God really cares

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Amazing love, amazing grace!

 

When I survey the wondrous cross

On which the Prince of glory died

My richest gain I count but loss

And pour contempt on all my pride.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Journeys of Courage

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- The plight of refugees flooding over the borders into Europe reminds us most forcibly how the truly desperate, in their weakness and poverty, will risk anything to find salvation, a better life. Most of us can never have experienced their state nor are ever likely too. We are cocooned, protected by our relative wealth and security, and only rarely -perhaps when forced by serious illness – will we be desperate enough to abandon everything we know, all that gives us a sense of belonging and security as we leap out into the unknown in search of help.

In our Gospel (Mark 10:46-52) this is precisely the behaviour of Bartimaeus. There he sat begging for pennies at one of the gates of Jericho. He may have lived like this for a long time, for we know that once he was sighted but became cut off from family, for he could not work to support anyone and he lived like an outcast. Blindness would have been seen as divine punishment by many, despite the fact that thousands in the ancient world suffered from eye complaints ranging from cataracts to complaints caused by poor hygiene and disease. Ancient healing shrines, both pagan and Christian, testify to the commonness of this problem, to the pain and stress it brought to so many. So when Bartimaeus heard that the great healer Jesus of Nazareth was passing by he seized the moment, clearly making a lot of noise to attract attention, and was utterly heedless of all attempts to shut him up, and unembarrassed by his behaviour. When ultimately he gained the attention of Jesus, we see how his response was to leap out into the dark. He threw off his cloak, his only covering and possession and jumped up, despite his lack of sight, and approached Jesus, risking falling flat on his face and further injury. ‘Master, let me see again.’ Possibly only those of us faced with blindness can truly appreciate the depths of his longing, the urgency of his request, as the white wastes threaten to envelope us. Jesus, of course, responded by restoring his sight and it is significant that this new man, the healed man, does not simply slot back into some place in society from which he had been excluded by illness, he ‘Followed Jesus along the road.’ So changed is the entire meaning of his life that he takes a new way, the way of the Lord, going where he goes, entering into his life.

Our reading from the Prophet Jeremiah (Jer 31:7-9) also speaks of a group of people at their most vulnerable: ‘The blind and the lame, women with child (the pregnant), women in labour,’ and speaks of God’s special protection for them. Jeremiah was writing during the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC when large numbers of Jews had been deported to Babylonia or dispersed to foreign parts all over the Near and Middle East. The group that he mentions represent the entire nation at its most fragile; near to death and struggling to cope in the changed circumstances they found themselves. Driven from their homes and carted off into exile, thousands would have perished on the road, just as we are seeing happen to so many modern refugees. Jeremiah’s task was to be the prophet of God’s promise of hope in a time of despair, telling the survivors that they did have reason to hope even in the midst of fear, death and chaos. God’s promise was that they would return to their homeland; that his will for them would triumph, that they could reach out in hope for the future.

This leads us to the true role of the prophet, or in the case of the writer of Hebrews (Heb 5:1-6) to the role of the high priest. Hebrews is emphatic that such leaders need to be able to identify with the weaknesses of those they serve. Indeed, for the writer, the whole point of the incarnation is precisely that Jesus the Son of God, made a human being, can be complete in his identification with us. This, as we saw last week, seems to be deliberately contrasted with the temple high priesthood which had become remote and detached from ordinary, suffering humanity. Positions of great power, it appears, like the high priesthood, Hebrews reminds us are the gift and prerogative of God alone and quite definitely not up for human bargaining and power politics and lose all validity when exploited in such a manner. Let us hope and pray that the leaders of Europe at this time approach their office with a similar reverence and humility as they decide the fate of hundreds of thousands of displaced persons. They could be you or me.

Prayer is not magic

Young people often face real stress in their life for the first time when they are away from the support of home as students. They find people who they thought were friends who then let them down badly, or they have conflicts with people they live with, or they find themselves in despair about their work, or even about life in general.  Now, if they’re Christians of any kind, then one of the ways they try to find help is by pouring out their grief or anger or anxiety to God in prayer. Sometimes, of course, this can help a lot, but sometimes, and this is what I want to look at now, it doesn’t seem to make any difference.  So what is going wrong here?

 

Part of the answer is that prayer is not like magic. There is no way we can make things happen the way we want by praying about it. There is no magic formula to take away the pain. If we expect that prayer will be like this, then when it doesn’t happen that way, we are likely to feel that God has let us down, that God doesn’t care, or even that God doesn’t exist. Our 2nd reading is absolutely explicit about this. “When you do pray and don’t get what you want, it is because you have not prayed properly, you have prayed for something to indulge your own desires.” (James 4:3).

 

It always astonishes me that people who have been brought up as Christians forget the words of Jesus, that following him means taking up the cross! How easily we forget that when we pray “Thy will be done”, this is likely to mean more challenges, not less! The disciples had the same problem in our Gospel today, (Mark 9:30-37) for they assumed that if they followed Jesus there would be some kind of big reward waiting for them and so began arguing about “which if them was the greatest.”

In the end, even though Jesus had told them a number of times that he would suffer and die, they hadn’t really heard him, and when the crunch came simply ran away.

 

We can take heart from this because there are bound to be times when we too run away from God.  Sometimes our running can be rather un-dramatic, more like slowly slipping away, as too many other things crowd into our life. But for others it will be some really tough moment where we just do not feel we have the faith or the courage to go on, and so seek comfort in something or someone that provides a more instant relief, or a shallow solution.

 

True prayer is sharing our life with God not just in the good fun times, but also in the tough times where our prayer is more likely to be tears or anger rather than polite words. Sometimes people actually confess that they have shouted at God as if it were a sin, whereas it’s actually more likely to be a breakthrough moment.  But true prayer also includes sharing our life with God through other people. If we try to internalise and privatise our prayer, even our agony, then we’re not really talking to the God who is Jesus our Lord, but just talking to or agonising with ourselves.  This is one of the main reasons Jesus gave us the Church and the Mass. For when we meet and share with one or two others in prayer, Jesus promises his special presence.

 

So please never feel hesitant about asking to speak to me, or another priest. It need not be confession, although this is one important way of getting closer to God.  We cannot provide solutions to every problem, but the very act of sharing and praying is part of the way through which God gives us the strength for whatever we have to face.

 

But remember also that God wants us to be practical and God is present in all sorts of people and places, not just religious ones. Yes, God may well help you through all sorts of people whether they are believers or not. But beware of false advice. Worldly people can sometimes lead us completely astray. Some may do it deliberately – see the First Reading (Wisdom 2:12-20) but others may innocently suggest the easy way out – the quick fix – which in the long run can be disastrous.

 

The quick fix is not the way of God. A world of quick fixes is a world where people seek their own pleasure first. Such an approach can only end up in more conflict not less. And we must also remember that God works slowly. Working for God’s love and peace will mean tough decisions for each one of us sometimes that may require courage and endurance over a long period. Prayer, as I have said, will not take away the pain, but real prayer will help us to endure.. and in the end… like the disciples.. to see beyond… to a greater vision worth even dying for.

The problem of pain

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings : – Most of us find the idea of suffering abhorrent and will avoid it if we possibly can. We view suffering as failure or even as punishment from God and in consequence see it all negatively. Yet the Christ we follow and worship as Saviour of the world was one who won the greatest of victories, that over death and sin, precisely through taking on suffering. There seems to be at very least a contradiction here and perhaps we can make some attempt to see both the choiced suffering of Jesus and that of his creation, which is imposed upon us in a different light. This is not to suggest that death, and the pain it brings either physical or mental, is an illusion or that we become a group of masochists continually seeking out pain.

 

The tradition that suffering is somehow linked to transgression and failure and is punishable by God is of course very old, as we see from the Old Testament. In the work of Jeremiah, (31:31-34) we see how God promises to restore the Jewish nation after its exile in Babylon and the cruel ravaging of the nation with the destruction of its monarchy and aristocracy. In this passage a chastened nation is promised a wholly new covenant relationship, one in which they will be obedient to God’s law and all will go well. The telling line is “They broke that covenant of mine, so I had to show them who was master.” In this simple but primitive understanding of the divine-human relationship, modelled on that of earthly rulers and their subjects, there exists a straightforward system of punishment and reward.  It suggests that when things go wrong with creation we have only ourselves to blame, for we have sinned and must put things to rights. The tragedy for Israel is that its failings and their results never seem to alter things; all we seem to have is more of the same. Yet this is not true of reality, is it? After all, children learn from making errors: falling over produces tears, better balance helps. Scientists tell us that it is through innumerable ‘wrong-turnings’ that progress is made.

 

Over the centuries Jewish writers explored this concept of repeated failure and suffering and gradually began to see how defective and inadequate it was. After all, good people suffer and die along with the bad as we see with Job. Those righteous for God’s law can be horribly put to death, as we see with the Books of Esther, Maccabees and the great Servant Songs of Isaiah, not to mention Syrian and Iraqi modern Christian martyrs. By the time of Christ and the writings of St Paul, we can see situations in which the entire created order seems to be at odds with its creator and not necessarily through any deliberate fault on its part.

 

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews (5:7-9) daringly explores the idea of vulnerability and weakness in God himself. Incarnate in Christ, God the Son deliberately enters into our fallen and marred creation in complete solidarity with us. As immortal God he is incapable of suffering and death, made human in Jesus he can, and willingly submits himself to all the pain and suffering which mortal beings of necessity are a prey to. Hebrews makes clear that this is not a pleasant or easy path for the Son to have followed, but that in doing so he truly identifies with us, he really does become one of us, so that his prayer to the Father can be uttered from the depths of his abject despair and his total solidarity with us. If through this exchange we become divine, most assuredly by it divinity has also taken on frailty and failure and the threat of the annihilation which is the cause of all our fears.

 

In our gospel, from John (12:20-33) we see this etched out in a homely but shattering analogy. Jesus has returned to the environs of Jerusalem and was staying with Lazarus (the one Jesus raised from the dead) and his sisters. The Jewish Sanhedrin had already met to determine his fate and resort to the time honoured idea of the sacrifice of a scapegoat in order, so they claim, to protect the rest. Jesus was by this time well aware of their hostility and malign intentions towards himself, indeed, would have to have been intellectually blind or stupid not to have known his fate. So he gives a developed and well constructed meditation o suffering – his own and that of others who will follow him. “Unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain….” He speaks of a process of the absolute destruction of the wheat seed which thereby and only thereby produces the next year’s crop. There are times when this degree of suffering is the only thing that can recreate and renew a situation. The levels of suffering will be horrendous, but the end result will be worthwhile. Those of us who suffer debilitating illness or injuries will have felt something of this process; those divorced or separated; faced with the loss of loved children will know of it too; for such suffering can only be deeply harrowing and may frequently leave the sufferer at a complete loss as to how to make anything positive from the experience. Christians suffering in Syria and Iraq will be living it out on a daily basis. In this we will experience the self-emptying of God the Son. It won’t be a good experience, for it wasn’t for him either. Hebrews describes it thus: “Christ offered up prayer and entreaty aloud and in silent tears…”. John’s Jesus says: “Now my soul is troubled, what shall I say: Father, save me from this hour? But it was for this very reason that I have come to this hour.” It will be a kind of dying, and in it all we will have to cling onto is the truth that Jesus underwent this in faith, his faith – quite unrelieved at the time – that his Father would not ultimately desert him. It is what we all live for as believers, Christians who follow the Christ who was vindicated by his Father, who came back from the dead.

Married love – a choice not a feeling

I was at an Ecumenical meeting some years ago where we were discussing the nature of Christian love. Various people were going on about how wonderful love is and I am afraid I had to but in and tell them they were talking nonsense. “Love”, I said “Is not a nice feeling. It is an act of will.”  They seemed astonished by my outburst. Clearly they thought I was some grim hard-bitten Catholic priest with no joy or happiness in my life at all, and determined to make everyone else’s life a misery as well! Anyone who knows me will know that this is definitely NOT what I am like. So what on earth was I getting at?

Well, I could have gone very Biblical on them and pointed out that when Jesus said “Love your enemies”, he suggest imply that this would be easy or fun, nor was his supreme act of love – dying on the cross a pleasant experience! But, of course, they might well have said “That’s different.” so instead I told them of two classic examples of love from normal life that are not enjoyable at all, and what are they? Probably something most of you have actually experienced – changing a baby’s nappy and caring for a sick child in the middle of the night.

That, of course, is the kind of love that Christians expect married couples to show to one another, a love that is sacrificial. Indeed you may have already been reminded in a previous talk of that passage from St Paul where he tells married couples that the husband must be like Christ is for us, and the wife must be like we are for Christ, and that means bluntly that the husband must love his wife to the point of being prepared to die for her, and vice versa.

When I was asked to give this talk Catherine asked me to speak about how the grace from the Sacrament of Marriage supports us in difficult times. We have to be careful here don’t we, for grace is not like a magic potion that we can simply take to put things right. Grace is something we have to actively respond to and I think there are two ways that this happens. The first is what we think about marriage – our Intention when we marry. Those who think Marriage is just a nice ceremony to mark the day are in trouble aren’t they. Did you hear about the young lady who thought Marriage Preparation meant deciding the colour of the bridesmaid’s dresses? No, what we are hoping for as a Church is that every couple will have a real perception of what the Sacrament is and how it actually changes them. This is more significant than you might think because how we humans think about ourselves changes the way we act. If I think I am rubbish then I will act as if I am rubbish etc. That is why the Christian emphasis that each of us is precious in the sight of God is so important.

The second is how we put into action our perception of what marriage is – what we actually DO to love our partner. Of course these two things interact. If a married couple put into action their love for one another then it will gradually affect their perception of what married love is. Put simply that means a bit of very old teaching, that if a couple get through a difficult time together – not least the first baby – then their marriage grows stronger.

What I want to do now however is share with you how the Marriage Preparation Team try to help couples preparing for Marriage to have a deeper understanding of what they are doing and try to give them some practical suggestions of how to put into action the love they have for one another

It is actually quite hard for couples preparing for marriage to realise that their married love must be an act of will and not just a nice feeling. They are, almost certainly, “deeply in love” and that wonderful feeling can easily swamp the more sober assessment of what kind of love they must offer their partner in the future. Indeed, you could argue that couples who have “arranged” marriages – not forced marriages which are quite wrong – but “arranged” , where the man and woman are happy getting married in this way – are more likely to see the need for sacrificial love in their relationship.

The Oxford Marriage Preparation Days therefore spend quite a lot of time on the practical side of the marriage relationship. We start by getting couples to look at their family background – who (Mum or Dad) did the cooking, who did the gardening, who managed the money, who planned the holidays. Then we get them on their own to write down who they want to do these things in their marriage. When the couples share their responses privately with one another, they can sometimes be quite surprised  – although less so nowadays as so many of these couple are already living together.

When my wife and I started helping on these Preparation Days we were startled to discover for the first time in 36 years of marriage – it’s coming up for 46 now – why we found planning holidays so difficult. What we didn’t know, but found out when we filled in these questionnaires, was that my wife’s father planned their holidays, and my mother planned ours. We were therefore unconsciously expecting the other to take the lead, and had done so for all those years. It is so much easier now we know this.

We also talk to the couples about how to handle what are sometimes called the “pinches” in marriage, meaning by that those little things about one’s partner that one doesn’t notice when one is deeply “in love” but become more and more irritating as one lives together for a long time. We show them a picture of a couple deeply in love holding two bags – one they are showing to each other holds all the things about you that make you look good. It is the view of yourself you like to present to the world. The other bag is hidden behind one’s back. This holds all the things about you that the world doesn’t see but are revealed once you are living with someone.

We also do some work identifying what these little things might be. Often they can be those classic things that distinguish men from women – a women’s way of shopping on one side – a man’s obsession with sport on the other. This can lead to much laughter as people share but it also helps people realise that all couples face these and other such frictions in their lives. I sometimes tell the story of a young man called Adam who was living with his girl friend and things were going wrong. I suggested that he wasn’t understanding that women are different from men and suggested he read the Book “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”. One of the things this book taught me was that when my wife raises a problem she is not asking me to provide a solution. Men tend to think – face a problem – provide a solution. Women tend to think – face a problem – talk about it. What a man therefore has to do when a woman raises a problem is not to panic and think she wants an answer when what she wants is for you to listen, to show that you care. Cutting her short with a solution not the way to go. So what did Adam do? He read the book and was very impressed with it, but the next time he and his girl friend had a conflict, instead of listening to her, he told me what he did. “Read this book” he said “And then you’ll understand”. She left him!

Of course it isn’t just the classic man/woman differences that people have to deal with in marriage, and these things come up too. He may be the one who like things tidy and she likes to strew things around. It isn’t always the man who drops his socks on the floor, although I believe that is more often the case.

WE then look at how to deal with such things so as to stop them becoming major issues! Maybe you have some ideas? Some need raising – but at the right time and in the right way. NOT I hate what you are doing…more I am sorry but I find what you are doing difficult to cope with.  Some things just need living with don’t they? I always tell couples not to think they can change their partner. It is fatal way to begin a marriage. If he or she is untidy, there is a limit to how much they can change. There are even some things almost impossible to change. For example there is little point in hating your partner for snoring – a big problem for many couples. What we have to learn is how to adopt strategies to cope and to realise that all the strategies we adopt are part of our love for our partner. So the wife may decide it is impossible to take him shopping, better to go alone or with a friend, and he may have to realise that asking her to watch the football with him may just not work! Once again these are decisions to be made, each one is an act of will, something we have to work at, not a nice feeling that will somehow carry us through as if by magic. Indeed if couples rely on that feeling –  “I am so in love with him that I can put up with anything.” – they are actually storing up troubles for themselves later when that “feeling” begins to wear off.

These two presentations, with the work the couple are asked to do together, come at the beginning of the day and are led by ordinary married lay people sharing their own experiences and difficulties, and how they have managed them. Only then does the Priest give a Talk on the Nature of Catholic Marriage. I always start my Talk by asking them if they can name the 5 elements that make up a real Catholic Marriage. I get them to spend a couple of minutes chatting with their partner before coming up with their answers, so let’s do the same now. Think about it for a few moments, have a little chat with your spouse or your neighbour and let’s see what you come up with. 5 things that make a marriage a real marriage. 5 things that the Catholic Church would say would make a marriage invalid if they were not present.

FOR UNION

This is all about being one with one another. It includes things like love and trust and sharing. Notice that it is union, which preserves each person’s identity – what one might call our personal space – not unity which implies a complete merging. It includes sex of course, but that means the whole physical relationship. It is expressed in those famous words from the service “For better, for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.”

This was brought home to me some years ago when I went round to prepare Wayne and Tracy (not their real names) for their marriage. I had known them a bit since they were young and rather wild teenagers, who happily had sex with all sorts of people. In the end Tracy had become pregnant, but not by Wayne. The father wasn’t interested in supporting her, and gradually her friend Wayne became the one she turned to. He moved in, supported her through the birth of her baby, and got on with being a good father for the little one. When I visited them and got on to the subject of sex, they stopped me. “We don’t call it sex.” they said, “That is what we used to do. We call it making love.” I have used that story a lot since to remind people that in the modern world where sex is endlessly portrayed as something people who are NOT married do, learning to see sex as part of a deep and lasting relationship requires quite a mind shift – a constant battle against the way sex is normally presented. Try to think of a film or a TV drama where sex is shown between a married couple and you will see what I mean!

The most important part of a good sexual relationship is surely to see it as an activity where you express your love for your partner, and not principally something to give you sexual pleasure. This self-giving should be part of the whole marriage too. Those who get married because they think it will make them happier are in great danger. True Marriage must be an act of giving yourself to your partner and to any children that you have together, and unless people realise that then as soon as it stops being pleasurable for them they are likely to give up.

At the Marriage Preparation Days one of the married couples bravely shares with those being prepared what their sex life means to them. They point out that having children and facing their demands usually means a sudden reduction in your sex life and then just when they are older and settled

FOR FAMILY

This is first of all being open to the possibility of children. So the service asks couples “To accept children lovingly from God.”  This does NOT mean expecting them as a right. With twelve couples present, we always point out that on average at least one couple will have trouble having children. Children are not play things to make one look good or feel good and people who treat them like that, as an extension of themselves are NOT being good parents.

The right approach to any children a couple may have is summed up in the requirement in the service “to bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church.”  There is a lot more that could be said here but it would take us on to a different topic.

Family however also implies in Catholic teaching, the recognition that when we marry someone it is not just an individual affair, not just two individuals marrying one another. Whether people like it or not when they marry they are marrying into each other’s families. This can require a lot of hard work by the couple, can’t it? I only have to say the word “in-laws” and I can sense the groans, but whether one likes it or not, one’s partners parents are almost always something each of us has to learn to live with. Here again we are called to an act of will, to love them even if we do not like them. I would also add a note of caution that some of you may be familiar with. Your spouse may be as infuriated, if not more infuriated than you, by one or both of his or her parents.  Maybe their opinions – maybe something they do. However if you criticise your spouse’s parents that may move them into defence mode, because however much they infuriate him or her, they are still their Mum and Dad, and there are many many memories that you cannot know about, where he or she as a child was loved and supported that are deep in our subconscious and can kick in if they are attacked by others. It sounds illogical, and it is, but it happens.

FOR EVER

You are asked “Are you ready to love and honour each other as man and wife for the rest of your lives.”                                                                        This is a big question and I always bring it home by reminding couples that nowadays both of them may live well into their 80’s which means that “or ever” may well mean at least 60 years! We forget that, until the 1950’s,  at least one partner in a marriage probably died in their 60’s and some even earlier. To be blunt, this solution to marriage difficulties is no longer an option. It is therefore not unusual nowadays for a marriage that seems to have gone OK for many years to collapse upon retirement or soon after. The other time of strain is when the children leave home. Both are times when couples need to talk, to assess how they are now going to live together, to discuss maybe what they are going to do together and what they are going to do apart. In other words how are they going to manage a new phase in their life. I sometimes suggest that every married couple ought to give themselves, or ask someone to give them and annual MOT Test.

As I may have said already “Don’t expect to change your partner, but expect your partner to change, and some of those changes you may not like!”

THE PRESENCE OF GOD

Yes marriage is a sacrament and for us Catholics that makes it a very precious thing indeed. But, as I said earlier Sacraments are not magic, the need to be believed in and acted upon. It is worth remembering what the outward form of the sacrament of marriage is. In Holy Communion it is the bread and wine. There God is present. But what is the outward form in Marriage? …………………………………………………………………….

The answer is that the couple themselves are the outward form. They are the way God is present in the world in a wonderful focussed way. Marriage is not a blessing given from outside, it is a presence within the actual self-giving of the couple to one another throughout their lives. It doesn’t happen once at the Marriage Service as a kind of magic incantation, but is always present in the couple and it is up to them to make it work. In a similar way, a priest cannot rely on the Sacrament of ordination to magic him into a good and holy man, he has to live it and make it happen every day of his life. It is the same for every married couple.

YOUR FREE CHOICE

This sums it all up. Both the man and woman must choose freely to do this thing. If either of them is forced, or feels forced by circumstances, to get married then the Church can declare that it is not a Catholic marriage.  If either is lying about something, it is not a Catholic marriage. Both are asked “Are you ready freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage” Both have to say “I am” and mean it. Both are asked “Will you take N here present as your wife (or husband) and both say “I will” and must mean it.

Talk give at Abingdon Catholic Church n Wednesday 29th January 2014

 

 

Disasters & God are NOT connected

It amazes me that, despite the warning from Jesus in today’s Gospel, (Luke 21:5-19) some people still try to link disastrous events, like the one now in the Philippines, to the end of the world and the Day of Judgement. Certainly some of the writers in the Old Testament do make that link, and it was still a view held by many in the time of Jesus. (See Luke 13:1-4) But Jesus will not allow us to believe that God sends suffering to the world. Yes, as we just heard him say in the Gospel, sufferings of various kinds will happen, but these are NOT to be seen as signs from God.

I noticed one comfortable Western journalist making this mistake when he described the Typhoon disaster as a test of faith. It was worth noticing a few moments later a weeping father who said quite the opposite. “Only with God can I manage to face this.” Sometimes we forget that such natural disasters, as well as awful wars, have always happened in our world; the only difference is that nowadays because of modern technology, we can see them for ourselves. Happily, most of us here in England do not just weep for those poor people, and then turn on one of the Soaps, but do what we can to help them, as the wonderful response to the DEC Appeal has shown.

Judgement Day, as described briefly in our 1st Reading (Malachi 3:19-20), is certainly something that Jesus tells us will happen, but he more often uses a different and more positive term. He talks about the coming, or the breaking in, of the kingdom of God, and he tells us that although that kingdom with its final judgement will only happen when the world ends, it is also happening here and now. So he says “The kingdom of God is very near”  (Luke 10:9) and then, to make it more explicit, says that it is like the seed growing in the ground. We cannot see anything and yet it happens right in front of us. And then on one occasion he actually says “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17:20-21)

One of the reasons that Christianity became popular first amongst the poorest of people, as it is today, is precisely because it gives people hope. It tells them and us. when we are faced with our own disasters, that God is not some fearsome force, or even a number of fearsome forces, that we must try to persuade to help us; but is a power of love and goodness that seeks always to help and support us whatever troubles we face. That is precisely why the God we believe in comes to us as a man and suffers and dies on the cross. But further,  that knowing such love, we are then inspired not only to hope in him, but also to imitate him, and always to work to bring his love to others in need. For us Christians, faith, hope and love are always intermingled.

At the end of our lives, of course, or at the end of time, all of us will find ourselves face to face with God. This will be a moment of fear and love, as we see how often we have failed to love as much as we could have done, and realise fully how much he has loved us and how often we have ignored him. For some, hopefully a very few, that will be their end, their entry into hell; but for most of us, hopefully, this will be the beginning of our final purification – what we call purgatory – when we will be drawn fully into the love of God that we have known only a tiny part of here on earth. That is what the Day of Judgement will be like.

This is the wonderful message that we Christians have to offer our suffering world, and that is why we must do all we can, as a church,  to spread this message of hope and love in every way we can. 

The pain of being human : God and grit

Frances writes on this weekends readings :- Jesus warns his followers, and those who heard him immediately before his passion, (Luke 21:5-19) not to put their faith in earthly, material things. So many in Judaism were expecting and eagerly awaiting the coming of the Messiah. They believed that this figure, sent from God, would wipe the occupying Romans off the map; that he would be a warrior of colossal power and bring peace and above all world domination to Jews; to those so long abused and repressed by invaders. For them the Temple in Jerusalem would be the centre of the world and everyone would come to worship there. Small wonder then, that some around Jesus were full of admiration for the gold covered building and the costly votive offerings the wealthy had attached to it. Jesus stunningly wipes the floor on all these values with his terrible picture of the utter destruction of all they held most holy and significant. He speaks of a time of international war and the chaos that often followed such events, with the dreaded plague rife among the peoples. He speaks too, of Christians being blamed for the disasters that are to follow, and the loss of trust even among closest relative and friends; in short, of a world in turmoil. Little wonder then, that his message proved so unpalatable to the authorities, who became rich on the temple takings; or to the crowds eagerly looking for the warrior messiah and revenge on their enemies; or even to his own, for whom his vision of the future promised pain and suffering, betrayal and loss.

Yet Christianity has never promised a world triumph with all going well. Rather, it predicts a future of struggle and turmoil in which the believer is at the centre of the struggle, working to alleviate the pain of others. And we do this because we are the people of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Assuredly, Jesus, like any thoughtful man of his age could have predicted the eventual revolt of the Jewish people and the likely reprisals which would follow. This in fact came some 30 years after his passion, and it would have been wholly unrealistic to suppose that this would bring about the triumph of world Jewry, although this was what many hoped for. We have to remember that Jewish history had always affirmed that it was through suffering that the Jewish people discovered God and grew ever closer to him; and Jesus insisted that this age old story had not changed, but that through his unique suffering the path to a wholly new encounter with God was opened.

In the Jewish past it was common to expect the Day of the Lord of Hosts to come as the day of retribution upon enemies, as we see in Malachi (3:19-20). “The day that is coming is going to burn them up, says the Lord of Hosts, leaving them neither root nor stalk….But for you who hear my name, the sun of righteousness will shine out with healing in its rays.” But this is quite simply not our human experience, is it? Of a certainty, those who have died, or lost homes and families and possessions in the Philippines recently were largely devout Catholics; just as many Coptic Christians in Egypt are persecuted and the 48 women per hour who are raped in the terrible war in the Congo are devout believers. No, the message of Christ is one of realism in this life, which is precisely why the promise of life eternal with God is so compelling. It is from within the pain and suffering of this world that we, like ancient Jewry, explore and discover God and find his life, – kingdom life – even now in the goodness and love of others amidst struggle, depravity and uncertainty.

This may be a grim message, but it is a vigorously realistic one and Jesus was never one for sugary sentimentality. We who are relatively safe in the West, unlike our own forebears, or the millions in the third world today, need to grasp the inescapable reality of evil, for it is very apparent in those places. We cannot shelter ourselves and our families from the pain of the fallen world. The whole point of the Incarnation, in which Jesus’ takes on our human nature with all its terrible capacity for evil, and of his dying precisely in that marred human flesh, was to confront the power of evil, and we must recognise its reality and respond to it. The story of his life is all about his confronting evil and his small victories against it, just as our acts of kindness to others make the world fractionally better. We have to remember that Jesus did not triumph against his enemies; he died the most terrible death at the hands of wicked, ill-informed and unlovely people; thereby redeeming not just the good and deserving, but those who murdered him; those who have perpetrated other and similar atrocities ever since. Jesus died not to make this world and creation just a bit nicer; he died to remake a fallen creation and bring it new and perfect to God his Father. This is the stunning, even terrifying fact of the Incarnation and here and now you and I are part of that cosmic drama.

Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians (2 Thess 3:7-12) directs the thoughts and actions of all of us as we await this great divine act of redemption. Put simply, he advises us, just as he did two thousand years ago to the Christian people of Thessalonika, to work; to participate in our communities, working and earning our livings and not becoming a burden to others. There were clearly in the city those who believed themselves already redeemed by the blood of Christ who just sat back and waited. Paul reserves his strictest condemnation for them. We all have our part to play in the life of our community now as we await our final and assured meeting with God.