The real apocalypse is good news

Frances writes on nex Sunday’s readings :- All the way through written history literate people, artists, writers and so on have used different media in which to make comment upon the conditions of their time; to record it, to warn, to alert and prepare their nations for change. Later inheritors of this complex of ideas have to be very careful that they do not completely misread such things, always thinking they describe actual events or things which will happen in the future. Apocalyptic literature is particularly susceptible to such mess ups, and the way in which American films have abused apocalyptic makes it particularly important that Christians understand it in its original context. Far from being about pictures of terrible violence and chaos and the end of the world, as modern apocalyptic movies suggest, true apocalyptic is always good news for Christians, since it is an affirmation of the goodness of God and the ultimate triumph of his way for his creation. Violence may precede his triumph, but it is never of his making, indeed, will always be brought about by misguided members of his creation. God loves his creation and always intends good for it.

 

By the time the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 10:11-14.18) was written, in the late first century AD, the Jewish temple in Jerusalem was merely a pile of blackened ruins. After the disastrous Jewish Revolt, Palestine was in lockdown, very harshly controlled by the Romans. Indeed, Jews were forbidden entry into Jerusalem, and the temple mount would become dedicated to the chief Roman god, Capitoline Jupiter. Certainly there would have been those who entertained the hope that the temple would be rebuilt and its high priesthood restored; but as they had died to a man in the final battle for the temple mount in 70 AD, that was somewhat wishful thinking. Our writer deliberately focussed on the complete inadequacy of the temple cult and its high priests in an effort to persuade Christians who were still committed to following a Jewish way of life that it was finished, irrelevant.  With this in mind he continually bangs home that the new and eternal temple is the person of Christ, whose single sacrifice on the cross has dealt with our sin. “When all sins have been forgiven, there can be no more sin offerings.” The whole purpose of the Jewish sacrificial temple cult was redundant. It is Christ alone who matters.

 

By the time all four gospels were written this was also the situation. It does seem likely that Jesus may well have predicted the demise of the temple (Mark 13:24-32), but we need to beware of thinking that this was due to clairvoyance or visionary behaviour on his part. Any wise person, living as he did in the Palestine of his time, which positively crackled with potential revolt as it awaited its Messiah (invariably a warrior leader who would lead the nation to independence and throw out the Romans), would have been aware that the likely outcome of such a revolt would be the sack of Jerusalem and the downing of its temple, which was always such a focus for unrest. But then the entire ministry of Jesus in Mark’s account seems to have been hostile to Jerusalem and its religious authorities who would conspire at his death. Mark will show us a Jesus who consistently flouted the Sabbath laws to heal the sick; who performed miracles away from Jerusalem and mixed with foreigners, pagans and those who did not keep the Mosaic law, tax gatherers and harlots being his prime example. Whilst Jesus died in Jerusalem during Passover, this was to show that he was infinitely superior to the Jewish law and practices and that as God the Son his outreach to the world was what was supremely important. Mark’s tiny parable of the fig tree was surely a call to continual vigilance, alertness on the part of converts, rather that any warning of imminent catastrophe, and certainly not one brought by God, who is always in control of events. “As for that day or hour, nobody knows it; no one but the Father.” Mark’s gospel remember, was written in Rome for convert pagans, and he would have wanted his hearers to empathise with its message rather than events in Palestine.

 

Some 200 years before the time of Jesus, Palestine was under the rule of the tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes iv – he who in the historical books of the Maccabees forced Israelites to convert to paganism along with the rest of his vast kingdom. The Book of Daniel, (Dan 12:1-3) also a piece of apocalyptic literature, stems from this time. Ostensibly set during the Babylonian captivity of the 6th century BC, it uses that situation of oppression to speak of current events during the persecution of Epiphanes and encourages the people of Israel in their faith and absolute conviction that, contrary to events, God will triumph in the end. It speaks of the resurrection to eternal life with God of the faithful, as does Maccabees, so that even those who lose their lives for the faith can know that their struggle would not be in vain. For some of the ‘sleepers in the dust’ will live with God and those ‘learned will shine as brightly as the vault of heaven’. It was an intoxicating and subversive picture for the downtrodden and oppressed; for those who resisted and died for their beliefs just as we still hero-worship members of the French Resistance who died for their loyalty to France during the Second World War.

 

So apocalyptic is about a covert language, one of resistance, and we have to remember that we can find it in many shapes and forms. For Christians, as it was for an earlier generation of Jews, it would be stirring, subversive and powerful. It was a form of speech Jesus himself would adopt as he approached his passion, death and resurrection. It is a language every Christian should become familiar with as we enter into the life of Christ, and are prepared to follow him faithfully, whatever the nature of the crosses we are called to bear.

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Christians and Jews

It’s amazing to me that the persecution of Jews by Christians has such a long history. Amazing, because you only have to read 3 Chapters in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans (It begins with our 2nd Reading today : Romans 9:1-5) to see that such prejudice is absolutely not the Christian way. Paul is terribly sad that most of his fellow Jews have not become followers of Jesus, he says “my mental anguish is endless”, but his sadness does not turn into anger or hatred. He goes on instead to say very clearly indeed: (10: 12) “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all” and then (11:1-2) “Has God rejected his people? By no means.” And finally he tells his fellow Christians not to think they are superior. He says (11:20 & 28) So do not become proud, but stand in awe….. they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.”

I suspect that hatred of the Jews comes from St John’s Gospel where he uses the term “Jews” to mean the Jewish leaders not all the Jews. Misread, it reinforced the growing antagonism between the two groups as they moved apart. Yes, we humans always tend to be suspicious or fearful of people who are different from us, and here is a case in point. But here also is another area of life where we Christians today have to put into practice the truth that God loves all men and women of every race and creed, not just us. For Christians, the Jewish people, following St Paul, must always therefore be especially loved and cherished. For they are the people whose belief, way back before Christ, laid the foundation on which our belief is based.

Jesus could not have existed had he not had a Jewish family to be born into. His whole life and mission was based on the ancient Jewish texts which we now call the Old Testament. The songs he sang were the Psalms we sing or say at every Mass, and almost all that we know about him is written by his fellow Jews – the texts which make up the rest of our Bible – the New Testament as it is called.

I think I should make clear however that loving the Jews, for their great gift to us and to the world, does not mean loving the State of Israel. However we do need to remember, with sorrow, that the persecution of the Jews over many centuries, culminating in the attempt to exterminate them by the Nazis, is what has created the modern Israeli State. How sad that they think that the only way they can survive is by returning the brutality they experienced in the past.

But to return to the Jews as a whole. The first Christians were all Jews. Christianity was just one sect of Judaism. Christians believed then as now that the Jewish faith in God had come to its fulfillment in Jesus, and they expected their fellow Jews to realize this. However their vision was of a Judaism that was no longer confined to one race, but was now available to every single human being. They also came to believe that non-Jews who became Christians did not have to keep all the elaborate Jewish rituals and practices. It was this that most Jews would not accept. Some simply believed that only Jews could be Jews, whilst others believed that if someone wanted to become a Jew, even a Christian Jew, then they had to become a Jew in every sense. Anything else was for them not true Judaism. Thus Judaism and Christianity parted company, and sadly became enemies of one another.

What can be confusing for people is that we Christians, because of this history, often speak of ourselves as the new Israel. We sometimes describe the Church as Jerusalem, and, if we are English, sing of building Jerusalem “In England’s green and pleasant land.” We use the Jewish Old Testament, as Jesus did, as the foundation of our faith. How do we know that God is met in quietness, like a gentle breeze, in the still small voice of calm, rather than storms or earthquakes, except from the Jewish history of the prophet Elijah – our 1st Reading today? (1 Kings 19:9-13) How do we know that God reaches out to save us when we are stupid or frightened or sinful, as Jesus did for Peter in our Gospel today (Matt 14:22-33) except from countless stories from the Jewish Old Testament?

The history of the Jewish people before Jesus is indeed a history of a people that constantly failed in one way or another, and yet realized through their prophets and teachers, that God was a God of love who still loved them and willed them on to a better future. Their story is therefore a prefiguring, as we call it, of the new Israel, the Church, us : also a people who fail in many ways and yet God still loves and calls to glory.

This understanding of a God of love who would put down those who were proud and haughty, and lift up the humble and lowly, was deep in the heart of many Jewish people at the time of Jesus, but particularly deep in the heart of one very special young Jewish woman. Perhaps you can guess her name?  Mary. All through Jewish history we have stories of Jewish women who in the midst of troubles and sorrows acted with courage and faith in the service of God. These were clearly the stories that inspired Our Lady as she sat Jesus on her knee, and told him about this wonderful history and sang him the songs of his people. It’s always worth remembering this, when we honour Our Lady, as we will be doing this Friday (The Feast of the Assumption). When we honour her, we do not just honour all women, but most especially all Jewish women who nurtured the faith that now sustains and supports us.                           Holy Mary. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  Pray for us

“The still point of the turning world”

Frances wries on this weekend Readings :- I want to focus on why St Paul is so distressed, (Romans 9:1-5) over the loss of the Jews to belief in Jesus Christ as the Messiah, or as he has just put it in Romans 8, the one, sole being who can unite us indelibly to the love of God. It is Christ, says Paul, who is superior to all powers, both earthly, demonic and above the heavens; he is greater than any earthly ruler or state, the only one party to ‘the mind of God’.

 

Today, it is fashionable, even charitable to other faiths to suggest that Christianity is but one manifestation of God, and to suggest that this is the only way to brush along with other peoples of faith because the alternative lies in fanaticism and all its brutal consequences, as we are seeing in the Middle East. It is therefore difficult for us to grasp the true significance of precisely what Paul was meaning. It is however well worthwhile our making the attempt; for what he believed was on offer, nay absolutely fundamental to humanity, is and remains critical to the survival of the human race.

 

Romans 8 is the clearest and most succinct statement of Paul’s belief in the uniqueness of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is well worth reading this chapter of his mature thinking and his fine theological development – so very early in the history of our faith – on what Christianity teaches.  What we have to understand is that Paul was not into one-upmanship, point scoring against the Jews. Paul was, and remained fundamentally, a Jew throughout his life; and our passage from Romans 9 reflects his despair and his deep personal sense of failure to convict his fellow countrymen and devout believers in God that Jesus Christ was the final and unique fulfilment of all God’s promises to the Jews ; that Jesus was and is what Judaism was and always had been looking for, God’s revelation of himself.

 

In this revealing, as we know, the Father does not merely show himself to his people, as indeed he did to Elijah the prophet on Mt Horeb, (1 Kings 19:9, 11-13) but he becomes one of us. With Elijah, when the prophet was fleeing from the wrath of Jezebel and thought he was near to death, the important clue for the future of God’s relations with humanity lay, not in the noise and power with which Elijah had to contend – the terrible storm – the earthquake and the fire – all of which most probably is a reference to the storm god of Canaan and the early peoples of Syria and Turkey – not least Jezebel’s rage and power. No, the manner in which Elijah met God was in the words of the Jerusalem Bible ‘a gentle breeze’, or even more surprisingly, in the Revised Standard Version, ‘in silence’. That quietness and unobtrusiveness is surely God’s way in the Incarnation, where he actually becomes human in the womb of the insignificant Mary and is born at Bethlehem. It is also a mark of Jesus’ career, in which he responds to the needs of the outcast and the sick and does not seek the contact of the rich and powerful. Jesus, as we see in the Gospels, comes as one of us to be with us; and, living alongside us, God in Christ enters fully into our human lot.

 

The point is that in doing so God in Christ is not simply some awfully decent bloke who shares himself with humanity; he truly is God, one of the Trinity, taking us into God’s life eternally. God in Trinity is an eternal relationship of love out-poured between each of its three members, Father, Son and Spirit, whose sole delight is in giving to the other members of the triad and receiving love from them in return. And when, as Paul puts it in Romans 8:17, we become children of God through his grace in Jesus, we also become heirs, sharers in the life of the Trinity itself through their gift. Now we see the reason for Paul’s anguish, as he realises that his fellow Jews, who reject Jesus, have turned their backs on their true heritage and on God’s intention for them, and have stuck to their beliefs in the power of the Temple and the Torah – the Jewish Law. There they were, so well equipped to understand God’s quiet way in the incarnation, and yet it was at this fatal moment that they baulked and, as Paul sees it, threw away their birth-right; and with that terrible omission brought down on themselves generations of retribution and death.

 

Our Gospel, (Matthew 14:22-33) reflects something of those earlier scenes. John the Baptist has been executed by Herod – the man of power – and Jesus goes off into the hills alone to pray, to converse in the silence with his Father. The rest of this scene – the walking on the water of Jesus and Peter’s bravado attempt which ends in failure – is a reflection on this need to trust in the quiet and the silence of God who acts in his Son to raise us to the heights.

 

We, like Peter, could easily be full of bravado – ‘I’ll walk on the water too!’ – only to become unstuck as we rely on our own importance and not on God. For it is God in Christ who calls us to believe in and think the unthinkable: that God became a man in Jesus and thereby unites us indissolubly with the Father of our eternal salvation. Without this great gift – never given in other faiths or philosophies – we are doomed to go our own weary ways, ways which inevitably result in strife and dissention, in wars and death; and we spurn what Jesus prayed for in John 17, that we be One, as Father, Son and Spirit are One. It is this total unity that we are offered, and that we seek above all other things. It is a unity, given only by and with and in God, which has the power to save us from ourselves and from the delusions of power which lead us to destroy others, be they our fellow Europeans or other foreigners, or even the members of our own families. God’s vision for us is not that we be nice or good, but Godlike.

 

 

 

The Easter Church

If people who are not believers ask me about the Resurrection of Jesus, the first thing I do is to point them to things that everyone has to accept actually happened – most of all that these frightened men and women, who had followed Jesus, but then deserted him, were turned into a group of brave disciples who changed the world. Their experiences of the risen Jesus were strange, as we see from today’s Gospel, (John 20:19-31) but from them the Christian Church was born.

But what was that early Church like? Well it is, of course, the New Testament section of the Bible that tells us, because these writings were the product of that Church. – the Gospels, the Letters and another book called the Acts of the Apostles. Sometimes people tell me that they have started reading the Bible but found it too difficult, but that’s usually because they started in the wrong place. Always start with the New Testament, not the Old, and maybe read the two books written by Luke – his Gospel, and then its sequel the Acts of the Apostles. And it’s this book that will provide our 1st reading at Mass all the way through this 7 week Easter season, so I thought we would look together at some of the things it teaches us about the Church.

You will be pleased to hear that this Book can also help us defend certain things about our Catholic Church that often face criticism. I remember when I was not a Catholic how I criticised the Church for all its ritual – its formal prayers, its chanting, its candles, and of course its incense. “Why can’t the Church be like it was in the beginning?” I would say, “Just a simple group of men and women praying together informally.”  It was only later that I discovered how wrong that idea was, and it is our Reading from the Acts today (Acts 2:42-47) that shows us this – if you read it carefully.

So what did these first Christians do every day? Yes, to start with they “all lived together and owned everything in common” –  just like monks and nuns do to this day – but look how they prayed. “They went as a body to the Temple.” People sometimes forget that at this time all Christians were Jews, and the Temple in Jerusalem had not yet been destroyed by the Romans, so it was natural that they would go there, as Jesus did, to pray. And what would that Temple have been like? Well, it was in some ways like an enormous Cathedral, and within it elaborate rituals took place. Look it up on the Internet (Wikipeida) and you can see pictures and there it says there was an “Outer Altar on which portions of most offerings were burned” and a sanctuary which “contained the seven branched candlestick, the table of showbread and the Incense Altar.” I hope you noticed all that – altar – sanctuary – candles – incense – sounds familiar doesn’t it?

“Aha!” Our critics say “But read on, and it says they also met and prayed at home” Well yes, they did, but how did they pray? They prayed daily together, and then a phrase is used that can be misunderstood. They met “for the breaking of bread.” Now to our modern ears that sounds like they met for an informal meal together where they prayed. But actually any Christian from the early Church would know immediately that what it is actually referring to is what we now call – the Mass.

Next Sunday we’ll have another Resurrection story, of the disciples who met Jesus on the road but did not recognise him. (Luke 24:13-35) But, as I am sure you know, they invite him into their house and then they do recognise him, and returning to the other disciples tell how they did so “at the breaking of bread.” And the important point here is that this “breaking of bread” was based on the Jewish ceremonial meal, not on some informal bun fight. Get an Invitation to a Jewish Sabbath meal in someone’s home today, or even better to a Passover meal, and you will find yourself taking part in a meal which is also a formal ceremony with a table set with candles, and where formal prayers are said. This then is one of the crucial ways in which those first Christians believed that the risen Jesus was with them.

Soon, as non-Jews became Christians, they too were people of formal ritual, and though they wanted to abandon their pagan rituals, they did so not for some informal prayer meeting, but for new formal rituals that the Church used, based precisely on what we hear those first disciples did after they had been created as the Church by the Resurrection of Jesus, and by the empowering of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

The Mass, as we now know it, has developed since then. Now we normally celebrate it in Church buildings, whereas they had to do so in people’s homes, often in secret! But it is basically the same set of prayer and ceremonies that were the heart of that little group of people. They had seen the risen Lord Jesus and wanted to live out his presence in their prayers together – in the breaking of bread – the Mass – and, empowered by this presence, to go out and tell the world all about him.

Of course, if ritual and ceremony become just an outward show, if there is no real prayer at the heart of them, then it is all a sham. What makes it real and powerful are you and I praying the Mass together. As a priest I have the privilege to do what those first Christians did, to pray the Mass every day. It is good that some of you can join me on some of those weekdays, and I would love more of you to do so. But at least you come on Sunday – the day of Resurrection. For this is the way above all that the risen Lord is with us, so that as we meet him we can say, as we heard Thomas say in our Gospel, “My Lord and my God.”