Saturday of the second week in Eastertide

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)

                                                         * * *

We are so used to Jesus walking on the water; it’s just one of those things that Jesus does. The disciples, though, must have been terrified. If I were out at sea, at night, in a strong wind, and I saw someone walking across the water–well, my first thought would be that I only thought I saw someone. People don’t walk on water.  
Reading this passage this morning, I am struck by the implausibility of the event. No, not that I don’t believe what it says; rather, I can well understand the disciples’ fright. Not only that, but I think I would probably have ignored Jesus, telling myself that the figure walking towards the boat was just my imagination. And what I would miss! A miracle would pass me by unnoticed.

That makes me wonder how many miracles do pass me by these days. For God shows up implausibly, speaks almost imperceptibly, and works in unexpected places in not-the-usual way. I came across an email yesterday–an invitation to write, actually, dispelling a myth about Catholicism in 100 words, which is a pretty tall order. I hadn’t read it carefully at the time. Now I wonder whether I missed something. Am I paying attention? Am I open to the possibility that God might be up to something new? Too often, I think, I look for God in the obvious places and forget that God is everywhere, always doing a new thing. 

I suppose there is a very good reason that the invitatory psalm (said at the beginning of the first office of the day) reminds us, ‘if today, you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.’ Not that we intend to ignore God; it just happens in the course of our daily life. God doesn’t hit us over the head or wave a big yellow flag. We have to pay attention. Fortunately, even our attention to God is a gift of the Holy Spirit. If we want to hear God’s voice, all we have to do is ask. 

Deo gratias.

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

“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.

Saturday of the fourth week in Lent

A brother, being tempted by a demon, went to a hermit and said, “those two monks over there live together sinfully.” But the hermit knew that a demon was deceiving him. So he called the brothers to him. In the evening he put out a mat for them, and covered them with a single blanket, and said, “they are sons of God, and holy persons.” But he said to his disciple, “Shut this slandering brother up in a cell by himself; he is suffering from the passion of which he accuses them.” 
Nicodemus, on of [the members of the Pharisees] who had gone to [Jesus] earlier, said to them, “Does out law condemn a man before it first hears him, and finds out what he is doing?” They answered and said to him, “You are not from Galilee also, are you? Look and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.” Then each went to his own house. (John 7:  52-53)
.             .          .
There is an entire section of the topical collection of the sayings of the desert fathers devoted to ‘non-judgment’—and that is in addition to the groups of sayings on ‘nothing done for show’ and ‘humility.’ The desert ascetics—and the fathers have more to say about this than the mothers—insisted on humility as the defining characteristic of the monastic life. To accuse another brother or sister of a sin, and to complain of it to one’s superior, was a sure sign that something was lacking in the accuser rather than the accused. Certainly there are a great many cases of monks falling into sin and doing penance, but in those instances the monk is convicted of his sin, often by the humility and charity of his fellows, or of his superior.
It is much easier to be like the Pharisees, and rest easy in the certainty that we know where prophets come from, and we know not to trust someone who comes from some other quarter. Jesus’s authenticity as a prophet was ruled out before he was even given a hearing: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Apparently not: Galilee had never produced any prophet, and the Pharisees were sure that the Scripture said nothing about a prophet to come out of Galilee. Nicodemus, while hesitant, demonstrates a kind of openness and discernment that the desert ascetics would probably have welcomes. Listen and evaluate, he suggests; let’s not jump to conclusions without any evidence.

What we think we ‘know’ can be so deceptive—like the “slandering brother” in the saying, we are quicker to accuse than to confess. Lent offers us a chance to turn that critical gaze toward our own souls, and look carefully; to examine our consciences and see whether we ought to confess our own sins, rather than accuse our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Friday of the fourth week in Lent

For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves, ‘Short and sorrowful is our life,
and there is no remedy when a man comes to his end,
for no one has been known to return from Hades.’
Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions…
Let us test him with insult and torture,
that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected.
Wisdom 2: 1, 12, 19-20

The Lord is near to the broken hearted,
and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
Psalm 33 [34]:18
 
Hyperichus said, “The watchful monk works night and day to pray continually: but if his heart is broken and lets tears flow, that calls down God from heaven to have mercy.
 
* * *
 
I have long believed that there is the seed of another kind of preferential option here: as Jesus said, he came “not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” And Psalm 51 (set for morning prayer today) reminds us that the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; God will not despise a broken and contrite heart. The passage from wisdom connects the broken spirit with Jesus, as it prophesies the passion of Christ. His spirit and body were broken: he took on our sorrows and our infirmities. God knows our suffering.
 
It is interesting that in Psalm 34, the favored of the Lord are not, as in lots of other passages, the materially poor, but the “crushed in spirit.” The recognition of our spiritual poverty, which reveals the brokenness of our hearts, makes way for contrition and reorients our desire. When we are “crushed in spirit” we cannot avoid seeing our need for God. We come to understand that we cannot depend on ourselves for fullness in spirit or lightness of heart. But seeing this helps us to identify with Jesus as he identified with us: in suffering. In our brokenness and spiritual destitution, in our sorrow and desolation, we can cry out with our Saviour, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And in sharing the prayer he prayed on the cross, we may share in the hope of the resurrection that was his.
 
The movement from desolation to hope is marked by the shift from our sorrow, which is the path to God, to a sense of joy in God’s presence. Only after calling out to God in utter desperation, do we learn to “delight [ourselves] in the Lord,” who will give us the desires of our heart. To be truly contrite, to experience without reserve the brokenness that is the meaning of sin, and which the separation from God entails, is to begin to long for the One who alone is worthy of our desire. The sorrow of Lenten discipline prepares us to receive joyfully the hope that Easter brings.
 

Wednesday of the third week in Lent

Take care, and be earnestly on your guard not to forget
    the things your own eyes have seen,
    nor let them slip from your memory as long as you live,
but teach them to your children and to your children’s children.
                                     Deuteronomy 4:9
Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
                                    Matthew 5:17
Abba Agathon said, “Unless he keeps the commandments of God, a monk cannot make progress, even in a single virtue.”
*     *     *    *

How on earth are we to keep the commandments? How does remembering help? What does Jesus do that fulfills the law and the prophets? The psalmist reminds us that the law is specially given to Israel: God has not given the law to any other nation. And God’s promise to Abraham was that he and his descendants (innumerable as they were to be) would be a blessing to the nations. Israel’s chosenness was to be for the restoration of the whole world. Memory helps by keeping God’s people in view of God’s promises as well as God’s law, and of the purpose for which God called Abraham and the whole particular people of Israel. A people’s identity (perhaps even more than an individual’s) is bound to their memory, to their ability to narrate the story of God’s wonderful works and God’s saving acts.
Testimony does just that: the witnesses to the Gospel, both in Jesus and the apostles’ days and in our own, serve an important function in preserving the memory of the people. In the earliest days of Christianity, many of those people testified with their lives and are numbered with the saints. The martyrs reveal the path of discipleship in a particular way. Following Christ means having always in mind the whole of his life: his life of love and ministry and preaching the gospel and healing, his agony and passion, his ignominious death on the cross, and his resurrection. Somehow, it is in following that we keep the commandments of God and so make progress in virtue.

Matthew’s gospel suggests that this narrative, this life, death and resurrection story, tells us what it means to satisfy the law and to heed the prophets. For in this One all that God desired for Israel is fulfilled, so that Paul can say of Christ, “All the promises of God find their yes in him.” God keeps his promises through Jesus. Lent is a time of imitatio Christi in which our focus is on the humility, the self-emptying of God in Christ; we obey the tradition and keep days of fasting and abstinence, we pray, we do works of charity, we give. We also, in the midst of all this, hope joyfully as we look forward to Easter. Having put the sinful self to death by our Lenten discipline, we look forward to rising with Christ on the judgement morning. We taste that joy at Easter as we celebrate the resurrection of Christ whom we follow, through suffering and even death, to be raised to life eternal. 

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

‘Choose life…’
                    Deuteronomy 30

.           .          .

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.

Tuesday of the 29th week in ordinary time / Blessed John Paul II

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 [40]: 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.

Deo gratias.