A Reflection on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
This reflexion was written for the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, but I would like to offer it to members of our parish too. One of the commitments of the Knights is to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and to support the work of the local church there.
The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross next Monday, 14th September, is of great significance for our Order. Historically this feast commemorates the dedication of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 335AD.
Those of us who have made pilgrimage to the Holy Land will be aware that the authenticity of many of the holy places owes much to the creative imagination of pilgrims before us, but in the case of the Holy Sepulchre we can say that it is more likely than not that the basilica marks the site where Jesus was crucified and buried.
If we had wandered by this site around the time that Christ was crucified and buried what would we have seen? We would have seen a disused quarry outside the city walls with some caves which people had begun to use as burial places. It would not be stretching the imagination to imagine the space as full of rubbish, a suitable location for putting to death thieves, adulterers, bandits and terrorists, and anyone who was believed to be beyond the pale of civilised human existence, unworthy of living in the holy city. Hence the Letter to the Hebrews (13:10-14) links the crucified Jesus suffering outside the city gate to the place where the bodies of animals sacrificed in the temple were left to burn.
John 19 refers to Jesus being crucified at the so-called ‘place of the skull’ with a grave nearby. This is not incompatible with the little archaeological evidence that exists. John also describes the place as a garden. Anyone who has visited the holy land after the rainy season will have seen how areas that normally are dry and parched are transformed by a thin layer of grass.
But it is the constant tradition of the Christian community in Jerusalem that provides the most important witness to the authenticity of the site. In AD 41, not long after the death of Jesus, the site was brought within the city walls, but it was not developed, and in the early days Christians came to pray there. In 135, after the second Jewish Revolt, Hadrian turned Jerusalem into a pagan city, and built a pagan temple over the site.
However memories did not diminish, and as Christianity became more established the Emperor Constantine decided to build a church dedicated to the Resurrection of Jesus. The initiative for this is attributed to his mother, St Helena, credited with finding the true Cross. But where was the church to be built? The obvious, and cheapest place to build would have been Hadrian’s forum, an open space south of the pagan temple, but the local community were adamant that the death and burial place lay right under the temple itself, so that was where Constantine excavated until he reached the holy burial cave. Originally the cave was in the open air but later a building was constructed to protect it, with the church nearby. What we see today is not Constantine’s church but the one built by the Crusaders. Like the Church community the buildings that stand on the site of Golgotha and the cave of resurrection have seen many changes and modifications over the centuries.
What has remained central throughout these many changes is the Church’s proclamation of the Death of Jesus on the Cross and his Resurrection. In the Mass for the Feast this mystery is beautifully expressed in the New Testament Reading, the hymn quoted by St Paul in his letter to the Philippians. In this hymn the mystery of Christ is summed up in a story told in a few brief lines. It is the story of one who begins on an equality with God, but who lets go of all that would be considered, in human thinking, to be divine powers and prerogatives in order that he might willingly identify himself totally with the human condition in its lowest form, that of the slave, and with the absolute depths of human suffering and disgrace known at the time, death on the cross. Having descended to the very depths he is raised up by God the Father to be named as Lord, his divine powers now recognisable by all with the eyes of faith.
In the Gospel and Old Testament reading of the Mass we are presented with the true nature of that power. St John in his Gospel gives us the language for this Feast when he speaks of Jesus’ crucifixion as a ‘lifting up’, an exaltation. It is believed that ‘lifting up’ was a slang expression for crucifixion in New Testament times. But John derived it from a story referred to in the Old Testament reading of the Feast. Moses and the people were travelling through the desert. They began with high hopes but as time went on the journey became tedious and they lost their spirit. At the beginning they had followed Moses with enthusiasm, but now they were fed up with the journey and especially the food. They would rather have gone back to the certainties of life in the desert even though the only certainty was a life of slavery and drudgery – but the food was better!
How does God speak to them in the midst of this low morale? Before things get better they get worse. They are passing through an area highly populated by venomous serpents and the serpents attack them. This experience prompts the people to be aware of their failure to trust in God and Moses despite their liberation from slavery. So Moses gives them an antidote, a kind of ancient placebo, in the form of a bronze serpent placed high on a pole. A strange story to us, but the ancient readers of the Old Testament knew that the serpent was a symbol of fertility, life and healing. The serpent would have been the brand mark of the Greek God of Healing, Asclepius. Looking at the serpent the people experienced healing.
St John compares the crucifixion of Jesus to the lifting up of the bronze serpent for all to see and approach. The crucifixion is God’s antidote, God’s vaccine for us when the journey of life gets tedious, or we get despondent, or we are tempted to give up because of human failure, weakness and sin. The crucifixion is no placebo but the source of authentic divine power. And that power is named in the gospel as love, the love of God revealed in his Son Jesus whom He sent into the world.
In the early days of the Covid 19 virus, we were warned that we might be in for a long haul, and there would likely be a second wave. However our trust in scientists and governments has wavered, though they, like the rest of us, are undergoing an experience analogous to wandering in the desert where there are no clear signposts or indications of journey’s end. Like young children on a journey we are clamouring, ‘Are we there yet?’ or taking matters into our own hands; denying in effect that we are still on the journey, not yet at the point of arrival, and all the time thinking, ‘if only the magic would arrive, in the form of the vaccine’!
When we visit the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre we often start our visit at the empty tomb and then make our way to Calvary. In other words we begin with what is before us, the promise of journey’s end and make our way back to reality, to the Cross. We all live our lives in the shadow of the Cross but in the light of our promised resurrection – the resurrection that is already a reality for Christ – and even as we carry our cross in the spirit of Jesus we get glimpses of that promised reality. The Cross, says St Paul, has the power to save, but the power it speaks of is not some magical vaccine or placebo but the power of love which enables us to be patient with others, and with ourselves, as we undergo whatever constraints the present time lays on us.
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes,
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee,
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
A Reflection on the Feast of the Assumption 2020
One of the mantras of the Government since the early days of the Covid 19 crisis has been, ‘We are following the science’. As time has gone on, many right minded people have asked, ‘What science’? Others have spoken about the confusion that has arisen when new legislation and guidelines contradict what was said before. When the churches were reopened for Mass, I chose the ‘2 metre rule’ rather than ‘1 metre + mitigation’, on the basis that with conscientious social distancing there was no need for face masks, and that the 2 metre rule would not only keep us safe but make life more comfortable – not that we wished to prevent anyone wearing a mask if they wished.
Now that we have been told that masks must be worn in places of worship, It seems to me, and I am no scientist, that the logical response would be to move to the 1 metre rule with mitigation(with face masks obligatory) as that is one of the options mandated by government. All things considered, that would appear to me to make our space potentially more dangerous than less, because the force of the scientific evidence mediated by the government would suggest that the two metre rule is still the safest option. And all this before we even consider the consequence of not enforcing the use of face masks and the number of exemptions that will be claimed. ‘Following the science’ feels like throwing lots of fragmented pieces into the air and trying to catch them and put them together like an ill-fitting jigsaw when they fall. Confused? The scientific advice appears confusing, government advice is fragmented, and I for one, having to make decisions about the opening of the church and later the halls, feel I am in a jungle of fragmentation and conclusion.
What has this to do with the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady into Heaven, which we celebrate this weekend? The point of connection is our inheritance known as original sin. St Paul described the reality behind the term in the following way; ‘ I can will what is right, and I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me’. (Romans 7:19-20). One of the consequences of original sin, the sin that dwells within me, is fragmentation and confusion. I want to be a good person, but something gets in the way, and I end up doing wrong, and my choices affect the whole of creation.
The first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis focus on original sin, without using that specific term which was formulated by St Augustine. These chapters are mythological in form. Myths are not untruths, or figments of our imagination, but attempts to describe realities which just don’t seem to go away, and get in the way of our happiness, that are common to every generation. Unaided, neither education, revolution, better management or any human project seems able to redeem us from them.
Fragmentation and confusion appear in several of these myths, in particular the myth of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. The story begins, ‘Now the whole earth had the one language and the same words’. In the story, human beings try to force their way into the heavenly sphere by building a tower, and as a consequence suffer the breakup of one common vehicle of communication into several different languages. We can think today not just about the difficulty of understanding a foreign language, but the growing tendency for people to become enemies because they are perceived to use ‘the wrong words’.
The story of Cain the tiller of the soil and Abel the shepherd and the jealousy which broke out in Cain and caused him to murder Abel points to a fragmentation in relationships between people with different interests and the depths we will go to defend our own. Cain’s jealousy was provoked because God, for his own reasons, approved of Abel’s sacrifice but not his. His broken relations with God also affected his relationship with his brother, leading to murder.
And then there is the fragmentation of our bodies. Just to take one example, many women today quite rightly take a stand against pornographic practices, because they objectify the female body, in other words treat it as an inanimate object with no other end except sexual gratification. It uses the body, but fails to relate to the soul. Humans have always been ambiguous about the body, either worshipping it or seeing the body as morally totally irrelevant.
The Feast of the Assumption that we celebrate today invites us to move in the opposite direction – from fragmentation to re-integration. The strict definition of the Dogma of the Assumption is that Mary after her death was brought body and soul to heaven. One of the difficulties many people have of believing in life after death is that we know from sense experience that the body falls into corruption. But in our general experience we would say that there is more to life, so to speak, than sense experience. St Paul spoke about death, as we experience it, as the wages of sin. Prior to the Fall death was part of the natural order, not a problem, not something that alienated us from God or challenged our understanding of the meaning of life. As people who had inherited that fragmentation brought about by sin, we could not see the reality, that the body was the temple of the Holy Spirit and as such is eternal. In Pauline thinking the body is the external form by which the Holy Spirit makes itself accessible to others. Christ’s physical body, through which he had access to the disciples and crowds in Galilee is transformed so that potentially he can access the whole world.
In the first letter to the Corinthians Paul stresses the notion of the resurrection of the body. He does not talk about the immortality of the soul, because in his thinking the soul is part of the body, an aspect of the whole person. Because the body is part of the person, we must treat our own, and other people’s bodies, with love, and not as mere objects. And just as the form of the body changes during life, without the person losing their identity, so too the risen body of Christ, though different, and not instantly recognisable, was recognised eventually by the disciples as ‘really being Jesus himself’. And it was through the presence of the risen body of Christ that the disciples who had scattered after the arrest of Jesus were brought together and reintegrated to become the foundation of the Church.
In life Mary broke with the pattern of fragmentation which is one of the prime symptoms of original sin. Through her faith which was open to the Holy Spirit she consented to the pregnancy which was to make her become not only the mother of Jesus but the mother of God. That openness to the mystery of God’s action and grace was a constant characteristic of her life. She is found at the foot of the cross, and after the resurrection she is found with the disciples. She is the icon and model of the Church in its unity with Christ. Where she is already, we try to reach, and as Cardinal Newman often said, it is by changing we reach perfection.
The Assumption of Mary into heaven spells out for us the consequences of Christ’s resurrection not only for Mary but for us. Our bodies will be transformed, certainly, but they are not meant for annihilation. Mary, often referred to by the Fathers of the Church as the New Eve, is the first to be redeemed. Neither on earth or after death was her relationship with Christ broken or corrupted. Where Mary is, we hope to be too. Our bodies, including our souls, do not corrupt, or fragment into annihilation; they are changed by the Holy Spirit. This is the action of God’s grace at work. As the Preface of the Mass says, addressing God, ‘Rightly, you would not allow her to see the corruption of the tomb…….. the virgin Mother of god is the beginning and image of the Church’s coming to perfection, and a sign of sure hope and comfort to your pilgrim people’. As the new Eve, the mother of redeemed humanity, by becoming the mother of the Son of God Mary’s choice has made possible the restoration and reintegration of Creation. ‘The Lord has done mighty things for me, and holy is his name’.
Reflection for 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
I ventured out on the underground for the first time this week. It was noticeable the number of young men in the 20-40 age group who were not wearing any form of face covering. It was that observation that prompted me to offer this further reflection on the Sunday Readings for this weekend.
In the book of Genesis, when God created humankind in his own image, he commanded them to ‘subdue the earth and rule over the animals and every living thing that moves upon the earth’ (Gen. 1:28). In other words because human beings bore the image of God, they were to act like benevolent kings, and that concept sets the scene for our Old Testament Reading today, the dream of Solomon.
Solomon was only the second king in Israel, succeeding his father David. The Israelites chose to have a king over them to solve a crisis. The crisis was aptly described in the Book of Judges (21:25), ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes’. By the end of the period described in the Book of Judges this form of government, or lack of it, was not working. Leaders came and leaders went. The country lurched from one crisis to the next. That the people ‘did what was right in their own eyes’ was a noble aspiration, but it only worked if the people listened to the God who made them in his image, understood the limits to their freedom, and were ready to sacrifice their freedom for the common good.
Kings in Israel were not like kings in the neighbouring kingdoms. The king was the intermediary between God and His people.Ideally he was to model what being the image of God looked like in practice. It’s not easy to be a king where everyone else thinks themselves a king too. In today’s Old Testament Reading (1 Kings 3:5-12) Solomon has obviously taken his problems to bed with him, overcome as he is with the prospect of being able to govern this wayward people.
But in the Scriptures, when God gives someone a task, there is an implicit understanding that He will also give the person the means to fulfil it. And so in his dream Solomon is told by God to ask for whatever he needs to fulfil his role. The nature of the role is set by another text in the Book of Exodus where God says to the people through Moses, ‘Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom, and a holy nation’ (Ex.19:6). Here another image is offered to clarify the nature of kingship, that of priesthood. The image of priesthood suggests Solomon’s kingship is of a different order, not a kingship of the kind one might associate with politicians, depending on strength and political connivance, but a priestly kingship serving God and founded upon faith in God.
And so Solomon, conscious of his vocation, does not ask for the usual things that kings desire, a long life, wealth and military strength. Rather he asks for the gift of discernment, the ability to make good and wise choices, to be able to tell the difference between good and evil and use that knowledge when it comes to making practical decisions for the good of his people.
In the Old Testament Solomon is presented as a ‘one-off’ in his ability to discern. Our passage says that there was no one as wise before him or after him. Wisdom is a gift of God, and Solomon’s story suggests to us that if we pray for wisdom God will grant it, but we must have an appetite for it in the first place. But that is not the end. The pursuit of wisdom is a lifelong pursuit. It requires commitment, the commitment of a true and genuine lover. It is an ability to read, in the events of our life, the presence of God speaking to us and to discern what God is saying to us in those events.
In the Book of Proverbs, part of which is ascribed to Solomon, we read that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’. In other words a life that is totally preoccupied with self is never going to enjoy the gift of wisdom. Wisdom is about not only knowing but living what is good, making good choices in the small things of life as well the great. It requires humility before God and our neighbour because to be wise is to enter into a way of life where we co-operate with God as opposed to one where we spin on our own personal moral orbit.
In today’s gospel passage Jesus compares the kingdom of God to the acquiring of a great treasure. In one case the person happens to come upon the treasure by chance while walking through a field, but having discovered it is willing to give his all to retain it. In the second case the merchant finds what he has been seeking all along, but he too have to give his all to be able to possess the treasure. When Jesus speaks of the kingdom here he is speaking about life in the presence of God, when we open our hearts and allow God to enter and be our king, the God who is truly wise, the source of all wisdom, and the God who is shows us what it means to love, and is the source of all love. Wisdom does not remain at the level of ideas, or the abstract, it is grounded in moral commitment. Similarly being a Christian does not end with baptism, nor is it just a leisure activity to be switched on and off like a tap. It demands our all.
After my trip on the underground I listened more carefully to the interviews on television in which people gave their opinions about the new rules on the wearing of masks. While they told me little about the efficacy of wearing masks, they told me a lot about the characters of those who choose to wear, or not wear them.
Feast of St Peter and Paul
Acts 12:1-11, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18, Matthew 16:13-19
It used to be the custom that when people stayed in hotels they would find next to their bed a copy of the Bible, provided by an organisation known as ‘The Gideons’. The Gideons distribute Bibles free to hospitals, prisons, schools and even hotels to help people who have never had a bible of their own to discover the word of God.
However reading the bible is not easy. We need people to help us understand its deeper meaning, and the people who are best placed to help us are the saints, those people who are exceptionally close to God. The saints are people whom we can look at and say, ‘They make the bible come alive’. They are the great heroes, outstanding in faith, outstanding in hope and outstanding in love.
Today we celebrate the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. We might describe Peter and Paul as the most heroic of those heroic people we call saints and honour with a Feast Day. Saints Peter and Paul are our first great witnesses of a ‘lived faith’ in Jesus.
Nothing in their early lives would have prepared us for what was to happen. St Peter owned a fleet of fishing boats and was content at his work until one day Jesus invited him to follow him. So Peter went with Jesus, listening to his teaching, observing everything he did. Now God had great things in store for Peter, but you would never guess it. As we have just heard in the gospel story, Peter had greater insight than all the other followers of Jesus; he knew that Jesus had been specially
appointed by God to be the religious leader of his people, but he did not understand much more than that. Peter had great admiration for Jesus, and was very confident in his ability to be loyal to Jesus but as soon as Jesus was arrested Peter denied even knowing him.
Paul only heard about Jesus after he had risen from the dead and at first he hated everything Jesus stood for, and hated his followers. But soon after Jesus’ death and resurrection both their lives were turned around, quite remarkably.
Both Peter and Paul in different ways became great preachers of the gospel, the good news about Jesus; both dedicated their whole lives to winning followers for Jesus, gathering them into communities and keeping those communities together. And both men were in time going to give their lives, quite literally, for the faith. Both Peter and Paul were executed in Rome.
The ways in which they lived their faith were quite different. Peter preached to Jesus’ own people, the Jews, and for a while remained in the most important city of the holy land, Jerusalem, before eventually going to Rome. Despite his early cowardice, Peter’s faith became very strong, so much so that he was called the Rock, the foundation on which the faith of all those who came after was built. In our Catholic tradition he is known as the first Pope, the person who has ultimate authority
for making sure that the story of Jesus and what it means was passed on faithfully. Paul on the other hand went out to people who had no background in Judaism and would have had no knowledge of the bible, and he brought them to Christ. Unlike Peter, Paul never stayed in one place too long.
In the first two readings of the Mass today we get some insight into the hearts and souls of these two great heroes of our faith. In the first reading we heard about a jailbreak. Peter had been put into a secure prison to await trial and almost certain death, but he was rescued by someone he could not have known – an angel from heaven he called him. Peter was aware that his calling was a dangerous one, yet he had a strong conviction that God was with him, protecting him so that he could carry out the task God had planned for him.
Paul says something very similar in the second reading. Paul by now had been on the road a long time and knew that his end was near. Nevertheless he is grateful to God who, as he said, ‘stood by me and gave me power’. And because he was so conscious of the power of God at work in his life he was able to hope that even in death God would rescue him once more.
In these two testimonies of faith Peter and Paul were actually opening up the Bible for us. Paul spoke about pouring out his life like a libation, in other words his whole life had been an offering of himself to God, in imitation of his Master Jesus, while Peter spoke about his rescue by God, subtly evoking the great story in the Old Testament when God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt. In the lives deaths of these two men we see two great themes of the bible being worked out in real life – God is a faithful God, who will always rescue those who offer their lives to God in faith, but we need to discover God at work in our lives too.
Reflection for the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus
If you have made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem most probably you were taken to the panoramic view on the Mount of Olives. Directly ahead you saw the Dome of the Rock on the magnificent esplanade which was the foundation of the Temple. To the south, on a lower level, you could see the ruins of the city of King David built on a hill. David built his city there for strategic reasons. At the base of the hill, hidden from view, was a spring which guaranteed a water supply in times of siege. The water from the source gushed out into a canal which ran through a hidden tunnel behind the rock and issued into a pool called Siloam.
Each year during the Feast of Tabernacles, which included prayers for rain, the climax of the festival was the filling of a golden flagon with water from the pool of Siloam. The flagon was carried in procession from the pool of Siloam to the Temple. On one occasion Jesus attended the festival secretly and spoke these words recorded by St John (7:37). ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me. Let anyone who believes in me come and drink’. These words of Jesus, and the comment of the Evangelist who explains their significance, are the foundation of our devotion to the Sacred Heart. As scripture says, ‘From his heart shall flow streams of living water’. He was speaking of the Spirit which those who believed in him were to receive; for there was no Spirit as yet because Jesus had not been glorified (John 7:38-9).
Your visit to Jerusalem will also have taken you to the site of Calvary. It is there that these words take on even deeper meaning. John 19:34 recounts how when Jesus had died a soldier pierced his side and there came out blood and water. These two passages together express the heart of the Paschal Mystery, the mystery of the death and resurrection of Our Lord. The water and the blood coming from the Lord’s pierced heart are the sacraments of the Church, but the water is also the Holy Spirit, the living spring which makes the desert blossom, and moistens the grain of wheat hidden in the earth to be transformed into a rich harvest, the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead.
Following this incident John once again cites a verse of Scripture in explanation. They shall look upon the one whom they have pierced john 19:37 citing Zechariah 12:10). As the apostles contemplated Jesus on the cross in the light of his resurrection, it was to transform their understanding of God: an understanding which was to express itself in terms of God as three distinct persons in a unity of essence.
When we begin to speak about the Trinity, words fail us. St Augustine, writing about what we understand as ‘three persons’ said, ‘When it is asked, ‘Three what’, then the poverty from which our language suffers becomes apparent. But the formula, ‘three persons’ has been coined, not in order to give a complete explanation by means of it, but in order that we might not be obliged to remain silent’.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus springs out of a Trinitarian faith, which in turn springs out of our experience of Jesus crucified and risen. In the bible the heart is a metaphor for our individuality, the place where our passions, desires, intellect and will all come together. It is the place from which love emanates and expresses itself in the body. The human heart however is fragmented and unconditional love is always beyond us. Purity of heart is always before us, a gift which we wait to receive. In the Beatitudes Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart: they shall see God.
In the prologue to the Fourth Gospel St John writes, ‘No one has ever seen God, it is his only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’. When we contemplate the heart of Jesus we are contemplating the heart of the Son in relationship to the heart of the Father – heart speaking to heart, as St John Henry Newman expressed it. Through the Holy Spirit our hearts too are drawn into that relationship of love, pure love, that knows no boundaries or conditions, revealed on the Cross. When we contemplate the heart of Christ we see what love is and pray that our own heart may be touched by such love. In our prayer of desire the heart of Christ is already at work in us through the Holy Spirit who teaches us to cry out Abba, Father, the Father who is the source of all love. As Richard of St Victor wrote, ‘Love is the eye, and to love is to see’. As we are drawn deeper into the love of Christ, expressed in the outpouring from his heart of water and blood on the cross, symbols of the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist by which we are touched by God, we have the Trinity within us, even though in our minds we only know the Triune God by the light of faith.
Reflection: Feast of Corpus Christi
Last week the Feast of the Holy Trinity focussed our adoration on God the God who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Thanks to Jesus Christ we relate to God not as a single solitary individual, but as three persons with different functions, united in one divine nature with a unity of purpose. Writing on the Trinity St Augustine referred to those who asked, ‘What do we mean when we speak of God as three persons’? “When it is asked” said Augustine, “ ‘Three what?’ then the great poverty from which our language suffers becomes apparent”.
If we reduce the Trinity to a mathematical problem – how does three go into one? – then we have a problem that cannot be solved. But divine mysteries are not problems to be solved. They are realities too deep for words. “Knowledge of the Trinity“, said St. Columban “is properly likened to the depth of the Sea”. Just as we can differentiate the Persons of the Trinity without denying their unity, so in our relationship to the Trinity we acknowledge that we relate to the Triune God with both heart and mind. “We see, rather than believe the trinity which is in ourselves” wrote St Augustine, “whereas we believe rather than see that God is Trinity”.
Today we celebrate another great mystery of faith, the mystery of the Eucharist. Pope Paul VI gave us a very good definition of mystery – a reality imbued with the hidden presence of God. The operative word here is hidden. To behold the reality we have to look with faith beyond what lies before our eyes. Hence the prayer over the offerings for today’s feast reads, ‘Grant your Church, O Lord, we pray, the gifts of unity and peace, whose signs are to be seen in mystery in the offerings we here present through Christ our Lord’. In other words unity and peace is a reality which we have not yet grasped, or made our own, and yet, tantalisingly, they are not far from us. In the prayer after Communion our receiving of Holy Communion is described as a foreshadowing now of that share of divine life which waits for us in eternity. What we see now is a pledge of what is to come.
In the Collect or Opening Prayer of the Mass there is a reference to the sacred mysteries, in the plural. This is a very old expression. What we call the Mass was in earlier times known as The Services of the Mysteries. Here the emphasis is not just on the infinite incomprehensibility of God but of the events in the life of Jesus which brought us salvation, in particular the Paschal Mystery, the death and resurrection of Christ, which is at the heart of our Christian existence. This idea of mystery goes back to St Paul writing in the Letters to the Colossians (1:1-2:6) and the Ephesians(1-3). Here mystery refers to the hidden plan of God for our salvation, hidden for all ages until it was revealed in Christ. What is revealed is that God is in Christ, Christ is in us and so we may hope for God’s glory. In the life of the church God’s plan is being fulfilled, of bringing the whole of creation into a single body, in Christ.
The Sacred Mysteries (a phrase we hear in the priest’s greeting at the beginning of Mass) are those events we celebrate in ritual where God’s life and ours come into contact, where we are caught up into God’s story, revealed in its fullness in the death and resurrection of Christ. In the Western Church this concept of mystery was translated as Sacrament, described as an outward sign of God’s inward grace.
As with any mystery, it is impossible to sum up the Mystery of the Eucharist in a few words. Over the course of centuries this central rite of Christians has been known by different names, each of which called attention to one or another element of the Mystery. The Word Eucharist itself means thanksgiving. We give thanks for what God has done in Christ. Likewise it was known as the Breaking of Bread, a symbol of Christ’s breaking of himself in order to bring all people together. Other terms used include the Lord’s Supper, the Synaxis or gathering together, focusing on the congregation as the Body of Christ, the Memorial of the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection –memorial here means not just remembering, but making what is remembered present in the here and now; the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, The Holy and Divine Liturgy, The Sacred Mysteries, The Most Blessed Sacrament, Holy Communion, the Holy Things (Ta Hagia; Sancta), and finally Holy Mass. Mass comes from the Latin ‘missa’ meaning ‘sent’. This emphasizes that the dismissal of the faithful at the end of Mass is not just bringing the assembly to an end, but giving us a mission to go forth and proclaim the good news ourselves.
All these different titles draw out different aspects of the Mystery that is the Mass. Some focus on the action as a whole, others focus on the elements of Bread and Wine. At different times throughout the centuries one or another title has come into prominence, sometimes at the expense of another element. In more recent times the aspect of a communal meal has come into prominence at the expense of the Mass understood as a re-presentation of the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary. To operate with a single model, such as the meal, is to misunderstand what we are doing. It turns us into a comfortable club rather than an all-embracing community grounded in the self-giving love of Christ on the Cross.
The Feast of Corpus Christi goes back to the thirteenth century. At this time few people actually received Holy Communion. There was a sharp focus on the need for the Sacrament of Penance, and most people felt themselves unworthy to touch or be touched by the Body of Christ. So no one received Holy Communion except the Priest, and the concept of ‘Easter Duties’ was born. Consequently the only way people felt they could participate in the Eucharist was by gazing at the Sacred Host. It was at this time that the Elevation of the Host at the Consecration became a prominent part of the rite.
Moreover the understanding of the Eucharist as a sacred sacrificial meal tended to be downplayed by the understanding of the Eucharist predominantly as a Sacrifice and the focus was on the majestic descent of God onto the altar at the consecration. At this time the Mass became celebrated with profound reverence, altars became more elaborate and the ritual became more solemn.
At the same time the Church was having to defend the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. Following a series of visions by a sister, Juliana of Retinnes near Liege in Belgium, the Archdeacon of Liege instituted a Feast of the Blessed Sacrament. Later he became Pope Urban IV and extended the Feast to the universal church. Not long after the custom of the Corpus Christi procession began to grow.
The value of this Feast is not that it tells us everything that is to be said about the Eucharist but it reminds us that while on the one hand the Eucharist is an action, the Mass, before it is a thing, the action of Christ in which we participate with our bodies, minds and hearts, it also has a contemplative dimension, the act of silently listening for the Lord, or listening out for the Lord. It has been frequently said over the past few years that our Masses have become much more busy. They are characterized by lots of words and little silence. Lots of movement, even chatting, and a kind of restlessness. Sometimes this is justified as making our liturgy less formal and solemn. In places it can even drift into a kind of entertainment which if it does not conform to our expectations of entertainment, is dismissed as ‘boring’.
It’s interesting to hear the different comments by people who have experienced streamed Masses. On the one hand are those who tell me that when they watch a streamed Mass they turn off their phone, maybe light a candle, and focus on what is being said and done. Others drop in and out, between answering the phone and making cups of coffee. Others comment on the priest, and whether he is being ‘entertaining’ or not. At the end of day the priest is an outward sign of Christ, and Christ did not come to entertain. But so are the congregation. We are all, together, the Body of Christ. Everything we do with our bodies in church should reflect the charity of Christ. We are there to listen, to speak, to sing and be inspired by the Christ who gathers us together, to imitate his charity and go out and do likewise. Mother St Teresa of Calcutta once said, ‘The Holy Hour before the Eucharist should lead us to the Holy Hour with the poor. Our Eucharist lacks something if it does not lead us to love and serve the poor’. The poor are not just those who are in economic dire straits, but those who are starved of love. They may not be the kinds of people we might instantly want to sit at our dinner table. But every human being is deserving of love – that is why Christ died for every human being, and every human being is the focus of our mission..
Over the past months we have been learning how to resist infection, particularly through the medium of social distancing. As we begin to come back to church, and hopefully to celebrate the Eucharist before long, let us pray that when Christ comes to meet us we will not respond by socially distancing ourselves from him, but allow ourselves to run the risk of being infected by his Spirit, and let him draw us towards the places and people to whom we would rather not go.
Reflection: The Holy Trinity
Last weekend we celebrated Pentecost, the culmination of the Paschal Mystery – the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. On this Sunday, the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity, the Church reflects on what all this means for our understanding of God, an understanding that is uniquely Christian. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus has offered us a new deeper and unique understanding of God, to which our proper response is adoration and worship, and a new direction to the way we live. We now speak of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This understanding of God is reflected in our prayer and especially our Sunday Eucharist where it appears as a constant theme from beginning to end.
We begin Mass with the Sign of the Cross where our story and our understanding of God are beautifully combined in word and bodily ritual. We declare that what we are about to do we do in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and with a bodily gesture our hands make the shape of a cross on our body that symbolises the heart of our Christian story, the Cross on which Jesus died. In doing so we are telling our story and expressing our faith at one and the same time.
On Sundays we sing that beautiful ancient hymn, Glory to God in the highest. The hymn is divided into three parts. In the first part we give glory to God, Lord God and heavenly King; in the second we give glory to the Lord Jesus Christ, only begotten Son; and finally we praise Christ along with the Holy Spirit.
Then follows the prayer known as the Collect. This ends with a Trinitarian formula that expresses the way we pray – Through our Lord Jesus Christ your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
At the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Word we say the Creed, at one of the same time an act of Faith and a Prayer, and once again the Creed divides into three parts, as we profess our Faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
All this leads to the climax of our Liturgy, the Eucharistic Prayer. The opening of the second Eucharistic Prayer expresses quite succinctly the direction of this prayer –
You are indeed Holy, O Lord, the fount of all holiness.
Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray,
by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall,
so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So in the action of the Eucharistic Prayer the One God is present as three. We direct the prayer to God the Father, source of all life and grace. We call on the Holy Spirit to bring about the change in the gifts of bread and wine that enables them to become for us the sacramental presence of the risen Christ, and then after the consecration we ask that the Holy Spirit may bring us together in unity.
The Eucharistic Prayer reaches its climax with the Doxology or acclamation of praise, Through him (Jesus Christ) with him and in him, O God almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, for ever and ever. To which the congregation responds with a loud voice, Amen.
We began Mass with the sign of the Cross, invoking God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and we end with the blessing of the priest in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as we are invited to go our way with the blessing of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
We can see the origins of this ‘Trinitarian’ form of worship already in one of the earliest Christian witnesses, St Paul, specifically in the part of his letter to the Corinthian community read at today’s Mass. The final phrase of Paul’s long letter is now one of the greetings used by the Priest at the beginning of Mass. For the next four centuries after St Paul the Christian church discussed, meditated and at times argued as to how God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit were related to one another in such a way as not to deny the central tenet of Old Testament faith, namely that there was one God. The classic formulation of this relationship was to see God in terms of 3 distinct persons, each with its own distinct and complete identity, but with all three possessing a single divine nature. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed that we say on Sundays in Ordinary Time is the product of two great Councils of the Church at Nicaea (AD 325) and Constantinople, (AD 381) which hammered out a formula that truly professed the faith of the Church. We can compare it to a frozen frame of a moving picture in the history of Christian thought, but a frame which sets the essentials of Christian faith for all time.
In the Western Church the doctrine of God has been handed on in a very abstract way, at times a kind of numbers game, so much so that many of us will recall that when we tried to ask questions we were told that it was a mystery – in other words, don’t bother asking because I don’t know the answer. But the Trinity is not an abstract intellectual problem which can be solved by human reasoning. The language of theology comes into play when people ask questions such as, ‘What do you mean by this’? How can you say that Jesus, a human being, is also God. Is Jesus just God the Father appearing in a particular way through Jesus? If Jesus is God, does that mean that he could infallibly foretell the future and could not have been truly human? And so on. Long ago St Augustine in a sermon said, ‘What is needed is a loving confession of ignorance rather than a rash profession of knowledge. To reach out a little toward God with the mind is a great blessedness, but to understand is wholly impossible’.
The language of the Bible and the Liturgy reflects a more immediate understanding of God. Unlike theology, it does not try to ask questions about God in Godself, or what is known as the immanent Trinity, but rather expresses its experience of the Father at work through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit (what in technical theological terms is known as the economic Trinity). In our New Testament reading St Paul begins his blessing with Jesus Christ, whom the apostles knew in Galilee and whom the Corinthian community came to know through the Resurrection and the preaching of Paul. The experience of Jesus being in the world Paul understands as grace, in other words, pure gift, a gift which redeems us from sin and offers us the possibility of true peace. St Paul speaks about where this gift comes from, the love of God, the same God who in the Old Testament Reading from the Book of Exodus is known by Moses as Lord, a powerful God who revealed himself to Moses as rich in love and compassion. This same God is revealed in the gospel as Father, and Jesus as his Son.
So Paul, in the light of his understanding of the Old Testament and his experience of meeting the risen Lord, sees in Jesus the One through whom the love of God is exercised. The connection between Jesus and God (the Father) is the Holy Spirit who brings about, and discloses, the fellowship between the Father and the Son.
In speaking of the Father, Paul speaks of Him in terms of love, just as John does in the Gospel, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that the world might be saved and have eternal life.
St Paul and St John would not have been able to speak about God, Christ and the Holy Spirit in the way that Christians did three to four centuries later, because no one had yet asked the questions in the terms that later Christians had to answer them. But the groundwork was already laid in the experience of the Apostles, of Paul and the early Christian community.
On this day we celebrate God, not as a solitary being, alone and aloof, watching over the world, but as three distinct persons in a relationship of love which expands beyond themselves to us, who work together, each in their distinct way, in the service of the world, to recreate out world and restore us to our original beauty and holiness. To be made in the image of God, is to be made in the image of the God who is three in one and one in three. We were created to be individuals each with our own distinct gifts called to live in the Trinity and as the Trinity, in service to one another and to our world so that we might build up a civilisation of love that reflects this beautiful divine relationship revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Pentecost: a Reflection
This weekend we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, the climax of the Easter Season. We have seen how the Easter story develops in three stages.
First there is the crucifixion of Jesus, when Jesus is effectively silenced, put out of sight and mind, his body supposedly hidden for all time behind the stone covering the tomb. The little community he gathered around himself is scattered and grieves.
Then there is the discovery of the empty tomb accompanied by the appearances of Jesus. During this time the community is miraculously gathered together again, and begins to learn to recognise Jesus in his new, risen form and hear his voice again. It is a time of small steps being taken to recover and renew faith, of deep prayer, as joy begins to take the place of sadness and conviction replaces doubt.
Pentecost represents the third stage. The community emerge from the Upper Room into the public space. Where up to now they had been fearful, now they are courageous. Where before they were silent, now they speak, and miraculously what they say proves to be accessible to people of many different languages.
The word Pentecost in Greek means literally the fiftieth (day). It has its origins in a very ancient harvest festival. In other words this day celebrates the beginning of our receiving the fruits of Jesus’ short ministry. Jesus is present, no longer just to the people of Galilee, no longer just to the close band of disciples, but to the whole world through his Holy Spirit given to the Body of Jesus which is the Church.
Throughout the Easter Period the Readings at Sunday and weekday Mass have been taken from the Acts of the Apostles. Acts begins with the story of Pentecost, the giving of the Holy Spirit which constituted the Church as the Body of Christ and energised the preaching of the gospel, the good news about Jesus Christ, dead and risen. It reminds us that our membership of the Church is itself a gift, a gift that expresses itself ritually in the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. Without the gift of the Holy Spirit the Church would be just a gathering of the likeminded, or a corporation or NGO or pressure group. Our identity is not bound up primarily with solving problems, or advancing causes. Our identity comes from Christ himself. Any good that we do springs from that encounter with Christ, impelled by the Spirit of the Father and the Son.
The story of Pentecost still contains elements of the unusual and the wondrous that we saw in the stories of the appearances of the risen Jesus. The scene begins with the disciples together in a small room, in prayer as they wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Just as the risen Jesus seems to move imperceptibly from one side of a closed door to the other, so in the Pentecost narrative there is no indication of the disciples moving from the room to another space. Without any prompting by the narrator, we read that the disciples have moved from the upper room to the public square with its large crowds where they speak to and are understood by people from the four corners of the earth. Here we see an image of the Church impelled by the Holy Spirit, a spirit of energy, but also a spirit of love. It contains within its identity both the interiority of life in the upper room, in other words that dimension of prayer, where we offer ourselves to Jesus Christ as a response to his love for us, but it also lives in the public square, where, ‘fired up’ by the Holy Spirit, it speaks its message fearlessly, as Jesus had promised. To put it another way the two lungs with which the Church lives are contemplation and activity.
The reading from St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians begins with one of the earliest summaries of the gospel message, namely, ‘Jesus is Lord’. Paul identifies Jesus with the God of the Old Testament, while at the same time refuting the ideology of the Roman state that proclaimed Caesar Augustus as its Lord. For the Christian there was a further dimension to this profession of faith. To say ‘Jesus is Lord’ is to say, ‘Jesus is my Master, I live under his authority, and his alone’.
The community of Corinth was a community of the gifted and talented. But it was also a community that was very conscious of its social superiority. It was made up of people who did not like to be told what to do, especially by the likes of Paul, who despite his passion and learning was considered a cut below their standing. Paul has to reiterate that if their gifts and talents are to be brought to fruition they have to be put at the service of Christ and be guided by his Holy Spirit. That this was not the case in Corinth was evidenced by the constant quarrelling and bickering that went on among the community and its tendency to break up into factions. Paul is saying to them in effect, ‘If Jesus is your Lord, you need to obey him’.
In the second part of the reading Paul introduces the concept of the Body, a favourite image that he uses many times to describe the community that is the Church. Like the crowds who gathered to listen to the first preachers in Acts, the church is characterised by the diversity of its members. It is only the Holy Spirit that enables all these different people with their differing gifts to be brought together to function in harmony. The Spirit, as the spirit of harmony, is a gift to the Church, but it also places a task on us. Working in harmony, as a single body, requires a kind of mutual obedience. We cannot just spin on our own orbit. Nor can we live as authentic members of the Church if we live, in effect, as people outside of the body, who are content to pluck the fruits we require from the church without really participating in its activity and working with the Church, as the parts of the Body work with one another. That also means transcending cultural differences which have the potential to alienate us from one another. ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek’.
The Holy Spirit is a principle and source of love, harmony and energy. In the Gospel reading from John we are brought back to Easter Day, and one of the first appearances of the risen Jesus. It is as if we conclude our readings of Eastertide by going back full circle. Implicit in this gospel reading are some of the themes of Pentecost. Unlike Luke John does not speak of Pentecost as a separate event at the end of fifty days, but as a mystery which evolves out of the mystery of the Resurrection. When Christ appears he offers the disciples his Peace, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Peace, in the writings of St Paul, is described as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, one of the outcomes, if you like, of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and an indication of whether we are drinking from the fountain that is the Holy Spirit or from somewhere else.
What is new in the Gospel is the association between the Holy Spirit and forgiveness. Jesus’ return to his disciples after his Resurrection is also a sign of his having forgiven them for their cowardice at the beginning of his passion and death. This comes out particularly in the story of Jesus’ encounter with Peter on the shore of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, evoking Peter’s denials. Forgiveness is an important gift to the Church. Unlike in Matthew’s Gospel where the gift of forgiveness is imparted in particular to Peter, and has been associated with the Sacrament of Penance/Reconciliation, in this Gospel forgiveness is a gift offered to the whole Church. Forgiveness then, as a gift of the Holy Spirit, becomes part of our identity. We are people of forgiveness. Like peace and harmony, forgiveness for us is both a gift and a task. Each one of us has our part to play.
Pentecost is also a feast of new beginnings. As the burdens of lockdown are gradually lightened we begin to feel as if our life is beginning again. We can begin to look forward to our being gathered together as a community once more. Let us pray that as we prepare to return we have grown in faith and have a deeper sense of our identity, given to us by the Holy Spirit.
A Letter from Fr John
I trust you are all keeping safe and well. I am delighted to say I have heard little bad news from the members of our congregation. No one has contacted me regarding a funeral for which I thank God.
I have been in touch with several of you by phone and I hope to speak with more during the coming weeks. If you are aware of someone on their own who would be glad of a call please let me know who they are, and if possible let me have their phone number. You are most welcome to call me too (0207 485 4023) as like many of you I am ‘working from home’. Thank you to those who have phoned to ask how I am. Fr Peter and I continue to celebrate Mass each day. I like to imagine you are there and look forward to our getting back together. If you would like to have Mass offered for a particular intention please let me know either by phone or email (firstname.lastname@example.org )
Despite the normal routine of life having come to a halt, I have found plenty to do. Much of my day time is spent at my desk, making and receiving calls and emails, getting the odd call for help at the door, writing reflections, doing some parish administration which has not gone away, preparing for courses I have been asked to do. I am also trying to catch up with reading and making use of some of the streaming on offer from theatres, etc in the evenings. I have also got my head around Zoom after a shaky start.
This Sunday is the Feast of our Lady Help of Christians, our Patron in heaven. I had hoped this would be the occasion for celebrating once again our fiftieth year in our church, but it was not to be. I spoke to Archbishop George Stack who was to join us. He sends his regards and hopes to be with us when it becomes possible.
You may have heard that within the Catholic community a strong pressure is developing to opening our churches now. This is not a decision we can take without government approval. All I know is that on 4th July the government hopes to open places that attract large gatherings of people. It is likely that our churches will open first for personal prayer and Mass will follow later. Much will depend on how the country manages the coronavirus in the coming weeks.
Our main concern will be to ensure that the church will be as safe as possible for those who use it. Observing the social distance regulations means that seating will have to be carefully calibrated and entrance to the church and movement within the church controlled, as you see happening in the shops. Numbers will be limited to about a fifth of our normal capacity in the nave. We will use the upper gallery too, but the numbers there too will be limited. Once we get more certainty about the dates I will inform you as to what needs to be done and the help we will need.
In the meantime may I appeal to your generosity on two counts. The Friends of the Holy Land special appeal for support for the Christians of Bethlehem and other communities in Palestine ends on Pentecost Sunday. They have been locked down for a month longer than us and their situation, which was not good when the lockdown began, is now desperate. There is a link to the appeal on our website and every pound we give this coming week will be matched by two anonymous donors.
May I ask too that if you normally contribute to the parish through envelopes or the collection bag that you seriously consider setting up a standing order with your bank. Once you have done so there is nothing more to do unless you wish to change the amount, and that way money will be coming into the parish on a regular basis. Also you will be making life easier for our volunteers when they come to count the cash. There is a link on the website, Donate to the Parish, where you will get all the information you need. And thank you to those who have made donations.
Wishing you all a happy Patronal Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians
Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians.
This Sunday is a special day for us. It is the Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians. Incidentally, Our Lady
known as Help of Christians is the patron of Australia. The Collect or Opening Prayer of the Mass that
will be prayed on Sunday in Australia reads, ‘Almighty and ever-living God, who placed the love of our
Lady Help of Christians into the hearts of those who brought the catholic faith to these shores, grant,
through her intercession, wisdom to our leaders and integrity to our citizens, so that, under her
protection, Australia may know harmony, justice and peace.
We believe that this title of Mary as ‘Help of Christians’ goes back to a sermon by the great preacher St
John Chrysostom in 345, who concluded it with a prayer, Let us ask Mary, Ever Virgin, to be a help and
protection for us along the path to Paradise. Thereafter the title was frequently used in the context of
conflicts between European Christians and Muslims during the time of the Crusades and later the
Ottoman Empire. In 1203 an Order was founded, named after ‘Our Lady of Ransom’, to redeem
Christian captives from the Muslim ‘infidels’ as they were known. It was in this context of war that the
title of Our Lady Help of Christians was inserted into the Litany of Our Lady known as the Litany of
Loreto following the unexpected victory of the Christian armies over the Turks at the battle of Lepanto
(1571), which prevented an Ottoman invasion of Europe. Around the same time was declared a feast of
‘Our Lady of Victories’ (the name of the first parish I served).
Our present Feast was established on 15 September 1815 by Pope Pius VII. Pope Pius had been
arrested and imprisoned by Napoleon for eight years. It was only after the Battle of Waterloo, when
Napoleon was finally defeated that Pope Pius was able to return in peace to his home.
The prayer quoted above represents a different time and context to those most terrifying times in which
the devotion to our Lady Help of Christians grew up. Europe, and Australia, are no longer at war, and
we are not threatened by military invasion. Yet there is a great deal of fear and hysteria around as we
try to deliver ourselves from Covid 19. It has become commonplace for our politicians and journalists
to describe it as the enemy, against which we must make war, and to call us to arms, so to speak,
invoking the spirit of the blitz and a sense of national unity. Yet for most of us the frightening thing is
that ‘the enemy’ as we call it, is unseen and we may not even know if it has penetrated our defences. I
remember a similar feeling during the IRA bombings in London in the eighties, when I would walk down
the Kings Road in Chelsea from the Seminary at Allen Hall, and wonder if the next car I passed might
have a bomb planted underneath it. One felt powerless and out of control.
Unlike the prayers of our ancestors, modern prayers tend not to give the impression that our
deliverance from any form of evil is solely the work of Christ or our Lady. Nevertheless, the
deliverance when it finally comes, will feel for most of us quite miraculous, though it will not be beyond
the scope of some politicians and their parties throughout the world to claim the credit. We are all
called to play our part, not everyone is called to play the same part. Behind the scenes our scientists
are already working on a vaccine. Our scientists and politicians have an important role in assembling
and interpreting the evidence, as far as it is known, and making decisions which we must follow. This
is not an easy task for them, and requires the wisdom of which the prayer speaks.
For most of us, who are neither scientists nor politicians, the ‘call to arms’ is a call to to virtue, to self-discipline, not to go out of our homes more than we need to, to limit strictly our encounter with others, to guard the personal space of ourselves and others so that we do not make it easier to transmit orreceive the virus and keep off public transport, not to speak of washing hands until the skin falls off!
Tedious and boring stuff, liable to sap our morale if we don’t keep the bigger picture before us. Already
there is a growing impatience with the discipline of social distancing, and internal lines of battle are
being drawn up between those who want to ‘get the economy moving’, and those who are frightened of
the virus. Both sides are frightened, one of the suffering or even death that catching the virus may
entail, the other of the economic consequences if we don’t get back to work.
We are not a people who like to be told what to do. The necessity to obey brings out in us the feeling
that we are losing our freedom. For those of us who feel like passive participants, the main decisions
and actions we are called to take are to follow faithfully what we are called to do or not do, even if we
cannot understand the measures or don’t agree with them. To do this requires the gift of integrity
mentioned in the prayer. Integrity, among other things, is about speaking and acting truthfully, which
might mean sacrificing our particular beliefs and opinions for the sake of a greater good that we cannot
necessarily see. The path to integrity is humility, the humility that accepts that there are no simple
answers, because we are on a pathway we have not walked before, and the ground is constantly
changing under our feet, and we are stronger if we work together, avoiding rivalry and discord.
Within the Catholic community a strong pressure is developing to opening our churches now. I hear a
number of people asking, ‘When can we come to Mass again’?, and I hear those who feel that ‘we are
being pushed around by a government that do not understand us’. It is perfectly reasonable that we
should wish to return to our churches as soon as possible. But the law of charity demands that we
make our sacred space as safe as possible and do what is right for the good of all. We need to see
beyond our own immediate needs, be they ever so spiritual, and prepare carefully, following the
guidance. We cannot expect miracles if we do nothing but simply throw open the doors of the
church and declare business as usual; we might in fact be putting others in danger. The task of re-
opening requires dispositions of mind and heart, the wisdom and integrity of which the prayer to our
It is in prayer that we can keep the bigger picture before us, the picture of us moving towards safety, in
concord not discord. As we move towards Pentecost, I find myself turning to that scene in the Upper
Room where the disciples are waiting for the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:12-14). With them is Mary.
She does not say, or do anything. She is in the background, but she is a prayerful presence. She
supports the prayer of the disciples, and supports our prayer too, praying with us, and for us. There is
another text where Mary does speak, and that is at the marriage feast at Cana. On that occasion
Mary tells the servants to ‘do whatever he commands you’ (John 2:5). That word comes immediately
after Jesus had seemingly rejected her request to provide wine for the guests with the words, ‘My hour
has not yet come’. In this brief encounter with the servants Mary exhibits the virtues of patience and
trust. Despite his rebuff and his seeming refusal to use his miraculous power Mary continues to trust
her son, letting go her own desire to see the miracle performed in the way she wished it, and urges the
servants to do the same as she waits for him to respond. The virtues of Mary are very much the virtues
all of us need during this potentially dangerous situation when we are trying to take the path back to
Our church will open when it opens. In the meantime let us pray to Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, Help of
Christians to accompany us on our journey and support our prayers. Let us ask Mary to help us discern
what her Son is asking of us during this lockdown, so that when we return to church the Eucharist will be far more meaningful to us than before and the love of Jesus Christ which the Eucharist proclaims will be
more deeply rooted in our hearts.
The Ascension of our Lord into Heaven.
This Thursday we celebrate the exaltation of our Lord Jesus into Heaven. Paradoxically, this does not mean that Jesus has been taken far from us, but rather that he is nearer to us now than he ever could have been when he lived in Galilee, several hours’ flight from where we live. Like the disciples in Luke’s gospel we can worship him with great joy, because he is in Heaven, with God our Father.
After Jesus was crucified, if one had asked those who conspired to have Jesus put to death where he was now they would have said, no doubt with some satisfaction, that he was in Sheol, in the underworld, the world of the dead. We remember the story told by Luke about the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). The rich man died, was buried, and went to Hades (the Greek translation of Sheol). What Luke focuses on is not just the torment, from our perspective, of living in Hades, the place where God’s presence did not reach, but the impossibility of getting out of Hades or anyone else getting in (except on a one-way ticket! …. ’Between your place and ours a great gulf is fixed, so that no one can cross over from here to you, or from your side to us’. (Luke 16:26). The good news of the Apostles, told in the sermon by Peter in Acts 2:23-36 is that God did not allow Jesus to be imprisoned in the abode of the dead. God, not death, was to have the final word.
In the eyes of Jesus’ contemporaries Jesus had to be either in Hades or in Heaven. His enemies would have had no doubt he was in Hades. Yet they might have remembered the story of Elijah who was taken up on a fiery chariot to heaven. Moses, the first great leader of Israel, of whom in the Scriptures it was said that no one knew his burial place (Deuteronomy 34:6), was assumed by some rabbis to have been taken up to heaven as well. But heaven is not at far away place, as if in outer space. God is both transcendent and imminent. God is distant from us, because He is concealed from us, but God can also make his presence known to us. So Heaven can come down to earth. In the prophet Isaiah (64:1) there is a prayer ‘O that you would rend the heavens and come down’. It is still the practice of the Jews at the Passover meal to leave an empty chair for the prophet Elijah, in case he should choose to come down rom heaven. Some followers of Jesus though John the Baptist was Elijah who had returned.
So if Jesus was in heaven there lay open the possibility that he would return to earth to wind up his ministry victoriously once and for all. But no date was put on this return by the New Testament writers. Meanwhile this ministry of Christ has been entrusted now to the whole Church, who is commanded, according to the gospel this year (Matthew 28:16-20, to announce the good news that Jesus has broken the gates of the underworld and is with us, to baptise all and teach them how to be disciples of Jesus. The Church then is a school of discipleship, living under the promise that Christ will be with us to the very end.
The cloud that takes Jesus from the sight of the apostles is a symbol of the mystery of God. We remember the pillar of cloud that accompanied the Hebrews on their journey to the promised land and the cloud that enveloped Jesus and the disciples when he was transfigured. The cloud then is the vehicle which carries Jesus into the mystery of God but also carries him back to us. Returning to God, and returning to us, are two aspects of the one mystery that is the Ascension.
In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 1:1-11) we hear how the two men in white reveal to the apostles that the same Jesus who has been taken away from them will return to them (the same as the two men in brilliant clothes who announced the resurrection to the women?). As suddenly as Jesus vanished from the apostles, just as suddenly can he return again. But Luke has two accounts of the ascension. In Acts the apostles experience Jesus’ departure with a sense of shock, whereas in the gospel it becomes an occasion for great rejoicing.
How can we explain these two very different moods? The experience of the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus would already have been telling the disciples that Jesus was not in Sheol but with God. However we all know, humanly speaking, that the death of anyone who is dear to us is followed by a period of grief, and this usually cannot be short circuited. We all know how difficult it is to find the right words of comfort for the bereaved. Bereavement can be a time of shock, disillusion, regret, anger even and it has to be gone through until eventually we ‘let go’ of the loved one, and come to terms with the reality that they will no longer be present to us as they had been before. The mention of forty days suggests that the apostles had to come to terms with their grief and learn to know Jesus in a way different from before grieving. For them this was a new journey, not unlike the journey of forty years to the promised land.
The Ascension then marks the end of the forty days of grieving but also the end of those special and privileged resurrection appearances which were recounted in the gospel stories and in Paul. What is noticeable in these stories is just how difficult the apostles found it to recognise Jesus or to believe that he was truly with them. True, these appearances gave them joy, but the joy was short lived. In Matthew’s account of the ascension which we read this year, (Mt 28:16-20) even at the moment of the ascension some of the disciples are still doubting the reality of what they have experienced. If that was true of Jesus’ nearest disciples, how much the more will it be true for us. That ‘doubt’ will be a reality for us too at many times in our journey of faith.
In the opening reading from Acts, Luke tells us how the apostles on seeing the risen Jesus asked him about the future. ‘Was Jesus about to restore the kingdom to Israel’ they asked. Jesus refuses to answer the question in the terms that the apostles pose it. Instead he gives them a command and a commission. He promises them the power of the Spirit, and commissions them to tell the good news to the ends of the earth. In other words live in the present, experience the closeness of God and bear witness to Jesus Christ. In these days of so much uncertainty and speculation, that is good advice for us too.
Learning to live in Lockdown
Fr John writes:
Living in lockdown has meant many different things to different people. Sister Jo Robson, a member of the Carmelite Monastery in Ware, Hertfordshire, has graciously offered us this reflection, at my request, on what it means to live in an enclosed monastery, a state of life freely chosen that has existed in the Church for centuries.
In recent weeks, various commentators have drawn parallels between the circumstances of lockdown and the enclosed life adopted by religious orders such as the Carmelites, Cistercians and Benedictines. While there may be some similarities in the experience, it seems important at the outset to acknowledge some fundamental differences too. After all, the young nun or monk entering the monastery does so freely, and for very positive reasons, feeling called by God to explore this radical new lifestyle. They enter a house which is precisely designed to accommodate and foster such a sequestered way of living, with designated spaces for privacy and often extensive grounds for manual work and exercise. Moreover, the newly-arrived individual enters a community well used to living the enclosed life; they are accepted into an established situation, where the more experienced residents can provide stability and assistance while the novice finds their feet.
These differences alone (and there are many others) make the experience of entering enclosed religious life vastly different from the imposed circumstances with which families have been grappling over the past weeks – adjusting to being together for extended periods, often in cramped conditions, while at the same time grappling with the demands of childcare, home-schooling and remote working. Perhaps the most significant similarity, then, between lockdown and enclosed religious life may be the difficulty involved in adapting to it. No novice sails into the monastery immediately attuned to the demands of enclosure; it is a faltering process in which the young religious must slowly adapt to the very personal challenges with which their new way of life will confront them. It is this stumbling process of acclimatisation and adjustment that the new religious currently shares with our wider society, which suddenly and unexpectedly has had to feel its way into a new mode of being. It is therefore in a spirit of shared adversity that the following observations are offered, in the hope that a mutual experience can sometimes be lightened of some of its load.
One of the first puzzles which confronts the new religious is what to do with themselves, how to fill the long expanses of time which were formerly crammed with diverse activities and occupations; work, leisure activities, visiting friends and family – all of which involved a breathless rushing about from one place to another. As the nun or monk adjusts to the discipline of stability – of being and remaining in one place all the time – there can be both a mental and physical restlessness, a chafing at the newly acquired restrictions. Here, the monastic tradition offers the wisdom of a structured timetable, or horarium, as it is known in monastery-speak. This has two advantages. First it tells the young religious (and their novice guardian!) what they should be doing at any point in the day. Time where one has to question, ‘what will I do now?’, is more likely to be wasted than time which has been earmarked for a specific activity. More importantly, however, the monastic timetable offers a variety of such activities; it’s not just more and more of the same. Liturgical prayer (Mass and the Divine Office) are alternated with periods of manual work, study, communal recreation and solitary prayer. This diversity provides a rhythm to the day and avoids tedium, it helps prevent the religious from becoming obsessed with a single task, and encourages them to move, both physically and mentally, from one activity to another. Far from being a tyrannical taskmaster, the monastic horarium thus becomes a gentle friend which carries the religious through the day, accompanying and supporting them especially in the first months and years of acclimatisation until the new pace and rhythm of the monastery is interiorised and becomes a natural way of being.
A second challenge for the new nun or monk is living without peak experiences. Normal life often occurs in an ebb and flow-type fashion. We build up to a big event at work or in our home lives – a specific work assignment, wedding or birthday – and all eyes are on that until it’s over, at which point there may be a pause or a holiday before some fresh focal point appears on the horizon. As the monastic horarium indicates, most days in the monastery are pretty much the same as any other. By and large, there aren’t big events to prepare for and look forward to; pretty much there’s no crucial project on which all energies have to be invested. Instead, the novice has to adjust to a gentler existence, and in this process there is a gradual stilling down which is designed to foster an environment, both interior and exterior, more suited to prayer and contemplation. It also creates a capacity in the religious to notice the little things in life, the tiny indicators of God’s presence and goodness; the changing of the seasons, the appearance of the first snowdrop, a sunset or rainbow which can be delighted over, rather than dismissed as an inconsequential meteorological side-event. It also encourages the monastic community to delight in the little happenings of daily life. All sorts of occasions are marked in the tiniest of ways; the day of the novice entering the community, birthdays and profession anniversaries, the saints and seasons of the liturgical year, all acknowledged by the tiniest of gestures – maybe marmalade at breakfast when there usually isn’t any, a special pudding, a simple note or small card left under the cell door, even a hug or grin from a companion. All these denote an attentiveness to the little things, and build celebration and joy into what could otherwise be a formless existence.
Of course, this attentiveness to the little things has a flipside too. One of the first things the new monastic learns is that the little things matter, and can be used both positively and negatively. A frown or scowl across the monastic refectory speaks as loudly as a smile or nod of thanks, and its negativity can be as enduring as the goodness spread by the tiny gestures of kindness and celebration we have already noted. Omissions speak volumes too; failing to hold a door open, to wait for the other, to help someone struggling with an awkward load, all introduce a level of toxicity to the environment and darken the atmosphere of the monastery. There is thus a self-discipline to be acquired in avoiding the thoughtless gestures of irritation or annoyance which so easily leak out from us. As every family knows, rows and discord are more likely to emerge around the little things than the big. The need to live together day after day demands a care and vigilance in our relating to one another which may not be obvious in more mobile or fluctuating populations. On the other hand, the little things offer great opportunities for healing and peace-making too. When a verbal apology feels impossible, and further dialogue will only re-open old wounds, the tiniest of gestures or attitudes can be an olive branch, an opening to the road of peace, and an indication of the desire to mend fences. Once again the power of a smile, a helping hand, a friendly word, makes its presence felt. In enclosure and lockdown maybe we all have to learn a new vocabulary of relating to one another, one which may often be silent and recognisable only to the one to whom it is directed.
Of course, peak experiences often centre around friends and family, and one of the greatest sorrows of the new religious can be the inability to participate in such events as we watch our acquaintances get on with life without us. Lockdown has brought real hardship to many in this area too. Hardly a person is untouched by the inability to mark a special event; parties have been cancelled, weddings postponed, significant achievements and milestones left uncelebrated. For many people this has extended to the sadness of being unable to attend or even hold funeral services – to say goodbye to loved ones in the way we would have wished. There is something deeply poignant about the burial of a much-loved family member which is attended by the smallest number of close contacts. There is a pain to this which needs to be acknowledged and experienced, which cannot be simply brushed aside or dismissed as inconsequential. The same is true of the young religious who cannot just leave the monastery to attend every family gathering, no matter how significant or important it may be. Lockdown and enclosure thus encourage all of us to find new ways of being in contact, of being meaningfully present to the other. For many, this has involved harnessing the vast potential of the internet and digital forms of communication. All of us have, in recent weeks, become more conversant with (although not necessarily more proficient at) using platforms such as Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, WhatsApp and the like, and discovering that remote contact is better than no contact at all. For the monastic novice, frequent access to such modes of communication is not always encouraged (although contact with friends and family is much less restricted than in former times), and instead prayer opens up as a great and untapped means to communion. Praying for the sick and troubled, accompanying in prayer those who are approaching death, rejoicing in Christ’s joy with those who celebrate – all these become powerful means of being present with and to those who are physically separate from us. Often these will be people who were known to the novice in their previous life; friends, family, colleagues and so on. But as the young religious adjusts to this means of communion they find their hearts crowded with those whose situation now claims their compassion. Quite simply, the horizons of concern and affection broaden with surprising rapidity, and we find our hearts embracing not only those who were already near and dear to us, but the distant and the unknown too. The family of humankind becomes a living reality, as our eyes and hearts are opened to the needs of those who would previously have passed unnoticed – those in countries, circumstances and plights quite new to us. This, of course, is the great paradox of solitude. Rather than creating isolation, solitude – lived rightly – builds communion and solidarity with remarkable efficiency. This was the wisdom of the first monks of the early Christian church, who went out to the desert not to escape humanity but to embrace it. And this has been one of the discoveries of lockdown too: across the country, neighbourhoods of unknown and even faceless individuals have become fledgling communities of care and mutual concern. People have reached out to one another in friendship and a new generosity of spirit which few would wish to lose when normal life returns. Just as this new communion and solidarity is the greatest lesson – even the raison d’être of monastic life – so maybe it is the gift which lockdown, for all its difficulties and privations, offers each of us. It is a precious gift to be cherished and nurtured, and which each of us must find a way of carrying into the ‘new normal’ – whatever that turns out to be.
Keeping on keeping on.
This blog is presented to us by kind permission of Eddie Gilmore. Eddie is the CEO of the Irish Chaplaincy in Camden Town. You may recall he sang to us at Mass earlier this year.
At the start of another day of lockdown I was reminded of a remark made to me by an American man called John who I met while walking on the Camino in Spain. I’d woken up early, as I usually do in these days, and thought, without a huge amount of enthusiasm, ‘oh, another day; do I really have to…’. It had been a good week up until that point, and a couple of important meetings and presentations which had required a lot of reparation and energy had gone very well. But I was feeling a little drained and flat in the aftermath and wondering how I was going to find some new motivation for a day in which there were no especially ‘big’ things happening (like a lot of days really at the moment, let’s face it!). I managed, somehow, to remove myself from the comfort of the bed and to get out for my morning walk. And I tried to tell myself how lucky I am to
be able to do such a thing, when some of those prisoners supported by the Irish Chaplaincy are currently being allowed out of their cell for just 30 minutes a day, and are faced with the choice: to have a shower, to join a long queue for the phone (assuming they have the means to make a call), or to go into the exercise yard (where there may not be too much social distancing).
I followed exactly the same route I have for the last fortnight or so, which is through the bluebell wood on the way up to the Kent University campus. I didn’t want to miss a single day of the bluebells, although they’re fading now so maybe I can start to walk somewhere else. Variety is the spice of life, as they say! There’s a wonderfully fragrant yellow azalea which has just come into bloom in the cemetery near us so I might go there now. Mix it up a bit!
My life in lockdown has become a bit monastic, and there’s a lot I like about that. There’s quite a nice, simple balance of work, prayer, meals, reading, recreation (much of that in the form of walking or cycling). I’m a bit more tuned in than usual to the subtle but magical changes in the natural world: the colours and the smells, the times of the day when the birds sing more loudly, the wonderful sight in the sky a few nights ago of a crescent moon underneath a brightly shining Venus.
But any routine can also become a bit monotonous, and even my taking part every day without fail in the Facebook live-stream of Evening prayer from Taizé is not quite as ‘uplifting’ as it was in the first week or two (they began doing it a couple of weeks before Easter). And I’m clearly not the only one who’s feeling like that. In the beginning there were close to 4,000 people tuning in. This week the viewing figures are down to 2.5k!
What are those vanished 1.5k doing instead, I wonder?
Most days I’m fairly content with this simple life but there are some days when I think ‘oh, I just want to get in the car or on a train or on a plane and, well, just go somewhere…anywhere’. It’s often tempting to want to ‘get away’, in the belief that we’ll somehow be more content or more stimulated or more this or more that if only we were in a different place. I was struck by Gerry’s piece in our Easter newsletter, ’A Time to be Still’, when he mentioned that in the 1650s the French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal made a perceptive comment about the human condition. “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness,” he said, “is that he cannot stay quietly in his room”. There is even a word and a phrase in the monastic tradition to describe this restlessness (because imagine being in an actual monastery and following exactly the same routine every day, every week for, say, fifty years!). It’s called ‘acedia’ (from the Greek ‘akedia’, meaning indifference), or the ‘noonday demon’, and it’s a kind of listlessness, when the simplest of acts can take a huge effort. It’s when I can’t quite get the motivation or the enthusiasm to do anything, and the temptation is to want to escape from the mundane, the humdrum, the routine. Although, I know deep down that if I can’t be content here and now, I’ll never be content in some other place with some other people doing some other thing.
It was when I was feeling rather out of sorts and out of energy one morning that I met John, a fellow pilgrim. Yes, the ‘noonday demon’ can strike anywhere, even on the magical, mystical Camino to Santiago. We got chatting and John, who’d grown up in Tennessee, told me about how he’d just taken early retirement at the age of 50 from a highly stressful career in hotel hospitality in California. I asked if he had any hopes or dreams for his 50 th birthday year, and beyond. “Weeelll”, he replied in his slow, Southern drawl, “Aaaahh just wanna keep ooon keeping oooon”!
My encounter with John helped lift me out of that particular little trough, and I often think of his words. And may we all during this time of lockdown (and beyond) find somehow the strength to keep on keeping on.
The Mystery of the Resurrection and the Empty Tomb
When we listen to the Scriptures at Mass, we are listening to the voices of experience, the immediate experience of those who have perceived God at work in their lives, our ancestors in faith, the ancestors of the contemporaries of Jesus. The voices differ. Sometimes we hear the voice of storytellers, and the people who listened to them and reflected on their story, like the story parents told their children on Passover night. At every Mass, after the Old Testament reading, we join the voices of those who prayed to God in success and failure, using the words of the Psalms. At other times we hear the voices of individuals such as the prophets, or the wise men who collected proverbs, or the troubled voices of people such as Job, trying to discern why good people suffer bad things.
As we listen to the Scriptures we hear many voices speaking in different ways, in different times, and to different situations in human life. But in the end what do we actually hear? Do we just hear a cacophony of different sounds, each demanding our attention and saying, ‘I alone have the answer to the mystery of life, listen to me’, voices that even from time to time contradict one another, or do we hear, in the words of Pope Benedict, a ‘symphony of many voices in which the one word of God is spoken’ , a symphony which includes not only human voices but even the voice of creation. This ‘symphony of voices’ is like a collection of melodies which surrender themselves to the harmony of a greater melody – a melody which brings all the different melodies together in unison, without any of them losing their own individuality. The first time we listen to a complex piece of music we hear perhaps only the dominant melody, but as we listen again and again we may hear the different elements that contribute to the whole. Something similar happens when we read the Scriptures.
In the case of the Scriptures, that dominant melody is revealed to us not in one word or sentence, but in a Person, Jesus, who lived, suffered, died and rose again. All those many words of Scripture, those many melodies that make up the symphony, are summed up in Jesus who is the Word of God.
If Jesus had not been raised from the dead we would never have known that He is the Word of God. But what do we mean when we proclaim that Jesus is risen from the dead? Whereas when we listen to a great musical symphony our ear first takes in the whole, rather than its constituent parts, once we ask the question of the meaning of Easter we open up a Pandora’s box of questions, and risk getting bogged down in the details. Some will respond to the proclamation, ‘Well what exactly do you mean?’ Others will say, ‘I find this utterly incredible’. Others might say, this is just a piece of mythology such as you find in other ancient religions.
There is good reason why this may be so. When we listen to the Easter stories we hear different voices too. We hear the muted voices of the first women to come to the tomb, unable to make sense of what they see and hear, speechless with fear. We hear the anguished voice of Mary Magdalene, grieving that the body of Jesus has gone. We hear the disappointed voices of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. We hear the confused voices of the disciples, not knowing what to make of the women’s experience. We hear the cynical voice of Thomas, not prepared to believe unless he can put his hand into Jesus’ side. We hear the resigned voice of Peter, going back to his fishing.
The gospel writers themselves could not find adequate words to express their experience of the presence of Jesus once more. They present the story through two strands of tradition, the discovery of the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus to his disciples.
At the Easter Vigil we listen to the gospel story of the discovery of the empty tomb. But the fact that the tomb was empty does not of itself unequivocally prove that Jesus came to life again. On the other hand, it is difficult to see how the early Christians could have proclaimed the Resurrection with any credibility if the tomb had not been found empty. The fact that the gospels all report that it was the women friends of Jesus who first discovered the tomb would suggest that the early Church could not have made up the story. If that were the case, they would not have entrusted it to the women, because women were not considered reliable witnesses.
St Luke (Lk 24:21-24) tells how even the disciples of Jesus found it hard to believe the women at first.
St Matthew in his gospel draws attention to an alternative account which was abroad in his day, how the chief priests bribed the soldiers who were guarding the tomb to say that the disciples stole the body while they were asleep. But if they were asleep, how did they know the disciples had come? This kind of reaction continued to be popular with opponents of the church in the first two centuries.
St Paul quotes one of the earliest summaries of the Church’s faith in the resurrection in his letter to the Corinthians, ch. 15, but it is worth noting that he does not mention the tomb being empty but focuses only on the appearances of Jesus..
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
St Paul may have known about the empty tomb but not thought it worthy of attention. Certainly it was not for Paul what one would call the ‘game-changer’, a definitive ‘proof’ of the resurrection. We might speak of it however as a valuable secondary sign, one of the shorter melodies which makes up the greater symphony.
A question which was asked very early on in the life of the Church and is still asked today is the question, ‘What actually happened’? Behind this question lies the idea that if all the guards had not been asleep a wakeful ‘neutral’ observer would have seen something. Maybe this is a question we have all asked at one time or another. In the second century there appeared a writing known as the Gospel of Peter which went way beyond what is said in the four gospels and claimed to contain an ‘eye –witness’ account of the moment of the Resurrection.
“And in the night in which the Lord’s day was drawing on, as the soldiers kept guard two by two in a watch, there was a great voice in the heaven; and they saw the heavens opened, and two men descend with a great light and approach the tomb. And the stone that was put at the door rolled of itself and made way in part; and the tomb was opened, and both the young men entered in. When therefore those soldiers saw it, they awakened the centurion and the elders, for they too were close by keeping guard. And as they declared what things they had seen, again they saw three men come forth from the tomb, and two of them supporting one, and a cross following them. And the heads of the two reached to heaven, but the head of him who was led by them overpassed the heavens. And they heard a voice from the heavens, saying, You have preached to them that sleep. And a response was heard from the cross, Yes.”
The Gospel of Peter was not accepted by the Church and was indeed condemned at one of the early Synods because it appeared to say that Christ did not really die, and the Church has never claimed that there was a moment of resurrection which could be identified by a ‘neutral’ reporter or eye-witness.
Although the writers of the Gospels stressed the finding of Jesus’ tomb empty they did not understand the Resurrection as implying that in some way the corpse of Jesus came back to life, as in the case of Lazarus, the son of the widow of Nain and the daughter of Jairus. All these were ‘raised’ from death by Jesus but eventually died, definitively. However what happened in the case of Jesus is utterly different. Jesus did not return to a normal human life, as we would understand it, in this world.
There is a quote from the First Letter of Paul to Timothy, 3:16 which indirectly throws some light on the Resurrection of Jesus.
Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great.
He was revealed in flesh,
vindicated in spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
believed in throughout the world,
taken up in glory.
The author is speaking about the work of Bishops and Deacons when he draws his readers’ attention to this very brief and precise statement of faith. This ‘mini-creed’ is very ancient, though the letter to Timothy was written much later than the Letter to the Corinthians. The ‘mystery of our religion’ is the mystery of Christ from the moment he left heaven as the Son of God and took flesh until he returned to the Father in glory. The action of Jesus in this creed takes place in both heavenly and earthly existence. In his earthly existence Jesus was seen as a human being, he was proclaimed among the gentiles and believed in throughout the (Roman) world. That much could be witnessed as an uncontroversial historical fact. But there is more. ‘He was vindicated in Spirit’ is a reference to his resurrection which could not be ‘seen’ in the same way. That He was taken up in glory would appear to be a reference to the ascension. But what is striking is the phrase, ‘seen by angels’. Some scholars would say that the ‘angels’ are in fact the apostles, the messengers of the good news, since strictly speaking an angel was a messenger of God. However in general angels are understood to be heavenly beings, they belong to the world of the Spirit; they exist outside of immediate human experience though they can enter into our world.
This is the world Jesus has entered, which he has made his home. But he can still allow himself to be seen on earth by those he wishes to be seen by.
Reflection for Eastertide (following the Second Sunday of Easter)
One of the consequences of being in lockdown is that I have more time to read a daily newspaper. I tend to skip the daily reports of more deaths and the failings of the government as by the time the paper arrives I have heard it all before. Instead I tend to go to the comments and letters page and see what insights our journalists have come up with about the state of the nation, our fears, and hopes for the future.
Last week I read a comment article which both moved me and filled me with sadness. It lamented the fact that the generation of people in their 40s and 50s who are ‘in charge’ of families, companies and countries no longer have the wisdom of previous generations to guide them through the present crisis, and even if they did, the present crisis is so unlike, say, the Second World War, that it is difficult to make comparisons. Then we could huddle together, get married and buried together, and the churches never closed. Now we avoid people on the streets. We listen to promises from politicians and others in the hope that what they tell us is true, but how do we know that things will get better? And what do we tell our children? We tell them that things will get better and all the things they’ve worked and planned for will come to fruition – but will they? We don’t know and there is no one we can ask.
By the time you read this we will have spent four weeks in lockdown. We will all have our stories, and many of us may have sufferings to share, whether sufferings of the present moment, bereavement, or simply boredom, or sufferings approaching us from the future but affecting us now, in the shape of fears for unemployment or what might happen if ‘normality’ does not resume quickly. Some may be running out of money already. Others may be dreading that day. Crises never strike in quite the same way twice, and we don’t all suffer in the same way. But are there any memories that can help us?
At this time of year along with Christians in coronavirus-hit countries all over the world we are celebrating Easter. At the start of the lockdown I suggested that our Lent would be different this year in that what we gave up would not be what we chose – our Lenten discipline would be imposed on us. Now, as we move into a stage where the news seems to be getting better and worse at the same time, it is important to remember that Easter did not finish on Easter Sunday. We now observe a period of time called Eastertide, reflecting on the Easter Mystery, or the Paschal Mystery as it is called in the Sunday Prayers. We celebrate the Lord’s ‘Passing Over’ from death to eternal life, from earth to heaven and a new form of existence, a new way of communicating with us.
If we look at the Scripture Readings at Sunday Mass during these fifty days from Easter to Pentecost, we will discover that Easter Sunday is a lot more than just a story of a happy ending. For many of us who are going through an experience of Good Friday, our Easter experience is not like saying on Good Friday, ‘Don’t worry, it will all be alright and back to normal in two days time’, because that was not how it was, nor will it be like that for us.
We see in the Readings from Scripture that this time after the discovery of the empty tomb was a time of fear. The gospel for the second Sunday of Easter, last weekend, tells us how the disciples locked themselves in a room together, for fear of the Jews( not the Jews in general – after all the disciples were Jews themselves, but the leaders and influencers who got rid of Jesus and were determined to rid themselves of his followers too). (John 20:19-32) It was into this locked room that Jesus came with the greeting, Peace be with you.
And this was also a time of grief. On the third Sunday we will hear or read the story of the two disciples who were walking to Emmaus. They were full of grief, a grief compounded by loss of hope. The truth to be told, they were not grieving so much for Jesus himself but for the loss of the great thing they hoped for, the liberation of Israel. (Luke 24:13-35). When Jesus joined them on the walk they did not recognise him. Something had to change in their hearts, at the core of their being, before were able to recognise him. It was the breaking of bread that triggered their recognition. Grief was transformed into Easter faith.
It was also a time for faith to be challenged, and faith to be discovered. So we hear of Thomas, in the same gospel for the Second Sunday, saying that he will not believe that the Lord is risen unless Jesus fulfils Thomas’ criteria (unless I can put my hand into his side I will not believe). At the end of the gospel we hear Thomas, without insisting on his criteria being fulfilled saying to the risen Christ, ‘My Lord and My God’. True, these were times of grief, fear and foreboding, but that was only part of the story. It is into this suffering, this grief, this fear and foreboding that Jesus comes. He does not come to wave a magic wand to restore everything to what it was before, but to lead us into the unknown.
During these weeks we will also listen to the Letters of St Peter. Peter wrote to a community in its own form of social isolation, held in suspicion and contempt by their pagan neighbours around them. Peter reminds them of the precious gift they enjoy already in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and though they may suffer, and suffer unjustly, there is much to thank God for.
As believing Christians we have much to fall back on in these troubled times. We are not without someone to ask, because we enjoy the presence of the risen Christ speaking to us through the Holy Scriptures that can help us throw light on these times when fear is rampant, faith is challenged and hope so easily crushed. We have the wisdom of the Saints and the Tradition of the Church to help us. The background against which the readings we hear at our streamed Masses or read at home is one of suffering and uncertainty, but it is also a time for patience, for waiting for the Lord to come to us, and for restoration.
A few years ago I visited Hiroshima. Looking at the city then it was hard to believe that it had been reduced almost to nothing by a nuclear bomb in 1945 and over 160,000 of its people, half its population, were killed, yet in the course of a few years it was looking like a city again. Who could have imagined that on the evening of 6th August 1945? Incidentally, August 6th is the Feast of the Transfiguration when the disciples were given their first glimpse of Jesus in his risen state, though they did not fully realise that at the time. Eastertide will culminate in the celebration of the sending of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God that makes all things new. That Spirit is offered to all, whether they know of Christ’s resurrection or not. Let us not be afraid of the new things the Spirit may bring.
I will conclude with the words of St Peter in the reading for the Second Sunday of Easter. You did not see him, yet you loved him, and still without seeing him you are already filled with a joy so glorious, that it cannot be described, because you believe; and you are sure of the end to which your faith looks forward, that is, the salvation of your souls. Whatever your circumstances, may the joy of Easter, the Paschal Mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Christ, be with you. May it sustain you and raise you up.
A Reflection for Easter Week from Fr John
‘We proclaim your Death O Lord, and profess your Resurrection, until you come again’. We have all made this statement of faith many times after the Consecration of the Bread and Wine at the heart of the Mass. This is the very heart of our faith. Everything that we say or do stands or falls on the basis of this truth which we proclaim to the world. As St Paul put it very succinctly, ‘If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and our faith is in vain’. Down through the ages the Church has constantly proclaimed this central truth in its Scripture, in its Creeds, in its liturgy and in its teaching. This central truth has fascinated scholars who have sought to understand its meaning and implications, it has puzzled non-believers and given solace and hope to simple believers.
If our belief in the Resurrection is not true then Jesus Christ is simply an interesting figure of history, even a great figure, with interesting things to say which we can take or leave as we wish. We can adopt whatever is helpful, while ignoring any of his hard or difficult sayings. Our religion then becomes a pleasant leisure activity, or a useful self-help association, or an interesting world view but without anything to mark it out from the rest of the ‘religious marketplace’, so to speak. There is no reason why people should not say, ‘I don’t need religion, I am a nice person as I am’.
On Good Friday this year the meditations for the Stations of the Cross in Rome were written by prisoners, some murderers, some sex offenders, and by their close family members, their prison officers and chaplains. The meditation for the first Station of the Cross was written by a prisoner serving a life sentence for murder, along with his father, who has served twenty-nine years in prison. He speaks of his childhood as a crucifixion, recalling the bullying he suffered because of his stutter and his lack of friends. He does not go into details of the murder, but we can be sure that this was a crucifixion too for his victim, and his victim’s family and friends. Over the years in prison he experienced a sense of shame and remorse, which only increased his sense of being condemned by his own conscience. What he seemed to be saying was that the walls of the prison were symbolic of the walls of his conscience, and even his efforts at repentance did not bring him peace.
Without ever using the word, this prisoner’s meditation speaks of his faith in the Resurrection of Jesus. He describes it like this. We (himself and his father) were both plunged into deep darkness. In that non-life, however, I was always searching for something that would be life: strange to say, prison would be my salvation. I am more like Barabbas than Christ. If for some, I am still Barabbas, that does not make me angry: I know in my heart that the Innocent One, condemned like me, came to find me in prison to teach me about life.
The prisoner’s meditation tells us the same story as St Paul and the New Testament witnesses but using different language – ‘The Innocent One, condemned like me, came to find me’. It is a beautiful testimony of Easter faith. He tells us about an experience of a mysterious encounter with Christ, an encounter which has changed his life and offered him a new horizon as the darkness in his soul has lifted. That experience deepens for him as he reads once again the story of the Lord’s Passion and Death. At the end of the day faith is not a lofty ideal or a decision to live in a certain way, nor is it something we manufacture, rather it is a response to an encounter with the risen Christ who comes to meet us, and offers us a new direction in life, as he points us towards a new horizon, where, even in this world, death is mysteriously transformed into life. ‘We proclaim your Death O Lord, and profess your Resurrection, until you come again’.
A very happy Easter to you all
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. May I take this opportunity of wishing you all a very happy Easter and ask you to pass on my greetings to anyone you know who does not have access to this website. As I sit at my desk I can see the blossoms forming on the apple tree in the garden, a sign of Spring, of new life after a long winter, and sign of hope for fruit to come.
The essential message of today is that because God, who is love, has entered the world through one man, Jesus, and loved us all at a terrible physical and spiritual cost to himself, there is hope for us all. Chaos, destruction, greed, lies and the mentalities that feed them will not have the last word.
The Resurrection of Jesus is not just a story of victory but a call to action, because that victory is not yet complete. It has not yet taken root in our hearts. There is much work to be done, on ourselves, our nation and the world. That work requires us to hope, to pray, and to be able to wait patiently when we may feel that our work has been in vain.
One of the tasks before us is to renew our respect for Truth. Truth is an end in itself, not something to be used when it suits us, discarded when it doesn’t, and manipulated for our own ends. We pride ourselves, rightly, on our democracy and our rule of Law, but without a respect for Truth both these institutions will corrode, and chaos will ensue. A few nights ago I listened to the words of a survivor of the concentration camp at Bergen Belsen, the first camp to be liberated by the British Army in 1945. She said that when she was brought to the camp the worst thing she found was the disorder, and the chaos, a chaos that was founded on the lies and prejudices fomented in the years preceding the war.
At the trial of Jesus Pilate asked the question, what is Truth? It was not actually a question, but a statement to the effect that Truth does not matter when life gets in the way. Jesus said, ‘The truth will make you free’ (John 8:31). We rejoice today in the Resurrection of the One who himself is Truth, who spoke and acted truthfully, the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Thanks be to God!
A Reflection for Easter Sunday.
Those of us of a certain age will remember the phrase, ‘Easter duties’, the requirement to receive Holy Communion at least once a year, at Easter or thereabouts, preceded by Confession. For the past fifty years or so this requirement has not been immediately relevant for regular worshippers, but we can see traces of the practice in the attendance of many ‘visitors’ to Mass on Easter Sunday who would not be present at any other time of the year.
This year is different. For the first time in 800 years the doors of our churches will be closed on Easter Sunday and we will not be able to receive Holy Communion, a moment of great sadness for us. Over the past few days voices have been raised proposing that the churches should be open, but I still believe that the closure is for the best. It is a sacrifice we make out of love for the sake of our fellow citizens and those who will be in the front line caring for them.
There will be things we can do – follow a live-streamed Mass making a spiritual communion, read the Scriptures and pray set prayers or just pray in the silence of our hearts – but compared with being bodily present at the Eucharist we are not exchanging one thing for another of equal value. At the same time, if we have used this time of lockdown to cultivate time for reading the Scriptures and praying at home, that will deepen our appreciation for what is happening at Sunday Mass, and strengthen our participation, when we are able to return.
But why is it so important to be at Sunday Mass, as opposed to watching it from a distance? In our reflection for Holy Thursday we spoke about the pilgrims to Jerusalem forming a special company, a group of ‘companions’ to share in the Passover Meal. The Gospels also tell us that although the disciples came to Jesus and asked him about the location of the Passover Meal Christ was the one who was convening the meal. ‘I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples’, so the disciples did as Jesus directed them. (Mark 26:18,19). This Passover Meal is the prototype for the Church’s celebration of the Eucharist when Christ’s death and resurrection will be ‘re-presented’ to the family Christ calls to gather around him as his companions. It indicates that the Church is not just a club of like-minded individuals joining briefly to pursue their common interests, it is founded on a deeper relationship of love which begins and ends with Christ himself.
St Paul, in the response to the psalm for Holy Thursday, described the Eucharist as a participation or communion in the Body of Christ. We receive Christ’s body, his whole person, in the form of food and drink, having already received it by listening and responding to Christ speaking to us through the Scriptures. (1 Corinthians 10:16). This listening and responding prepares the ground for Communion. Unlike ordinary food which we consume and assimilate to build up our bodies, this food given to us by Christ assimilates us in order to build up the Body of Christ, to build us into a community of ‘other Christs’. It is in this sense that we participate. So we do not participate like spectators in a theatre, watching the action at a distance, nor do I participate as an individual relating to Christ as if everyone around me were like other passengers on a bus, all holding on to our privacy.
In other words we come to Mass to be changed. While each of us may come into the assembly as an ‘I’, we should leave it as ‘we’, having entered more deeply into the mind and heart of Christ, which is Love. We join together to be formed into a new relationship with Christ and with each other, and through Christ we are re-created once more into that relationship with God the Father that He desired from the very beginning. Just as the Temple in Jerusalem was the place from which the holiness of God radiated out to the whole earth, so now the new Temple, the Body of Christ (John 2:18-22), no longer a building but a family, the Church, radiates the holiness of God out to the whole world, inviting all to be part of this family of humankind.
For all this to be true, the bodies must be there – Christ’s body, and our bodies. But what if we cannot be present in our Bodies? What if we cannot receive sacramental communion? The means that we use in an emergency – streamlined Masses, prayers at home, may sustain us in an emergency, but not for when we will ‘get back to normal’.
But in fact for many Christians this lack of the Eucharist is a fact of life. Already we may know of housebound, sick and isolated people who do not have access to technology. There are communities throughout the world with severe shortages of priests who may only receive the Eucharist once or twice a year. There are those who cannot receive the sacraments in times of persecution. There are those who cannot receive the sacraments because they are divorced and remarried. The Christian community itself is broken and fractured, so we cannot be in communion with the Church up the road and receive Holy Communion together.
Even in the extreme case where the Church excommunicates someone, formerly forbidding them to receive Holy Communion – and that is extremely rare – the Church nevertheless acknowledges that it cannot cut someone off from the love of Christ and the fellowship of love that Christ has inaugurated. That person is supported by the love of Christ which continues to be present at the heart of the communion that is the Body of Christ. Sometimes it happens that people who are technically ‘excommunicated’ can grow into great patience and holiness.
It is to St Augustine that we owe the insight about the food of the Eucharist being stronger than us and thus assimilating us into the Body of Christ. When this great saint was approaching his death he made a decision to fast from receiving Holy Communion. Instead he joined the group of public sinners in his church community who had been instructed to refrain from receiving Holy Communion while they had prayed for pardon and the grace of the Lord, so that he might meet his Lord in humility, and be truly hungry for the Lord. And indeed until quite recently the Church fasted from Holy Communion on Good Friday as well as Holy Saturday, accompanying that Fast from Holy Communion with a fast of their own. Even today the Eastern Catholic Churches do not celebrate Mass on the weekdays of Lent.
So in fasting from the Eucharist this Easter Day we are doing something that is unusual, but not unprecedented. As we do so may we be aware that we should never take the receiving of Holy Communion lightly, nor should we do so if we have committed any grave sin. Today we might make our special prayer that prayer we say every Sunday just before receiving Holy Communion – Lord, I am not worthy to receive you under my roof, say but the word, and my soul will be healed. And may we say that prayer in communion not only with our fellow Catholics around the world who are deprived today, but with all those for whom the inability to receive Holy Communion is the norm and not the exception, that the Lord will say that word to them which tells them that they are not alone. God has not forgotten them.
A very happy Easter to you all.
A Reflection on Holy Saturday
Between Death and Glory; the descent of Christ into Hell.
‘What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps’. This is the opening of an ancient homily on Holy Saturday. On Holy Saturday the church building is indeed still. During the hours of daylight the austere appearance of Good Friday remains. The tabernacle is empty. The altar is stripped of any coverings. No Eucharist is celebrated though in the cathedrals people may gather for the Office of Readings (in which the homily quoted above is read), or the Office of Tenebrae as it used to be called. There is a sense of emptiness. Christ has been laid in the tomb.
Tenebrae means darkness, and as the singing of each psalm finishes a candle is extinguished on a stand traditionally known as a hearse, until at the end the church is left without any lighting. At our cathedral, just before the end of the service, the choir boys seem to take great pleasure in slamming their music books against the pew, making a loud foreboding noise called the strepitus(noise), which symbolised the earthquake that followed Christ’s death. The service ends in darkness and silence, and the church remains so until the lighted Paschal candle is carried into the church as night begins.
According to the Scriptures Christ was raised from the Dead on the third day. Holy Saturday represents the second day, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the day being measured from sunset to sunset, a day of waiting for God to act. In the Apostles Creed too the Paschal Mystery, the Death and Resurrection of Christ, is divided into three stages. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again from the dead.
He descended into Hell. This brief statement puzzles many Catholics, and is a matter of consternation for some. What does it mean? Where did Jesus go? Why? Like so many statements in Scripture this is not a statement of historical fact that could have been observed by anyone who happened to see it, rather it was a statement about the meaning and significance of Christ’s death. It affirms the reality of Christ’s death, as does the reference to his burial, but its meaning is much richer than that.
To some extent the word ‘Hell’ is an unfortunate translation. It came into being in Scandinavia in the Middle Ages, where the goddess of the underworld was known as Hel. By then Hell had come to be thought of as a place where the wicked who had turned their backs on God were kept in torment for all eternity, but this was not its principal meaning in New Testament times when this article of the Creed was formulated.
The Descent of Christ into the world below, or the world of the dead, is mentioned in St Paul’s Epistles though more by way of allusion, as a truth that was not considered problematic or controversial among the earliest Christians. In the Old Testament the dead were said to descend to Sheol. Sheol was thought of a place under the Earth, separated by a deep ocean, a region that God did not reach. It was a kind of shadowy place where souls lived in oblivion, with no distinction made between persons or their moral qualities. There was no thought or activity, no wisdom, knowledge or love in Sheol. Sheol was no respecter of persons. The kings, so glorious in life, sit motionless in death. Once in, no one can get out. In some strands of Judaism around the time of Christ Sheol begins to be seen as a place of punishment too.
In the early Syriac tradition Christ’s story is described as a series of descents. He descends from heaven into a human body (The Word became flesh), then he descends into the river Jordan at his baptism, the waters of the river symbolising chaos and death, and finally he descends into Sheol, where he rescues Adam, the first man and father of the human race. Other theologians from the East said that Christ not only rescued Adam but rescued all who were in Hades and brought them with him to Paradise. This tradition sees the descent of Christ into Sheol as the greatest achievement of Christ’s work. By doing so he defeats death – As God he opens the door to the region where He has never been before – and conquers the sin by which death entered the world, and so liberates humanity from sin, darkness and death. In Eastern iconography Christ’s resurrection is depicted as His standing over the gates and bars of the underworld, leading Adam out. Where once Sheol was a place of no return to God, an enormous underground prison, so to speak, God has entered out of love to bring people back to Him. In this perspective the Descent of Christ into Sheol is seen as the anticipation of the victory of the Resurrection.
But there is another understanding of this mystery of Christ’s Descent into Hell which sees it as an extension of Christ’s suffering on the Cross. In this perspective the descent into Sheol can be seen as Christ suffering the most profound sense of abandonment by God, hinted at in those words on the Cross, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?. In his flesh Christ identifies himself not just with the righteous who have died, but even with the greatest of all sinners who have definitively scorned God’s love. Only the God who entered into and shared their human condition could liberate them. St Paul hinted at this when he wrote, in 2 Corinthians 5:20-21, We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. For Christ to do that really was ‘hell’, in terms of his suffering, a depth of suffering that no other human being has come near to experiencing, apart from those few mystics like John of the Cross and Therese of Lisieux who suffered a dark night of the soul. This ‘hell’ is a ‘state of total loneliness and dreadfulness, where no voice reaches and no love enters, a path one must walk alone supported only by faith.
On Holy Saturday then we contemplate Jesus, poised between suffering and glory, death and resurrection, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The Prophet Isaiah expressed this when he said, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I shall be glorified, while I was thinking, ‘I have toiled in vain, I have exhausted myself for nothing’. We exhaust ourselves for nothing, yet we wait for the liberation that comes from a merciful, infinitely loving God who did not refuse to go down to the lowest depths of the human condition.
Today we pray to Christ, Come into the hearts of those who fear with a great fear. Come into the hearts of those who through past decisions or events they could not control cannot hear your voice, or cannot open the door to your love. Come into the hearts of those who know you but cannot name you. Come into the hearts of those who are experiencing the loneliness of isolation. Let us hear again the voice of the Christ who says, ‘Adam, Come out’. Where we have created closed doors in our heart may we hear the voice of Christ saying to us, ‘Behold I stand at the door. I am calling you’.
A Reflection for Holy Thursday
This Thursday, when we celebrate Holy Thursday, the Jewish holiday of Passover will have begun. The highpoint of the Jewish celebration will be the family Seder Meal commemorating the Exodus, when their Hebrew ancestors (and ours too) miraculously escaped from slavery in Egypt and began their journey through the wilderness to the Land God had first promised to Abraham. Looking back from the relative security and prosperity of the promised land, the descendants of these former slaves reflected on how their ancestors were ever able to escape. They could only attribute it to an act of God, something beyond human strength. They had done nothing to deserve to be rescued, so they could only describe it as an act of love. So awesome was this sense of being delivered, redeemed, that the story of the Exodus became, and still is, the heart of their story. They remembered it, they celebrated it and they told the story over and over again. If the Exodus had not happened they would not be free, they would not be alive, and they would not have become a nation, a people. All was gift, the gift of a benevolent God, a gift so easily taken for granted.
The ritual for the Seder Meal is the Exodus Haggadah, in other words the telling of the story of the Exodus. At four moments during the meal the youngest child asks a question. Each question is about the difference between the meal this night and meals on all other nights of the year.
These are the questions:
Why is it that on all other nights during the year we eat either leavened bread or matzah, but on this night we eat only matzah?
Why is it that on all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables, but on this night we eat bitter herbs?.
Why is it that on all other nights we do not dip [our food] even once, but on this night we dip them twice? Why is it that on all other nights we dine either sitting upright or reclining, but on this night we all recline?
And these are the answers:
We eat only matzah because our ancestors could not wait for their breads to rise when they were fleeing slavery in Egypt, and so they were flat when they came out of the oven.
We eat only Maror, a bitter herb, to remind us of the bitterness of slavery that our ancestors endured while in Egypt.
The first dip, green vegetables in salt water, symbolizes the replacing of our tears with gratitude, and the second dip, Maror in Charoses, symbolizes the sweetening of our burden of bitterness and suffering.
We recline at the Seder table because in ancient times, a person who reclined at a meal was a free person, while slaves and servants stood.
Before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70 there was a fifth question, Why is it that on all other nights we eat meat either roasted, marinated, or cooked, but on this night it is entirely roasted?
The answer was: We eat only roasted meat because that is how the Pesach/Passover lamb is prepared during sacrifice in the Temple at Jerusalem.
It is worth reminding ourselves, in these days when our churches are closed, a cause of sadness for many, and a cause of questioning by some, that this central memory of the Jewish community is celebrated and handed down not in a building set apart as sacred space but in the context of a family meal. That was always the way, even before the Temple was destroyed. While the Temple stood, those who lived in Judaea brought a lamb to the Temple, sacrificed it and brought it home to eat. If the meat was too much for one family to consume, they invited others to join them. With the temple destroyed there was no sacrificed lamb to eat, and a shank bone placed in the middle of the table provided the visual memory. Our Old Testament reading at the Mass of Holy Thursday recalls both the original story and its subsequent celebration down through the ages, because this story of the Jews is part of our Christian story too.
Why a family celebration? Reading the text (Ex 12:1-8, 11-14) we discover that the Hebrew slaves that night were ‘locked down’ in their own homes, waiting for the last of the plagues to run its course. The home then was the place of salvation, the place of protection, the place to wait until the ‘re-set’ button could be pressed and the journey to a new land, and a new life, could begin. In the early days Passover was associated with the beginning of Spring, the beginning of the New Year. In the Biblical way of thinking God’s creation was not just about ‘making stuff’ but the bringing of order out of chaos, the creating of a peaceful and harmonious existence out of the danger of competing interests which threatened peace and stability. In that scheme of things, the continuing of creation depended upon the family, the fundamental cell where peace, togetherness and harmony could be worked out. Those acquainted with the Old Testament story will know that after the various catastrophes in the first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis – the expulsion from the garden of Eden, the killing of Abel by his brother, the Flood, the destruction of the Tower of Babel – all these threats to creation, God begins again with a family, with the family of Abraham – Abraham, our father in faith. And today family continues to be important to our wellbeing, despite so many attempts to undermine it.
The Jewish celebration of Passover has given Christianity its understanding of Jesus. The death of Jesus and his Resurrection is illuminated by the Feast of Passover and the meaning that lies behind it. Jesus himself, being a Jew, celebrated the Passover Meal with his family. But who formed part of the family with whom he celebrated? The Gospels tell us that Jesus was far from his ancestral home. As the feast of Passover drew near Jesus made his way to Jerusalem as a pilgrim. His family might well have included some of his relatives, and perhaps other pilgrims as well. There was a rule that families and individuals who were travelling to Jerusalem were allowed to form ‘companies’ (Habhuroth in Hebrew) who would form Passover Families and eat the Passover Meal together.
Why did Jesus come to Jerusalem? Pilgrims came to Jerusalem because the Temple was the Home of the Creator, and the Creator’s holiness radiated from the temple throughout the city, hence Jerusalem became known as the Holy City. Protected by its walls and ramparts, Jerusalem was considered to be the place of protection and salvation against the chaos of the night. By returning to the city on Pilgrimage, the people were returning to their origins, to be recreated, so that in the year to come they would not fall into danger, whether external danger or those internal dangers which deprive people of the inner motivation they need to live in peace and harmony with their neighbours and indeed the whole of creation.
The family that accompanied Jesus that night, which certainly included the twelve apostles, and no doubt others including his mother though no other names are mentioned explicitly in Scripture, became the foundation of that new family that is the Church. The Church is the pilgrim family gathered around Christ, walking with him in pilgrimage to the new and eternal Jerusalem, our final goal, which always lies before us in this life. He accompanies us as the risen Christ, the presence of God the Creator, who through the gifts of faith, hope and charity keeps us safe from disintegration and the chaotic powers that threaten to destroy our world. He is the heart of our living home, and he strengthens the walls of our home with his blood, sacrificed in love for us.
The English word company comes from the Latin cum panis (with bread). So a companion is one with whom we share our bread. At the heart of our companionship with Jesus is our sharing the Bread of the Eucharist, which St Paul speaks of in the New Testament Reading for this evening (1 Cor 11:23-26). Jesus shares his bread, and his love, with us as the very light of the world, the light whom the darkness of chaos was not able to overcome, because it is the light of God’s love which never runs out. There is always enough of it to create us anew.
And on this night Jesus gives us another sign of his presence in the gospel story where he washes the feet of his disciples (John 13:1-15). Our all-powerful God empties himself of all power and performs the menial task of a slave, by washing the feet of his companions, a sign to us that it is only by washing the feet of others and having the humility to have our own feet washed – a recognition of just how much we depend on others – that we truly form part of him, that we are his true companions. As we reflect on this story let us remember the parents who will be washing their children around this time, maybe in small cooped up flats after a day of isolation with fractious children; let us remember the carers in our hospitals and nursing homes. Their heartbeat is in touch with the heartbeat of the Lord; they are signs of the new creation of which Passover silently speaks.
A Reflection for Palm Sunday
This weekend we celebrate Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, the most important week in the Christian calendar. Holy Week culminates in the Sacred Triduum, that pause in activity over three days, punctuated by times when normally we would gather in church to pray together, from the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Thursday evening, through Good Friday and Holy Saturday and ending with the Vigil on Saturday Evening and the First Mass of Easter. In the list of Mass intentions I have put the times of these services. We will celebrate them in the church on the main sanctuary and we invite you to make a Spiritual Communion at this time.
On Palm Sunday we remember the entrance of Our Lord into the city of Jerusalem. The Gospel read at the solemn entrance (Matthew 21:1-11) tells us how Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey. He was greeted on the top of the Mount of Olives by a very large crowd who threw palm branches on the road as a mark of honour (like the red carpet). The crowd, some of whom went before Jesus and some followed him, sang together, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’.
This brief story is full of symbolism.
According to the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) this was the first time Jesus came to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the religious and political centre of the Holy Land, a place of pilgrimage which at Passover time was crowded with visitors visiting the Temple, the great symbol of the presence of God. From the heart of the temple God’s presence radiated out to the whole land. The temple was also the power base of the country that gave important economic benefits to the inhabitants of the city.
The picture of Jesus riding on a donkey and being addressed as Son of David and the road strewn with palm branches and the cloaks of the crowd implies that the crowd greeted him as a king, but this is a king with a difference – not a king enthroned on a mighty horse, resplendent in power and glory, but a king who is meek and humble, a king of peace and simplicity who destroys the weapons of war. He approaches Jerusalem from the East, traditionally the place of holiness, from where the Messiah was prophesied to come.
Jesus approaches Jerusalem, this city of power and destiny, not to preach there, but to die there. For him it will be a dangerous place, nevertheless he will go there, because that is part of God’s plan. As he enters Jerusalem the story tells us that the whole city was shaken, just as King Herod and the whole city were troubled when the Magi asked, ‘where is the new-born king of the Jews’? Shortly after entering the city Jesus will go to the temple and drive out the money changers and sellers. It was a prophetic gesture, symbolising that God wants his holy place to be a place of prayer and integrity, open to the whole world. Those who had control of the temple were threatened. If people listened to this prophet, their power base, their economic base and their seat of influence would be threatened, so they decided to have him killed, using their sacred law as a pretext for doing so.
While he is in the temple the blind and the lame approach him, and he cures them. This is why he drives out the business people from the temple – not because he wants to destroy anything but so that he can reveal the healing power of God and God’s love for those driven to the margins of life and society.
Who are the crowd who greet Jesus? Traditionally we were told that the same crowd who greeted Jesus then became the crowd who called for his crucifixion, but a close reading of Matthew’s gospel would suggest this was not the case. The crowd on Palm Sunday and the crowd on Good Friday are two different groups. Matthew tells us that as Jesus entered the city the crowd went before Jesus and the crowd followed him. These were pilgrims, ordinary people who had been touched by Jesus’ preaching and actions and recognised him as the Messiah, the one sent by God to inaugurate God’s kingdom and a whole new way of being human. In this crowd who went with Jesus, some before him and some following, we can see a symbol of the Church, the community gathered around Christ, going before him to announce his presence to the world, but also following him as disciples, learning from him, learning to imitate him and grow in love.
In the Temple, the chief priests and scribes, the pillars of the religious and political establishment, are angry at what they see, but the children who see Jesus at work sing the same song as the crowd who gathered around Jesus, the children whom Jesus used as an example when he said that to enter the kingdom of heaven one must be like the child, full of trust and faith, who can see with pure and undivided hearts, totally open to his goodness. In becoming the king seated on a donkey Jesus made himself small, the child who is totally open to his Father in heaven, who comes to know the truth that our plans are not always God’s plans, and we need to look beyond ourselves, our own passions and desires, to see clearly, to see as God sees.
The crowds and the children sing ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, Hosanna, a Hebrew word, had two meanings. On the one hand it was a cry for help, Please! Come to our aid. On the other hand hosanna was a joyful acclamation of praise. At this time our Christian community is living this tension. We cry for help from the Lord to save us from this virus, and on the other hand we can give thanks to the Lord for the scientists and the wonderful people who imitate Christ by closely tending to the sick even at the risk of their own lives.
How often have we prayed, or sung, at Mass, those words, Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the Highest, and maybe let them go over our heads. This pause in our normal routine, however painful, can be an opportunity for us to reflect more profoundly on what we do every Sunday, so that when we are able to return to Mass together we do so with a sense of gratitude and a sense that so much depends on what the Lord wants for us, as opposed to our own plans. May our lives be one of Hosanna, of praise for the Lord on whom we are so dependent.
I would like to conclude with a paragraph from Pope Benedict’s beautiful book, Jesus of Nazareth; Holy Week.
For the infant Church, ‘Palm Sunday’ was not a thing of the past. Just as the Lord entered the Holy City that day on a donkey, so the Church saw him coming again and again in the humble form of bread and wine.
The Church greets the Lord in the Holy Eucharist as the One who is coming now, the One who has entered into her midst. At the same time , she greets him as the One who continues to come, the One who leads us upward to his coming.. As pilgrims we go up to him; as a pilgrim he comes to us and takes us up with him to his ascent, the Cross and Resurrection, to the definitive Jerusalem that is already growing in the midst of this world in the communion that unites us with his body.
May God bless you all as we begin this special week.
A Reflection from Fr John
Walking around the quiet streets near the Church reminded me of the last time I was in Jerusalem. Jerusalem, compared to Tel Aviv, is a religiously conservative city that continues to observe Shabbat, the Sabbath, conscientiously. From sundown on Friday evening until sundown on Saturday evening the city closes down. Shops, restaurants and bars are closed, indeed every form of commerce, leisure activities and businesses stop. Public transport, except for taxis, stops running and no aircraft will be seen flying overhead. People spend the night at home. On Saturday morning few people are on the streets, apart from those walking to a Synagogue nearby. Far from being considered an imposition or a burden, for Orthodox Jews the Sabbath is a joy to look forward to, a ceasing of the daily grind, a pleasant family meal on Friday evening followed by a few hours rest on Saturday, punctuated by some time for worship.
The Sabbath observance goes back centuries and in the Old Testament two explanations for it are offered. The first, easier to understand, is that it offers everyone, without exception, a chance to rest. So the vulnerable, the poor, slaves and immigrants are not imposed on by the wealthy and powerful. In the Book of Deuteronomy the explanation reads, ‘Remember that you too were once slaves in Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you from there. (Deuteronomy 5:15).
Far more important, but more difficult to understand, is the second explanation that has its origin in the story of Creation in the book of Genesis that opens the Old Testament, a story that is often read at the Easter Vigil, which, sadly, we will not be able to attend in Church this year. The story recounts how after God had finished creating the world in six days, on the seventh he did no work but rested from the work He had been doing (Genesis 2:2). This does not mean that God slumped down exhausted, nor does it mean that he took a break in order to get his strength and motivation back to begin again. This time of rest on the seventh day was carefully planned, so to speak, and indeed was the whole point of God’s activity. It was the day on which God deliberately let go of work so that He might enjoy his creation and invite everyone to enjoy it with Him. It was a day for God to ‘be with’ his creation without encroaching on it, like an artist painting a picture who having painted and repainted and touched it up gets to a point where he says, ‘That’s it, I must let the painting go now and speak for itself’ or the parent who acknowledges that their child has reached a certain stage and must be let fly on their own wings, without intruding on them. For human beings the Sabbath was the day when they could let go of work and just be themselves, enjoying God’s restful presence without the distraction of work or feeling that life was like a task that was never completed. There is a time for work, a time to simply be, and allow the restless human heart to anticipate the eternal rest which the Sabbath rest symbolises. And it was a time for all, not just the Jewish people.
With the coming of Christianity as a state religion under the Emperor Constantine the Sabbath became an official day of rest, on Sunday. The early Christians were Jews. They observed the traditional Sabbath and feasted, celebrating the Eucharist when the Sabbath was over, that is on the eighth day, the day of Christ the new creation. As well as being the end of God’s work celebrated by the Jewish sabbath this new Sabbath became a day of hope, an anticipation of future glory, when the work of Christ would finally be brought to fulfilment.
Closely related to the Sabbath was another biblical institution, the Jubilee. In Leviticus 25:4, we read, For six years you may sow your fields and prune your vineyard, but in the seventh year the land shall have a complete rest, a Sabbath for the Lord. Apart from any theological concerns this was good agricultural practice and was practiced with variations before the advent of fertilisers, pesticides and overproduction. The land too must be respected, and loved.
A further development of this insight was the Jubilee Year, every fifty years, when land that had been bought and sold was to be returned to its original owner. In an economy which was founded on land ownership bad harvests and other disasters enabled big landowners to acquire the land of their poorer neighbours and reduce them to tenancy or serfdom. The biblical ideal was that all were tenants of God, and it was not the will of God that some should become extraordinarily rich by reducing others to penury, even by force of circumstances. So the Jubilee year was like a re-set button, a fresh start. To what extent it was ever practiced, human nature being as it is, we shall never know.
At the present time many of us are undergoing a kind of enforced Sabbath, especially those who have to live on their own, or those who cannot work. Others, our key workers, may have no choice but to be very busy, busier than ever. And some of us may be finding it difficult to adjust to new ways of living, maybe even grieving for the time when we were so busy we never had time ‘to stand and stare’, or desperately finding ways to be busy. And in the public sphere there is speculation as to where all this will lead. As I walk around the streets near the church I find myself wondering if we were to recover the spirit of the Sabbath and the Jubilee, our country might be a happier place, in spite of all our present trials. Whatever our particular situation, may we make some of our time an opportunity just to rest in the presence of God, confident that he is with us, since he has loved us into existence.
Fr Peter and I celebrate Mass every day and remember you in our prayers.
May God keep you all healthy and safe.
A Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
‘Normal’ life, as we know it, has come to a halt. Those of us who are not totally isolated are severely restricted in where we can go, what we can do, who we can meet, what we can buy. Many of those who have a job are working from home. Even those who are still travelling to work are living under strain. So many health workers are living in fear, and the stories they hear make us more fearful. Others are having to stay at home full time with children in accommodation that was already too small.
This coming Sunday is the Fifth Sunday of Lent. Perhaps this year may be the first real Lent many of us have observed. The nation has its Lent too. What we are going through now is a much more real Lent than the more token one of giving up chocolates or alcohol we have been used to. We don’t have to do anything special this Lent, except to embrace the circumstances that God has placed us on. We have gone with Jesus into the wilderness. The wilderness is a place where there are no signposts, no certainty, a hostile place where like Jesus we have to battle with our demons and fears. Our loving and merciful God is with us in our wilderness. If we turn to God, God will help us find inner peace in time. If we turn away God will have to work all that much harder to help us.
The Gospel for this coming Sunday is the story of the raising of the dead Lazarus (John 11:1-45). In John’s Gospel this story functions as a sign, a sign of something even greater, the raising of Jesus from the dead, the heart of our celebration of Easter, and our resurrection too.
Death is very much in the air at the moment. Every day we are bombarded by the news media with the latest death count, and we know that the news will only get worse before it gets better. As I write the talk is about the lack of ventilators to halt the progress of death, and the moral dilemmas faced by those who have to decide who is put on ventilation and who not, someone’s elderly and much loved grandparent, or someone else who is just another patient, or even a statistic.
And death is what this Sunday’s gospel is about too, the death of the brother of Martha and Mary, the death of a good friend of Jesus, Lazarus. The very name hints at the direction this story will go. Lazarus in Hebrew means, God has helped.
‘If only you had been here, my brother would not have died’, says Martha to Jesus. How often have we heard similar words coming out of the mouths of people in grief? If only he had gone to the doctor in time. If only people had stayed at home as they were asked, we heard one grieving person say this week. These are natural human reactions in the face of death. Martha seems to be blaming Jesus for not being there – he worked miracles for others, surely he would have worked one for one of his best friends. And yet Martha is not without faith. She believes in the resurrection on the last day. Even people of a deep faith are not excused the pain of loss, nor spared the feeling that somehow death is an aberration, a failure of the system, someone else’s fault, something that ought not to have happened. We know in our heads that life must come to an end, but our hearts tell us that love does not come to an end, and therein lies our fear of death, and our hope of resurrection.
And then there is that strange delay on the part of Jesus, a delay which only deepened Martha’s grief. Jesus’ response, ‘this will end in God’s glory’ seems of little consolation and even uncaring, unless we are aware that the story is being told not just by someone present at the scene but by the Christian community who had the benefit of hindsight and reflection. This was no ordinary cure. There was to be no question that Lazarus might be in a coma, for example. By the time Jesus arrived there was no possible doubt that Lazarus was dead. The witnesses truly had seen God’s glory, God’s power, at work. In Jesus the creative Word of God was seen to be restoring his creation. In the Book of Lamentations we read, ‘It is good to wait in silence for the Lord to save’. The Christian way is to wait, to ponder over the works of God in the past, in the sure and certain hope that what God has done for those who went before us he will do for us too.
Lazarus did not go on to live forever. The raising of Lazarus, as John saw it, was only a sign, a sign of something even greater, yet to come, and not so immediately apparent unless one waits with the eyes of faith. In the Gospel story Martha grieves, and regrets, but she does so with faith. Others in the story just react with cynicism. Seeing Jesus weeping, some said, See how much he loved him. But the cynical say. He opened the eyes of the blind man, could he not have prevented this man’s death? For these the tears of Jesus are only a cover for his delay, or his slowness to react.
Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. That is the key to the story, the love of Jesus. Perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). What we see in Jesus is the manifestation of that perfect love that lies at the heart of the world, still waiting to find a home among God’s creatures. Imperfect love puts up walls and boundaries out of fear. Perfect love can even call us out of the grave and untie the bonds of sin with a word, as the bonds of Lazarus were untied. Jesus is the word of life and joy that awakens the dead, the voice of joy that takes away sorrow and grief, now, and in the world to come.
No doubt you have heard by now that the Government has ordered all churches and places of worship to close. We obey this order sadly, but there is joy in our sadness, because we know that in doing so we may be saving the life of another parishioner, or a health care worker or one of the many citizens who must still go to their place of work and taking the risks that go with their job (if they work for the NHS) for example, or in getting to work using public transport.
This situation has come about because people have refused to take the advice of our Government. This may have come about for many reasons – because they did not believe the Government, because they knew better, because they could not be bothered following the advice, or believed the advice did not apply to them – you can fill in all the reasons.
We are used to living in a liberal society where great freedom is given to the individual, and that can be a wonderful blessing. But that same freedom can become a curse when the pursuit of personal liberty places itself above the common good. That is true for many elements of our life that we have taken for granted over the years. ‘I am lucky enough, or have worked hard enough, to have excess money to spend, so I can buy what I like, regardless of the implications of those who have to live from day to day’. Most of the shoppers who have stripped the shelves of supermarkets (and are still doing so) would be shocked that one would think of them as being so cynical. One can rightly sympathise with their fears, but this might be the occasion to remind ourselves of Christ’s words, ‘Perfect love casts out fear’ (I John 4:7-8).
We exercise charity by practicing the virtues, and practicing the virtues means that we take pleasure in doing good, in doing the right thing, not just in terms of our own needs, but in terms of the Common Good. These virtues include Prudence, which involves weighing up our needs against those of others, and Temperance, which involves moderation in our consumption, especially when the benefit to us (our blessing) becomes a curse for others. Practising the Virtues includes using our reason to manage, and if necessary control our desires and aspirations, and our fears as well. We are now entering a phase in our common life when we will have ample time to learn to practice the Virtues.
In the Scriptures, to curse someone meant to harness divine power to cause someone else to lose their harvest, or their animals, or even their lives. The desert was deemed to be ‘cursed’ because nothing of any significance could grow in it. Blessing on the other hand comes from the one God who is always creative, never destructive. So the prophets speak of a time when God is allowed by us to rule as an age when the deserts will bloom, and even the wild beasts will live in peace. If this particular virus is a curse, then God has also offered us blessings – the doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, volunteers, not only here but all over the world. Let us be thankful for the blessings we have, and do all in our power to cherish them.