MY TOLKIEN HOMILIES based on the Bible readings for Lent Year A
In these Lent Homilies I am going to use Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to illustrate the message of today’s Bible readings. However, those who are not keen on this author need not worry, because the main message will be a Christian one not a Tolkien one! This would please Tolkien who, as a devout Catholic, always put his faith before his writings, and who certainly thought that within his most famous story were basic Christian truths rather than some new philosophy. Thus he lived and died a quiet faithful Catholic. For him, that alone gave his life meaning and purpose.
The Church’s theme this week is temptation – what it’s like, what it does to us, and how we can be saved from its consequences. The great Jewish story of the way humans fall into temptation is our 1st Reading from Genesis, (2:7-3:7) of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit. They reach out thinking it will give them more and more of what they think they want, and in the process are ruined by it. This is so similar to our modern consumer world isn’t it? How easily we think, that if we just had a little more money, so we could buy that latest fashion accessory, or electronic gizmo, we would find happiness.
We see this and more, well illustrated in Tolkien’s story, but the symbol is not a fruit on a tree but rings of power. We hear how nine great kings have already lost themselves and become Ring-Wraiths – dark ghostly figures of evil – through their search for this power. But the story actually concerns the greatest temptation of all, the One Ring, and as the story unfolds we see how it tempts even the most honourable and the most wise. We are shown through various incidents that resisting temptation is a very hard road indeed. The wisest, like Gandalf the great wizard, or Elrond the great Elf-King will not even touch the Ring. The Church teaches this again and again, though sadly many fail to realise it. Avoid occasions of temptation! If we know certain situations, or certain people will lead us wrong, we would be wise to avoid them. Thinking we are strong enough is a fatal mistake.
Tolkien shows us this in a man called Boromir. He also shows us through him that temptation is normally clothed in something wonderful and good. He is a good man who longs to save his country and restore it to glory, and when the Ring comes his way he cannot resist trying to take it – because he thinks he is strong enough to use it only for good. Galadriel the Elven Queen, when she is actually offered the ring, is much more aware that this is the real temptation. For a moment she contemplates how she would become a great Queen with power to do immense good, but then she realises that it would only lead to fear and oppression, and she chooses the path where even the power she now has will fade and die. Yes, our temptation is often to do something that appears good even though it’s not … “Go on, what’s the harm, try it!” And the drug makes you feel so good that you cannot believe that it’s as dangerous as they make out.
But what about Frodo the Hobbit, the apparent hero of the story? Yes, he shows immense courage in resisting the ring on his path to destroy it, but finally temptation catches up with him at the last minute on Mount Doom. Here Tolkien again teaches us to avoid thinking that just because we have been strong enough to resist temptation so far, we are out of danger. Pride comes before a fall. This is very much the message of our 2nd Reading (Romans 5:12-19). Paul says that sin and therefore death reigns over each one of us. There is no escape whatever we may think. The only solution is to accept the gift of God – “the divine grace, coming through the one man Jesus Christ.”
The hero in The Lord of the Rings therefore is not who you might think. It has to be someone who doesn’t think of himself as a hero at all. Look at today’s Gospel for a clue – the Temptations of Jesus (Matt 4:1-11). The hero, the saviour, is the one who freely takes on temptation and by choosing to give his life for others in love and in service, is able to resist all the glory that is offered him – the power to be a magician, even a superman and the power to rule the world. In this way, it is he who carries us, once we realise we cannot manage alone. The more religious we are, the more we are tempted as Jesus was. We long for the power to put the world right. We long to be able to pray in a way that will bring in God to put things right for us.
But Jesus chooses to do the opposite. Adam and Eve reached out to grasp power, to be like gods. Jesus chooses to be a suffering servant, to give up all power, to die powerless, and in doing so he reverses the results of human sin. As St Paul says, “The good act of one man brings everyone life..” So our aim, as Christians, is not just to be a bit more like Jesus, for this is not the final solution. As Tolkien shows us in Frodo, even the most heroic can fail at the last. The Church teaches us instead that in the long run we do not resist evil in our own power but by putting ourselves into the hands of a higher power, God himself, and linking ourselves into a union with Jesus through the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist.
Now Tolkien would not want us to make an exact parallel. There is no Jesus figure in his story. But there is one who is nearer than any others to what Jesus did for us. Quite rightly Tolkien paints this almost Jesus figure as rather obscure, even a little clown-like, but he is the only one who not only resists the power of the Ring but does so even though he has worn it! And I am not going to tell you his name, because in the real world the only name that saves is JESUS.
Some people have the crazy idea that the perfect Catholic – the perfect Christian – is someone who is very holy and close to God, and who has no problem believing every single aspect of the faith.
It’s nonsense, of course, because we’re not machines but people, so that even when we do have those moments when we feel close to God, we have to face the fact that the life that God has given us, his will for us, will always take us on from where we are, and so there is no point simply staying where we feel safe.
This is why most of the major stories in the Bible, that express the faith, are stories of travel, of moving from one place towards another. We heard the beginning of one of these stories today in our 1st Reading (Gen 12:1-4) when Abram is told to leave the security of his country and family and begin to make a new future in an unknown land. There is also the most famous story of all, of the Israelites leaving Egypt and travelling through the desert led by Moses until they reached the Promised land. And that takes us to today’s Gospel. (Matt 17:1-9)
Why? Because Moses is there. You see, the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain might appear to be one of those holy moments that we all dream about when all our worries and problems are swept away. That’s certainly what the 3 disciples think. They want to stay there for ever. But when Moses had his moments with God on the mountain, he was in the midst of leading his people through the desert. The glory was only given to help him to lead them on, and he would die before they got there.. giving his life for the sake of the future. And of course, it is the same with Jesus presented to us here as the new eternal Moses.
Now if you are one of the Tolkien fans waiting for the link, you’ve probably already worked it out. For good Catholic that he is, Tolkien too puts his whole grand story within the context of a journey – a flight from danger into danger. The hobbits are portrayed in their safe little country called The Shire enjoying life and partying away. But, faced with danger four special hobbits have to get up and go. They are not aware then that this decision has such significance. Just like the disciples when they followed Jesus. And like the disciples (and like us) they have moments on the journey, safe houses on the way, places where they might long to stay for ever, where they are shown a bit more of what their journey is really about.
It’s exactly the same with us. Students often ask me why the prayer-life and the faith they knew back home has now been utterly shaken. Some think they have lost their faith, entirely ignoring the fact that in a new situation at University, God wants them to move on, and that may well mean praying in a different way and finding Mass very different from the experience back home. We all need to realise this truth. Life, especially our spiritual life, is a journey, a pilgrimage. The changes faced on becoming a student are obvious, but actually all of us face the same kinds of challenges, for even when outwardly everything appears the same, life is always is an inner journey towards God. Moments, even periods of our life, when we feel God is close, are actually only there to prepare us for the next stage on the journey. And sometimes, when we get closer to God, we may feel that he is further away. Before long, each one of us will be challenged to respond to him in new, different and sometimes frightening ways. However old or young we are, there is always a new journey to do, a new enemy to ask God to help us overcome. And remember, St Paul says that, “The last enemy is death.”
Tolkien uses two Transfiguration moments in his story – with Elrond at Rivendell and then with Galadriel at Lothlorien – to make the same point. But he makes further allusions to his faith at the second of these places, because here the hobbit travellers are given two special gifts. First, Lembas, is a special bread that will not go stale, to sustain them on the journey. This is just like the unleavened bread the Israelites took with them into the wilderness – the same bread that Jesus gave to the disciples at the Last Supper – the same bread that we receive at Mass transformed into his presence to sustain us through life. The second gift is Light – the Light that Galadriel tells them will be a light for them when all other lights go out, even at the darkest moments of their lives – just like the light we are given at Baptism and given again at every Easter Vigil. Signs of God’s presence for us whatever darkness we have to face.
Our Gospel also reminds us of one other thing we need to do, to listen. “This is my Son.. Listen to him.” Tolkien makes this point too although he does it in a more comical way by showing the two younger hobbits constantly failing to listen. Merry and Pippin are great characters because they are so much like us, whilst Frodo and Sam have the darker more obviously Christian road. They are the ones who have listened and now discover that certain of these the words come to them to save them in moments of great peril. Like them, we too must listen, because we never know when what we have experienced in the good times will not sustain us when times are tough. I once cared for a young man in his 20’s who suddenly discovered he was dying. He had given up the faith, as many young people do. But now, “I’m scared“, he said. For a moment I was stuck for what to say, but then suddenly it came to me. “Do you know the story of the Prodigal Son?” The story he had listened to in his childhood suddenly came back to him as a voice from a loving God, and with that voice for support his fear left him, the last enemy was defeated, and he died in peace.
I wonder if you’ve experienced that difficult moment when an enthusiastic Christian asks you if you have been saved. This kind of Christian deals in certainties. They think that unless you have an explicit belief of a certain kind then you are not really a Christian. They give the impression that there is a clear line, and people are either on one side or the other.
The truth is that faith is not like this at all. Faith is related to hope and love. All three are yearnings towards a mystery that is always beyond us. A longing for something not yet realised. So when someone says to me “I don’t believe in God”, I ask them what do they believe in. Do they believe, or at least long to believe, there is some power of goodness underlying the Universe? “Oh yes” they say, and then I say “Then you do believe in God. You have just misunderstood what believing in God is all about.”
This yearning, this longing, this thirsting for the unknown power is what faith really is. As Catholics we have the great joy of knowing something of the fullness of God that is revealed in Jesus and his Church, and, I hope, we’re always willing to share this with others. But just because others aren’t at the same point on the road of faith as us we do not therefore condemn them. Thus the Church teaches that “those who through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and. moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it …..may achieve eternal salvation.” That’s from Lumen Gentium an official teaching document quoted in the Catechism at para 847.
So we now have more idea what Paul means when he says in our 2nd reading “by faith we are judged righteous and at peace with God.” (Romans 5:1) And we can also see more clearly what is happening in our Gospel (John 4:5-42) as Jesus meets this woman at the well whose belief is different from his. Notice that she thinks he will condemn her for worshipping on the local mountain rather than in the temple at Jerusalem, but instead he says. “You worship what you do not know ; we worship what we do know…”, he acknowledges the difference, and then he points forward to worship that is beyond specific material things “when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” – a vision of being with God in eternal life.
The Tolkien link may not be so obvious today, but actually it’s very clear. His story is set in a mythical Iron age past, clearly before Christ. So, as a good Catholic, Tolkien hints at the way these various peoples yearn for goodness, and sense in some way the presence of a guiding power. At various moments in the story the wisest characters mention that they must aim to do what is meant to happen. They realise that to defeat evil someone has to enter into the heart of evil, to Mordor itself, to destroy the evil by throwing the Ring of Power into the Fire at Mount Doom. At the Council at Rivendell when Frodo finally offers of his own free will to be that person, Elrond the wise elf says, “If I understand aright all that I have heard, I think that this task is appointed for you Frodo, and that if you do not find a way, no one will.”
This faith in a greater purpose. This hope in the midst of despair. This love that will be shown by the Fellowship who support Frodo, and finally between Sam and Frodo at the darkest moments as they walk almost helplessly into the evil land – are supremely Christian insights into the true nature and purpose of life. Tolkien refuses to be more specific about this guiding power in his epic story because he knows it would destroy its universal nature. He knows what that power fully revealed is – Jesus Christ the Saviour of the World – but he also wants to affirm that those who do not explicitly know Christ can still be saved.
This then is what our approach as Catholics should be to the task of mission, of evangelisation. We are called to discern God and proclaim his presence in every yearning of the human heart towards goodness and love.
When we challenge the world we only challenge what is evil, not what is different.
We believe we have the fullness of the truth in Jesus. He is the Water of `Life that everyone is actually thirsting for whether they know it or not. But our approach is always gentle, so that we do not destroy the good in others, but help to fan it into a flame that is a fuller response to all that God wants them to be and to do. Elrond never forces his opinion onto Frodo. There is discussion and sharing and then finally a brave decision to be affirmed. We must do the same.
We humans are very good at being conned by outward appearances. We tend to think that good-looking well-dressed people must be good and happy, and the advertisers know this only too well. So use this perfume, wear these jeans, drive this car and you will find happiness! We expect our heroes to be like this too, and films and books are very good at playing into these expectations. If a story is exciting and flashy then not only will we be entertained, but we will start believing it is true. More honest books try to present things much more like they are. But truth is not as exciting as fiction. In real life there are no absolutely bad people, and no absolutely good people. The distinctions between heroes and villains, baddies and goodies, are blurred.
Films are particularly good at taking a real story and turning it into a melodrama, and the story of Jesus is a classic example of a tale much corrupted in its telling. Most of the films of Jesus show him as a deeply holy man full of God’s presence and make out that those who cannot see this truth are either blind or bad. Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”, for example, presents Jesus as the perfect hero undergoing dreadful torture. The fact is that Jesus was a much more enigmatic character than is sometimes made out, and he knew it. The written Gospels show that who Jesus is, was not so obvious except to those to whom God had revealed it. Seeing who he really was, the focused presence of God in the world, was and is not easy. Even his disciples weren’t sure, and many apparently very holy people just dismissed him as a wicked blasphemer.
This is one of the reasons why many people say they do not believe in God. They want the certainties of this fictional world, and true Christianity cannot provide this. Look at the way the world viewed Pope John Paul II’s illness. They thought that a leader, to be effective, must be strong and active, and had no idea that a leadership from within weakness and suffering is much nearer to Jesus than the strong Pope John Paul we knew when he was younger.
Our Gospel today (John 9) about the man who is given his sight presents us with another way of looking at this muddled human way of seeing. The point here is that it is the blind man, who is given his sight by Jesus, who then can really see who Jesus is, whilst those who think they can see are actually blind. Jesus explicitly says, “It is for judgement that I have come into this world, so that those without sight may see, and those with sight turn blind.”(John 9:40) It’s a big reminder to us to watch out when we think we have got things all sorted, when we think we know the answer, when we claim that we can see. Because our very certainty can be a danger sign, a sign that we are going blind.
This important truth is strongly expressed by Tolkien in his great book when he introduces us to the man Aragorn, who will one day be King. The hobbits, who get to know him first as Strider, are deeply suspicious of a man who looks so rough and dark. Is he a servant of evil, they wonder? Gradually however, they become aware of his worth as they get to know him, but they are still not aware that he is a king. Indeed, almost at the end of the story, when he becomes the new King of Gondor, they are amazed that this great man is none other than their scruffy friend Strider. As in the Gospel, so in the Lord of the Rings, many hints are given as to who this person is. Gandalf the wizard sends the hobbits a little poem that ought to have helped them see. Its first few lines read:-
“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost”
But despite this they still do not perceive who Strider really is. Sadly the films finds it harder to keep this secret hidden, and so do not present this Christian truth nearly as well as the books.
However Tolkien also points out another Christian truth that is perhaps even more important. This is that blindness is found most of all in the source of evil itself. The great eye of Sauron that claims to be able to see all that is happening, and thus rule the world, just doesn’t notice the little weak hobbits gradually creeping nearer and nearer to their goal. Once again the Christian story is plain. Most people look at the pathetic figure of Jesus dying on the cross and find it hard to see, that in this wretched sight, God is at work conquering evil and death. We need to be given sight as the blind man was if we are to be able to see this great truth – not just to see who Jesus really is but also to be able to look at the world and ourselves in a different way too.
If I tell you that the most important thing for every human being is to prepare for death, I expect you will dismiss me as morbid and depressing. So today, in the last of my Lent Homilies, I am going to bring in Tolkien to support me right from the beginning. Why? Because the whole of Tolkien’s long and exciting epic is actually all about
facing up to death. Indeed I would like to argue that all of the greatest stories in the world, both the true ones and the works of fiction, are only really great because they tackle this essential theme. Stories that fail to do this can be wonderfully entertaining – a good bit of escapism from a tough world – but they are not really tackling for us the deepest realities of human existence.
The great adventure of life is always to face death. Those who hide away from this truth end up endlessly trying to protect themselves from the inevitable – or surrounding themselves with more and more things to hide from a truth that will eventually, one day, catch up with them. So the heroes in the Lord of the Rings choose to risk everything even life itself for a greater good. At first Frodo suggests that someone else takes the Ring from him, or that they simply hide it away or throw it into the sea. They could, of course, have done all those things, just as Jesus could have just taught people a few things about being kind and good and loving God and then sunk quietly into an easy old age. But Frodo and his companions choose instead the hard road. They choose the path of death in order to defeat death and in different ways all of them meet a death of one kind or another on their journey.
And this is what makes the story so exciting and absorbing. It is full of the vibrant vitality of life and friendship, of fun and challenge. Again and again one or other of the characters risks all for the sake of a future hope. Gandalf killed by the Balrog. Boromir defending the Hobbits. Merry and Pippin crawling into the terrifying forests of Fangorn. Aragorn with his elf and dwarf companions actually walking the Paths of Death and summoning death to defeat death. And above all Sam and Frodo walking into the jaws of death, into a realm where all is evil and decaying, and where the fires wait to consume them. Tolkien experts, especially of the feminine variety, may think I have missed one out, and they are right. Arwen’s choice to marry the King is also a choice to die – a hint here of Tolkien’s lifelong devotion to Our Lady.
Well if you haven’t heard, not just of Our Lady, but all the Catholic reverberations in that list I’ve just given you, then you can’t have been listening. Look at our Gospel (John 11:1-45) for some other obvious links. Notice that Mary and Martha and the disciples do not want to face the death of Lazarus. Mary actually says to Jesus, “If you had been here my brother would not have died.” And she is quite right. Jesus acts as God acts. He allows us to die. He does not surround Lazarus, or us, with some protective screen. Instead he is pointing his friends and us towards an even more frightening prospect, the greatest story of all, the ultimate adventure, his own death on the cross.
Jesus is “the Resurrection”. He is God defeating death. But he does not defeat death by avoiding it, or running away from it, but by entering into it.
How hard it is for us really to live that way. We prefer to read exciting stories than to take risks ourselves. We think that “being spiritual” as Paul puts it in our 2nd Reading (Romans 8:8-11) means being holy and good…. And inevitably a bit boring! But to be truly holy, to be truly spiritual, is to live life on the edge, the way the great heroes and the saints of the past lived it. For really to enter into life, is to embrace death.
But what about the happy ending? Yes, there is one, but only through death and sacrifice. First there is the truth that in all that we suffer, God suffers and weeps with us. We hear that, “Jesus wept”, and in that action we sense the immensity of love that our God has for us. But we know too that in two weeks time we will celebrate Easter, that if we face death with God we will find new life beyond death.
Now Tolkien never wants to make his parallels too specific. No one dies in his story quite the same way as Jesus does, for the death of Jesus is a definitive end to one story in order to create a new beginning. I pointed out previously that Tolkien only hints at the existence of God in his story, so too he only hints at resurrection. But for this he uses a biblical image, the image of the eagle from Exodus (19:4) ” You have seen how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” And from Isaiah (40:31) “But they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
So at moments when all seems lost in his story the eagles come to the rescue and the heart lifts. Gandalf dies but is given new life for a time and the great eagle bears him to Lothlorien. The whole army faces annihilation at the gates of Mordor and then the eagles come. And finally, of course, when Frodo and Sam have completed their mission, when they have taken the ring into the place of death and destroyed it, and as they then wait for death as Mount Doom explodes around them, the eagles come to rescue them.
For Tolkien addicts I could say a lot more, but I hope even those of you who have never read the story or seen the films will now recognise that in his own way, Tolkien has created a great Christian story. Walking into death with Jesus we find new life. This is the story we are about to celebrate this coming Holy Week and Easter. May we also live it out in our own lives, so that where Jesus has gone we may follow.