.Love can bear temporary loss, but hearts break when the loss is final. And just like the disciples in this week’s Gospel, we are not very good at endings. Yet, Jesus, seems to think that the ending has been there since the beginning, and that every ending is a new beginning. He talks of secrets hidden in the heart of death and of how His nearness to His Father in Heaven allows Him to be near to us. For Jesus, the Fathers embrace is as wide as the universe, and in Love’s House, it seems, that there is room enough.
There is a love that has no regrets. There is a love that loves to breaking point. But here's the thing - there is a love that is without end. We touch this huge love when we are in the presence of Jesus and His Father. It changes us.
The Poet and Scholar, John O'Donoghue, wrote this Blessing 'for death' in his book, Benedictus p88. Read it. Pray with it. Enjoy it:
From the moment you were born,
Your death has walked beside you.
Though it seldom shows its face,
You still feel it's empty touch
when fear invades your life,
or what you love is lost,
or inner damage is incurred.
Yet, when destiny draws you
into these spaces of poverty,
and your heart stays generous
until some door opens into the light,
you are quietly befriending your death;
So that you will have no need to fear
when your time comes to turn and
That the silent presence of your death
would call your life to attention,
Wake you up to how scarce your time is
And to the urgency to become free
And equal to the call of your destiny.
That you would gather yourself
And decide carefully how you now can live
The life you would love To look back on from your deathbed.
Even if it isn't always clear to us, the life that we are living has a huge impact on all the people around us. The words that we speak, the silences we hold, our actions and our failure to act, send ripples of life or death through the community we are struggling to build. As we stand, wherever we are standing on planet earth, the struggle for community must engage everything that we are. Our sisters and brothers, whose lives are destroyed by the theft of the worlds resources and by the horrific actions of terrorists depend on us being faithful to the Good News. Remember how Pilate stood the Beloved Son of God before His own and placed a terrorist whose name was Beloved Son of God (Bar Abbas) by his side and asked the people to give freedom to one?
In today's Gospel, Jesus paints the same choice in stark colour. Sadly, there are some whose presence in the community is destructive. They are like 'thieves' who steal by craft and deceit. Worst still are the 'robbers' who steal with violence. As they move through the community, the light fades a little. They take things away from people, depriving them of resources they need. Thieves and robbers always leave people less than when they found them.
Good leaders, or shepherds, on the other hand, leave people more than when they found them. They can do this because they have realised that the personal and the eternal are one. Everyone is known by their name and labels are disallowed. The voice of the good shepherd resonates within them and within the inner world of the community. What is more true, leaders walk ahead of the community bringing all to green pastures, to places where they can find strength and nourishment.
Good shepherds are artists of relationships. And passing through the 'gate' of Jesus they become life givers. Notice how Jesus describes himself as this never-ending flow of life for others. He is the Bread of Life, He is Living Water, He is the True Vine, He is the Resurrection and the Life. Each of these beautiful images speak of life flowing through him and entering others.
In today's Gospel, this Good Shepherd, this Gate of the Community, states His Mission and Purpose so clearly that we have to hear it, believe it and make it our own. 'I have come so they may have life and have it to the full,' (Jn.10,10)
As we consider the moments when we have awakened or enriched the life of another we can see that this has only happened because we passed through the gate of the heart of Jesus and Moved to build up the life of that sister or brother. I suppose the question remains, when we leave, are those we left more or are they less for our being there?
The two disciples on the road to Emmaus were not out for a Sunday stroll. Emmaus was a Roman garrison town, which looks like a strange destination for any disciple of Jesus, never mind two missionaries! What matters is that they are moving away from Jerusalem. Avoiding
Jerusalem is avoiding the destiny of the Beloved Son of God. These disciples are abandoning the powerless Christ in favour of the power of the Rome that executed Him. These are not travellers but deserters, not people on a mission but people walking away from one.
It's just as well that they never arrive there. If they had, they would be within the walls of Rome and the way of life this symbolises. A way of power over others. The way of death. However, the Risen One cuts across their pathway and their inability to understand the spiritual truths hidden in His suffering and death. They do not recognise Him at first because, in their grief, they have forgotten the way He moves in the world and with them.
Jesus begins a friendly conversation and when it is ending He looks like He is moving on. But where is He going? It may be that He is on His way to the ends of the earth. He will tell anyone He meets along the way of the gift of God. Those who understand will follow. Those who do not
understand will not. But now something is stirring in the hearts of these two, expressed in their request, 'Stay with us'. As they sit to eat, the veil clouding their vision lifts the moment Jesus takes the Eucharistic Bread and breaks it open.
He takes His life in His Sacred Hands, He gives thanks for it and gives that life to others so that they may grow strong in it. The key in finding Christ is knowing where to look. Now their hearts are re-awakened. Once the heart burns, the eyes are opened and they are ready to apprentice themselves once more to the Divine Teacher. Now they go back to Jerusalem to tell the others that He is Risen!
In the life of every disciple of Jesus, the moment must come when we ask Him to 'stay with us'. It's all He needs. Now He can teach us about the eternal beauty of the self which makes sacrifices. As we ponder the power of the cross and of the Eucharist in our lives, I wonder sometimes if we really understand the endless secret acts which give life and strength to others that we have woven into them. Perhaps we forget the times when we reached out to another person to support them. That who we really are lies hidden beneath the things we think are important!
If you've ever watched 'It's A Wonderful Life' you will have seen how George Bailey needed to be reminded of all the good he had done and forgotten as an antidote to suicide. Perhaps it is time to take our lives in our hands, to give thanks for them. For is it not true, that those who pour out their lives for others - not from guilt or compulsion or in a way that exhausts them - are people of secret gratitude. They give from the fullness that have received from God. Life received as a gift - Life given as a gift.
Grief is a wild ride. We might map its face, predict its stages and guess how long it might last. But this is the luxury of those who, for now anyway, have not been pulled into the land of loss. They have the luxury of observation. But when the loss of a loved one takes up residence in our heart and soul, we become occupied territory.
Perhaps that is why I like the emotionally distraught Jesus being swept on a tidal wave of grief towards the tomb of his friend Lazarus. Only love could have caused the grief in His heart and
in the hearts of Martha and Mary. We are all eager for love but in our eagerness we forget that every affectional bond we make will be broken by death. The truth we realise is - the deeper the love, the deeper the grief.
Of course, we don't think about this when we are giving our hearts away. Within our short lives, the advent of Love carries the seed of grief. Gabriel Marcel said, ' To love someone is to say, 'Thou
shalt never die.' Even if we do not say it out loud, even if we only whisper it in the cellar of our heart, love readies us for tears. The first kiss and the first tears are linked.
It is here we must not forget that this same love will console us. But we must trust this love to take us all the way. It must reveal to us that there is more than meets the eye
here. This love which holds us at the bedside of the dying and takes us to their graves after they die, is telling us something very important about God’s love. Our reluctance to let loved ones go makes sense as we watch Jesus raising Lazarus from death. The Love that distresses Jesus, that makes Him weep uncontrollably and makes Him go after Lazarus and free him is worth pondering. Love will not let him go so death has to set him free.
The Song of Songs 8,6 sings of the Love that is stronger than death. In the face of the stench of death, this insight may not come easily to us. We might find ourselves being drawn to other solutions to our pain. But it does seem to me that the more we grow our contemplative heart (Mary) and integrate what we find there into our busy lives (Martha) we will find an enduring strength that will bring us through to the other side of grief.
Love brings grief and consolation. St. Paul put it best of all when he wrote, "Do not grieve as others do who have no hope." It is the weeping Jesus who cries out, 'Lazarus, come out!'
David Steindl-Rast has a very helpful insight into how we come to rest in a growing and deeper awareness of how God is present to us in every moment. In every breath. This 'awareness' might be born suddenly and then stay with us for the rest of our lives, or it may come more slowly, opening and unfolding over time. David asks us to notice how some years spring arrives suddenly. We may look out of our window or be driving along the road when we are ambushed by a depth of greenness and colour which wasn't there last time we looked. Other years, we catch spring in the act of arriving. We notice the early hint of blossom, the grass or the sound of birds returning. The point being that it does not matter whether it is sudden or gradual. All that matters is that we become aware, and deeply aware of the reality in which we live.
Life teaches us that God is always present in every breath we take. God is present in every atom of creation and is the source of its evolution. Sacred Scripture, Poetry and the Mystical Traditions of every faith see this and teach it to those seeking Wisdom.
But the story of the man born blind calls to those who cannot yet see to come to the one who can grant the gift of sight and of insight.
At the beginning of his great work, 'Auguries of Innocence' William Blake invites us to,
See a world in a grain of sand, and a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.
He emphasises 'seeing' the spiritual in and through the material, 'perceiving' the infinite ground of the finite world and 'sensing' the eternal in the here and now. We complete creation when we look at it with the eye of Love. For some people, this can happen when they have their first baby, or experience the death of a loved one, or when they are at prayer or enjoying nature. But it doesn't always have to be the Big Bang. And when these peak experiences are yet to visit us, it does not follow that spiritual insight is denied us.
All we have to do is ponder what is before us in and what is in our hearts. Our faithfulness will allow The Sacred will find its own way to open our eyes and reveal itself to us.
Today's Gospel ends with Jesus going after the blind man who has been driven away by the so called religious elite. When He finds the man with new eyes, Jesus asks him a question, 'Do you believe in the Son of Man?' The man does not know who this is so he asks Jesus to tell him. The words Jesus gives to him are powerful. ' You are looking at Him, He is speaking to you'. The seeing man gives the only possible response, 'Lord, I believe'. And he worshipped Him.
Good teachers and good spiritual teachers highly value the experience of their disciples. They will often return to these experiences as they journey together, as a way of making things clearer. Good spiritual teachers often invite their disciples to begin to recognise patterns in their experience. Or, to put it another way, to map the sequence of their growth in understanding.
For example, St Paul, in his letter to the infant church in Rome (Romans 5,3-5) proposes a sequence that begins with suffering. Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us because the Love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. Mother Theresa of Albania often handed out a business card with this information: The fruit of SILENCE is prayer. The fruit of PRAYER is faith. The fruit of FAITH is love. The fruit of LOVE is Service. The fruit of SERVICE is Peace.
Sometimes the patterns of our experience and what these have taught us can be easily grasped. When this happens, their wisdom is clear. At other times, the patterns of our experience and what these have taught us is less clear. It is harder to 'get it' or to put Wisdom into action.
This week’s Parable of the Woman at The Well is one of these patterns. It might go like this:
- the one who hears the voice of the bridegroom greatly rejoices
- bringing the bridegroom children
- that one disappears into the fullness of joy.
Notice this great woman's journey as she develops her
understanding of Jesus which takes her past his Jewishness, past his prophetic status, past his role as messiah, finally arriving at the realisation that He is the 'l Am' or God made visible. When she grasps this, she is filled with the love she has always been looking for. Her joy is complete. She has found the Bridegroom.
The first joy is found in hearing the voice of the bridegroom, the wedding and the wedding night. Now it matures into a fuller joy when the marriage becomes fruitful with children. The first joy becomes the impetus for mission. She moves out, attracting people to the voice she has heard. She presents these 'children' to her true husband, so that they too might experience the gift of God.
Now she moves into deep waters. If the experience is true, she must not claim permanent status as a messenger. Her 'children' tell her that she is no longer needed. Now that they have seen for themselves, no other intermediary is required. If she is mature enough, she will be happy that, like the Baptist, He must increase while they decrease. But they aren't having to be dragged from centre stage. Their leaving is gracious and, as they decrease, their joy increases!
So, what is going on here? When we see clearly the gift of God, there is a 'knowing' that enables us to grasp more fully the work of the Holy Spirit. Strangely the gift arrives as 'living water' which can never be grasped. Nor can we ever use it to promote ourselves or our ego. Whoever tries to seize the Spirit watches it move elsewhere. By disappearing, we have permanent access to the fountain. I think this is what the woman at the well realised. I hope that one day we will too
Jesus has just been baptised in the river Jordan and has heard a voice from heaven saying, 'This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased' (Matt 3,17). But what does it mean to be the Beloved Son? The devil will have a few suggestions, but it is the Spirit who leads Jesus into this encounter with the devil. This 'testing' will serve The Spirits agenda and will deepen Jesus' understanding and commitment. The Tester first suggests that, as Beloved Son of God, Jesus should always be 'full'. And if he likes he can suspend any law he likes to make this happen. Jesus rejects the connection between being physically filled and being spiritually loved. Hungry or full, he will still be the Beloved Son. Empty, he will still be the Beloved Son.
Engraved on the pinnacle of the Temple are the wings of an eagle. As the wings of a mother eagle catch her young when they flutter in their first attempt to fly, the Tempter suggests that God will lift us his Beloved Son whenever he falls. As Beloved Son, Jesus will always be safe. The devil even quotes Scripture to bolster his case. He wants Jesus to presume on divine love and toy with danger. But Jesus thinks this way of thinking is ridiculous. You don't put yourself in danger so God can protect you. In the course of Jesus life, he will not be safe but neither will he waiver in his conviction that God loves him. Hurt, he will still be the Beloved Son.
So, for now, the devil plays his final card. He offers Jesus unlimited power over others. The price tag is that Jesus will fall on his knees and worship the devil. But Jesus is a Jew of the First Commandment and he rejects the Tempter and his seductive offer. Now, Jesus will have no political power and influence in the Kingdoms of the world. Powerless, he will still be the Beloved Son.
Temptations, like the ones above wait to ambush all of us in some way. They get to make the first move and can look like they are running the show. It's only on the third go that Jesus finds the strength to tell the devil to get lost. And isn't this our own experience. Sin pulls us along at great speed. We often describe this as being 'led astray'. We went along because for a moment we couldn't find the brake. We were no longer in charge of ourselves. So it doesn't really matter if it's a bit of gossip here, a little theft there, or some big deal which is sinful as well as criminal - what they all have in common is that they include the question of who we think we are. If we do not know who we are, we probably won't step back from the edge of the cliff.
What Jesus remembers is every word that comes from the mouth of God. Especially, he remembers the words he heard in the Jordan river. He has pondered these words in sacred time - forty days and nights - and has reached some amazing conclusions about what they mean. Only then can he push back and say “No”. Step one for us then seems to be an invitation to slow down. To create the spaces where we can know ourselves better, which should include being willing to hear from friends what they know of us. The Tempter will ask the same question. If you are loved by God, then .... And each of us has to be able to say, “Even if I am empty, hurting or powerless, or even dead; I am still loved by the Love that never fails".
Masters always make servants! Whatever dominates our thinking and dictates our lifestyle will give us a clear understanding of what is really valuable to us. We attend so completely to the 'one' thing that we often ignore other concerns. This is probably most true with the problem of money. If we feverishly seek money as the foundation of our security, we won't have much time for the kind of security God provides. Next to our bank balance, God may seem a tad vague. On the other hand, if we put our trust in God, the anxious quest for wealth may not seem as important as it once was.
And yet, there are no shortage of masters in our current situation. In the workplace, workers’ rights have been seriously eroded over the last thirty years. Business is driven largely by greed and, unless we are lucky, most employers nowadays expect everyone to do two peoples jobs. Sickness and holiday pay are becoming a rarity as greedy company directors find ways around the laws which support workers lives. Unions no longer have the pull they once had and employees are told more and more that, if they don't like it, there is a queue of other people waiting to take their job. Is it any wonder that people are anxious?
Then there is the other question of the great divide globally where 2% of the human community have access to most of the worlds wealth. We look on the plight of our sisters and brothers who have little or no access to healthcare, education, housing, quality of life and, if we have a conscience at all, we are left deeply uneasy at the part we may be playing in this situation.
Worst still, as we shall hear from Sharon Westby this weekend, there is a new slavery in town, where millions of our sisters and brothers are violently wrenched from their homes and put to work in dreadful situations to serve the greed and lust of a few. Like all the big sins, fabulous wealth is less about having nice things and more about having power over others, marking our territory and filling the world with the weapons that make sure it stays where it is.
All these situations, and more, tell us something important about the human heart. That while it was made for love, creativity, beauty, pleasure, God and eternity, if it allows money to become its master it is destroyed from within. Our pursuit of it can become insatiable and blind us to the cost to others. It’s the old question: you might know where you're going but do you know who is paying the fare? When God gets pushed to the sidelines to make space for money, there is never enough to fill the empty space.
If we set our hearts on Gods Kingdom and seriously play our part in bringing it to birth, we are not absolved of the need to be responsible about our own lives. God does not miraculously supply food and shelter. This was Satan’s lie to Jesus in the desert and Jesus refused it. But Jesus does present us with a real choice. (A) We spend our lives anxiously filling the bottomless hole of greed or (B) We celebrate our lives as a gift from God to be shared in a simplicity of life where all are nurtured and sustained. Which will I choose? Which will we choose
Moses did not easily come to the Wisdom and understanding he is so sure of in today's first reading. He had to work hard at it. Even so, it is only a small step in the right direction! For while he invites the community to holiness of life, expressed in the refusal to hate, to be two faced or to be imprisoned by the need for revenge, he is still upholding club rules, which have yet to find their way to the world outside the community.
Over time, we begin to see hints that this teaching will be replaced by something better. And today's Gospel text from St Matthew is a fine example of this. So far, we have learned that balance demands an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. This teaching was a major step towards controlling violence. Previously, the Law of Lamech prevailed, 'I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.' (Genesis 4,23) There was no equality in inflicted damage. But under the eye for an eye dictum, retribution was carefully measured.
The teaching of Jesus supersedes this now and disciples need to be careful that we don't go back to the older ways of Moses or Lamech! We are better supported in this regard when appreciate how clever the teaching of Jesus really is. He gives three examples of how to be creative when faced with violence in His own day. These clever
actions are designed to change the balance of power from the violent in favour of the non-violent. Walter Wink, in his "Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination", writes, 'Turn your cheek, thus indicating to the one who backhands you that their attempt to shame you into servility has failed. Strip naked and parade out of court, thus taking the momentum out of the law and the whole debt economy and flipping them. Walk a second mile, surprising the occupation troops with a sudden challenge to their control.' p.185
There is an adventure in the teaching of Jesus and we don't need to be afraid that if we apply the same creativity to our own situation that we will be more vulnerable. The danger for the afraid is that we might talk ourselves out of following this light, or water it down so much as to make it worthless.
The Parable of the Snake is helpful here. The snake hears the stunning teaching of Jesus from a wandering preacher and immediately adopts a life of total non-violence. He will bite no one. When the local children realise that he won't bite, they begin to make fun of him and beat him with sticks every day. The snake is near death when the preacher returns and asks how he is doing. The snake tells the preacher of his heroic actions, expecting to be praised. But the preacher says, " I told you not to bite. I didn't say you couldn't rattle and hiss!"
We are always praising heroic Christians who have laid down their life for their faith. Perhaps it will prove wiser, over time, to praise clever Christians who are able to find new ways to bring non-violence and universal loving into stubborn hearts and stubborn systems. These amazing women and men hold these values with an inner strength. They combine them with experience and their knowledge of science and art. They show us how unseen paths open beneath our feet and how to surprise the worldly wise to new ways of living.
Life and a Death. These are matters of great importance, and the readings this week invite us to consider these precious things which are in our hands. We are also encouraged not to give up on the quest for holiness of life. Our faithfulness unfolds in our commitment to the Charter for just living - the law- and to the teaching of the Prophets. But notice how Jesus elevates certain aspects of these and allows others to fall away. He affirms and deepens the heart of the Law and Prophets and sweeps away what doesn't really matter.
The higher calling of His Disciples is the struggle for community in an age of holocaust. The struggle begins when we aim to strengthen our inner life. The religious leaders seem to be fixated on externals and their need to be 'seen' by others. Their egos are so huge, they can no longer see, or give priority to, those who are hurting. They tinker with trifles, obsess about details of the law and bury their passion for justice, love and compassion in the graveyard of their own self-importance.
Jesus calls his disciples to attend to their inner life. Life and Death, Love and Hate, Adultery and Faithfulness are huge polarities that we have to navigate every day. The rabbis often speak of 'evil imaginings'. If our angry hearts overflow into abusive talk we have sown the seed for murder. If we escape the need for reconciliation by just talking to God, Jesus sends us back to the person we have wronged to ask for forgiveness. If lust and deceit leads us to break people's hearts, we must enlarge our hearts by honouring the values which underpin love.
One of the oldest, and wisest, spiritual injunctions is 'Know Yourself!' We are pushed down the path of searing honesty and self-discovery. We set up a watching and listening post in the centre of our being
and begin the difficult task of seeing ourselves as we really are. We need to know how anger rises in us, comes to expression and then recedes. We need to watch lust and note how it can grip us and rush us along
paths we may not choose. We need to understand how we want shortcuts to forgiveness, how we hesitate and sometimes stall when it comes to
starting a conversation with someone that might bring us peace.
As St Matthew considers the size of the problem, he takes a no nonsense approach. Whatever causes us to sin must be removed! Of course, he is right because sin is pretty ugly. So, we just have to keep chiselling at our own statues.