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.

Thursday after Epiphany

We love, because He first loved us. If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.

Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world-our faith.

1 John 4:19-5:1-4 NASB
I included the whole passage because I find it puzzling. At first, I thought I would just reflect on the first verses. These, to me, have a clear application. And their application fits nicely with the things I am thinking about at the moment, to do with the Church and the kind of love that marks the Church as the body of Christ. See? Here it is: the love for brothers and sisters in Christ (at least) is what identifies us as Christians. The verses in 1 John don’t offer any provisos that would allow us to choose which brothers and sisters to love–only those who love us, or think like we do; or only those who are able-bodied, or of sound mind. The only possible qualification is that we love the ones we see. But I am not sure that counts, exactly.
I like this, because I am writing about the Christian calling to love the poor and the weak. I would like to say that the measure of the Church’s love and holiness is the way she receives those who suffer and are in need, those who the world says have nothing to offer. That’s because the world doesn’t understand that Christ offers himself to us in the broken and the desperate, that we might receive Him. We cannot see God, but God has made us in his image, and in Christ God has shown himself truly and fully. God came to us poor, and still comes to us poor: we are to receive him with love.
But what about this business about the commandments? I would have thought that we would be able to tell that we love the children of God pretty straightforwardly. Isn’t it obvious that we can tell that we love by our demonstrations of that love? Apparently not. I suspect that there is a lot more to this passage than I yet realize, and it is worth a great deal of unpacking, so I will make just one observation (which is also related to the Church). Loving the children of God is not not about those actions that show love. It is about more than those actions. If I am grasping this accurately, keeping the commandments is also about integrity and holiness. Loving the children of God and living in sin are incommensurate, maybe even mutually exclusive. There is no ‘private’ sin, sin that only affects us. When one member suffers, the whole body suffers. That’s a mystery; that is, we don’t know how the sort of sin that seems just to be between ourselves and God affects the whole body. How does such sin impair our love for the children of God? (Maybe all sin has a horizontal dimension?)
However such seemingly private sin weakens the whole body, it is a sobering thought, and one that makes me more eager for the sacrament of reconciliation and the renewing of the Holy Spirit. For though it is hard and serious news, it is still, after all, good news: Christ came to save sinners.
Deo gratias.

Thursday of the thirty-first week in ordinary time

But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.
Romans 14:10 NASB
“In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Luke 15:10 NASB
. . .
Just one. One matters to God. If God is out looking for the lost, if Jesus spent his time with tax collectors and ‘sinners’, then what possible grounds can any of us have for passing judgment on one another? That person I regard contemptuously matters to God as much as my friends do, as much as I do.
It is not new–surely our equality before God is a theological commonplace–but it is sobering. Awhile back, I made a rule for myself. It’s not really a rule of life; I tried all sorts of things and could never quite manage the timetable. Much as I would love to pray the office daily, in solidarity with my ‘home’ abbey in Kent, I can’t. But while I was there I realized that a very simple rule would do: not to speak a harsh word to, or about, anyone, even in my heart. I suppose something like Romans 14: 10 might have been rattling around in the back of my mind as I thought about this rule.
I never thought it would be easy. But it has proved a lot more tricky than I thought. Because judging and regarding with contempt (both count as ‘harsh’!) aren’t always conscious. I just don’t ‘warm’ to this person or that person; I am inattentive. Sometimes I suppose that’s fair enough–it’s human to like some people more than others. Sometimes, though, that coldness hides a deeper dislike. Maybe it’s envy, maybe it’s scorn, based on some less-than-conscious judgment about the character of the person, or arising from feelings of insecurity on my part.
So of course the whole ‘no harsh words’ has not been a perfect success. I have, not surprisingly, failed. Still, insofar as I have become more aware of my own inclination to judge or to dismiss others, the enterprise has been, and continues to be, worthwhile. And today’s gospel reminded me why the rule is so important. It isn’t because I want everyone to think I am nice. It’s because there is joy in heaven over one who repents. There is no contempt for the sinner in heaven, only joy at her repentance.
I still have a long, long way to go.
Kyrie eleison.

Thirty-first Sunday in ordinary time

You can do all things and overlook [people’s] sins so that they can repent.
Wisdom 11: 24
. . .
Somehow–maybe it was struggling to keep the two-year-old quiet–I didn’t hear this in Mass this morning. Not that it wasn’t read: it was read by the son of my two-year-old’s godmother. But I missed it, and the priest didn’t comment on it in his homily, which focused on the gospel. Fair enough, I suppose. There is a good deal to say about Zacchaeus. Still, the readings in the lectionary are ordered, and combinations occur for a reason. Sometimes that reason is pretty hard to discern, but today it is less puzzling.
At least it’s less puzzling if you happen to be a Catholic who has strayed far into Reformed and Evangelical territory. Then the prevenience of grace leaps out of every page of the Bible–even the books of the Bible that only appear in the Catholic editions of the Bible. And here it is in the book of Wisdom. I always associate Wisdom with the key passages in chapters 7-9, about the role of wisdom in creation, including one of my favourites: omnia disponit suaviter, [widsom] arranges all things delightfully. So finding this other theme of the Bible, the grace of God that makes way for the sinner’s return, there in Wisdom is, well, delightful.
And it is, of course, this path-breaking grace of God that drives Zacchaeus up the tree. The change has already begun. Can it be anything other than the Holy Spirit that draws Zacchaeus to Jesus? I don’t think so, and I could quote some early church theologians to support that claim. Besides, Jesus does just what the verse in Wisdom says: he “overlooks” Zacchaeus’ sins, so that he can repent. Religious leaders aren’t supposed to hang out with infamous sinners, but Jesus doesn’t seem too worried about that. He sees beyond the sin, sees the person who needs the space to repent. Jesus makes repentance possible.
Two things follow from this, for me. First, I am struck by the space-making work of Christ. I have noticed it elsewhere in the gospels (see Mark 5: 30-34, for example), but never connected it to Zacchaeus, to repentance. So also, I realize, Jesus is making space, always, for my repentance. Am I perceiving it? Do I enter into that space, or do I avoid it? (I’m not certain, but I am more determined to get to confession this Saturday!) Second, and this is something that has been tugging at me for a little while, Jesus makes space for pretty unpleasant people. Tax collectors are the bad guys in the first century, not the people the messiah is supposed to befriend. Who are the people around me that Jesus wants to befriend? I’m guessing they’re not the people I would ordinarily find friend-like.
No wonder I haven’t seen that space for repentance as space for me: I have just divided the people around me into people like me (friend-like) and people who need space for repentance. The fact that both (1) that Jesus makes space for me to repent and (2) Jesus makes space for “obvious” sinners–the “tax collectors” of our day–to repent means that I am not so different as I might like to think.
Luckily, there’s plenty of that prevenient grace to go around.
Deo gratias.