Tuesday of Holy Week

Though I thought that I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength,
Yet my reward is with the Lord: my recompense is with my God…
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
                                                                        Isaiah 49: 3-6
A hermit was asked by a brother, “How do I find God? With fasts or labour, or vigils, or works of mercy?” He replied, “ you will find him in all those, and lso in discretion. I tell you many have been very stern with their bodies,  but have gained nother by it because they did it without discretion. Even if our mouths stink from fasting, and we have learnt all the Scriptures, and memorized the whole psalter, we may still lack what God wants, humility and love.”
                                                                        (DF 111)
.                .               .
Isn’t it the measure of humility to think we have not achieved anything? Isaiah reflects on precisely this predicament: ‘I thought that I had toiled in vain’; that all was for nought. But it is in the acknowledgement that all he can do is work ‘uselessly’ that he finds the truth: recompence is with God. Because it is God’s will that God’s salvation reach the ends of the earth, God makes something of out otherwise useless toil. So, as the hermit says, all the fasting and prayer avail us nothing without the marks of true participation in the Spirit—humility and love. And what a good and timely word for this, the last week in Lent. We have fasted and abstained, we have spent time in Scripture and in prayer, we have done works of mercy. But what do we gain by it all? Nothing, so long as we expect the work to get us somewhere. The object of all the Lenten discipline we choose to bear is nothing more or less than the deepening of humility and the widening of our love.
Humility and love should point us towards the cross, where Christ’s humility is displayed in the utmost submission, and his love is extended even in his suffering: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Humility and love: forgiving before the repentance, before the acknowledgement of sin. Jesus shows us pure forgiveness, which is the way of humility and love. And so I find myself coming around again to forgiveness, although it appears nowhere in the lectionary readings for today; it is nevertheless what the Lenten season is all about: humility and love.

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Thursday of the second week in Lent

Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
    whose trust is the Lord.
He is like a tree planted by water,
    that sends out its roots by the stream,
And does not fear when heat comes,
    for its leaves remain green,
And is not anxious in the year of drought,
    for it does not cease to bear fruit.
The heart is deceitful above all things,
    and desperately corrupt;
who can understand it?
“I, the Lord, search the mind,
    and try the heart,
to give every man according to his ways,
    according to the fruit of his doings.”
                                                   Jeremiah 17: 7-10
There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen, and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom.
                                                   Luke 17: 19-23
Abba Isidore of Pelusia said, “The desire for possessions is dangerous and terrible, knowing no satiety; it drives the soul, which it controls, to the heights of evil. Therefore let us drive it away vigorously from the beginning. For once it has become master, it cannot be overcome.”
*           *          *
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt”—so Jeremiah reminds us, and in the next line also reminds us that there is One who really knows our heart and mind, who is not taken in by out deceit of ourselves and others. God searches the mind and tries the heart, and this is what we plead, with the psalmist (Ps 139: 23-24), for the Lord to do. To open our hearts to God is to trust in God’s grace and mercy. For we know that the Lord is likely to find some wicked way in us, we (if we are honest) cannot rid ourselves completely from “hidden faults.” Rather, we ask God to seek them out, because God knows us fully and sees through all our ruses; and, knowing that God will find our faults, we ask forgiveness.
So, whatever does that have to do with the desire for possessions? The rich man Jesus describes lives the life of one whose possessions and wealth are his strength. At first glance, maybe, the wealthy man might look like the “tree planted by water” that continues to bear fruit; as the psalmist (Psalm 1) says of one like this, “everything he does prospers.” The prosperous one must be God’s favorite; if God cared for Lazarus, why leave him to suffer? To that question there are no good answers. But as a parable, the story of Lazarus and the rich man tells us something about what Lazarus and the rich man have to offer each other. What the rich man can give (or could have, in life, given) to Lazarus is fairly obvious: the poor man requires basic care, especially food and probably medical attention. We are not used to thinking about what the utterly destitute have to offer, but Lazarus has something to give the purple-clad feaster (who is never named), and also to us: a way out. Lazarus offers a way out of the choke-hold the desire for possessions has on us, and awakens us out of our complacency. We may have convinced ourselves that we have what we need, and not much more. We may believe that we are giving all we can.
But then, there’s Lazarus, asking for a handout, desperate. There’s Lazarus, in need of help. There’s Lazarus, showing us the Crucified (who also, by the way, “died and was buried”). Lazarus reveals the distance between our prosperity and the poverty of the Word made flesh. Lazarus focuses the light of truth on the deceitful heart, God’s own searchlight. And our response to Lazarus makes plain the extent to which we have been blinded by the desire for possessions of which Abba Isidore speaks.

What, then, are we to do? Sometimes it seems that the best solution is to give it all away, perhaps to join a religious community. After all, the desert mothers and fathers extol the virtues of possessing nothing. For most of us, though, it is slightly more complicated than that. People (often our children) depend on us to care for them; we have woven ourselves into social and financial fabrics that cannot simply be unravelled. Our lives are bound up with the lives of others in such a way that makes giving it all away seem irresponsible rather than faithful. We have to find out where the desire for possessions threatens our soul, and we are not (Jeremiah has said) the best people for that job. Prayer and direction, openness to god and to others seems the only way to get free from the economic and social stranglehold. Who are we? Are we those who walk by Lazarus in our gate? Or do we live with our doors, our hearts and our hands open to those in need—and so also open to the Lord, the giver of all good things?

I believe; help my unbelief.

Tuesday of the second week in Lent

You do this, and I should keep silence?
    Do you think that I am like you?
A sacrifice of thanksgiving honours me,
   and I will show God’s salvation to the upright.
                                            Psalm 49 [50]: 21, 23

.        .       .

‘Do you think that I am like you?’ Too often, yes, I do think exactly that–that God is like me, like a human being. I mistake God for a finite being, whose love has limits, who can be offended in a way that makes forgiveness difficult. But God isn’t like that. As one translation of the Benedictus has it, ‘through the bottomless mercy of our God / one born on high will visit us’.

I like that. God isn’t like us. God’s mercy is ‘bottomless’–an inexhaustible reservoir of love and forgiveness. In my finitude, I run out. I run out of patience; my will to forgive fails. Bitterness creeps in, and resentment, too. But God has none of that: only love, and mercy, and patience, and compassion. I bring my failings and disappointments to God, and receive in return grace, and delight, and joy.

That doesn’t sound very Lenten. But all the penitential practices of Lent aim precisely at this goal: to make space for that joy and delight that should fill our hearts at Easter.

Monday of the second week in Lent

But yours, O Lord, are compassion and forgiveness.
Deuteronomy 9
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Stop judging, and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning, and you will not be condemned.
Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
Give and gifts will be given to you,
a good measure, packed together, shaken down,
and overflowing, will be poured into your lap.
Luke 6
Abba Hyperichus said, ‘It is better to eat meat and drink wine and not to eat the flesh of one’s brothers through slander.’
    .          .         .  
All the Lenten discipline in the world is nothing if by it we do not become more merciful, forgiving and compassionate. Our penitential practices have an aim: imitatio Christi. By the fasting and almsgiving, devotion to prayer, and the like, we do not merely satisfy a requirement of Christian faith. It isn’t about what we give up, but who we become in the process. To be more like Christ is the object of all we do during Lent; we model our own lives after the life of the one who, dying, said, ‘Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.’ We open ourselves to receive the Holy Spirit, who was given to the disciples (according to John’s gospel) by the breath of the risen Lord. What power comes from the Spirit? Jesus said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.”
            So very important—forgiveness is so important that it is the one thing Jesus speaks about when he breathes the Holy Spirit onto his disciples. It is so important that we commit oursevles to it every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, however unthinkingly: ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ We imitate Christ by forgiving, and plead for the Father’s forgiveness. I like to think of God’s forgiveness as always preceeding, and I believe that in a very real sense it always is. But the Lord’s prayer reminds us that receiving God’s mercy does not leave us unchanged. By becoming forgivers, we become part of the answer to our prayer, ‘thy kingdom come’. For he is the Forgiving King who reigns in love and compassion, who is love and compassion, and who lives in us. Lenten discipline is about breaking the chains that bind us to anger and resentment, that limit the flow of forgiveness from the Lord through us to those He came to save.

Our Father…

Tuesday of the first week in Lent

Yes, if you forgive others their failings, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours, but if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failings either.
                                                                        Matthew 6:15
When Isaac of the Thebaid visited a community, he saw that one of the brothers was sinful, and he passed sentence on him. But when he was returning to his cell in the desert, the angel of the Lord came and stood in front of the door of his cell, and said, “I will not let you go in.” He asked, “why not?” The angel of the Lord replied, “God sent me to ask you, ‘Where do you tell me to send that sinful brother whom you sentenced?’” At once Isaac repented, saying, “I have sinned, forgive me.” The angle said, “Get up, God has forgiven you. In future take care to judge no man before God has judged him.”

*        *        *

The desert fathers and mother have quite a bit to say about forgiveness. Forgiving plays a key role in the training of the soul in humility. They seem to have taken Matthew’s warnings about forgiveness and not judging quite literally and very seriously.

I wonder if we really believe the words of Matthew’s gospel. On the face of it—reading the way the words go—it seems clear that forgiving is absolutely essential Christian practice. To refuse to forgive others is to refuse to receive the forgiveness of God; as it says elsewhere in the gospel, “the measure you give will be the measure you get.”

It is vital, according to Matthew and the desert ascetics, to forgive. It is also perhaps the most difficult of all sayings. We are not programmed to give way. Even the youngest talkers learn early on to exclaim, “No!” and “Mine!” We do not, on the whole, uphold turning the other cheek as a moral standard. Anger, bitterness, resentment, even murder can be justified (though not excused: justifiable homicide does not mean the perpetrator is innocent). We learn the right reasons for holding onto the wounds we have suffered. We recognize, of course, the failure in losing our temper over something insignificant. But we also know how to be properly angry, to retain the sins of those who have wronged us. We have been hurt: it is they who have hurt us who should ask forgiveness. They ought to make the first move. We want to make repentance or contrition the prerequisite for forgiveness.

But God doesn’t. God, the Lord, is slow to anger and rich in mercy. God is like the prodigal father, who goes out to meet his son, and interrupts his act of contrition with a call for celebration. God makes the first move…and the second, and the third, and so on. Always God’s mercy goes before us, making the way for our repentance. Forgiveness is part of God’s creativity—yes, God’s creativity. God makes a way where there is no way; God’s mercy is new every morning, welcoming sinners like me back into the sheepfold. And out of that same inexhaustible supply, the fountain of living water, we can draw grace to give away—if only we will.

Eternal Father, you forgive us without resentment and love us without reserve. By your Holy Spirit give us the grace to live in that love and to extend it to everyone we meet.

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Is this not the fast which I choose, 
To loosen the bonds of wickedness, 
To undo the bands of the yoke, 
And to let the oppressed go free 
And break every yoke? 
Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry 
And bring the homeless poor into the house; 
When you see the naked, to cover him; 
And not to hide yourself from your own flesh? 
                                        Isaiah 58:6, 7 (NASB)

Against You, You only, I have sinned 
And done what is evil in Your sight, 
So that You are justified when You speak 
And blameless when You judge. 
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; 
A broken and a contrite heart, O God, 
You will not despise.
                                        Psalms 51 [50]:4, 17 (NASB)


.          .         .

What does the Lord ask of us? The passage from Isaiah emphasises ‘do justice, love mercy’; Psalm 51 reminds us to ‘walk humbly with God’.  Isaiah calls for love of neighbour and care for the poor–which King David failed to exhibit towards Uriah. 

Is that why David describes his sin in this way? ‘Against you, you only, I have sinned’ strikes me as somewhat mistaken. Surely David’s sin is against Bathsheba and Uriah also, maybe even in the first place. But no. God takes responsibility for the care of the poor and the oppressed, and calls us to participate in his love and compassion, and to show his mercy and consolation. Failing to live according to God’s statutes can have a devastating impact on others, and yet our sin is always against God as much as against our fellow human beings. 

Upon being convicted of his great sin, David was perhaps a bit stuck. Although he was king, he had no power to put right what he had done wrong: Uriah was dead, and David was to blame. If forgiveness had to come first from the human victim of his sin, David could not receive forgiveness. Only God, who has the power to create and redeem, can cover our sins. 

I confess I do not particularly like this implication. My instinct about Psalm 51.4 is that it misses the very real and tragic horizontal consequences of our sin. Very often, when we sin, we hurt other people. To those people, I think, we owe an apology. But that is not all: I think we ought to try to make amends. I am the one who is mistaken, though, if I believe that our efforts at restitution actually make anything ‘right’. Absolution for us and healing for those we have hurt both come from God, from God alone. However fully we can pardon, and however generously we make restitution, we cannot fix what our sins have broken. Only God can do that: pardon and restitution are our participation in God’s redemption, not the redemption itself. Even if we do all that Isaiah urges us to do, the light that breaks forth–‘our’ light–is God’s light breaking forth in us. 

And that light shines even in the darkest darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. Deo gratias