To begin 2016, think about the end

During the autumn, I wrote a series of short commentaries on the Nicene (Niceno-Constantinopolitan) Creed. The final installment is for this Sunday, and focuses on the very last line of the creed: death, resurrection and new life. As this week began (for me) with an op-ed article about death (see below) and has seen the deaths of two talented and justly celebrated men, some reflection on this part of the creed seemed quite timely.

The creed concludes by directing our attention to our own end: we ‘look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’. Maybe by the time we get to the last line, our attention has moved on to the next part of the Mass, or even to what’s for Sunday lunch. Or maybe the repetition week by week has dulled our perception of its oddity. The resurrection of the dead? The life of the world to come? However often we say these things, and however much we might know about the Church’s teaching on resurrection and new life, the future remains ultimately mysterious: we believe, but we do not grasp these things.

Yet remembering our end is of critical importance: even the New York Times advises us to do so. In a recent article Arthur Brooks* advised readers to bear their death in mind in order to live a more fulfilling life. (This week our mortality has been brought into incredibly sharp focus, too, by the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman.) Rather than making us more gloomy, he says, remembering the transitory nature of our life heightens our capacity for humour and joy. Not only that: Brooks suggests that concentrating on the ‘scarcity of time’ can help us to choose our pastimes more consciously, focusing on those things that bring real satisfaction (and those listed include prayer and worship) over those that merely distract us.

The op-ed section isn’t the place I would usually turn for spiritual guidance. In this case, though, Brooks points to something we ought to know: that growth in our spiritual life requires a form of attention that directs us to our ultimate end. For his readers, death is the end. We look forward to something else: the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Contemplating this mystery forms a crucial part of the practice of Christian life, and bathes our ordinary experience in everlasting light.

 

Advertisements

hope in difficult times

11986612_1707051179515358_7868352098734767431_nI cried when I saw the photo of that very small boy washed up on the beach in Turkey. How could I not? My own so small girl went to school this morning, dressed in her uniform, curls bouncing behind her. That is how it should be. Yet so many parents are struggling just to get their children to safety. As a parent, I am heartbroken. As a citizen of the so-called developed world (developed technologically, perhaps, but downright backward in its values), I am ashamed of us. How did the world get to be like this? In the words of Cardinal Altamirano at the end of The Mission: ‘Thus we have made the world. Thus have made it.’

But I cannot stay here: babies are being born in safety, people are finding their way, and the little things must still be occasions for joy, even in the midst of such powerful and deep grief. Though I mourn for this small boy, his only-slightly-less-small brother, and his parents, I must hope. I must hope and allow joy to break through. So I turn to one of my very favorite passages in a very good book: The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Henri Nouwen. He talks in this passage about ‘a friend’ whom I have always admired. (I think it is Jean Vanier, but Jean doesn’t admit it!) I pray that we can all find this joy and allow it to give us courage as we work to make the world a place in which small boys and girls play and sleep and laugh in safety.

I have a friend who is so deeply connected with God that he can see joy where I expect only sadness. He travels much and meets countless people. When he returns home, I always expect him to tell me about the difficult economic situation of the countries he visited, about the great injustices he heard about, and the pain he has seen. But even though he is very aware of the great upheaval of the world, he seldom speaks of it. When he shares his experiences, he tells about the hidden joys he has discovered. He tells about a man, a woman, of a child who brought him hope and peace. He tells about little groups of people who are faithful to each other in the midst of all the turmoil. He tells about the small wonders of God. At times I realize I am disappointed because I want to hear “newspaper news,” exciting and exhilarating stories that can be talked about among friends. But he never responds to my need for sensationalism. He keeps saying: “I saw something very small and very beautiful, something that gave me much joy.”

The father of the prodigal son gives himself totally to the joy that his returning son brings to him. I have to learn from that. I have to learn to “steal” all the real joy there is to steal and lift it up for others to see. Yes, I know that not everybody has been converted yet, that there is not yet peace everywhere, that all pain has not yet been taken away, but still, I see people turning and returning home; I hear voices that pray; I notice moments of forgiveness, and I witness many signs of hope. I don’t have to wait until all is well, but I can celebrate every little hint of the Kingdom that is at hand.

This is a real discipline. It requires choosing for the light even when there is much darkness to frighten me, choosing for life when even when the forces of death are so visible, and choosing for the truth even when I am surrounded with lies. I am tempted to be so impressed by the obvious sadness of the human condition that I no longer claim the joy manifesting itself in many small but very real ways. The reward of choosing joy is joy itself. Living among people with mental disabilities has convinced me of that. There is so much rejection, pain, and, woundedness among us, but once you choose to claim the joy hidden in the midst of all suffering, life becomes celebration. Joy never denies the sadness, but transforms it to a fertile soil for more joy. 

I don’t know how to celebrate in the midst of this deep sadness. I don’t know how not to feel guilty about the comfort and safety of my situation. So for the dead, I pray, let perpetual light shine on them; may they rest in peace. And for myself and all the world, I pray, kyrie eleison.11990663_1707154162838393_6753303827297769423_n

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.

Good Friday

The Easter triduum has begun: last night we went (as a family!) to the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Although the liturgy is not ideally suited for toddlers, the foot washing was fascinating. What on earth was fr Ben doing? The children were intrigued. Even the little one–restless as she often was–managed to be quieter than usual. But the most astonishing performance among the children was Thomas’s. Serving on the altar during Holy Week for the first time, he was more still and attentive than ever before. The book, resting against his head, barely moved–even during the intercessions. His eyes were frequently fixed, wide with wonder, on what was going on in front of him. Maybe it was in part because he was the only kid up there, serving with two liturgically-minded adults, and with lots to do.

Today’s liturgical event will be of a very different character: our Faith and Light group organise the Stations of the Cross. Now it will be Anna’s turn to take part in the action as we move around the church this morning. The liturgy is abbreviated, and simplified; there is that tinge of joy even in the midst of a solemn occasion, which is one of the hallmarks of Faith and Light as it is of L’Arche. We will remember the cross of Christ and be aware of our own brokenness, and in the midst of it will be aware that sorrow does not have the final word. My reflection on the Good Friday readings centres on the cry of Jesus from the cross, as Mark’s gospel has it–a more traditional, I suppose, Good Friday meditation.

But now my toddler calls, and it is time to go.

It’s all good

Having read the thoughtful post from The Accidental Missionary, I considered the way I use ‘feeling blessed’. I don’t use it, actually. Not that I have objections; it just isn’t one of my stock phrases. The accidental missionary is absolutely right to point out that Jesus calls ‘blessed’ those to whom we might not apply the term as it is often used in Christian-speak; that is, it is when things go well that we are likely to say we’re ‘feeling blessed.’ We are less likely to say, ‘I was mugged this evening on the way to the bus stop, and the thief took all my money, my watch, and my mobile phone, leaving me with a bruised cheek and no way home: feeling blessed.’ But that seems more in line with the ‘meek’ and ‘persecuted’ that Jesus calls ‘blessed.’

My instinct, though, isn’t to refrain from using the language. Maybe, even, I should start considering myself ‘blessed’ a whole lot more. Pope Francis has been talking us through the the epistle of St James recently, in daily homilies and weekly audiences. James begins (following his greetings) rather disconcertingly, ‘Consider it all joy…when you encounter various trials.’ Trials and tribulations are to be welcomed, because the fruit of endurance is to ‘be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.’ That’s blessed–and here I am in complete agreement with the accidental missionary: the good stuff is not what makes us good. It’s not even evidence that we are on the right track.

In the middle of the book of Acts, Paul sets out to check on his church plants in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, where Christians have been experiencing some fairly intense persecution. Acts 14:22 reports on the content of Paul’s message to the fledgling communities. Paul and company ‘[strengthened] the souls of the disciples, encouraging them in the faith, and saying, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”‘ Not goodwill or success or growth, but tribulations are the evidence that the communities are on the way to the kingdom. (I have something more to say about this in the last chapter of my book, Rethinking Christian Identity, if you’re at all interested.)

That’s not, of course, to say that only tribulations are blessings: this morning’s invitatory Psalm (66 [67]) reads ‘the earth has yielded its produce’ as evidence that ‘God, our God, blesses us.’ Such logic is common in the Old Testament, though there are clues (see Job, for example!) that it is more complicated than that. So the way forward, I think, is rather to regard it all as blessing. One of my mentors, who has spent a lifetime as a Christian priest and theologian at the intersection of Jewish, Muslim and Christian thought, is very fond of the phrase alhamdulillah. Whether the news is welcome or unwelcome, God be praised! If we encounter challenges or enjoy success, thanks be to God!

It’s all good. Now, we don’t always know how it’s good, but that is a question of a different kind (see Wisdom 8.1 and Romans 8.28).

Deo gratias.