Holding everything in balance
‘Will the boy holding the girl in the wrong way, please hold her in the right way’. These words spoken to me in a dance school when I was sixteen remain as one of my great humiliations (self-inflicted of course). These were the days just before dancing became a non-contact sport. From time to time, people ask me what would I have been if I hadn’t been a priest. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I always say ‘a dancer’. Holding a person in the right way is an art to be learned and worked at as well as a gift to be celebrated. In contemporary dance, the holding of another dancer is a complex series of moves of athleticism and gracefulness, sometimes holding someone tight and sometimes holding them as a springboard for being free to do something they could not possibly do on their own.
Holding a person in the right way is a phrase that means a number of things, and can be used to describe good and healthy relationships. In the ups and downs of our relationships we do not always succeed at ‘holding everything in balance’ (Tom McGuinness, The Rower). We have just celebrated Trinity Sunday, and the tradition hands down to us two distinct ways of thinking about the Trinity and visualising it. A daring attempt to suggest what the internal life of the Trinity might look like is by the celebrated Russian icon painter, Andrei Rublev. This picture (see below) holds two contradictory things in balance. The painting is a masterpiece of that stillness which we find in the icon tradition. Yet at the same time, we sense that there is movement there among the figures. The early theologians of the Greek tradition recognised that there is a choreography for the internal life of the Trinity; there is a dance inscribed in that Trinitarian life.
The other tradition takes as its starting point that the Trinity, as well as having an inner life, also has a lifethat reaches outside itself. This of course is something more familiar to our experience of the Incarnation. God so loved the world that he sent his only Son into the world (John 3.16). But this truth at the centre of our belief is given an extraordinary visual form. The subject is called the Throne of Grace, words used in Hebrews 4.16, but it goes well beyond those words in its presentation of the life of the Trinity as you can see in this painting by the great artist Sandro Botticelli. In this painting, the Trinity is flanked by the two St Johns, the Baptist and the Son of Zebedee. But central to the drama of the picture is the holding. See how the Father holds the cross which holds the Son. See how the Holy Spirit is held in balance between the Father and the Son; that holding is a dynamism which will set the Spirit free into the world. The words of the fourth gospel express the death of Jesus in the words he handed over the Spirit (John 19:30). The Father is holding the Son in the right way, and in that holding, we see the Father identifying with the mission of the Son. In the way that relations seem to work in the Trinity, the Father, too is shaped by the Son’s death, in such a way that he fully embraces Jesus’ death for the world.
It is as though the Father is expressing something of what we do when we sing those lovely words of David Haas, We hold the death of the Lord deep in our hearts. It is that holding that shapes us, living now we remain with Jesus the Christ.
Do I still want to be a dancer? I do hope to hear the words , “Will the boy holding the death of the Lord deep in his heart come and join the Trinity in the dance?”
James Crampsey SJ
“To speak of the Godhead is, I know, like crossing the ocean on a raft, or like flying to the stars with wings of narrow span.” So begins a homily preached sixteen hundred and thirty years ago by one of the great fathers of the church, Gregory Nazianzen. Speaking of the Trinity has not got any easier than it was in his days, and there remains for any preacher a strong temptation to slide away from the topic.
But here is the heart of our faith. However the gods have been portrayed and understood in different faiths, old and new, widespread and particular, our God is no single monarch, no unitary power, nor do we believe in some clan of superbeings populating Olympus or Valhalla.
Our God is one. Our God is three. The God revealed in Jesus is koinonia - community, is relationship.
As one of my American brother-Jesuits expresses it:
God is a community of persons. Mutuality is the source of life. Relationship grounds being. There is otherness from the start. The doctrine of the Trinity affirms God as loving and knowing, giving and receiving. We profess that God could not be God without the "other" (the Son) and the eternal bond of their relationship (the Spirit).
And in today’s readings what is spelt out for us is that God’s “reaching-out” – God’s knowing and loving, giving and receiving – embraces us.
Moses reminds the people that God has been involved in their lives – that God is committed to God’s first and always chosen people.
St Paul, in the letter to the Romans, tells us something so extraordinary that we might not have heard it first time round. I have a good friend whose job used to take him to Israel, where he occasionally stayed with an Israeli colleague. John shared with me the moment when he was taken by his colleague to visit his home and family, and they were met by his young son running down the path to meet his father. Let me ask you a question: if you are a parent, what would your child be calling out at that moment? And if you are a child, or closer to being a child, what would you be shouting?
Because the little boy, delighted to see his father coming home, was calling out “Abba! Abba! Abba!” And that, says St Paul, is how we can and should call on God.
And in the Gospel we are both commanded to spread the good news of God’s delighted love for us, and promised that Jesus, the fullest expression of that love, is with us to the end of time.
What more can we say? In some sense, as Gregory Nazianzen observed, it is almost impossible to speak about such a God. But we are also assured that God has made us in God’s own image and likeness, and that can embolden us to look in our lives for pointers towards the life of God.
We know that we are relational beings, that we find ourselves at our fullest only in transcending ourselves in reaching out selflessly to others.
We know this, though we may resist this knowledge when it seems that cutting ourself off from others is a more attractive path. Sometimes we may even invoke our religion in support of our solipsism – but when we do that we have lost sight of something essential.
Because it is not simply a moral injunction that we should engage with one another, nor even simply a reflection of our incarnate, embodied nature as human beings. We are called to engage with one another, we are called to relationship, we are called to community, because we are in the image of God, God who is Father Son and Spirit, Source Gift and Love, Creator Redeemer and Inspirer.
“Ecce ego et tu” says Aelred of Rievaulx in the opening words of his great book on Friendship: “Look, here we are, you and I, and I hope that Christ is a third in our midst.”
It sounds not that far off from the Trinity – as indeed should be the case. When I am most myself, the image of the Trinity is at its most clear in me. At my best, at my most loving, at my most giving, at my most creative, what can be seen in my life points towards the life of the Trinity, even though it is only a pale image of the reality of God.
Because Gregory Nazianzen was, of course, right – we cannot express the reality of God adequately, either in our words or in our lives. But we can learn to look with gospel eyes at the deepest and most human aspects of our living, and come to recognise there pointers towards eternity, indications of what our lives will be when we are caught up in the life of the Trinity. If last Sunday we celebrated the beginnings of the Church, this Sunday we celebrate the God who is both our beginning and our end. We have fashioned from the writing of St Paul a greeting for the beginning of our Eucharists: allow me to rephrase it as a pointer towards this fullness of life:
We live now in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We live now in the love of God.
We live now in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
k here to edit.
It’s a bit of a complicated time just now for us who live in Manchester. But maybe that can help us think about Pentecost.
To start on a lighter note: while hundreds of thousands of people across this country seized the opportunity yesterday to wrap themselves in the Union Flag, and wear silly hats, and celebrate the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markel, something of the icing on the cake was squashed for Mancunians by United losing out to Chelsea in the Cup Final – and what is worse, that not being the main item on the news.
At a more serious level, Tuesday sees the first anniversary of the bombing at the Manchester Arena. But out of this tragedy, which had been fuelled by fear turning to hate, emerged shared and individual acts of heroism and generosity and vulnerability. Let me just choose one small but iconic event, in addition to the acts of solidarity that took place here at the Chaplaincy and the Holy Name. I only this morning heard the story of Baktash Noori, a young Muslim man, standing blindfold in Market Street in the days after the bombing with a sign at his feet reading “I’m Muslim and I trust you. Do you trust me enough for a hug?” – and the constant stream of Mancunians responding with hugs.
We know the story of Pentecost – we have heard it many times. I still recall hearing it read out forty years ago in a hilltop chapel in the stillness and heat of a Zimbabwe afternoon. As we heard of the noise of the coming of the Spirit, so the msasa trees outside the chapel were moved by a great wind, and what had seemed to be the story of something that had happened once long ago suddenly became what it has always been if we are open to seeing it – the story of something that was happening there and then, that is happening here and now. The coming of the Spirit of Jesus is no event in the past, finished and done with: the coming of the Spirit is a present event – an event that is taking place here and now, as we gather in the name of Jesus, as I speak, as you listen, as we pray together around the table of the Eucharist, in Manchester in 2018.
The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins has his own take on it:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil…
The Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Jesus – is the Spirit of truth. The Spirit enables us to see things as they really are. Too often we find ourselves persuaded to see things as other than they are: to see things as the spirit of this world would have us see them. So we see possessions as the key to happiness; we see status and power as the essential attributes of a good life; we see each other, all too often, as either competitors or as resources to be used; we see ourselves as committed to a life which is an anxious series of tasks and conflicts. Or we see a world bleak beyond redemption, spiralling into moral chaos and depravity; we see a Church which is not the Church in which we remember growing up; we see a Church which if it really knew us would not accept us. Perhaps we see ourselves as unable to do more than ‘get on with life’ in a series of sad compromises.
To see in these ways is to become trapped, knowingly or unknowingly. To live like that has consequences: Paul, in the second reading today from the letter to the Galatians, has spelled them out for us. These are the outcomes of living in a false world, the consequences of being guided by an untrue vision of the world, by an untrue vision of each other, by an untrue vision of ourselves. And it is these untruths which can lead to fear, and fear fed by untruth can lead to hate and destruction and suicide bombings.
The Spirit of truth enables us to see the world, each other, and ourselves as we really are. It is not that there is some great secret knowledge, as the Gnostics believed, nor some over-simplified Pollyanna-ish refusal to see, as some critics of religion would assert. The truth is both simpler and more real, because the Spirit of truth is the Spirit of love.
The experience of knowing the truth is something we all recognise in our human relationships, when the truth about someone we love suddenly breaks in on us. And the truth may be nothing more strange, nothing more mysterious than that this person loves me, or that I love this person (but can anything be more strange and mysterious than that?). When we see the truth in that way, we realise that it was always there for us to see, but something prevented us from seeing it. Our hearts were, if not burning within us, at least smouldering, and we needed our own Emmaus experience in order to turn back, to come home to where we always belonged.
The truth which the Spirit enables us to see is that same truth – that each one of us is loved beyond calculation by God our Father, that we are called together as those who know God’s love revealed in Jesus so that we can love each other into living-out that same love as Jesus lived it out, that we – each one and together - are held and empowered by the Spirit of Jesus who makes what seems to be impossible become visible as what has always been possible – for nothing is impossible to God, and we have the Spirit of God in us and among us.
When we recognise that we love someone utterly, or that another offers us such love, then our lives can seem changed beyond recognition, but in reality we have drawn closer to who we always have been, and we spend the rest of our lives growing into the fullness of who we are – a long homecoming.
It is the Spirit who is at work in our relationships of love, just as the Spirit is at work in the gathered community of the followers of Jesus, just as the Spirit is at work in our prayer alone and in our prayer together, in our sacramental celebrations, in the Scriptures, in our Eucharist. And we can see that it is the Spirit at work because Paul has given us a list of the signs of the Spirit, that list which we heard read out a few minutes ago:
“What the Spirit brings is very different [from the marks of self-indulgence]: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
These are the signs of the Spirit: these are the signs of who we truly are – every last one of us – me and you. And when we look with eyes opened by the Spirit, we can see these signs in our lives – the lives of every last one of us, me and you. And Paul spells it out: “There can be no law against things like that, of course.”
Those who look on us without love will not see these signs, and knowing their rejection we may fear, deep down or with acute awareness, that if they really saw us as we are, every last one of us, me and you, we would in their judgement find no place in God’s gathered people.
But those who look on us with love can, in the measure of that love, see us as we truly are, and can, in the measure of ththat love, speak God’s truth to us and tell us who we are. And God looks on us with a love that is without measure, and that sees and encompasses everything that we truly are, and if we let the Spirit touch us, God will speak God’s truth to us and tell us who we truly are, every last one of us, me and you.
Prince Harry & Meghan Markel yesterday told each other who they really are – and in so doing told each of us something of the same truth. Baktash Noori, standing there in his blindfold on Market Street, helped hundreds of people tell him, and tell themselves, who they really are – and via YouTube hundreds of thousands of people shared that same truth about themselves and their neighbours.
We are God’s beloved in this corner of Manchester this Pentecost, and to the measure that we let God tell us that, then the grandeur of God, which is the truth of God and the love of God, will flame out from each of us, here, today, as on that first Pentecost, and those around us, each in their own language, (for love and truth are a shared language), will hear us preaching about the marvels of God, because the Spirit of the Lord fills the whole world.
Over the last few weeks since Easter, we have been hearing two parallel stories in the readings: one about the appearances of the Risen Jesus to his followers, the other about the growth of the young Church. In the Gospel readings we have encountered Jesus in the upper room, on the Emmaus Road, by the lakeside; in the readings from Acts we have encountered the young church as its members come to grips both with their own new life as a gathered community and with the imperative to preach the Good News – the gospel of the risen Jesus.
Last week and this week, the two stories come together, as it were, in what Jesus tells us about himself. In last week’s Gospel we heard Jesus speak of himself as the Good Shepherd – a powerful message still, in a world of hard concrete and, at least locally, a distinct absence of sheep: how much more powerful for his first listeners, when for so many of them sheep were their livelihood, and good shepherding rather than bad shepherding was not just a matter of a pretty symbol, but was on the one hand an economic reality and on the other an expression of genuine concern for the sheep. Even in today’s high-tech farming milieu, you may remember from the time of the foot-and-mouth epidemic, or in more recent pieces recalling that disaster, how movingly many farmers spoke about having to see their livestock culled.
But this week the words of Jesus are such as to touch us more directly: we don’t, most of us, as far as I know anyway, keep sheep. But we all know what growth is, what happens to the branch of a tree if it gets broken off, what that annual miracle of new life is as the plants and the trees around us burst into fresh green and respond to the rain with the promise of fruitfulness.
‘I am the true vine’, says Jesus, ‘I am the source of your life. With me you can bear fruit, without me you can do nothing.’
Do I believe that? Well, of course I do: I wouldn’t be standing here like this if I didn’t believe that – just as you wouldn’t be sitting there like that unless you believed that. But maybe that’s not the right question. Maybe I need to ask myself how deeply I believe that Jesus is the source of my life, the source of all my capacity for love, the source of all the good that I do, the source of all my capacity for being with others in all their imperfection and all my imperfection. Because maybe, just maybe, if I believed that, not just at the level of my head, but at the level of my heart, not just at the level of something that I find comforting but at the level of something that empowers me and challenges me to move beyond comfort into joy – then I might not be standing here quite like this – and, touched by such belief in your lives in turn, you might not be sitting there quite like that either.
Evangelical Christians can sometimes tell you – and sometimes whether you really feel you want to know or not – that at such an such a time on such and such a day they accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour. For many Catholics that sounds extreme, but as one of my American jesuit brethren points out, we make an even more startling claim.
Jesus is my personal Lord and saviour: “I am the true vine: you are the branches.” It is in Jesus, and accepting his loving transformation of my life that I can be a sign of the Gospel in the world – that I can fulfil the primary calling of my baptism – to witness to the Resurrection as a present, transforming, reality. That’s a startling enough claim: maybe that’s why so many of us – myself included – shy away from it.
St Augustine points out the even more startling claim that we make each time we come up to receive the Eucharist. Instructing new Christians, he tells them: “This is the body of Christ, says the priest: and you respond Amen – you are saying “Yes, I am.” “The Body of Christ: I am.”
Here, in this place, the presence of God incarnate is made manifest in a reality that goes beyond our fellowship and our remembering events of the past – even the events of the death and rising of Jesus.
Here, in this place, on this April morning, the incarnate and risen Lord becomes present to us:
And not just here – but here for our feeding. Not just here to be seen and worshipped from afar, but here to become our sustenance, our food, our nourishment. The life of Jesus enters into our life as food for our life. Our bodies become the place where Jesus is embodied: our nature is transformed by the nature of God-made-man, Emmanuel, God-in-our-midst.
The body of Christ. “and you answer Amen: you are saying “yes – that is who I am – that is who we are.”
The opening prayer of the Mass (in the old translation) asked the Father to look upon us with love. Perhaps as the Mass continues we might do two things; we might allow the spirit to help us sense that we are looked upon with love by the Father. But we might ask the same Spirit to let us see what it is – who it is – that the Father sees when he looks upon us with love: that is, the men and women, the children, the young, the old, all branches of the vine, all fed by the presence of Jesus, all bearers of the Body of Christ and members of the body of Christ.
The Father sees us as we are. As we let that true vision touch us, perhaps we too in our turn will touch those among whom we live and work – and so be even more true signs of the Good news, signs of the truth of the presence of the Resurrected One in our midst. The two post-Easter stories come together in us – the church, today, still young, still being the sacrament of the presence of the Risen Jesus in the world.
After the Gospel reading we have just heard, it may sound slightly odd – or more than slightly odd – if I start off our reflections on God’s word this evening by pointing out that nearly two decades ago there was a massive and devastating foot-and-mouth epidemic in this country, resulting in hundreds of thousands of sheep and cattle having to be put down and their bodies destroyed on the spot to halt the spread of the infection.
Some of the images that were broadcast then remain with me, as does the experience of travelling by train here in the north of England through miles of empty fields. But it’s not that aspect of the epidemic that comes to mind – rather the way on which the loss of their livestock revealed in farmers a dimension of care – of what I can only call “tenderness” – towards the animals they raised. I remember vividly a radio interview in which a very matter-of-fact farmer recalled his experience, by then ten years in the past, with a real and heartfelt grief.
It’s not part of my life, the cycle of farming: while I was at school in the beautiful Lancashire countryside of the Ribble Valley, my missions as a Jesuit have sent me to London and Birmingham and Oxford and now central Manchester. But the imagery of the shepherd remains potent, and as applied to Jesus the image survives even those sickly-sweet holy pictures where Jesus’ robes had clearly never been in contact with a real sheep - either end of a real sheep.
As always, Jesus drew on the experience of those to whom he was speaking. Raising sheep was hard work – and was work that didn’t rank very highly in the Palestine of Jesus’ day. Forget the quad bikes that buzz their way round the hill farms of Wales, and the extraordinary intelligence of the Border Collie sheepdogs. Being a shepherd in Palestine in the time of Jesus was a footslogging, hands-on, mile-covering, 24 hours a day task.
Jesus gives us two images in today’s Gospel reading - and we get the second because the disciples missed the point of the first. (It's always encouraging when these people, who spent all their time with Jesus, just don’t understand what he is saying – when I’m struggling to understand, it’s encouraging for me to think of the disciples saying to Jesus “what was that about?”)
Jesus calls out from the sheepfold the sheep that are his – there’s one image – but Jesus is also the gate of the sheepfold, and there’s the other. It’s worth noting that in some settings the shepherd was literally the gate: there was a fold of some sort, an enclosure, and the shepherd would lie across the entrance so that anyone who wanted to get at the sheep needed to get at him first.
And if that still sounds a bit distant, let me link it into a real-life event from just a few years ago in the life of the photojournalist Tim Hetherington, a fellow-alumnus (many years later) of that school in the Ribble Valley. He spent most of his life in troubled countries, and on this occasion came across a friend of his who had been captured by opposing forces and was about to be shot. Tim, as it happened, knew the members of the opposing forces, and stepped forward out of the crowd, put himself between the guns and the man about to be shot, and told them “if you want to shoot him, you have to shoot me first.”
Perhaps this moves us closer to hearing what God’s word can say to us here, in Central Manchester, miles from any sheep (as far as I know). We can count on God’s word speaking to us precisely because it is God’s word: in whatever version we hear or read the Gospels (and any of the Scriptures) we encounter the active living presence of God. And because it is God’s word, that presence is one of loving care.
Jesus calls us by name, and when we hear his voice, we recognise him. And as Jesus speaks our name, we recognise ourself, too. If we are lucky, we know what it is to hear our name spoken with love and delight – by our mother or father, child or sibling, friend, lover, partner, spouse. Someone who speaks our name with truth and love doesn’t just use a label: they tell us something about ourselves; we learn something about who we truly are, and so we grow closer to being who we truly are.
So one thought we might take from this evenings’ readings is simply that: when Jesus calls me by name, what do I hear? Am I ready to let Jesus tell me who I am capable of being – who I am in the eyes of Jesus, who I am in the eyes of each person who looks at me with truth and love? (Because Jesus the shepherd guides me and leads me and speaks to me through and with and in those who hold me in love).
But the readings take us further than that. Like the crowd in the first reading, we may need to rethink who Jesus is – in our lives as well as in the broader picture (so to speak). We may need to recognise that, in our way, we have discounted and diminished him. And here I speak from my own experience if I say that one way in which we can do this is by discounting and diminishing the extent to which Jesus is there for us – there for you - there for me.
There’s a paradox here. Jesus calls us – each one – you and me – by name, to leave the comfort and safety of the sheepfold and to set out with him on a journey towards the fullness of life. Jesus doesn’t lead from behind. What we have been through, Jesus has been through. And, crucially, that includes being misunderstood and rejected by many of the pious, being misunderstood and rejected by many of the religious powers, being rejected and misunderstood by many of those who are seen as the good – (seen as such by others and often seen as such by themselves).
To be with Jesus is not to be an insider, not to be “one of us”. To be with Jesus is to be with all the other outsiders whom Jesus chose to be with. “Hanging out” is not a biblical Phrase – but Jesus chose to hang out with those seen as public sinners, those on the fringes. Let’s not forget that when Jesus chooses to portray himself as a shepherd, he chooses to portray himself as something close to what in another culture would be an “untouchable”. We may not be called to step out of the crowd like Tim Hetherington and stand between the guns and the victims, but we will be called to be with those who are vulnerable rather than with those who wield power.
So to be called by Jesus is not an easy option to respond to – if ‘easy’ means comfortable. But we have two images to hold onto: the Jesus who calls us, each one, by our name, is also the Jesus who is the gate – the guarantee of security and faithfulness. “Anyone who enters thorough me will be safe; they will go freely in an d out, and be sure of finding pasture.”
We don’t “head off into the wilderness on our own” if we respond to Jesus speaking our name: we have the security of being with Jesus. And that’s no idle promise from Jesus. As the gospels tell us, and as our first reading from the letter of Peter sums up for us, the commitment of Jesus to be with us is visible to death – and beyond. God’s commitment to us in Jesus is total: God cannot not be with us – that’s what covenant means. So Jesus remains with us – Jesus cannot not be with us: even death is not powerful enough to overcome that utter commitment.
And where does it come from, this commitment? Just as with that English farmer on the radio, stammering out his pain at watching his flock being culled in the foot-and-mouth epidemic, what we encounter is loving care, the fierce tenderness of God.
The Lord is my shepherd – there is nothing I shall want.
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.