Some people from Greece have arrived for the festival and have asked to 'see' Jesus. But this is more than a casual meeting. To 'see' Jesus is to enter into a profound revelation. In Saint John's Gospel, Jesus must be 'lifted up', (Jn, 3.14) crucified in order to be seen. For Jesus, the arrival of these Greeks is a sign that the time of universal revelation is at hand. The Beloved Son of God has come for all people. Yet, the way that He shows himself is paradoxical. The image of the single grain of wheat that falls on the ground and dies in order to grow into 'much fruit' (v.24) provides the key to understanding this paradox. For Jesus, death is never seen as a loss. It is only the beginning of a time of change that will yield greater results than an individual life.
Jesus will become more through death, not less. In death he will become universally available. Closer to us than we are to ourselves. This revelation contains crucial instructions for His disciples. It illuminates a universal spiritual process. They are asked to see it and embrace it. If we identify ourselves as individuals with
separate lives, we will lose that life. Death will eventually take it from us. But if we do not identify as individuals with separate lives, the death of that life becomes a gateway into transformation. There is no real loss here, only a crossing over to eternity. The death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus will make this truth clear. But still He has to navigate the anxiety which precedes loss. He does this by turning to His Abba in prayer. His prayer is answered immediately because it is aligned with the Fathers will. It is to the glory of the Father to bring
greater life out of lesser death. This is what God has always done. This is what God has been doing through His Beloved Son. This is what God will continue to do through His disciples. Death has held sway until now but now it's reign of terror is ended. Jesus' death will not entail the universal fate of going down into the earth. In His death He will be 'lifted up from the earth'. (v.32). It is this kind of dying, as a transforming process, that will attract people to Jesus. Death as extinction will bow to death as exaltation. This will be the kind of death Jesus will die and thus will draw all people to Himself.
Wheat falls, acorns crack, and cocoons split, bringing bread, oak trees and butterflies. Seeing death as a transition is essential for any disciple of Jesus. In his poem, 'Holy Longing', Goethe has written,
As long as you haven't experienced
this: to die and so to grow,
You are only a troubled guest
On the dark earth.
If this is true, perhaps we should be practicing how to die to ourselves on a regular basis! Here is a little story in this theme.
Once upon a time, a rich and generous man would freely give gold coins to various groups of people. One day it would be widows, another day the less able, another day poor students. The only request he made was that they should wait in silence for the gift to be given.
When it was the day for lawyers, one pleaded his cause with gusto. The rich man simply passed by. The next day was the turn of the lame, so the lawyer put splints on his legs and posed as such. The rich man recognised him and passed by. The next day, the lawyer disguised himself as a widow, but he didn't fool the rich man who just passed him by.
So the lawyer found an undertaker and concocted a plan that he would be wrapped in a shroud and placed in the path of the rich man. Surely he would throw some gold coins on the shroud for a proper burial. Afterwards, the lawyer and the undertaker would split the proceeds.
The rich man did throw gold coins on the shroud. The lawyers hand shot out and grabbed the coins. Then he jumped up and triumphantly proclaimed that he had deceived and beaten the rich man. "Do you see how, at last, I have received from your kindness?' 'Yes', said the rich man, 'but first you had to die'.
We must die to the schemer and become the receiver. It is the posture of contemplative silence which allows us to receive the gold that the rich and generous man is giving. As Rumi says,
" The mystery of die before you die is this:
that the gifts come after your dying and not before.
Except for dying, you artful schemer,
no other skill impresses God".
When death bites, it hurts. The Beloved Son of God comes from above and becomes death, death on a cross. If, when we see Him and believe in Him, Eternal Life will flow into us. This is the wonder of it all. That Eternal Life appears at the exact moment when human life is failing and carries us through the loss of all that we know. Eternal Life suffuses and carries us to the other side of what we cannot yet see. This truth is grasped by looking on the crucified One, who transfigures death into the servant of life.
And there is more! In Christ there is no condemnation! This is the truth. It is, if you like, the highest truth, or the revelation of the One who is behind all that His Beloved Son does. Our lives are a mystery to us and we are sustained by what we cannot really understand. But we are led to the truth that the ground on which we stand sings of the self-giving love of the Father who is dedicated to human fulfilment. This is what Dante calls, 'the Love which moves the sun and the other stars'.(Paradiso, 33.145)
The Beloved Son is sent by this Love, who cannot bear to see
His creation being unravelled by death. The Son brings life
without end. He does not seek condemnation but
Salvation. God's judgement is love and life. If we accept this gift,
condemnation cannot touch us. But if we refuse the gift we are
undone. Perhaps this is why, when we are drawing closer to
God, and the light of Love begins to shine more brightly in us,
there is a risk that when we see the full horror of sin we might
want to cover ourselves in darkness again. But the Light of
Mercy suggests another direction. A direction which begins with
gratitude for the Grace of God which is, and always has been,
the source of all the good we have done.
A choice which keeps choosing to move more deeply into the light.
When we hear the Good News that in Christ there is no condemnation we might not believe it. We are so used to being judged - and condemned - by people. Are we not always being put on the scales, weighed in the balance and found wanting? We even do it to ourselves! Husbands, wives, parents and children do it. Bosses, work colleagues, neighbours and friends have mastered the look that lets us know we are not quite good enough. So when we hear that God has abandoned judgment and condemnation in favour of Love, we may have to work on ourselves to let this Truth come home. Having done that, there is no sense of being off the hook. We are, but we are now on another one. The light of Love will reveal to us how we ourselves might live in the twilight zone of sin and the judgement and condemnation of others.
In the beautiful Parable of St. John's Gospel 8.6, Jesus bends down to write in the sand, deliberately evoking a memory of undeserved forgiveness in Exodus 31.18 where God gives Moses a masterclass in Mercy. The Pharisees claim that their only motivation for stoning the woman is faithfulness to the teaching of Moses. But Jesus, the true interpreter of Moses, wants them to drop their cover story and be searingly honest with themselves about why they are really there. He gives them a chance to come into the light. But they will not take it. They have been casting the stones of judgement and condemnation for a long time and old habits are hardest to break. The invitation to come into the light is no match for the comfort of darkness. One by one, they move away from the Light. And this preference for darkness has become a free choice for self-condemnation.
It is a strange truth that preferring darkness is easier than we might think. We do not always recognise our habitual ways of relating as darkness, so first we have to see it for what it really is. Only with the arrival of the Light does the racist, sexist, classist and separatist character of our thinking become clear. It is easier to create a cover story for our bad behaviour than to engage in painful self-examination. Other people seem eager to buy into our cover story and join us in our self-deceit. They are happy to not look at what we will not look, at as long as we agree to return the favour. The light is not welcome. It calls for a decision to change. Perhaps this is why some prefer the darkness. In this fourth week of Lent, let's pray that this is not us!
To some people, the Gospel story for the Third Sunday of Lent, unfolds in the Temple in Jerusalem. But
Jesus has another name for this building. He calls it, 'My Father's House' (v14). We can see the problem. If
the building is a Temple, there is business to be done and deals to be struck. Here, worship is a commercial
venture. Exchange is the name of the game. Worshippers give God something and God gives them
something. The basic exchange is flexible enough for all the versions of, "You scratch my back and I'll
scratch yours." And if you can offer an animal without blemish, you go to the front of the queue. The mindset
of the marketplace so fills the Temple that it has become a place for making deals with God.
Jesus’ Father is not a deal maker. He does no exchange favours or forgiveness for sacrifices. The Father
is Free and the flow of Love from His Heart cannot be bought, bartered, bargained for or gained with a
bribe. Hard cash and animals are useless to those who know they are in the Fathers House. So, you set
the animals free and you chase out the cash converters. They may be needed in the Temple but they are
not needed in 'My Father’s House' (v.16). What is more, when Jesus entered into a conversation with a
woman who came to draw water at a well, He tells her that the building itself isn't necessary. (Jn 4:23-24)
Worship can unfold right where we are. We don't have to move towards anything. Anyone who asks for the
gift of the Holy Spirit and is moved by the Spirit is worshipping The Father! Since Jesus is the fullness of
Grace and Truth from whom all receive the Spirit, (Jn 1:14,16) His presence stirs up a sense of the
Sacred. Jesus may be doing more than a clearance of the Temple, He may be replacing it!
This isn't going to be well received by the Temple Authorities. What Jesus has done is dangerous. His zeal
will consume Him and it will provoke conflict. He will be consumed by the anger of others who profit from
Temple commerce. They arrive on time and they know that His cleansing actions and words can belong
only to the Messiah. So they ask for a sign of authenticity, a miracle or two might do. But what He offers
only baffles them. They take literally what is offered symbolically. They cannot see the spiritual
revelation. So Jesus says, 'Destroy this Temple - His Body - the dwelling place of God - and by the power
and presence of God he will rise again because of His communion with His Father. Their malice and violence
will only reveal more of the Fathers face. But the sign they seek is a sign they cannot read.
So let's go back to our favourite pastime - deal making. It isn't hard
to see how an activity that is so embedded in our lives could be
carried into our spiritual lives. How do we get what we want from
God and how does God get what He wants from us? We think we
have to bargain with the Father to get what we want. This is more
than a little theological error. It is a huge obstacle to any real
spiritual development. And it can turn ugly when so called religious
'elitists' set themselves up as brokers of the deal. Jesus rejects this
approach. "Beware of the scribes who ... devour widows’ houses
and for the sake of appearance say long prayers" (Mk 12:38).
These intermediaries are being paid to pray to God for poor
widows. It is an unscrupulous manipulation by callous people. But
the sad truth is that it is easier to destroy the Temple than to
eradicate the deal making God.
In the film, "A House of Sand and Fog", the son of an Islamic man is shot. His distraught father instinctively
begins to pray for him. He says to God, "If you let my son live, I will lay in the park, put bird seed in my eyes,
and let the birds eat out my eyes". The deal emerges from the depth of his suffering and wells up to the heart
that he shares with all people. Stress, hurt and tragedy bring it out of hiding. For most of us it is hard to move
beyond the deal making default. Or perhaps the Father of Jesus who is often not at home with images of
buying and selling, is at home when we are grateful for the gift of life and serve life in any way we can. We
can receive and give, and when both make us truly happy, we can be said to be at play in God's Temple. In
fact, we have been admitted to the 'Holy of Holies' (Heb 9:3). Here, our 'sacrifice' mingles with the divine
'sacrifice' which makes life holy by pouring Himself out. The challenge and the gift is not in making a good
deal, but in getting beyond deals and into .................
The Teacher calls an inner circle of His disciples into the depth of Himself. To do this, He takes them up a high mountain, a favourite place for a meeting with God. Here, He is transfigured into light. The ‘three’ are given an astonishing gift – to see Jesus, the Beloved Son, in communion with His Abba. The gift is given so that they might grow in their desire to follow Jesus. It hasn’t been easy for them. What they are seeing is for their benefit.
But then more is given. Elijah and Moses arrive. They too like high mountains. In their own day they went there to talk with God and to find the wisdom to make God’s plan work with people who were highly resistant to them. Speaking on behalf of the ‘three’, Peter exclaims that it is great to be part of this event. But these are the words of someone who feels he is in over his head. The One they were shadowing is now even more attractive and, at the same time, a little bit scary!
Then even more is given. A cloud descends and now God is shadowing them. This is probably as close as you’re going to get to God. And then God speaks. He reveals the true name of this Jesus. It is the same name that was given at His Baptism in the Jordan, ‘My Son, the Beloved’. For disciples, this is a call to listen more attentively to what the Beloved Son is saying. This is the revelation.
And then, the moment of Grace ends, as they must. Now all they have is Jesus and the truth about Him. The vision has strengthened their understanding of Jesus as God’s Beloved Son and the inheritor of the law and the prophets. They know that Jesus has God’s seal of approval, but they have yet to understand the divine plan. Somehow, this is tied to the rather mysterious question of the Son of Man “rising from the dead”. And so, until they understand both the identity of Jesus and the divine plan, they are charged to be silent. They are, and yet they try to solve the puzzle amongst themselves. As do we!
I wonder if we might come closer to understanding in this way. Those who turn away from God are left in communities of loneliness. Loneliness brings panic, and, in their panic, people will try anything to fill the void they have made in their own lives. Grace reverses this process. People grounded in God do not know what it is like to be separated. Their communion fills them and propels them outwards. Instead of trying to grab and hold, they find joy in giving themselves. And here they discover one of life’s strangest truths, that the source of life is always available to those who walk with generous hearts before God. These are the ones who bring strength and healing to a broken and troubled world.
In the Transfiguration narrative Jesus radiates outwards. This is the sign of His communion with God. Neither God nor Jesus abandon this troubled world or her troubled people. They move in sync to restore what was lost. This is what disciples are meant to understand. That feeling grounded and at home and flowing into the world with compassion and blessing, they find a deeper compassion and more abundant blessing. Thus, the are transfigured with Christ.
Cyprian Smith states the case beautifully: “It is possible for human beings, living, thinking and acting in God, to think, see and do as God does. Instead of standing within the created world, looking in it for
signs of a God who is outside it, we stand within God and it is the world that now appears outside, we are greater than it. It appears as a pale and imperfect reflection of the dazzling and brilliant truth in
which we are living and making our home”.
(The Way of Paradox: Spiritual Life as Taught by Meister Eckhart.)
If you made it to mass on Ash Wednesday, you will have received the traditional sign that Lent or Springtime has begun. The minster will have anointed your forehead with ashes and with words of invitation, "Change your heart, and believe the Good News!" It would be a mistake, of course, to think that this activity is confined to the six weeks of Lent! Changing hearts and believing in Jesus takes, at least, a lifetime.
Notice what unfolds as Jesus enters the waters of the river Jordan. He sinks. Then, He emerges in an act of human reaching and ascending openness. As He does so, he finds the heavens torn open, not for a second or two, but permanently. This opening allows the Spirit of Love to reach for Him. It does not land on him like a bird, it falls into Him. And then, from the inside, the Spirit drives Him into the wilderness. For Jesus, the moment of Baptism becomes the foundation for a struggle. The certainty of being loved unfolds into the desire to be faithful. This wilderness will be a place of testing and of conflict.
But not with God. It is Satan who holds sway here. Notice how quickly he makes his move on Jesus. He is associated with the 'wild beasts' - symbols of the violence Jesus will face if He is faithful to His mission. The Gospel of Mark isn't just 'Good News', it is good news in a bad world. Satan isn't a character in a novel and shouldn't be imagined this way. Rather, he is the inner, invisible energy of people, groups and nations who inflict suffering on others. This adversary of God manifests itself through individuals, groups and nations by turning them into wild beasts who devour God's good creation. At this moment, the Adversary is working through the wild beast Herod who has arrested John. But Jesus is not intimidated by this. In fact, he moves into the heart of Herod’s territory. Jesus not only preaches the Kingdom of God, He is the Kingdom of God! His Baptism structures his identity in the world. He is sustained by divine love. His life in time is permeated by eternity. Now this must happen to others. Jesus’ mission is to offer those He calls, the same gifts that are in Himself. This is why He tells them that the 'Kingdom of God is very near to you'.
Disciples must turn away from lives that alienate others and cause them suffering and turn toward lives that embrace the new humanity. Creation is being restored and they have a part to play in this work but the Adversary is strong and has many disciples of his own. This is why we speak of our struggle to be faithful. It does not come easily.
If we were to ask why it is difficult to change our hearts and believe the Good News, we might consider that it is because we also believe other things which don't sit well with the radical teaching of Jesus. We might prize wealth, beauty or power. We might have decided that no one can be trusted and increase our defence spending. We might believe in revenge or in our right to have power over others. This is why it is important to have a searing honesty with ourselves. Our behaviour will always reveal the beliefs we live by and this can be uncomfortable self-knowledge!
And finally, there is the thorny issue of time and death. If we allow Jesus to teach us how to value ourselves in a way that neither time nor death can destroy we will notice that our identity isn't defined by what we have or don't have. It will be found in the celebration of our true identity as daughters and sons of the Most High. If we keep faith with this, our faith in Jesus will gradually change to faith with Jesus. What we treasure and where our hearts live, will become united. The Good News will take us there and we will find that our choices, decisions and behaviour will flow from this treasure in our hearts. This is the adventure of discipleship. It is the lifelong journey of coming to know the infinite love which has chosen to live in the heart of our being. Wow!
The word is out. Jesus is a healer who banishes illness and inner torment. So, the moment the sun has set and strange sabbath rules no longer apply, they come to Him, bringing their sick in droves. It must have been a great evening for everyone. They are witnesses to how healing unbreaks the broken circles of love and restores lives and communities. Yet, in the Gospel, these cures are recorded but they are not embellished in any way. Even the ‘demons’ are not allowed to speak. If they are heard, Jesus will be misunderstood. He silences the ‘demons’ because He knows their half-truth is more dangerous than a lie.
The real Mission is unfolding, and Jesus has to stay close to the One who has sent him. He seeks out the desert and prayerful communion with His Abba. Here, he enjoys clarity and sees the right direction He needs to take. Jesus has to choose, and prayer will centre Him for those decisions. He cannot afford to be distracted by ‘popularity’. His cures and exorcisms are magnets that draw large crowds. To His ‘not yet fully trained disciples’, crowds spell success. Fame and reputation are still a big temptation for them. Jesus calls followers but He does not court fans. The message is more important than the miracles. This is why He came. His identity, claimed and reclaimed in prayer, draws Him away from the crowds who seek Him. He must move on. The message, the spiritual revolution must be preached and taught in word and deed.
Ram Dass, a spiritual teacher in the Hindu tradition, suffered a severe stroke in 1977. In his wonderful book, ‘Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying’, he wrote, “While cures aim at returning our bodies to what they were in the past, healing uses what is present to move us more deeply into soul awareness, and in some cases, physical improvement. Although I have not been cured of the effects of my stroke, I have certainly undergone profound healings of mind and heart”. (p.67). For Ram, it is in the sickness that the healing begins.
And in his poem, ‘Fever’, John Updike speaks about the inner healing
that came from his illness.
I have brought back a good message from the land of 102 degrees:
I had seriously doubted this before;
but the bedposts spoke of it with utmost confidence,
the thread of my blanket took it for granted. (Collected Poems 1953-1993) p.28
Again, some patients have reported a greater sense of being alive and
closer to others when they were sick. This was the case for Fred who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. After an initial period of distress something amazing happened to him. He just stopped doing everything that didn’t really matter. His terminally ill life had become vital and peaceful. When the doctor called to tell him they had made a mistake he was shattered. “When I heard this over the phone, I cried like a baby – because I was afraid my life would go back to the way it used to be”.
(Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future, pp25-26)
This is the challenge the Gospel presents. Cures are a sign of the Kingdom of God. Like illness, they should be received as a gift and both should carry us to the new humanity. This is why Simon’s mother-in-law is both cured and healed. The touch of Jesus is a transfusion. His life flows into her life. In loving the person, hidden at the centre of an illness, He lifts her up. The fever leaves and service begins. God’s service to her becomes her service of others. This healing reconnects her to the true meaning of her life. The flow of life and love through her intimate communion with God, herself and her community results in the Dignity of Service. And the Gospels are clear that service is not menial work. It is the hallmark of the new humanity that Jesus, the Beloved Son of God came to establish. After all, He Himself came not to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10.45) What about us?
Every reading for this weekend explores something about our experience of the Sacred and the Holy. It suggests that it doesn't matter so much that we tell ourselves that we are searching for God; because the moment we say the words it is clear that God has already found us. And, having found us, He talks to us of the Spirit and the Truth that is universally available (Jn.4,21,24). The Spirit shakes the house in which we live and puts Justice, Mercy, Peace, Love and Compassion at the top of our agenda. God is present to us always but speaks most clearly to us in the voice of the poor and of those who are suffering. The High Altar, symbol of the rock which is the Beloved Son of God, and the rock that is Peter, becomes the mirror in which we see ourselves passionately
committed together to building a new humanity and a new community where Peace reigns over all.
Eknath Easwarn was travelling from Delhi to Simla. The train stopped at the historic battlefield of the Bhagavad Gita. The train filled with excitement as the passengers talked about the great battle which took place on the ground on which they were now standing. But Eknath stayed in his seat for he knew that the real battlefield was right inside each passenger on the train. (The End of Sorrow, the Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living, vol 1, Nilgirie Press, 1975)
What if the Gate of Heaven, the house of God is inside each of us? What if this is the only place from which true Peace can come?
Thomas Merton put it so beautifully,
At the centre of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure Glory of God in us. It is, so to speak, His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence as daughters and sons. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely. I have no programme for seeing this. It is only given. But the Gate of Heaven is everywhere.
(Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p.142,Garden City, N.Y. Doubleday, 1966)
By contrast, have a look at some of the poetry on the Pax Christi website which explores the other side of Peace and why it is so important that it takes centre stage in our journey as disciples of Jesus.
LIONS AND DONKEYS
And after all the carnage, after all the millions of dead and the billions of bullets had been expended, do you know the greatest moral failing of them all?
Beyond all the bayonettings, shootings, gassings, pulverisings,
something far more deadly in effect took place in a railway coach at Compiègne and in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles:
the Humiliation of the Vanquished and the Vengeance of the Victors,
grinding Germany into the dirt and the Jews into the Camps and the World back into War. All for want of imagination and forgiveness, reconciliation and friendship and a Christ-like love of enemy.
When we pray with the Gospels, and listen with our hearts to the story of Jesus, it's pretty clear that Simeon's prophecy came true. Jesus was accepted by some and rejected by others. But the great surprise for the infant church was His acceptance by people who were not Jews. For them, this was God's work. In the story of the Magi, heaven and earth come together: heaven in the form of a star and earth in the first breaths of the Beloved Son of God. Those who ponder this text are left in no doubt that God is the author of the life of Jesus and through Him God speaks to all of humanity.
As always, the rejection of Jesus is violent and evil. The news of his arrival causes fear in the hearts of those who have been faithfully unfaithful to their religious heritage. Jesus is a clear threat to their
position and power. They have corrupted the faith they pledged to protect; when true faith arrives, they will be exposed. The birth of the New King means only one thing to them - He must be killed. Herod
has murder on his mind, but he is no match for God. He stands in the Gospel as an example of all those who say pious and respectable things but only have treachery in their hearts.
In contrast to these idiots, the Wise Ones' hearts are only filled with joy. When the star halts over the stable, heaven and earth are one. They are joined, symmetrical and balanced. And they have found the One who is the fulfilment of their life's longing. The gifts they bring make it clear that they understand who they bow to adore. Gold, for his ordinary needs. Frankincense to honour his divinity. Myrrh for his saving death. What Herod tried to kill, the Wise Ones accept and worship. This is truly a story which celebrates the manifestation of the divinity of Christ to the Gentiles. Herod and his allies take a back seat so that this may be clearly seen.
The story then becomes an occasion for the giving a receiving of gifts. Christ Himself is the present. But now, Gift giving is the way that the invisible becomes visible. And at Christmas Time this is spiritual activity of the highest order. Why? Because it is our attempt to communicate our spirit to someone we care for, in such a way, that our spirit flows into them and they become stronger by our presence. When the gift symbolises a flow of Love, it is the perfect gift, no matter what is inside the wrapping paper. The gifts of the Wise Ones have always been seen as the perfect gifts. On the one hand it shows that they know who Jesus is, they are not fooled by outward trappings and they have truly discerned the inner identity and mission of the child. On the other hand, the gifts reveal the hearts of the ones who give them. The gifts are perfect because they reveal two hearts. The perfect gift is one that carries one heart to another.
One of my favourite stories is O'Henry's 'Gift of the Magi'. It is the story of Jim and Della. They are poor but each have a possession. Della has long, beautiful hair and Jim has the watch. As Christmas approaches, Della cuts her hair and sells it and buys Jim a platinum fob chain for his watch. When she gives it to him, he reveals that he has sold his watch to buy her a set of pure tortoise shell combs for her hair! They fall in the sofa laughing. O'Henry says, "Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the wisest". Jim and Della are wise because although their gifts are now completely useless, they have done their job and carried them into each other's hearts. The gift has strengthened their relationship, assuring them that they know and are known, love and are loved. Oh, to be so Wise!
One of the best ways to come to know Jesus, is through John, who is a prophet. If you are seriously looking for 'the One True Light', a full awareness of what is real and a genuine illumination into Sacred Things, there is only One who can do this, and His name is Jesus. John, the one who isn't the true light who enlightens everything, cannot produce that much wattage. Even though Jesus called him 'a burning and shining lamp', His greater light makes John a mere reflection - like us. One who prepares others to meet Him.
John is sent by God, but those who have come to interrogate him are from the authorities in Jerusalem. They want to know who he is, but all John will tell them is who he is not. Irked, they offer to help by supplying identities, but John refuses them. They cannot return to Jerusalem empty handed or with a list of what John is not, so they almost plead for an answer. John answers by hinting again that they are looking in the wrong place. Now, these have been sent by the Pharisees, so they have one last pop at the question. They are curious about John's activity of baptising. That would be okay if he were a prophet or a messiah. But even here, John sidesteps them. If they want to know who he is they will only find the answer in the one who is coming, who stands amongst them unknown. The interview is over. They have to start looking in the right place.
Here is a great little story which explores this theme. The theme is clear.
In the woods surrounding a monastery, a rabbi lived in a small hut. Sometimes, the monks would see the rabbi walking in the woods and would wonder why he was there.
The Abbot was very distressed as the monastery was in terminal decline. He has prayed and pondered over the situation. He had admonished the mood and behaviour of the monks. All to no avail. One day he saw the rabbi walking in the woods and decided to ask his advice. He walked up behind the rabbi. The rabbi turned, and when the abbot and the rabbi looked into each other's eyes, they began to weep. The sorrow of the situation affected them both deeply. The Abbot knew he did not have to explain the decline of the monastery. He just asked, "Can you give me some wise words to help our community thrive again?"
The rabbi said, "One of you is the messiah'. Then he turned and continued to walk in the woods. The Abbot returned to the monastery and the monks asked him, "What did the rabbi say?" "One of us is the Messiah," the Abbot said the words slowly, almost in disbelief.
The monks began talking to one another. "One of us? Which one? Is it brother John? Or perhaps brother Andrew? Could it even be the Abbot?
From that day, things started changing at the monastery. The monks began to look for the Messiah in each other and to listen to each other for the Messiahs voice. Soon, new younger monks joined them and people started coming back to the monastery for spiritual leadership.
In 'The Gift' Poems by the Great Sufi Master', the poet Hafiz wrote on the same theme.
How Do I Listen to others?
As if everyone were my Teacher.
Speaking to me
Their Cherished Last Words.
Saint Mark opens by summarising all that will follow - 'The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.' But when we get to the end of his Gospel and look back, we realise how bold Mark is being. Every word, "beginning", "good news", "Jesus", "Christ", "Son of God", feels different because of the story which has been told. Mark knows that something has begun that will never end. This is not the standard story of political fame, triumph and glorious recognition. Mark even reverses the conventional meaning of "Christ", and "Son of God". In this Gospel, the main character has no privilege or prestige. The destiny of Jesus was to face fierce resistance from his own religious leaders. He was abandoned and misunderstood by his own disciples. And then to suffer and die and rise again. For Mark, all of this is Good News, and, for those who are ready, his Gospel will provide a deeper and deeper insight into the true meaning of these titles.
And so it begins before it begins. John the Baptist is hard at work. His message is one of repentance or metanoia. John lives like a prophet, eats like a prophet, dresses like a prophet and talks like a prophet. John gives voice to Gods' eternal plea, "Come back to me with all your heart".
As a prophet, John must liberate people from the sin which ensnares them. He does this by asking them to have a new mind and changing their behaviour. He uses Baptism as a powerful symbol of this great undertaking. Those who go down into the water must first have made a rigorous self-examination of the life that they are living. In Baptism, they experience a new sense of freedom. They have shaken off the shackles of the past and are ready for something new. Which is exactly the impression John wants to make. Newly Baptized people are not completed, they are only ready for the main event. In most adventure stories, the hero or heroine must overcome many obstacles in their path to reach their goal. For John, the obstacles are not in the way of the one journeying but in the way of the One arriving! The whole point of clearing the ground is to allow this One to arrive. It works like this; God and the ones who work with God go after people. God is always searching for us and we must cultivate the art of welcoming Him when he comes.
The question then is whether or not we are ready for this new beginning. Are we willing and open? Can we engage with Jesus and his teaching? We can be presented with many opportunities for spiritual formation, but seize none of them. This question of readiness might explain why the teaching of Jesus fell on so many deaf ears.
But I imagine a different kind of scenario for being ready. It might, as Mark suggests begin with a life changing insight into the horror of sin and our need for forgiveness. Perhaps it is more likely that people just wake up one day and find that there is no life in their lives. The passion, pleasure and purpose of what they do and who they are is no longer there. The flow of life and love has dried up and, underneath the surface of things, people are hungry for change. These are the moments when, realising that we are dying at our own hands, we risk it all. If this is true, our encounters with dissatisfaction or desperation might turn out to be our best moment of Grace. The waters of the river Jordan will carry our sins away. The Baptist watches. He deflects our gratitude and praise. He tells us this is only the first step. That someone is coming who will pour Spirit like water into our desert lives. We are on the edge. We hear the Baptist speak," I am the beginning before it begins".
CATHOLIC PARISH OF ST JOSEPH & ST MARGARET CLITHEROW
St Joseph’s Church. 39 Braccan Walk, Bracknell, Berkshire, RG12 1BE (Directions)
Tel: 01344 425729
South Berkshire Pastoral Area
The parish is part of the Diocese of Portsmouth.
Portsmouth Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust registered charity 246871
St Joseph’s Church. 39 Braccan Walk, Bracknell, Berkshire, RG12 1BE (Directions)
Tel: 01344 425729
South Berkshire Pastoral Area
The parish is part of the Diocese of Portsmouth.
Portsmouth Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust registered charity 246871