Listening to this first reading – and let’s start with the first reading – it can help us to have some sense of context. The context of the proclamation of the scriptures is ourselves – the gathered community of those who recognise in Jesus the fullness of the revelation of God, present in our midst in the active power of the Holy Spirit of Jesus. That’s what makes listening to the scriptures an experience quite different from that of hearing even the most inspiring of speeches, (or homilies!).
But it is always at least a help, and sometimes it is a necessity, to know something of the context in which the scriptural event took place, or in which the words we listen to were handed on or eventually set down in writing.
So the first reading we have heard – Peter telling the people that “it is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who has glorified his servant Jesus, the same Jesus you handed over and then disowned” – lights up, at least for me, when I am reminded of what has just happened when Peter speaks these words. Accosted by a beggar as he and John approach the Beautiful Gate of the Temple, Peter has said to him: “Silver and gold I have none, but I will give you what I have: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, walk!”. Luke tells us that the man leaps up, and leaps about with delight, just as Isaiah had said centuries before, speaking of the coming deliverance of Israel:
Then the eyes of the blind will be opened,
the ears of the deaf unsealed,
then the lame will leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy. (Is 35: 5-6)
This, says Peter, is what we have been waiting for all these years of fidelity to the coming of the Messiah, from the time of the patriarchs: “the promised one of Israel’s story” is present and active, now and here, making a visible difference, a tangible difference in our lives, bringing the healing and joy of which Isaiah sang.
The reading from John’s First Letter reminds us that Jesus is the one who has taken our sins away, the one who has rescued us, the one who makes it possible for God’s love to come to perfection in us, so that we can be holy. It is the same promise, and the same challenge to be open to God-in-our-midst, as in the first reading.
And so in the Gospel reading: Last week we heard the account of the first meeting between the risen Jesus and his disciples in the Gospel of John, and we thought about the way in which Jesus meets those who had betrayed him, meeting them with peace and sending them on mission to proclaim the good news of God’s love, the crucified and risen one meeting us in our woundedness and sending us out, touched and transfigured in our very hurts by his transforming love.
Today we have the same meeting, through the eyes of Luke. We can remind ourselves of the context: the two disciples who had set off disconsolate on the road to Emmaus have just got back, hurrying back the six miles or so in the fading light to share their good news – they had met Jesus and spoken with him on the road, and recognised him in the breaking of the bread. And the disciples in Jerusalem had shared their good news with them – that the Lord is risen indeed and had appeared to Simon.
“And while they were still speaking Jesus himself stood among them.” There’s something strange about the way in which the disciples come to recognise the risen Jesus being present to them. “Jesus stood among them” – and they were frightened because they thought they were seeing a ghost. It clearly wasn’t the case that there was a knock on the door and a “Can I come in?” – Jesus is, somehow or other, just there all of a sudden. It’s scary – to put it mildly – because it turns the world upside down. It’s one thing hearing about Jesus as the risen one – and another to have Jesus, the risen Jesus, right there in your life, in your living room.
But his message is just as we heard last week – and will always hear: “Peace be with you.” The Risen Jesus brings us peace, even as he brings us the power and strangeness of God. And the peace that Jesus brings tells us that as the power and strangeness of God breaks into our world, we can recognise this God, our God, as the one who has always been with us, the one who is with us now, the one who will always be with us. “Why are you frightened? Look – it’s me. And it really is me. Look: I’m sharing some grilled fish with you; come and touch me.”
On the road to Emmaus, Jesus opened the scriptures to his disciples: just so now, Jesus opens their minds and hearts to understand the scriptures, to understand how it was that the faith of God’s first people had looked forward to his coming – and not just to his coming, but to the manner of his life and his death – and not just to his death, but to his rising and the proclamation of the love of God made manifest in the life of the resurrection. Jesus is saying “this is what was expected – but you had lost sight of it, so you didn’t recognise it when it happened – and so you didn’t recognise me, did you? But now I am here: Peace be with you.”
Jesus meets us where we are because he has always been there with us. “The eyes of the blind will be opened” and in our turn we shall see that Jesus stands among us, looks at each one of us “not in judgement but with the eyes of love”, and says “Peace be with you.”
It is worth remembering that among the three “peoples of the book” we christians are the ones who don’t generally greet each other with those godly words. “Shalom Aleichem” say our older brothers and sisters, God’s first and always chosen people. “Salaam Alaikum” is the greeting we hear exchanged between our Muslim neighbours and, if I may put it like this, our “second cousins” in faith. As Catholic christians we tend to limit ourselves to a quick weekly “sign of peace” – but what we have to share is greater than that!
Last week, Pope Francis published a third “Apostolic Exhortation”, which has as its opening words “Gaudete et Exsultate”, Rejoice and be Glad. Let me encourage you to read it: it’s very different from most papal documents, and it’s not very long, either. I haven’t yet read it all, but it seems to me that it speaks to our readings today:
Do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy. On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when he created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self. … Do not be afraid to set your sights higher, to allow yourself to be loved and liberated by God. Do not be afraid to let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit. Holiness does not make you less human, since it is an encounter between your weakness and the power of God’s grace.”
“Peace be with you,” says Jesus in our Gospel reading this morning, “do not be afraid”. And as we let these words sink into our hearts, so it becomes more and more true that “we are witnesses to this … to all the nations” – a mission that for us, this gathered community of faith, begins in Manchester.
Homily for 2nd Sunday of Easter 2018 (B)
Some years ago, at an international meeting of Jesuits, there was a measure of tension in one of the discussions between those whose stress was on the Cross, and those whose stress was on the Resurrection. Eventually someone stood up in exasperation and said: “You guys might not like the resurrected Jesus, but he’s the only one we’ve got.”
Today’s Gospel reading tells us just who we have got, tells us that our responses to Jesus can be found in the earliest of his followers, and reminds us that the gift of new life that Jesus gives is a new life with a reality now and here – it’s not just a story in the past or a promise of new life in the future.
In John’s Gospel, this is the first encounter between Jesus and his disciples. On the evening of the first day of the week, Jesus meets – who? His loyal friends? Those who stood by him? Those who put their lives on the line? Those whose protestations of love and loyalty had been lived out at the time he needed them most?
No! These were the people who had abandoned him – with the exceptions of those whose love for Jesus brought them to the cross with him (and all save one of those were women). These were the people who had not stood by him, who had not been faithful, who had not lived up to their protestations of trust and faith and commitment and love.
How does Jesus respond to their betrayal? By giving them peace, and choosing them, sending them into the world even as he was sent by the Father. By empowering them to forgive sins in the strength of the Holy Spirit.
Think about it: after all that time together I betrayed you; I ran away; I broke up with you absolutely and completely; I left you to deal with pain and humiliation all by yourself; I hid, and denied even knowing you.
And now you make me a messenger, a sign of your promise and love? That can sound too much like being told, after we wake up from a nightmare, that it was all just a bad dream. That’s all very well for the pious, and for those whose lives have not become what ours have become, and for those who don’t live in the world that we live in. “There, there… it’s all gone… it never really happened.”
But Thomas has a different reaction. “Unless I see the holes, unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe.” Surely this is spurning what is being offered with such graciousness – Thomas being ungracious and impetuous again?
Thomas asks for a sign. If we think about how Jesus reacts in the rest of the Gospels to those who ask for signs, we can imagine some of the others present nudging Thomas and saying something along the lines of “that is not a good idea – don’t you remember what he said about a wicked and perverse generation?”
Thomas asks for a sign, and Jesus offers him the sign he asks for. It is the nature of the sign itself which makes this request different. Thomas doesn’t want to see “signs and wonders.” Thomas doesn’t want to see marvels. Thomas wants to see and touch the wounds of Jesus: he wants to know – not just in his head but in his real experience – the reality of the hurt that was done to Jesus. And Jesus responds to his wanting, and invites him not just to see but to touch.
Thomas has gone down through history as “doubting Thomas.” Perhaps we might like to see ourselves as among those other disciples, Peter and Mary Magdalene, James and Mary the mother of James. But Thomas is there in the Gospel because at some point we are right there with him, too. We need to know that it was real, because we need to know that what we experience and what we do in our lives is real. And so with Thomas we need to touch the Lord – we need to feel the scars, run our fingers over them and know that they are real, that it wasn’t all just a dream.
If we look for “signs and wonders” we are looking in the wrong place. If we are looking for glory untouched by pain, we are looking in the wrong place. Today’s gospel tells us where to find Jesus: in the hurting and suffering within us and among us and around us, and in the gift of forgiveness. Today’s Gospel proclaims these two aspects of God’s love in Jesus: the willingness to bear any suffering because of love without compare, and the willingness to forgive without limit or calculation.
For St. Augustine, it is our need to know the truth of our forgiveness that determines the way in which Jesus is present after his resurrection:
“Now we may ask,” he says, “could not the Risen Lord have risen with a body from which all marks of wounds had been erased? No doubt he could have; but he knew that his disciples bore within their hearts a wound so deep that the only way to cure it was to retain the scars of his own wounds in his body.”
The forgiveness which is the love of God is not a pretence – “Let’s pretend this never happened.” God does not forgive by treating us as though we were other than we are. The contemporary American novelist David Payne says through one of his characters:
What love is to me is just two human beings beholding each other fully, not in judgement, but with the eyes of faith.
God beholds me fully, beholds you fully, not in judgement but with the eyes of love. God sees us as we are, with the scars that mark us and the scars with which we have marked others, and loves us. God invites us – God longs for us – to behold Jesus fully, with the scars that mark him, and to love him.
It is the crucified Jesus who is the risen Jesus (and he is the only one we’ve got). It is the scarred Jesus who gives the gift of forgiveness: God’s forgiveness to us setting us free and sending us out to be forgiveness for others. For Augustine, that is necessary, because we, too, bear within our hearts those wounds so deep.
Behind today’s gospel reading, which is one of the “beginning stories” of the Church, is another beginning story. In the Book of Genesis, God breathes on what he has fashioned from the clay of the earth, and a life begins – Adam, the first of us. And in today’s Gospel John uses that same word, the same Greek word as in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, when he says that Jesus breathes on the disciples. And a new life begins, and at the heart of this new life is forgiveness: the bringing of God’s forgiveness to men and women; the living-out of that message of forgiveness by a life of forgiveness; the creation of a community of men and women which is a community of forgiveness.
God is the one who makes things new. God breathes life into what has never had life. God breathes new life into what has died. God breathes new beginnings into the dead places of our lives, so that the resurrection – the gift of new life – is a fact of life here and now. Where God’s forgiveness has touched our lives, where we have allowed our gracious God to touch our scars, then in the giving and receiving of forgiveness that can be part of the fabric of our lives we are signs of that love of God now, and here, in Manchester, in the year of Our Lord 2018.
The resurrected Jesus, the scarred and resurrected Jesus, is the only one we’ve got. And that is why we are an Easter people. That is why “Alleluia” is our song.
Homily for Easter Vigil 2018
“You seek Jesus the Nazarene, the one who was crucified. He is risen; he is not here.”
The women had come to the tomb “valde mane” – extremely early. To say that these words were not what they had expected is to state something so obvious that it becomes banal. We who hear this Gospel reading this evening hear it shaped in our listening by repeated hearings, and by centuries of faithful reflection on the part of those generations of believers who go before us: perhaps somehow we need to hear the passage ‘for the first time’.
So I chose to use a different translation, that of the English Jesuit biblical scholar Nick King: it perhaps gives us a way of hearing the story afresh. And Nick gives us some details of Mark’s account which got lost in the Jerusalem translation, and which might just help us feel something of the experience of these three women.
And when the Sabbath was at last over… We can remind ourselves of the time-sequence here, drawing on what we heard yesterday in John’s account of the burial of Jesus, with everything done in haste so that the Sabbath not be profaned. As Nick comments: “You can feel the impatience of these women, as they grind their way through the Sabbath, before they can buy spices to do the needful for Jesus’ dead body.”
We keep Holy Saturday as a day of waiting; people making the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius often observe a “Tomb Day” between the prayer of the Third Week – on the Passion – and that of the Fourth Week – on the Resurrection.
But both of these are times of anticipation, of looking forward even while deliberately choosing to wait before celebrating the good news. For Mary the Magdalene, Mary of James, and Salome, the long Sabbath wait was not in anticipation of anything. Anything worth anticipating had gone with the death of Jesus: “the promised one of Israel’s story, a bridegroom clad in fire and light” – Jesus the Messiah – had turned out to be nothing more than “the one who was crucified.” Amor meus crucifixus est. My love is crucified.
And so, as soon as they could, they bought spices for the dead body, and came to the tomb, perhaps still too stunned and shocked to work out that they needed to move a heavy stone before they could do these last small acts, that which would close the chapter that had spoken of so much promise and life.
We’ve possibly been there – facing loss that seems to upturn not just one aspect of our lives, not just one friendship or love, not just one enterprise or mission to which we have given our lives, but everything. The pieces of our life just don’t fit together anymore; the story we thought was our story turns out to have been just a fairy-tale all along. Perhaps the experience of depression has taken us to this place seemingly without hope; perhaps we have known it through being with another, feeling ourselves helpless to be of assistance because helpless to find, to know, what to do or what to say.
And into this moment for these women comes a young man who simply sits there and says: “You seek Jesus the Nazarene, the one who was crucified. He is risen; he is not here.”
We shouldn’t be too surprised that the three women seem not to have known what to do, any more than we should wonder at Mark’s Gospel (at least in its oldest texts) coming to an abrupt halt after two or three more sentences. What Mary the Magdalene, Mary of James and Salome had experienced wasn’t something that could be made sense of.
Sense told them that Jesus was dead.
Sense told them that their hopes had turned out to be empty dreams.
Sense told them to do the necessary to this broken body, and go home.
But this young man told them that the crucified one is risen, and (though we don’t read it as part of tonight’s proclamation of the Gospel), Mark tells us what happened next:
And going out they fled from the tomb, for quivering and astonishment had hold of them. And they said nothing to anybody. For they were afraid.
Whatever we try to do to hear this Gospel afresh, we’ve heard the story before. And we may even have come to think that it makes sense.
But it seems to me that it no more makes sense than a sunrise makes sense; it no more makes sense than Bach or Leonardo da Vinci make sense; it no more makes sense than “I love you” makes sense.
But if we come to the tomb with our broken hopes and our fractured loves, with our disappointments and our limitations,
if we bring these openly rather than continuing to make those small accommodations which close off chapters of our lives,
and if we really allow ourselves to hear that the one who was crucified is risen,
then quivering and astonishment will take hold of us, too, as we recognise that we no longer need all that we thought we relied on to make sense of our world, because we have heard the utter good news of God.
“He is going before you (leading you) into the Galilee. There you will see him, as he said to you.”
Homily for Holy Thursday 2018
"You do not know what I am doing now, but later you will understand."
Jesus speaks to the 12 - but also to us. Year by year we gather to remember in solemn form what it was that Jesus did. One year I was with the monks of St Paul's outside the Walls in Rome, watching as their new young abbot washed the feet of his monks and of the local community in the splendid setting of the great Basilica. Once I came to the Holy Thursday Mass having spent the day body-nursing a bed-bound friend. Another year I was in Chelsea, preaching to a Hapsburg Archduke. Some years ago I found myself in a village in KwaZulu-Natal, washing feet that had made their barefoot way along dusty footpaths across the hills. In different places, we celebrate this memory.
We do this in memory of him - and not just on Holy Thursday: week by week, day by day, we celebrate the Eucharist, proclaiming the Lord's death until he comes. But what Jesus said remains true: we do not yet know what it is that Jesus did.
If we did know, if we really knew what Jesus did, our churches would be packed, our eucharists would compel people in off the streets, our parishes would transform their neighbourhoods, our church would be an irresistible beacon of faith and of the justice that is a constituent part of faith: in short, our lives would be turned upside down.
Because what Jesus did, what Jesus does, is to show us that this is how God is in our world, this is who God is in our world. Jesus who gives us himself, who shares his life with us so that we are becoming - we already are, here and now - sharers in the life of God, this Jesus washes feet like a domestic slave.
"You do not know what I am doing now, but later you will understand."
How can we understand? How can we know what it is that Jesus does? It is too simple to say just that, like Jesus, we must be of service to each other. It is too simple to say just that Jesus gives us his presence, his life in the Eucharist, and that we must be aware of how great a gift that is.
Both of these are true - but neither is enough, because what we have to know, what we have, somehow, to understand, is that the breaking of the bread and the washing of the feet cannot be separated, because together they tell us how God is in our world, who God is in our world.
The Gospel doesn't simply tell us to be kind to one another.
The Gospel doesn't simply tell us that Jesus is with us in the Eucharist, giving us his life.
The Gospel doesn't simply tell us that Jesus is the servant of all, the one who reaches out to the poor and the marginalised, who heals the sick and forgives the sinner.
The Gospel doesn't simply tell us that Jesus is our new High Priest, our new Passover Lamb, the one who offers for us the utterly acceptable sacrifice, the one who brings to us the utterly transforming gift of a share in the divine life.
"You do not know what I am doing now, but later you will understand."
The Gospel tells us that Jesus is High Priest and Passover Lamb, Brother and Servant of all, the one who is irrevocably bound to us in celebration and service. The Gospel tells us that we who are Christ's body in the world are irrevocably bound to one another in celebration and service:
And as we come to understand even in part what it is that Jesus is doing, so we come to understand in part who we are – who we already are – as his brothers and sisters.
A couple of days ago I came across these words:
We are the towel people,
Soothers, cleansers, healers
Of feet tired and sore and cut from the journey.
Christ’s sent people,
Wiping away the dirt and blood and spittle
Of the world’s hatred spewed onto the faces of the weak.
On our knees before others –
And in homage to them,
for Christ is there.
"You do not know what I am doing now, but later you will understand."
Jesus, Lord and saviour, brother and servant, help us to see in you how God is in our world, who God is in our world.
It’s the last week of term in all three university settings – UoM, RNCM, & MMU – the last Sunday before the Easter break. It’s also the Sunday when the men and women who are preparing to become full members of the Church after Easter are presented to our worshipping congregation at this Mass. And we welcome as a visitor Nigel Parker to talk with anyone interested after Mass about the Catholic Union of Great Britain, a group of catholic laity which has as one of its straplines “Public Engagement for the Common Good.”
So it’s a particular time, a special time – particularly for those on the way to becoming full members of the catholic community. Much of the time we spend feels like ordinary, matter-of-fact time, but it is always God’s time, it is always graced time, even we don’t always think of it as such. A lot of the time we relate to those who are most important in our lives in a pretty matter-of-fact way, and then for some reason or another, the depth of our relationship breaks through, and time stands still.
Something similar happens in our relationship with God. Into the midst of “ordinary time”, matter-of-fact time breaks in something very different. One way of describing this is to call such a moment a “kairos” – a moment of “God-time – a moment of truth and grace where we find that we see ourselves very clearly as ultimately in relation to God and the true values of the Gospel.
Perhaps – you will have to ask someone wiser and holier than I am – perhaps the more that we pray, the more that we hold ourselves in that awareness of the presence and action of God that we call contemplation, then the more we sense these moments when God’s loving presence becomes a tangible dimension of our “everyday” and always graced lives.
For our catechumens, on their way to being baptised or received into the church, on their way to confirmation and joining fully in the celebration of the eucharist, this is a moment of God-time, when we mark in a solemn ritual their choosing – their electing – to become members of the catholic church, and our choosing – our electing – of them as soon-to-be-fellow-catholics.
The Gospel reading today belongs at such a kairos time in the life of Jesus. We hear it out of sequence, because it follows directly on from the passage we will hear at the start of next week’s Palm Sunday service – the account of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. As we listen to Jesus today we are for a moment in the last few days before the Passion – the great kairos, the great moment of God-time of the life of Jesus.
Jesus spells out the truth of how God’s love works, transforming our lives, and he does so with the image of the grain of wheat. But it is an image: the reality of today’s gospel event in the life of Jesus is that of a young man walking down into death. The reality is a man, equipped with no more than we have, but with none of the denials and half-truths with which we protect ourselves, looking clearly at what is going to happen to him, in all its horror, acknowledging his fear, and saying “It is for this reason I have come to this hour.”
So John sees this as a kairos, a moment of God-time, a moment of glory. We can see in this moment the power of God that enables Jesus to overcome his fears, and to do this without bringing violence to those who threaten him.
For us there is a risk: the risk of seeing this Gospel moment simply as belonging to the life of Jesus. But we can and should also see in this moment the power of God to transform our humanity so that it shows God’s incalculable love for each one of us. For “God-time” runs in our lives also: we too run into these moments of kairos: we receive a challenging medical diagnosis; a spouse or partner or child falls acutely ill; a loved person dies; a true moral decision is suddenly present and demanding in our life; a Gospel passage speaks to us at a depth we had not imagined possible; for our catechumens, the Spirit calls us into membership of the catholic church; for any of us, someone speaks a word of love and compassion that truly pierces to the heart – and that might be someone speaking to us, or it might be we ourselves speaking to another.
They are moments that cost, because we have to set aside all our props and defences and our false reliance on our own omni-competence. They are moments that repay the cost tenfold, a hundredfold, because they open us to the transforming love of God. Jesus knew moments like these – the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us as much. Jesus knew moments like these, and knew them to be moments when the promise was fulfilled of the words of God through the prophet Isaiah: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people … for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
So we prepare to head off for the break (or at least to change the pattern of our living and studying, since postgrads get no breaks…). We can ask to be aware over this Easter time of the moments that can open us up to God’s transforming love – the moments of kairos in our own lives.
And we pray with and for our soon-to-be-Catholics, preparing to commit themselves and to be welcomed into our community of faith and service. They have been studying and reflecting and praying together over the months of the academic year so far, and at the end of April Bishop John will come here to join us, to baptise, receive and confirm our new brothers and sisters, and to preside at the eucharist at which they first participate fully in communion with Jesus and with this eucharist-centred community.
And Nigel Parker, speaking about the Catholic Union, points us towards one way we can live out the purpose of that community – to proclaim the Gospel in the world, to be the sacrament of Jesus among all people – and towards how that task must be lived out in the public square for the common good.
For kairos moments are not just for us, but to liberate us and empower us in the building of the kingdom in the world of today.
I spent some of Saturday afternoon setting-up a second-hand iPhone I’ve just been given by some friends, guided by “the book of words” – partly on-line and partly on paper – which now lives very securely in my desk and on my hard-drive, because while this phone is a relatively straightforward little gadget, you have to know how it works. “Follow the rules” and it works excellently, and will do all sorts of things that are helpful (and all sorts of things that are just fun, as well); lose your grip on the rules and it can just sit there not doing anything at all. So I keep tight hold of “the book of words,” the owner’s manual, because it tells me how this gadget works and how it doesn’t work.
You may already be making the same connection I found myself making with regard to today’s readings. What we have in the Ten Commandments is “the book of words” for the human being: not an arbitrary set of rules imposed from outside that restrict us, or take away all that seems to delight, but an owner’s manual for being a person. Couched in the language and images of a different time and place, the Ten Commandments point to the truth of who I am.
Note that: the ten Commandments tell me the truth of who I am. They don’t simply tell me what I must do – or mustn’t do – but in telling me that, (in their language, from their time and place), they tell me who I am, and what is the world in which I live. They tell me the truth; that I, and the world in which I live, are where the holiness of God is made visible, where the Holy is to be found.
For millennia, people have looked for the Holy in special places. For the Jews, the Temple was the place of the Holy: “Praise God in his holy place!” sings the psalmist. So the words of Jesus in today’s gospel were not just shocking but unbelievable: destroy this temple? Not only has it been being rebuilt for the past 46 years, but it is the Temple – it is where the Holy is to be found. Even in the time of the Temple, God’s first people knew that all of life was holy, but the Temple was the Temple: this was where the Shekinah, the glory of the presence of God, was to be found. To speak of it being destroyed wasn’t so much the equivalent of suggesting taking a bulldozer to St Peter’s as of suggesting we should do away with the Mass.
But we need to remind ourselves, as the Jews needed to remind themselves, that it was not until the time of King David that the first temple was built: for most of the defining moments of the history of God’s people, there was no one special place as such where God was to be found, and the Commandments spelt out that all of life was a place for the Holy to be found and celebrated. There was not one dimension which was the Holy and one which was the everyday: God’s revelation was of God as Emmanuel – God in the midst of us.
Judaism is full of blessings – thanksgivings for each moment of the day - just as it is full of commandments for each moment of the day, because each moment of the day is holy, because in each and every moment of the day (including some moments that we really might not think of as linked with holiness) the Holiness of God is there to be met. And if some of these blessings don’t sound too “politically correct”, such as the thanksgiving prayer for men which begins by thanking God for not making me a woman, then they, too, are lodged in their time and place, (when the obligations of Judaism rested mostly on men).
After the final destruction of the Temple, and the beginnings of the Diaspora - the scattering of God’s first people across the known world -Judaism came to focus more and more on the holiness of the everyday. The home rather than the temple became the place of the celebration of God’s presence: just listen to some of the Sabbath prayers:
“Blessed are you, O Lord our God,
King of the universe,
who made this bread come forth from the earth.
Blessed are you, O Lord our God,
King of the universe,
who created the fruits of the vine.
Blessed are you, O Lord, who made us holy with your ordinances
and in your love gave us the Sabbath day.”
John’s Gospel is put together after the destruction of the temple in the year 70 of our common era, and was addressed to a community that had broken its links with Judaism. John in his Gospel was telling us not something that disagreed with or refuted what the rabbis were teaching about the Holy being present in the everyday, but something that went beyond it: “but Jesus was speaking of the sanctuary that was his body.”
For John, as for all the Gospel writers, the Gospel itself was that Jesus is the Holy One: Jesus is God’s holiness in our midst, Jesus is God’s presence in our midst. As Nicholas Boyle puts it in an article in the Tablet some years ago:
The one central fact for Christianity is that God – the ultimate reality – is (more precisely, once was, and still is) human.
For St Paul writing to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Christ – and Christ crucified - was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” – and today we can say much the same. But to those who are called, Christ – and Christ crucified - is the power of God and the wisdom of God.
The Commandments point us to the truth of who we are.
The Commandments show us that all of life can be a meeting with the Holy.
The Commandments show us how we can so live as to be with God, who is the Holy One.
Jesus – as he tells us explicitly - takes nothing away from that.
Jesus - the Holy One of God - does more.
Jesus becomes who we are.
Jesus lives the truth of who we are.
Jesus, living this truth in us in the presence of the Holy Spirit,
both shows us and empowers us to live the truth of who we are,
(whoever we are, wherever we find ourselves in others’ opinions):
holy sisters and holy brothers of Jesus,
the Holy One of God,
called to live in him and with him
as holy and beloved children of the Father.
I think today’s readings have a real relevance for any follower of Jesus in this stage of the development of the church, and that they speak to us today of the faith to which we are called and of the grounds for that faith.
I’m going to concentrate on the first reading. If we are not shocked by it, we weren’t really listening to it. What is it that God is asking for from Abraham? What sort of a God asks that sort of offering? And how do we reconcile the God of the Binding of Isaac with the God revealed in Jesus Christ?
Faced with the Mountain of Moriah, let’s take what seems the easier path first. Looking back to this story in Genesis from our Christian viewpoint, we can easily see the almost-sacrifice of Isaac as an image of the sacrifice of Jesus, the self-sacrificing love of Abraham as foreshadowing the love of God our Father. That is what St Paul points us to in today’s reading from his letter to the Romans: “Look,” he is saying, “this is how much God is on our side, how much God is for us; this is how much Jesus is not against us as one who condemns us, but with us as one who died because he loves us.”
We need to hear this – we need to be reminded again and again that God is with us, that God looks at each of us with the love with which the Father looks on Jesus, that God says to each of us “You are my child, my beloved!”
If I refer to that as seeming to be the easier path, it is still a hard path, because it asks us to trust in that love, to trust in the God who is with us, rather than trust in anything else – but anything else. If it seems an easier path, maybe it’s only by comparison with how this second path up the mountain appears, the path trodden by Abraham and Isaac, and by countless believers.
Abraham is our Father in Faith, as the first Eucharistic Prayer reminds us, and the book of Genesis gives us a series of accounts of how Abraham and Sarah prove that faith, as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews points out:
It was by faith that Abraham obeyed the call to set out for a country that was the inheritance given to him and his descendants, and that he set out without knowing where he was going.
It was equally by faith that Sarah, in spite of being past the age, was made able to conceive,, because she believed that he who had made the promise would be faithful to it.
But if Abraham and Sarah proved their faith in these acts of entrusting themselves and their future to God, the commentators throughout the centuries, Jewish and Christian, have been very clear that in the Binding of Isaac – the Akeidah Yitzhak – Abraham and Sarah faced the greatest test. The narrative speaks to us mostly about Abraham, and a little about Isaac: we need to remember Sarah, three days walk away and in such distress, according to the rabbinic commentators, that receiving her son back alive is so overwhelming an experience that it triggers her own death. Perhaps Sarah prefigures not only the mother of Jesus – “and a sword shall pierce your own soul too” – but all those mothers waiting across the centuries while their men go about their violent business, waiting for their sons to be given back to them either alive or dead.
But we are in danger of getting ahead of ourselves as we follow Abraham and Isaac up Mount Moriah. Is God really demanding a human sacrifice? Can we take the easy way out (the apparently easy way out, at least intellectually) and say that “if God says it’s right, then it’s right”? To do so would seem at least to make the contrast between how our estimates of what is right and God’s absolute dominion.
The 19th Century Danish philosopher Kierkegaard wrote a whole book on this, calling it “Fear and Trembling”. In it he introduces two characters, two knights, one of whom,” the knight of infinite resignation”, is prepared to give up everything for a great cause and to live with the suffering that ensues. I suspect that many of us see Abraham in this light – and see in Abraham a model of what faith is for us – or rather, we see in Abraham’s expected sacrifice a model of what a life of faith can be. The heroic sacrifice has a very powerful appeal, and true self-sacrifice is out of love for another is both the pinnacle of the Gospel, in the death of Jesus on the cross, and the manner and matter of its mundane reality, in our everyday living as followers of Jesus. But we can all too easily see Abraham as modelling a willingness to give up all that is most precious, and to go against all that we think, and feel deep in our bones, to be the right course of action, simply because we have been told that this is God’s will for us.
That path, it seems to me, leads not to the Mountain of Moriah, the mountain of God, but to a different place, a place that risks fanaticism and fundamentalism, where the grossly cruel can be dressed in the language of God’s commandments, and pain and even death can as easily be inflicted in the name of the Gospel (as we have seen in history), as in the name of the Holy Q’uran.
But Abraham, the father of Judaism and Christianity and Islam, takes another path – the path of true faith. Abraham is an example of the “knight of faith”. As one Kierkegaard scholar puts it:
Abraham is not only a man of resignation … but is the father of faith, the supreme example of faith against the absurd. God had promised him a son. He had to wait decades for that son to be born ... Then God commands Abraham to sacrifice this long-awaited son. Somehow, Abraham had the faith to obey God, knowing that God would deliver his son … "By faith Abraham did not renounce Isaac, but by faith Abraham received Isaac".[i]
“By faith Abraham received Isaac?” I think that this is the heart of today’s readings – at least for me. Because what Abraham is asked to hand over to God is any certainty, any sense that he fully understands where God is calling him. Isaac is the child of the promise: everything on which Abraham has staked his life is literally embodied in Isaac, and God says “Hand him over! Let go of him! Entrust him to me!” And Abraham does. He puts away all his century-long dreams, he sets aside all the ways in which he saw God’s promise to him coming true, that promise that he would be the father of many nations that came with God giving him a new name and a new self. All of this he sets aside, puts away, hands over – not in resignation, but in faith.
Abraham does not say “It was a good dream while it lasted…” but “I have faith that God will keep his promise, and I will put aside all MY understandings of how that will come about, and step out into the void, launch out into the deep, give back to God the one and only way in which I can see God being able to keep God’s promise, because God is faithful – God keeps God’s promises - and I will be faithful – full of faith – in return.”
And Abraham receives Isaac back, now not as Abraham’s investment for the future as Abraham wants it played out, but as God’s free gift in love, building up Abraham’s faith that whatever the future, “God will provide.”
Abraham invites us, his children in faith, to make that same step: to pick up all that is most valuable to us, all that we most fear to lose, all that in which we have invested our lives, all that to which we have given our past and to which we give our present, all that embodies our future, and to place it, all of it, in the space between us and God and say: “This is yours. I trust you with all that is most precious to me.”
And to the measure that we do this – this Lent, this year, sometime in our lives, perhaps in one great gesture but more likely bit by bit, step by step – we will receive back all that we have entrusted to God, and know it for what it has always been – not our possession, our investment, our guarantee of the future we see for ourselves, (however good and virtuous that future may be), but God’s gift, God’s pledge of love, God’s guarantee of the future God sees for us, a future of transfiguration and grace.
As we meet God on the mountain of faith, we learn the truth: that with Jesus, we are God’s beloved children, and that it is God who provides.
[i] http://www.sorenkierkegaard.org/kw6a.htm D.Anthony Storm’s Commentary on Kierkegaard.
Today’s Gospel is a highly significant one – and, to be honest, one I would much rather preach about when there are no children in the congregation. Because today’s Gospel has to do with the truth of the Incarnation in a way that is as important as the celebrations of Christmas – but in a way that is geared more to what it means to be an adult follower of Jesus.
Each time the priest presides at the Eucharist, he adds a drop of water to the wine in the chalice during the preparation of the gifts, and says a prayer which often slips past unnoticed: By the mystery of the water and wine, may we come to share in the divine life of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our human life.
We tend, I think, to let this prayer slip past because we don’t really believe it. We have big problems with the humanity of Jesus: most of the time at least we are unconscious heretics (I can never remember which sort of heretic I am…) who don’t fully believe in the fullness of Jesus humanity. “True God and true man”, said the Council of Chalcedon on 451, and today’s Gospel shows us where that bites in the life of Jesus.
Jesus in the wilderness is coming to an awareness of just what his life is going to be – and just what it is going to cost. Jesus’ life is a living-out of the unconditional love of God – Jesus shows us God’s love in human form (the only way we can really get to grips with it). In human form – not in pretend human form: Jesus is working with what we work with, and is subject to the same limitations that we are subject to – that is what the awesome mystery of the Incarnation is all about – (rather than the Christmas tinsel, and what one writer memorably calls “the sweet smell of shepherds”…!) If you will pardon a line which might sound glib: in the wilderness Jesus comes to two realisations – the truth of how he is going to live his life, and the recognition that “they’re not going to like this.”
Jesus shares the contingency of our lives. We are not all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving: we have to live our lives in situations of not knowing what is going to happen next, how things are going to turn out; we have to life our lives in settings of weakness, when we simply cannot do what we know needs to be done – the resources- of money, of time, of energy – are simply not there for us; we have to live our lives in settings where we cannot find enough love and unselfishness in our hearts to be who we want to be as well as do what we want to do. And Jesus has taken on all this – Jesus has taken on our limits, our contingency, our human nature.
Jesus has taken on our living, and shows us what is possible. If we don’t believe the first, we can’t believe the second. If we don’t believe that Jesus is truly one of us – “like us in all things but sin” as the preface to EP 4 says – then he is no example to us – he is just pretending. “It was OK for him,” we might find ourselves saying, “he was God, he knew what was happening next, he had the power.” But if you will pardon another apparent irreverence, that reduces Jesus to some sort of figure out of Star Trek, able in the last resort to punch his wrist communicator and say the equivalent of “Beam me up, Scotty.”
And, of course, that is precisely what Jesus does not do. The Second Person of the Trinity has put off power and knowledge and everything that cannot be honestly contained within our human nature – all that cannot be part of a truly human life. Jesus was among us as one like us in all things but sin – and felt the limitations as we feel the limitations. And so was tempted.
Power – not to live with limits: power to provide for all material needs (turn these stones into bread); power to solve all the political and social problems (I will give you all the kingdoms of the world); power to dazzle and impress and become irresistible (Throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple).
Jesus chooses to continue to share our life – to continue truly to be Emmanuel, God with us. So Jesus shows us what we can do, faced with the same temptations of power and compulsion. And Jesus doesn’t simply show us – he makes it more possible for us. Because there is one power which Jesus does not set down – the power of self-giving love. In choosing not to compel, not to override our freedom, Jesus enables us freely to respond to that love, to be empowered by it, to be enabled in our turn to love and empower others without over-riding their freedom – and so to build the kingdom.