Now when evening came, His disciples went down to the sea, and after getting into a boat, they started to cross the sea to Capernaum. It had already become dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea began to be stirred up because a strong wind was blowing. Then, when they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near to the boat; and they were frightened. But He said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” So they were willing to receive Him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going. (John 6:16-21 NASB)
“he preached as one with authority…”
The homily this morning was short (perfectly so, really–no time for the congregation to lose the thread) that I nearly missed it as I quieted the children. Fortunately, I managed to look up and listen just enough to catch the drift of it. Msgr Michael Heinz never said ‘Jesus changes everything,’ exactly, but that’s a crucial piece of what I came away with this morning. The thing about Jesus’s astonishing authority is that he not only says things, but what he says, happens. And so we can trust his word.
Good. Really good. Not just good to hear, but thought-provoking now, as I remember the bits of it I caught while attending to the kids. I think, yes, of course. Jesus tells the storm to be still, and it obeys him. And Jesus is the Word, which goes forth (in Isaiah 55) and does not return empty, but accomplishes the purpose for which God sent Him. In the chances and changes of this life–and there are many for us, just now–one thing is sure: Jesus.
Makes it easier to mean “thy will be done,” that’s for certain. Thanks, Msgr Heinz.
The readings for Thursday after Ash Wednesday are quite a set. (You can find today’s readings at Universalis.) I intended to focus my reflections on the psalm for the day, but these three passages of Scripture are so fascinating I can’t help but take them together. Today’s psalm (Psalm 1) is sandwiched between a reading from Deuteronomy that centres on the injunction, ‘Choose life’, and the gospel passage in which Jesus says that whoever seeks to save her life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for the sake of Jesus and his gospel will save it.
This business of choosing life must be more complicated than I thought. I remember when I first read this passage from Deuteronomy, when I was maybe 20. I was amused–who needs to be told to choose life? Well. I think that perhaps choosing life is less obvious, and sometimes (often?) less pleasant than it might appear. ‘Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me’ hardly sounds like the same instruction as ‘choose life’. Yet that is precisely it, isn’t it? To choose life is to follow Jesus, whose own path involved entering willingly into suffering and death for our sake.
Psalm 1 makes it–choosing life–seem so attractive: to be like a tree planted beside flowing waters sounds delightful. Who wants to hang out with sinners or scoffers, anyway? Especially not when the alternative is presented in such beautiful imagery. I find it very easy to forget that scoffing or expressing disdain is not so far from ordinary, garden-variety sarcasm–all it takes is the right object. It is a pretty short step from there to ‘sinner’.
Lent is about taking up the cross; it is about choosing life. It is about taking the path that leads to the well-watered garden, a path that runs right through the valley of the shadow of death. It is a time to find Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, and to follow him as he chooses life–our life–and gains it for us. Forgoing chocolate seems like a pretty paltry penance compared to our Lord’s passion. But as we follow in his footsteps, it is never about us and what we do: it is always about the imitatio Christi. Our imitation is always and only ever a pale reflection; it is a faint glow that comes not from our will to shine, but from our unwavering focus on the Light.
You do not ask for sacrifice and offerings,
but an open ear.
You do not ask for holocaust and victim.
Instead, here am I.
Psalm 39 : 7
‘Instead, here am I.’
Just letting that sink in… I often find it quite easy to get caught up in the complicated and flashy things I think I ought to do as a Christian theologian. You know, books and articles I ought to write, and the spiritual and mental toughness I ought to develop in order to be the person who can write books and articles, and give lectures, and still remain as humble as St Benedict says I should be.
Yeah, right. There is something completely naked and vulnerable about that statement: ‘here am I.’ Just me, nothing fancy. No extravagant sacrifice, no spectacular holocaust, just the handmaid of the Lord. I always liked the spectacular holocaust: Elijah vs the prophets of Ba’al (I Kings 18) has always been one of my favorite Bible stories, since I was a child. It’s like fireworks from heaven, and the good guy wins in a show of light and power. But that’s not what it is about at all. It is about the open ear that the Psalmist identifies as the real sacrifice, the real offering to God. God requires of us nothing more and nothing less than our attention, wholly fixed on him.
The bit about Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Ba’al in I Kings 18 that my mother didn’t relate to me when I was little, is the part where the prophets of Ba’al entreat their god, who doesn’t seem to be listening. “So they cried with a loud voice and cut themselves according to their custom with swords and lances until the blood gushed out on them” (18: 28). Not only do they harm themselves in their endeavor to get Ba’al to respond to them, but they do so in vain. There is no response. Elijah, on the other hand, calls on God to answer, “that this people [Israel] may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their heart back again’ (18: 37). The return of God’s people originates with God: God responds with fire to demonstrate that he has already rekindled the hearts of his people. It is not what the people do to get God’s attention that is the heart of the drama, but what God does to get their attention, to get our attention.
When I present myself, fragile and fallen as I am, God does not ask for my blood. When I come before God having done the wrong thing, or the right thing for the wrong reasons, or having done nothing when I ought to have acted, God doesn’t ask for my blood. God has already acted; it is only by the Spirit’s encouragement that I return at all. When I say “here am I,” it is because God has called me first, and even as I ask for forgiveness and the strength to walk in it, I do so because that grace has already been extended to me. That grace alone makes me the handmaid of the Lord, ready to do his will.
God does ask for my life, to be sure, but that is only so that he can give it back to me, in abundance. And then when I say the “I” in “here am I,” it is no longer I who live and speak, but Christ who lives and speaks in me, giving my life as he gave his, to the Father for the sake of the world’s salvation.
And that is an extravagant gift indeed.
Happy indeed is the one
who follows not the counsel of the wicked;
nor lingers in the way of sinners
nor sits in the company of scorners,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord
and who ponders his law day and night.
She is like a tree that is planted
beside the flowing waters,
that yields its fruit in season
and whose leaves shall never fade;
and all that he does shall prosper.*
Nobody hangs out in the company of sinners, at least not ‘sinners’ as the psalmist imagines them. We can admit that we are all sinners, all fallen short of the glory of God. But the active, really-bad-stuff-doers are rarely our regular dinner companions. Maybe they should be.
But scorn? Is that really as bad as the real-bad-stuff (whatever you or I imagine that to be)? My mind stuck on that word this morning, probably partly because I had just read a blog post that included a bit of advice about gossip: don’t do it. (Shock and dismay! Reading facebook updates and blog posts before the Holy Scripture! Provdential, I call it.) I thought about the numerous ways in which I am complicit with scorners, even when I am not actively scornful.
I know I am guilty of this. As deeply as I want to be gentle and encouraging, I know that I am easily amused by a derisive remark. I find contemptible all sorts of things and situations, whether or not I say so. And I am dismissive, too dismissive, of that which I regard as unworthy of my notice. I do not just sit in the company of scorners–I should be numbered among them.
And it really is as bad, just as bad, as the content we give to the (really reprehensible) sinners. I miss things I should see and hear, I avoid that which deserves my attention, just because it doesn’t come in the package in which I expect to find it. All those things that are said to be ‘trite but…’ Never mind: I stopped listening at ‘trite’.
Half of me still protests: you’re not that bad; really this is not such a big deal; you’re making something out of nothing. That may be so, but only because too often I make nothing out of something. Or, worse, I make nobody out of somebody–somebody who deserves my attention, not because she’s pretty or intelligent, not because he’s clever or spiritually astute.
I saw this on facebook this morning and smiled. Shared it. Seeing Jesus behind the hat, playing the accordion, raising money to go to Africa, selling the Big Issue–done. But there are a whole lot more places I ought to see Jesus, and don’t: in the head teacher, the driver in front (or behind), the neighbor who shouted at me, the person who just said something I thought was obvious, obnoxious, silly, self-promoting.
Fortunately, Jesus lingered in the way of sinners, and did not shun the company of scorners (though they seem not to have sought his company much)–even this one.
*Yes, I played with the translation a bit: ‘the man’ became ‘one’; the first ‘he’ became ‘she’, and I left the last ‘he’ on purpose.
O send out your light and your truth,
let them lead me;
Let them bring me to your holy hill,
And to your dwelling places.
Psalm 42 : 3
This is one of a set of two psalms, which, with their refrain (“Hope in God, for again I shall praise him, the help of my countenance and my God” [NASB]) ,were the core of my spiritual life for a large part of my twenties. Despair often settled on me, and I found myself asking “Why are you downcast, O my soul, and why so disquieted within me?” along with the psalmist. “Disquieted” seemed like the perfect adjective to describe my soul a lot of the time. I was grateful for the psalmist’s response to his own soul, and repeated it to mine: “Hope in God…” Honestly, this psalm and a handful of others kept me going when things seemed bleak.
During those years, I was too unsettled to see the direction of the psalm, beyond my soul’s hope, to the hope of the whole world. The psalmist cries out, “O send out your light and your truth, let them lead me,” and so he has. His Light and his Truth came to dwell among us in Jesus. And that holy hill, where God dwells, is also the mount of crucifixion. God is there, too, even as God was there–closer to me than my own soul–during the darkest and most difficult times. It was not for nothing that I encouraged my soul to “hope in God.”
Twenty years ago, I was helped by the psalms; now I am also helped by the saints, those who have followed God’s Light and Truth before me. Today we remember St Vincent de Paul, who devoted his life to helping the poor, and reminds us that “the Lord takes delight in his people; he crowns the poor with salvation,”and that God’s Light and Truth became poor for our sake, that again we might praise him.
You are a part of the building that has the apostles and prophets for its foundations…
Ephesians 2: 19
Once again, I find I have been completely outdone by Pope Francis. His daily homilies are a source of encouragement, and challenge me to practice my faith more consistently. He said:
“We find Jesus’ wounds in carrying out works of mercy, giving to our body – the body – the soul too, but – I stress – the body of your wounded brother, because he is hungry, because he is thirsty, because he is naked because it is humiliated, because he is a slave, because he’s in jail because he is in the hospital. Those are the wounds of Jesus today. And Jesus asks us to take a leap of faith, towards Him, but through these His wounds. ‘Oh, great! Let’s set up a foundation to help everyone and do so many good things to help ‘. That’s important, but if we remain on this level, we will only be philanthropic. We need to touch the wounds of Jesus, we must caress the wounds of Jesus, we need to bind the wounds of Jesus with tenderness, we have to kiss the wounds of Jesus, and this literally. Just think of what happened to St. Francis, when he embraced the leper? The same thing that happened to Thomas: his life changed. ”
I like to stay at arms length: give to cafod, support the Missionaries of Charity, that sort of thing. But the neighbor in need deserves my attention equally. Attention to the poor is attention to Jesus…how often I forget that!