On discerning the mystery

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- There is a great link between the reading from Genesis (18:1-10), and our Gospel (Luke 10:38-42). Abraham witnesses to the Covenant between God and Israel and meets ‘three’ or ‘one’ divine figures, for Jews representing the heart of Judaism rooted in land, law and temple and in which Israel was distinguished by circumcision. What happens next? Well, we might think Abraham would worship faced by such a theophany, but no; his behaviour takes on the almost tragicomic attitude of a Mr Collins in the presence of Lady Catherine de Burgh! The divine presence, rather than leaving him awe-struck and prayerful, sends him into a veritable frenzy of activity. He ‘runs’ to meet them; presses water on them for washing their feet and suggests a nice lie down under a tree and offers them food. So far so good, over obsequious perhaps, even fussy, but his subsequent actions are the real give-away. Abraham hastened to find Sarah, and demands she set to and bake bread, but not the odd loaf you notice, but three bushels. As a bushel equals 8 gallons we can see that something of an overkill is suggested here, impressive no doubt but rather uncalled for we might think, even to celebrate divinity. Hurry, he said. Running to the cattle he chooses a fine calf, and the servant hurried to prepare it. Phew; what a lot of activity! No wonder Sarah laughed at the news that they would have a son, for Abraham seems to have been far too busy a body for things like that. Indeed, for him, focussing on the practical and on the heart of Judaism, such as scrupulously fulfilling the law in relation to visitors, seems to have entirely blotted out realization of what this visit from God was all about.

A similar situation seems to haunt the Martha-Mary account of our gospel. Faced with a visit from Jesus and all his followers, Martha becomes entirely engrossed in feeding and caring for the influx. Mary, to the contrary sits and ‘listens’. Seated at the Lord’s feet, she adores the mystery present in the body of this God-man. Now I don’t want to suggest that Christians should not practice hospitality – of course we should. But there is also a time for contemplation, for entering into the mystery present among us in Christ and all too often this can be forgotten in a frenzy of activity which obscures or even blots out our real purpose. The Christian who is always ‘doing’ and fails to be, and to be seen, as a person of prayer has lost the plot.

The Letter of Paul to the Christians of Colossae, on the Lycus valley inland from Ephesus spends quite a bit of time focussing on the ‘mystery’ of Christ. Last week we read the great creed-hymn sung to   and celebrating Christ in the churches of the area; celebrating Christ as the “image of the unseen God and the first-born of all creation.” Everything, literally everything, has its being and is rooted in Christ. Today (Cols 1:24-28) Paul three times refers to the ‘mystery’ of Christ. “The mystery hidden for generations and centuries and has now been revealed to his saints….The mystery is Christ among you, your hope of glory.” For the Christian the mystery of Christ is an on-going journey of exploration, adoration and personal involvement. This mystery is not a puzzle which once solved, like an Agatha Christi, rapidly loses its charm. No, the mystery of Christ is and must be a life-long journey for the believer, just as it was for Paul as he contemplated the meaning of his own sufferings in the service of the Lord he loved to the end. United with Christ in his own sufferings to spread the faith and bring the promise of eternal life to pagans, he understands this as an imaging and an immersion in the cross of the Lord: “In my own body…I do what I can to make up all that has still to be undergone by Christ for the sake of his body, the Church.” Paul is not suggesting that Christ’s sacrifice failed to bring us to redemption and a full relationship with God in Christ, but he realises that the Christian has to take Christ into himself, to become alter-Christi; so much a part of Christ as to be inseparable from him; and that of course is something which takes a lifetime. Mary, who could sit totally enthralled at the Lord’s feet, lost in adoration, is one who is on that journey.

For former pagans, this message that our relationship with God is an unfolding and ever developing relationship with the power behind the universe, into which their everyday experience was taken up and hallowed, was of quite unprecedented significance. People who had formerly seen themselves as of little significance – for the Province of Asia, their greatest significance was as tax payers to be ruthlessly exploited by the Roman state, but now they were promised “perfection in Christ”  not simply in some distant future, but already in and through the incarnation. This news must have been truly breathtaking in its power. No ancient wisdom of the Greek world offered them such a future, but in the mystery of the Incarnation, of the coming of God the Son to our world, they were assured of a wholly new reality. We who have grown old in familiarity with these words of Paul to the Colossians need to rethink our lives as they had, and embark on that journey of discernment as they did, and on it we too will become transformed into the image of God the Son as, saturated with his being, we are taken up into his life.

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