February 3, 2016
Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- I suppose when we actually stop to think about it, not only do we in the modern age find the idea of Christ’s resurrection from the dead extraordinary, many would dismiss it out of hand. Even Christians frequently do this. Ok, we celebrate it at Easter, but as it’s all vaguely wrapped up with eggs and bunnies, its real impact is largely lost on us. Yet for the earliest Christians, as we see in 1 Corinthians (15:1-11) this was the centre, the crux of the argument for the divinity of Jesus the Son of God. I suspect that part of the difficulty also lies with the Christian claim that his resurrection vindicates his death and wipes out sin. A sceptical world loves to hang onto sin.
Everyone knew in ancient times that death was inevitable and that that was the end – finished. Yet the Christian claim of Our Lord’s post mortem bodily existence was the thing about his story which made the difference, compelling belief in some, whilst arousing contempt in others. Our gospels all make very clear that the disciples fled to a man at the crucifixion and thought the entire ‘Christian’ project over. It was what happened subsequently that made the difference, and here in 1 Corinthians Paul recounts the numerous occasions in which the risen Jesus appeared to different groups of believers, confirming them in the faith and fitting them for the task of taking his good news out to the whole world. It was his resurrection that distinguished and confirmed that his teaching and healing ministry actually was the work of the One, true God; and definitively separated Jesus from healers and prophets of previous generations. Quite clearly, the actual experiencing of such an astounding event was like no other. The recipient of this ‘grace’ was marked for life and could not possibly turn back, as we witness in the life and mission of the redeemed St Paul. These occasions were truly life-reforming, turning people in a totally different direction, so different, that they became the hallmark of the Christian movement which they in their turn took out all over the Mediterranean and beyond.
We too then are heirs of the resurrection of Christ from the dead to life, total life now and forever with the Father. It is his resurrection which affirms that he can and does do all he claims for us and for the whole world, wiping out sin and all that gets in the way of our having any relationship with God the Father. Many of us live in a state of continual denial about our personal sins, or become so attached to them that we cannot let them go. Many will say that the rotten state of our world is just the way it is, and that no one can possibly make it any better. True, some good and rich men may try to make a difference, but these are only ever pin-pricks in the over-all highly flawed world, as witnessed to by so-called Islamic State; poverty; injustice and disease. Yet the Christian belief in humanity maintains its fundamentally optimistic stance. True, we do not do complacency or silly acceptance, we face the fact that our world has gone tragically astray and that it can only change fundamentally by God’s grace. That grace is of course not fatalism, for, as with Jesus, it requires his followers to act to bring the world into conformity with his love and grace and compassion.
Our reading from Isaiah (6:1-8) speaks to just such a moment in the 8th century BC when the Northern Kingdom, Samaria fell to the ravages of the Assyrian invaders from what is now north-Eastern Iraq. First Isaiah lived, and died a martyr to the chaos of his time, and recognised that someone needed to speak out God’s message of love and salvation amidst the despair and frenzy that gripped the nation. It was the right time for a truly sacrificial self-offering, and Isaiah was able and willing to make this gesture, well aware that most people would completely misunderstand it. I dare say he would be amazed to think that nearly 3,000 years on wholly different groups of people would read his words, finding within them a message of hope in a darkening world and see his faith in God vindicated.
A few weeks ago our gospel was John’s account of the wedding at Cana, the kick-off point in the Fourth Gospel for Jesus’ ministry and his account of an overflowing abundance of wine – God’s party, everything of the best. In our gospel from Luke, (5:1-11) we find a parallel miracle with the miraculous and potentially wreck-forming abundance of fish, and Jesus announcement that from now on ‘It is men you will catch’. Clearly, where God gives, he gives in overwhelming abundance. Our problem is that as sceptics we think on too small a scale, reducing things down to our small-minded and meagre proportions. Perhaps then, just as with the resurrection of Jesus; our thinking is all too small and contained. It is not God who has changed, but our vision of his power and potential. Only when we look at the world through different eyes will we find the vision to see his redeeming grace shining through the dark in which we invest so much time and effort.
January 31, 2016
Ah how we love that passage about love that was our 2nd Reading today, (1 Cor 12:31-13:13) but how easily we forget that love, caring for others, may not always feel nice for us or for them! The surgeon does not want to hurt his patient, but despite modern anaesthetics, the after effects are still painful, and healing can be slow and difficult. The parents who insist that their offspring learn how to use a vacuum cleaner may not be welcomed at the time, but in the end a valuable lesson is learned.
Remember too that real love also requires us to say hard things and to be prepared to hear hard truths said about us. I am always saddened when I hear of people in positions of authority, politicians or priests, who think that they should be above criticism, and resent it when someone points out their mistakes. We see Jeremiah doing this in our 1st reading today. (Jeremiah 1:4-5. 17-19) He was prepared to attack the highest in the land, when he thought they were doing wrong, even though he clearly knew that doing so would not give him an easy life. Love, the love of God for his people, was what impelled him and also gave him the strength to say what had to be said. So we hear God encouraging him with the words “Do not be dismayed at their presence, or in their presence I will make you dismayed” and we see Jesus in the same situation as he challenges his own people in our Gospel (Luke 4:21-30)
I know of pregnant women who have challenged doctors who have told them after a scan, that the baby will be deformed and they must have “a termination”. I have heard many stories where the woman bravely refused to have this done, and the baby was born perfect. Here is another hard message of love that should be heard by more people. To live with the uncertainty of what your unborn baby will be like is an agony for many women, even when the scan has not shown up possible problems. But when a doctor (and doctors are gods are they not?) tells you something, going against such advice requires immense bravery, and some just do not have that strength.
Yes, speaking up for what is right is another example of love at work, and it is often a hard thing to do, even when the people you share it with are your friends and neighbours. Our Confirmation Group all knew last Wednesday, and I hope you know this too, is that one of the things we have to do as members of the Church is to face the hard task of sharing our faith with others. This is rarely easy is it? To say the right thing at the right time when we fear we may be misunderstood is so so difficult
But some of the difficulties of sharing the faith are simply the practical problems of reaching the people who need to hear it. This week a young man called Paddy was dying at home, and I had no difficulty in getting to him when the Macmillan nurse phoned. I was able to jump in my car and be with the family in 20 minutes. But there are many parts of the world where that simply cannot happen, because without some kind of transport, walking to another village in the parish would not take hours, but days.
Having enough money to buy some kind of vehicle to take the priest, or the sister or some other lay worker to every part of a large parish in Africa or Asia or South America is often quite impossible for the parish concerned, but there is a charity here in the UK that specialises in doing just that. It is called Survive-MIVA. MIVA stands for Missionary Vehicle Association and this is a charity founded and run by ordinary Catholics like you in Liverpool to buy appropriate vehicles for poor parishes all over the world.
Recent purchases include : –
A 350ccMotor bike for a Parish in Andra Pradesh in India £1500.
A 4 wheel drive van for the Immaculate Heart Clinic & Maternity Hospital in Kogi State, Nigeria. £19,300
36 bicycles for the Catechists of a Parish in Uganda A Parish made up of eighteen outstations, each with a Catechist and Eucharistic Minister, and with a total Christian population of 23,000. £2700
An aluminium dinghy and 25hp engine for a Parish in Tokelau, an Island in the Pacific Ocean. £2800
There are lots more like that. This is one of my favourite Catholic charities. Please support them See www.survive-miva.org/
January 28, 2016
Frances writes on the Readings for this coming weekend : These seem to me to be a reflection on the life of the believer and what that entails. Many brought up under the Catholic ancient regime may think that this meant unwavering submission, unquestioning obedience to the Magisterium – though whether those at the local level ever stretched themselves to find out what that was is open to question, as I know to my cost as an auditor on the matrimonial tribunal of our diocese. Quite clearly this was neither the thinking of Jesus in our Gospel or the way of Jeremiah. If we follow their way, true loyalty to God may involve questioning and upsetting the rich and powerful in the community and the church; deliberately treading on toes and being prepared for the consequences. The attitude of Pope Francis suggests that even someone at the very top may be called to this uncomfortable and risky way of life, but that the one so called must follow the truth unflinchingly.
The Prophet Jeremiah (Jer 1:4-5. 17-19), prophet of times of national upheaval and religious reform, and the Babylonian exile in the early 6th century BC, took on this role in opposition to what seems to have been much of the nation; seeing his God-given task as one in which he had “To confront all this land: the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests and the country people.” He was warned by God that this task would bring him into grave danger, and yet he persisted against kings and court officials who were intemperate and foolhardy guardians of the state. People who would not accept that Babylon was just too powerful, and that vassal status would guard and save them. Instead, their kings allied with a faithless Egypt, and rebelled against Babylon to the immense cost of the people. Prophets like Jeremiah, who could accurately read the signs of the time, were punished, and Jeremiah himself narrowly escaped execution. The job of the genuine prophet may be very uncomfortable indeed.
In our Gospel (Luke 4:21-30) we witness the start of Jesus’ ministry with his first synagogue sermon at Nazareth. At first, as he expounded the text of Isaiah all went well, and he was universally applauded but there was surprise that this young man, the son of the local carpenter should be so able. But when Jesus went on to develop the exegesis of the text in more detail, we see that very quickly he rubbed the crowd up the wrong way. It seems that while he appealed to their narrow nationalism all was fine, but when, using the very scriptures they placed so much reliance upon, he extended his ministry to first a pagan Sidonian and then Naaman the Syrian as worthy of God’s grace and healing as found in the time of Elijah and Elisha, there was uproar. People, it appears, like to think that they are not simply possessors of God’s truth and grace, the gift of the divine, but can be the arbitrators of precisely who should or should not receive it. At Nazareth, it appeared, the crowd were guilty of a very careful ‘cleansing’ of those awkward and uncomfortable bits in their past, and given to excluding what they did not like to hear. Even worse, it appears that they were even prepared to kill the bringer or reminder of such ill tidings, even when they were firmly lodged in the very story of their faith and their nation. Jesus, it is made clear from the start of his ministry, was due for a very rocky ride. Yet he clearly saw his mission to Israel in precisely these terms. His job was to jolt a complacent people from their limited and secure interpretations of their relationship with God into something altogether deeper and more demanding and exciting. And if that risked his being killed, then so be it. It seems we too, must be aware of this tendency in ourselves, and be prepared to face painful and demanding reinterpretations of our faith when the need arises.
Paul (1 Cor 12:31-13:4-13) was also at pains to teach, exhort and reform the lives of the Christians of Corinth, as we have seen over the last three weeks. This work required him to challenge accepted norms in society, as the small group espoused Christianity. Quite clearly the new believers took to the faith with vigour, just as did others who adopted other Eastern cults like Mithras and Isis. The problem was that the Christians easily squabbled and fought for the top jobs in the new community, viewing it rather as they did everything else in this up and coming city. Paul had to remind them of the communal and supportive nature of their Christian life together, and the different ministries God gave – for the good of the whole. Here he goes on to lay down the most important criteria of all – Love. Without that real love and concern for each other even their different ministries were doomed to failure. All of us can think of brilliant preachers and educated men whose coldness and lack of charity to the congregation has proved fatal, or of those who work by control and stifle the gifts of others due to their own needs and lack of real care. In the same way that the Pope has insisted that we ‘love’ the scriptures, so the Pauline teaching that everything we do be rooted in love is vital for the real working of the Christian community. Perhaps this is the most important and most neglected part of Catholic teaching and we, who like to have everything ship-shape, would do well to remember it.
January 24, 2016
I was horrified, though sadly not surprised, to discover that some Catholics in Britain will actually complain if a black man becomes their Parish Priest! Nowadays, with the shortage of young English men prepared to take on the challenge of being a priest, we are very blessed that in places like Nigeria, young men are being trained to be missionary priests, and then come to England to serve in parishes which otherwise might not have a priest at all. We have two priests of this kind in Oxford, two devout men serving God and his people, and yet some complain!
Of course, this is not new. 150 years ago English Catholics were complaining about the Irish, swamping their churches; and then they had to cope with Irish priests! Almost a 1000 years ago, Anglo-Saxons had to put up with those Normans who took over all the best jobs in the Church. Only one Anglo-Saxon Bishop remained, Wulstan of Worcester, whose day we celebrated last week. The rest were replaced by foreigners!
St Luke, when he wrote his story of Jesus, the Gospel today, (Luke 1:1-4.4:14-21) actually addressed it to someone who was, for many in the Church, yet another foreigner, one of those hated Romans. We even heard his name today. He writes “I have decided to write an ordered account for you Theophilus, so that your Excellency may learn how well founded the teaching is.” But those early Christians had already become part of a very mixed community of believers, and had discovered that following Jesus was meant to drive away all racial and ethnic barriers. It was always a difficult thing to do, and as the Church became settled in various countries, it became even harder, as old prejudices against foreigners re-emerged.
One of the reasons this is so important is because the Church is meant to be a sign of what the whole world should be like – one family from all the nations of the world worshipping one God together. At its best, of course, this is what the Catholic Church is. It is one of the reasons why those who remained Catholic in England in the 16thC wanted to remain loyal to the Pope in Rome rather than the King in England. For the new Church of England was a national rather than an international Church.
This is where our 2nd Reading is so important (1 Cor 12:12-30) as St Paul gives us this image of the Church as a body with many different parts, all of which must work together to make the body whole. And note that he stresses the importance of parts of the body that some might have thought less worthy. He knew how easily some Christians had begun to look down on others who were poor or foreign, and he would not allow such thoughts to go unchecked.
However, Paul goes further, because he wants us to realise that this is something to celebrate. He presents it as the glory of our common Baptism. He writes, “In the one Spirit we were all baptised, Jews as well as Greeks, slaves as well as citizens.” So the Church is a community where differences are actually celebrated not just tolerated. This is a teaching that should bring tears of joy to our eyes, as it did to those who heard the words that Ezra read out to them from our 1st Reading. (Neh 8:2-10) They shouted out “Amen Amen” which means “Yes Yes, It is true.” That’s why we say it at the end of every prayer. “Amen we say, yes it is true”. God does love us and care for us. God calls us to be one family, and what a family, a family of love and goodness and mercy, whoever we are and wherever we come from. Yes that should bring tears to our eyes!
And so we come to those great words that Jesus reads out today in our Gospel, (Luke 4:14-21) where he sums up his mission in the words of Isaiah. And here too it is a mission that is meant to bring joy and mercy rather than oppression to all men and women, whatever their background or condition in life. So it is “Good news for the poor.. liberty to captives…. new sight… to the blind… freedom … for the downtrodden.” It is “The Lord’s year of favour!”
That is our calling too, isn’t it? To proclaim to the world the glory of our multi-coloured humanity. To rejoice in our diversity. So we enjoy the fact that even in deepest Oxfordshire we are not just English, but Irish and Polish, Indian and African, with a dash of Italian of course, and of American both north and south. All here to worship God and proclaim his love to a world that needs it so much. Amen! May it truly be so!
January 20, 2016
Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- When we truly love someone we show this by our interest in the loved person, we want to find out all about them and we share ourselves with them. Truly loving relationships moreover are inclusive ones; one’s which make room for others, friends who also find a valued place in our lives. Surely the same must be said for our relationship with God, the most important being in the universe and in our daily lives, and to whom we will relate all our lives long. This necessity to engage with God, and to know him and share our lives with him, is not a new thing, as we witness throughout the Old and New Testaments. Pope Francis spoke recently of the need for us to love the scriptures and to be deeply involved in their study. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in the second century, spoke of this as a process by which God and humanity become familiar or accustomed to each other. It saddens and surprises me that so many Christians know so little of their bibles, and there is an appalling ignorance of the scriptures today in general, as witnessed by many quiz programmes. Many people cheerfully ‘give-up’ religion, or indeed espouse another, with lamentable ignorance of what the faith is truly about, and this failure has other far reaching results, as any teacher of English literature knows to her cost. All three of our readings this week are concerned with precisely this matter, and stress its critical importance in our lives. Ignorance of scripture, Jerome opinioned, is ignorance of Christ. Not to be engaged in this life-long quest for God, in which we grow as believers, surely condemns the Christian to a narrow fundamentalism, and a life in which worship of God becomes confined to some statuary obligations performed from habit, but with little relevance to the rest of life, and will ultimately result in an increasingly empty faith, one unfitted to deal with the rigours life throws at us.
When Nehemiah (Neh 8:2-6.8-10) returned to Palestine from exile in Babylon under the Persians in the 6th century, as an official of the Persian court, he and other Jews had to grow in their understanding of the Law amidst all the demands and changes that life in Israel brought to them. As refugees they would have faced many challenges, not the least the need to settle down in a homeland now occupied by those never deported, or even foreigners placed there by the Babylonians. What we see then is not the simple reading of the scriptures, the law, but interpretation of it, application given by Ezra the priest as they came to appreciate its relevance in the changed circumstances of their lives. We are told that this was a very seminal moment for them, as they wept and worshipped, and took to heart the scriptures they already knew, but needed to reinterpret according to their changed circumstances.
Our Gospel (Luke 1:1-4.4:14-21) shows us Luke’s spreading of the vision of Jesus and his ministry out beyond Judaism to incorporate another important person with links to the pagan administration of his day who was just like Nehemiah. Theophilus was a former pagan Roman aristocrat and Luke’s patron and sponsor in his doctoring business. By way of introduction to his picture of Jesus, Luke tells Theophilus how Jesus began his ministry by teaching in the synagogue at Nazareth. Clearly, once again, Jesus was taking a passage of the scriptures and discussing it, interpreting it for the benefit of his hearers, and when he moved on to use part of Isaiah 61 we suddenly witness a moment in which such a passage of scripture takes off, leaps from the page as a description of the life and ministry of Jesus himself. Now no longer confined to words on a scroll, it becomes the leitmotif of a life lived wholly in God. Here the word of God has become human, and within that all the hopes and challenges of Israel come to the fore, as the people are faced with the Word incarnate who will alter forever their understanding of God and his relationship to his creation, and the invitation to each and every human being who heard those words.
It was just the same for St Paul. (1 Corinthians 12:12-30). Paul was dealing with a difficult collection of people in Corinth, people much given to competition and clawing their way to the top in the nouveau-riche world that was the Corinth of his day. By way of convincing them of the new and challenging Christian message, one of number of new faiths to hit the city from the East, and in competition with those like Isis; Christianity, unusually for paganism, had moral implications and right and wrong ways of living out one’s daily life, and Paul struggled to find the right language to convey its communal and caring demands. He did this by use of metaphors. Paul was at no time giving a lecture on anatomy, rather by use of this metaphor of the way the human body works he picked on an illustration everyone could understand to illuminate the radical Christian doctrine of the human community in Christ and in each other. The implications of Paul’s metaphor are very far reaching, as they were for the first Corinthian Christians, and as indeed they are for us now; for he suggests that as Christians we are utterly dependent upon each other, as the eye is to the hand. We together form this extraordinary thing called the Church, the body of Christ. Our individual human bodies are as interrelated to others bodies as are the organs of our own bodies. It goes far beyond ‘no man is an island’, and reaches into the depths of what it means to be human, indicating that without that critical conception of our mutual need and support we are less than fully human. Paul’s staggering metaphor on the community of the Church, and its implications in Christ-like self-giving, are issues for daily exploration and growth, and his work is redolent with meaning in our so dysfunctional modern world. So we have much to contribute and much to learn from our continual study of the Bible.
January 17, 2016
My guess is that most people, hearing that stuff about Zion and Jerusalem in our 1st Reading today, (Isaiah 62:1-5) wonder what on earth all this has got to do with us. The answer is very simple. Isaiah was using both words, not to describe a city – geographical location – but a people, in fact the people of God. For Christians therefore, the full realisation of who are the People of God is us of course – the Church of God. We know what the full realisation of this will be from the vision of the new Jerusalem that we hear of in the last book of the Bible (Rev 21:2) “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
If you are awake you may have heard that word “bride” already today, and rapidly made the link with today’s Gospel. (John 2:1-11) For in it, the glory and power of God in Jesus is revealed where? Yes, at a wedding in Cana of Galilee where ordinary water is changed into wine. So, we, you and me, the very ordinary people of the Church, are the bride at the wedding, we are the glorious new wine, we are the holy People of God. Yes, we know only too well that we have not made it yet to the fullness of what this means; but we are assured by these readings that we are on the way; that in the power of God we can be transformed from ordinary people into glory. That is our hope, not just for us individually, as and when we die, but together as a holy people struggling to live out God’s glory in our ordinary daily lives.
So this great reading from Isaiah is addressed to us. Listen again to what he says of us:-
“The nations then will see your integrity, all the kings your glory and you will be called by a new name, one which the mouth of the Lord will confer. You are to be a crown of splendour in the hand of the Lord, a princely diadem in the hand of your God.”
It’s a tall order isn’t it? Especially as we look not just at ourselves, but at the Church throughout the world and throughout the ages, failing again and again to live up to our calling.
So what should we do? Well as individuals, we always need to admit our failings, and turn to God. For the more we are open, truly open, to God the Holy Spirit working within us, the more likely we are to let a bit more of his glory through. Note that! It is not about us becoming better people, although that is to be hoped for, but much more important, about letting God be seen through us. For remember, as St Paul implies, God’s power can and does work through us even in our weakness. (See 2 Cor 12:9) But we also need to recognise our part in making the Church more and more the glorious new wine, the new Jerusalem that God wants us to be. We do this first of all simply by being at Mass, especially on a Sunday, but on weekdays too. But we also do it by being an active member of the Church rather than a spectator.
In one sense we are lucky at Eynsham that we have a relatively small number of people at Mass, and so it is much easier for us to get to know one another. I have been really thrilled in the last few weeks to see a number of people here step forward to play a new part in the life of our community. Some have started dropping in on Monday mornings to share together the readings for the Sunday ahead and in doing so help me with my Homilies. We have a new person looking after the Rotas so as many people as possible are involved in the Mass each week. Someone else has just volunteered to lead us in our links with CAFOD caring for the poor and starving of the world and so on.
For Catholics who go to churches where there may be several hundred, if not over a thousand, at Sunday Mass the challenge to be part of the Church and not just a spectator is much greater. Such people need to look for groups within the larger church where they might get involved and get a sense of belonging that way, because just arriving at Mass on a Sunday where no-one notices you and you do not even say “Good morning” to other people is not good for anyone’s growth as a Christian. The least you can do is to say a Good Morning to those sitting next to you before you leave, and even better to get into a longer conversation.
Notice how our 2nd Reading (1 Cor 12:4-11) talks of the various gifts of the Holy Spirit that we might have. But if we read on beyond where our reading stops we would see that the Holy Spirit works in us for the good of the Church and that whatever way God works in us it must be based on love. You may have the gift of prophecy, the ability to share your faith with others; but we must always do this and other things, however ordinary they may seem, as members of the Church. I am always saddened when I hear of a Catholic doing something really good in the world and nobody knows they are a Catholic. So, good for those footballers and other athletes who make the sign of the cross publicly before a game or a race. We should be as brave as them and do this ourselves more often, not for ourselves, but for the Church. For this is the way the glory of God in and through his Church is proclaimed.
January 10, 2016
How can we find the glory of God in our very ordinary lives? It can be hard, can’t it? But one way is instead of looking for God now, to look back and identify significant moments in our past. What is interesting, if we do that, is that sometimes they will be moments that we knew were significant then – first day at school – passing those exams – getting married etc. But other moments may well be things that we didn’t realise were so important at the time,; and it’s often when we think on those things that we begin to see how God was at work in us, even though we didn’t realise it.
But whether we knew they were special moments at the time or not, looking back on them and seeing where we are now, can often reveal all sorts of things about the event that we didn’t realise at the time. It certainly took me many years to realise what deciding to be a priest has done to me, and I still have to pinch myself occasionally and remind myself who I am, and this can be very challenging (or ought to be) and not just very joyful.
There is no doubt that the Baptism of Jesus. that we celebrate today, was a very important moment for him. But there are two things to notice. First, although today’s Gospel writer (Luke 3:15-22) speaks as if everyone saw “heaven open and the Holy Spirit descending”, Matthew and Mark say “he saw” it. In other words, that it was Jesus alone who saw heaven open and the Spirit descending; that this was not seen by those standing round. This is a way of writing from ancient times that is a bit strange to us. Our world tries imply that “real” things are those that can be observed by everyone, whilst things in the mind are less real or not real at all. Yet we all know that there is a distinction that should be made, between dreams and phantasies of the mind that are not real, and thoughts and decisions in our mind, on which we base much of what we do. To love is to have a series of thoughts about caring for someone else in our mind, but these thoughts put into action are very real indeed. Likewise evil thoughts sadly!
So, when heaven opens for us, as it did for Jesus; when we have a moment when we know God is with us in a wonderful way, this will usually happen in our mind, and nobody else will notice, unless we tell them; and yet it can change completely the direction of our life. It certainly did this for Jesus. But not immediately, for as we know from the Gospels, Jesus then had to go somewhere quiet and alone to work out what actions he should take in response to this inner experience. This is what is called the Temptations of Christ, and they are immensely important for all that Jesus then does, right up to his death on the cross.
As it was for Jesus, so it will be for us. God is at work in and around us whether we recognise and respond to his presence and power or not. But working out how to respond to this is not an easy thing. We’re imperfect people and often muddled in our response to God, aren’t we? We may often get it wrong, or at least a bit wrong, on the way; and admitting that, and learning from that, is a very important part of the never-ending journey towards God. We might well call this process prayer; provided we realise that prayer is not just what we do, it is also what we allow God to do in us. So Titus in our 2nd Reading today (3:4-7) does not call this process “prayer” but being “justified by his grace, to become heirs looking forward to inheriting eternal life.” So the journey is not so much, us moving towards God, as us realising that God is and has been present in our lives all the time; even though often we did not know it.
When Isaiah in our 1st Reading (40:9-10) calls out, “Shout without fear, to the towns of Judah. ‘Here is your God.’ Here is the Lord coming with power”; we may not realise this is happening, that God is at work in us with power, even when he is. Jesus knew this only too well. True power is often not shown by outward things but by inward glory. God shows his power most of all when Jesus is weak and helpless on the cross, crying out in agony. We too may learn as much about God when we are weak and uncertain as when we feel strong and uplifted, and we need to use every moment for him.
Have you heard the ancient story from Epictetus of a starving man standing in a queue for cheap cabbages? But when he reaches the front there are no cabbages left! The question then is what will we do then? Do we rage and shout, do we weep and curse, or do we simply move on? Whatever we do, right or wrong, as Christians we must realise God is always with us. That is what “compassion” means!
January 6, 2016
Frances writes on the readings for the Baptism of the Lord :- These readings are all designed to focus upon the reality of the human life of Jesus among us. God with humanity; humanity transformed in his image. This task is partly achieved by way of comparison with the world into which he was born, and into which he would bring his saving grace and so change forever the world in which we live.
Second Isaiah, (Isa 40:1-5.9-11) the prophet of the Babylonian exile of the 6th century BC, deliberately wrote a message of hope and transformation to his exiled people at one of the darkest moments in their national life. His country, Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians of the Fertile Crescent along with hundreds of other tribes and nations. Their temple in Jerusalem, by then the centre and focus of their worship of the One true God, had been plundered of all its wealth and beauty and left a heap of smouldering ruins ; and the entire elite, from king and royal family, courtiers and intelligentsia and skilled workers, had been dragged off to labour in Babylonia. It looked at if the entire ‘God of Israel’ project was finished. But this was precisely the moment for optimism on the part of Isaiah, who recognised that a renewed and revitalised Judaism would ultimately rise from the ashes – the work which would produce this great renaissance indeed began and flourished in Babylon. Not for him was the nation to go under to a pantheon of pagan gods, but rather this fertile environment would nurture a reformed Judaism, one orientated to the truth and full of hope in its ancient promises.
When Titus became the first bishop, or leader of the Christians, on the island of Crete, he too had a similar revisionist agenda. (Titus 2:11-14. 3:4-7) Now it would be very easy to read ‘Titus’ as a heavily moralising tract, and certainly our Jerusalem Bible translation seems to have done precisely that with its invocation to ‘give up everything that does not lead to God’. This could very easily be seen as a call to reject the world and sit and wait for the great in-bursting of God, a moment of Rapture, an attitude Paul vigorously rejects in Thessalonians. But the Greek suggests something quite different. The Greek calls us to ‘renounce impiety and worldly passions’, which is not the same thing at all, and much more specific. So why does Titus focus on these two areas of the lives of the Cretans? Not only was Crete now part of the Roman Empire, with its plethora of gods which were clearly opposed to Christianity, we have to remember that statues of the gods pervaded every aspect of public life. Religion was never a private thing as it has become for us. Such ‘idols’ were at street corners; at the law courts where oaths to them were taken in legal matters; they were resplendent at the amphitheatres and in all the games laid on for public entertainment; at the baths and in paintings and decorations at peoples homes. Military life too was suffused with reference to the gods. There were ‘worldly passions aplenty too, with the games, brothels and the abuse of the person by slavery, for Crete had its big slave markets. But there was something about life on Crete which was altogether older and more deeply engrained than Roman ways. Way, way back, in the Bronze Age Crete worshipped the Goddess Dea, and by the 9th century BC Crete was one of the great centres of the myth of Cronos-Zeus. There is an ancient cave on Mt Ida where the child Zeus was said to have been nurtured, hidden from his devouring father, Cronos. These ‘creation’ myths exercised a powerful hold on the population, and we can imagine that Christianity really had to work to capture the imaginations of the people to the truth of the incarnation and our human destiny in God. Indeed, Titus speaks of the teaching or rather training, pedagogy, necessary in the faith, and whilst we might be inclined to gloss over this phrase, for the original hearers it would have had far more the sense of the exhausting physical preparation for the Olympic Games or the very careful schooling of the mind in Philosophy. Just as with Isaiah, whose work flooded his people with hope of salvation from captivity, so on Crete too, the newly arrived Christian message was never some dour call to smarten up their act, but rather training in becoming a new creation, one fit for the company of God himself. It was full of excitement and joy.
All this, as we see from Isaiah and Titus, has very little to do with our achievement, but is a work of grace. What we have to do is be open to that experience, alert and expectant, welcoming. This surely is what our reading from Luke’s gospel is about. (LK 3:15-16.21-22). I think we see this encapsulated in John the Baptist’s description of himself: “I am not fit to undo the strap of his sandals.” We do not live any longer in a culture of slaves and masters, of hierarchies and minions, but I can assure you, as one who was nurtured in such a world in Apartheid South Africa, that there are ways and means of expressing status and grinding down the weak and the lowly. John, who could have claimed the top role for himself, deliberately stepped aside from the temptation and assumed his rightful place, that of the lowest of the household slaves before his Lord, in a movement of complete self-effacement in response to grace in the person of Jesus; and the image we are given of this moment is not one of resentment or agony, but of joy and liberation. There simply was no moral agonising on his part, quite simply the knowledge of who he was and who Jesus was, and he was thrilled to stand aside. Let us watch for those moments of grace in the coming year.
January 3, 2016
I was watching a recording the other day of a rather special orchestra playing Tchaikovsy’s 4th Symphony, and I found tears welling up in my eyes. Well yes, the music was very grand as Tchaikovsky’s music usually is, but it wasn’t that which moved me. No, it was the orchestra itself; for this was the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra created by Daniel Barenboim, and the young musicians in this orchestra are drawn from most of the countries torn by war and hatred in the Middle East, from Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon Palestine and Syria. As the commentator said, “They play with such power because they believe so strongly in what they are doing.. creating beautiful music that transcends the sad divisions their countries face.” Yes, it was looking at them, creating such beauty together that moved me to tears. And that beauty is a vision isn’t it? A vision of a world in which all men and women of every race and religion can see themselves as one family working together to make the world not just a place of peace, but a place of beauty as well, for us all.
This, as you have probable heard me say before, is the heart of the Epiphany message. The wise men traditionally represent all the nations of the world, coming to Jesus, and being united in and by him in a common pursuit for wisdom and light and peace. As we heard in our 1st Reading (Isaiah 60:1-6) “The nations come to your light, kings to your dawning brightness” and as we sang in our Psalm “All nations shall fall prostrate before you, O Lord”
But it’s easy to turn this great vision of peace and light into something awful ; an encouragement for Christianity to dominate the world – to have the idea, and impose it on others, that everyone should be a Christian, and then the vision of Epiphany would be realised. As you know, there have been times in the history of Christianity when this is just what so-called Christians have tried to do. I only have to mention the word “The Crusades” and remind you of how fierce Western soldiers ravaged the Middle East in the Middle Ages. It is no wonder that the so-called Islamic State – note the parallel! – calls us westerners, the Crusaders, and then seeks to imitate such ways, by trying to turn everyone into their kind of Muslim, killing their opponents, just like the Crusaders did.
We know from history that even when nations are all Christian that doesn’t stop war, does it? Look at Europe where every nation once claimed to be Christian, and yet its people were ravaged by war for centuries. Look at Britain facing endless Civil Wars for hundreds of years! No. Peace is not achieved by everyone having the same faith, for the Epiphany vision is not one of Jesus as a great King imposing himself on us, but of a tiny baby drawing us into a vision of love and peace that lies within and beyond him. Remember that one of the temptations of the grown-up Jesus is to be the ruler of the world, but he sees that if he takes that path it is the evil one who will win, and so instead he takes the path of service and sacrificial love.
So one of the great dangers we Christians face is to identify Jesus as like us in every way, to make him, as some have done, into a nice Western man with fair skin and blue eyes, the kind of man that we think of as good-looking. The reality is that Jesus almost certainly had brownish skin and brown eyes and looked distinctively Middle Eastern and was probably not particularly attractive. For it was his personality that attracted not his looks! Christians of every nation therefore, wanting to think of Jesus as like them, often depict him as looking like themselves. So in Africa you can find images of Jesus as black, in China as Chinese, and so on. In fact we have no idea what he actually looked like, and so depict him in one way or another, like this, not because that is what he was really like, but as a way of making a theological statement.
Seeing this sort of thing is however good for us, for it reminds us that Jesus cannot be identified with any particular race. What matters is that he was human, not what his ethnic origin was. For if he were not really and fully human, if God had just appeared in human form without actually being human, then our faith is a waste of time. It is only by becoming a real human that God declares his utter oneness with us, despite all our terrible mistakes as human beings, from the way we kill one another to the way we pollute our planet. Despite all this, God is with us. He loves us and will never desert us, and it is that vision of all that is best about being human that is the vision we are called to proclaim. We may not be able to create superb music like those young musicians in that orchestra, but we can all do something to make the world a more beautiful and loving place. That must be our calling this year and every year and for ever.
December 27, 2015
Every baby, especially the first one, is a challenge to the parents, isn’t it? It makes them question their previous priorities, and their previous way of life and of sleep! Now a tiny baby takes centre stage, and their lives are turned upside down. That’s surely why the story of God coming to us as a baby is so important for us isn’t it? But it doesn’t, or it shouldn’t, stop there.
As the baby grows into a toddler a different set of challenges emerge for the parents. Keeping the toddler safe, of course, but more important answering all those questions, especially the “Why” ones! At that age children have no inhibitions and will ask anything, often at the most inappropriate moment, won’t they? If they ask about God, then the parents really find it hard. After all, how do you explain an invisible power that no-one can explain to a 3 year old who wants an answer? By the way, I do have some ways of coping with such questions worked out, after almost 50 years doing it, so do refer them to me if you want to.
The best parents always encourage their children to continue to ask questions, and not to be afraid about bothering people, like priests ; because that is the way all of us learn. Scientists above all will tell you that good science is not principally about providing answers, but of always questioning, always asking why.
I hope you have already seen the link I am about to make with today’s Gospel, (Luke 2:41-52) for we know from this story that questioning was clearly encouraged by Mary and Joseph in that house in Nazareth where they lived. Otherwise how would Jesus, as a 12 year old, have been bold enough to have been found by them “in the Temple, sitting among the doctors, listening to them, and asking them questions.”? But we also know from the stories of the Gospels of his later life that it did not stop there, that questions were always important for Jesus. After all, his last words from the Cross were “My God, my God, WHY have you forsaken me?”
There are questions all the way through the Gospels. Remember that passage (Luke 10:25-31) where Jesus says that the heart of his teaching is to love God and to love one’s neighbour? It is a classic example of the way Jesus taught people. A man asks “Who is my neighbour?” – a good question, but Jesus, instead of giving a direct answer, tells the story of the Good Samaritan; of the three different people who came upon the man who had been robbed and left to die, and how only one, a hated foreigner, stopped to help. And then Jesus asks the man a question “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
This way of teaching by asking questions sounds very modern. It is, after all, the way all good teachers work, at least some of the time, drawing out from the students what they already know, and coaxing them with appropriate questions to go a bit further. One of the greatest teachers of the Catholic faith also used that method. St Thomas Aquinas in the 13th Century wrote a number of enormously long books summing up his teaching on the faith. But all are based on a series of questions. First he asks the question, and then gives the answers, but we knows that when he was actually teaching live, he would not have given the answers, but tried to get his students to work out the answers, always more than one, from the questions he asked them. In the end however, he had a vision of Jesus, and after that he wrote no more, saying to a friend who tried to get him writing again, “Reginald, I cannot, because all that I have written seems to me like straw”
What a pity that some priests have tried to teach the faith as a series of facts to be learned, rather than an exploration into the unknown? It is sad too that I still meet people who worry that asking questions, is somehow a sign of a lack of faith when actually it is usually a sign that their faith is deepening.
So let us all follow the way of Jesus, let us be as he wants us to be, like little children in a loving family, let us explore… wonder… question, and find a relationship with God like that of a lively questioning toddler, or a 12 year old. Never afraid to ask, and aware that sometimes there are no easy answers, just more questions.