Glory in the darkest moments of life

The Easter Vigil

Being a softie I only select three Old Testament readings at the Easter Vigil whereas some priests would impose on you the full rigour of seven! Even so, I know that many people find these readings difficult to fit into the Easter celebration, for they are words and stories from a quite different world view. This time, I chose the ancient story of the Creation, then the escape from the Egyptians by crossing the Sea, and finally one from Isaiah. All with words and phrases that most people find strange and puzzling.

The first thing to remember about these readings, and the psalms that go with them, is that they are not meant to be understood easily. They are an essential part of this strange beginning to these Easter Vigil ceremonies, where we are encouraged to walk into a dark building where we cannot see very well, even when the candles are lit. All of this is a reminder of our endless human struggle to understand what life and death is all about, and how God fits into it. For the way through death to eternal life is not an easy process.

Remember too that the disciples, although they knew these readings a lot better than we do, also did not properly understand them. That’s why two of them on the road to Emmaus had to meet the risen Jesus who then explains how all these readings actually point to him – to the amazing truth that his death is not the end but points onwards to Resurrection.

We have to remember that the whole of the Old Testament is a journey of discovery. It might even be described as a pilgrimage. The writings were not written all in one go, but are the product of hundreds of years of thought and prayer. They are about the slow and difficult way in which the Israelite people came to believe in one invisible God, quite different from the mix of gods other peoples believed in. On this journey, recorded in these writings, they said and did some things that they later learned were at best a misunderstanding of what God wants, or at worse things were simply wrong. But in the midst of all these struggles gradually, very gradually, like the dawn slowly lightening the morning sky, deep truths about God would be revealed. It was these that Jesus fulfilled in his life, in his death and finally in his Resurrection, and which he then had to explain to his puzzled disciples.

The first reading we had tonight was one of the stories of the Creation of the world. (Genesis 1) Here we have our first hint at the Resurrection. Before the Universe existed we are told there was nothing, and that nothing is described asa formless void, there was darkness over the deep” Out of total darkness, nothingness, God creates light, and from this comes all life including us humans. Only God then can defeat the darkness, and bring life from what is dead. “God blessed them, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth ….  And so it was. God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good.” That is why we sometimes describe the Resurrection as “the new creation”.

The second reading (Exodus 14:14-15:1) was the story of the escape from the Egyptians. Again it appeared as if all was lost, that death at the hand of the Egyptians was all they could expect. Even as they cross where the sea has gone back, the Egyptians follow them. They reach the other bank and look back … to see the Egyptians struggling. The sea sweeps in, just as it does in Morecambe Bay in England, and those who would bring death are destroyed. And so they sang as we did, and almost certainly as Jesus and his disciples did in the Upper Room, although they sang in Hebrew : “I will sing to the Lord, glorious his triumph… The Lord is my strength, my song, my salvation. This is my God and I extol him, my father’s God, and I give him praise”                                                       

Finally we had a great passage from Isaiah (55:1-11) This was written during another time of great trouble more than 500 years later. The Jews had been sent into exile, and feared that they would not just lose their land, but their God too. They could see around them, people worshipping the Babylonian gods whose power seemed to have built an empire of power and wealth, whilst they struggled in poverty. But amazingly, Isaiah tells them “I (that is God) have made of you a witness to the peoples, a leader and master of nations.” You can imagine their scorn when he first told them that!  And so he goes on to remind them that God is not like them, not like the peoples around them. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways”. And then, just in case they have missed the point “It is the Lord who speaks” 

Most Jews, when they got back eventually to their own land interpreted this promise wrongly, either as an eventual military victory over all their enemies, or as a promise that one day God would act in a magic way to give them the glory they so desired. That’s why he crowds shouted Hosanna as Jesus entered Jerusalem, and then Crucify him when they didn’t get the glory they wanted. But the new life that Jesus offered was, and is, quite different for God is not like us. There are no magic solutions. There is only a God who even in the darkest moments walks with us and alongside us, leading us by a path of love and service and sacrifice to eternal life beyond the grave.  It is this God that we choose to follow on this Holy Night.       

 Easter Morning

How easily we silly humans seek the kind of glory that is only on the surface. Yes, we all like to escape from the real world with all its pain and suffering, and there is no harm in that, provided we realise that it is escapism, and that we must still return to the real world, and not just run away from it. We use all sorts of different ways of escape don’t we, ways to make us feel a bit happier? I swim and garden, and look at trees and birds, and I love a good film or book, with a happy ending of course. Some of you use football or another sport, either to do or to watch, or both, where you can lose yourself in the thrill of the moment. Some of you immerse yourself in computer games, or in shopping either online or on the High Street, and many of you, especially at Easter will also enjoy your chocolate!

 

Yes, all these things can give us moments of bliss, pure glory, when the harder things of life can be forgotten, at least for a little while.  Some people even use religion like this, who want it to be Easter and Christmas all year, and prefer to avoid the more difficult challenges that Jesus expects of those who really want to follow him.

 

Deep down, most of us realise the difference between surface glory, the kind I have just been talking about, and true glory, the glory that is the glory of God, the glory that comes from the much harder things of life – from loving someone when things get difficult, from caring for someone in sickness or pain or grief – you all know what I mean. Last night we heard words from the prophet Isaiah (55:1-11) that are so important here,“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways”. And then, just in case we have missed the point “It is the Lord who speaks”

 

In our 2nd Reading today (Col 3:1-4) St Paul tells us where to find this kind of glory, in a phrase that we can easily miss. He says “When Christ is revealed, you too will be revealed in all your glory with him.” This is a strange saying, for we tend to look for glory, even true glory, outside ourselves, as something that comes from God to us. So for example, people come to Mass expecting to receive something, to get a bit of glory, a nice religious feeling ; and if they don’t get what they want, they actually then say “I didn’t anything out of it!” But Paul says that true glory is within us, even if we cannot see it at the moment. It is a way of thinking that sees glory growing in us in the tougher things of life, even in the duller and much more boring things of life, where we least expect to find anything glorious. Most of all, he says that we will find that this glory that is in us will only be fully revealed beyond death.

 

The friends, the disciples, of Jesus had pinned their hopes on being given glory in some way from God if they followed him. Instead, all they seem to have been given is his terrible death on the cross. Most of them have run away in fear, and watch on at a distance whilst all their hopes are shattered. Early on the Sunday morning, they are just sad and bewildered. Only gradually do they realise that God is at work, but in a different way from the one they imagined. Finally at Pentecost some weeks away from now, they discover that it is only as they offer themselves to God that true glory will be found ; and for many of them that will eventually mean being killed for following Jesus

 

The glory that Jesus offers us was, and is, quite different from surface glory. For God is not like us. There are no magic solutions. There is only a God who even in the darkest moments walks with us and alongside us, leading us by a path of love and service and sacrifice to eternal life beyond the grave.  It is this God that we come here at Easter to follow. and we then go back to our very ordinary lives and get on with it, for that is where true glory will be found.      

 

 

 

 

     

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sharing God’s glory

As I am sure you know, Lent begins this Wednesday – Ash Wednesday as we call it – and once again I will be trying to help us all to think, not of what we might give up for Lent, but what extra we might do for God and for others. And this year, being the Year of Mercy, I thought I would choose one or two of the traditional works of mercy each week, to help us think about this.

 I must admit that when I looked at these works of mercy there was one that made my heart sink – to admonish sinners. It conjured up in my mind those stories that some of you have told me of priests who, in the past, went on and on about sin and hell, and turned the Catholic faith into an opportunity to make everyone feel guilty. But then I thought, that this is the very one I should start with, not just because the readings today mention sin, but because it is very easy to turn Lent into a time when we think about sin, and how we ought to be better people, rather than about God and his love and mercy. How easily we start thinking about the naughty things we might give up, most of all things we eat or drink, and miss the heart of the message of Jesus.

So as we think about admonishing sinners, we need to think most of all about how Jesus did it. And as soon as we do that, we will realise that Jesus did not go on about sin at all. No, his message was all about God; and the only people he admonished were those hypocrites who suggested that they were perfect and that everyone else was a sinner. Listen to Jesus on this ;-  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”(Matt 23:27-28)

So that’s the hypocrites dealt with, but how then did Jesus admonish everyone else? And the answer comes in two of our readings today. Look at Peter in the Gospel (Luke 5:1-11) He does not become aware that he is a sinner because Jesus has gone on about sin. No, he realises he is a sinner when confronted with the glory of God displayed in the amazing catch of fish. And then, he does not reel off a list of things that he will try to do to show God his love. No, his only response, is awe and wonder. Not “Lord I will try to be better” but simply “Leave me Lord, I am a sinner.” 

Our 1st Reading (Isaiah 6:1-8) also reminds us that we need first to look at God and his glory, not at ourselves.  Isaiah, like Peter, is blown sideways by this glory. He hears the words we now use at Mass. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. His glory fills the whole earth.’; and he responds “What a wretched state I am in”. But God doesn’t say “Yes you are”, and reel off all the things Isaiah should do to be a better person; no, he reaches out and touches his lips and takes away his sin, so that Isaiah, instead of launching into a massive scheme of self-improvement, can say “Here am I, send me.” In other words, now go and share the glory of God with others.

So as we begin Lent on Wednesday let’s do that too. Let’s do the ashing bit to remind us that we all are imperfect people, but then let’s get on with doing God’s work in one way or another. But as we remember that one of the things we are meant to do for God is to admonish sinners, we know that we do that simply by doing our best to share God’s glory, not going on about sin.

We are all lifted out of our selfishness when we see others doing good in tough circumstances, when we see, for example, people helping others in those refugee camps, or dragging desperate drowning people out of the sea. Most of us may not be able to do such heroic acts, but we can still help others in one way or another on a regular basis. We only have to look at that list of the corporal works of mercy to see what I mean – “to feed the hungry – give drink to the thirsty – clothe the naked – welcome the stranger – visit the sick – care for the imprisoned – bury the dead”  And I will be looking in more detail at some of these in the weeks that follow. Here in England however we will do two of these works of mercy soon as we have our CAFOD Fast Day and Collection in 2 weeks time.  Perhaps however we might think about doing a bit more about this? Maybe setting up a Standing Order so that we give to CAFOD or a similar agency every month rather than twice a year, or if we do this already increasing the amount we give?

 So here is a first suggestion for Lent. More to come in the weeks that follow.

 

 

Homily on finding glory

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!