Monday of the sixth week in ordinary time

Genesis 4: 1-8 (RSV)
Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten<span class="footnote" data-fn="#fen-RSV-81a" data-link="[a]” style=”box-sizing: border-box; line-height: 22px; position: relative; top: 0px; vertical-align: top;”>[a] a man with the help of the Lord.” And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Cain said to Abel his brother, “Let us go out to the field.”<span class="footnote" data-fn="#fen-RSV-88b" data-link="[b]” style=”box-sizing: border-box; line-height: 22px; position: relative; top: 0px; vertical-align: top;”>[b] And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.


*           *         *


This is going to be a bit wide of the mark, I fear–not really a commentary on the verses at hand. But the thing has been pressing one me for some time, and this passage from Genesis 4 (which continues for another 7 verses in the first reading for today) calls it immediately to mind. That is, we don’t usually interpret this tragic episode in relation to what precedes it in Genesis 3. Yes, it’s the beginning of sin, and it’s amazing how quickly a little stolen fruit leads to fratricide. But it also–I believe–should be read in light of Genesis 3: 16. 

To the woman he said,
“I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
    and he shall rule over you.”


My thinking about this one verse began several years ago on Christmas Eve. I was listening to the Advent Lessons & Carols service broadcast from King’s College, Cambridge, and noticed that in the reading of Genesis 3, this verse was omitted. Maybe it was just a mistake on the part of the reader, though I doubt it. At the time, I wondered. Surely it can’t have been left out because it is Not Nice. Maybe it was something to do with the institution of patriarchy–maybe we don’t want to think about the imbalance of power that generally obtains in relationships between men and women (which seems to have been confirmed over the weekend, if what I’ve heard about the newly-released film is true). 

Whatever the reason for the elision of verse 16 that year, I am glad for it. Although I never did come up with a satisfactory guess about the rationale for leaving it out, I did begin to think in a new way about the first part of the curse–the business about childbearing. Yes, it hurts. I can testify to that, having had four children (even had one without the epidural). But I don’t think that’s what this part of the verse is about. In the first place, the emotional pain of  pregnancy loss seems to me to be greater than the physical pain of labor. And then there are the things that go wrong: congenital defects of the heart or other organs, genetic disorders, infant deaths. About pregnancy loss or the death of an infant, I have no first-hand experience. But I know what it’s like to have something big go wrong–or, better, to have something very small go awry (one little extra chromosome) with global effects. The pain of childbearing is increased in a fallen world: things go wrong. 

Not for a few years did I realize (probably only as my children grew) that there was still more pain to be had in the bearing of children. Not only do they give us pain as they come into the world, they continue to cause pain (as well as joy, of course) as they grow and change. Not all of the heartbreak involved in raising children is quite as dramatic as the story of Cain and Abel. But there it is. Genesis doesn’t say much about how Eve’s birth experience is. We do,  however, hear about this tragedy. Having two sons myself, I can’t imagine anything much worse than one of them murdering the other in cold blood. The pain of childbearing is increased in a fallen world: we go wrong, and badly wrong. 

For a while, I wanted to write a book about the pain of childbearing, broadened to include stories of pregnancy loss and more. The trouble was that there wasn’t really an “up” side to it. I’m looking again at a verse that’s not particularly encouraging to begin with, and saying, but really, it’s much worse than that. Hardly the makings of a best-seller, there. 

As always, though, there is much more to it than this thin slice of the story tells us. There are small hints in Genesis 3 and 4 that God will make it right: “the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin, and he clothed them” (3: 21). And Eve has another son, Seth, whom she regards as being given to her by God (4: 25), and the writer notes that “At that time [people] began to call on the name of the Lord” (4:26).  In the midst of the pain, it is difficult to see how even this (whatever particular this is so vexing or agonizing) cannot fall outside of the delightful arrangement that is the work of the Wisdom of God (Wisdom 8: 1). Yet there is nothing, not even this terrible outworking of the curse, that can escape the truth: “in Him all things hold together.” All things. Most days I fall very short of believing that. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. 

Deo gratias.

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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.
 

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

Ash Wednesday

Have mercy on me, O God,
  according to your steadfast love;
According to your abundant mercy,
  blot out my transgressions.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
  and done that which is evil in your sight,
So that you are justified in your sentence,
  and blameless in your judgement.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
  and put a new and right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
  and take not your Holy Spirit from me.

O Lord, open my lips,
  and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.

                                              Psalm 51 [50]

.         .          .

Today we begin Lent, with ashes and penitence; we undertake practices that will, with the help of the Holy Spirit, turn us back to God. Today I acknowledge that, however satisfactory I think my Christian life is, I still need God to give me a clean heart, and a new and right (or steadfast, as some translations have it) spirit within me.

Psalm 51 is a psalm of David, the one that dates from his famous fall: his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, Uriah. I can look back on my life since last Easter and see nothing quite so vicious in my own life. And yet–I know my transgressions, I know the dark and cold places in my own heart. I know that ‘I have greatly sinned, in thought and word, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do.’ My inattention to the Holy Spirit bears fruit of impatience and anger, envy and despair and resentment.

And so I pray with David, ‘Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of your salvation’. However much penance I might undertake this Lent, however carefully I might scrutinize my conscience, I cannot do what needs to be done for myself. I can only empty myself to welcome the risen Lord, who himself will give the clean heart that will receive him at Easter.