5th Sunday of Easter 2019

5th Sunday of Easter 2019

Acts 14:21-27; Rev 21:1-5; John 13:31-35

“They shall be His people and He will be their God.” So says the Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation. How often have we heard that same promise in the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament? And now the promise is fulfilled: we ARE His people and He IS our God. His name is indeed God-with-them—Emmanuel: that was revealed to St. Joseph by the angel in St. Matthew’s Gospel. God is with us.

God is with us because He has become one of us, in the person of His Son. He is with us because that same Son has sent us the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. Why then does God often seem far away from us?

Part of the answer lies in the words of Paul and Barnabas to the disciples: “We all have to experience many hardships before we enter the Kingdom of God.” These hardships are a sharing in the sufferings of Christ, and the closer we draw to Him, the greater our share in His suffering.

Perhaps the greatest suffering of all is the feeling that God is absent. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins summed it up in the words “My prayers must strike a brazen heaven” and in one of the so called “terrible sonnets”, the one beginning “No worst, there is none, pitched past pitch of grief” which continues “Comforter, where, where is your comforting? Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?”

Likewise, throughout history, the saints have experienced the apparent absence of God. St. John of the Cross saw the night of the senses and the dark night of the soul as essential stages on the individual’s journey to God. St. Therese of Lisieux, who had wallowed in the sense of God’s love for her, wrote, towards the end of her short life: “What I have written is what I hope is true: for some time now, I have had no feeling of it”, whilst St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta apparently spent forty five years of her much longer live deprived of all awareness of God’s presence.

The late militant atheist Christopher Hitchens who, for some reason, nursed a particular loathing for Mother Teresa, claimed that her feeling arose because she had discovered that there was no one to pray to. If he had known anything either of scripture or of Christian history, he would have realised that precisely the opposite was true. Mother Teresa herself would have known that she was being given a particularly deep share in the Passion of Christ, experiencing at close proximity His sense of desolation in Gethsemane and on the Cross, when the Son of God Himself cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Yet, as Jesus Himself declared at the Last Supper, this very sense of abandonment was His glorification, the revelation of His identity as God. Being betrayed, deserted, raised up on the Cross was His glory, completed and not reversed by His resurrection.

In His glorification, Jesus had one commandment for His followers, those with Him at the supper table: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

Couples often choose this or a similar reading for their marriage service. “Love one another” is an appropriate basis for marriage. I wonder, however, how many of them recognise the sting in the tail:”Just as I have loved you.”

Married couples, and the rest of us, must love as Jesus loves us, with a love which took Him to Gethsemane and to the Cross. What He calls for is a self-emptying love, not only for God, but for those whom God puts in our way. Are we capable of that self-denying love? Of course we are not, or rather, we would not be were He not our God and we His people; were He not Emmanuel, God-with-us. Only in and through Him are we capable of loving one another, and of loving God, even when He seems far away.

Posted on May 19, 2019 .

4th Sunday of Easter 2019

Acts 13:14, 43-52; Rev 7:9, 14-17; Jn 10:27-30

“The disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit” comments the Acts of the Apostles. These are, by and large, Gentile disciples, non-Jews, as the Gospel begins to be preached to the Gentile world. This outreach to the Gentiles was foreshadowed in the journey of the Wise Men to worship the infant Jesus, Gentiles adoring the Son of God. The disciples of that Son now return the compliment, as it were, bringing the light of the Gospel to the nations, as prophesied by Deutero-Isaiah and by Simeon at the Presentation in the Temple.

We are the descendants of those first Gentile disciples. Are we filled with joy and the Holy Spirit? What is joy? It is a deep-rooted conviction which blossoms in the good times, but which also sustains us in the difficult times, the times of darkness and near-despair. It is, in fact, the indwelling Holy Spirit. Are we conscious of the presence of the Holy Spirit within us, enabling us to endure both light and dark, revealing Himself as that joy which, ultimately, nothing can destroy?

The root of that joy, the presence of the Holy Spirit, is a manifestation of God’s infinite love for us. Jesus speaks of that love today in His role as the Good Shepherd.

He begins by saying “The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice”. Do we listen to the voice of the Lord? When and where do we hear it? We hear it daily in the scriptures. Do we allow the scriptures to soak into us? Do we sit with them, chewing the cud with them, allowing them to penetrate our whole being?

We hear the voice of the Lord too when we make time and space for prayer. We hear it also in the teachings of the Church, not least the Social Encyclicals, which lay before us our responsibilities to our neighbour.

Do we also hear that voice in the tones of our neighbour, in his/her challenge, his cry for help, her words of encouragement? I remember from pastoral lectures in the seminary the suggestion that we should pray with the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other, interpreting each in the other’s light.

Our Lord continues with the words “I know them and they follow me”. He knows us: do we strive to know Him, to follow Him in all the events and situations of life?

Then Jesus goes on to say “I give them eternal life”. Notice the tense—present not future—“I give,” not “I will give”. Eternal life is a present reality if we allow the Holy Trinity to dwell within us.

“They will never be lost, and no one will ever steal them from me.”These are encouraging words, words to banish fear and anxiety. The greatest disaster which could befall us would be to be lost, to fall out of God’s hands. This, promises Jesus, will not happen. We can live without fear, secure in God’s love for us.

Why is this? It is because “The Father...gave them to me.” We belong to the Father, and the Father has given us to the Son. We are held secure by Father and Son in their mutual love and complete unity which is the Holy Spirit. “The Father and I are one” says the Lord, and we are held firm within that unity.

All of this explains why we should be filled with joy and the Holy Spirit. We have total grounds for confidence, no reason to fear. Consequently, we can follow boldly in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd, carrying out His will, proclaiming His Gospel, because “no one can steal from the Father”—or from the Son.

Posted on May 12, 2019 .

3rd Sunday of Easter 2019

Acts: 5:27-32, 40-41; Rev 5:11-14; Jn 21: 1-19

“It was light by now, and there stood Jesus on the shore.” Light and darkness are important factors in St. John’s Gospel. When Judas leaves the supper room to betray Jesus, John remarks “Night had fallen”. When Mary of Magdala comes to the tomb, John comments that “it was still dark”: the light of the risen Christ had not yet dawned upon His followers. Now the risen Christ has appeared and is appearing again, and so John can say “It was light by now”.

As it was for the disciples, so for us “it is light by now”. Do we recognise the light of the risen Christ in our lives and in our minds? Do we help Him by our prayer and by our work to shed His light upon the dark places of our world, to lift the darkness of evil and of suffering?

Do we, like the disciples, fish in the dark, striving for success by our own efforts, becoming disheartened by our failure? Are we alert to the call of the risen Lord, directing us when and where to throw out our nets?

As at the empty tomb, it is “the disciple Jesus loved” for whom the light dawns first. Love is the key to enlightenment. He says to Peter, “It is the Lord”, and Peter, the leader, responds at once.

Are we alert to recognise the risen Christ, to say “It is the Lord”? Do we have sufficient love to see Him in the times of pain and darkness, and in the times of light and joy? Do we open ourselves to His presence in our times of prayer? Do we recognise Him in our neighbour, whether that neighbour be friendly or difficult, whether he or she be close to us or unknown, helping us or in need of our help? How often are we sufficiently awake and sufficiently loving to say “It is the Lord” and to respond like Peter when someone else points out His presence?

As the disciples come ashore, they see a charcoal fire, and share a meal of bread and fish. The latter would have recalled for all of them the miraculous feeding of the crowds: the former would hold particular resonance for Peter. The last time he encountered a charcoal fire was in the courtyard of the high priest’s palace, when he denied his Lord three times: the threefold question “Do you love me?” enables him to wipe out that threefold denial.

Some commentators see a significance in the different Greek words which Jesus and Peter use for “love”—for the former it is “agapao”, for the latter it is “phileo”. The suggestion has been made that Peter is somehow dodging the issue by using a word which, it has been said, involves less wholeheartedness, less self-surrender. It is probably fair to say that the majority of commentators dismiss the distinction, pointing out that John tends to use the two words interchangeably.

Likewise, despite what Mrs. Rees told us in the infants—namely that the lamb whom Peter is to feed are the laity, whilst the sheep are the clergy—there seems to be agreement that there is little distinction between lambs and sheep. Sorry, Mrs. Rees, God rest you.

What we do have here is John’s account of Peter’s primacy, as bestowed upon him by the Lord. Despite the role played by the beloved disciple, it is Peter who is singled out for leadership.

But that leader must be prepared, as must all of us, to have a belt put round him, and to be taken where he would rather not go. Again, commentators assert that this was an expression used by both Christian and non-Christian writers to refer to crucifixion.

Surely, too, it has wider resonance. How often have you been taken where you would rather not go, found yourself in situations which you would have preferred to avoid? And have you found that, despite everything, it was where the Lord wanted you to be at that time, that it was a time of purification, of learning, of growth? And whether that was so or not, did you hear and respond to the Lord’s command “Follow me”?

Posted on May 6, 2019 .

Second Sunday of Easter

2nd Sunday of Easter 2019

Acts5:12-16; Rev 1:9-13, 17-19; Jn 20:19-31

It is a truism—but bear in mind that the first thing about a truism is that it is true—it is a truism that the risen Christ is the wounded Christ: after His resurrection, Jesus still bears the marks of the nails and the spear.

Why should this be? His risen body is different in certain ways—He can pass through locked doors, He can appear rapidly in different places, He is not immediately recognised by people who know Him, He will eventually ascend into heaven—yet the holes in His hands and feet, and the gash in His side remain. The Father, had He wished, could have removed the marks of the Passion, restoring His Son’s body to pristine unwoundedness, yet He did not do so. Why did He choose this route?

The first answer, I suppose, is that the wounds help establish the identity and the reality of the risen Christ. As He Himself is reported by St. Luke as saying “A spirit has no flesh and bones as you can see that I have.” This is the real person: the disciples are not seeing a ghost. As soon as He appears the risen Lord shows His wounds, and at His return to the Upper Room on Low Sunday, He grants Thomas’ wish for more than visual proof. Thomas need not simply look; he is also to touch.

Is there, though, more to it than mere proof of identity? “By His wounds we are healed” we read in the First Letter of St. Peter, and those wounds continue to exercise their healing force. The risen Christ will never forget His wounds—will never be without them—and those wounds will continue to provide their healing power as long as this world lasts.

Michel Quoist, the French priest and spiritual writer beloved of my generation of university students, was fond of the quotation (possibly from Pascal, though I stand open to correction on that) “Christ is in agony until the end of time”. Even though Christ is risen, He continues to suffer in His body, the Church; His wounds will continue to throb so long as human beings go through agonies whether physical, mental, or spiritual.

It is because He is the wounded Christ that the risen Christ is able to be COMPASSIONATE, “suffering with”. He is a God who is not merely merciful: He is a God who has borne the pain and the anguish of human life; who literally bears the scars. Because of those scars, His capacity to heal is unbounded, because He is not looking in from outside, but is sharing the pain from within.

As it is for Christ, so it is for us. One of the most popular and most powerful of recent spiritual writers was Henri Nouwen, one of whose books is entitled “The Wounded Healer”. Only when we share the woundedness of Christ can we share His capacity to heal, because we too can be compassionate. It is not true, as Nietzsche claimed, that “whatever does not kill you makes you stronger”—there are some forms of suffering which cause permanent damage to the spirit and the personality no less than to the body—but without suffering we shall always lack genuine strength.

Have the wounds of the risen Christ anything further to teach us? It is after showing His wounds that the Lord repeats the words “Peace be with you”, that He breathes the Holy Spirit into the apostles, that He sends them, giving them their mission of forgiving sin. From woundedness comes true peace: in woundedness is the Holy Spirit imparted, and the capacity to bestow that healing forgiveness which comes from God but which takes its human aspect, not merely from the formula of the sacrament, but through, in, and with compassion.

Further, it is through touching the wounds of the Redeemer that Thomas is able to utter his great proclamation of faith “My Lord and my God”. The wounds of Christ evoke faith in the divinity of Christ. May the risen yet still wounded Christ be our source of healing, of compassion, and of faith.

Posted on April 30, 2019 .

Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday 2019

“It was...still dark when Mary of Magdala came to the tomb.” Why was it still dark? It was still dark because the light of faith, the light of knowledge hadn’t dawned for Mary and the other disciples. The Light of the World was risen, but they did not know: it was their minds, rather than the day, which were dark.

So Mary Magdalene, the woman, runs to Peter, the leader, and John, the beloved. The woman, the leader, and the beloved: representatives of the disciples, representatives of the Church. And they run, and they see, but the light does not yet dawn.

John sees, but he does not go in: he leaves that to the leader. The leader goes in, and sees, but does not understand. The beloved enters, and sees, and understands. It is love, rather than leadership, which brings understanding.

As it was for the first disciples, so it will ever be. It is love, rather than leadership, which will bring understanding. It is love which will make us know that Christ is risen. It is love which will make His risen life a reality in us. Please God, our leaders will always be filled with that love, as Pope Francis clearly is, and as our Bishop is—love and leadership will be combined—but for all of us it is love which will bring light.

But who is the first to be granted full vision, the first encounter with the risen Lord? We are not told in this extract—it is my suspicion that we are not told at all. I have a theory that the risen Christ is not at the tomb because He has gone to visit His mother. I have no evidence for saying that, but it strikes me as not unlikely. In any case, the first meeting of the risen Lord is with a woman, whether it be Mary His mother or Mary of Magdala, and I suspect that the Church hasn’t even begun to understand the implications of that.

Perhaps these are all side issues. What matters is that He is risen, that He has conquered darkness, evil, and even death. Neither evil nor death can have the last word. Evil may afflict us, but it cannot defeat us. Christ is risen: we have no more evil to fear. He is risen indeed ALLELUIA.

Posted on April 23, 2019 .

Easter Vigil April 20th 2019

Easter Vigil 2019

It’s a shambles, isn’t it? The Easter Vigil I mean—a wonderful, exciting shambles. It was clearly designed by a committee: bits stick out at all angles. We keep hitting high points—the lighting of the candle, the proclamation of the light of Christ, and the Exsultet; the Gloria; the solemn Alleluia—yet after each of them we are brought back down to earth until the next high point. It is a sort of liturgical roller coaster, a joyful and magnificent shambles.

That is appropriate, because life is a shambles, and the world is a shambles, and the Church is a shambles, and you and I are a shambles. And it doesn’t matter, because, into the shambles comes a dead man walking, God who died and who rose from the dead. He enters the shambles, and He shows His wounds, the wounds which transform the shambles into glory, wounds which heal the shambles of the world, and of the Church, and of the lives of you and me.

Christ is risen, and the shambles is transformed. Darkness is changed into light, death into eternal life, and every shambles into a meeting point with Christ, who died and who is alive for ever.

Posted on April 22, 2019 .

Maundy Thursday April 18th 2019

Holy Thursday 2019

The sisters carried out the foot washing in community. I hope that they didn’t come as close to disaster as I did on one occasion.

It happened at the Diocesan Youth Centre at Castlerigg Manor. I was principal celebrant, and we were reading the Gospel in dialogue form. As I progressed along the line of “disciples” I noticed that “Peter” had the dirtiest foot I had ever seen in my life. If he had spent a lifetime tramping the dusty roads of Palestine, his foot could not have collected more grime.

Totally oblivious, he entered the dialogue with relish. “Not only my feet but my hands and my head as well” he exclaimed enthusiastically. Er.......! All might have been well had it not been for the Becher’s Brook which constituted my response, and which I could see looming: “No one who has taken a bath needs washing—he is clean all over. You too are clean, though not all of you are.”

It was more than flesh and blood could cope with, and I found myself infected with one of those fits of the giggles, which grow worse the more you need to suppress them. I took a run at the words, and pulled up short. I tried again, and eventually poured them out in the sort of falsetto scream with which Brian Johnston attempted to describe Ian Botham’s  mishap in dislodging the bails with his trouser leg in an Ashes Test. Meanwhile the object of this unseemly mirth remained blissfully unaware.

Yet, believe it or not, there was something  appropriate about his condition. As the Church, we are the people of mucky feet. Pope Francis has said as much, insisting that pastors must live with the smell of the sheep, and that all Christians must get our hands dirty.

We so often seek to present ourselves at the banquet of the Lord, instituted this night as Jesus made Himself the true Paschal Lamb, giving His Body and Blood as food and drink, in preparation for the shedding of that blood on the Cross—we seek to present ourselves in pristine condition, worthy to take part in so solemn and so awesome a celebration.

What we are attempting is impossible. We cannot be worthy to receive the living God within ourselves: to believe that we might be so would be blasphemy. That is why we say, not simply as a ritual, but with absolute truth, immediately before receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord: “Lord I am not worthy.”

And it doesn’t matter. He whom we receive makes up for our unworthiness. He transforms us into worthy dwelling places for Him. Nor does He inquire into the cleanliness of our feet—or, if He does, it is to ask whether they are mucky enough. Have we been walking among the sheep? Have our feet become grimy in our service of, and involvement with, others? Or have we floated serenely above the mess and squalor of our world, despising it, disdaining it, failing to recognise the face of Christ among it?

Of course, the nature of our involvement will vary in accordance with our particular vocation. For contemplative religious, that involvement will come mainly through prayer, but it will entail a struggle with God and a compassion with the world which will bring its own share of grime and sweat. For others, there may be a more direct involvement. For all of us, there will be a constant need for the Lord to wash us ever anew, because we are, and must be, the people of mucky feet.

Posted on April 22, 2019 .