Look at God a different way

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- I suppose when we actually stop to think about it, not only do we in the modern age find the idea of Christ’s resurrection from the dead extraordinary, many would dismiss it out of hand. Even Christians frequently do this. Ok, we celebrate it at Easter, but as it’s all vaguely wrapped up with eggs and bunnies, its real impact is largely lost on us. Yet for the earliest Christians, as we see in 1 Corinthians (15:1-11) this was the centre, the crux of the argument for the divinity of Jesus the Son of God. I suspect that part of the difficulty also lies with the Christian claim that his resurrection vindicates his death and wipes out sin. A sceptical world loves to hang onto sin.

Everyone knew in ancient times that death was inevitable and that that was the end – finished. Yet the Christian claim of Our Lord’s post mortem bodily existence was the thing about his story which made the difference, compelling belief in some, whilst arousing contempt in others. Our gospels all make very clear that the disciples fled to a man at the crucifixion and thought the entire ‘Christian’ project over. It was what happened subsequently that made the difference, and here in 1 Corinthians Paul recounts the numerous occasions in which the risen Jesus appeared to different groups of believers, confirming them in the faith and fitting them for the task of taking his good news out to the whole world. It was his resurrection that distinguished and confirmed that his teaching and healing ministry actually was the work of the One, true God; and definitively separated Jesus from healers and prophets of previous generations. Quite clearly, the actual experiencing of such an astounding event was like no other. The recipient of this ‘grace’ was marked for life and could not possibly turn back, as we witness in the life and mission of the redeemed St Paul. These occasions were truly life-reforming, turning people in a totally different direction, so different, that they became the hallmark of the Christian movement which they in their turn took out all over the Mediterranean and beyond.

We too then are heirs of the resurrection of Christ from the dead to life, total life now and forever with the Father. It is his resurrection which affirms that he can and does do all he claims for us and for the whole world, wiping out sin and all that gets in the way of our having any relationship with God the Father. Many of us live in a state of continual denial about our personal sins, or become so attached to them that we cannot let them go. Many will say that the rotten state of our world is just the way it is, and that no one can possibly make it any better. True, some good and rich men may try to make a difference, but these are only ever pin-pricks in the over-all highly flawed world, as witnessed to by so-called Islamic State; poverty; injustice and disease. Yet the Christian belief in humanity maintains its fundamentally optimistic stance. True, we do not do complacency or silly acceptance, we face the fact that our world has gone tragically astray and that it can only change fundamentally by God’s grace. That grace is of course not fatalism, for, as with Jesus, it requires his followers to act to bring the world into conformity with his love and grace and compassion.

Our reading from Isaiah (6:1-8) speaks to just such a moment in the 8th century BC when the Northern Kingdom, Samaria fell to the ravages of the Assyrian invaders from what is now north-Eastern Iraq. First Isaiah lived, and died a martyr to the chaos of his time, and recognised that someone needed to speak out God’s message of love and salvation amidst the despair and frenzy that gripped the nation. It was the right time for a truly sacrificial self-offering, and Isaiah was able and willing to make this gesture, well aware that most people would completely misunderstand it. I dare say he would be amazed to think that nearly 3,000 years on wholly different groups of people would read his words, finding within them a message of hope in a darkening world and see his faith in God vindicated.

A few weeks ago our gospel was John’s account of the wedding at Cana, the kick-off point in the Fourth Gospel for Jesus’ ministry and his account of an overflowing abundance of wine – God’s party, everything of the best. In our gospel from Luke, (5:1-11) we find a parallel miracle with the miraculous and potentially wreck-forming abundance of fish, and Jesus announcement that from now on ‘It is men you will catch’. Clearly, where God gives, he gives in overwhelming abundance. Our problem is that as sceptics we think on too small a scale, reducing things down to our small-minded and meagre proportions. Perhaps then, just as with the resurrection of Jesus; our thinking is all too small and contained. It is not God who has changed, but our vision of his power and potential. Only when we look at the world through different eyes will we find the vision to see his redeeming grace shining through the dark in which we invest so much time and effort.

 

The evolving mystery of the risen Christ

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- In this Easter season the compilers of our lectionary want us to explore the meaning of the Easter experience, the real meaning of Easter, of Christ’s rising from the dead and what it has achieved for us.

Our translation of 1 John (3:1-2), “Think of the love…”, and by its use of the pluperfect tense (has lavished), gives the impression of a state of affairs already achieved by Christ for us. If we look at the Greek however something less completed and much more mysterious emerges; “You see the manner of the love the Father has given us in order that we may be called God’s children”. Of course, in one sense all is completed by Christ’s death and resurrection, but there must also be an on-going dynamic attached to our life in Christ too. First it is the daily work of the Spirit upon us for our salvation, and secondly our response, how we allow God to work in us for the unfolding of his plan of salvation, is never simply one dimensional. The Greek of the following verse helps this understanding: “Beloved, we are now children of God but it is not yet manifested what we shall be. We know that when it is manifested we shall be like him.” Here something of the still evolving mystery of God in Christ is suggested, in each and every one of us as we live out our lives already as children of God, moving into ever closer union with Christ, so as to ‘see him as he is’. It was a promise made to the Greek Christians of John’s communities in the Province of Asia, western Turkey, and for them, as for us it surely involves an exploration of our life in Christ as we live out lives conformed to his image.

John has already begun this work in his gospel, as we see in John (10:11-18). First of all, his Jesus makes the sharp division between his followers and those who oppose his mission, and previous chapters have seen him in sharp conflict with the Jewish authorities. He begins this work of criticism by appeal to a very old tradition, here Ezekiel 34 with the prophet’s denunciation of the false shepherds, those who are in charge of Israel and have betrayed the people and whose conduct led to the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC.

In sharp contrast to those false leaders, who are responsible for the ruin of the nation Jesus compares himself: “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd is one who lays down his life for his sheep.” I guess that this serves not only as a model for Jesus, but is meant to act as the model for us all to follow as we seek to ‘become like him’. Clearly it does not specify the actual manner of imitation of Christ, but it does set a trajectory for us to follow and this is something which is crystal clear. “I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” What we are talking about here is an openness, a transparency – not simply between God the Son and God the Father; but between each of us believers and Father and Son, something already given by the death of Christ and still to be achieved in the lives of each of us.

One gets the impression that the Johannine Christian communities were tightly knit, and even intensely overseen groups, probably with strict rules and careful tutoring. As if to recognise this our text goes on to speak of the “Other sheep, not of this fold”. Clearly these were also believers, and accepted as such by John, and there was a willingness to see these groups as acceptable within the Christian circle. This widens the whole sense of who the true believers were and are, so that for instance John’s communities were different from Jewish Christians, as they could have included converts from paganism – Gentiles; those with a different gloss on the remembered accounts of Jesus’ life, mission and death. The fact that we have four accepted gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, with quite different emphases, speaks volumes of the differing understanding of Jesus current in the very Early Church. ‘Being like Christ’, it appears, may be full of surprises and involve very different styles of worship and practice. Clearly, what all universally held was the belief in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, who freely laid down his life, in the manner of the true shepherd for his sheep; and also, by his own will and power, could take it up again after death. Quite clearly there were things fundamental to the faith, things not negotiable such as the real bodiliness of Jesus, his death and resurrection and his commands that we meet him in the Eucharist.

What all this does is to change lives. It did it then – as we see in our reading from Acts (4:8-12) – and it does it now. Ours is not simply an intellectual pursuit for information about Jesus, though that is very important, it requires a metanoia, a visible change in the lives of believers; and each of us can be participators in this miracle of transformation, both in our own lives and in those of others.

Homily on Vision beyond sight

I expect all of us have had things happen to us that we didn’t really understand at the time, but perhaps now make a bit more sense. I remember once when I was on holiday on the Isle of Man many many years ago, and I was beside a clear running stream, and suddenly the beauty became almost too much for me. I somehow saw within what I was seeing to a deeper beauty beyond. There is no way of putting into words what actually happened then, and even what I tell you now is a pale shadow of what I actually experienced.

I guess this is what the disciples felt as they tried to describe the various moments when the risen Jesus came to them. You might have thought that they would have begun to understand these times better as they got more used to them; and yet we see that when they describe the last time that they actually saw Jesus – the moment we now call the Ascension – they were just as muddled about it as they had been before. To start with they cannot remember where it happened. For some of them, as in our 1st Reading (Acts 1:1-11) it happened in Jerusalem, but for others, as in our Gospel (Matthew 28:16-20) it happened up north in Galilee.

Then you can see from our 1st Reading that they still didn’t understand what it was all about. They say to Jesus “Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”, and have to be told firmly that they are being given a different kind of kingdom to proclaim, not just to Israel but “to the ends of the earth”. Look for an Ascension story in St John’s Gospel and you won’t find one, because for him – writing about it all later and from a different perspective – every Resurrection story is an Ascension story.

What do I mean by that? The point is that the Ascension stories are telling us that whenever we feel the presence of Jesus, we are actually feeling the presence of heaven, the presence of God in his fullness. Each of the Resurrection stories was a meeting with the glory of God, but it was only in that final meeting that they glimpsed, at least partially, what that meant. They realized that Jesus was with them even if they could no longer see him, or even feel him. So we hear Jesus saying in the Gospel “I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.”  But they also realized that when Jesus was with them then they were being given a glimpse of heaven, and the future glory promised to all who are open to such things.

Now be careful! Remember “heaven” is not a place somewhere else. Heaven is simply the spiritual dimension which underlies the physical. So when I saw a deeper beauty on the Isle of Man, I was not being taken anywhere else (although some people like to describe it like that). I was simply seeing, for a moment, that underlying beauty that is so much deeper than the surface physical beauty that I was seeing with my physical eyes. For us who believe, I had for a brief moment, a vision of God –  although I don’t think I realized it at the time.

St Paul prays in our 2nd Reading (Ephesians 1:17-23) that God may enlighten the eyes of our mind so that we can see what rich glories his saints (that’s us) will inherit, and how infinitely great is his power. Now, I can look back and remember many moments when I have seen God. When some physical thing that has happened to me – from seeing a tiny new born baby to watching a glorious sunset – from being moved by a great novel or film, to being happy in the company of good friends – can now be seen as an experience of heaven – of God present with me then, as he is present with us now – whether we realize it or not.

How sad it is that people cannot see this! That they look up in the sky for God, as if he is up there sitting on a cloud or something, rather than recognizing him in the ordinary events of life. Some of the disciples remembered the Ascension like this. The moment when they found themselves “staring into the sky” and had to be told to find the risen Jesus in their midst, as they would most powerfully a few days later at Pentecost. St John however ends his Gospel (John 21:1-25) with a meal and a conversation as with a friend, precisely because he wants to get through to us that this is what the presence of God is like.

This is the Gospel message that we have to share. To persuade people to look more deeply into their life and discover that God is with them. That’s how the great St Augustine found God. He says that he was always searching outside, until one day God showed him what he had never realized, that he had been with him, within him, all the time. “Yes I am with you always (said Jesus) to the end of time.” (Matthew 28:20)

The mystery of the presence of Christ

Frances writes on this weekend’s readings: – Our story this week is about the recognition of the risen Lord, and how Christians right from the beginning have done, or in many cases failed, to do this. Our Gospel (Luke 24:13-35) continues the account of New Testament failures to see what is before one’s very eyes; something so unexpected, even so familiar, that our senses refuse to recognise the truth of our experience. Quite clearly, in this account from Luke, the risen Jesus went to considerable lengths to help his distressed followers to see the truth. He met them on the Emmaus road; the one they knew, but literally didn’t see. He argued the case for his passion and death and resurrection by way of Jewish prophetic history, but all to no avail, and it was not until he took the bread of the evening meal and did something quite out of the normal with it that the penny dropped. Now we know that Jews did thank God before meals for their food, but what Jesus did with it was precisely what he had done at the Last Supper at the Passover meal, when he had commanded his disciples to “Do this in anamnesis of me.” They recognised him in the breaking of bread.

The two disciples told their colleagues that once they had recognised the risen Lord he had vanished from their sight. Clearly then the risen Jesus is not to be held onto, confined by our needs or expectations. After all, think for a moment the power the disciples and the Church could have had if this had been the case. They would have used Jesus as a weapon, compelling belief, commanding faith and understanding, so that our acceptance of God in Christ would become a tyranny instead of a gift and a grace in which we participate through faith.

So we of the Christian faith are left with his command and the Eucharist, his Real and Bodily presence among us, given for our belief and worship, but forever shrouded in mystery.  Here the Risen Lord is, touchable, eatable, given for worship, but elusive, and in the hands of manipulators utterly meaningless.  It will forever be what the believer truly recognises the sacrament to be, Jesus’ body in my hands, in my body, in my sight for prayer and adoration. Just as in his earthly life he was derided and scorned by some, but by others loved and honoured, so here too the objective reality of his risen presence involves us, and whilst our response is continually invited, it is never demanded. It is when we are truly receptive to the sacrament and most involved with its mystery and grace that he really enters into conversation with us in thought, in consciousness. Our receptivity, our willingness to appreciate what his presence means, is essential.

Our reading from Acts (2:14, 22-33) shows that this was always the case. At Pentecost, the feast of the first spring harvest, Peter reminded the people that they actually knew the identity of Jesus before by his miracles, but rejected and killed him, totally failing to understand that the scriptures had already spoken about him. Peter uses part of Psalm (16:8-11) as the way into his teaching, and reminds them that the line of Davidic kings that it had originally spoken of, and which they had expected to live forever, was dead and finished. It did however, as he said, reinterpreting the scriptures, live on in Christ, born into the House of David through Joseph.  It is this effort to understand, to engage with the scriptures and the events of the Jewish story and the Holy Week message, which is so essential. We, all of us, from the first witnesses to the resurrection and down through the ages, are invited to wrestle with these events and these writings. They are not flat sheets, nor are they as it were set in stone. They are events in which we too, like the first witnesses, are involved whether we meet him on the Emmaus road or at the tomb in the garden or on the train to London or elsewhere. Above all, it is when we meet the risen Lord in the Eucharist and the Blessed Sacrament and RECOGNISE HIM that his impact on us will be most marked.

Our readings from the Petrine Letters, (1Pet 1:17-21) are graphic images of the complete turn-about Jesus wrought in the lives of converts from paganism, and the call Peter made for them to transform their lives into icons of Christ. Note too, how he uses specifically Eucharistic language to speak of that change, as he speaks of their ransoming “In the precious blood of a lamb without spot or stain, namely Christ.” He goes on to point out how this Christ is now revealed in our times, the end of the ages. We too are inheritors of the Kingdom with them.

Just how did those early Christians grab hold of the power of Jesus risen and present with them? Recent historical and archaeological work has looked into how it was that Roman Emperor’s held power over, and fascinated, far flung provincials, ensuring their loyalty. These people believed that the Emperor’s portrait on coin, in statues and pictures, and in temples, theatres and courts were in fact a ‘real-presence’ of the emperor with them, even though he was miles away in Rome or at war. Attempts to abuse the imperial image were severely dealt with and cities, towns and villages would write to the Emperor of their festivals in his honour and appeal to him on matters of very local interest just as though he were there. I just wonder from this if it was easier for these ancient peoples to understand the Real Presence among them of the Lord in the Eucharist than it is for us, who have to work at new ways of actualising what for many may have become a lost language in a world so devoid of corporate living.

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.”

Is seeing believing?

Frances writes on this weekend’s readings :- Here at last is the Church, the other side of the Passion, now in resurrection time. In our gospel (John 20:19-31) we, along with the disciples, experience this completely unexpected event: Jesus returned to full bodily life from the dead. The one they had seen suffer and die; the one they knew to have been buried and from whose trial they had fled in fear and denial, thinking his and their great mission was over, was quite inexplicably back.

It is how Jesus reacts that is significant, for you will remember the disciples had all run away and left him. There is no rebuke or criticism but rather his twice repeated “Peace be with you.” Eirene, in Greek pertaining to those things which bring peace, calm and order, something surely most necessary for their disordered and fear-ridden senses. And then he does something which our translation into English fails to capture; he breathes the Holy Spirit on them for the forgiveness and retaining of sin. The Greek here also uses a rare word, Jesus breathes on them as the Spirit does in the Genesis 1 account of the activity of God at the dawn of creation and the making of all that there is. I think we are meant to see a return to the pristine state of creation in the beginning, as we are all made new by the death and resurrection of Christ, the past is put aside, struck out, and we are now seen from God’s point of view with all our and God’s potential laid out before us. We in Jesus are a new creation, no longer to be ridden by doubts and fears but made to be the resurrection people.

We can see this giving of the Holy Spirit in a number of ways, including that of the making of the Church and the power given to the apostles. What struck me was what a small and curiously understated event this appears to be, for it is immediately followed by the plunge back into the fear and disbelief of Thomas and his eventual conviction of the truth of the resurrection. Perhaps this account represents not just the reaction of a single disciple, but the situation of the body of the Church, as it has always struggled with the truth of the awkwardness and sheer incomprehensibility of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Perhaps St John was aware of the difficulties we would always have as we live in two worlds, that of the redeemed, and that of daily life amidst its struggles with doubt and sin.

This surely is the story of the continuing Church as we see in Acts and the Petrine Letters. The picture in Acts (2:42-47) is very positive. It shows the infant Christian community faithful to the Lord’s Eucharistic teaching as the primary way in which they/we always meet him. It is resplendent with the record of the miracles of the apostles and “the deep impression on everyone” which they made as a tool for conversion. Indeed, it reflects the pre 70 AD situation in Palestine as the nascent Christian group continue to worship in the Temple; though it makes clear that the Eucharist took place in their own homes. It speaks of their communal life together. One might even say from this small section that everything was sorted and going frightfully well, unless that is you read on in Acts and discover that things were actually very different. Indeed, by the time Luke was actually writing in the 80’s, the situation was very different. From 66-70 the vicious Jewish War raged in Palestine, and the Christians who took no part in it became irrevocably separated from Judaism; and in other places Luke would write of the persecution of Christians and as we know from the story of Paul, this began very early in the Christian story. Perhaps then this story simply speaks of the victory of Christ and points to what true Christian life is meant to be, a giving of oneself to others, a sharing, after the model of Christ; it does not reflect on what the actual state of the church was like.

When we come to 1 Peter (1:3-9) the picture is one of greater realism. The Petrine letters come from the early second century, from Turkey and a world which would for centuries be familiar to many converts to Christianity. It is the world we all live in – life beyond the resurrection and ascension. “You did not see him, yet you love him; and still without seeing him, you are already filled with a joy so glorious that it cannot be described, because you believe; and are sure of the end to which your faith looks forward, that is, the salvation of your souls.”

The Roman governor of the area, Pliny, wrote to Trajan his emperor about the problems caused by Christians in the area, and what his policy towards them was, and how he had punished those who refused to worship the pagan gods by death, even torturing women deacons who were slaves for information about this new faith which had attracted people in the towns, villages and countryside. Clearly these Christians were really suffering for their conviction that Jesus was their Saviour and Redeemer in whose image they would find eternal life, “Even though you may for a short time have to bear being plagued by all sorts of  trials….your faith will have been tested and proved like gold.”

These then were the men and women who believed ‘even’ without having seen the risen Lord, converts from paganism to whom the message of the Christian life made such a difference that they were prepared to put all their faith in his promises and die, despite all the evidence to the contrary. They truly understood that in Christ Jesus, in the story of his life and death and resurrection, we have an eternal inheritance, life in eternity with God; and for this they were prepared to defy the power of Rome and put aside all the myriad benefits of belonging to the Empire that it brought them. These Christians of Bithynia, Pontus, Asia and Cappadocia were like us, children of the Christian message of hope and fervent expectation, people who live in Jesus even though they had never seen him in the flesh. What they share with us too is the presence of the risen and glorified Jesus, present in the Blessed Sacrament, as we and they fulfilled his command to “do this in anamnesis of me”.

 

Easter Messages

I want us to look on this Easter night at the first of those readings that we heard in the semi-darkness of the Vigil. In it we heard how Abraham almost killed his only son Isaac (Genesis: 22:1-18) We see the story vividly displayed on the Church’s best Chasuble that I am wearing tonight, where Abraham is depicted raising his knife about to slay his son.

This seems a horrific story to us, so to understand it we have to put aside all our modern ideas and get into that ancient world.  Think how significant Isaac was for them; the only legitimate son of Abraham, in their old age given to the previously barren Sarah. He was their posterity, the guarantee that Abraham’s blood line would go down through the ages. Remember, these people had no sense of eternal life with God after death as we have. A son, bearing your own name and your blood was essential in the ancient world. Abraham, a devout Jew by this time, was asked to give-over – to hand-over – to God everything he valued most in the world – his only son. And we see that, in obedience to God, he was willing to do this terrible thing, this thing incomprehensible to us. Actually, in the Books of the Kings we do hear of kings who sacrificed their sons, as a sign and a symbol of their devotion to the God of Israel, and, of course, the pagans did the same. The people of Israel also sacrificed every first-born animal to God and so came to substitute animals for the births of their sons, as we see in the sacrifice of pigeons by the parents of Jesus. Clearly then, the story of Abraham’s testing, his willingness to hand-over Isaac, marks this transition from old ways to new, and thus the link with Easter becomes clear.

Abraham represents faithful Israel; Israel which, unlike subsequent generations with their oft repeated rebellion against God, was faithful, faithful at great personal cost, namely, the sacrifice of an only beloved son. Abraham represents what Israel was always meant to be like, for in the ‘handing-over’ – yes the paradidomi – of his son Isaac, we see also the handing over of Abraham in his totality, in all that he is, to God. Faithful in his original call to leave Ur and embark on many journeys, during which he discovered the one true God, Abraham was faithful when it really mattered, so much so that God spared his son, replacing him with  the ram caught in the bushes by its horns. Because of his fidelity to God, Abraham would be richly rewarded.

But at this point we see a great difference, for throughout its history, Israel, and indeed all of us, the whole world of which we are part, failed and still fails to be faithful to God in the way Abraham was. The whole world sits in the semi-darkness in which we have all failed God. This Holy week then, and especially this night, is a time when we relive the new eternal story, the story of a different redemption, an epic, in which the victim handed over, is not Isaac, the son of an earthly man, but is Jesus, the only Son of God, sacrificed, for the sins of the world. In this new story there is no last minute reprieve. A much bigger story has been etched out, as we have seen in the handing over of Jesus to death. There has been no happy ending, no promise made to any earthly father, only the gift to the world of God, the Heavenly Father, who allows us to do with his Beloved Son as we will.

In our Gospel tonight (Matthew 28:1-10) we hear the final moment, when the willingness of Jesus to be handed over to the wickedness and cruelty of the world is vindicated by God. This Gospel writer heralds this vindication by lots of action – even an earthquake, as the earth, ever obedient to the creator, plays its part in the Resurrection, just as it had at his death; and a stern and dazzling angel rolls the stone from the tomb. The terrified guards, we are told, were ‘like dead men’; in great and dramatic contrast to the women followers of Jesus who have come to the tomb. Fascinating isn’t it, to see women, previously non-persons and unreliable witnesses in court, given their place of honour by the Church. They see the angel and hear his message

“I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here, for he is risen, as he said he would…. He has risen from the dead and now he is going before you to Galilee; it is there you will see him.

And the women believed in what they heard and ran to tell the disciples.

But it was even better, for the Lord simply could not wait to be greeted in Galilee but rushed to meet and share his joy with the women, affirming their witness and all that they represent. It is a curiously gentle and quiet scene, in vivid contrast to the crash-bang of the angel and the unsealing of the tomb. Our Risen Lord is true to his previous personality and meets his followers as beloved friends, those he wants to share his resurrected joy with.

Here then is the final handing-over of Jesus; this time, not to pain and ignominy, but to triumph. Here he defeats all the shame which marked his the frightened denials and desertion of his followers, and the uselessness of the female witnesses at the cross. Now he stands on the road back into Jerusalem, risen to full life once more, alive, happy and able to meet and communicate and as we shall see later, even eat with his followers. Handed–over to death, he has defeated death and now can finally and in truth hand-himself over to the entire creation as their Redeemer and vindicator. And in his self-gift every one of us can also be made into what God the Father always intended us to be; perfectly one with him and the Son, and destined for eternal life. In the resurrection of Jesus you and I are now the paradidomi, handed-over to the world in his name. We are his great victory sign.

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This Easter Sunday morning I hope that all of you, apart from our visitors, have noticed the change in appearance of our church here in Eynsham. No, I don’t mean the change from Good Friday, where the church itself went into mourning, with the altar stripped and bare, very different from what it is like now in its Easter finery – although I hope you noticed that too! The change I want you to think about is the restoration of the tabernacle to its original place behind the main altar at the centre of the Church.

There it is, the place where the risen Lord Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, the consecrated bread, is especially present for us at all times. Notice, I say, especially present, because of course, we believe what Jesus taught us, that he is present to us in all sorts of other ways, most of all – when we pray together – Jesus said “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I with them” (Matt 18:20) and – when we help others – Jesus said “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matt 25:40). We know too that this is the promise of the risen Jesus in every situation in life, for he said “Lo I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matt 28:20)

But we also know that he promised that he would be especially present in the Bread and Wine taken and blessed, as he told us to, at the Last Supper, the great event we celebrate at every Mass, and most of all last Thursday night. Jesus is quite clear about this. He hands them the bread, and says “This is my body” and then he says “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19) But note that his words, “in memory”, are from the Greek “anamnesis”, which does NOT mean remembering a past event, but means bringing the past event into the present.

It always astonishes me how many people say they are Christians, but do not follow this teaching. They seem to think that coming to Mass, coming to Church, is an option when they feel like it – a little entertainment for them when they feel like being a bit religious. But Jesus said quite clearly “Do this in remembrance of me” at the most crucial moment in his earthly life, as he was about to hand-himself over to his suffering and death on the cross. So he clearly did not mean – do this when you feel like it, or when you have time. Indeed he said – “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)a challenge we all should face every day.

So although it is absolutely true that the risen Jesus is with us at every moment of our lives – not just when we are in Church. It is also absolutely true that he calls us to acknowledge him and deepen our Communion with him, by meeting him at Mass, and by extension meeting him as he is present in a special and wonderful way for us in the Blessed Sacrament,  present in the Tabernacle in every Catholic Church.

Can I ask you therefore not to take this his special presence for granted, not to get so used to the tabernacle being there that you hardly notice it.

That is why the correct thing to do when we arrive in Church, and when we leave, is to acknowledge this special presence of Jesus with our physical bodies, and not just in our minds. If you are fit, unlike me, the proper thing to do, as many of you know, is to genuflect. This literally means knee-bending, and means going down on one knee, kneeling for a moment and then getting up, often making the sign of the cross at the same time. Now if, like me, you can no longer do this safely without being in danger of falling over, then you should make what we call a profound bow. This is not just a nod of the head, but actually bowing from the waist more or less as low as you can manage.

Some Catholics do not even know why they do this when they come into Church, and if you ask them think that they are genuflecting or bowing to the altar or to the cross. But you all know, I am sure, and should be teaching others, that we do this not to worship any man-made object, but the real presence of Christ himself before us in the Blessed Sacrament in the Tabernacle.  It is absolutely no use us celebrating Easter, celebrating the mystery of God with us at all times, celebrating the wonder that God in Christ has even defeated death for us through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, if we do not then show clearly that we believe this is a real presence, a real Resurrection, by what we do, not just by what we believe.

Of course that doing, that putting into practice, must mean the way we live our lives, the way we treat other people; but we must also do it by practising our religion, practising our faith. It is so easy to drift into a vague kind of Christianity, but when we do that, we are letting down Jesus. He took up his cross so that we might have life, so that we might not be luke-warm, but might follow him with all our heart and mind and body and soul. That surely is the way to celebrate Easter.