Thursday, February 28, 2013

Thursday of the second week of Lent

The heart is more decetiful than all else
And is desperately sick;
Who can understand it?
"I, the Lord, search the heart,
I test the mind,
Even to give to each man according to his ways,
According to the result of his deeds."
                                                Jeremiah 17: 9-10

*        *       *

Jeremiah 17:9 might well be a contender for my favorite verse. It is certainly one that I have unintentionally committed to memory. The heart is deceitful above all else--I have found that to be true of my own heart in particular. From time to time I would read the responses of the celebrity of the week in one of the weekend editions of the newspaper. I was always amused at the responses to: 'what would your superpower be?' Easy, I thought: mind control. Then one week I read a response that put me to shame: 'the power to make people's dreams come true.' And I realized that mind control would be incredibly useful: control of my mind.

The heart is more deceitful than all else, but God finds it out. And the interesting thing about it is that God rewards what comes out of the heart: the ways, the deeds. I am the first to admit that my heart is deceitful, and I know my own capacity for self-deception. Yet I, even I, ought to be able to read some of the clues, to interpret the tea leaves of my actions. If I am neglecting my family or lacking in love for them, if I am impatient with people or half-hearted in my work, I can discern something about the state of my heart. And I can look back and see now what I should have seen then: my heart was deceiving me, but the Lord--and probably a number of other people--saw clearly the thread running from the actions back to the misdirection of my own heart.

So there's hope. Even for this deceitful heart: 'Heal me, O Lord, and I will be healed.'

Friday, February 22, 2013

St Peter's Chair

'But you,' [Jesus] said, 'who do you say that I am?'
Then Simon Peter spoke up.
'You are the Christ,' he said, 'the Son of the Living God.'

                                                    Matthew 16: 15-16

.       .      .

Occasionally I try to make out the gospel passage in Greek. Unfortunately, it has been so long since I bothered that usually I am delighted just to spot the odd word, and that often only by sounding it out. Today was pretty much the same. I had already glanced at the English, so I thought I knew what was coming: σὺ εἰ ὁ χριστὸς ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ far, so good--you are the Christ, the Son of God. But there on the next line, the bit I'd glanced past in the English and wasn't really expecting: τοῦ ζῶντος. Rusty as my Greek is, I spotted that zeta (the squiggle at the beginning of the second word, in case you're wondering) and the omega following it, and the word came back to me: 'living'. 

And I had that experience that I long for when reading the gospel: it leapt out at me. The Living God. Peter's affirmation of Jesus' divinity made me sit up and take notice. Something new is happening here; the identity of Jesus is coming to light. This is who Jesus is, and that changes everything. Everything. What does it mean to realize, down to the very depths of your soul, that this is the Christ, the Son of the Living God? 

Lent can seem like puzzling over some Greek text. It isn't always clear how this is going to help. But, like my weak attempts to make sense of this passage of Matthew's gospel, it makes way for new light to dawn in us. Peering through the darkness that attends our every attempt to perceive God, hindered by the frailty of our minds and hearts, we are reaching out. Just when our hearts are most empty and our efforts seem most futile (just like my Greek!), God speaks His Light, and we are filled with His holy brightness. 

Teach my heart to yearn for you, O God. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Wednesday of the first week of Lent

And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them....When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it.

                                          Jonah 3: 5, 10

For you take no delight in sacrifice; 
    were I to give a burnt offering, 
     you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; 
     a broken and contrite heart, O God, 
     you will not despise.
                                             Psalm 50[51]: 16-17

The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgement with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.

                                             Luke 11: 32

.        .        .

I cannot reflect on the psalm for today apart from its setting in the Mass, as it comes sandwiched between the story of Nineveh's repentance and Luke's mention of it. Just yesterday, I was having a conversation about discernment, not just about how to discern (which is tricky enough), but how to cope with the fear that you have failed to discern, that you have acted out of fear instead of faith, or out of selfishness rather than obedience. I could not have done better in that conversation than to respond with these readings. Three things come through clearly: 

First: God desires good for creation. God sent Jonah to warn the people of Nineveh that disaster was coming, giving them an opportunity to repent. Jonah's message was loud and clear. (I know, I know, the still small voice and all that, but God does want us to know, and is quite capable of talking loudly so that we'll hear.)

Second: God forgives. That's worth repeating, because we say it all the time, but I am not sure we (by which I mean I) always believe it. God FORGIVES. And God's forgiveness is not like our forgiveness, which still suffers the hurt and copes with the consequences of the wrong done. God's forgiveness is creative and substantial. God is making all things new, and our repentance orients us toward that forgiveness. 

Third: Because God desires our good, and God forgives us, we don't need to tie ourselves in knots over whether we have discerned accurately. Our task is to discern faithfully. That means praying and listening, to God--in prayer and through the Scripture--to others, and to ourselves. Here's where the still small voice is important to remember. By all means, we ought to listen for the prophet. But in absence of the voice crying out, we need to be more still, more quiet. Then we listen for the still, small voice, in faith that God will speak, and that even if we haven't understood the message clearly, God will be faithful to us and bless us. Even after David's intentional, cruel and selfish actions, God forgave him and blessed him, and so we ought to hope for the same. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

First Monday of Lent

Is this not the fast which I choose,
   To loosen the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the bands of the yoke,
   And to let the oppressed go frre,
And break every yoke?
   Is it not to divide yout bread with the hungry,
And bring the homeless poor into the house;
   When you see the naked, to cover him;
And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

 Isaiah 58: 6-7        

.           .          .

I admit, this is not from the Mass readings for today, but from afternoon prayer. It struck me deeply, as I had just been in a conversation about beginning of life issues. These things trouble me deeply, as the mother of four children, the eldest of whom has Down Syndrome. How--the question was being asked--should we counsel people who are struggling to conceive and thinking of IVF? Or those worried about a serious or life-threatening condition? As I read the words of Isaiah, I was reminded that the human condition is one of vulnerability and often of suffering: when we see another person hungry or naked, we should see ourselves. (Didn't Jesus say something about loving our neighbour...?)

I hesitate to offer any ethical reflection, actually. My own experience has been one in which I have received four gifts from God, each beautiful and cherished, and at the same time challenging. I had to reckon with the possibility of losing a baby in her first year of life. Thankfully, I never had to confront that reality. But it taught me something about having children--that they are gifts, not possessions, and having children is a privilege and a responsibility, never a right. So to say that the 'fast' of the childless might just be to cover the 'nakedness' of the orphan...well, it's not something I can say, as theodicy-in-general is impossible. Only in hindsight are we able to make the kind of sense of tragic circumstances like barrenness, or being orphaned.

So I return to where I began: these things trouble me deeply, because there are no easy answers. Sometimes there aren't even any hard answers, but only a very deep and painful silence into which our words and tears fall. Then we need the next verse of the passage from Isaiah:

Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
And your recovery will speedily spring first;
And your righteousness will go before you;
The glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

In Lent we look for the Light, the dawn of our redemption, who is our recovery--healing!--and our righteousness, and in him all the fullness of God's glory dwelt. Deo gratias.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

St Cyril and St Methodius/Thursday after Ash Wednesday

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity...So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give them.

Deuteronomy 30: 15, 19b-20

.       .      .

Choose life! This passage from Deuteronomy has always delighted me, because it seems so obvious. Why would anyone do otherwise? The fact that God has to command and persuade us to choose life hints at the pervasiveness of sin, and speaks to the truth of Paul's experience, described in Romans 7. the good that we would do, we cannot; we find ourselves unable to choose life.

At first, the method of self-denial at the heart of our observance of Lent might not seem like the answer. But it isn't about punishing ourselves, nor is it about our moral or spiritual 'fitness': Lenten discipline is not like so many days of a tough workout, after which we find ourselves stronger and faster. It isn't something we do. Self-denial means self-emptying, putting ourselves more and more fully into God's hands. We are not the source of the life we seek. Rather we turn to the source of life as we look to God to fill the empty space created by the things we've given up. Giving up beer or chocolate, or whatever else we choose to forgo during Lent, is not the end. We might lose weight, or develop healthier habits. But that isn't what it's about: giving things up is a means to a different end, and we can only realize that end if we allow ourselves to feel the space created by what we're missing, and ask God to fill it.

So it is that self-denial is at the same time choosing life. To enter self-consciously, prayerfully, and wholly into a season of penitence is to be still in the place of emptiness, and look expectantly to the One who alone can fill us. Discipline makes way for fruitfulness, for growth, as today's psalm reminds us:

How blessed is the one who
     does not walk in the
     counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
     nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But her delight is in the law of the Lord,
     and in his law she meditates day and night.
And she will be like a tree firmly planted
     by streams of water,
     which yields its fruit in season,
And its leaf does not wither;
     and in whatever she does, she prospers.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
   according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my sin,
   and cleanse me from my iniquity.

                                                                     Psalm 50 (51): 1-2

.           .         .

Thus begins the psalm set for today's Mass. It's a familiar psalm, the one from which we have the chorus, "Create in me a clean heart, O God." We know it as the psalm David wrote after his visit from Nathaniel, whose reprimand inspired the contrition David expresses. The thing is (and I admit this sometimes troubles me, but I am not concerned with it today), the sorrow over his sin is between David and God. David pleads: "Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. / O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise."

So I was a little bit dismayed to hear the headteacher speak about Lent, and the Lenten discipline we undertake, with the phrase "make us a better person." However well-intentioned, I think this is the wrong message for our children, and for us. Jesus did not come that we might be better people; he came that we might have life, "abundantly." Lent begins with an acknowledgement that we are sinful, and that we cannot make ourselves better. We repent of our sins and ask forgiveness, looking to God to cleanse us, heal us, and renew us, so that we can receive the new life offered to us by Christ's resurrection. Then will our lips be opened; then will we declare God's praise.

I liked my son's interpretation of what the head teacher said. Answering the question, "What is Lent?" asked by the priest this morning, he did say (perish the thought) that the things we gave up or undertook for Lent had the effect of making us better people. But he gave that "better" this gloss: "to make us more like Jesus." That's my boy. Amen, son, amen.

Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

St Agatha

Since you know the will of God,
         act according to it and you will be blessed.

                                                   .         .         .

It is not a part of the Psalm, I admit, but an antiphon. Still, it struck me deeply, as I have just come from teaching on the sacraments. Maybe at first blush it seems unrelated, but I teach in an ecumenical setting. Occasionally I have to answer for the Roman Catholic view of the Eucharist, not so much the doctrine but the exclusiveness of the table. Transubstantiation bothers people less than the idea that some might be excluded from the Lord's table.

Sometimes it's difficult.

At the end of the day, though, what we have to answer for is our own practice. Knowing the theology, knowing the doctrine, places a particular responsibility on me as a teacher and as a Christian. I know why I receive communion in my parish and other Catholic churches, and why I refrain in other settings. I can explain it, though not always to everyone's satisfaction.

Sometimes it's difficult, but the antiphon reminded me why listening to my conscience is important. If only I content myself with what, to the best of my knowledge, is the will of God, and act accordingly, I have done what I can. I may be corrected, I may see things differently tomorrow, but today I have to listen to his voice.

Let it be done to me according to His will.