nowadays. Young people are more likely to be attracted by those who make fun of religion, because that’s the trendy thing to do. But it can be, as I have shown in the case of relationships, just another way of getting people to conform, just because that’s the fashion at the moment. To be a Christian, as one young man said to me, is to buck the trend, to be prepared to ignore the so-called freedom that mocks religion and the church. Such mockery is anyway almost always totally ignorant about what the church really teaches and believes.
Of course one can join the mockers. They are there in the Gospel as Jesus hung on the cross. “They jeered at him.. He saved others,, let him save himself… if he is the Christ of God..” It’s always easier to mock than to actually face the challenges Jesus brings to our life. It’s always easier to sit on the fence than to actually say “I believe in God. I am a Christian. I am a Catholic.” God is powerful, of course, but it is a different kind of power which, in the long run when they die, will bring everyone, even those who mock most, face to face with themselves and the ultimate questions of life. Jesus calls us to choose him now, and to gain real freedom rather than a so-called freedom that is just another form of oppression.
November 22, 2013
Frances writes on this weekends readings :- This feast was only introduced in the early 20th century by a Pope anxious to counteract the brute force of Mussolini in Italy. We do well to remember that our Christian faith always teaches that God’s power comes to its perfection, not in force of arms or the subjugation of others, but, in weakness.
This surely is the point made very clearly in our gospel, (Luke 23:35-43). Here we see a dying Jesus; one totally divested of power; one crucified to death; naked and humiliated; pinned without the ability even to move and dying slowly of suffocation. He is mocked by all those in power, the Jewish leaders, and the soldiers who put him on the cross and even by one of his fellow crucified. He is mocked as ‘King of the Jews’, a title Jesus never claimed for himself and, indeed, one deliberately chosen by Pilate to mock and irritate the Jewish authorities, stuck as they were with a line of tyrant and heretic kings enforced upon them by the Romans. Yet in the midst of all this turmoil Luke shows us a Jesus who is calm, and, against all expectation, curiously able to communicate with those about him who are open to his message. He assures the penitent thief a place with him in his real kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven in which the value of what is important is very different from those of the power crazed and earth bound of his day. Jesus promises the thief a place with him, a place where they will be eternally enfolded in the loving embrace of God; a place graced to those who know themselves and are open to God’s quiet invitation.
When we come to consider our reading from 2 Samuel, (5:1-3), we begin to get the flavour of what we are being offered by Christ. Our picture of King David is all about those who belong to the right clans and are followers of the right people. It is about power; David made a pact with them at Hebron. Clearly this was a war pact, designed for the conquest of others lands and the subduing of other peoples. Indeed, we know that during the reigns of David and his son Solomon, Israel became an expansionist and powerful nation, a threat to others. Of course, eventually, as the line declined it became less so and at the end of Solomon’s reign the state divided into two, an indication of internal failure and sickness. It is when we put our trust in such earthly alliances, and the strength they give us precisely against others that we come unstuck.
Both Jesus and St Paul were born into a world which had been, and continued to be dominated by super-powers. Any one who knew anything about the past however, as many in Israel did, could have been only too painfully aware of their tendency to decay and collapse as others, more powerful arose and took over, dooming the weaker to loss and oblivion. Those living, as Jesus did in a Greek world now under the control of Roman masters would have been alert to their collapse too, no matter how strong and invincible they looked.
So their message that ultimately strength lies with God is a much more reassuring one, and one which helped to convert the fearful masses of the pagan world to Christianity. For pagans, and indeed, for Jews, the world was full of malign spirits, they were in the very air one breathed and attended every action one undertook and at any moment one was liable to their attack. When he wrote to the Colossians, (1:11-20), St Paul reminded them that all these ‘powers’ which ‘threatened’ their daily existence, were all in fact under the control of the One God. All the unseen powers in the air; the powers from the thrones of the pagan gods whom they believed to be in the heavens and responsible for all sorts of gifts or harms, and the fury and damaging power of the Roman emperors with their tax demands and the thugs they employed to collect them – all owed such existence as they really had to the God of Jesus Christ.
The One, Sole God in fact controls everything. This is Paul’s claim; indeed, he has taken us out of the power of darkness and created a place for us in the kingdom of the Son that he loves. Few messages could have been, and still are more comforting than this claim and the ancient creed that Paul recited to and with the Christians of Colossae. It speaks reassuringly of our place within the love and grace of God with the Son. In Him creation began and in him we sinners, perfected by his blood, are made new and reconciled to God. Now clearly none of us could do this for ourselves for we continue sinners in this world, but Paul assures us that in and through Jesus this is not only possible but utterly certain for the believer. Jesus made peace by his death on the cross. Paul speaks then of a universe made new, whole and entire, something none of the superpowers or even a strong Israel could ever do and it is a salutary reminder today, just as it was in the 1930’s. The Feast of Christ the King is not about Christian militancy, but about our faith in the redeeming gentleness of Christ.
November 17, 2013
It amazes me that, despite the warning from Jesus in today’s Gospel, (Luke 21:5-19) some people still try to link disastrous events, like the one now in the Philippines, to the end of the world and the Day of Judgement. Certainly some of the writers in the Old Testament do make that link, and it was still a view held by many in the time of Jesus. (See Luke 13:1-4) But Jesus will not allow us to believe that God sends suffering to the world. Yes, as we just heard him say in the Gospel, sufferings of various kinds will happen, but these are NOT to be seen as signs from God.
I noticed one comfortable Western journalist making this mistake when he described the Typhoon disaster as a test of faith. It was worth noticing a few moments later a weeping father who said quite the opposite. “Only with God can I manage to face this.” Sometimes we forget that such natural disasters, as well as awful wars, have always happened in our world; the only difference is that nowadays because of modern technology, we can see them for ourselves. Happily, most of us here in England do not just weep for those poor people, and then turn on one of the Soaps, but do what we can to help them, as the wonderful response to the DEC Appeal has shown.
Judgement Day, as described briefly in our 1st Reading (Malachi 3:19-20), is certainly something that Jesus tells us will happen, but he more often uses a different and more positive term. He talks about the coming, or the breaking in, of the kingdom of God, and he tells us that although that kingdom with its final judgement will only happen when the world ends, it is also happening here and now. So he says “The kingdom of God is very near” (Luke 10:9) and then, to make it more explicit, says that it is like the seed growing in the ground. We cannot see anything and yet it happens right in front of us. And then on one occasion he actually says “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17:20-21)
One of the reasons that Christianity became popular first amongst the poorest of people, as it is today, is precisely because it gives people hope. It tells them and us. when we are faced with our own disasters, that God is not some fearsome force, or even a number of fearsome forces, that we must try to persuade to help us; but is a power of love and goodness that seeks always to help and support us whatever troubles we face. That is precisely why the God we believe in comes to us as a man and suffers and dies on the cross. But further, that knowing such love, we are then inspired not only to hope in him, but also to imitate him, and always to work to bring his love to others in need. For us Christians, faith, hope and love are always intermingled.
At the end of our lives, of course, or at the end of time, all of us will find ourselves face to face with God. This will be a moment of fear and love, as we see how often we have failed to love as much as we could have done, and realise fully how much he has loved us and how often we have ignored him. For some, hopefully a very few, that will be their end, their entry into hell; but for most of us, hopefully, this will be the beginning of our final purification – what we call purgatory – when we will be drawn fully into the love of God that we have known only a tiny part of here on earth. That is what the Day of Judgement will be like.
This is the wonderful message that we Christians have to offer our suffering world, and that is why we must do all we can, as a church, to spread this message of hope and love in every way we can.
November 15, 2013
Frances writes on this weekends readings :- Jesus warns his followers, and those who heard him immediately before his passion, (Luke 21:5-19) not to put their faith in earthly, material things. So many in Judaism were expecting and eagerly awaiting the coming of the Messiah. They believed that this figure, sent from God, would wipe the occupying Romans off the map; that he would be a warrior of colossal power and bring peace and above all world domination to Jews; to those so long abused and repressed by invaders. For them the Temple in Jerusalem would be the centre of the world and everyone would come to worship there. Small wonder then, that some around Jesus were full of admiration for the gold covered building and the costly votive offerings the wealthy had attached to it. Jesus stunningly wipes the floor on all these values with his terrible picture of the utter destruction of all they held most holy and significant. He speaks of a time of international war and the chaos that often followed such events, with the dreaded plague rife among the peoples. He speaks too, of Christians being blamed for the disasters that are to follow, and the loss of trust even among closest relative and friends; in short, of a world in turmoil. Little wonder then, that his message proved so unpalatable to the authorities, who became rich on the temple takings; or to the crowds eagerly looking for the warrior messiah and revenge on their enemies; or even to his own, for whom his vision of the future promised pain and suffering, betrayal and loss.
Yet Christianity has never promised a world triumph with all going well. Rather, it predicts a future of struggle and turmoil in which the believer is at the centre of the struggle, working to alleviate the pain of others. And we do this because we are the people of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Assuredly, Jesus, like any thoughtful man of his age could have predicted the eventual revolt of the Jewish people and the likely reprisals which would follow. This in fact came some 30 years after his passion, and it would have been wholly unrealistic to suppose that this would bring about the triumph of world Jewry, although this was what many hoped for. We have to remember that Jewish history had always affirmed that it was through suffering that the Jewish people discovered God and grew ever closer to him; and Jesus insisted that this age old story had not changed, but that through his unique suffering the path to a wholly new encounter with God was opened.
In the Jewish past it was common to expect the Day of the Lord of Hosts to come as the day of retribution upon enemies, as we see in Malachi (3:19-20). “The day that is coming is going to burn them up, says the Lord of Hosts, leaving them neither root nor stalk….But for you who hear my name, the sun of righteousness will shine out with healing in its rays.” But this is quite simply not our human experience, is it? Of a certainty, those who have died, or lost homes and families and possessions in the Philippines recently were largely devout Catholics; just as many Coptic Christians in Egypt are persecuted and the 48 women per hour who are raped in the terrible war in the Congo are devout believers. No, the message of Christ is one of realism in this life, which is precisely why the promise of life eternal with God is so compelling. It is from within the pain and suffering of this world that we, like ancient Jewry, explore and discover God and find his life, – kingdom life – even now in the goodness and love of others amidst struggle, depravity and uncertainty.
This may be a grim message, but it is a vigorously realistic one and Jesus was never one for sugary sentimentality. We who are relatively safe in the West, unlike our own forebears, or the millions in the third world today, need to grasp the inescapable reality of evil, for it is very apparent in those places. We cannot shelter ourselves and our families from the pain of the fallen world. The whole point of the Incarnation, in which Jesus’ takes on our human nature with all its terrible capacity for evil, and of his dying precisely in that marred human flesh, was to confront the power of evil, and we must recognise its reality and respond to it. The story of his life is all about his confronting evil and his small victories against it, just as our acts of kindness to others make the world fractionally better. We have to remember that Jesus did not triumph against his enemies; he died the most terrible death at the hands of wicked, ill-informed and unlovely people; thereby redeeming not just the good and deserving, but those who murdered him; those who have perpetrated other and similar atrocities ever since. Jesus died not to make this world and creation just a bit nicer; he died to remake a fallen creation and bring it new and perfect to God his Father. This is the stunning, even terrifying fact of the Incarnation and here and now you and I are part of that cosmic drama.
Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians (2 Thess 3:7-12) directs the thoughts and actions of all of us as we await this great divine act of redemption. Put simply, he advises us, just as he did two thousand years ago to the Christian people of Thessalonika, to work; to participate in our communities, working and earning our livings and not becoming a burden to others. There were clearly in the city those who believed themselves already redeemed by the blood of Christ who just sat back and waited. Paul reserves his strictest condemnation for them. We all have our part to play in the life of our community now as we await our final and assured meeting with God.
November 10, 2013
One of the questions that sometimes gets flung at us Christians is why so many good people suffer and die in horrible ways, whilst others, even bad people, live to a ripe old age. It just doesn’t seem fair, does it? Of course there is no answer to this, only a choice. Faced with a lot of awful things in the world, do we just throw up our hands in despair and say “It’s a horrible world and if there is a god he is horrible too.”? Or, do we say “It is because it is a horrible world that I choose to turn towards a power of goodness and love, however hard that may be, and in his power do what I can to make my bit of the world better.”?
The seven brothers in our Old Testament Reading today (2 Maccabees 7:1-14 –The Apocrypha) could have chosen the easy way out, and given up the religious practices that marked them, and just believed in God privately whilst conforming to the ways of the world outwardly. It is just what many people do today who have their private religion but rarely, if ever, go to Mass. What is interesting about the Book of Maccabees is that it comes right at the end of the Old Testament story less than 200 years before the birth of Jesus. Here, people know and believe that good people can often suffer far more than bad people, but that there is a reward promised to those who are faithful – in life after death with God.
However, the earlier parts of the Old Testament display the more primitive belief – that good people will be rewarded in this life ; and these more ancient peoples believed that not least because they did not believe in life after death. So when they tell the story, for example, of Abraham, the great ancestor – patriarch – of the people of Israel, they even exaggerate his age to stress that point. It reads: Abraham lived a hundred and seventy-five years. Then… breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years (Genesis 25:6-8) The same is said of Jacob and Moses and others. They may have had their troubles and challenges, yes, but in the end they died knowing that their life would live on in their children and their people loved and blessed by God. The realisation that this is not a true picture of life is one of the major themes of the Old Testament. It’s not written however as one story, but is a collection of books written over a thousand years of experiences; and in these books we can see the gradual discovery that, if God does reward his people, then it must be in a spiritual life with him in glory after death, rather than happiness here and now. That, of course, is how some people misread the Bible, by reading bits of the Bible on their own rather than seeing it as a presentation of a people over history gradually learning about what God is really like, finally revealed in the life and death of Jesus.
We can see from our Gospel (Luke 20:27-36) that even in Jesus’ day there are many who still do not believe in life after death – in the resurrection as it is called – and Jesus has to explain to them that eternal life with God is a spiritual thing –“they are the same as the angels” – and is nothing like life now, where people have husbands and wives etc. Indeed Jesus teaches that far from being simply “life after death” – the life with God that we are promised after death is something we begin to enter into here and now. That is why he calls it “eternal life” and says to those who simply believe they WILL be raised up, “I AM the Resurrection and the Life… and whoever.. believes in me will never die.”
The Gospels stories also show us that not only did the followers of Jesus have to learn this, but also had to realise that choosing to follow him into eternal life is not an easy road. They want to prevent him being crucified, but Jesus knows such suffering is necessary from the later books of the Old Testament, the one we had as our 1st Reading yes, but also the great passages from the prophets. Faced with their people suffering and dying through war and exile, they had to discover this new way of thinking about God that Jesus brings to its fulfilment in his death and resurrection. So the prophet Isaiah (53:3-5) writes, in a passage we always read on Good Friday, of “a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering” and then “yet ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrows he carried.”
Our answer then to those who ask why does God allow us to suffer is to say “I do not know, but what I do know is that God chooses to suffer with us, and alongside us.” It is thus, as we look at the cross, that we know his love and are given hope and strength to be faithful whatever we have to face. As we sing in that famous English hymn:
“Hold thou thy Cross before my closing eyes:
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee.
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”
November 8, 2013
Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- Witnessing to the truth against those who are determined not to listen or be convinced is always difficult, and frequently brings about persecution for the one witnessing (in Greek, a martyr). When, in our gospel, (Luke 20:27-38) Jesus argues with the Sadducees, we should remember that this was not a ‘real’ debate which might have led to a changing of minds. The Sadducees were the religious fundamentalists of his day, holding that the Jewish law was fixed long ago and could not be added to or amended. Quite apart from the fact that we know it grew up over the centuries; and was adapted to deal with settled agricultural and urban living; and no longer represented the original Jewish Exodus circumstances; and that other groups of devout Jews did continually argue its interpretation; why did this group pose such an odd question to Jesus? Perhaps, behind their ridiculous question there lies a much deeper issue, one in which women, or rather wives, were seen as the possession of men? We know that for Jews who had no belief in life after death one ‘lived-on’ in one’s family, and through that progeny possessed land. These, along with the law and the temple were the bastions of Judaism. Perhaps then Jesus was implicitly challenging their notions of women as possessions? After all, our gospels are replete with stories of his encounters with women in which he defied the law and treated them with care and respect, thereby rocking the proverbial boat of expected custom and tradition.
In Luke’s story of Jesus, Our Lord has already entered Jerusalem for his passion; he has already thrown the sellers of sacrificial beasts out of the temple where they polluted it; and already told that final and devastating parable of the wicked tenants in the vineyard – the great critique of what the Jewish hierarchy were all about. His entire ministry had been to the needy and to those who in some shape or form failed to measure up to ‘correct’ Jewish behaviour. The elite in Judaism were determined to get rid of him, and I suspect this peculiar story of the seven times bride was all part of the plot. The real clash was about life now and in eternity in the Kingdom of God, and Jesus was adamant that the treating of women as commodities here and now was an unacceptable preparation for eternal life. It was his whole understanding of what God is like which was so unpalatable to his enemies and for which he died.
Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians, (2:16-3:5), was written to a group of early Christians undergoing persecution. Now we know from other Pauline letters that his ministry and the churches he established were dogged by Judaisers, groups who insisted that to be saved in Christ the believer had to adopt the entire Jewish law. We witness their activities and the effect they had in Galatians, Colossians and Romans, and Paul’s vigorous and even violent responses to them. I suspect that the “bigoted and evil people” Paul complains about in Thessalonians were also Jews. In Greek they are described as ‘poneron’, workers of satanic wickedness, and not simply as pagans or gentiles – terms Paul normally used for those heathens who did not know God. At this early period, Christians were largely persecuted by Jews, who brought indictments against them before the pagan authorities; rather than any state intervention as happened later. All early prosecutions against Christians had to be brought by individuals who then bore the legal costs of the case. So those prosecuting had to have a real will to see things through in the courts, and most pagans at the time would not have recognised the significance of this ‘cult’, unlike Jews who did. In these circumstances, Paul writes to encourage and support fellow Christians, reminding them of Christ, their model, whose ‘fortitude’ they can emulate. In Thessalonika we read the story of the continuing battle for the faith and the price paid by one small community in northern Greece.
The story of the torture and deaths of the seven brothers in 2 Maccabees (7:1-2, 9-14), illustrates the period in the 2nd century BC when Judaism was just becoming familiar with the idea of resurrection to eternal life in God, and in which living according to the Jewish law was fundamental to that vision and hope. The Seleucid heirs of Alexander the Great, who ruled Syria and Palestine, wanted everyone to become pagans and worship the Greek gods. The Maccabees were a group who rejected this attempt at assimilation and incorporation by the Greeks, and eventually led a successful revolt against their enemies. So the accounts of their martyrs and the stance they took would have been very important both to Jews, at the time occupied by the Romans, and to Christians of the 1st century AD as they searched for an identity at once both Jewish in its origins and then passing beyond Judaism as it reached out to pagan converts with its offer of continuing life in and with God – a life beyond the confines of this world. We can see then how the Maccabean early interest in resurrection would have been of great interest to Christians. Here the seven young men are prepared to set aside all hope of continuing earthly life, and thoughts of marriage and the production of sons, in order to remain faithful to their beliefs. Indeed, it is precisely these beliefs – in eternal life with God – that sustain them and provide them with the conviction they need to battle against the whiles of their Greek masters in their bid for complete control of their lives. Sometimes there must be things, ideas, truths, for which we are prepared to die. The clothing of our baptismal rite speaks of us ‘bringing unstained into eternal life’ the Christian reborn in Christ.