Lazarus at the gate

Earlier this week, I passed an evidently homeless man in the street. I passed by; I was in a hurry; I didn’t have any change in my pocket; I didn’t want to fumble in my handbag for money. I passed by on the other side of the street. Fortunately, he has been following me around–not physically, of course; I doubt he even noticed me at the time, since the street was fairly crowded. But in my mind’s eye he sits outside the shop, slightly sunburned, and the words ‘whatever you did to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did to me’ float in the air around him.

Yesterday I lamented to a friend that I often feel as though I live in a bubble. Situations of real, desperate human need don’t usually cross my path. It’s not entirely true. Though my friends and neighbours may have more than they need, people cross my path one way or another every day who are in a vastly different situation. Every day: in the news, in emails from Caritas (like today) or the Missionaries in Africa, or on the streets of the town where I live. Lazarus does beg at the gate, even now, if we are looking for him.The trick is to be attentive. Easier said than done, I know.

So the email from Caritas today arrived in my inbox. Usually I pass by, as it were, on the other side. But today I found in that email, somehow, the image of the man I passed last week, like a reminder of Lazarus at the gate. And I am glad that he has not left me: in him I ought also to see Christ.

Deo gratias.

the nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Perhaps the gospel reading for today might seem a little dull. After all, a genealogy is hardly the liveliest of narratives (if I can even call it a narrative). We find, in Matthew’s gospel, a list of a great many men becoming the fathers of a great many sons, in succession from Abraham to Joseph.

Yet among those declarations that ‘x became the father of y, and y became the father of z‘, there are a few hints that between Abraham and Joseph some extraordinary things happened. Tamar (read about her in Genesis 38!) appears, although the tale is not one that reflects well on Judah. Foreigners Rahab (who hid the spies; see Joshua 2) and Ruth (who has a whole book for her biography) take their place also. And one of the most poignant narratives in the life of David is summed up in the mention of the one who ‘had been Uriah’s wife.’ And it’s not just about the women–though that would be enough to make the genealogy fascinating: Matthew’s gospel does not omit the mention of the long exile in Babylon. Not the most auspicious of lineages for the messiah–too many scandals entirely.

I heard this gospel read out after having arrived at Mass in quite a low mood. Maybe it’s just the woes of a mid-life flutter (not really a crisis): am I really doing anything with this life I have been given? Shouldn’t I somehow be doing more, making more of an impact on this needy and troubled world in which we live? Have I failed to do what I ought to have done with my first 40-odd years? And what can I possibly do in the next decades (God willing) that will make up for the sad lack of world-saving I have been doing? Pathetic, I know. But I suspect not unique.

And there was the answer, right there in the middle of an apparently boring genealogy. There is no failure that can thwart God’s salvation. The world-saving was never up to me, anyway (Deo gratias). It has been done by the one in whose lineage so many mistakes and  disappointments appear. However much the people of God may have gone astray in the years before the coming of Christ, he still came. Nothing I can do or fail to do will undo the work of God’s eternal wisdom, who arranges all things delightfully (Wisdom 8:1). God will be all in all. My place in it must be small, but that does not mean that it has no significance. It just means that its meaning may well be hidden until the end of time.

As St Theresa Benedicta of the Cross wrote in Love of the Cross:

To suffer and to be happy although suffering, to have one’s feet on the earth, to walk on the dirty and rough paths of this earth and yet to be enthroned with Christ at the Father’s right hand, to laugh and cry with the children of this world and ceaselessly to sing the praises of God with the choirs of angels–this is the life of the Christian until the morning of eternity breaks forth.

And so it is. Bring on the dirt.

Deo gratias.

Advent

My children are involved in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. If you have never heard of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, think of it as catechesis, Montessori style. During Advent, the focus of the sessions is (for the older children, ages 6-12) on the prophecies. This morning, I was with the upper elementary (ages 9-12) group, who were reading through part of Ezekiel 34–the Good Shepherd. We read through the familiar (to us grown-ups, anyway) text, and one verse struck me particularly. “The lost I will search out, the strays I will bring back, and the sick I will heal…” (verse 16, NABRE). And the people will know that God is God because he will save them.
 
We don't have to figure it out first. We don't have to find our way home: God will gather “the strays.” We think of Advent as a time of preparation, as we look forward to celebrating the miracle of the Incarnation and to the return of the Lord in glory. But I find it very easy to lose sight of the relentless love of God and God's unstoppable salvation as I prepare. I should prepare my heart, I think, clear out the junk that gets in the way of receiving Jesus. And I should prepare my house, so that the space for celebration will be festive and welcoming. In so far as possible, I should help my family prepare, especially my children. After all, it is so difficult for them to focus on the coming of the Lord when all around them the focus is on preparing for Santa Claus.
 
God and my children have something to remind me, though: it is the Lord who comes, and his salvation is with him. The miracle is that God has turned the hearts of his people (1 Kings 18–a wonderful narrative) back to him. The miracle is that God breaks into our hearts and into our lives, and into our world. No one has ever seen God–we can't! “No one has ever seen God. The only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made him known” (John 1.18). Christmas isn't something I do. Christmas is something God has done and is doing. My kids know that. They know that Christmas happens, and they expect it with joy.
 
So, I have strayed; God will bring me back. My soul is sick with sin; God will heal it. I have been lost; God has found me, again and again. To prepare for Christmas is to remember this, over and over, and to rejoice in it. Advent is joyful expectation, hopeful preparation, for Christ has come into the world.

More grace

I picked up Frances Young’s book, Face to Face, recently. For the past few years now I have been working in the area of theology and intellectual disability. Now I have come to see that in a very real sense, my way forward has been trodden already. She writes:

…the other trouble is that most of us do not have our eyes open to see he miracles of grace. They are to be found in such ordinary, unremarkable, simple things that we do not even notice. We think our worship is dull, and miss the movement of the Spirit in the secret places, the everyday saints, who are there among us by we dismiss them as ‘old so-and-so’. In my experience the church is capable of transcending the divisions in our society, it is capable of integrating the odd and unacceptable, it is more sensitive to basic human values than wider society. It can act as leaven, and we should not disparage this. Maybe we all need to go on a voyage of exploration into unlikely places to meet unlikely people — not the great ones of the world but the marginalised and afflicted who will teach us what true human values are. Certainly it is Jean Vanier, the founder of the l’Arche communities where Christians live with handicapped people, who writes with the greatest depth these days about community life. But the purpose of such a journey would be to open our eyes, so that we can return to the places where we belong and begin to discern those values where we are (1985, pp. 84-85).

My next book project focuses on the church, specifically the life of the church as Christ’s body. John Swinton asked me in April whether this ecclesiology I hoped to develop would touch on the issues in intellectual disability we’d been discussing. Then, I said yes, but was conscious in my explanation of stretching the project I had envisioned to include these concerns. Now–thanks to Frances Young’s book–I am beginning to see where to start: with the things I struggled to include, the people we as a church struggle to include. I wanted to think about Christ’s body active in the world, reaching out in love. But before I can do that, I have to reckon with Christ’s body broken and rejected, for that is the source of the church’s life.

I am going to need a lot (and I mean a lot) of grace.

Remembering why I like Karl Barth

Karl Barth

Barth writes:

Revelation itself is needed for knowing that God is hidden and man blind. Revelation and it alone really and finally separates God and man by bringing them together. For my bringing them together it informs man about God and about himself, it reveals God as the Lord of eternity, as the Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer, and characterises man as a creature, as a sinner, as one devoted to death. It does that by telling him that God is free for us, that God has created and sustains him, that He forgives his sin, that He saves him from death. But it tells him that this God (no other) is free for this man (no other). If that is heard, then and not till then the boundary between God and man becomes really visible, of which the most radical sceptic and atheist cannot even dream, for all his doubts and negations. Since the boundary is visible, revelation, which crosses this boundary, is also visible as a mystery, a miracle, an exception. The man who listens here, sees himself standing at the boundary where all is at an end. Whichever way I look, God is hidden for me and I am blind to Him. The revelation that crosses this boundary and the togetherness of God and man which takes place in revelation in spite of this boundary, make the boundary visible to him in an unprecedented way. No longer need he yield to deceptions regarding the cosmos of realities that otherwise encounter him. This cosmos will lose the power to prepare for him either illusions or disillusionments. He knows all about it. Not because he has supplied himself with information about it by intuitive or analytico-synthetic means, but because he has been informed about it. But this information is, that among the realities of this cosmos there is not one in which God would be free for man. In this cosmos God is hidden and man blind. Once more, it is God’s revleation which gives him this information. That it does so is its critical significance. By that very fact, however, the further question is thrust at us: how far is God free for us in revelation?  No less than everything, i.e., no less that the whole of man’s cosmos, seems to speak against this possibility taking place. Even if it is ever so great and rich, as it actually is, how could one of its realities have the power to be God’s revelation to man? Once again, man would have to leave the real revelation of God out of account; he would have to forget that he is informed about God and about himself, if he is to assert boldly the presence of such a power as one of the realities of his cosmos…

If he were looking steadily at the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, he could not look in any other direction, neither could he any longer allow talk about such possibilities to pass his lips or to flow from his pen.

-II/1, pp. 29-30

I admit that I haven’t missed the lack of inclusive language, which distracts somewhat (for me, at least) from the text. But I love the way that Barth characterizes revelation: it hides as much as it reveals. As I am preparing to teach on the Incarnation (not till February, I confess), I have been looking for the right passage(s) from Barth, in which he makes explicit this reality of the Incarnation. All is revealed truly, and at the same time all is hidden in Christ. It’s no wonder Barth kept repeating himself (as he himself says elsewhere in the volume): again and again he returns to this center of theological reflection, this singularity, because he knows there is only one place from which we can do theology, and that is the foot of the cross.