March 10, 2014
HOMILY for the Requiem for Sally Gross
Isaiah 25:6-9 Ps 23 Romans 8:14-23 John 6:37-39
The essence of the Christian message as expressed in our readings today is that nobody is perfect and that it is God who in death raises up our imperfect bodies and perfects them and so brings them into his glory. That is our hope now for Sally as we commend her to Almighty God.
Sally would certainly have found that summary more than a little brief. She would have pointed out to me, as she did many times via Facebook, the many different nuances present in the text that I hadn’t noticed, not least because she would know them well in the original Hebrew and Greek which is why I thought at least one of our readings – Psalm 23 should be read in Hebrew today. Yes, she clearly read my Homilies on a regular basis once she had linked up with me on Facebook, because occasionally I would get these very polite but very long and complicated commentaries on something I had said. I always groaned when I got one, because Sally, being Sally, would go into endless complications that would leave a simple fella like me a bit bewildered. But if I took care I could often find a fascinating things to ponder on.
Yes, Sally may sadly have felt rejected by the Church, but she never cut herself off from us, and we, gathered here in Oxford today, are declaring before God that we never cut ourselves off from her; but felt for her in the difficult journey she took when she decided, because of her intersexuality, to live as a woman rather than a man. I suspect that none of us found this easy. I remember the first time she came to visit us as a woman, deciding to take the plunge and ask her the most direct and intimate questions possible. Her response was equally direct and frank and it helped Frances and me, and I think Sally, in our future relationship with her in her new life.
But we are saying much more today than this. We are affirming something that deep down she always knew well, that whatever her doubts and agonies in the journey she took, however awful for her were the conflicts with the official Church, God never discarded her. She could, of course, as she faced up to her intersexuality have quietly gone on living as a man and as a Dominican Friar, but for her that would have been to live a lie. Instead, she bravely and openly declared her intersexuality and set out on a crusade to make her condition better known wherever she could, so that more of those born like her would not have to face the cover-up she had to face. In that sense she lived for others.
But this did not make her a saint. She was, I suspect, not an easy person to live with, but then that is true of all of us isn’t it? Some more than others! All of us weep, as she probably did, being a sensitive soul, when we hurt or upset others, and find the words of Isaiah of great comfort “The Lord will wipe away the tears from every cheek.” All of us, not just Sally, find things about ourselves difficult to live with and are glad to hear St Paul telling us as we groan inwardly, that our bodies will be “set free” .
But our Gospel takes us further because it affirms something that we humans, and thus our very human Church, is still learning. This is, that we find people who are different from us difficult to accept as our equals. I remember once pushing someone around in a wheelchair because they had simply broken their ankle, and being astounded how many people treated the person in the wheelchair as feeble minded. “Would he like sugar in his tea?” they said, as if this object in the wheelchair could not be talked to directly – was not fully human. And we easily treat others like this don’t we, and certainly that would include those who appear to be neither fully male nor fully female. We have our stereotypes of what people should be like, and find those who do not fit such stereotypes difficult to cope with.
A classic example from the time of Jesus was not just the lepers – people whose deformity made others react in horror and revulsion – but also all sorts of others regarded as “unclean” by the holy people. The actions of Jesus in mixing with such people is proclaimed by his words in our Gospel today “The will of him who sent me is that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me.” No-one therefore is excluded. All must be welcomed whatever they are like. May God forgive us when we have failed to do this. May we become more and more a Church that follows this teaching. Despite feeling rejected by the Church, Sally never lost her belief in all this that Jesus taught, and would be glad, I believe, that we are praying now that she, as one more imperfect human being, may be drawn into the glory of heaven.
March 9, 2014
HOMILY : 1st Sunday of Lent : Year A 2014
The stories of the beginning of life in Genesis are just that. Stories, created to try and express various truths about the world and about our place in it. The story we hear today (2:7-9.3:1-7) is an attempt to express in story form why, despite the goodness of the world that God has made, something has gone wrong. It is an exploration of that strange conundrum that the thing we humans most value, our freedom to choose what we want to do, is also our greatest downfall. Our problem is that we too often choose what looks good (the fruit in this case) rather than choosing what is good – not just for us but for the Universe as a whole.
Animals do not choose in that way. They have not got the ability to see beyond themselves, to imagine a whole variety of different choices, and to ponder on which one might be right or wrong. So I have the ability to choose to do what is absolutely right, rather than what simply feels right for me; but too often I make the wrong choice. Then, even if I don’t realise it at the time, later I often see that what I chose back then was wrong, and that all it has created is a mess. We see this in all sorts of ways, don’t we? From the mistakes people make in choosing a partner or choosing how to deal with others to the mistakes people make that pollute the world or damage the environment. As St Paul puts it : “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing…….What a wretched man I am! (Romans 7:19..24) And then he asks the question “Who will rescue me?”
Our 2nd Reading (Romans 5:12-19) shows us that St Paul has already answered this question. For just as the story showed one man starting this all off, one man Jesus Christ gives all of us a different way. The old way for Paul was to try desperately to keep the law, to be perfectly good. But he realizes that this never really works. The more we try to be good the more we realize how much we fail. We are indeed “wretched.” The new way is the way of God. Yes, it means trying to be good, but only within the context of putting our trust in the loving action of God who comes to us as Jesus Christ, and by his one good act of sacrifice changes things for ever. We can never make ourselves right and good, but God can take away our wretchedness and make us know that we are surrounded by his goodness and love despite our many failures. Thus we can feel good about ourselves again, and can go out into the world to live, as much as we can, as He did, for others.
Our Gospel (Matthew 4:1-11) shows us how this process by which Jesus takes on our humanity begins. He too is faced with the temptation to make wrong choices. This experience is clearly very important for him. Why? Because no-one was there. The power of evil was tempting him just as it tempts us from inside his head – Shall I do this….. or that? So, if no-one was there, only Jesus can have actually told his disciples later what happened to him. As they thought of him as good, they might well have been reluctant to speak of him being tempted, but he had obviously taught them that this part of his story must be told.
Why? Because they are our temptations too. If only I could make sure everyone throughout the world had enough to eat, that would surely solve the world’s problems. But we know, as he knew, that although feeding the world is a good thing, it doesn’t stop people choosing to do evil things, often very evil things. The world needs more than food “Man does not live on bread alone”
The next temptation is : if only God could just put everything right so that there would no longer be any pain or suffering. Then I could jump off a high building and no-one would get hurt. What a weird world that would be, where I could hurt people, even stick a knife into them, and they wouldn’t get hurt. But then nothing I did would have any consequences. My choices to do good or evil would be meaningless.
Finally I am tempted to make people good. If only I was in charge of the world instead of those politicians, I would put everything right. This is to forget that famous saying “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. No, as Jesus knows, this is another fantasy. Absolute power over others always leads to evil consequences. So Jesus chooses the road of love, of service, of suffering and ultimately of death. He chooses to enter into our real messy human world without an easy solution that appears to put everything right. That is why this Gospel at the beginning of Lent points us straight towards that second Temptation on Holy Thursday when he could have run away. But then Good Friday & Easter would never have happened.
March 7, 2014
Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings: The compilers of our lectionary want to draw a comparison between our reading from Genesis (2:7-9, 3:1-7) and our gospel from Matthew (4:1-11). Clearly they are both about temptation, but that is by far the end of the matter.
We have to remember that the first part of our Genesis reading is in fact part of the older account of creation which places man at the start of God’s creative work preceding the plants and animals. It probably predates by some 300 years the account we know so well; that of the temple priests with its well ordered list of creation creature by creature and ending with man. Our writers of Gen 3 were exploring the nature of humanity, with our extraordinary capacity for choice and free will; our terrifying openness to goodness and innocence and for doing evil and harming the created order and finally, in the section where man and woman ‘know they are naked’; our dawning ability for self-awareness, in which knowledge of our responsibility is explored. Indeed, we could claim that much of the Old Testament story of sinful but redeemed Israel hinges precisely on this story of the Fall and the human response to it.
The Temptations of Jesus follow a similar pattern. He is tempted by three things; the need to assuage his hunger and how to avoid it by supernatural action; the threat of pain and suffering and how to defy gravity and escape the possibility of actions which lead to pain, and finally by the temptation to absolute power. These are in fact all things which will make or break his common humanity, his being one of us, one with us, part of the creation explored in our Genesis package. They are also of course at the heart of every temptation affecting every human being, you, me and all the rest. They affect our attitudes to the world; our jobs; anxieties; irritation with others and our inclinations to control others too. They are at the root of all human sin.
By giving us the story of Jesus’ temptations Matthew was unequivocally asserting Jesus’ absolute reality, his complete humanity, his solidarity with all of us. His linking it all to the 40 days fast links it to Israel’s story too, with their 40 year exodus to the Promised Land under Moses, a period of testing, sin and redemption. At the heart of all these readings is the need for humanity’s absolute affirmation of the immense divide between us and God ,and the problem of our refusal to let God be God and not try to play God ourselves. “You must worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone”. It is a dilemma Jesus coped with properly, as his humanity never got in the way of his godliness, and as he fully accepted the human state into which he was born. It is one we all too often fail as we grab at what was never meant to be in the first place, grabbing at power we never had, and attempting to be what we cannot be.
St Paul’s great Letter to the Romans, (5:12-19), was written for a mixed community of Jewish and pagan converts to Christianity. Clearly at the time some Jewish Christians were trying to enforce circumcision and the Jewish law on converts from paganism. Paul addressed the whole question of human sin and, by referring to the Genesis account of the Fall, made clear that sin and its consequences predate the Jewish law and that it is irrelevant both to sin and salvation. The law, as he points out elsewhere in the letter, merely illuminates sin; it cannot solve its problems. Paul realised the enormity of the problem of human free will and the sin which could so easily be a part of it in minds conformed to human desire. He explores it in his own person in chapters 7+8 of this letter. For him there is simply no way out of the human dilemma of sin and evil without resort to Christ.
Human sinfulness; our propensity to choose the way which so often seems best, but is fraught with bad consequences appears endemic and absolutely appalling, “Death reigned from Adam to Moses”. What he has accepted is that we cannot solve the problem, it and its consequences are simply too great. Yet there is a solution, a divinely gifted one, Jesus who is able and completely willing to set aside all human fault and folly in his completely unselfish gift of himself to us which wipes the slate clean, ‘acquitting’ us as Paul puts it.
But this too is not enough, it is not simply that God, acting in the Son is a frightfully good barrister able to get us off the hook. For we are intended for something much greater, infinitely better. “If it is certain that death reigned over everyone as the consequence of one man’s fall, it is even more certain that one man, Jesus Christ, will cause everyone to reign in life who receives the free gift that he does not deserve, of being made righteous”. It is Paul’s stunning realisation that every human being really is made in God’s image and intended to reign with him in glory, reigning as a son of God, becoming divine, that makes the difference. Simply forgiving us our faults, and sending us back out there to carry on, was never God’s plan. His intention from the start, as we see in the ancient Exodus story was that we should become divine; fit in Paul’s phrase to “Reign in life”. Paul realises that humanity’s sad state of continuously repeated deaths is unsatisfactory (God’s ‘failure’ of his project as it were) and he knows that God has a better plan for us all; that we share God’s life. In this life we will finally understand, as Jesus truly did, that the nature of God, what God actually is, is openness, self-giving, total generosity, sharing which knows no bounds and brooks no obstacle. It is the “Gift itself (which) considerably outweighed the fall….the abundant free gift.” It is one man’s free gift of himself that we are meant to ponder this Lent. As a great poet once put it:
As the Fall hath calcined thee to dust, His life may make thee gold and much more just.
We have been marked for life.
March 2, 2014
How sad it is when some people think that prayer is zapping requests to a faraway God. Of course God accepts any kind of prayer, so he doesn’t ignore those who zap, but true Christian prayer should aim for something quite different; for, as St Paul says : In God “we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) I say this because more prayer is one of the things all Christians should think of doing during Lent – our 6 week period of preparation for Easter. But if “more prayer” means simply bombarding God with an even longer list of people and things we want to pray about, I fear we’ve missed the point. And the point is, that we don’t have to persuade God to listen to us, what we have to do is to learn to listen to God. God is always with us, but often we block God out, if we spend too much time talking AT God and not enough time listening.
Our Gospel today (Matthew 6:2-34) reminds us all how often we worry about things. And the more we have got, the more we seem to worry. I have pointed out many times before how the Media feeds on this very human tendency, giving us more and more details of the latest war or disaster or gloomy prophecy about the future. Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be concerned about such things, but if that concern just turns into worry, we have somehow got onto the wrong track, haven’t we? As Jesus says “Can any of you, for all (your) worrying, add one single (month) to your span of life?” True prayer then should be a turning to God to help us worry less. It should be a resting in the presence of God. To say to ourselves, and thus to God, as in today’s Psalm “In God alone is my soul at rest.” (Psalm 61:6)
There are several different ways of doing this. Simply being at Mass is one. We allow ourselves to be immersed in the sacred words and actions, assured that God is especially close to us. We do not have to think of words to say, or things to do, we simply open up our life to God. So Lent might be a time to think of going to a weekday Mass somewhere, as an additional time of prayer, perhaps getting to Church a bit before Mass begins, or staying a little after Mass ends, or joining in with others in the silent prayer of Adoration. Sometimes, in the midst of our worries, we may say, as in our 1st Reading (Isaiah 49:14-15) “God has forgotten me”, but then we must repeat to ourselves, maybe many times, God’s reply “I will never forget you.”
Some of you may have heard me before using the swimming analogy. Think of yourself as floating in a warm pool or a calm sea. Let the water support you. Let the troubles of life soak away. No wonder Baptism is one of the great symbols of the Christian faith! This isn’t escapism, because used properly such relaxation into God empowers us, and helps us to live more effective lives. Translated into prayer in daily life, this surely means each of us finding a way (apart from Mass) of floating in the presence of God. It is, of course, what the trendy modern world means by “Mindfulness”, although they fail to see God in all this. But we believers have an older word – “Meditation!”
There are as many different ways of doing this as there are different people. For some, the repetition of familiar prayers – such as the use of the Rosary – is a way that works for them. For others, a quiet reading of a passage from the Bible, not so much to study it, more to let God speak to us through it. Others may use music, or just the beauty of the natural world, or a photo or an object – a candle, an Ikon – a crucifix. But always as Christians this must be done not simply to think about ourselves, but to open ourselves up to God. That is why without the Mass, such things can just become self-indulgent.
Let’s finish today with a practical demonstration. Today’s Psalm is a particularly good choice. Let’s read it aloud quietly and prayerfully and having done so, let’s keep some silence and just float in the words that remind us that God is with us. Don’t worry about distractions – thoughts in our mind or noise from around us – just move back into the words, perhaps repeating the same phrase over and over again “In God alone is my soul at rest.”
Here is the full text :
In God alone is my soul at rest. My help comes from him. He alone is my rock, my stronghold, my fortress I stand firm
In God alone be at rest my soul. For my hope comes from him. He alone is my rock, my stronghold, my fortress, I stand firm.
In God is my safety and glory, the rock of my strength. Take refuge in God all you people. Trust him at all times. Pour out your hearts before him.
In God alone is my soul at rest.
February 28, 2014
Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings : As we continue Jesus’ Midrash on the Beatitudes, (Matthew 6:24-14) we could easily fall into the trap of thinking it was all very negative about the value of human activity. This is not the case, for Judaism has always held creation, of which we are a part, to be good and God-given. Nor is this an advocate of the idea that we all just sit back and await the rapture; making no provision for ourselves or those that the creator has placed in our care: children, wider families, or job responsibilities. When Paul was writing to the Thessalonians clearly there were those who held such misguided views, and we know his unequivocal advice to the rest of the Church with its simple, ‘Don’t feed them’, implying that hunger would very quickly get them to behave normally again.
No! Jesus’ teaching was clearly aimed at those who made careful plans for their futures and believed thereby that they could be in control of everything. Not too long ago British Gas had an advert with the slogan, ‘Don’t you just love being in control!’ Fine of course, until a failure in the system or a power cut brings you down to earth. Of course, we are never truly in control of our lives. Sure, we all make sensible provision, shopping for meals, cleaning clothes and going to work to earn our livings; but as we all know, illness, accident, even dare one say it countrywide floods, can wreak havoc on carefully laid years of work. Who can say when each of us will die? It may be suddenly from a heart attack, or as a result of a terminal illness which many a young person never even conceived might happen to them.
Perhaps these were the ones known to Jesus, Jews and others who believed themselves invulnerable due to their careful planning. After all, he once told a pithy story about a man who built ever larger barns in which to store food against calamity – uselessly as it proved as he died. But Jewish history had surely made them aware that the frequent massing of superpowers on their borders could reduce such carefully laid plans to dust in seconds; and anyone who had experienced Sennacherib’s sieges of Syria and Palestine (plaques of which are now protected in the British Museum) would not be so sanguine. Indeed those recently released from the besieged city of Homs in Syria who have undergone three years of siege could reflect on the meaninglessness of planning for a future ripped out of their hands. Homs is ancient Emesa, one of the jewel cities of ancient education, now pounded to dust by the Syrian army. Of a certainty, security is never what we were offered, and the life of Jesus is the clearest evidence of this.
But there is a certainty we do have: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”, the words of Jesus on the cross. In this giving over of our whole being into God’s hands, come what may, we do have a certainty; a certainty that we are loved and held by God. It does not mean that we shall not suffer, nor even be afraid, for all this happened to Jesus. It does mean that we can trust in God, knowing that he will always, literally always, be with us.
In our reading from 1 Corinthians(4:1-5) St Paul speaks of the great difference between human judgement and that of God. He speaks of us first and foremost as Christ’s slaves, for that is the word in Greek. Those enslaved were those totally in the hands of their master’s, they could be sold, killed or abused or praised and promoted at their master’s whim. These slaves however are, as we see, trustees, perfectly attuned to the needs of Christ their owner, Lord and master. “People must think of us as Christ’s servants (slaves), stewards entrusted with the mysteries of God.” Ancient people reading this letter would have understood the analogy without any difficulty, for owners of large estates frequently appointed a trusted slave as steward, responsible for the running of large financial enterprises, and in charge of the hundreds of slaves who worked under his command. Such slave-stewards knew precisely what a lot they had to lose and the significance of the authority given them. They knew their master’s mind through and through and would have managed his assets to the letter. Indeed, about the time Paul wrote his letters the empire under Claudius was largely run by ex slaves, freedmen of the emperor, entirely dependent upon him and subservient to his will. Claudius did not trust the aristocrats who normally did this work, fearing their rebellion. In employing trusted slaves he had absolute certainty of control and of their loyalty, since freedmen were despised and of low status and they could never aspire to a coup and the killing of the reigning emperor. Paul therefore gives us an insight into the extraordinary relationship existing between Christ and his Apostles and the Church, in a metaphor which nicely reminds them of their obligations to Christ, to whom they owe absolute loyalty and from whom they have been given so much.
Our reading from 2nd Isaiah (49:14-15) the Prophet of the Babylonian exile was written to cheer and uplift the exiled, recalling them to their true focus, worship and allegiance amidst terrible loss and suffering. Even in the unthinkable event of a mother failing to notice the baby at her breast, “I will never forget you, says the Lord.” Quite simply, we are God’s possession through and through and it will be this knowledge that will get us through both our best and happiest times and the darkest.
February 23, 2014
Last week I let us all of the hook by explaining that when Jesus tells us to “Be perfect” (Matthew 5:38-48) he knows only too well that this is impossible. He does it not to make us feel guilty all the time, but to stop us from being complacent. He wants us to be aware that we must rely on God’s mercy and grace and not on our own goodness. The problem with this is that we live in a world where many people, indeed many Catholics, think that therefore they don’t have to worry about their failings because since God is loving and forgiving he will understand us when we fail. But Jesus does not let us off the hook so easily, for later on he will say, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26)
Think of people, for example, who say “I know I have a bad temper” or “I know I have a big mouth, but that’s the way I am, and people will just have to put up with it!” Your failings may be different from those, but whatever they are, it is ever so easy to excuse ourselves isn’t it? And as Christians to say “Well, God understands, he loves me, so everyone else will have to as well!” If the cap fits for anyone, then we need to wear it, and admit that this is an easy way out. We (dare I say I!) may even turn it round, and say “Well God has given me a big mouth, so I should use it” which may well be true when I use it for good, but can be very wrong when I let it go too far, and hurt someone because I cannot control my tongue. Remember what St James wrote? “If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain.” (1:26)
Now I don’t want to be too negative about this. One of the things that we can be proud of as Catholics is how many of us are engaged in some kind of activity to help others. It is intriguing how many Catholics I know are in caring professions, trying to make the world a better place – teachers, doctors, nurses, carers of all kinds, and even good lawyers and politicians! Then there are others who are involved in voluntary work of one kind or another, and, of course, all those who take seriously the important role of being good parents for their children, or good carers to their aging parents.
And why do we do this? Because we are like children of a loving parent. It is because we know that God loves us like a father, like a mother, that we want to be better people. Our attempts to be good and kind are not an attempt to be loved by God, because we know that he still goes on loving us, even when we fail. No, all that we do that is good, every effort we make to help others, to build a better world, is a response to that love. We see God loving us, as a child sees his or her parents loving them, and as we flourish in that love, we strive to share it with others. As St Paul says, writing to the Philippians, “Not that I… am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (3:12) For us, being good, means being holy, means belonging to Christ, and that means we are never satisfied. There is always something more we can do.
But we need to be careful, because many in the world outside, the world we live in most of the time, are people who are only luke-warm about their care for others. They are only kind and caring when it suits them. They justify actions that are less than perfect by saying, “Well that’s better than nothing. After all, nobody’s perfect.” They tend to look for easy solutions to problems, that may be good for them, but may not be good for humanity as a whole. So they walk on the grass because one pair of feet won’t make any difference. They drop litter because one piece of rubbish won’t show. They think that being angry with one person who they think deserves it will not make a difference to the world. They forget that every little action each of us takes for good or ill actually affects things on a far wider scale than they can imagine.
Of course the realization that this is the case is not just held by Christians. Many doctors and nurses who are not religious still oppose the introduction of euthanasia (assisted suicide), because they realize that one case will affect the whole of our society, and will affect their relationship with every patient who is in pain or sadness and is feeling suicidal. It is never a good idea to decide whether a thing is good or bad by looking at individual cases however heart-breaking they may be. As Christians we may well understand, as God understands, why people commit suicide, but our aim must be to try to make each person’s life have value even when they are dying, rather than just to do something that appears kind but is actually based entirely on sentiment. Being perfect, doing things that are good for the whole world, is not an easy road, but that is what we are called to aim for as Christians.
February 21, 2014
Frances writes on next Sunday’s Gospel: Jesus continues his Midrash on the Beatitudes, but with the call for every one of his followers to “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:38-48) This is not therefore about obeying a set of rules at all. It seems that the exposition Jesus has just undertaken is an illustration of precisely what perfection is about, and it is when we explore the implications of truly loving our enemies that things begin to be much clearer. Ancient Judaism borrowed from the very early Code of Hammurabi, a rule which was intended to be pragmatic; ‘an eye for an eye’ in cases of injury or dispute. This early Babylonian ruler clearly understood just how easily disputes could escalate and get out of hand, with ‘honour killings’ and revenge causing generations of war and fighting between tribes and families. His edict therefore was designed to set strict limits on revenge and the like, and proportionalism was essential. Judaism, probably from its exile in Babylon, found this rule and adopted it into its own law and clearly there were those who followed it to the letter. But Jesus knew that such provisional things were no real solution to the problem of true human interaction.
We see today in many countries how the incessant battles for supremacy, such as those between Sunni and Shiah Muslims wreck a country like Iraq. Even more sadly, we have seen how Christian and Muslim conflict in the Central African Republic is wreaking a terrible toll of ever escalating violence on that country. Something has to happen to stop the violence. I heard of a priest in the CAR who despite the threats and animosity of his Catholic flock has opened his church as a refuge for Muslims in the neighbourhood, and strives to feed over 400 frightened people. This surely is an example of loving one’s enemies, and indeed, I am sure that the priest is fully aware of the high personal price he may pay for his courage and generosity and love of enemies.
When Jesus was dying on the cross we hear that he prayed to the Father for his enemies. There was no sense that he invoked vengeance upon them, rather that he saw his death as the means to break through all the entrenched understanding of how things were and ever had been, to bring in a new vision of God. This surely is why St Paul, (1 Corinthians 3:16-23) reminds the thoroughly problematical Christians of Corinth of what they now are, both corporately as a church and individually. “Didn’t you realise that you were God’s temple and that the Spirit of God was living among you?” It is in the folly, or foolishness of God, in the quite ridiculous act of incarnation, in which Almighty God throws aside his omnipotence and his control to become totally vulnerable and die, that we see God’s wisdom revealed and see human wisdom exposed as the sham that it so often is.
Paul spends quite a part of the 1st Letter to the Corinthians dealing with division within that community, be it which leader they follow, who they share the Eucharistic agape meal with, or indeed, the kind of behaviour they indulge in. Being God’s temple, actually being it in body, soul and action requires a quite different understanding of what humanity is about, and how we live this out. Paul’s point is not fundamentally that so many of them were sinners, immoral, but that they had failed to be what their incorporation into Christ had already made them: God’s temples. Now a temple is a place of worship, of sacrifice, a holy place, an environment wholly given over to God, to the sacred. In ancient times violation of a temple by invaders or warriors was just about the worst crime a people could be guilty of. It was an act of sacrilege which left a mark in the history of peoples down through the centuries. So here we begin to grasp the seriousness, the gravity, of Paul’s remark and the significance of his call to their reform. The point was, it wasn’t just up to them to ‘pull up their socks’. Paul believed that by God’s grace they could and would, if they wished, reform, and the fact of his continued contact with them shows he had every confidence that this wayward community could come up trumps.
The message from Leviticus, (19:1-2, 17-18) has much the same message from the Old Testament. “Be holy, for I the, the Lord your God, am holy.” Jews and Christians have been given a priceless gift which we must cherish and live by. The fact that we frequently concoct lists of rules is perhaps an indication of our failure to live as sons and daughters of God, but it is not a sign of failure on God’s part, for he is always faithful and his commitment to the recreation and redemption of his creation absolute. As St Irenaeus so beautifully described that act of divine folly, “He became human that we might become divine.”
February 16, 2014
Be careful how you read the Bible! When you hear in the 1st Reading (Ecclus 15:15-20) of God watching over us, remember that Jesus teaches us that God watches over us as a loving Father NOT a fierce judge. When you hear of the hidden wisdom of God in the 2nd Reading (1 Cor 2:6-10) remember that Jesus teaches us that this is the wisdom of a little child holding a parents hand, NOT some mysterious series of complicated thoughts. And finally, when you hear Jesus in the Gospel (Matt 5:17-37) expanding the Commandments to make them so hard that no-one can really keep them, remember that that’s the point. He does it to remind us NOT to rely on being good, but on the mercy and love of God.
I started with that warning today, because I became aware, during the week ,how easily people can forget that we are not meant to read the Bible as a set of separate texts each of which is equally valid, but always should read it through the eyes of Jesus; and to read it as the Church has explained it, down the ages, when inspired by God, she has sought to put right those who have tried to read the Bible in mistaken ways.
This process of interpretation can be seen in the Bible itself. First of all, we see it in the teaching of Jesus. The Old Testament may say one thing, but Jesus will say, as we heard today “But I say this to you.” St Paul does the same, taking an immoral story from the Old Testament, and showing that we must not read it literally as an example of what we should do now. He tells us instead that it must be read, what he calls “figuratively”. (Gal 4:24) What St Paul does here, is what the Catholic Church goes on to do down the ages, so that we know that we cannot, for example, justify war and violence or other immoral things, simply because there is a lot of it in the Old Testament.
Another obvious example, and more than a little relevant to those of us in England at the moment, is the story from the Old Testament of the Flood. (Genesis 6:9-8:22) Ignorant Christians, reading that story literally, would go on to say, “Ah, so God makes floods happen, to teach us something.” But we know, as Catholics, that God does not affect natural events like that. Again, we know this partly because Jesus explicitly says that we must not understand God like that, (Luke 13:4-5) and partly because the Church teaches us that this primitive view of natural disasters is not a Christian view of God.
This is one of the main reasons why I became a Catholic in 1994, after many years as a Church of England Vicar. I realized more and more that unless I belonged to a Christian body that defined for me what Christianity taught, I might as well make up my own ideas of what it means to be a Christian. How can any of us decide how to interpret what the Bible says in any particular place if we do not have some guidance? Without the teaching of the Church (what is called the Magisterium) anyone can say that their interpretation of the Bible is the right one, and set up their own so-called “Church”, as the founders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses did in the late 19thC.
They, for example, hold the view that the physical world is evil and was not made by God, who only made the invisible spiritual world. They make this mistake by misreading phrases from Jesus where he says that we “are not of the world.” (John 17:16) This idea is actually a very old mistake, and is one of the reasons why we have our Creed, and say every Sunday, amongst other things, that God is the “Maker of heaven AND earth.”
This Creed was approved by one of the various early Councils of the Church. These are times when the Bishops, with the Pope, get together to define what Christianity actually believes, especially when there have been some misunderstandings or disagreements. The most recent of these Councils is within the living memory of some of us, the Council called Vatican 2, which took place between 1962 and 1965.
Some of us older people will remember a time when it seemed that the Church condemned to hell all those who were not Catholics. So when the Council of Vatican 2 met, they had to make it very clear in their official statements that this was not the case; that although it was preferable to be a Catholic, those who were not Catholics, not even Christians, might still find their way to God. I still meet people who are surprised that this is what the Catholic Church teaches, but that is the advantage of having a Church which actually has an official teaching – a Magisterium. We can actually point them to the text and say “That is what the Church teaches.” So those words from Jesus “It was said…. But I say this to you” are much more significant than we might think.
February 14, 2014
Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- Our Gospel (Matthew 5:17-37) is all part of the Sermon on the Mount. It is in fact a Midrash, a commentary on that earlier and so well known part with all the ‘Blessed are’… things. Midrash were commentaries, filling out and exploring what a text was all about. Jesus, as we see, does not want to destroy the Jewish law which nurtured him, but to fulfil it, and in consequence, he needed to draw out what some of those laws were really about. Clearly there were some Jews, keen to fulfil the letter of the law for laws sake; like some Pharisees, who had not penetrated to its heart and soul. How true that can be for our own time too. There are some Christians who ‘do their religious duty’, going to Mass with ruthless determination, but who leg-it immediately after, never joining in the community life or offering to do anything for the Church. The same could be said for religious literalists, those who follow the letter of our teaching but lack charity. This is perhaps why Pope Francis is looking to amend our annulment policy to make it more merciful, and perhaps thereby sacrificing some of the legalism involved, for the good of the community. Perhaps each of us too has been guilty of a similar rigidity by which we exclude and separate ourselves from other worshippers. Older Christians will remember times when foreigners, often with differently coloured skins were not made welcome; their needs cast aside in our determination to keep the faith as we have always known it – quite disregarding the fact that Jesus must have been a rather dubious shade of khaki, or at least distinctly off-white!
Jesus’ Midrash therefore explores ways in which Jewish-Christians might become guilty of following the law, but blindly; not exploring its implications. Perhaps the one about adultery is among the most relevant, for how many men today ogle women, whistle or make suggestive remarks? How many use internet porn? How frequently indeed do many of us make cutting remarks about the appearance, dress or behaviour of others? Killing, as Jesus was so aware, can be done equally well by our behaviour as by knives or the hangman’s noose. It is when our Christian communities are at their most welcoming to outsiders that we are at our most godlike, even though, as with Jesus, we may risk the opprobrium of others.
St Paul understood this very well when he wrote to the Christians of Corinth (1 Cor 2:6-10). Corinth was an international seaport which was a magnet to eastern cults, among them Isis, Cybele and Mithras. Mystery cults, unlike the pantheon of Roman religion, offered ‘belief-in’ something and required commitment from its adherents. Yet these ‘mysteries’ were still rooted in mythologies from the ancient past although they also came with moral codes, demanding to their followers. In this way they had philosophies to offer. Isis was indeed quite morally demanding on its followers, though it had many hangers-on, as was common with pagan cults. Certainly any port would worship Isis as the protector of seafarers and she was also connected to childbirth and many other aspects of life. Yet Paul knew that the yearly acting out of the life and death of the consort of Isis was not enough, and insisted that the real earthly life and death of Jesus was where true wisdom lay; with and in Christ giving full knowledge of the one, eternal God. Some pagan cults then, for all their attractiveness, could not offer what Christianity did, a sharing in the life of God for all his followers. Pagans knew that powerful as the myth of Osiris-Isis was, the gods themselves did not touch human life on the daily basis that Christianity, moved by the Holy Spirit, did. Paul’s battles for the hearts and minds of pagans accordingly played on the differences between the mystery of God Incarnate among us in Christ in contrast to the pagan mystery cults and the attractions they had to offer.
When Ben Sirach (Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20) wrote his wisdom teaching in the 3rd century BC, he was writing within a very old Jewish tradition in which obedience to the law was essential, but with the added insistence that free will was very important as the preceding verse makes clear. We are not mindless puppets of the Almighty, as Ben Sirach realised. His work was written under Egyptian dominance of Palestine where obedience to Pharaoh and the Egyptian gods was absolute, and he wanted people to be able to make the distinction between blind obedience and obedience given under the grace and freedom of God. Blind faith is therefore not part of either Judaism or Christianity, and clearly the truly devout are required to examine their faith and understand it so that they can live it out with fullness and integrity.
February 9, 2014
When we look at the lives of famous and glamorous people, the sort of people that appear on TV and in the Gossip magazines, I expect part of our interest lies in the fact that we would like to be famous too. Yes, deep down in most of us, I guess, is a desire to be something in the world, to do something useful yes, but also to do something that gains us recognition and a more than decent income. I have this fantasy that if I were rich, I could create this charity and dole out money for any number of worthwhile causes. But then I question myself, or perhaps God questions me, and says “What would you be doing this for, Martin?” and after a pause, I hear, “So that people would think well of you?”
There is a famous story, that some of you may have heard before, about St Philip Neri questioning a young student about his future. “So what do you want to do with your life?” He asked, and the student said, “Get a good degree, and then find a really good job” “And next” said St Philip? And the student replied“ And then I would like to get married and have a nice house and a happy family.” “And next” said St Philip. “Oh well then” said the student “I would hope to do something worthwhile in society.” “Very good” said Philip “And next?” There was a pause, and then the student said “Well, I suppose I would like to have a comfortable old-age surrounded by family and friends.” “Yes” said St Philip “And next?”
The message is clear. Whatever we do with our life, both in terms of employment and leisure, we Christians need to ask ourselves exactly what we are doing it for? We probably reject the idea that some have in the world, that all we need to do is to make us much money as possible! As Christians, I hope we soften that with the desire to do good, to help people in some way, as we heard in our 1st Reading (Isaiah 58:7-10) ; “To share our bread with the hungry and shelter the homeless poor.” And I hope that we would go further even than that, and aim to be salt for the earth and light for the world ; as Jesus said in today’s Gospel (Matt 5:13-16)
But salt and light are interesting things. Salt is only good if it disappears into the cooking in just the right amount. Light is not meant to be looked at ; indeed bright light actually hurts our eyes. No, light is meant to light up something else, so that what we see is not the light but only what it is showing us. Or as Jesus says “Seeing your good works, they may give the praise to your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:16)
That is surely what Paul is getting at today (1 Cor 2:1-5) when he points out that his work of spreading the Gospel was not “With any show of oratory or philosophy”. No, he wants his listeners not to praise him, but to discover God. It’s why he writes further on in this letter, that everything we do, even the most ordinary things should be done for one purpose only. He writes, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”(1 Cor 10:31) Yes, the cult of the celebrity is not a new thing. The world of the Bible was not that different. People were just as pushy then as they are now, and some had clearly already accepted this new religion, Christianity, as a way of showing off their cleverness or their power. We heard Paul say firmly to them last week “If anyone wants to boast, let him boast about the Lord”, so clearly there was quite a lot of boasting going on!
This is a tricky area isn’t it? God wants us to use the talents he has given us. He wants us to flourish, to make the best of ourselves, not to hide away somewhere through a false sense of modesty! You might be surprised to hear that a sin that is fairly often mentioned in Confession by adults is lying. But by this most mean saying things about themselves that are not exactly true, to make themselves look better in the eyes of other people. I always tend to ask them whether they are sure that this is a sin. Are they really lying, which would be a sin, or simply trying to show themselves in the best way they can? Let me illustrate what I mean. We all know that if you want to succeed in a job interview you dress carefully and try to produce a confident performance, but provided you don’t deliberately lie about yourself, that’s fine.
So that’s the way we are called to live. To accept that we are ordinary yes, not to seek celebrity status, but at the same time to make the best of what talents God has given us. For in the end, done in the right spirit, and underpinned by honesty, integrity and prayer, all we do will glorify God.