Root everything in love

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.

 

 

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Prodded by grace

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- With the start of a new Church Year and the coming of Advent, it is worth while exploring what this season is for. Our readings today are particularly helpful in this task, since they are all about people who got things wrong. Like us, they belong to those whom St Augustine would describe as the ‘not altogether bad’, the mediocre Christians, as opposed to Pelagius’ notion that Christian perfection was achievable in this life. Augustine viewed the Christian life as a hospital for the sick, or a convalescent period, a time in which with the right care, we will become fitted for God –with and by his grace.

 

Our reading from Jeremiah (Jer 33:14-16) is about a king, Zedekiah who spectacularly misread the situation at the time and brought about the exile and deportation of his nation to Babylon. His people had been vassals of the Babylonians until the king decided to rebel under the promise of help from Egypt. It proved illusory, despite Jeremiah’s attempts to intervene and argue for a wiser policy. Prophet’s, as we see here, do not gaze into the distant future, but are hands-on political commentators and advisers the powerful would do well to listen too. This is the ‘virtuous Branch’ that Jeremiah looks to, kings who will choose wisely and for the good and preservation of their people, as opposed to hot heads and the easily-led whose actions bring about the ruin of the nation. All the prophet can do is warn and it is from within this warning that our prophet could promise good times to Israel and of course he paid a high price for his counsel, narrowly escaping death in Jerusalem and playing the role of go-between between the defeated Israelites and the Babylonians.

 

It was in a rather different context that St Paul wrote to the tiny Christian community in Thessalonica (1 Thess 3:12-4:2). Now Thessalonica was a Roman city, albeit of Greek origin, and had become the capital city of Macedonia. It was rich, and its port Neapolis a major trading city of the Mediterranean. On the great road, the Via Egnatia leading back to Rome, it had huge clout and maintained great temples to the Roman gods and especially its emperors, as well as to those of the Eastern cults. Cosmopolitan and rich, Thessalonica’s way of life was thoroughly Roman, and Paul would have to battle for the hearts and minds of the Christians who lived there, constantly recalling them to the wholly different understanding of daily life that Christianity embodied. He does this first of all by praising the community, assuring them of God’s grace and their already given holiness which he had met in their reception of the faith and their generous hospitality, but also by pointing out that faith and its daily practice are a journey towards holiness in which they must work hard to actually live as icons of Christ. This would have been something which would have been enormously difficult amidst the bustle and coarseness of a Roman city, with its easy resort to other gods, the sacrifices frequently offered them, their Games and bawdy holidays, not to mention the easy access to prostitutes, public displays of violence, and law suits. We modern Christians too are continually beguiled by a different set of pagan attractions which distract us from our belief in Jesus and continually tempt us into unwise and unhelpful ways of living.

 

The message of our Gospel (Luke 21:25-28.34-36) seems to offer similar advice to the Christian. By this time in Luke’s gospel, Jesus was already in Jerusalem for his Passion, and speaks to warn his followers not to be thrown off course by coming events. They were a people who could easily misread situations, just like we do today. Think how easily we might take such bible readings and misinterpret the events of the last few weeks, over reacting and embarking on actions which might be regretted later. Jesus reminds his disciples that we are on the Christian journey to God for the long term, and that no instant solution to our or the world’s problems can easily be found. His advice is that we adopt a policy of continual watchfulness – and that of our own behaviour. We desperately need to do this, following the pattern of Jesus and, as Luke puts it, ‘Praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen’. The point of all this is not simply our survival, as we see, but rather affects our eternal relationship with the Father; so that we are able to “Stand with confidence before the Son of Man.” Jesus looks continually towards our eternal inheritance, and has confidence that we can make it by grace. Our wills need to be constantly prodded to conform with his.

 

Unpopular ideas can be right

Many of you will remember the Scotsman from “Dad’s Army” who when faced with any difficulty would say “We’re all doomed!” He was, of course, even if he didn’t know it, quoting from Jeremiah, our prophet this week!

Jeremiah’s work ended in 587 BC when the City of Jerusalem was surrounded by the army of Babylon. Now Jerusalem had high stone walls and a good water supply and could hold out against a siege for a long time. So most of the king’s advisers were telling him to do this. Jeremiah was the one prophet who said the opposite. He said that if the King did not give in to the invaders then Jerusalem would be destroyed and the people scattered.  Hence we heard today his “Doom for the shepherds” (Jeremiah 23:1-6) – those prophets who said everything would be OK if they held out.

As you can imagine Jeremiah was NOT popular. Hardly anyone believed that God would want them to make peace with the enemy. Gods in those days were meant to bring you victory, and if they didn’t then you turned to a god who was more successful. The fact that Jeremiah was proved right in the end, that the City fell and the people were scattered was a turning point in the history that led eventually to Jesus; to the idea that God was not a magician who could put everything right for us, but was a power that will support us and be alongside us, even when we suffer, and our life appears to be a failure.

Jesus takes this image of a shepherd even further, using another prophet Isaiah to say that not only will people who follow God sometimes have to suffer, but that its leaders too, even Jesus himself must be prepared to enter into this suffering. So Jesus says “I am the Good Shepherd… who lays down his life for his sheep.” (John 10:11) And we hear this message too in our 2nd Reading (Eph 2:13-18) where we are reminded that Jesus brings us peace – Yes – but it is brought to us “by the blood of Christ”. Christianity has always therefore used this message, which comes originally from Jeremiah, to encourage its Bishops and Priests to be faithful shepherds, even if their message is unpopular just as Jeremiah’s was.

Around this time in the Catholic Church in England and Wales we have our Day for Life. We are being asked to support the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, which happens to be based in Oxford, and that provides academic backing to the Church’s teaching on a lot of tricky and easily misunderstood issues, not least whether people should be allowed, and indeed assisted, to commit suicide if they are faced with a life-threatening illness.

I am glad to see that the slogan this year is not just “Cherishing Life” but also “Accepting Death”, and I want to look at the accepting death teaching first, because without it the Church’s opposition to the Assisted Suicide Bill scheduled for debate in the UK Parliament on September 11th, is easily misunderstood. One of the most difficult things a priest has to do is to help people who cannot face up to the fact that their loved one is dying – that it is actually wrong to give a dying old person another dose of antibiotics rather than let the pneumonia take its course, that the doctors must be allowed to switch off the life-support machine and see if the person can survive unaided. This is the teaching of the Church, that we must not strive to keep someone artificially alive. It may seem sensible to you at this moment in time, but when we are faced with a dying loved-one, it can be an incredibly hard decision to make, even though it is the right one.

Letting someone die naturally does not mean depriving them of proper care, of water when they need it for example. The Hospice Movement, inspired by Christian teaching, has shown how important it is to develop practices that allow us to die with dignity. Watching over a loved one dying can be very hard. It can take a long time, and we should always seek support when faced with this, and especially ask for a priest, even if the time of death may be some days, even weeks away.

 Faced with this long drawn-out process, some people say why can’t we shorten the process.  Why can’t we just allow people to end their own life with an injection that just puts them to sleep for ever? Hence the Assisted Suicide Bill.

 When my atheist aunt was dying she said bitterly “You wouldn’t treat a dog like this!” My reply, even given as gently as possible, was not popular. “But you are not a dog.”  I could have said “All human life is sacred.” But although that’s true, it doesn’t really explain why we oppose such things. The point is that if we encourage and assist one dying person to take their own life, we make all old people and severely disabled people vulnerable. Think what it would be like if you were ill, and you began to wonder if your relatives would prefer you to end your life quickly. Why? To reduce your pain, or so they could inherit more of your money?

Thus, instead of dying with dignity, the dying would be worrying about the trouble they were causing, and would die often confused and unhappy. If a dog is put to sleep it does not affect all other dogs, but we humans are different, and that is why the Church says that human life is sacred, is not a thing to be tampered with because it seems more convenient to us.

Yes, both these views, allowing people to die naturally on the one hand, and not making them die artificially on the other, are hard and sometimes unpopular messages; but we Christians, like Jeremiah so many yeas ago, believe that sometimes what is unpopular may be the right thing to do, may be the thing that is actually in the long run, a greater good