Friday, June 29, 2012

St Peter and St Paul

Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee:
in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.
Acts 3

. . .

Just in case I had forgotten that today is a holy day of obligation, I received a text message from my sons' school earlier in the week, reminding me that there would be Mass in the school hall on this feast. Indeed. And so, as it was also the first time Thomas, my 8-year-old, would be receiving communion at school, I went.

This perhaps explains my rendition of this bit of Acts: it is from the song that taught me this story when I was a child. On hearing Peter's words, the man 'went walking and leaping and praising God.' Now I look at the story differently. The man who used to beg at the city gates has to find a new occupation. Healing means change, sometimes big and radical change; sometimes the healing, however miraculous, is not the whole story of restoration.

But that isn't what I was thinking about today during Mass. No, today in Mass I was reflecting that these are the stories that pass on this peculiar faith, the church's faith, handed down from generation to generation. My mother handed it down to me (both at home and at church, and I am certain that she taught me the song based on Acts 3), and I am, with the help of my children's school and our parish church, handing it down to my children. Sometimes I think I don't do a very good job. I can't understand how all that the Bible says about God is true. Heaven remains a concept too big and elusive for me to get my mind around it. Anticipating the questions my children would ask about where Nana (my mother) went when she died last summer, I froze. Where, exactly, would that be? And how, exactly, is it that 'she' is 'with God' or 'in heaven' when her body was there, in the funeral home? It all seems pretty far-fetched and utterly inexplicable. The answers that might do for my children would not do for me.

Somewhere along the way, though, I realised that the kind of answers that might satisfy the children shouldn't satisfy me. It is, as I often say in teaching my theology students, a mystery. The fact that I can't imagine it, that it all seems implausible, is not troublesome but appropriate. Wasn't it Augustine who said that if we understood, what we understood was not God? My failure to comprehend, to answer the 'how' questions satisfactorily, is a difficulty, not a doubt. I should not expect to comprehend.

Standing now at the beautiful gate, having risen from the pallet and left the crutch behind, we--the healed man and I--have to learn a new way of being in the world. The healing, the realisation, is only the beginning, the first small step into the abundant life promised and offered to us by Jesus.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Monday of week 12 of the year

...But they would not listen, they were more stubborn than their ancestors had been who had no faith in the Lord their God. They despised his laws and the covenant he had made with their ancestors, and the warnings he had given them. They pursued emptiness, and themselves became empty through copying the nations round them although the Lord had ordered them not to act as they did.

       2 Kings 17.14-15

Will you utterly reject us, O God,
  and no longer march with our armies?
Give us help against the foe:
  for the help of man is vain.

      Psalm 59.12-13

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; because the judgements you give are the judgements you will get, and the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given. Why do you observe the splinter in your brother’s eye and never notice the plank in your own? How dare you say to your brother, “Let me take the splinter out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own? Hypocrite! Take the plank out of your own eye first, and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye.’
      Matthew 7.1-5

.               .             .


The RSV translates emptiness as 'false idols' that make 'false' those who worshipped them. But I prefer the Jerusalem Bible's rendering, though the RSV may be more faithful to the Hebrew. We are so used to Old Testament references to 'false idols.' We remember the golden calf and the unfaithfulness of the people, who turn aside to false gods. That language applies to ancient Israel, we think. We--I at least--tend not to see how it applies to us.

But we know emptiness. We know what it is to be spent, to be worn out and alone. We know about pursuing what does not really satisfy us. This language speaks to the deepest recesses of my soul in its most tired moments. I must admit that I tend to do precisely what the Hebrews did in the time of the kings: I pursue emptiness. Sometimes my emptiness is vanity, sometimes popularity or importance. Why can I not be the indispensable one or the lucky one? When I set my heart on being liked or being valued in the little circles, I am often disappointed. Empty.

The gospel reading for today reminds me what I ought to do. I find fault with others for not regarding me as they ought. But do I really see so clearly? Perhaps not. I have mistaken the covenant that gives life for the idols that drain my soul. I can neither fill myself nor clear my vision, and there is only one thing left to do. With the Psalmist I must plead with God, 'Give me help against the foe: for the help of man is vain.' I will call upon the Lord in the day of trouble--even such petty, insignificant and selfish trouble--and he will answer me.

Let me see clearly and love rightly and give praise to the God who saves.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

St Aloysius Gonzaga

The prophet Elijah arose like a fire,
his word flaring like a torch.
How glorious you were in your miracles, Elijah...
designated in the prophecies of doom
to allay God's wrath before the fury breaks,
to turn the hearts of fathers towards their children,
and to restore the tribes of Jacob.

Ecclesiasticus 48

Jesus said to his should pray like this:
'Our Father in heaven...
And forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us...'
Yes, if you forgive others their failings, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours, but if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive you either.

Matthew 6

. . .

The list of Elijah's miracles is much longer than what I have quoted above, of course. How could the writer not include Elijah's amazing display of God's power in the face of the prophets of Ba'al? Or his raising a widow's son from the dead? Elijah's miracles are impressive, to be sure. But the list culminates with what seems to be the purpose of all these miracles: to restore the tribes of Jacob, by the miracle of turning the fathers' hearts back to their children. This is a miracle? Are not the hearts of the fathers turned naturally toward their children?

No. The hearts of the fathers, and of the children, too, are turned away. It seems to me that the hearts of the fathers being turned away signals the breakdown of human community as God intended it to be. All our hearts are turned the wrong direction--away from God, and away from those closest to us, those whom we are expected naturally and instinctively to love. But we fail: it takes a miracle to turn our hearts in the right direction. We need to be re-oriented to give and receive love as we should.

This helps, I think, with what seem to be the harsh words following the Lord's prayer in Matthew's gospel: if we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven, and that means, well, the 'doom' prophesied in Elijah's day. We need a miracle to allay that wrath. Fortunately, God seems well-disposed to offering just that sort of miracle. And so we have Jesus to mediate and the Spirit to inspire and to strengthen. And that is very good news indeed.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

St Anthony of Padua

Answer me, O Lord, answer me,
that this people may know that you are God
and are winning back their hearts.
1 Kings 18

. . .

The whole passage is worth reading, if you haven't already heard it or read it today, verses 20-39. It is one of my very favourite narratives from the Old Testament. (Yes, I was taught to refer to the first 66 books as the 'Hebrew Bible' and I do in academic settings. But this is the Mass reading for today.) As a teenager, I enjoyed the show of power: the Lord vs. the prophets of Ba'al. Elijah is heroic, the display of God's attention towards God's people is amazing, and one wonders how the people ever doubted after that.

But that's not all there is to it, obviously. One of the most memorable sermons I have heard in the past several years examined the difference in the characters of the deities being entreated. On the one hand, there is a god who asks people to mutilate themselves, to inflict self-harm. Pleading with Ba'al involved the shedding of people's blood. On the other hand, there is a god--God, the Lord is Israel--who gives freely, who asks nothing of the kind. We learn elsewhere in the scripture, especially from the psalms, that the main thing this Lord asks of the people is to trust him: 'call on me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor me.'

The character of the God of Israel is more interesting even than that, though. What, exactly, was it that the Lord did that made it necessary for him to win back their hearts? The passage doesn't say, and the general plot of the Old Testament involves God saving and forgiving his people. Once again, here, God makes the first move, trying to win back the hearts of his people purely out of love. It is they who must repent, not the Lord. Like the Father who runs down the road to meet his wayward son, God goes out to bring his people back to himself.

So it is: the grace of God, running out to meet us, winning back our hearts. And all we have to do is receive him, to give in.