God really cares

We may sing “There is a green hill far away” but actually the hill on which they killed Jesus was more likely to have been a dark hill with not much green in sight. It was, and is, a very dark moment in a long long history of we humans doing dark and awful things to one another. But that’s the point, isn’t it?  Because we Christians believe that this is not just another man being tortured by others; this is also God entering into our darkest human moments even into death itself.

 

There are two ways in which we care for those facing darkness and sadness in their lives. First there is the care we offer to those we do not know : to those poor refugees from Syria, especially the children, fleeing from a murderous tyranny ; or to those suffering from poverty and hunger in places where there is very little food. Yes, we care about them, we may even shed a tear when we see such suffering on the TV, and we may well give money to one or other of the charities that is trying to help. But our care is care at a distance, it doesn’t affect us personally.

 

Then there is the other kind of care, where someone close to us is in pain or in sadness. Maybe it is or has been a husband or wife or a child or a close friend. Here our care is very different. We long to help more than we actually can. We long to do something to take away their pain, and usually we can do very little, and we suffer even more because there is so little we can actually do. So we suffer alongside them. This kind of care for others is a care that really hurts. 

 

This is what we see in the crucifixion of Jesus. We are sometimes inclined to think of God as caring for us at a distance. Sad for us yes, trying to send help if we will receive it, but somehow remote from the actual suffering. But the God we Christians believe in is not like that. We believe that God cares for us as we care for someone close to us. His love is this different kind of love, a love for us that really hurts. Remember that God is in us, within us, and so feels all out pain and sadness.

 

And that is why it is important that we try to avoid making the death of Jesus too matter of fact. To see Jesus hanging on the cross so often that we fail to register the dreadful pain both physical and mental that Jesus is enduring as he hangs there. Here is God suffering for us, but choosing to do so as a real man unable to lessen the pain he is feeling. That is why on Good Friday we bring in a cross, and we hear the words “Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the salvation of the world”   Note that! Not just “Here is the cross” but “Behold”, a word  that is challenging as it tells us to look a lot more closely  “Behold”, a word that tells us that here is something that we must attend to, not just look at as we look at many things, and then pass on; but actually a word to make us stop and think and hopefully pray.

 

And what we are called to see is something deeper than the surface story. What we are called to see, surrounded as we are in this world by so much that is dark and sad, is God’s love and mercy pouring out for us. But it does not just begin on the cross, it actually begins way back when God chooses to become a man. So, surprising as it may seem, we must link Good Friday with Christmas. Medieval pictures sometimes even hint at this where the cross beams of the stable roof stand out as a reminder of the cross that is to come. Remember too the Wise Man’s gift of myrrh, the ointment used in burial – a surprising gift for a baby unless we know who this baby is! 

 

For this man is God come to us, this real flesh and blood suffering human body, is Emmanuel – God with us. This is not just the outward form of a man, as if he were play-acting, but a real flesh and blood human being who suffers and dies with just as much pain as we do, both as we watch over loved ones who suffer, or as we face pain and suffering ourselves.

 

In one of my parishes there was a woman who could not face coming forward to the cross on Good Friday. She had a very strong awareness of what the Crucifixion of Jesus really means – so much so that when she tried to come forward she could not cope with the tears that she shed. We might say “How emotional!  Why couldn’t she control herself?” but actually I thought her tears  were an example to us all, and I tried to persuade her to keep on coming, despite the tears, to help us all to be more aware of what it is we are looking at, and why we are encouraged, if we want to, to actually kiss the foot of the cross as a sign of our love and gratitude for this the greatest sacrifice ever made.

 

Amazing love, amazing grace!

 

When I survey the wondrous cross

On which the Prince of glory died

My richest gain I count but loss

And pour contempt on all my pride.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Easy to be blind and deaf

The rich man in our Gospel today (Luke 16:19-31) is not condemned for being rich, nor really for failing to help the poor. As we see from the punch-line at the end, his real problem is that he fails to listen to God. So when he is in Hell and asks God for help for his brothers, God reminds him that he and his brothers have received many messages from God, which they have ignored – from Moses and the prophets – and then God says : “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.”

Thus this story now becomes a challenge for all of us, not just for those of us who are rich. Otherwise I could sit back and say rather smugly – “Well I give regularly to the poor through CAFOD and Christian Aid and Gatehouse – so I’m OK.”  Once however I hear those words about listening to the messages from God, then I have to actually look at myself and see where else I may be failing to listen fully to what God wants me to do.  What might it be? What area of my thinking or my action needs challenging?  That is one of the reasons God wants us at Mass, to challenge us, to stretch our hearts a bit wider.

So where should you and I look for these challenges to where we are at the moment. St Paul makes it quite clear in our 2nd reading. (1 Timothy 6:11-16). “You must aim.. to be filled with faith and love, patient and gentle. Fight the good fight of the faith..”   Well there’s a challenge right away for me! Patient and gentle? Phew… my lack of it shows up especially when I am driving!!  But also to be filled with love. I think I am loving to everyone, until it becomes a bit hard, when some person or some group of people make me angry or disgusted, or simply when caring for certain people is just too risky. Then all my so-called love goes out the window.

I have been reading a Biography of Pope Pius XII. He is the Pope who is accused of not standing up to the Nazis and not helping the Jews during the 2nd World War. He was clearly a very devout Catholic, who cared deeply about people, but when faced with the Nazis he was, it seems, too scared to speak publicly against them. Privately, he could, but he was so concerned to present the Catholic Church as neutral between the warring nations that he just felt it impossible to say anything in public. You might be astonished at this, but remember that for quite a long time it seemed likely that the Nazis would win the war, and remember too that Italy that surrounded the Vatican was an ally of the Nazis for the first few years of the war.

So it’s easy, isn’t it, to think kind loving thoughts about people privately. It is easy to stand up for what is good and right privately. It is much more difficult to say things publicly. We all then make excuses. “I wanted to say something but I couldn’t think of the right words… or I thought I would be misunderstood… or whatever.”  Yes, like Jesus, we Christians are sometimes called to publicly say what we think even if we risk ridicule, or worse. Jesus was misunderstood, even by his closest friends, and thus he went to his death on the cross.

Poor Pope Pius XII thought he was preserving the Church. He had seen how persecution of the Jews and of Catholics had increased in Holland when the Catholic Bishops spoke out there. He was a good and holy man who just couldn’t quite do what we, looking back with hindsight, can see was what he should have done.

We are called as Christians to stand up for people, for groups that the world may dismiss as a nuisance, or as evil, just as the Jews were.  At the moment it is important that we stand up for Muslims, who are being attacked simply because a very few of them are violent extremists. That’s just one example, I leave you to think of others.

The message then is clear. We must not only listen to what God is saying, but act on it however hard that may be. Otherwise, even if we do not consider ourselves to be very rich, we are just like that rich man who ended up in hell. Hell is not what God wants for any of us, he is full of mercy and forgiveness. Hell is what we create when we shut ourselves off from the needs of others. The evidence seems to be that after the War Pope Pius XII wished he had done a lot more. No-one is perfect, especially not Popes. Thank God that he is merciful when we ask forgiveness for our failings, or I might end up in hell just for driving my car!