Monday, January 31, 2011

Tuesday of the second week in ordinary time

Hebrews 12:1-4; Psalm 21:26-28,30-32 (LXX); Mark 5:21-43

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.  (Heb 12.1-2)

.  .  .

It just happens, I suppose, that one of my favorite stories from Mark's gospel (the healing of the woman with an issue of blood and the raising of Jairus' daughter) is paired with these verses from Hebrews 12, which I know by heart. Hearing either would take me back to the context in which these passages of Scripture first came alive for me: my days as a college student in southern California. Nothing was more important then than being a disciple of Jesus, and studying Scripture and praying with friends was the focus of my life. 

Twenty years later, work and family demand my attention and energy. Being a disciple of Jesus doesn't look the same. But I am grateful for the way these passages have stuck with me; over the years the cloud of witnesses has grown, as I have come to know more about the lives of the saints, and my appreciation for the complexity of Jesus' interaction with the woman with an issue of blood has deepened. 

In some ways, everything has changed. In others, everything remains the same. I may be twenty years older, but I stand in as great a need of that cloud of witnesses, and as entangled by sin as I was at twenty. Of course, it doesn't look the same: I have no difficulty these days staying away from fraternity parties and all the temptations involved. But the sinful inclinations persist like the issue of blood: I still stand in as great a need of healing as I ever did. Perhaps in some ways, my need is greater, though the lapses in judgement that led me straight into temptation are fewer and farther between. It takes time for the issue of blood to drain away the woman's resources, while she seeks remedies that do not cure her. 

Her experience might be better expressed by a few lines of the psalm not included in today's responsorial: 
I am poured out like water, 
  and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax, 
  it is melted within my breast; 
my strength is dried up like a potsherd, 
  and my tongue cleaves to my jaws;
  thou dost lay me in the dust of death.
                                                 (Ps 21.14-15)

And it is into that context that the words of the end of the psalm and the encouragement to persevere are spoken. Not for the content or the strong, but for those 'poured out like water', for the desperate and the afflicted. For all those in need of healing, Jesus 'endured the cross, despising the shame'; and he sits at the right hand of the throne of God having accomplished her salvation and mine: 

Yea, to him shall all the proud of the earth bow down;
  before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, 
   and he who cannot keep himself alive.
Posterity shall serve him; 
  men shall tell of the Lord to the
  coming generation,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, 
  that he has wrought it. 
                                                 (Ps 21. 30-31)

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Monday of the fourth week of ordinary time

Hebrews 11:32-40; Psalm 30:20-24 (LXX); Mark 5:1-20

Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, or of David, Samuel and the prophets – these were men who through faith conquered kingdoms, did what is right and earned the promises.  (Heb 11.32)

Be strong, and let your heart take courage,
  all you who wait for the Lord!       (Ps 30.24)

So he gave them leave. and the unclean spirits came out, and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank in to the sea, and were drowned in the sea. (Mk 5.13)

.  .  .

Jephthah? My first thought at reading the first verse of the passage from Hebrews was utter disbelief. How does Jephthah make it to the litany of the faithful in Hebrews 11? The story told about him and his family in Judges 11 does record his victory in battle, but one wonders whether even Jephthah himself would have considered the victory worth what it cost him: his daughter, his only child. His tale is tragic, and his loss as mysterious as Job's. There is no doubt, reading Judges 11, that God allowed Jephthah to make the vow that  won the battle and took his daughter from him. Why?

Mark's gospel offers no answers, only more--and different--questions. The demoniac is healed, but someone lost a herd of pigs in the bargain. One might argue that the life of the man is worth more, but I would still ask whether the demoniac could not have been healed without the loss of the pigs? (I know, the pigs weren't of particular concerns to the Israelites. But still.) Likewise, could not Jephthah's battle have been won without that vow? Or could the Lord not have arranged for a goat to be first to meet Jephthah on his return? Yet there he is, listed among some of the most remarkably faithful characters in the history of Israel: clearly we are not meant to forget his story, or to push him aside in our recollection of God's faithfulness to Israel, but to remember him for his faith.

It doesn't make sense. But then, there's quite a bit in the history of Israel and the Church, and in my own history, that just doesn't make sense. But would a reason really make it easier? Would Jephthah's loss be less tragic if there were a reason for his daughter's death?

And so, in the middle of it all, there's a psalm. It is a psalm that recounts the faithfulness of God and celebrates the steadfast love of the Lord. Somehow, in the midst of the suffering, even the most apparently senseless suffering, God's justice and mercy prevail. So the only response to the tragedies that shatter us, and fly in the face of the goodness of God, is to hear the psalmist's encouragement:

Be strong, and let your heart take courage,
  all you who wait for the Lord.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Saturday of the third week in ordinary time.

Hebrews 11:1-2,8-19; Luke 1:69-75; Mark 4:35-41

.  .  .

The icon captures the climactic moment in the gospel story: Jesus calms the storm, and the disciples are amazed: 'Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?' 

But before the awe comes terror. Jesus is asleep in the stern, as the wind tosses the boat around on the rising waves. Many times during the last several months, this particular story from Mark's gospel has come to mind. I have felt like the disciples, in a boat at the mercy of the storm. And I have pleaded with the master also: 'Teacher, do you not care if we perish?' 

Jesus asks whether they have no faith. The evidence, actually, is that they do. They're the boatsmen. If getting safely through the storm required skill, there would have been no reason to wake Jesus. What did they expect him to do? How could he possibly help? Perhaps they did not have much faith, since they seem surprised to find that he was, in fact, able to calm the storm. 

But a little faith is all it takes. (See also yesterday's gospel: Mark 4:26-34.) The letter to the Hebrews shifts in chapter 11 from the great high priest to the faithful men and women of the Old Testament: 'Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old received divine approval' (11.1-2). Among those so credited is Sarah, who 'received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised' (v. 11). As I read that bit of Genesis, though, Sarah's faith is less obvious: she laughed

The disciples in Mark's gospel are notorious for not getting the point. That seems to be the way, though, and God doesn't seem to mind terribly. Sarah laughs, but conceives anyway; Jesus scolds the disciples for having 'no faith', but calms the storm, and not long after, sends them out two by two, giving them authority over the unclean spirits. 

Maybe, just maybe, there's hope for me, after all. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Thursday of the third week in ordinary time

Hebrews 10.19-25; Psalm 23.1-6(LXX); Mark 4.21-25

Through the blood of Jesus we have the right to enter the sanctuary, by a new way which he has opened for us, a living opening through the curtain, that is to say, his body. And we have the supreme high priest over all the house of God. So as we go in, let us be sincere in heart and filled with faith, our minds sprinkled and free from any trace of bad conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us keep firm in the hope we profess, because the one who made the promise is faithful. Let us be concerned for each other, to stir a response in love and good works. Do not stay away from the meetings of the community, as some do, but encourage each other to go; the more so as you see the Day drawing near.
                                                                                                               (Heb 10.19-25; Jerusalem Bible)

Who may ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who may stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
Who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood,
And has not sworn deceitfully.
                                               (Ps 23.3-4; NASB)

.  .  .

Apparently I was not the first person to think this psalm fit together well with this section of the letter to the Hebrews. As I read the first reading, my first thought was, 'I should have waited; this is a much better fit with the psalm'.

I am left, however, in the same place: humbled by the testimony of Scripture to the faithful love of the God who saves. Through Christ we have been saved, and through the gift of Scripture we come to understand that salvation, and are moved to thanksgiving and praise.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son,
  and to the Holy Spirit,
  as it was in the beginning,
  is now and ever shall be,
  world without end,

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

St Timothy and St Titus, Bishops

Hebrews 10:11-18; Psalm 109:1-4 (LXX); Mark 4:1-20

All the priests stand at their duties every day, offering over and over again the same sacrifices which are quite incapable of taking sins away. He, on the other hand, has offered one single sacrifice for sins, and then taken his place forever, at the right hand of God, where he is now waiting until his enemies are made into a footstool for him. By virtue of that one single offering, he has achieved the eternal perfection of all whom he is sanctifying.  (Hebrews 10.11-14, Jerusalem Bible)

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
  And who shall stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
  who does not lift up his soul to what is false,
  and does not swear deceitfully.
He will receive blessing from the Lord, 
  and vindication from the God of his salvation. 
                                        (Ps 23.3-5 [LXX])

.  .  .

I hope I can be forgiven for having grown a bit weary of the same four verses about Melchizedek that seem to accompany many of the readings from the middle of the letter to the Hebrews. As I read the invitatory psalm for today (an alternate to the usual Ps 94 [LXX]), it seemed to fit well with the passage from Hebrews.

These few verses in particular always used to worry me: I despaired of ever being the one with clean hands and a pure heart, worthy to ascend the hill of the Lord. But eventually I came to realize that the one who has clean hands and a pure heart is Christ, the Lord, the priest who 'has offered one single sacrifice for sins' and, in so doing, 'has achieved the eternal perfection of of whom he is sanctifying'.

The psalm no longer worries me as it once did. Some days, I confess to feeling a bit complacent, though: Jesus has done it all, and my sins have been done away with by his sacrifice. And I am perhaps not as contrite as I should be. Other days--better days, I think--I am humbled by the knowledge and the comfort that this psalm brings me. Not only the big, dramatic sins of the world and its great ones (the Apostle Paul comes to mind here), but for my stupid, petulant, and self-serving sins, Christ has overcome by his life, death and resurrection. At least Paul, I surmise, thought he was doing the right thing, however wrong-headed his persecution of the church was. Often I stumble forward, not even trying very hard to determine what the right thing is: I am, rather, concerned about avoiding pain. I seek the pleasures, small and great, that make life enjoyable and give me something to look forward to after the chores are done.

To think that the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, stoops to take away my sins of ignorance and stubbornness, pettiness and weakness, is humbling indeed. In return, all I have to offer is what has been asked of God's people: a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
  as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be,
  world without end,

Sunday, January 23, 2011

St Francis de Sales

Hebrews 9:15,24-28; Psalm 97:1-6 (LXX); Mark 3:22-30

O sing to the Lord a new song, 
  for he has done marvelous things; 
His right hand and his holy arm 
  have gotten him victory.

He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
  to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen the victory
  of our God.                   (Ps 97.1, 3)

.  .  .

The reading from Hebrews and the passage from Mark's gospel point differently to the same proof of God's steadfast love and faithfulness to God's people: Jesus, the Christ. The evidence that God continues to remember his steadfast love and faithfulness to us is in the lives of saints like Francis de Sales. The biography Universalis offers is brief, but makes the point perfectly: 

St Francis de Sales was born near Ann├ęcy, in Savoy, studied the law, and was ordained to the priesthood despite the opposition of his father. His first mission was to re-evangelize the people of his home district (the Chablais), who had gone over to Calvinism. Always in danger of his life from hostile Calvinists, he preached with such effectiveness that after four years most of the people had returned to the Church. He was then appointed bishop of Geneva, and spent the rest of his life reforming and reorganising the diocese, and in caring for the souls of his people by preaching and spiritual guidance.
  St Francis taught that we can all attain a devout and spiritual life, whatever our position in society: holiness is not reserved for monks and hermits alone. His wrote that “religious devotion does not destroy: it perfects,” and his spiritual counsel is dedicated to making people more holy by making them more themselves. In his preaching against Calvinism he was driven by love rather than a desire to win: so much so, that it was a Calvinist minister who said “if we honoured anyone as a saint, I know of no-one since the days of the Apostles more worthy of it than this man.”
  St Francis is the patron saint of writers and journalists, who would do well to imitate his love and his moderation: as he said, “whoever wants to preach effectively must preach with love.”

Friday, January 21, 2011

Second Saturday in ordinary time

Hebrews 9. 2-3, 11-14; Psalm 46.2-3, 6-9(LXX); Mark 3.20-21

For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blook of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.  (Heb 9.13-14)

.  .  .

The interesting word here is conscience. What does it mean for Jesus' blood to 'purify your conscience from dead works'? At first, I wonder at that power: we may go to the Lord in confession and receive absolution. Our sins have been forgiven; but does absolution purify our conscience? It seems to me to be far more difficult to receive grace at that level. Looking again, I wonder whether the 'dead works' of conscience are not exactly that: carrying the burden of sins that God has forgiven.

Perhaps I have always been mistaken about what it means for a Christian to have a clean conscience. A clean conscience, I thought, meant knowing you had done no wrong. But the writer to the Hebrews says otherwise. A pure conscience gets that way by being purified. That, it seems to me, is another thing entirely. Christ's act of reconciling us to the Father overcomes our sin, making us new as if we had not sinned: 'If anyone is in Christ, she is a new creation...'

And I realize just how little I experience and live in that reality. I believe, Lord: help my unbelief.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Feast of St Agnes of Rome

Hebrews 8:6-13; Psalm 84:8,10-14(LXX); Mark 3:13-19

This is the covenant that I will make after those days, says the Lord: 
I will put my laws into their minds, 
and write them on their hearts, 
and I will be their God, 
and they shall be my people.      (Heb 8.10)

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, 
  for he will speak peace to his people, 
  to his saints, to those who turn to him in their hearts. 
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; 
  righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, 
  and righteousness will look down from the sky. 
Yea, the Lord will give what is good, 
  and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him, 
  and make his footsteps a way.    (Ps 84. 8, 10-14)
.  .  .

In which days? Reading these passages calls to mind immediately the tension in which we live, between Christ's death and resurrection, and the union of steadfast love and faithfulness. St Agnes died in that tension, very early in the fourth century, even as the shape of the Christian faith was emerging. And I can't imagine what it would have been like, facing death so young. 

One of the central characters in Graham Greene's novel, The End of the Affair, writes: 'I want the dramatic always. I imagine I'm ready for the pain of your nails, and I can't stand twenty-four hours of maps and Michelin guides. Dear God, I'm no use...Clear me out of the way.' I suspect I would be more like Sarah Miles than St Agnes of Rome when it came to it: I am not that strong. 

My only hope is to be caught up in the exchange of divine love that draws all creation into it, into the kiss of steadfast love and faithfulness, to be hidden away in Christ, who was strong enough, and in whose strength alone I will find my own.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Thursday of the second week in ordinary time

Hebrews 7:25-8:6; Psalm 39:7-10,17(LXX); Mark 3:7-12

I have told the glad news of deliverance
  in the great congregation; 
lo, I have not restrained my lips, 
  as thou knowest, O Lord.
I have not hid thy saving help within my heart, 
  I have spoken of thy faithfulness and thy salvation; 
I have not concealed thy steadfast love and thy faithfulness
  from the great congregation.         (Ps 39.9-10)

And he told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they should crush him; for he had healed many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him. (Mk 3.9-10)

.  .  .

There is a connection, I think, between 'the glad news of deliverance' and the healing that people quickly come to expect from Jesus (especially in Mark's gospel). People draw near to Jesus, because he is not just the bearer of God's salvation, he is that salvation.

It is difficult to read passages like this one from Mark without wishing that deliverance was so straightforward: diseases are healed, demons cast out. What's wrong is obvious, and salvation is immediate. People go their way, having been made well by the one in whom all things hold together (Col 1.17). And I wonder what he would say to me, if I appeared before him in Galilee? He would know immediately, in a way that I do not, what it is that ails me. But in what would my faith consist? I suppose all I have to offer is my presence before him, which is the only testimony to my belief that he has the power to make me whole again.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Tuesday of the second week in ordinary time

Hebrews 6.10-20; Psalm 110.1-2,4-5,9,10 (LXX); Mark 2.23-28

So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he interposed with an oath, so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible that God should prove false, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.        (Heb 6.17-20)

He has sent redemption to his people; 
   he has commanded his covenant forever.
Holy and terrible is his name!                      (Ps 110.9)

And [Jesus] said to them, 'have you not heard what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?' And he said to them, 'The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath'.            (Mk 2.25-28)

.  .  .

Jesus changes everything. And yet every change that he brings does not do away with the old, but fulfills it, making it new. 

Can it be the same in our lives, I wonder? Because we all look back (unless we are very lucky, I suppose) and see things that seem to have no place, things we regard as mistakes and sometimes deeply regret. How does God make good come out of the messes we make of our lives? God must: that's God's nature, to take what is broken or spent and make it new. So Jesus appears on the scene and says, No, you've not got it quite right. This is how it is supposed to work: sight to the blind, freedom for captives, good news to the poor. God is for us, having given the law as a blessing, not a burden. 

I look at my own life and see dimly how I have missed the point. I have mistaken blessings for burdens and seen temptation as opportunity. In Christian parlance, we call that sin, don't we? And Jesus is the remedy for that--but what happens to the time I spent walking the wrong road? What of the misplaced affection and misdirected energy? Is it all simply lost because I went left instead of right, down instead of up? No, I think not. The 'unchangeable character of [God's] purpose' is not thwarted, not hindered in the least or the slightest by my failings. That is the sure hope, the anchor for my soul: that he remains faithful, even when I am faithless, knitting back together the life he intends for me, every time I try to unravel it, however many straying strands have to be worked into the pattern. So I should pick myself up and start again, in the confidence that he who has begun the good work in me will bring it to completion, and pray again and again: let it be done to me according to your word. 

Sunday, January 16, 2011

St Anthony, Abbot

Hebrews 5.1-10; Psalm 109.1-4 (LXX); Mark 2.18-22

Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.                                   (Hebrews 5.8-10)

.  .  .

Theologically, I find the passage from Hebrews puzzling and paradoxical. It is difficult to think about the Incarnate Word learning obedience or 'being made perfect'. In the unity of Father and Son there is a complete unity of will: what then does obedience mean without any opposition between the two wills? And how is the Incarnate Word, who is God, 'made perfect'? Obedience and perfection must mean something different when applied to the unique person who is fully divine and fully human. 

But perfection and obedience are at the heart of a life like St Anthony's. St Athanasius writes: 

Now it was not six months after the death of his parents, and going according tocustom into the Lord's House, he communed with himself and reflected as he walked how the Apostles left all and followed the Saviour; and how they in the Acts sold their possessions and brought and laid them at the Apostles' feet for distribution to the needy, and what and how great a hope was laid up for them in heaven. Pondering over these things he entered the church, and it happened the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man, 'If you would be perfect, go and sell that you have and give to the poor; and come follow Me and you shall have treasure in heaven.' Antony, as though God had put him in mind of the Saints, and the passage had been read on his account, went out immediately from thechurch, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers— they were three hundred acres , productive and very fair— that they should be no more a clog upon himself and his sister. And all the rest that was movable he sold, and having got together much money he gave it to the poor, reserving a little however for his sister's sake.*

St Anthony's obedience to the Gospel and his desire for perfection led him out into the desert. He battled demons and wild animals, and refuted heretics and atheist philosophers. All this, St Athanasius tells us, Anthony does by the Holy Spirit: his spiritual strength and intellectual abilities come from God, and are not human achievements. Early Christian ascetics, many of whom followed in the footsteps of St Anthony, saw self-denial and humility as aids to the perfection of the soul. Following the Lord's example, St Anthony embraced suffering in order to be made perfect by grace. 

In describing St Anthony's life, Athanasius writes: 

the fact that his fame has been blazoned everywhere; that all regard him with wonder, and that those who have never seen him long for him, is clear proof of his virtue and God's love of his soul. For not from writings, nor from worldly wisdom, nor through any art, was Antony renowned, but solely from his piety towards God. That this was the gift of God no one will deny. For from whence into Spain and into Gaul, how into Rome and Africa, was the man heard of who abode hidden in a mountain, unless it was Godwho makes His own known everywhere, who also promised this to Antony at the beginning? For even if they work secretly, even if they wish to remain in obscurity, yet the Lord shows them as lamps to lighten all, that those who hear may thus know that theprecepts of God are able to make men prosper and thus be zealous in the path of virtue.**

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Second Sunday in ordinary time

Isaiah 49:3,5-6; Psalm 39:2,4,7-10 (LXX); 1 Corinthians 1:1-3; John 1:29-34

I, Paul, appointed by God to be an apostle, together with brother Sosthenes, send greetings to the church of God in Corinth, to the holy people of Jesus Christ, who are called to take their place among all the saints everywhere who pray to our Lord Jesus Christ; for he is their Lord no less than ours. May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ send you grace and peace.
(I Cor 1.1-3)

. . .

I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about what it means to be a Christian. Mostly, that's because I write and teach theology, and I am interested in Christian identity and Christian formation. But it is also a question I ask myself on a more personal level. To follow Christ (which is one way of describing what it is to be a Christian) as a lecturer in theology and ethics, a wife and the mother of three children must look different from the life of discipleship for a single twenty-something. It was, however, in the crucible of those years that my faith was shaped and formed, and I often feel that I am not living the radical and passionate faith I embraced then.

Well, I am not. I spend a lot more time folding clothes and wiping noses than I did then. I am responsible to people other than myself, entrusted with the care of others both as a teacher and a parent, and committed to married life. I am not 'free' to give away my time or money in the same way, and so I often think of myself as limited in the practice of Christian faith. But am I really?

I read the texts set for Sunday Mass, and wondered about this little bit from I Corinthians. What is that doing there? What relation does it bear to the rest of the readings? And what could possibly be said on the basis of these few introductory lines of St Paul's? Teasing out the connections between the passages I leave to the experts: surely those experienced in preaching (which I am not) would be able to say something wise and faithful about the Big Picture these texts paint. I have only an observation to make: that the readings all point us to the central feature of the life of God's people, the apostolic mission. To be a part of the people of God, whether in Israel or as a member of the Body of Christ, is to be called and sent as a witness to the world of the love of God and God's desire to save.

What differs about our lives as we follow Christ is the context in which we embrace this calling. Teaching, parenting and being married all afford opportunities for faithfulness that were simply not available to me as a twenty-something with my life ahead of me and what seems now like all the freedom in the world. The radical obedience that Christian faith requires is going where God leads, and being faithful where God calls us to be. And that obedience is no less radical at forty-something, waiting on God as I do chores or prepare lectures, than it was in weekend prayer vigils or community living at twenty-something.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Saturday of the first week in ordinary time

Hebrews 4:12-16; Psalm 18:8-10,15 (LXX); Mark 2:13-17

The word of God is living and effective,
sharper than any two-edged sword,
penetrating even between soul and spirit,
joints and marrow,
and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.
No creature is concealed from him,
but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him
to whom we must render an account.

Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens,
Jesus, the Son of God,
let us hold fast to our confession.
For we do not have a high priest
who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but one who has similarly been tested in every way,
yet without sin.
So let us confidently approach the throne of grace
to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help. (Heb 4.12-16)

Some scribes who were Pharisees saw that Jesus was eating with sinners
and tax collectors and said to his disciples,
“Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus heard this and said to them,
“Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.
I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” (Mk 2.16-17)

. . .

Three observations and a question. First, I had never before noticed the personal pronoun used of the word of the Lord in Hebrews 4. I am used to hearing v 12 applied to the Bible, rather than the Word of God; the full passage indicates clearly that the active, living, penetrating and discerning Word is none other than the second person of the Trinity. Second, the Word is identified with the One who became flesh and dwelt among us, sharing our nature, 'sin apart' (Gregory Nazianzen). The precision with which the Word penetrates does not have pain or punishment as its object, but mercy. The Word is living and active; the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; the Word 'is able to sympathize with our weakness' and we can depend on obtaining 'mercy and grace' in from him in our time of need. Third, in case there was any doubt, the affirmation of Jesus himself shows again the purpose for which the Word is sent: to offer healing to those who are sick. The Word became flesh to call sin-sick souls not to the judgement seat, but to the throne of grace.

I wonder, though, what the relationship is between the word of God in Hebrews 4 and the decrees of God in Psalm 18: what can God decree apart from God's Word? Law, decree, ordinance, precept, command, and the fear of the Lord are not terms that naturally suggest mercy, yet that is precisely what the Word is. The law of the Lord is fulfilled in the incarnation of the Word; Love comes in human form to heal and to save. shall my Word be that goes forth from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace... (Isaiah 55.11-12)

That is good news, indeed.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Friday of the first week in ordinary time

Hebrews 4:1-5, 11; Psalm 77:3-4,6-8 (LXX); Mark 2:1-12

He established a testimony in Jacob,
and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our fathers
to teach to their children;
that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and arise and tell them to their children,
so that they should set their hope in God,
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments;
and that they should not be like their fathers,
a stubborn and rebellious generation,
a generation whose heart was not steadfast,
whose spirit was not faithful to God.
(Ps 77.5-8)

And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay.
(Mk 2.4)

. . .

The beginning of the letter to the Hebrews is a meditation on the past unfaithfulness of Israel, as described in Ps 77. Mark's gospel shows us that faithfulness has some surprising faces, and reveals again, in the person of Jesus, the steadfast love and compassion of God.

Human faithfulness is only ever a dependence on God's faithfulness to God's character and God's promises. The leper and the friends of the paralytic reflect faithfulness by heeding the command of God to 'call upon me in the day of trouble'. God promises, 'I will rescue you, and you shall glorify me'.

I tend to think of faithfulness as a kind of success. To be faithful, that is, is to achieve something. And, I suppose, there are spectacular examples of faithfulness that seem to support that view. But more often faithfulness emerges out of failure: I think of David, of Peter, and of Paul. We follow in the footsteps of disciples like these, who were guilty of adultery and murder, denying Christ, and persecuting the church. What they have in common is not a perfect record, but repentance. Faithfulness, it seems, has more to do with knowing where to turn when you've gone wrong than knowing how to get it right all the time.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us what faithfulness is for: 'Let us therefore strive to enter [God's] rest, that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience' (4.11). Obedience is entering God's rest; obedience is not work (v. 10: 'whoever enters God's rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his'), but the fruit of resting in God. The spirit faithful to God heeds the words of Jesus: 'come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest' (Mt 11.28).

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Thursday of the first week in ordinary time

Hebrews 3:7-14; Psalm 94:6-11 (LXX); Mark 1:40-45

'If you are willing, you can make me clean' (Mk 1.40).

. . .

So says the leper, approaching Jesus. 'If you are willing...' His doubt is not about what Jesus can do. Although it is early in Mark's gospel, this man seems to have discovered that Jesus is extraordinary. But he, like the Israelites in Hebrews 3 and Psalm 94, does not really know the Lord's ways. 'If you are willing', he says; he sounds less than certain of that power being extended towards him.

Mark tells us that Jesus was moved with compassion. I remember very distinctly my first encounter with this passage, in my second year in college. The word that Mark uses describes Jesus' compassion as something like a gut-reaction, deep and instinctive. This is the way of the Lord, to be moved with pity for those most in need of healing.

Hebrews 3 and Psalm 94 both refer to the people who do not know the Lord's ways as stubborn, stiff-necked. My own heart more closely resembles the Israelites: I resist the Lord's leading, because I have not yet truly learned his ways. Like the leper, I believe in the power of God's healing. I have seen it in my own life and in the lives of others. But not for a while--and I find myself doubting not the power of God but the compassion of God. 'Full of compassion and abounding in steadfast love'? I wonder: does that love extend into the darkness that surrounds me? Because I know that light cannot be extinguished by even my darkest darkness, and I cannot hide from it, however thickly I cover myself with fig leaves.

He can. But will he make me whole again? Is he willing? Seems I have a long way to go in learning the ways of the Lord.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

St Aelred of Rievaulx

Hebrews 2:14-18; Psalm 104:1-4,6-9; Mark 1:29-39

Since all the children share the same blood and flesh, Christ too shared equally in it, so that by his death he could take away all the power of the devil, who had power over death, and set free all those who had been held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death. For it was not the angels that he took to himself; he took to himself descent from Abraham. It was essential that he should in this way become completely like his brothers so that he could be a compassionate and trustworthy high priest of God’s religion, able to atone for human sins. That is, because he has himself been through temptation he is able to help others who are tempted.

Hebrews 2.14-18

. . .

Yes, but... My first reaction to the suggestion that Jesus faced temptation in the way that I do is, 'surely not!' If he was fully God as well as fully human, was it even possible for him to sin? St Gregory Nazianzus (and others) have insisted he was like us in all things except sin: the question is, what does 'except sin' mean?

Here's where my training and practice in academic theology intersect with my practice of Christian faith. I can see myself, teaching on the Incarnation, assuming that we all know what St Gregory means: Christ Jesus is like us, but without the stain of original sin. He doesn't need to be baptized (as we heard on Sunday), for he has no sin to be washed away. So far, so good. But how, then, can he help me? I understand perfectly what it means to say 'we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves'. The fact that St Paul himself confesses (in Romans 7) that he struggles to do the good, and fails, reassures me that I am not alone. St Paul understands, but how can Jesus understand that aspect of my humanity?

I realize I don't believe it. Just flatly don't believe it. Because a part of what we experience in sinful human nature is that bondage, the slavery to sin that makes the fall into temptation a habit of sinning. The one-off temptation to do something we clearly recognize is wrong, I am happy to admit that Jesus could understand. But the temptation to do something we've realized is wrong only after making a habit of it? That seems to me to be another matter entirely. And I don't have any answers, only questions and more questions. I hope the writer of Hebrews is right, and there is help for us, especially those of us blundering along in absolute darkness with about as much hope of resisting the temptation to grab hold of something to guide us as a moth has of resisting the porch light.