Tuesday, October 30, 2012

St Marcellus

Husbands should love their wives just as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself for her to make her holy. He made her clean by washing her in water with a form of words, so that when he took her to himself she would be glorious, with no speck or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and faultless. In the same way, husbands must love their wives as they love their own bodies...A man never hates his own body, but he feeds it and looks after it; and that is the way Christ treats the Church, because it is his body -- and we are its living parts.
                     Ephesians 5

                                                 .                      .                        .

I know Ephesians 5 often makes us squirm. This business about husbands and wives draws too near to Timothy's prohibitions on women speaking and teaching that vex us, or some of us. (As a teacher of theology in a co-educational setting, I find the text puzzling, but not inhibiting.)

But that isn't what interests me about the passage. What interests me about the passage is how it shows up later, in the writings of St Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius wrote of the relationship between the bishop and his people in language reminiscent of this intimate connection of Christ and the church, or of husband and wife. The bishop ought to love the people as Christ loved the church, and the people ought to respect the bishop. There is a mutuality of love and care that seems far from the experience of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. St Ignatius even goes so far as to say that he had 'seen' the people, because the bishop and some of the church elders had visited him. The bishop--the clergy--and the people likewise are one flesh.

The unity of the church is no less mysterious or elusive as the unity of spouses in marriage. How are we 'one flesh'? I wonder this especially when we seem not to be of one mind, or when I trip over my spouse's shoes. How does this fumbling co-habitation, joint rearing of children, and attempt to dream a future together reflect the kind of unity Ephesians describes? And even more, how does this language used in the letter to the Ephesians and St Ignatius' letter to Smyrna describe the fractured community whose fumbling attempts at discipleship, evangelism and care for the poor fall short and sometimes fail completely? We are not spotless, not individually and not together.

We might say that the spotless bride of Christ, without 'speck or wrinkle' refers to the church in the eschaton. Of course that isn't how we are in a world in bondage to sin. I wonder, though, whether we take our corporate holiness as seriously as our own discipleship. I know that I do not (most emphatically) take every thought captive to Christ. I know that I often fail even to try to do that. But I know that I should, and I endeavour, however fitfully, to do so. About the church, I am less vigilant. I think of the church--the big, institutionalized church--as the responsibility of someone else: priests, bishops, cardinals. But that's not how Ephesians sees it, nor how St Ignatius imagined it. Taking my part means living my holiness not just for myself, but for the church, as a part of that holy body.

Well, now there's a shock: it's not about me, after all.

Deo gratias.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

St Antony Mary Claret

I have cried to you, God, because you will listen;
   turn your ear to me and listen to my words.
Pour out your kindness till men are astonished,
   you, who keep safe from attack
   all who trust in your strength.
                                           Psalm 17
I was so struck by this pair of verses from one of the psalms of the day that I have deviated from my usual practice of reflecting on the Mass readings (especially the psalm). 'I have cried to you, God, because you will listen.' The psalmist is out of options, it seems. Nobody else will listen. It reminds me of the verse from Psalm 27: even though father and mother have abandoned me, the Lord will take me up. God is the last, best hope, the One who will always listen, and never abandon us.
What the psalmist asks of God is equally striking, I think. 'Pour out your kindness till men are astonished.' (I admit this may not be the most accurate translation, but stay with me.) It makes me think of unlikely, seemingly impossible, flourishing: those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength. I love the evangelistic flavor of the verse, too. It is not only for myself that I ask, but for others: the others who hope in God, and the others who do not yet hope in God.
Once again, I find the old wisdom rings true: it's not about what we do, it's about what we allow God to do in and through us. What does God ask of us? 'Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, /and pay your vows to the most high;/ and call upon me in the day of trouble;/ I shall rescue you, and you will honor me' (Psalm 50 [49]: 14-15). Cry to the Lord, because he will listen.
Deo gratias.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

St John of Capistrano

Faithfulness shall spring from the earth
    and justice look down from heaven.
                                                   Psalm 84

.     .     .

I have known of 'San Juan Capistrano' for many years. First it was a place name, then the name of a mission I visited in California. Until today I hadn't pondered the reason for naming a mission for this St John. But it isn't terribly difficult to guess: he was a missionary. Best to leave it at that, for now. (You can look at the legacy he left behind on the universalis website, or on wikipedia.)

'Faithfulness', like the faithfulness of the martyrs and saints, 'springs from the earth.' How so? I have reflected before on the Christological flavor of this psalm: Jesus is faithfulness, a human being perfectly faithful to God. Sometimes I think we get a bit too hung up on our faith, the idea that our faith somehow belongs to us, like our knowledge of physics or our commitments, to children, spouses or causes. 'Faith' becomes something we can lose, like we might forget something we learned, or go back on a promise we made. Faith in God isn't quite like that, though. As St Thomas Aquinas teaches, faith is a theological virtue, infused by God and ours by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, not by learning or by force of will. Our faith, and our practice of the faith, is a participation in the faithfulness of Christ. And fortunately even 'if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself' (2 Timothy 2.13).

Deo gratias.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

St Ignatius of Antioch

Thn angel of the Lord is encamped
  aeound those who revere him,
  to rescue them.
Taste and see that the Lord is good.
  He is happy who seeks refuge in him.

Psalm 34 [33]


St Ignatius, about whom I knew very little until the day before yesterday, was martyred in AD110. I learned a bit about him some fifteen years ago in an early church history class, but didn't pursue him further then. This week, though, I found myself drawn into his writings. Initially, I was looking for some material for a lecture. But the way he talks about the faith, and his insistence on the full humanity and full divinity of Christ (more than three centuries before the council of Chalcedon) and the intimate union of the members of the body of Christ, struck me, and I kept reading. Sometimes the lives of the saints inspire by their deeds or by their faith--as it is the story of St Francis's conversion that inspires me. St Ignatius, though, inspires me as a theologian: keeping our doctrine faithful matters now as it did then, and I shouldn't be shy about insisting upon it.

The psalm for today, chosen for St Ignatius' feast, points beyond the life of the world. St Ignatius certainly sought refuge in the Lord, and the Lord rescued him in 110 not by delivering him from the lions but by receiving him into his kingdom. How far I am from the faith that sees the opportunity to suffer for the gospel as a privilege! I pray that I will be able to taste and see the Lord's goodness in all that life brings, and to seek refuge in him always.

St Ignatuis, pray for us.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

St Canice of Ireland

'the bottomless mercy of our God...'
. . .
Today's psalm is an excerpt from the Benedictus, used at morning prayer. Since I say morning prayer with the Anglicans and Methodists who are my colleagues and students, I see this particular translation of the Benedictus less frequently these days. Still, it is firmly etched in my mind, such that when I say the line--translated elsewhere as 'the loving-kindness of the heart of our God'--I always remember this rendering. To me, it is much more evocative. I know I test the patience of those around me; I am certain that if God's patience can really be 'tested', I test it. And even when I try really hard to do and think and say what I ought to do and think and say, I fail to get it right. So I am glad that God's mercy is bottomless: I will never find that well of grace has run dry. Never ever.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

St Paulinus of York

Praise the Lord, all nations;
 laud him, all peoples!
For his lovingkindness is great towards us,
 and the truth of the Lord is everlasting.
Praise the Lord!
                  Psalm 117 [116]

.           .          .

That's it. That's the whole psalm. Usually I read through the psalm a couple of times, and a verse catches my attention. And usually, there are a number of verses from which to choose. Today I reached for my Bible, assuming that there was more to the psalm than the daily reading--in spite of the still, small voice telling me that was enough: the bottomless mercy and eternal truth of God are enough for a day's reflection. Indeed so.

Too often, I find myself looking for the clever bit, for the interesting connection or what strikes me as the deeper meaning, or the surprising meaning. I want to find something that makes me (and perhaps others) say, 'A-ha. Now that's [interesting/profound/smart/significant]. I never thought of it that way before.' Not that there's anything wrong with that on the face of it. A new or renewed insight can go a long way on a busy or difficult day, and by the grace of God I sometimes stumble upon a refreshing thought. Praise God for that!

But the ordinary truth of the gospel should blow me away: 'His lovingkindness is great towards us, and the truth of the Lord is everlasting.' It is that basic truth that inspired Job to say (from the short reading in morning prayer), not just in spite of his misfortunes but in view of his misfortunes, 'Blessed be the name of the Lord.' Because no matter what the circumstances are on any given day, God's love is still certain, God's truth still secure. So hope is well-founded, and joy will come again.

Praise the Lord!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Monday in ordinary time (week 27)

Great are the works of the Lord;
 they are studied by all who delight in them.
                                      Psalm 111 [110]: 2

.          .         .


I reached for my NASB this morning, finding the translation on the Universalis website uninspiring. Honestly, I think my old NASB inspires partly because the feel of it in my hand is so familiar and associated with many years of psalm-reading. And, I suppose, with a certain sort of delight: a delight in drinking in these words, in praying with the prayer book of Israel and the church, in finding my sorrows drowned in the vast and eternal love of God. "Delight yourself in the Lord," says the psalmist (Ps 37 [36]), "and he will give you the desires of your heart." Learning to take delight in the Lord is a long, slow process, and one I know I have only just begun.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Wednesday in ordinary time

I call to you Lord, all the day long;
 to you I stretch out my hands.
Will you work wonders for the dead?
 Will the shades stand and praise you?
                                           Psalm 87 [86]

.              .               .

Just as I think that I am finally getting it together, I find myself struggling to hold on. 'I call to you, Lord, all the day long.' Indeed: because the little things threaten to overwhelm me. The small catastrophes and minor disasters of car trouble and technological glitches, the feeling that there are too many things to do in too short a space of time: these are the things that, taken together, inspire despair. 'Will the shades praise you?'--in other words, if you don't help me out here, Lord, I will go down into the dust.

Not really. I am just prone to that drowning feeling. The thing is, God doesn't mind calming the storm of little things, but longs to bring peace to our souls. So our dramatic calling upon the Lord may be a bit of spiritual histrionics--God answers just the same. God is not sitting in heaven accusing us of making mountains out of molehills, thankfully, but looks tenderly on us, and reminds us that though 'the mountains quake' yet 'the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.' So, mountains or molehills, there is nothing to fear.

'Cease striving, and know that I am God;
     I will be exalted among the nations,
     I will be exalted in the earth.'
                                          Psalm 46 [45]: 3, 7, 10

Monday, October 1, 2012

St Therese of the Child Jesus

Job rose and tore his gown and shaved his head. Then falling to the ground he worshipped and said:

  'Naked I came from my mother's womb,
   naked I shall return.
   The Lord gave, the Lord has taken back.
   Blessed be the name of the Lord!'

In all this misfortune Job committed no sin nor offered any insult to God.
                                         Job, Chapter 1

From you may my judgement come forth.
  Your eyes discern the truth.
You search my heart, you visit me by night.
  You test me and you find in me no wrong.
                                       Psalm 17 [16]

.               .             .

I know what to say about the Psalm: this is a picture of Christ's righteousness.

Or is it? Job appears (in the first reading) in much the same way. If we begin at the beginning of Job, we find that his righteousness is so significant that it becomes a topic for discussion in heaven. Before he lost everything, he had a great deal: great wealth and a large family. He made regular sacrifices to God, for himself and for his children, to maintain that famous righteousness. He had a great deal; he had a great deal to lose. How would Job behave toward God if he had nothing to lose? Exactly the same way: righteously.

Job stands as a reminder that holiness is not merely the province of the Word made flesh. Although the righteousness of Jesus is the source of our own, we are urged to 'put on Christ'. And the good works have been prepared for us, not so that we may sit down on the sofa and put our feet up, but so that we may walk in them. Finding ourselves in Christ's righteousness, so to speak, is what makes it possible for us to get up and walk. Without the knowledge that the voice of the psalm is Christ's, and we pray it only as we stand in Christ, we would miss the point, to be sure.

The knowledge that our sins are covered over, that our righteousness comes from Christ, and not from us, truly is healing balm for the sin-sick soul. My soul, so restored, does not continue to lie, as it were, by the waters of Bethsaida, however. I rise, and try again to maintain that cleanness of heart that is mine by God's gift, Christ's work, and the presence of the Holy Spirit within me.

Saint Therese points the way forward: to take my place in the company of pilgrims, and to love. Knowing that I may stumble should not cause me to take my eyes off the goal; knowing that Christ has already raised me up again gives me the confidence to keep going, to endeavor to make my own righteousness in the image of Christ's, to say with the psalmist, 'You test me and you find in me no wrong.'