October 4, 2015
The albatross is a fascinating bird. These birds travel thousands of miles across the seas of the world, but when they return to their breeding grounds they seek out their original mate and after elaborate greetings and wagglings of beaks, the pair mate and bring up their baby before setting out on their next long journey. You might think that such lifelong faithfulness in marriage ought to be an example to us. But we humans have one thing that these birds lack – free-will – the ability to imagine and choose alternative actions – even alternative lifestyles! The albatross mates for life by instinct. We humans are blessed and cursed with the power to choose, so that marriage can both be the glory of love freely given, and the immense sorrow of hurt or betrayal.
Notice today in our Gospel (Mark 10:2-16) that Jesus does not go on about the sadness of divorce. Instead he points, as ever, to the ideal we should aim for – to the original and perfect ideal of marriage, as a faithful lifelong partnership. He supports this, by quoting from near the beginning of the first book in the Bible, Genesis, which we heard as our 1st Reading today. (2:18-24)
Of course, we all fail to live up to our ideals in many ways – not just in the area of sex and marriage. So it is important to think most NOT about the mistakes we make, but on what we should be aiming for – the thing that is best for us in the long-run. For that is always God’s will. So while the world glories in gloating over the scandals and betrayals – presenting them to us in a way that easily titillates our imagination in wrong directions – we Christians need always to think and proclaim the beauty of good marriages, where people stay together through all the ups and downs of life, and then to treat with the utmost compassion those who find themselves in the tragedy of marriage breakdowns and divided families.
Many of you will have heard in the last few months of the way Pope Francis has been asking the Church to look at this problem of marriage and divorce. I think it is fairly clear that the Church will not suddenly say that divorces and second marriages can be declared OK, but there are two things worth noting that will change. The first has happened already. The Pope has simplified the process of annulment so that those whose first marriage has failed will find it easier to present their case for consideration, and it will not take so long. He has also made clear that people should not have to pay for their annulment, something which has been happening in some countries, so that it might seem that the more you pay the more likely you are to get an annulment. This has not been the case here in England where there has been a very small administrative fee. Perhaps there are some listening (or reading) this who might now consider the possibility of getting an annulment and thus regularising their second marriage with the Church? The process has never been as complicated as some thought, but now it will be even simpler, although it is still going to be the case that not every request for annulment will be granted.
The second thing that Pope Francis wants the Church to do is to be more compassionate and welcoming to those whose marriage has failed. This is something I have always tried to do myself, but sadly some priests and people, in some parts of the world, have turned the teaching of Jesus, that marriage for life is the most perfect way, into a persecution of those who fail to live up to this. Pope Francis wants this to stop. He does not think that the way to make people more perfect is to condemn them when they fail. He wants us to be like Jesus (John 4:4-26) who when faced with the woman at the well, whom he knew to be living with a man who was not her husband, still spoke to her in a way that encouraged her to seek God through him.
Remember too his compassion for the woman taken in adultery, and for many others who fail to be perfect in one way or another. Jesus and his followers were not naïve about these things. They lived in a Roman world which was as pornographic as our world is today, and they knew it was wrong. But unlike the Pharisees, Jesus does not spend his time condemning people, but always offers them the love and mercy of God. That is surely why Pope Francis has declared a Year beginning on December 8th when the whole Church is called to stress the mercy of God, because that is the way of Jesus, which sadly some Catholics, even some Bishops and Priests, seem to have forgotten.
October 2, 2015
Frances writes on this weekend’s readings :- It is fascinating that the very earliest Biblical writer, the Yahwist, of the 10th century BC wrote his story of creation, Gen 2:18-24, (placed second in our Genesis account), from the perspective of the close, even intimate relationship between God the creator, and man. Humanity is put on the earth in this account prior to all other creation. Indeed, so close is the God-man relationship that God gives man the task of naming the animals, and foresees that humanity should not be a solitary creature but live in relationship to the rest of creation and ultimately that he needs a partner, woman. The picture is one of the intimacy between man and woman, but also between God the creator and the creatures, human beings that he has made. There is pleasure and rejoicing in the very fleshliness of their being expressed in the action of God himself in making woman from the rib of Adam. It is a relationship of delight and respect in which God the creator is fully and intimately involved. The unity and solidarity of creator and creation is deeply etched onto this early account, which, unlike the better known and much later account of the Temple priests, with its near scientific understanding of the succession of created things, is a deeply theological reflection on the goodness of the God-man relationship.
It appears that the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, (2:9-11), be it Paul or someone else a little later, was also at pains to stress this abiding relationship, even going so far as to stress the divine presence in each and every human being. This entire and lengthy letter, with its great Eucharistic focus concentrates on our God-given capacity for God, on the redemption wrought by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for us. Here, in our passage, he is insistent that Jesus, always totally one, in complete union with the Father, is by his Incarnation, his becoming human, totally and entirely one with us. He is not different from us, of some strange and exotic species, totally different from us. This means that when we are saved/redeemed, we are not as it were transformed into something other than we were. For we and Jesus are, as the writer puts it “Of the same stock”, or as the RSV puts it, following the Greek, we all have the same origin. Just as Christ Jesus was born a human being, so are we, we are one and the same with him, members of the human race, sarx, flesh. In rescuing us from sin and death, Jesus does not break the original mould and begin again with us, rather he takes what was always in us, as it was in himself, and refashions it according to the Father’s will, so that we too, who have lost that capacity for God may recover it and the lost intimacy that rightfully belongs to us all. The purpose of all this, according to Hebrews is “To bring a great many of his sons into glory.” The reasoning behind all this is quite clear and simple “It was appropriate that God, for whom everything exists and through whom everything exists…” In other words, it is the right and fitting thing for God the creator to do, it is what God is like, what God is. For God to be God he could not do less. The fact that, as the letter continues, we see that Christ achieves our redemption through suffering is again a mark of his total commitment and solidarity with the rest of humanity for whom life involves such suffering, pain and death. What we have here then is a wonderful picture, a meditation on the closeness of God and man, and we have to learn to let ourselves be held in that closeness. It’s something modern people with our love of independence find difficult. I shall shortly undergo yet more surgery, and am reminded how one has to give oneself totally into the hands of another at such moments – a small taste of divine love.
In our gospel, (Mark 10:2-16) Jesus argues this issue out with the Pharisees over the issue of divorce. They were hoping to trap him, accusing him of infringements of the Mosaic Law which did allow divorce. But Jesus pre-empts their action by deliberately taking the issue of marriage back to its Genesis origins and our first reading, reminding them of the shared gift and delight, their becoming one flesh, sarx in union, a reflection of divine love, and he puts before them the outrage therefore of divorce and remarriage as a fracturing of the divine intention. Indeed, those of us involved in divorce from a family perspective, and scarred for life by such tragedies, can readily agree that such actions do seem to run contrary to God’s plan for our mirroring of his love as seen in the relationship between Father and Son. We are made and designed for so much more, as both stories from the gospel remind us, both the question of divorce and that of the treatment of children and we need to open our hearts and minds to the infinite possibilities our life with God holds out to us.
September 22, 2015
Frances writes :- When we lived in Newbury many years ago, I had a Christian friend who belonged to a sect that believed that you could see who God loved by the wealth they possessed. Riches, they claimed, in a thoroughgoing misreading of the Old Testament, were a sign of God’s blessing and poverty an indication of his displeasure. Anyone in their community who fell on hard times was expelled from the group and the very ancient idea that almsgiving and care for the poor was essential to the Christian’s salvation cut no ice at all with them. Quite clearly the message of James, (5:1-6) had no effect at all! Indeed, one wonders quite how they came on any of their ideas from any reading of the life of Jesus and the New Testament.
Whilst the distinctions I have just spoken of may be crystal clear to all of you, the fact remains that it can be very difficult to work out what right and wrong behaviour often is. It would be so simple, wouldn’t it, if simply following a set of rules faithfully guaranteed salvation, but that is not the case. In our reading from Numbers (11:25-29) we see that the seventy are only appointed by God to prophesy and only for a short time due to the complaining of the people of Israel during the Exodus. Moses himself can’t cope and loses his cool with the Lord, so the seventy are commissioned. But then two others, who it appears have not followed the regulations of the Lord given through Moses, also prophesy much to the consternation of the rest who have done what they were told. It is only when challenged on the authenticity of these two, that Moses comes into his own again and recognises that God is in everyone, that following the Lord God is not about rules so much as the spirit of the thing in ways which may be much more problematic, threatening and obscure to the straight-laced rest of us, so that we can see what obedience to God is really about. Perhaps this is precisely why the quirky Pope Francis has taken a family of Syrian refugees into his apartments at the Casa Santa Marta. One can just imagine the fluttering in the dovecote that has occasioned! Clearly this Pope believes that you must take the lead quite literally yourself, not just exhort others to do so, and damn the consequences.
In our Gospel, (Mark 9:38-43.45.47-48) we see the disciples, in something like a deliberate parallel of this Numbers incident which centred on Moses, the greatest prophet and leader of Israel, and therefore the model for Jesus at the time. It raised similar questions about the authenticity of other healers, not of their group, but who cured people in Jesus’ name. Our Lord’s response, just like that of Moses, was to recognise the power of God in unexpected places. His aim again is to get the disciples to think outside the box, and he does it precisely by expanding the boundaries for what is and is not acceptable in an age remember when divisions between people were tightly drawn.
This was a period when Roman citizens were privileged above all others especially under the law; when Sadducees formed an elite which ruled the temple and controlled all its offices and access to it; when Pharisees who were strict adherents of the Mosaic law demanded that all other Jews behave similarly if they were to qualify for its privileged access to God. Perhaps Jesus saw a similar exclusivity developing among his own, for he speaks about the possibility of their becoming a scandal, a sacrilege (not the Jerusalem Bible translation ‘an obstacle’) against the faith of the ‘little ones’. Surely these people are the ordinary folk, those without claim to status or influence or power, and it is precisely these ‘little ones’ with their incipient faith which is crying out for confirmation and fostering, which the arrived and the rule-bound could so easily crush. We note just how harsh Jesus’ condemnation of these latter people is. It is far more severe than that of Moses, who simply wished that all had the verve of Eldad and Medad. Indeed, Jesus wishes that anyone destroying the fragile faith of others should meet a very gruesome end, being drowned with a huge millstone attached to their neck, or indeed having any offensive bits of their anatomy amputated, rather than sin. The context here again precludes any and every sin, but points precisely to sins against other believers and what we do, or fail to do, to bolster their fragile faiths.
Now clearly Jesus is speaking metaphorically here, for he is pointing the disciples once again back to the situation current in Israel where the maimed and the sick, the deformed and the mentally ill, were seen as cursed by God and excluded from the worship of the temple and its structures. Many of Jesus’ miracles revolve precisely around healing such infirmities, restoring men and women to their full stature in society, so that they could play their full part in the social and economic and religious life which flourished around them. Neither Jesus not the Father want more broken bodies, but the point of Jesus’ harsh rhetoric is to get the disciples to empathise, to imagine just what it would be like for them to be in the position of so many who flocked to Jesus, and who they would turn away to protect his purity and theirs. But Jesus, as we have known all along, had quite another agenda, and respectability played no part in it. If the cross is about anything, it is about reaching into the depths of the depravity and sadness and brokenness of this world and redeeming it, from the tragedy of that tiny Syrian body washed up on a Turkish beach to the scandal of ludicrous wealth wasted daily by the super rich, and the colossal waste of the world’s resources. Our job is to care to the uttermost, for that was what he did.
September 20, 2015
Young people often face real stress in their life for the first time when they are away from the support of home as students. They find people who they thought were friends who then let them down badly, or they have conflicts with people they live with, or they find themselves in despair about their work, or even about life in general. Now, if they’re Christians of any kind, then one of the ways they try to find help is by pouring out their grief or anger or anxiety to God in prayer. Sometimes, of course, this can help a lot, but sometimes, and this is what I want to look at now, it doesn’t seem to make any difference. So what is going wrong here?
Part of the answer is that prayer is not like magic. There is no way we can make things happen the way we want by praying about it. There is no magic formula to take away the pain. If we expect that prayer will be like this, then when it doesn’t happen that way, we are likely to feel that God has let us down, that God doesn’t care, or even that God doesn’t exist. Our 2nd reading is absolutely explicit about this. “When you do pray and don’t get what you want, it is because you have not prayed properly, you have prayed for something to indulge your own desires.” (James 4:3).
It always astonishes me that people who have been brought up as Christians forget the words of Jesus, that following him means taking up the cross! How easily we forget that when we pray “Thy will be done”, this is likely to mean more challenges, not less! The disciples had the same problem in our Gospel today, (Mark 9:30-37) for they assumed that if they followed Jesus there would be some kind of big reward waiting for them and so began arguing about “which if them was the greatest.”
In the end, even though Jesus had told them a number of times that he would suffer and die, they hadn’t really heard him, and when the crunch came simply ran away.
We can take heart from this because there are bound to be times when we too run away from God. Sometimes our running can be rather un-dramatic, more like slowly slipping away, as too many other things crowd into our life. But for others it will be some really tough moment where we just do not feel we have the faith or the courage to go on, and so seek comfort in something or someone that provides a more instant relief, or a shallow solution.
True prayer is sharing our life with God not just in the good fun times, but also in the tough times where our prayer is more likely to be tears or anger rather than polite words. Sometimes people actually confess that they have shouted at God as if it were a sin, whereas it’s actually more likely to be a breakthrough moment. But true prayer also includes sharing our life with God through other people. If we try to internalise and privatise our prayer, even our agony, then we’re not really talking to the God who is Jesus our Lord, but just talking to or agonising with ourselves. This is one of the main reasons Jesus gave us the Church and the Mass. For when we meet and share with one or two others in prayer, Jesus promises his special presence.
So please never feel hesitant about asking to speak to me, or another priest. It need not be confession, although this is one important way of getting closer to God. We cannot provide solutions to every problem, but the very act of sharing and praying is part of the way through which God gives us the strength for whatever we have to face.
But remember also that God wants us to be practical and God is present in all sorts of people and places, not just religious ones. Yes, God may well help you through all sorts of people whether they are believers or not. But beware of false advice. Worldly people can sometimes lead us completely astray. Some may do it deliberately – see the First Reading (Wisdom 2:12-20) but others may innocently suggest the easy way out – the quick fix – which in the long run can be disastrous.
The quick fix is not the way of God. A world of quick fixes is a world where people seek their own pleasure first. Such an approach can only end up in more conflict not less. And we must also remember that God works slowly. Working for God’s love and peace will mean tough decisions for each one of us sometimes that may require courage and endurance over a long period. Prayer, as I have said, will not take away the pain, but real prayer will help us to endure.. and in the end… like the disciples.. to see beyond… to a greater vision worth even dying for.
September 18, 2015
Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Very many people seem to think that the Christian faith is about a series of dogmas which once grasped will bring the believer to salvation. In consequence they turn to the scriptures seeing them as rigid blue-prints for achieving this task and, not surprisingly, find it very difficult. The Bible just isn’t that kind of book. Our Bible, Old and New Testaments, were written over many hundreds of years and originally for different purposes. Books of the Law and its practice like Leviticus are very different from works like the three volumes of Isaiah. The latter were written during times of social and political collapse and war, and are best seen as commentaries on that situation and reflections on the relationship between God and man which the writers believed brought the upheavals about. Hardly surprising then that their understandings of God differed widely. Books of the law adopt a simple ‘be obedient and all will go well’ approach; punishment is about infringement of the rules laid down by a despotic God. Prophetic books will explore the relationship of God and humanity and see the things which beset them in daily life as intimately related to their faithfulness, or lack of it, to the God who is their creator and sustainer, and who offers the faithful so much more. It is about an ever expanding relationship in which we are invited to respond.
The Book of Wisdom (Wis 2:12.17-20) is very late, dating from the late second century BC and written in Greek most likely in Alexandria, at a period of Egyptian domination of Palestine. It is not part of the Hebrew Bible but is included in ours. In our passage what becomes clear is that the writer is exploring the nature of good and evil and asks what the purpose of a good life, a virtuous life is. Clearly he lived at a time when virtue was not often rewarded on this earth. The writer sets up the suggestion that if being good is doing what God wants then surely God must reward the virtuous in this life, in the here and now. Now, as he and we are all too aware, the virtuous do suffer and are subject to great injustice in this life, along with everyone else, and this raises the question of why be good at all. Does our behaviour have any effect on what will ultimately happen to us, does it have any point at all?
Clearly for the writer post mortem existence is a possibility since he speaks of those condemned to a shameful death being ‘looked after’ by God; but his real aim is to explore what God will do to protect his Son ‘the virtuous man’ here and now, and this remains an open question. Here the virtuous man is not reprieved at the last moment by rescuing cavalry, but dies in ignominy, even if, as the writer somewhat sarcastically points out, God will ultimately take care of his own. What then is the meaning of the good life in the here and now, especially when, as we see daily, good people suffer terribly and die unjust deaths? Is the writer of Wisdom simply exploring the purpose of virtue for its own sake, or does he somehow think that despite all its problems it reflects true divinity and is the path set for all of us to follow? Is eternity with God a suitable reward for being rubbished now?
This is certainly Mark’s answer in our Gospel (Mk 9:30-37). Our passage follows on from the revealed glory of the Transfiguration and presents us with Jesus’ second prediction of his Passion, death and Resurrection. Just as with the first prediction and Peter’s violent rejection of it, the second seems to have completely flummoxed the disciples, who it appears have been discussing who among them was the greatest. Clearly they are still stuck with a reward in this earthly life, and of God’s action to support his own in the here and now, in precisely the dilemma the Wisdom writer was exploring. Israel had by this time had a concept of eternal life with God for well over 200 years and by Jesus’ day most Jews believed in it, yet clearly it was a very problematic issue. What does it say about the value we place on this present life? What precise purpose does our behaviour have in relation to eternal life? In what way do we understand eternal life with God? Jesus seems to turn all our earthly understandings on their head by his actions: “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant (slave) of all. Anyone who welcomes one of these little ones in my name, welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Access to the Father, it appears, is rooted not in worldly power and ways of acting but precisely in their upheaval. We have come a very long way from a rule bound faith, or even from Wisdom’s plotters who propose to put God to the test. Believing, faith, it appears, can have a whole counter-cultural context and is guaranteed to upset just about everyone. It may appear as stark and uncompromising as the rule bound one, but it is not; for the believer is called upon to make deep and personal decisions in following out the implications of his faithfulness to Jesus in a territory in which the guidelines can be far from clear.
Yet James (3:16-4:3) does offer some practical advice, definitely excluding some attitudes, such as jealousy and ambition – by which I presume he means the pathway to personal success which will trample on anyone to get to the top, and includes those virtues he finds conducive to the growth of the community. These are things that make for peace, having compassion, and he goes on to illustrate precisely how both the bad and the good operate to the destruction or growth of the Christian fellowship. In the end then, the Christian answer to this long Biblical search for God lies, it appears, at hand in daily life,in lives lived valuing and respecting others; for in this we see a reflection of the relationship between Father and Son and their self-gift to the other and to their creation.
September 13, 2015
Last week I promised I would suggest some ways in which we can work out what God might be wanting us to do, when we are faced with various problems in our life; and I started by pointing out that sometimes it is obvious, as when we have to choose whether to stop and help someone who has fallen over in the street, or to pass by on the other side.
Our first two readings today (Isaiah 50:5-9 and James 2:14-18) give us some suggestions about this. Isaiah reminds us that what we must not be swayed by other people. Our friends, for example, might say “Oh she’s only a dirty drunk, don’t bother with her. She’ll only spit at you”. Isaiah tells us to be ready to defy the world and to accept the spit. “The Lord comes to my help, so that I am untouched by the insults”. James, on the other hand, reminds us how easy it is, to have good ideas about how we might help, but fail to put them into practice. It is no good saying that I would cross the road to help that woman who had fallen over, but then fail to do so when the situation actually arises. Faith without works is dead!
Our Gospel (Mark 8:27-35) reminds us that God doesn’t mind if we don’t always get it right. As Pope Francis has been pointing out as he prepares the Church for the Year of Mercy, beginning on December 8th, our God is a God of mercy. Indeed recently Pope Francis said that if a priest was unable to show mercy and forgiveness in the Confessional, he should be stopped from hearing Confessions, and put behind a desk! “Hear hear!” I say having heard horror stories of people who have been treated badly when they made their Confession!
So when Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is, they make all sorts of wrong suggestions; and even Peter, who appears to get it right when he says Jesus is the Christ, actually gets it wrong, because he cannot accept a Christ who must suffer and die for the world. Jesus is tough on him “Get behind me Satan. Because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s” – and that’s a warning to us as well – but he continues to love Peter, and take him onwards on his journey of discovering what God really wants for them both. Remember we only know these stories against Peter because he told them to others later on to teach them more about the way of Jesus.
Making mistakes, making the wrong choice, but then learning from it, as Peter often does, is often God’s way for us. There may also be a number of answers that all seem fairly good even if they are not perfect. That is why if we hesitate to do something because we think it isn’t quite right, we have missed the point. Yes we often ought not to be hasty, to jump in too quickly. We need to look before we leap. But to be too cautious because we might get it wrong is just as mistaken.
Working out what we might do in more tricky situations then just crossing the road to help that woman, must then include praying about our mistakes. I don’t mean agonising about them, as some do. We are not meant to spend our lives getting all guilty about past sins ; and if anyone taught you to do that, they are wrong. We confess them yes, but in the knowledge of God’s love and forgiveness, as part of our journey onwards with him. Praying about something does not mean agonising about something, it means offering it to God and asking him to help us look at ourselves in new ways.
One of these ways may well be asking advice from others. As it says in Proverbs (12:15) “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice. One of the things I find most annoying is when someone says “Oh, I didn’t want to bother you Father, you must be so busy”. Remember please that a priest is meant to be the servant of the people, not their master, he is meant to be bothered by you when you need advice or help or prayer.
There are also many other wise people in most churches who might also be asked. We are called to be a community, but being a community is up to you. Sometimes (rarely in Eynsham) people say “But nobody talks to me at Mass!” and I say “Well why don’t you talk to them? Turn to them after Mass and say “Hello I am… I am afraid I don’t know your name.” Getting to know others who are Catholics is part of the way we learn to get to know God. Just coming to Mass but living the rest of the time as a lone Christian is not a good idea at all!
A good Confessor is surely part of this. Those who do not make their Confession at least once or twice a year because they say “I haven’t really done anything wrong” are missing the point. I hope I am not a big sinner, but sharing my life with my confessor regularly helps me to look at my life and its problems with fresh eyes. He often makes suggestions that I never thought of. When we make our Confession like this, then we are also receiving what is called “Spiritual Direction” from the priest.
Of course, ordinary wise lay people cannot hear Confessions, but they can give spiritual direction. Many of you probably do this for your friends without realising it! I recommend it, for as they say, “A trouble shared is a trouble halved”. So there are no easy solutions in our journey to serve God. In the end we just have to get on with it, and to know that God is greater than all our mistakes and failings and can even sometimes use them, if we let him! As St John says (1 John 3:19-21) By this we shall know that we are of the truth, and reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.”
September 11, 2015
Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :-It can be no coincidence that Mark (8:27-35) places Jesus’ first prediction of his passion and death at Caesarea Philippi. Built by Herod the Great in honour of Augustus, self-styled ‘saviour’ of the known world, and seat of power of his son Philip Herod, this city reeked power and world wide influence. It is there that Jesus questioned his disciples about his identity, making clear that his power was not like that of worldly rulers. His style clearly shows that he wanted to demonstrate his continuity with the story of God and Israel, his ‘chosen people’, and to insist that he is God’s final word on that long journey of redemption. The upshot of his questioning is that Peter acclaims Jesus as the Christ, the one Israel was awaiting. But it immediately becomes clear that Peter, like so many in Israel, was thinking in worldly terms. This Christ or Messiah should be a warrior leader, strong and backed by a powerful army, powerful enough to throw the Romans out of Palestine. Jesus’ prediction of his terrible and ignominious death smashed through all their worldly fantasies, deliberately setting a completely different pattern of kingship, messiahship, based in the relationship of utter self-giving and impotence which is God’s way of being human in Jesus. God, who is always and entirely creator of the world and its continual sustainer, does not show his authority by throwing his weight around in the manner of earthly rulers, but acts precisely by throwing power aside. God who can truly compel offers humanity the ultimate gift – absolute freedom – in which to choose to accept him or reject the gifts he offers. Perhaps only one so truly divine, so other, so powerful, could act with such folly. Redemption is God’s great throw of the dice for a creation he ultimately trusts to recognise the truth.
Our reading from Second Isaiah(Isa 50:5-9) indicates that this has always been God’s way. Written during the 6th century BC and the Babylonian captivity, it is part of that great collection of Suffering Servant Songs for which this writer is duly famed. In its original meaning the Servant represented the nation personified, as it suffered for the failings, and exile of its wayward people. Christian generations naturally related these pieces of heart rending prose-poetry to the sufferings of Christ in redemption of the world. The best known is of course Isaiah 52-53 which we always read on Good Friday, but the dignity and humility of our passage too stands out as a vivid reminder of that long journey to God which will reach its culmination on Calvary with the crucified Christ. This is the story of God’s revelation to his people, the story of a humanity which finds it near impossible to believe that God could do this for us, and in consequence remains so much in need of Christ’s redemptive action. Our poem wonderfully captures the persistence of the servant with face set like flint, and the need for continual review of the evidence amidst the certainty of God’s vindication of his Beloved.
This I think is the message we can find in James today. (2:14-18) What becomes clear here is that there is no room for armchair Christianity, or perhaps put more prosaically Sunday only Christianity. It simply will not do to turn up on Sunday for the show, the Mass, swallow the sacrament and then leg it until the next time. James is insistent that faith in Jesus is to be made visible and active when the believers’ everyday behaviour shows forth the Christian message by some works of mercy or actions on behalf of others. The previous weeks actions of the people of Germany towards refugees has amply demonstrated that their faith, or at least their Christian heritage, has borne fruit. Perhaps the strong support offered by many British people in condemnation of our government’s refusal of asylum cases is even now demonstrating that a people largely indifferent to ‘politics’ has the capacity to be moved to respond when needs be. We carry within us daily the utter scandal of the cross and celebrate it daily in our Mass, and it must be this that we live by, this that penetrates our souls daily. We cannot afford ever to be comfortable with our faith, for it was forged in the foolishness of God, in the scandal of the cross, for a people he loved way beyond our deserving. If our actions in his name do not grate with the powers that be, then we will have failed to live as his beloved and redeemed children.
September 6, 2015
Our 1st Reading and our Gospel today (Isaiah 35:4-7 and Mark 7:31-37) are all about the way God can open the ears of the deaf, but this is not just about those who are physically deaf, for most of us are more than a bit deaf when it comes to communicating with God, and so the first thing we need to do when we pray is to ask God to do just that, to open our ears, our spiritual ears, to what he is saying to us. Then we need to avoid a hasty response, to be prepared instead to sit and listen and ponder, rather like Our Lady, who having heard from God that she was to bear Jesus in her womb “pondered these things in her heart”(Luke 2:19)
The problem is that we tend to think that prayer is talking to God, even talking at God, as if God were someone we want to complain to on the phone, only it takes ages to get through and then we are not sure that the person at the other end is really listening. But, of course, prayer is not like that at all. Prayer is much more like being with a very good friend. We don’t need to talk much, because our friend -God knows what we need before we ask; but we do need to listen, or we’re like a bad friend going on and on about ourselves and not being prepared to listen to what the friend wants to say to us.
I would however go further than this, because although thinking of God as a friend is very important – Jesus said “I have called you friends”.(John 15:15) – it still leaves us thinking about God simply as a person, and nothing more. It’s because of this that I get people asking me “How can God possibly listen to the millions of people who are praying to him at the same time?” The answer is that God is not like us, even though we are in some ways like him. He allows us, indeed wants us, to call him Father, to think of him as someone who cares, rather than some thing; but if we leave our thinking about God at that point, we are stuck when it comes to prayer, and particularly silent prayer – what we call meditation or meditative prayer.
This is why so many people find the idea of spending half an hour in silent prayer so hard. Let me put it this way. If I asked you if you found it hard on a sunny day to sit looking out at the sea for half an hour, or to sit in a beautiful garden for half an hour, or to go for a walk for half an hour, you would think me crazy. You might even exaggerate and say “I could spend all day sitting on a beach, looking at the sea” – meaning that this kind of relaxation is something that you look forward to as a holiday treat, rather than as a burden. You might even say, especially if you have a busy life, that it gives you time to think through things.
As I was preparing this Homily on this theme, a song came into my head from the musical “Salad Days”. Perhaps God was speaking to me through these words? The phrase I want to share goes like this (SINGS) “I sit in the sun, and one by one, I collect my thoughts and I think them over…” That, I thought to myself, is what prayer is like. So, as I said at the beginning, prayer isn’t thinking of endless words to say to God, but nor is it trying desperately to hear words from God. It is simply being with God, as one might sit in the sun and think things over. But what then should we do with these thoughts? How can we hear God speaking in the great mixture of thoughts that you and I have spinning around in our heads?
We need to be careful here not to turn prayer into a sort of terribly serious self-examination. Sometimes, just to sit and think and know that God is with me can be enough. Sometimes just letting my mind wander is the thing to do. I call it waiting on God, but waiting without desperately straining for some answer. The answer, the thought from God in the midst of all my thoughts that helps in some way, is probably much more likely to come when I am not desperately trying to hear it. But sometimes there are situations where we do need an answer, so what do we do then? How do we hear then what God might be saying to us?
Well If I am having a walk in the sun and see someone fall over, that’s easy. I might have two thoughts. One might be “I am too busy I will just walk on” and the other would be simply to run across to see if I can help. We all know which one is from God, don’t we? On the other hand, If I am annoyed with someone and feel like really being rude to them next time I see them – and that happens doesn’t it – then I know that thought is not from God. But now it begins to get difficult, doesn’t it. I may know what God does NOT want me to do, but what does God want me to do in this or any other similar situation? How can I hear what he wants? Should I just be meek and mild and put up with their stupid behaviour and say nothing? Sometimes that might be best. Or should I challenge their behaviour but just with a joke or some light remark? Maybe. Or should I actually show how angry or upset they are making me, without actually losing my temper? That can be a hard choice to make, but sometimes might be the right one – the one from God.
There is so much more I could say on how we can be helped to work out which answer is right, and some of this I will share next week, for this has only just touched the surface of how we may more easily listen to God ad hear what God is saying to us. There are ways to help us be more relaxed in the presence of God – from saying the Rosary to using practices that are now called “mindfulness”, as well as many other different recommended processes in which we practise the presence of God. The Church does not have one model of how to pray, for many Christians have prayed in different ways down through the Centuries and shared their ways with others. Above all, I would say. Just sit in the sun with God. That is a good place to start.
August 30, 2015
This is a story some of you might find quite familiar. It’s a true story of a good Catholic mother whose very intelligent son went off to University and began to live a wild selfish life. In effect, he enjoyed doing things that he knew were wrong. At first his sad mother simply refused to have anything more to do with him, but then a wise confessor told her to do the opposite, to carry on loving and caring for him, and constantly to pray for him. This she did and she shed many tears in the process. Finally, when I suspect she was near to giving up, when he was in his 30’s, he found the way to change, and eventually, much to the surprise of his mother, he became a priest, and one of the most brilliant preachers and teachers Christianity has ever had. Yes, you may have guessed that this happened 1700 years ago. The young man was called Augustine and his mother Monica, and both are now saints of the Church whose feast days we have celebrated this week.
I tell their story because it’s easy to think that the way we cope with wrong things in ourselves or others is to spend a lot of energy trying to suppress them, just as Monica shunned her son Augustine. But Jesus warns us in our Gospel today (Mark 7:1-23) that we should not try to create a surface respectability – to paper over the cracks as they say. This would be, as Jesus said quoting Isaiah, “to honour me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me.”
Jesus takes this further. He says that we need to realise that what matters is what is deep inside us not what is on the surface, and surely this means that the way we become deep down good, is to actively seek to do good and to think about good things rather than bad things, and never to assume we are OK just because everything seems OK on the surface? As St Paul puts it (Phil 4:8) “Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.”
Let’s look at some examples from the list Jesus gives us in our Gospel. What are the good things we should think on, in order to fight against greed and envy and slander? Three very common sins in our world today. I want to start with slander because quite rightly many people mention this sin when they make their confession. They don’t use the word, of course, but they confess running other people down behind their back, or of gossiping. I am always a bit wary of thinking of gossiping as being wrong, because there is surely good gossiping as well as bad. There’s no harm in having a chat about others, even being critical of others, provided it is kind and loving. Indeed that’s the point isn’t it? If the gossip begins to turn into running someone down and simply speaking ill of them, then just going quiet isn’t good enough. We have to actively turn the conversation in some way into a more positive way of speaking about them. So if someone starts saying that so and so drives them mad because he or she fusses too much, we have to point to the good intentions in the one criticised. It may sound trivial, but saying something like, “I am sure she or he means well” can make all the difference, because it changes our attitude to them.
Of course, this doesn’t mean being naïve about someone’s failings, for sometimes being kindly critical is the path towards helping someone behave better. Monica didn’t say to Augustine. “I don’t mind what you do, I still love you”, for it is clear that he always knew that she didn’t approve of his lifestyle, even though she still loved him. We sometimes forget that the world of Monica and Augustine was like ours in many ways. It was a society characterised by violence, by a lack of respect for life, by loose sexual behaviour, and by some people being able to engage in this kind of lifestyle simply because they had too much money.
Augustine implies that what was wrong about him – and this takes us on to greed and envy – was that he had an unbalanced view of the good things of life, not that the things themselves were not good. He writes about all this in his Confessions. He says (and he is talking to God “In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all.” In other words what he had to do was to think about these things in another way, so that he could use and enjoy them, without being enslaving by them.
It’s surely the same with us. If someone has something good that we would like to have, we need to rejoice with them rather than get filled up with envy and greed. This is a tough one isn’t it, because I’m not suggesting that we should rejoice because the rich have millions whilst other live in poverty. Rather that we, by remembering the poor, should not want to become too rich, and should have pity not just for the poor but also for the rich, those who have so much and still want more. Jesus pointed out the foolishness of this when he said “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven ….. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matt 6:19-21)
This is precisely why Christianity is not principally about being moral, because that is a surface thing. It is principally about faith, about having a different attitude to life, about having a heart that is linked to God and to the goodness he has created and wants us to share. We come to Mass each week, we pray as often as we can, so that our hearts may be turned more and more towards God, and so that every day we may be transformed by his love, and become more like him.
August 27, 2015
Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- The compilers of our lectionary for today seem to have made their choices through a series of scissors and paste jobs, so their real intention for the Church and its homily writers is difficult to see. What we do have to remember is that our interlude with passages from St John’s Gospel are now left behind and we are back studying Mark’s Gospel, (7:1-8.14-15.21-23) We have already noted in this Gospel that there was a plot headed by the Pharisees to kill Jesus in Chapter Three, and subsequently Mark has been at pains to help his largely Gentile Christian congregation in Rome understand why Jesus had courted such animosity. Consequently, he has shown us a Jesus who is a healer, reaching out to the needs of the poor and unclean in the countryside and away from controlling Jerusalem. There were many miracles and much teaching, and in our Gospel we see scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem, that bastion of political and religious correctness, come down to Galilee to confront him. Greco-Romans knew all about power and control from the centre, and those in Rome itself were well aware of the spy networks and the difficulties that involved. Mark seems at pains to point out that Jesus, a devout Jew, was not opposed to following the law of Moses whenever he could, but clearly he was angered and outraged by the application of later laws which by then formed so much of Judaism so excluding thousands from its correct practice. Was there perhaps a covert message of resistance being suggested in Rome, at the very heart of the establishment and its abuse of power?
Our foray into Deuteronomy (4:1-2.6-8) is surely precisely about this important point. The giving of the 10 Commandments to Moses by God was about a very basic code of honourable living, both in relation to each other and to God. The problem was that after the Babylonian exile of the 6th century, when Israel learned to live without temple and sacrifices, her regard for the law, for a set of moral obligations by which to live devoted to God, meant that human made laws multiplied; and for some, especially those concerned with their writing – the scribes, and those who argued for new and modified laws – the Pharisees, their vested influence became paramount, so that their understanding of the law dominated their thinking about God rather than being routes to holiness aiding the faithful. As we see time and time again in our different Gospels, it would be those clashes with these religious purists which would so enrage Jesus and secure his death.
Clearly Jesus was not antinomian for the sake of it, but his deep and enduring relationship to the Father required him to think and act with the love and charity which is supremely the hallmark of God himself. So we see Jesus entirely thoughtless of the defiling touch of lepers and the unclean, be they dead or foreign or just plain sick. He responds instantly to their needs, healing them, frequently by his touch, and therefore defiling himself. He will, for the sake of a change of heart on the part of a wicked man, eat in his house with his dubious friends, chat up foreign women, and defeat death itself. He lives out in his life among us the requirements of the Letter of James (1:17-18.21-22.27). “It is all that is good, everything that is perfect, which is given us from above; it comes down from the Father of all light; with him there is no such thing as alteration…”. Our author speaks of not just hearing God’s word, but actively doing it too, and this for him is centred not on any elaborate laws needing to be fulfilled about ritual cleanliness etc, but rather on care for others less fortunate than ourselves, the widows and orphans. The James of our passage does not indulge in any lengthy moralising, or the minutiae of the faith. For him it is all quite simple and straight forward – responding to the needs of others when and where they are manifest. Perhaps we need to live like this too, and not hide behind a veil of carefully constructed Pharisaism, as is so easy to do. If our Gospel from Mark is a call for a radical questioning of prevailing political powers and systems, perhaps we too should be called to a questioning of their values, following the lead of Pope Francis.