April 20, 2014
I want us to look on this Easter night at the first of those readings that we heard in the semi-darkness of the Vigil. In it we heard how Abraham almost killed his only son Isaac (Genesis: 22:1-18) We see the story vividly displayed on the Church’s best Chasuble that I am wearing tonight, where Abraham is depicted raising his knife about to slay his son.
This seems a horrific story to us, so to understand it we have to put aside all our modern ideas and get into that ancient world. Think how significant Isaac was for them; the only legitimate son of Abraham, in their old age given to the previously barren Sarah. He was their posterity, the guarantee that Abraham’s blood line would go down through the ages. Remember, these people had no sense of eternal life with God after death as we have. A son, bearing your own name and your blood was essential in the ancient world. Abraham, a devout Jew by this time, was asked to give-over – to hand-over – to God everything he valued most in the world – his only son. And we see that, in obedience to God, he was willing to do this terrible thing, this thing incomprehensible to us. Actually, in the Books of the Kings we do hear of kings who sacrificed their sons, as a sign and a symbol of their devotion to the God of Israel, and, of course, the pagans did the same. The people of Israel also sacrificed every first-born animal to God and so came to substitute animals for the births of their sons, as we see in the sacrifice of pigeons by the parents of Jesus. Clearly then, the story of Abraham’s testing, his willingness to hand-over Isaac, marks this transition from old ways to new, and thus the link with Easter becomes clear.
Abraham represents faithful Israel; Israel which, unlike subsequent generations with their oft repeated rebellion against God, was faithful, faithful at great personal cost, namely, the sacrifice of an only beloved son. Abraham represents what Israel was always meant to be like, for in the ‘handing-over’ – yes the paradidomi – of his son Isaac, we see also the handing over of Abraham in his totality, in all that he is, to God. Faithful in his original call to leave Ur and embark on many journeys, during which he discovered the one true God, Abraham was faithful when it really mattered, so much so that God spared his son, replacing him with the ram caught in the bushes by its horns. Because of his fidelity to God, Abraham would be richly rewarded.
But at this point we see a great difference, for throughout its history, Israel, and indeed all of us, the whole world of which we are part, failed and still fails to be faithful to God in the way Abraham was. The whole world sits in the semi-darkness in which we have all failed God. This Holy week then, and especially this night, is a time when we relive the new eternal story, the story of a different redemption, an epic, in which the victim handed over, is not Isaac, the son of an earthly man, but is Jesus, the only Son of God, sacrificed, for the sins of the world. In this new story there is no last minute reprieve. A much bigger story has been etched out, as we have seen in the handing over of Jesus to death. There has been no happy ending, no promise made to any earthly father, only the gift to the world of God, the Heavenly Father, who allows us to do with his Beloved Son as we will.
In our Gospel tonight (Matthew 28:1-10) we hear the final moment, when the willingness of Jesus to be handed over to the wickedness and cruelty of the world is vindicated by God. This Gospel writer heralds this vindication by lots of action – even an earthquake, as the earth, ever obedient to the creator, plays its part in the Resurrection, just as it had at his death; and a stern and dazzling angel rolls the stone from the tomb. The terrified guards, we are told, were ‘like dead men’; in great and dramatic contrast to the women followers of Jesus who have come to the tomb. Fascinating isn’t it, to see women, previously non-persons and unreliable witnesses in court, given their place of honour by the Church. They see the angel and hear his message
“I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here, for he is risen, as he said he would…. He has risen from the dead and now he is going before you to Galilee; it is there you will see him.
And the women believed in what they heard and ran to tell the disciples.
But it was even better, for the Lord simply could not wait to be greeted in Galilee but rushed to meet and share his joy with the women, affirming their witness and all that they represent. It is a curiously gentle and quiet scene, in vivid contrast to the crash-bang of the angel and the unsealing of the tomb. Our Risen Lord is true to his previous personality and meets his followers as beloved friends, those he wants to share his resurrected joy with.
Here then is the final handing-over of Jesus; this time, not to pain and ignominy, but to triumph. Here he defeats all the shame which marked his the frightened denials and desertion of his followers, and the uselessness of the female witnesses at the cross. Now he stands on the road back into Jerusalem, risen to full life once more, alive, happy and able to meet and communicate and as we shall see later, even eat with his followers. Handed–over to death, he has defeated death and now can finally and in truth hand-himself over to the entire creation as their Redeemer and vindicator. And in his self-gift every one of us can also be made into what God the Father always intended us to be; perfectly one with him and the Son, and destined for eternal life. In the resurrection of Jesus you and I are now the paradidomi, handed-over to the world in his name. We are his great victory sign.
This Easter Sunday morning I hope that all of you, apart from our visitors, have noticed the change in appearance of our church here in Eynsham. No, I don’t mean the change from Good Friday, where the church itself went into mourning, with the altar stripped and bare, very different from what it is like now in its Easter finery – although I hope you noticed that too! The change I want you to think about is the restoration of the tabernacle to its original place behind the main altar at the centre of the Church.
There it is, the place where the risen Lord Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, the consecrated bread, is especially present for us at all times. Notice, I say, especially present, because of course, we believe what Jesus taught us, that he is present to us in all sorts of other ways, most of all – when we pray together – Jesus said “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I with them” (Matt 18:20) and – when we help others – Jesus said “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matt 25:40). We know too that this is the promise of the risen Jesus in every situation in life, for he said “Lo I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matt 28:20)
But we also know that he promised that he would be especially present in the Bread and Wine taken and blessed, as he told us to, at the Last Supper, the great event we celebrate at every Mass, and most of all last Thursday night. Jesus is quite clear about this. He hands them the bread, and says “This is my body” and then he says “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19) But note that his words, “in memory”, are from the Greek “anamnesis”, which does NOT mean remembering a past event, but means bringing the past event into the present.
It always astonishes me how many people say they are Christians, but do not follow this teaching. They seem to think that coming to Mass, coming to Church, is an option when they feel like it – a little entertainment for them when they feel like being a bit religious. But Jesus said quite clearly “Do this in remembrance of me” at the most crucial moment in his earthly life, as he was about to hand-himself over to his suffering and death on the cross. So he clearly did not mean – do this when you feel like it, or when you have time. Indeed he said – “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34) – a challenge we all should face every day.
So although it is absolutely true that the risen Jesus is with us at every moment of our lives – not just when we are in Church. It is also absolutely true that he calls us to acknowledge him and deepen our Communion with him, by meeting him at Mass, and by extension meeting him as he is present in a special and wonderful way for us in the Blessed Sacrament, present in the Tabernacle in every Catholic Church.
Can I ask you therefore not to take this his special presence for granted, not to get so used to the tabernacle being there that you hardly notice it.
That is why the correct thing to do when we arrive in Church, and when we leave, is to acknowledge this special presence of Jesus with our physical bodies, and not just in our minds. If you are fit, unlike me, the proper thing to do, as many of you know, is to genuflect. This literally means knee-bending, and means going down on one knee, kneeling for a moment and then getting up, often making the sign of the cross at the same time. Now if, like me, you can no longer do this safely without being in danger of falling over, then you should make what we call a profound bow. This is not just a nod of the head, but actually bowing from the waist more or less as low as you can manage.
Some Catholics do not even know why they do this when they come into Church, and if you ask them think that they are genuflecting or bowing to the altar or to the cross. But you all know, I am sure, and should be teaching others, that we do this not to worship any man-made object, but the real presence of Christ himself before us in the Blessed Sacrament in the Tabernacle. It is absolutely no use us celebrating Easter, celebrating the mystery of God with us at all times, celebrating the wonder that God in Christ has even defeated death for us through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, if we do not then show clearly that we believe this is a real presence, a real Resurrection, by what we do, not just by what we believe.
Of course that doing, that putting into practice, must mean the way we live our lives, the way we treat other people; but we must also do it by practising our religion, practising our faith. It is so easy to drift into a vague kind of Christianity, but when we do that, we are letting down Jesus. He took up his cross so that we might have life, so that we might not be luke-warm, but might follow him with all our heart and mind and body and soul. That surely is the way to celebrate Easter.
April 17, 2014
Over the next three days, I want us to meditate on an important word. In Greek, paradidomi, the original language of the New Testament. Paradidomi – it means “being handed over”, and it is a word the Bible uses, especially to describe what happened to Jesus. Literally, Jesus “was handed over”
Significantly, the first “paradidomi” was the sacrifice at the original Passover as described in our 1st Reading (Exodus 12:1-14) The perfect sheep or goat – ‘without blemish’, is handed over as a sacrifice for the people. Its blood will mark their homes so that the angel of death will pass over them. This then becomes their founding moment. The moment when they are set free from slavery in Egypt to be the People of God.
The actions and imagery of this first sacrifice, the slaughter of the lambs, will shape and model all Jewish practice. So, as the Passover sacrifice was celebrated by Jesus just before his passion, it shaped his understanding of his actions as Saviour of the world.
Then from our 2nd Reading (1 Cor 11;23-26) we heard of the ‘handing-over’ that Jesus enacted, and it is clear that the earliest Christian communities in Palestine and Syria understood this, and faithfully carried out Jesus’ instructions, to meet him and be one with him precisely by repeating his words over the bread and wine.
‘This is my body, which is for you; ….This cup is the new covenant in my blood…… Until the Lord comes, therefore, every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming his death.
We Christians are not therefore just remembering a past event at Mass, we are there at the Passover with the Lord, who literally handed-himself-over to the world, to his enemies for death, and to his Church, as the one, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. We do not call to mind a dead event. We are Passover people, remade and reshaped by the handing over of our Lord and Master. We are ‘made’ by his self-sacrifice, his being handed over.
But if we are to be those of the handed-over community, totally one with the Lord, how do we understand it? In tonight’s Gospel (John 13:1-15) we experience his washing of the feet of his disciples, precisely as a prelude to his being handed over to death. It was the job of the lowliest slave, the most marginalised in any household. Slaves had no rights, no choices. They could be bought and sold at the whim of their owners, physically and sexually abused at their whim, and even killed without recourse to any justice. Jesus takes this role upon himself, a prefiguring of the helplessness which will be his during the grinding agony of his passion.
How do his followers react? First they say it’s not a suitable task for their Master and Teacher; and then go overboard in the opposite direction, as Peter says, “not only my feet but my hands and head as well” – his entire body. Peter, representing the 12, totally fails to understand what Jesus is doing, or what this implies for his followers. Above all, we note that Jesus also washed the feet of Judas Iscariot, his betrayer, the one who organised his “handing over.”(See Matthew 26:2 and 27:2)
Think for a moment of the actions of every Catholic priest, from the Pope down, who washes feet on this night. It is an ungainly task, difficult for the old and wobbly, embarrassing for those whose feet are to be washed. It is also traditional for the priest to kiss the washed feet. Let us meditate for a while on that experience – of humility for the priests – and the experience of those being washed.
Very few grown adults nowadays are ever washed by someone else. So this is a moment of extreme vulnerability. They “hand-over” their body to the priest. Those washed are also ‘given-over’ into the hands of others. Like tiny children, or the totally incapacitated, they become fragile, vulnerable. So this time must be for all of us, not just for those having their feet washed, as it was for Jesus, a time of great significance. With God, all our barriers are down. Like a slave, we have no means of hiding or protecting ourselves. We too are among those ‘paradidomi’ – handed-over ones. It is a humbling time, to be close to Jesus – to enter into his passion and death in a way that is personal and profound.
Then, at the end of Mass, we are reminded that this was a free choice. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus could have changed his mind. He could have slipped away before Judas came with the soldiers, and gone back to the comparative safety of his home area of Galilee in the north. But no, what he has chosen to do when he washes the feet of his friends, he puts into action, allowing his arrest to take place.
So we remember tonight the agony of all this. We aim, as best we can, to be one with him in his death, so that we may be one with him in his Resurrection. We aim, as best we can, to offer ourselves to him, to hand over our lives to him, so that our life is a life of service to others – to love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and soul, with all our being. He gave us our lives, and we try, as we follow Jesus, to hand over our lives – to him.
We have just heard in our 1st reading from Isaiah (52:13-53:12.) some searingly beautiful poetry and appalling imagery “Who could believe what we have heard… without beauty, without majesty (we saw him) … a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering. Yes ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrows he carried.” These words originally referred to the suffering of exiled Israel, but are now used by the Church to image the suffering of Jesus, as we once more reflect on the meaning of this paradidomi, this handing-over, which is the suffering and death of Jesus. To abuse; to suffer; to be the sacrifice; the scapegoat for the sin of the world; we can, we must, with the crowds, be appalled by what happened to him and so we choose to be taken on this agonised journey with him which achieves our redemption.
It is a picture of suffering with which we are all now very familiar from our TV screens and is lived out daily in countries at war. The victim, here, Christ will always be fragile, alone, and by the time the world has done its worst, “Without beauty, without majesty. So disfigured did he look that he seemed no longer human.”
But we are people who like to control our own destinies – the idea that someone else and especially God the Son should do this for us and on our behalf is difficult for us. We don’t think that we actually need to be redeemed! Surely our sins aren’t that significant? But Isaiah, writing for Israel 2600 years ago, did understand that we do in fact require someone, the perfect sacrifice to be handed-over, to stand-in for the failings of us all, of our world. “On him lies a punishment that brings us peace….”.
Just when we rightly despair that the world will ever get any better, we see in the final lines of our poem what the truth really is; what we cannot achieve, this Suffering Servant of God has gained for us.” For surrendering himself to death and letting himself be taken for a sinner, while he was bearing the faults of many and praying all the time for sinners.
And then we heard the great reading of the whole story of his Passion from St John (18:1-19:42.)
Have you ever stopped to think what a contrast there is in this account, between Jesus and the vast majority of the others who play a role in this great drama? The handed-over one, the one remember who in John’s gospel is the Word of God the Father, made flesh; the one responsible for the entire creation and the one who is himself One with the Father; utterly open to the mind of the Father, and whose heart and soul is totally transparent to God, becomes the victim of human spite and aggression.
I am struck by the slow build up of petty abuse and cruelties: Judas’ betrayal; Peter’s futile attempt at defence; the fear of the soldiers rapidly followed by the slap in the face of one of the temple soldiers. We get the mean spirited denial of Peter. Then we meet the Jewish temple authorities with their refusal to enter the Praetorium – lest they become defiled and ineligible to celebrate Passover. Well, we don’t want to be contaminated, do we! Then we get Pilate’s conviction that Jesus has no real case to answer, and his three-fold declaration of his innocence, only to be pushed aside when the Jewish authorities threaten to report him (well known as a corrupt official), to Caesar, at which point; to save his own miserable skin; this man, Rome’s representative and power in Palestine, crumbles and allows Jesus to be crucified.
Pilate, defeated but redolent with malice responds by getting the Jews to admit the power of Rome and renounce their ancient Davidic birthright, we have no king but Caesar, and he will rub in their ultimate dependency by refusing to alter the ironic inscription on the cross, The King of the Jews.
Cruelty is always like this, isn’t it? It begins with the minor slap, and then turns into a full scale assault on a wife or child; the boys night out that ends with the drunken attack on an innocent bystander; war zones where the petty power of the soldier with the gun has the power to rape or kill at random; acts of violence undertaken in groups where no one takes responsibility and everyone is so easily led – be it book-burnings by the Nazis, the horrors of the Reformation, or the Rwandan genocide. Those paradidomi, handed over into such hells have no voice, no one speaks for them.
In the end of course, the soldiers responsible for the crucifixion were ‘merely doing their duty’, faceless irresponsible, grey characters, their deed so awful, and here so briefly described by John, “They crucified him”, a phrase encompassing excruciating pain and hours of slow agonising death. We note that the only loyal onlookers are women – of no importance, and John, merely a kid They didn’t count.
Then, the merciful and inevitable death; after which everyone can afford to be generous. Jews facing Preparation Day for Passover want things cleaned up; Pilate can grant the body to Joseph because it no longer matters; and our two, Joseph and Nicodemus; previously clandestine followers, are given the dead body and can bury it in lavish style. Finally, buried with spices sufficient for the burial of a king, the King of the Universe gets his due. Finally he is handed over into the arms of his grieving mother and into the arms of God, the God who alone will recognise that this is the perfect sacrifice that redeems the world.
April 13, 2014
I heard a story the other day of a Christian who had a friend who was a good devout Muslim. The Muslim asked his friend if he could go to Church with him so that he could see understand better what Christians do when they pray. So he came, and with his friend to help him, knelt in prayer and stood in praise throughout the service. Afterwards the Christian could see that his Muslim friend was puzzled by what he had seen and wondered what it could be that had confused him so much, so he asked him to explain.
The Muslim said “I thought that Christians believed that Jesus Christ was God?” “Yes we do”, came the reply. “And there in Church, I heard it said that Jesus was actually present among you as you prayed?” “Why yes, definitely” said his Christina friend. “What I don’t understand therefore” said the Muslim, “What I find confusing. Is why you ever get up off your knees? If I believed that God, that Allah, was that close, I would not just be on my knees, I would be flat on my face, and I do not think I would ever be able to stand up again.”
This conversation reminds us Christians how easily we take God for granted, how easily we forget how extraordinary our faith is. We do not just say that God exists, that this great Universe has a Creator. So far we are at one with the Muslims, but we say something that if we really thought about it is just mind-boggling. We say, that God, the God who is beyond and behind all that is, a power beyond all imagining, chose to come close to us, chose to become the man Jesus of Nazareth. But then we say something even more amazing. We say that in this one man, God chose to take on himself all the suffering and sadness of our human world, to suffer and to die in the most brutal and horrible way imaginable – for us.
And then we go further still, we say that this Jesus who died for us, who was God with us, is now alive and with us today, is close to us in everything we are and everything we do. We say that the death of Jesus is God suffering and dying for us now, not just in the past, but present with us now, loving us, supporting us, standing by us, whatever we have to face. This is the Easter message, that his death was not just a sad moment in the past, but a definitive action by God that is eternal, that exists for every single human being. As Jesus dies on the Cross, he is God offering himself to us. “Amazing lovehow can it be That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”
In Catholic Churches on Good Friday, the priest actually does what the Muslim suggests should be the response of everyone to this amazing belief. He lies face down on the ground in humble adoration. But then he gets up, as all we Christians do, because Jesus comes to us as a living presence and says “Get up and walk with me, for now you are no longer a servant of God, but I call you my friend.”
April 11, 2014
Frances’ thoughts for Holy Week and Easter :-
Easter Triduum 2014
The theme of the 3 days is Paradidomi – the handing over of Jesus.
Holy Thursday: Paradidomi Jesus gives himself over to the world.
Exodus 12:1-8; 11-14
The first, and for Jews the only Passover – anamnesis (being at that one original sacrifice). The perfect sheep or goat – ‘without blemish’. The animals handed over as sacrifice for the people and whose blood will mark their homes so that the destroying power of God will bypass the Israelite homes. This sacrifice then becomes their founding moment from which they are set free from slavery in Egypt to be the People of God.
The actions and imagery of this first sacrifice, the slaughter of the lambs will shape and model all Jewish practice and as the Passover sacrifice was celebrated by Jesus just before his passion would shape his understanding of his actions as Saviour of the world.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26.
The earliest written account of the Eucharist. ‘I received…and in turn passed on’. Paul became part of a community of anamnesis; of entering into the founding moment of Christian salvation. Whilst he was not there at Jesus’ Last Supper and the ‘handing-over’ that he enacted it is clear that for the earliest Christian communities in Palestine and Syria understood this and faithfully carried out Jesus’ instructions to meet him and be one with him precisely by repeating his words over the bread and wine.
‘This is my body, which is for you; do this as a memorial (anamnesis) of me….This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Whenever you drink it, do it as a memorial (anamnesis) of me’. Until the Lord comes, therefore, every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming his death.
Christians were not therefore just remembering a passed event, nor simply informing others, they were there at the Passover with the Lord who literally handed-himself-over to the world, to his enemies for death and to his Church as the once, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. We do not call to mind a dead event, we are Passover people, remade and reshaped by the handing over of our Lord and Master. We are ‘made’ by his self-sacrifice, his being handed over.
But if we are to be those of the handed-over community, totally one with the Lord, how do we understand it?
In John’s gospel we experience his washing of the feet of his disciples precisely as a prelude to his being handed over to death. It was the job of the lowliest slave, the most marginalised in any household. Slaves had no rights, no choices. They could be bought and sold at the whim of their owners, physically and sexually abused at their whim and even killed without recourse to any justice. Jesus takes this role upon himself, a prefiguring of the helplessness which will be his during the grinding agony of his passion.
How do his followers react – it’s not a suitable task for their Master and Teacher; or then not just feet but their entire bodies: Peter representing the 12 totally fails to understand what Jesus is doing or what this implies for his followers. Above all, we note that Jesus also washed the feet of Iscariot, his betrayer.
We need to reflect on the actions of every Catholic priest, from the Pope down who washes feet on this night. It is an ungainly task, difficult for the old and wobbly, embarrassing for those whose feet are to be washed. It is traditional for the priests to kiss the washed feet. Let us meditate a while on that experience of humility for the priests and the experience of those washed. Very few grown adults now will be ministered to in this way. These are moments of extreme vulnerability. Those washed are also ‘given-over’ into the hands of others, like tiny children or the totally incapacitated they become fragile, vulnerable. This time must be for us all, as it was for Jesus a time of great vulnerability, when all our barriers are down. Like the slave, we have no means of hiding or protecting ourselves. We too are among those ‘paradidomi’ handed-over ones; it is a humbling time, as we are close to Jesus and called to enter into his passion and death in a way that is personal and profound.
Good Friday: Paradidomi, the Handing-over of Jesus to his Passion and Death.
As we read this passage with its searingly beautiful poetry and appalling imagery, originally referring to the suffering of exiled Israel and now used by the Church to image the suffering of Jesus we once more reflect on the meaning of his being handed-over: To abuse; to suffering; to be the sacrifice, the scapegoat for the sin of the world; we can with the crowds be appalled by what happened to him and we will be taken on his agonised journey which achieves our redemption.
It is a picture of suffering with which we are all now very familiar from our TV screens and is lived out daily in countries at war. The victim, here Christ will always be fragile, alone, and by the time the world has done its worst, without beauty, without majesty. So disfigured did he look that he seemed no longer human.
But we are people who like to control our own destinies – the idea that someone else and especially God the Son should do this for us and on our behalf is difficult for us. We don’t think that we actually need to be redeemed – surely our sins aren’t that significant? But Isaiah, writing for Israel 26 centuries ago did understand that we do in fact require someone, the perfect sacrifice to be handed-over, to stand-in for the failings of us all, of our world. On him lies a punishment that brings us peace…..
Just when we rightly despair that the world will ever get any better, we see in the final lines of our poem what the truth really is; what we cannot achieve, this Suffering Servant of God has gained for us. For surrendering himself to death and letting himself be taken for a sinner, while he was bearing the faults of many and praying all the time for sinners.
This message is surely echoed in our reading from Hebrews 4:14-16,
Paradidomi: The Passion of the Lord according to John.
Have you ever stopped to think what a contrast there is in this gospel passion between Jesus and the vast majority of the others who play a role in this great drama? The handed-over one, the one remember who in John’s gospel is the Word of God the Father, made flesh; the one responsible for the entire creation and the one who is himself One with the Father; utterly open to the mind of the Father, and whose heart and soul is totally transparent to God becomes the victim of human spite and aggression.
I am struck by the slow build up of petty abuse and cruelties: Judas’ betrayal; Peter’s futile attempt at defence; the fear of the soldiers rapidly followed by the slap in the face of one of the temple soldiers. We get the mean spirited denial of Peter. Then we meet the Jewish temple authorities with their refusal to enter the Praetorium – least they become defiled and ineligible to celebrate Passover. Well, we don’t want to be contaminated, do we! We get Pilate’s conviction that Jesus has no real case to answer and his three-fold declaration of his innocence only to be pushed aside when the Jewish authorities threaten to report him (well known as a corrupt official), to Caesar, at which point; to save his own miserable skin; this man, Rome’s representative and power in Palestine crumbles and allows Jesus to be crucified. Pilate, defeated but redolent with malice responds by getting the Jews to admit the power of Rome and renounce their ancient Davidic birthright, we have no king but Caesar, and he will rub in their ultimate dependency by refusing to alter the ironic inscription on the cross, The King of the Jews.
Cruelty is always like this, isn’t it? It begins with the minor slap that turns into full scale assault on a wife or child; the boys night out that ends with the drunken attack on an innocent bystander; war zones where the petty power of the soldier with the gun has the power to rape or kill at random; acts of violence undertaken in groups where no one takes responsibility and everyone is so easily led be it books burnings by the Nazis, the horrors of the Reformation or the Rwandan genocide. Those paradidomi, handed over into such hells have no voice, no one speaks for them.
In the end of course, the soldiers responsible for the crucifixion were ‘merely doing their duty’, faceless irresponsible, grey characters, their deed so awful, and here so briefly described nu John, they crucified him, a phrase encompassing excruciating pain and hours of slow agonising death. We note that the only loyal onlookers are women – of no importance and John, merely a kid, they didn’t count.
Then, the merciful and inevitable death; after which everyone can afford to be generous. Jews facing Preparation Day for Passover want things cleaned up; Pilate can grant the body to Joseph because it no longer matters; and our two, Joseph and Nicodemus; previously clandestine followers are given the dead body and can bury it in lavish style. Finally, buried with spices sufficient for the burial of a king, the King of the Universe gets his due. Finally he is handed over into the arms of his grieving mother and into the arms of God, the one who will recognise his perfect sacrifice.
Holy Saturday: paradidomi handed over to victory.
Genesis: 22:1-18 The ‘sacrifice of Isaac’.
We have to put aside all our modern notions to get under the skin of this story, which has a long history and many implications. Just think for a moment how significant Isaac was; the son in their old age given to the previously barren Sara and the legitimate son of Abraham. He was their posterity, the guarantee that Abraham’s blood line would go down through the ages. Remember, these people had no sense of eternal life with God after death. A son, bearing your own name and your blood was essential in the ancient world. Abraham, a devout Jew by this time was asked to give-over to God everything he valued most in the world – his only son. We see that in obedience to God he was willing to do this terrible thing, this thing incomprehensible to us. Yet, in the Books of the Kings we do hear of kings who sacrificed their sons under the foundations of their cities, Jericho, in particular; a sign and symbol of their devotion to the God of Israel, and no doubt so did the pagans too. Israel also made sacrifice of every first-born animal to God and substituted animals for the births of their sons later, as we see in the sacrifice of pigeons by the parents of Jesus. Clearly then, the story of Abraham’s testing and willingness to hand-over Isaac marks this transition from old ways to new. Within this blood-curdling story however we see, as the compilers of our lectionary no doubt intended, as parallel and a message.
Abraham represents faithful Israel; Israel which, unlike subsequent generations, with their oft repeated rebellion against God, was faithful; faithful at great personal cost, namely, the sacrifice of an only and beloved son. Abraham represents what Israel was always meant to be like, for in the ‘handing-over’ of his son Isaac, surely we see also the handing over of Abraham in his totality, in all that he is to God. Faithful in his original call to leave Ur and embark on many journeys and during which time he discovered the one true God, Abraham was faithful when it really mattered, so much so that God spared his son, replacing him with the ram caught in the bushes by its horns. Because of his fidelity to God Abraham would be richly rewarded.
But at this point the parallel breaks down, for throughout its history Israel, and indeed, the world failed in fidelity to God. We have embarked this Holy week on a story of redemption, an epic, in which the victim is not the son of an earthly man, but God the Son, sacrificed, for the sins of the world. In this story there has been no last minute reprieve, for a much bigger story has been etched out as we have seen in the handing over of Jesus to death. There has been no happy ending, no promise made to any earthly father, only the gift to the world of the Heavenly Father who allows us to do with his Beloved Son as we will.
Gospel Matthew 28:1-10.
And there we have it, the final moment, Jesus’ vindication by God. Being Matthew’s account it is heralded by lots of action – seismic activity, as the earth, ever obedient to the creator plays its part in the resurrection, just as it had at his death and a stern and dazzling angel rolls the stone from the tomb. The terrified guards, we are told, were ‘like dead men’; in great and dramatic contrast to the women followers of Jesus who have come to the tomb. Suddenly we see women, previously non-persons, and unreliable witnesses in court given their place of honour, respected, trusted and recognised by the Church. They see the angel and hear his message
I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.
He is not here, for he is risen, as he said he would…. He has risen from the dead and now he is going before you to Galilee; it is there you will see him.
We are told that the women believed and ran to tell the disciples.
But it was even better, for the Lord simply could not wait to be greeted in Galilee but rushed to meet and share his joy with the women, affirming their witness and all that they represent. It is a curiously gentle and quiet scene, in vivid contrast to the crash-bangs of the angel and the unsealing of the tomb, for our risen Lord is true to his previous personality and meets his followers as beloved friends, those he wants to share his resurrected joy with.
Here then is the final handing-over of Jesus; this time, not to pain and ignominy, but in triumph. Here he defeats all the shame which marked his followers frightened denials and desertion and the uselessness of the female witness at the cross, for there he stands, on the road back into Jerusalem, risen to full bodily life once more, alive, happy and able to meet and communicate and as we shall see and even eat with his followers. Handed–over to death he has defeated death and now can finally and in truth give-himself over to the entire creation, its redeemer and vindicator and in his self-gift every one of us can at last be made into what God the Father always intended us to be; perfectly one with him and the Son and destined for eternal life. In the resurrection of Jesus you and I are now paradidomi, handed-over the world in his name, we are his great victory sign.
April 6, 2014
HOMILY for THE 5th SUNDAY OF LENT
It is important that we all realise that the Death and Resurrection of Jesus that we are about to celebrate is not just an event in history. It is that, of course. It is history. It is an amazing series of events, events that even non-believers have to admit - changed the world for better or for worse - according to their opinion about the benefits or otherwise of Christianity. As Christians, we claim what Jesus says in our Gospel today (John 11:1-45) – that anyone who believes in him is brought into a special relationship with God that we call “eternal life.” And we mean by that what Jesus clearly meant, a “life” that both affects us now, but also takes us on, to be with God eternally, beyond our physical death. So Jesus says “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” – which obviously means that although we will die physically, as he does, the life, the eternal life, we have with him, cannot be destroyed.
However, I was asked a very good question the other day. No, not the one about people who are not Christians. As I’ve explained previously, the Church teaches that God’s offer of eternal life extends beyond those who explicitly believe, even though we would say that explicit belief in Jesus, belonging to the Church, is the better way. No, the question was this. What about all the people who lived before Jesus? How can they be saved, brought into eternal life, by something that happened after they died?
Now the clue to the answer lies in our 2nd Reading, (Romans 8:8-11) where Paul tells us to think about things spiritually. If we just think about the death of Christ in a worldly way – an unspiritual way – then we’ll never find the answer to this question. This is because, as I said earlier, looked at that way, Jesus’ death is just an event in history, and nothing more. Looked at spiritually however, the death of Jesus is also an action of God himself, who is outside time and space. That’s why we, 2000 years later, can still be linked to that event, still bring that event, because it is eternal, into our present. This happens most especially, as Paul tells us, when we celebrate Mass. He writes,“Whenever you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Cor 11:26) By which he means, that when we celebrate the Mass we make Christ’s death and resurrection present here and now. It is no longer just a past event to be thought about, but a present reality to be experienced, an event, a real presence for us now.
Now we can also apply this, in a different way, to those who lived before Jesus. Since all that Jesus does to save the world is an eternal event, it can also be present for all those who lived before the historical Jesus was born. Paul says this just before the bit I have told you about the Mass. He says, of the people of Israel way back 2000 years or so before Christ, nomads in the desert, that the water found for them by Moses in the rock, was an experience of Christ. He writes, “They drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” (1 Cor 10:4)
Now looked at in purely human terms, the idea that Jesus was there 2000 years before he was born, is just crazy. But that is to think about it unspiritually. If we remember that the Jesus of history is also the eternal God outside time, then we begin to see what Paul was getting at. Just as Jesus is present for us now at Mass, so he was present for people before he was born in all sorts of hidden ways, so that every time someone was moved, with love and compassion for example, they were experiencing the eternal God who was and is Christ at work amongst them.
This is why St John in his Gospel emphasises what we call the “I am” statements made by Jesus. We had one today. Martha believes that people will be given eternal life at the end of time, but Jesus contradicts her saying, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” which means his eternal life is given now. In another place he says, for example, “I am the Bread of life” linking us to what I was just saying about Mass. But most of all, in a conflict with some of those who oppose him, and before he has spoken to Martha, he says “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58) Of course, we also heard the same message at Christmas, when we heard Jesus described as “The Word” who was “in the beginning with God.”
This understanding that the Jesus of history is also the eternal God, is so important for us particularly as we look on beyond the conversation with Martha to the point where Jesus comes to the grave of his friend. We too face the tragedy of sadness and death at various times in our life, and are moved to hear that when it happened to Jesus, he “wept”, and that he spoke “with a sigh that came straight from the heart”. Now that rings bells with us, doesn’t it, because it is exactly what we do when faced with a similar sadness. But here again we must remember who he is, if we are to receive the full power of this. He is not just a man, he is also God. So when he weeps and sighs, it is not just a man, but also God who weeps and sighs eternally for all the sadness and grief that we humans face. It reminds us powerfully that we are never alone, that he is always with us and alongside us, in our joys yes, but also in our sorrows. And that he has always been and will always be present for all people who need him, giving them love and strength to face all that life here and now flings at them.
This is the heart of the Christian message, that the Jesus, whose death and resurrection we will commemorate, especially in the Holy Week that begins next Sunday, is also the eternal God entering into our human history to declare that he is present in all history “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”
April 4, 2014
Frances writes on this weekend’s readings :- Why, just before we celebrate the Lord’s Passion, should we be given this story of the raising from the dead of Lazarus? (Jn 11:1-45). Are we meant to see it as an allegory or image of Jesus’ own passion? If this is the case, how does it help us to understand that death and resurrection, for there are significant differences between the two and the implications of Jesus’ own resurrection would anyway be quite different.
Perhaps we need to start with John’s carefully laid scene, in which we are told details of the family of Lazarus and his sisters; the place, so close to Jerusalem and the Lord’s own passion; and above all, of the intense affection Jesus had for this trio. In giving us this material, surely John wants us to identify and understand what is happening; for he never just idly throws in details and those details give us hints of the significance of this supreme miracle – the raising of one dead to life and of its implications for Judaism.
Then there are the accounts of the behaviour of different people. First, the typical cluelessness of the disciples; their fear for the Lord, lest by returning to Judaea he should fall foul of the authorities who recently hounded him out of the area. They want to shield and protect him – he wants to face the Jewish authorities; the time for the show-down has come! Hence the elliptical statement about there being 12 hours in the day when one can see and the night in which one can’t, ‘without the light’. Already in John 8 Jesus had told them “I am the light of the world.” The time for him to act decisively has come and he wants to challenge the authorities! The disciples don’t understand that Lazarus is actually dead, so Jesus has to spell it out, at which point Thomas wants everyone to go up to Judaea and face the authorities, ‘to die with him’, presumably with Jesus who is in danger and an over bold statement for one who would later deny the resurrection until he had actually felt the places of the nails on Jesus’ risen body, and clearly didn’t really know what he was talking about.
Is this then a story about the gradual development of understanding and belief in the resurrection of Jesus; a story which begins with Lazarus and will only end with the much more dramatic return from death of Jesus and the beginning of the Christian community, the community of the resurrection?
Clearly the two stories differ significantly, for Lazarus would anyway die again, indeed the Jewish authorities would seek to murder him precisely because he was such a potent witness to Jesus’ power beyond death. And Jesus, as we know, was raised from the dead to live eternally and give eternal life to all. Yet resurrection ‘on the last day’, as Martha puts it, was widely accepted by Jews at this period, so why was that of Lazarus, and indeed Jesus so significant? Of course, those responsible for the death of Jesus, the Sadducees some of whom were the High Priestly family, did not accept resurrection in any shape or form, so we can see why Lazarus would have been such a problem. The majority however clearly believed in some form of ‘eternal life’ with God, but, from what we know of Jesus’ teaching, quite clearly he taught a much more intimate and lively relationship than anything most Jews believed in, as we know from Paul, we are to be made ‘heirs of God’; ‘sharers in the divine nature’.
Jesus’ conversation with Martha seems to point to the crux of the difficulty. She speaks of the resurrection of believers ‘on the last day’, but Jesus takes this belief onto an entirely new plane: “I am (the divine name) the resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Thus believers in him ‘live’ whether alive or dead.
Jesus claims that in his own being, even now he has power over eternal life with God. Martha acclaims him as the Messiah, the one from God who would bring in God’s full reign on earth with all its implications in the here and now for his followers. For Jews awaiting the eschaton, the full reign of God on earth, were looking for real and material benefits in the near future, here and now on earth, and not in some far distant ghostly paradise.
Something momentous and very un-Jewish is going on, but at that point we do not quite see what it is. Everything is still left at the level of promise and expectation. But when faced with the much more raw grief of Mary things change. Jesus has spoken of his power as “I am the resurrection and the life”, now we see what that implies, as, moved by pity, he responds to Mary’s grief by raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus can and does overrule the barriers between life and death and returns Lazarus to full bodily life then and there, and by so doing speaks eloquently of his own bodily resurrection which will come about after his passion and death. In his actions, by his prayer to the Father, the ultimate glory of God is to be revealed in the Son who can raise from the dead a beloved brother and will himself rise to confound both his and God’s enemies and the power of evil.
We have come a long way from Ezekiel’s promise (Ezek 37:12-14) of hope of return to their homeland to the exiles of the Babylonian conquest in the 6th century BC. Back then, no one even believed in resurrection to eternal life, and one’s only hope was in the future, through one’s children, and the prophet gives a heartening message to the exiles. In this reading then, we find a hint of the long, long journey to God which will find its end in the resurrection of Christ. St Paul too, (Romans 8:8-11), writing from the other side of the Resurrection, reminds the Christians of Rome of the need to live their lives within the dimension of the spirit, the spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, and is even now living in them/us, despite the deadness of parts of our lives. We too, like the Roman Christians, need to remember that we are already, through the spirit, children of the resurrection.
March 30, 2014
I was sitting saying my prayers the other day, and I suddenly realised that I needed to thank God for my mother! Crazy really, because I often think of her with thankfulness and love, but somehow I felt I had never really turned this into thanking God – from whom all good things come. Actually it came up in my prayers, because I was preparing for my Confession which was later that morning, and as you may know, preparing for Confession, is just as important as actually making it, although not quite as important as hearing from the priest that God loves me and forgives me!
Strangely, I got another revelation later that same day. Straight after making my Confession, I shot off to Leamington to an overnight Conference for priests, and there heard a talk by a priest who has been asked to prepare the case for proposing that GK Chesterton should be made an official saint!
I have a feeling that he would find the idea that he should be called a saint more than a little amusing, but here is the quote “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”
As you can imagine, it was swimming that caught my attention. How awful that until now I never thought of saying grace, thanking God, before I jump in the swimming pool most mornings! Yet I regularly say to youngsters who play football, “Remember to thank God, because without God, there wouldn’t be any football.” How typically human to hand out advice to others, and forget to apply it to myself!
Now what has all this got to do with today’s readings? Well, quite a lot actually, because all the readings are about learning to see more clearly. Look at what happens when Jesus heals the blind man. (John 9:1-41) Most of the story is not about physical healing at all, but about the conflict that follows between the Pharisees, who think they know everything and can tell others how to live their lives, and the blind man who can now see; and of course with Jesus. As Jesus says very sharply at the end : “Blind? If you were you would not be guilty, but since you say “We see”, your guilt remains.”
The other two readings make the same point. Samuel has to be told (1 Sam 16:1-13) that “God does not see as man sees; man looks at appearances, but God looks at the heart.” Then we heard St Paul say (Ephesians 5:8-14) that we must be like children of the light; which means that we must try to see things in God’s way, using his light, because only then can we discover what God wants of us.
“But what does God want of me?” you might well ask. Well, look at my experience last week. It wasn’t to preach at you about how wonderful mothers are, or that you should thank God for football. No, it was to apply these lessons to myself – to remember to thank God for my mother, and to remember to thank God for the ordinary fun things in my life, that I too easily take for granted.
This is one of the dangers that we Catholics do so easily get into, isn’t it? How easily it appears that, like the Pharisees, we tell other people how to behave, as if we were perfect and everyone else wasn’t! I know that’s not what we mean to do, but that is what we are accused of when we say, for example, that Gay Marriage should not be the same as ordinary Marriage, or that dishing out the morning after Pill to teenagers is not a good idea. It’s so difficult isn’t it? Not just for us, but even more difficult for our Bishops and for the Pope. Clearly the Church is called to teach what we believe is right and good for all people, but always we have to apply the medicine first to ourselves.
That’s one of the things Pope Francis has been trying to do, hasn’t he? He says that it is no good making moral pronouncements if they are made outside the context of God’s love and mercy. It is so important therefore for us to convey to the world that when we say something that someone does is wrong, we do not mean that we condemn or judge the person who does it. If we thought that then we would have to condemn everyone! For all of us do wrong, or to put it another way, we “all fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and need his grace and mercy. It is surely the words “we” and “all” that are so important here. Something we should all remember. Beware of saying “they” and “them” or “you” and “your”, of blaming others! Always, as Jesus said, (Matthew 7:3-5) look for the block in our own eyes rather than the speck of dust in someone else’s.
It all reminds us how hard it is to be a Christian, doesn’t it, or at least to be a public Christian, a public Catholic. That’s surely why most people sadly keep the fact that they are a Catholic as quiet as possible. We have however one advantage at the moment. Confession time is upon us, and telling people you are going to make your Confession is always a good way of sharing your faith with others without condemning anyone. We can even turn it into a bit of a joke against ourselves, and in doing so gently share the Gospel with others. Lots of laughter about how easily we get irritated with the people we work with or live with, how easily we start making cracks against people behind their backs, how easily we are tempted by the latest thing in the shops, that dress, that latest tekkie gadget or computer game. How easily we eat too many biscuits! Confession then is not just good for us, it is also a good way of sharing the Gospel that God loves us, even when we find it hard to love ourselves!
March 28, 2014
Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- St John has a predilection for complicated stories about Jesus which reflect upon his career and the progress of it which led to the cross. Someone recently asked me how John knew all these details. It could of course simply be that he was there; or, much rather; as John was writing in the 80’s, some 50 years after the resurrection, and we know had a highly developed understanding of Jesus, that he took some incidents he remembered from that extraordinary life and built them into his highly developed theology of Jesus. After all, pictures can paint a more memorable understanding for most of us where words fail. John’s writing also reflects the situation in the Church after the time of Christ.
Our story (John 9:1-41) is not primarily about the healing of a man born blind, remarkable as that is; but much more a tale of prejudice and rigid and unthinking religious attitudes. It is of course, being John’s account, not devoid of humour and a sense of the ridiculous. After all, who would not rave and be amazed by the healing of one blind from birth, and be equally stunned by the reaction of the Pharisees who were enraged that this healing took place on the Sabbath, and therefore concluded it must be discounted, not possibly the work of God. Pharisees were those who wanted all Jews to live according to the strict rules laid down for the temple priests, following all the minutiae of the law. Imagine therefore their horror when Jesus performs this miracle on the Sabbath, infringing the 10 Commandments supposedly given to Moses by God!
Both Jesus and John (and perhaps the Pharisees) would have remembered the earlier and equally scandalous story of the prophet Elijah and the healing of the leper Naaman, the foreign general whose troops occupied Palestine and conquered the land.(2 Kings 5) This too speaks of God’s power to break out of the narrow confines we humans set for him. The healed man indeed acclaims Jesus precisely as ‘a prophet,’ just like Elijah. This is all drawn out by John’s use of the lengths everybody goes to in an attempt to get out of the apparent dilemma caused by the healing; some claiming the healed man only ‘looks like’ the one born blind whilst the man’s parents, fearful of the reaction of powerful vested interests and exclusion from their synagogue, resort to the excuse, ‘He’s of age, ask him.’ This comment, so reminiscent of the buck passing of Adam and Eve, should alert us to what is going on. After all, remember, this is when their son, blind from birth has been healed!! Clearly in a society ruled by fear even the most earth shattering events, the most glorious revelations of God, can be greeted with denial and hopeless rejection. Many scholars indeed think that this part of the story reflects the Jewish curse on the Minim, the Christians in effect, which dates from 88AD and is one of many signs in this gospel of intractable division between Jews and Christians by this time.
But the Jews apparently persist, insisting that Jesus is a sinner, one who breaks the law and they confront the newly sighted man who simply points to the healing miracle. If the healer is indeed a sinner, how come he can do the works of God, perhaps they too would like to become his disciples? Here then we come to the crux of the matter, which is about the meaning of our faith and how we practise it. It is possible for any of us to be so blinded by the minutiae of our belief as to allow its rules, which are there for our benefit, to become so all consuming that they actually no longer guide but dominate and obscure our real appreciation of our faith. From such an approach springs a narrow biblical literalism and fundamentalism which brooks no imagination; stretches no rule in the interest of charity or human kindness. The sort of thing which leads a person to refuse to help someone when they are on the way to Mass in case they might be late; or which excludes people of different faith or denomination from among our circle of friends; or, as has happened recently where a bishop has called for MP’s who voted in favour of ‘Gay’ marriage to be excommunicated, indicating that they are not free to determine their Parliamentary vote because of their Catholic belief.
Jesus, and indeed John here his biographer, plays with this whole question of what belief in God is about in the midst of the maze of the scandalising implications of Jesus and the challenge he posed to Judaism, to its temple, its law and its way of life. We may like to think that these are old issues, long answered by the move of Christianity away from Judaism, but the fact remains that they are not, and are issues which still haunt us to this day.
Our reading from Paul (Ephesians 5:8-14) written by one who, remember, had made that great leap from Pharisaic Judaism to faith in Jesus, or as he puts it from dark to light in the Lord, is equally telling. What he wanted the Christians of pagan Ephesus to grasp were the infinite possibilities of their belief in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and total transformation of their lives real belief implied and he seems to imply that this is what it will mean for all of us, anything illuminated turns into light.
When the prophet Samuel (1 Sam 16:6-7.10-13) chose David to be anointed king of Israel a similarly divinely appointed selection occurs, to the scandal of the family of Jesse. Traditionally, as we see, the prophet should have chosen the eldest son, and indeed, nearly did. He looked the right sort of man, and society would have accepted his choice. Yet Samuel does not choose him, nor indeed any of the elder brothers, but David, so insignificant that he was not even at home to greet the prophet but stuck out in the country with the sheep, a very unprepossessing task, and definitely not respectable for Jews. God, as we see, does not do the expected thing, and the Incarnation was definitely the last straw, but it was and is God’s way of being human and we have to be alert to the way of this God of surprises.
March 23, 2014
The question of how the Church should treat people who are divorced and re-married is a thorny one isn’t it? Our Gospel today (John 4:5-42) gives us an interesting insight into this, because the woman at the well, with whom Jesus has this long conversation, has not only been married 5 times but is now with a 6th man, and she is not even married to this one! Now let’s first remember what Jesus has said elsewhere about divorce and re-marriage. When asked if people could divorce, he reminds people quite forcibly (Matt 19:1-10) that God intended men and women to live together for life, ending with that famous phrase that appears in the Marriage Service, “What God has joined together, let no-one put asunder.” Note that the disciples are so shocked by this that they suggest that if this is the case it might be better if no-one ever got married!
Now they are shocked for a different reason, because they find Jesus talking to this woman who is clearly not respectable at all. She is also a Samaritan, by the way, which makes it even worse! For we have already been told how surprised the woman is that Jesus as a Jew should talk to her – a Samaritan! Note how straight Jesus is with her. He doesn’t tell her off, but he makes it quite clear that he knows the kind of woman she is. She is then an extreme case, not like most of those we know who are re-married after divorce, and are now living faithfully with their second partner.
So if we are to be true to Jesus, then we the Church have to somehow do both things – affirm what is right and good – in this case lifelong marriage –but also offer friendship and support to those whose first marriages have failed. You may have your opinion about how the official Church handles this at the moment, but whatever you think the solution is, it is not an easy one to get right.
Pope Francis was speaking to a gathering of priests earlier this month and he told them that they must neither be too strict nor too soft especially when hearing Confession. He said that a priest who is too strict simply “nails the person to the law, understood in a cold and rigid way” whilst one who is too soft is “only apparently merciful, for in reality he does not take seriously their problems by minimizing the sin.” He continues “True mercy… listens attentively, approaches the situation with respect and truth, and accompanies the person on the journey of reconciliation.” I hope, as you think about this, you might pray for all priests as Confessors; because getting this balance right for each person is very difficult indeed. I am off to make my Confession on Tuesday so I will pray for the priest who will hear mine, poor fellow!
But notice next that Jesus takes the woman beyond the factual problems that she has to live with. He offers her water, and she says in reply, stuck with the facts, “You have no bucket, sir.” Jesus then has to explain that he’s actually talking about a different kind of water, the water that we hear of in our 2nd Reading (Romans 5:1-8) – “the love of God that has been poured into our hearts.”
Now, there’s another problem we Christians have to face! Sigh! We have to cope with people who assume that we believe that everything in the Bible is literally true, even though here and in many other places Jesus tries really hard to take his listeners beyond the literal into those things that can only be expressed through metaphors and parables! Not just the water but later the food!
So surely that’s the main point we should take from our readings today. Whatever our situation in life, married or single, divorced, remarried or whatever, we all need the water of life, the water that is God’s love –a love that is both demanding and forgiving. We have to face up to the fact that none of us live up to what God wants us to be like. If we don’t face that, if we think we are basically OK, then we will never understand the idea that Jesus died to save us. If we think there is nothing to be saved from, if we think that we do not need to drink from the well of life, then we might as well give up being Christians straight away. We cannot say “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy” unless we realise that we need mercy.
Think of the mother or father coping with their naughty child. Does it help if they say “Don’t worry darling, everyone loses their temper and smashes things sometimes.” No, of course it doesn’t. When I did things like that as a child – and I did, because I had a dreadfully bad temper – my mother sent me to my room. She showed that what I had done was wrong, and there in my room I remember weeping, feeling awful that I had upset her. But then, before long, she came to me and gave me a big hug and we talked about how I could try to be a better person. Yes, the parent, like God, like the Church, must make clear what is wrong. But the parent, like God, like the Church, must also bring love and forgiveness into the situation and offer every person a way forward into eternal life.
Facing the fact that we are helpless without God, and that even with God to help us we will still often fail, is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. We heard St Paul say it, the Paul who had felt before he met Christ that he was living a perfect life, “We were still helpless when at his appointed moment Christ died for sinful men.” This is something we must receive into our hearts.
As Jesus said to the woman at the well “If you only knew what God is offering..” So many people don’t know, and that’s our challenge.
March 21, 2014
Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- I think our two stories, the one from Exodus (17:3-7) and our Gospel, John (4:5-42) are two tales; one about failure the other about success. The first, the story of the hapless Moses and the people of Israel, is one of continual rebellion against God. God brought the people out from slavery in Egypt to freedom and led them in the wilderness, but on every occasion the people moaned or disobeyed. They were fearful of their oppressors the Egyptians; there wasn’t enough food; water; they were lost; they were missing the foods of slavery; they worshipped false gods, and so on. Massah and Meribah are words for test and trouble, and clearly Israel failed on both counts, time and time again. Each time God saved them, but it was never enough. In our gospel however we have a quite different story.
There we meet Jesus and a woman. But not just any woman, for she is a ‘scarlet woman’, fallen humanity offered redemption who gradually comes to accept it, and to do with that divinely given salvation what God himself does with it in Jesus. She shares it with her city. Why do I say she is a scarlet woman? Well, we have a number of pointers. First she comes to the well at the hottest part of the day; she comes alone when women would normally have come in groups, for safety, sociability and mutual aid. Most likely, as we discover that she has had five husbands and now lives with a sixth man, she was known as a harlot, perhaps she had even pinched the men of other women. She was most likely dressed differently too. She was an outcast. What she does know is men! We can imagine her cautious approach to the well on sighting this lone male when she is alone, vulnerable and needy, far from the city and any help.
This unlikely pair, Jesus and the woman, strike up a conversation in which they each carefully spar around each other. It begins with Jesus’ request that she give him a drink and her response that he is a Jew and that his request is therefore most unusual. United in their mutual need, he for a drink, perhaps she for companionship, they begin to talk. Jesus has shown her that he is prepared to break the boundaries of social and religious convention by speaking to this foreigner and drinking from her vessel. She, however, rightly guarded, sticks to the prosaic when he mentions ‘living water’, “Sir, you have no bucket.” But she can’t resist the slightly sarcastic jibe that he must be greater than Jacob who gave them the wellJesus continues to counter her down to earth overtures with offers of something far greater, and our woman, who knows a thing or two about fencing with men, is intrigued and allows the conversation to develop as he speaks of the waters of eternal life springing up inside the hearer. Our woman, exhausted by her daily trek for water and the ostracism under which she lives, is increasingly intrigued. When he speaks of her personal details she suggests he is a prophet, and again, I suspect sarcastically, suggests that he solve the age old problem separating Jerusalem Jews from those of Samaria who worship God on Mt Gerizim. If he’s so smart, which is the right mountain? The word itself, worship, proskunesis, an import via Alexander the Great from Persiam, is perhaps the give-away. It suggests total prostration or rather, self-emptying before God, rather than the offering of sacrifices and so is very telling, and Jesus follows it up.
Jesus knows then that the woman is hooked and receptive. For he goes on to expound the meaning of his entire ministry and life. “Neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…… the hour is here…when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” Suddenly then, he has smashed through hundreds of years of teaching and religious practice, and now speaks of the real relationship and total openness to God which he brings. The woman finally responds positively, “I know that Messiah is coming…..and when he comes he will tell us everything.” Jesus responds with “I am he. Ego eimi.” Now this is the only time he so directly identifies himself in the gospels, and he does it to this derided and shamed and outcast ruined woman. She is every human being, fallen Eve, and she has no means of justifying herself, for she stands accused as a sinner, an adulteress before her entire town. Like us, her need for grace is absolute and she grabs it. So much so that when the scandalised disciples return to Jesus she has abandoned her precious water jar – life itself, to run with the good news to her city.
Normally in John the ‘hour’ in Greek is Kairos, divine time. Here, unusually, it is ‘ora’, human time; emphasising that his redemptive acts take place in real earthly time. It’s the same with the disciples, who try to get Jesus to eat some of the food they had bought in the city, and suppose that someone else had fed him as he rejected theirs; failing to appreciate his passion for his mission, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me, and to complete his work.” There is a lovely irony, so typical of John, contrasting the fallen but redeemed woman now a missionary to her city, with the disciple’s cluelessness and anxiety about the iffy foreigner and doubtless her entire city. Clearly with Jesus, things are never entirely as they seem on the surface, which is the point of his life. This is stressed again when the city invite Jesus to stay and become believers in him after the woman’s testimony and the evidence they have from their time with him.
In Romans (5:1-2, 6-9) Paul speaks of our faith not as something we acquire by our own efforts, but as something given by God. “The love of God has been poured into our hearts…”. And he points out that God has done this marvellously generous thing not to the good, but to the truly needy, to those without hope, literally without a leg to stand on. “Christ died for us while we were still sinners.” We are all the woman at the well. Pray God we can accept his love as she did.