Tuesday, March 19, 2013

St Joseph

For today, nothing will do so well as to thank God for Pope Francis. All around the world, people have begun to see him as a sign of hope for the church, the whole church. And that's what he spoke about in his homily this morning: hope.

We watched his first appearance with surprise, with curiosity, and then with great joy. As he asked the crowds in St Peter's square to pray for him, I was overcome with gladness. I hope that my sons will remember that moment all their lives, and will recall the tears in my eyes. We prayed for him before the conclave began, without knowing for whom we prayed. We have prayed for him since, with happiness in our hearts.

Read his homily. I have nothing anywhere near as inspiring to say.

Deo gratias, Deo gratias.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, (Philippians 3:13 NASB)
. . .

[Today I knew that because my youngest was quite ill, I wouldn't get to Mass. But Thomas, who is 9, would. So when I read the Mass readings, and a theme immediately suggested itself, I thought I'd write something to keep him occupied while the grown-ups (including his dad) were listening to the priest. Here it is, my first-ever 'homily'!]
A homily for Thomas
Gregory of Nyssa, who is one of my favourite theologians, would really have enjoyed the readings today. St Gregory lived a long time ago; he was born about 300 years after Jesus died (and rose again!!). Philippians 3:13, which we heard in the New Testament reading, was his favourite verse, and he mentioned it often in his writing. He wrote a lot of stuff--homilies, letters, and some longer things--and I haven't read it all. But I've read a good bit, and I have read what he wrote about this verse in a few places in his writings. I want to tell you why it was one of his favourite verses, and it just so happens that the readings for today are all about that theme: redemption.
I bet you have learned that word in RE [religious education]. It means God's saving work. All of the readings are about that, so I will tell you a little bit about each of them, and then I'll tell you why Gregory liked Philippians 3:13 so much. If you read all the way to the end, you'll see how it all fits together and why it's so important that I wanted to tell you about it.
Today the Old Testament reading came from Isaiah. I especially liked the bit where Isaiah says (and it is the Lord who speaks) to forget the former things, and look to what the Lord is doing: a new thing. God is generous and creative. He made the world and all that is in it--the huge variety of animals and plants, the landscape and the weather, sun and snow and strong winds. But God hasn't stopped. All that fruitful, loving power that is God keeps on moving, keeping the universe together, holding us and keeping us alive with his life-giving breath. God's saving work is going on all the time.
It isn't always easy to remember that. So in the psalm the people are calling out to God, asking God to rescue them, and at the same time, they're remembering the right stuff: God's faithfulness to them in the past. Remembering God's faithfulness helps them to pray with trust in God. In Isaiah, what God wants the people to forget isn't the good He has done for them, but their sin against God.
It's kind of a strange thing to do during Lent, isn't it? Here we are, having decided to give something up, or to do something extra, which we do to show that we know we're sinful and also to show that we want to do better, with the help of the Holy Spirit. But it makes sense in light of the Gospel reading. Unlike the psalmist or the prophet Isaiah, we know what God's Big New Thing was: Jesus. And the way God rescues day by day looks a lot like Jesus' meeting with the scribes and the Pharisees and the woman they brought to him.
They wanted to stone her, because the law said that if you committed that particular sin, you should be put to death. St John the evangelist tells us that they brought her to Jesus to trick him into saying something that would get him into trouble--it wasn't because they really didn't know what to do. But Jesus doesn't say anything to them about her, he just writes on the ground. Nobody knows what he wrote, just what he said then: let the one that is without sin among you cast the first stone. Whatever Jesus wrote made them realize that they were not without sin, so they all went away.
When they had all gone away, Jesus (you remember this from the Gospel reading, I'm sure!) asked her who was there to condemn her. 'Nobody,' she answered. Jesus said he wouldn't condemn her either. Now Jesus was the only one who could have cast a stone--he was without sin! But he doesn't. He forgives her.
We're just like that woman. Obviously the things we've done wrong are different. But we're caught out just the same, sometimes by others (parents, teachers, friends) and more often (I hope) by our own conscience. So what do we do? Well, here's where the scribes and Pharisees got it right: we take it to Jesus. One really good way to do that is in confession. We hear the voice of Jesus, the one who alone can condemn us, saying, 'I don't condemn you; go and sin no more.'
I think this is why St Gregory liked that verse from Philippians so much. He knew that the right direction for us to be headed is always away from our past sin, and toward the future, which God is always making new--right in front of us. When we receive forgiveness, we are living in that new thing that God was doing, we are living in Christ Jesus.
Deo gratias. (That means 'thanks be to God' in Latin.)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Wednesday of the fourth week of Lent

 The  Lord  is faithful in all his words and kind in all his works.
                                                 Psalms 145 [144]:13 ESV

So Jesus said to them,  "Truly, truly, I say to you,  the Son  can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father  does, that the Son does likewise.
                                                 John 5:19 ESV

.       .       .

I've been trying to read the gospel passage in Greek again. The construction, 'Truly, truly, I say to you' helps immensely: the repetition of 'amen' makes it pretty easy to spot. Not so with the rest (something about the Father and the Son...), and I didn't really quite see where I was until I read the English. But in the midst of my back-and-forth, I noticed something. The word for 'do' in the passage is poeisis. A New Testament scholar might tell me that there is nothing special about the use of that particular word here, but I am just a simple lay theologian with very rusty Greek. And that little word reminds me of two (to me) remarkable things.

The word poeisis would not have caught my eye without John Milbank having called it to my attention in an essay called 'A Christological Poetics'. But, thanks to his challenging theological proposal, I read this passage of the Gospel according to John with different eyes. What Milbank says about poeisis in his essay is complex and brilliant, and bears reading. My two things are simple and not at all brilliant.

The first is that the 'doing' isn't a factory-line kind of task. English doesn't have the catch all word for doing and making like one finds in Spanish, for example. Hacer means 'to do, to make'; translating it into English requires that we make a choice. There seems to me to be a sort of creativity here, to the work of the Father and the Son, that 'doing' doesn't quite capture. (Again, Milbank says this sort of thing much better than I do.)

The second thing is that following Jesus means being caught up in this creative work of God. Even as the Son does only that which he sees the Father doing, so we imitate the Son as far as we are able to do. We participate in the divine poetry, the creative and redemptive work of God in and with the world. Being a Christian isn't just about turning up on Sunday and trying to live a 'moral' life. It is about learning a craft, being apprenticed to a master craftsman. And we learn, through our clumsy and feeble attempts to copy the master, that it isn't just about copying: this craft isn't about perfecting our own skill, but allowing his skill to be perfected in us.

It isn't about us. It's always about Him. Deo gratias.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Monday of the fourth week of Lent

God is our refuge and strength,
  a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear,
  though the earth should change,
And though the mountains slip
   into the heart of the sea...
                                 Psalm 45 [46]: 1-2

.             .           .

Today is my birthday. Snow is falling, and I am trying to work despite having a cold. Luckily I had a guest to teach my class this morning, a session on war and peace in the Orthodox tradition. From him I heard that a renowned mystic (Fr Sophrony) described war as fratricide. He lived through both world wars and the experience shaped him profoundly. In his writing, he seems to regard war as a symptom of the fallen human condition; its opposite is not armistice or treaty but the peace of Christ. Importantly, this peace--like the image of God's presence through the upheaval of our earthly existence--does not depend on the cessation of hostilities between opposing powers, but is always and everywhere present.

Something like this presence of God, this inbreaking peace, must be the power at work in another story that came to my attention today, I think not by accident. It is worth reading this story of two pilots, one American and one German, who 'met' in the sky over Germany in December 1943. The American pilot and those left alive on his B-17 were saved by the German fighter pilot who took to the air to shoot them down.

Peace happens. Deo gratias.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Wednesday of the third week of Lent

Praise the Lord, Jerusalem!
    Zion, praise your God!
                             Psalm 147

.            .            .

The psalmist does recount the deeds for which God ought to be praised, it's true. But those aren't always what present themselves to us on any given day. Some days we hurt, physically or emotionally. Some days we're just exhausted in body and in soul. The future looks bleak, or we feel alone. God may well have 'strengthened the bars of [our] gates', but it doesn't seem to have made a difference today.

The psalmist is right, though, to call us to praise. Praise God, anyway: '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 will deliver you, and you shall honor me' (Psalm 49 [50]: 14-15). So I thank God for the tree outside my window, its bare branches silhouetted against a white sky. And in the same breath I call upon God, in this day of mundane trouble, of garden-variety joylessness: restore my hope in your salvation. You will rescue me, and I will honor you.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Monday of the third week of Lent

So Naaman came with his team and chariot and drew up at the door of Elisha’s house. And Elisha sent him a messenger to say, ‘Go and bathe seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will become clean once more.’ But Naaman was indignant and went off, saying, ‘Here was I thinking he would be sure to come out to me, and stand there, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the spot and cure the leprous part. Surely Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, are better than any water in Israel? Could I not bathe in them and become clean?’ And he turned round and went off in a rage. But his servants approached him and said, ‘My father, if the prophet had asked you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? All the more reason, then, when he says to you, “Bathe, and you will become clean.”’ So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, as Elisha had told him to do. And his flesh became clean once more like the flesh of a little child.

2 Kings 5

.          .            .

'Go and bathe seven times in the Jordan...' The instruction leaves Naaman outraged. Here he was, expecting a miracle, a spectacular healing. Maybe he'd heard about Elijah's fiery victory over the prophets of Ba'al. (Now there's a story.) Naaman's servants respond to his indignation with reason: if he had asked you to do something extraordinary, you would have done it, wouldn't you? Well, then, why not do the ordinary thing?

Perhaps something like this exchange might take place in the days or weeks leading up to Lent. What extraordinary thing can we give up or take on in order to be healed? This Lent, I really wanted to pray the office. Really. Never mind the fact that I have four young children--one is under two, and the eldest has Down Syndrome--and a half-time lecturing post that involves enough work to occupy me full-time. I love praying the office with the nuns when I am on retreat. The rhythm of prayer and quiet restores my soul in a way nothing else does. 

But I am not on retreat: I am standing on the banks of the muddy Jordan, with a toddler on one hip and the third edition of The Modern Theologians on the other. (The toddler is heavier, but only just.) There are Lenten disciplines prescribed by the church: special days of fasting and abstinence, the sacrament of reconciliation, opportunities for giving and praying within the parish. Lent isn't about heroic deeds of asceticism, it's about humility. Perhaps my failure to pray the office daily during Lent ought to remind me that Lent is about obedience, not about willpower. 

Time to go and bathe in the Jordan, I suppose: repentance and submission are the way to healing.