It looks like the suffering and death of Jesus will be the work of the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Still, Jesus must go, must suffer, must be killed and must be raised from death. All Peter can hear is the first bit, so he takes Jesus aside to talk some sense into him. He wants God to forbid the suffering and death of Jesus. The Lord turns. The rock on which the New Humanity is to be built now looks like a stumbling block. Jesus speaks to Peter, taking back the role of leader that Peter has just stolen. Peter must submit. He must set aside ordinary thinking and reach for higher ground. To do this, Peter will have to deny himself and his desire to avoid suffering and loss at any cost. He must make space in his panic for what he cannot hear - Resurrection. Disciples are to take up the cross gladly. If they do this, it will be a path of transformation for others and the doorway to resurrection for themselves.
Jesus hopes they will have the wisdom to see that when they are following Him, what looks like loss is really gain. Nothing the world has to offer can come close to the Kingdom of Heaven. They cannot be traded. And, at the end of time, the Son of God will come and repay everyone in accordance with how they have responded to His offer of a new humanity. The whole scene - the Father's Glory, the Son of Man, the Angels, the gathering of all time and space - is an invitation to see how our small contribution has been well received. The end of history judges all history and the end of history belongs only to the Son of Man and the new humanity who follow Him.
It is a sad fact of life that those who stand up get knocked down. A police officer reports corruption in his team and is shunned for the rest of his working life. A woman reports accounting 'inaccuracies' in her office. She is thanked and made redundant a few weeks later. Criticism and cover up go hand in hand. And Jesus was a fierce critic of the hypocrisy of many so called religious leaders. They were taken up with their own importance, loving the trappings of their status rather than its substance. They loved money, elaborate robes, seats at the top table, ego massages in the town centre and being called teachers. They polished the outside of the cup. They kept people from the knowledge that would help them. They laid burdens on others and enjoyed watching them stumble and fall. Jesus saw the organisational abuse and he named it. When He did this he was not naive. He knows that those who have power over others, destroy those who question them.
Anyone who takes a stand knows that there will be reprisals. So why do people continue to criticise this kind of wrong doing? Some say, 'I just couldn't let it go on.' Others say, 'I couldn't live with myself if I kept quiet any longer.' But whatever the reason for the critique, it is because the right thing means so much for them. And in the Gospel, the deeper life of God depends on the voice of prophets. Every time the 'Cross' is taken up, a double revelation unfolds. God's Love is easier to see, as is the resistance of those who stand against it. The Cross is the symbol of the stand-off between divine Love and Human sin.
And Jesus must take you and me aside to explain to us why this is necessary. Given who God is and who we are, it cannot be any other way. And as Jesus talks to us about the need to take up our cross and follow Him, He must keep saying the word we cannot hear - the word that was lost in the sound of our hearts pounding and our feet running from suffering and death. The sacred word. The most sacred word of all. Resurrection.
The questions are important, and so is the place where they are asked. When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, 'Who do people say that the Son of Man is'. (Matthew: 16,30)
Caesarea Philippi is a mess! Everything that could happen to violate love or the human person would happen here. Why would Our Blessed Lord choose this setting to ask his Question or to use the title Son of Man, and to lay the keystone for his Church?
Of course, there was then, and is now mindless speculation about Him. Yet, He is absolutely clear that He is here for everyone and that He wants his Church to be born in and stay close to the darkest settings. Heaven and earth are aligned on the Rock of Peters Confession. Even if the gates of Hell are opened and all negative fury is hurled at this new community it will not prevail. Why? Because the Church has a set of keys to the kingdom of Heaven. This ability to keep the gates open will make the darkness ineffective.
We've all heard the jokes about St Peter working as a full time security officer at the gates of heaven. But seriously folks, the gates for which he has the keys are the gates of human consciousness. And this new power and new awareness will support the disciple to meet the horrors of the world head on.
The Disciples mandate is to engage with all situations that uphold the sanctity of life and to disengage from those which bring death. For this work, The Lord has given us insight and gifts beyond our imagination.
We take time to ponder these things and to figure out how best to bring them to bear of the brokenness of the world. We work to bring integrity to our faith and how we live in the world. Then we put flesh on the wider ideas of love, compassion and mercy.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth proclaims Mary as 'The most Blessed of all Women'. Yet while her first instinct is to give thanks to the God for whom 'nothing is impossible', Elizabeth also praises Mary for her faith, her trust in the God who speaks and delivers on promises made. Mary is deeply connected to all who 'hear the Word of God and obey it'. (Luke 11:27-28). She is not just the Mother of the Beloved Son of God. She is a disciple, adorned as the first and the best, who shows us how to be intentional disciples in our own days.
This experience of Grace, where the 'Word of God' and 'human listening and obeying' unite, is key to understanding Mary's encounter with Gabriel. Out of her heart, Grace creates a song whose lyrics celebrate what God is doing, and how Mary is actively cooperating with this Sacred activity. God moves with love, faithfulness, and mercy to change the face of the earth. Anyone who does not have due reverence for the things of God, and who do not align themselves with Gods purpose will be scattered in confusion and loneliness. Even if now they sit on seats of great power and gorge themselves at feasts, they will be overthrown and emptied out. The injustices of the world are coming to an end, and those who align themselves to God's purposes will have their part to play in this ending.
The transformation of the face of the earth is not only inspired and directed by God it will also be completed by God. This is known as the Great Assurance. Communities and individuals who act against God's purpose are doomed to failure, but those who move in harmony with God's purposes are being carried into a destiny whose beginning and end is God Himself.
It is worth looking at the values which dance in the heart of the singer of the Song. She is a person of openness, humility, questioning, courageous, consulting, faithful and just. More to the point, all of these values are cradled in her pondering heart. She does not shrink from the difficult work of discerning what is right. God speaks, and casts a lure which will maximise our commitment to love and justice. This Divine lure is a call to beauty. But the work of restoring the beauty of creation will inevitably bring turmoil and trouble. When this happens, we can lose our footing and begin to doubt the whole enterprise. And this is where the pondering heart comes into its own. By placing ourselves in a constant state of discerning we are less likely to want to impose our will on others, less likely to fight for our way and leave havoc in our wake. We listen with our assumptions (bracketed) for the something more that is on its way. We may not know what it is but we recognise it when it arrives.
Rachael Remen says this beautifully.
I've spent many years learning how to fix life,
only to discover at the end of the day that life is not broken.
There is a hidden seed of great wholeness in everyone and everything.
We serve life best when we water it and befriend it.
When we listen before we act.
In befriending life we do not make things happen according to our own design.
We uncover something that is already happening in us and around us
And create conditions that enable it.
Everything is moving towards its place of wholeness always struggling against the odds.
Everything has a deep dream of itself and its fulfilment.
'Finding our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time'. Margaret Wheatley, 2007, p.230
With this in mind, listen very carefully to the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer for today's Feast.
One of the most popular pieces of writing is a little thing called 'Footprints in the Sand'. It's a sentimental piece where God appears to carry us when the storm clouds gather and the wind is trying to bowl us over. It is a favourite of a particular kind of disciple.
However ... The disciple is not asked to say prayers but to become prayer. But the reality for many people is that they only ever 'say' prayers when they are in trouble, or their life is in danger or when they want something badly. Once the storm has passed and they feel lifted out of the raging sea, they are grateful and then drop God until the next crisis or need appears.
The real adventure of faith, as it is outlined in today's Gospel, is to be rooted in Gods Saving Presence with every breath that we take. Danger creates fear and fear is a prison cell which will not allow Gods presence. The boat, Matthew’s great symbol for the Church, is in danger of sinking. The disciples (men of little faith still) become afraid and lose their rudder. But they are not just taking a walk on a dark country lane at night.
We are instead struggling for community in an age of holocaust. Struggling for an end to war and violence, struggling to make poverty, hunger and disease things of the past, struggling to uphold dignity and respect for all of creation, for lives that are pure with love, struggling for beauty and truth in art and education, in healthcare, education and in politics. Working for higher consciousness of the Sacred in our Midst. In Matthew’s language, trying to bring heaven to earth!
As we reach for these things, we become afraid. Afraid for our lives, Afraid of Failure. We notice the winds of change are stronger than we thought. We imagine that the tsunami of violation, greed, injustice, and cruelty will make our own little efforts seems ridiculous.
But we might keep this on the breath of our prayer. Before the outstretched arm of Christ reaches out to hold us up, there is no better way to sink!
Herod misuses his power and kills John. And, like all people who use their power to hurt, destroy or control others, the ghost returns to haunt him. Herod, now panicked by superstition, thinks that Jesus is a ghost. The world has become a dangerous place for the Beloved Son of God.
So Jesus goes to the place which, though useless to those who seek power, is a wellspring for those who seek God.
Jesus is in the desert. And while it is true that He is rejected by some, He is pursued by others. The 'crowd' gather. He does not push them away. His heart goes out to them. As they move toward Him, He moves toward them. Mercy kisses misery and compassion is born. He heals their bodies and their anxious minds, restoring Peace to their community. They see in His Presence, Gods' presence and care, and they come to be bound in a covenant of love to each other and to God.
But the setting sun brings a new hunger, and the desert has little to offer. His closest disciples think that the solution is for them to leave now and go to the markets to buy food. Why, because they think they do not have enough. Jesus asks them to bring what they already have and draws them to understand that they already have enough. Five loaves and two fish. Five plus two equals seven. A Sacred number symbolising that whatever we have is a gift from God. Now they have two choices. To look at what they have and say it is not enough or to recognise that what they have is a gift from God which hides abundance.
When the disciples are no longer overwhelmed by the needs of these people, the desert becomes a garden. People sit on green grass. Jesus looks to heaven and gratitude fills His heart to overflowing. What is freely given is freely given away. Everyone is satisfied!
It does seem to me that there is a powerful teaching for us here. If we always start by thinking that the need before us is too great, and we will never have enough to meet that need, nothing will ever happen. We talk ourselves into doing nothing beautiful for God. Whereas, the Beloved Son of God, moves our attention to what we already have. He asks us not to look outside ourselves for the answer but to turn our gaze within. Going and buying may work for some, but for Jesus knowing what you have is the first step in spiritual transformation. He asks us to bring what we have, He gives thanks for what we have and asks us to join Him in gratitude, then He gives the gift to those who need it, and who, in their turn give it away to others.
This new way of living - self-awareness, gratefulness, generosity and communal love does not only satisfy the need before us, it produces an abundance - twelve baskets. So when we find ourselves in the desert, we know what to do. We either celebrate our assets and live or tell ourselves we will never have enough and die. Powerful teaching! Giving us the strength to say Yes!
Solomon has it all! He even has God talking to him in his dreams! His dreaming self hears the question God is always asking, "What is it that you want?" When we wake up, of course, the question is harder than it looks. Why? Because it can only be answered with great care. The word we speak coming straight from our heart.
I know a lot of jokes about genies wriggling out of bottles or fairies swooshing their wands, who ask the lucky finder the same question. Usually the answer is a request for endless wealth. Solomon does not need to ask for what he already has, so he asks God for the gift of 'Wisdom'. A Wisdom that supports a community to grow. A Wisdom for relating! Notice how this stirs surprise and delight in Gods' own heart. And God is delighted to answer this prayer. The Psalmist must have had a similar experience. You can hear it as she sings, "The law from your mouth means more to me than silver or gold." Or in the words and experience of Saint Paul, God adorns us in Glory. What are they all telling us? What lesson can be learned here?
First of all, something happens. A baby looks at you and smiles and, no matter what you're feeling, you just have to smile back. Because, first of all, something happens. You're standing at a graveside, tears your only prayer, as the storm of grief rages from your heart to your eyes. Someone takes your hand and joins you in that lonely place which is now less lonely. First of all, something happens. A secret weakness is exposed, but the support of a good friend is stronger than the shame that threatens to engulf us. First of all, something happens.
We are unexpectedly kissed, we see an old person refusing to be old. First of all, something happens. These are the 'moments' that throw us into the Mystery we share with each other. We are suddenly face to face with the Presence within which we live our lives. God does not wait for a suitable moment or for a polite introduction. His presence breaks through our routines, demanding our attention, insisting that we talk. When God speaks, we may laugh or cry, we might sing or fall silent. But whatever we do we are praying at our best. The 'moment' the 'encounter' has changed everything.
We pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom. But when it arrives it is always a surprise! In farming a field, a treasure is stumbled upon. A door opens and the perfect pearl is for sale. Out of nowhere there is a gold embossed invitation to the Kings' Banquet! Every genuine encounter with Jesus is always a surprise. Lawyers who expected justification are challenged. A rich young man asks for advice and is offered a vocation. Zacchaeus, hoping for a glimpse of a prophet, dines with his Saviour. A woman at a well leaves with a bucket full of self-revelation. All of them got more than they asked for. Their emptiness suddenly brimming over, their ravaged lives called to greatness.
These experiences bring us to prayer. Our own story now made more by our encounter with Jesus. We begin to make links with the Prophets and disciples who have gone before us. In their company, old worlds are subverted, new worlds rise from the ruins. We are blessed by a Love stronger than death. We are suddenly filled with a new confidence. We have become the prayer.
A handful of wheat, a fistful of mustard seeds, a pinch of yeast. Jesus uses these beautiful things to say something amazing about the Kingdom of God. He begins with the great reassurance that love is invincible. No matter how small the beginning, no matter how vulnerable or threatened the middle, the end is never in doubt. In life and in death, the Kingdom will come and Gods' will, will be done.
Next. He will not allow us to take a simplistic, no grey in the middle, view of the world. We are all complicated. There is no neat division of people into the 'good' and the 'bad'. We are all a strange mixture of both. Take the first disciples as an example. One moment they are all over Jesus like a rash, then they are following at a distance or not following Him at all. And if we are honest, we don't always go along with Holy things. We drift from time to time. The Great Reassurance of God walks with the Great Not-So-Sureness of the human heart.
And so the struggle goes on. Or the struggle goes well. It is a struggle for bread, for shelter and for Compassion. Only the Wisdom which allows the wheat and darnell to remain intertwined can make this happen. This Wisdom puts us in a place of unending repentance as we await the time of harvest.
This invitation to unending repentance is one of the big themes of Saint Matthews Gospel. It is an invitation to shake ourselves free of anything in us which causes hunger, homelessness and despair. And when we have completed this work, we start all over again. This labour goes on and on throughout our lives. This is why, when we leave the retreat centre, full of good intentions and two minutes into the journey home we are screaming at someone who cut us up on the road, we smile. Or we leave Holy Mass full of love, kindness and consideration which evaporates the minute someone presses the wrong buttons. We smile! How many times have we witnessed Saint Peter proclaim his love unto death for Jesus being chastened and illuminated by his own betrayal. Perhaps we dream more than we can do. Perhaps not.
In the teaching of Jesus weeds and wheat grow together. Small seeds become huge trees. Leaven raises dead dough into bread. All are given the gift of time. Time to try again. Time to become repeat repenters and not just repeat offenders. But one day the time will run out and the urgency of the struggle is clear. We all fail and we are all ashamed of the failing within us. But we must not give up on ourselves. Out of our errors and frailty come some of life's most important lessons. There is a freedom that awaits us. It can only be found by those who carry the light, of a certain kind of love, into darkened places.
Jesus leaves the house (church) where the converted are gathered, and goes to sea. He is looking for fish, and they arrive in large numbers. So, Jesus, who likes to fish for people, begins to teach from a boat.
Jesus teaches many things using Parables, which are a soup mix of conventional knowledge and spiritual wisdom. He draws on what is already familiar, what people know best. But Parables are not just stories. They make demands on those who listen to them. They might draw on farming, legal situations, family conflicts and weather etc, but there is always something about them which is a little strange. Today’s Gospel Reading is a great example of this strangeness. It's a farming Parable, but it's not about a careful farmer. This one is wild and reckless and yet, the yield abundant. This is a clue that the listener is being invited to go deeper. The invitation, 'Let anyone with ears listen!' means the Parable is over and the struggle to understand it has begun.
For many reasons, some people get the Parables and some don't. The spiritual teacher helps the disciple to move towards a deeper understanding and a new awareness. But not everyone wants to be helped. Some harden their hearts against the deeper meanings in the Parable for fear that a new and higher consciousness might demand a change in lifestyle. Against such as these, even the Divine Teacher is powerless.
It has been said that there are basically two kinds of teachers; those who love teaching and those who love their students. Those who love teaching are never short of words, details and explanations. They make objections with one breath and answer them in the next. They can often be funny and charming individuals who really like the sound of their own voice. They will take questions but only because it gives them a chance to talk more!
Those who love the students talk less and listen more. They are too busy feeling for the student’s level of understanding, for blocks to their advancement, for paths that may be taken and paths that may be avoided. They are experts is knowing the person who sits beside them. They see what is needed but they do not say it out loud. What they say is said only to support the student to discover the next step. The teacher who loves the student provides the right conditions for an inner revelation. If they can follow the clues, they will come to know for themselves and not be overly dependent on the insights of others. Good Parents are especially good at this.
When Jesus tells Parables, He is clearly a spiritual teacher who loves His disciples. The Parables do not give up their secrets too easily. They invite a wrestling match. They are not just information. They require engagement. But for Saint Matthew there is a third Person in the ring. The Holy Spirit is working from the inside out to 'reveal these things to us?' And the reason we know that Jesus is the kind of Teacher who loves his disciples is that He powerfully introduces them to the presence of God in the depth of their own being.
Jesus found out that, no matter what you do, you just can't please some people. His beautiful teaching is rejected by the religious and political elite. They bypass the beauty of His Word because they prefer to sit in cafes and bars making dark judgements. They are learned and clever about the 613 dictates of the Law. They tithe herbs to God but ignore the justice God longs for. They like being in charge. They like to be seen and seen as movers and shakers. They like telling other people what they ought to be doing. But they are only interested in the outside of the cup. They are masters of the detail, obsessing over surface rather than depth.
If anyone should come to them with a new idea, it is rejected if it doesn't fit in with how they see things. And surely how they see things is the only way to see things. Experts at categorising others for exclusion, they are clever enough to maintain their own position of privilege. They argue endlessly about God, Morality and Theology, not because they want to Grow in Wisdom, but to keep God at a distance. They never ever come to Jesus seeking the truth. They come to compete and to try to trap Jesus in a maze of their own making.
But Jesus teaching is being accepted by those who are not 'learned' or 'clever'. Jesus praises His Father for working in this way and decides that, if the Father hides and reveals in this way, this is how the Mission of the Son should unfold.
The mind of a child is eager and open. It is not cluttered or defensive. The mind of a child is always changing and growing and adapting to novelty. But most importantly, the mind of a child is relational. This openness gives the Father huge pleasure, so He pours life and love into the hearts of those with a child mind. If they find pleasure in God, they will effortlessly walk the pathways of Justice and Peace.
Jesus exemplifies this child mind. He stretches out His hands to those who struggle to be good by conforming to the endless petty laws that defeat, rather than nurture, the human spirit. He calls all who have lost their taste for life to the banquet. He has a special place in His heart for those who are suffering, especially those whose suffering have caused them to lose heart. He offers them the rest which unfolds from a profound intimate relationship with His Father.
I do believe that Jesus still speaks to the many who are weary and exhausted today. Those who have to work too many hours. Those who are so anxious that they cannot rest. Those who believe they have to always be in control, and who can't trust enough to let go. He teaches that we can rest by disengaging from our mighty egos and becoming like children who are pleased to be carried. It's like your starting in Footsteps, but this time, you know you are!
Many poets have played with this experience of inner rest. Rainer Maria Rilke, in his 'Selected Poems' reflects on the experience of inner rest. He describes the awkward labouring steps of the swan walking on land. Who then,
.... let's herself down into the water, which receives her gaily and which flows joyfully under, and after her, wave after wave, while the swan, unmoved and marvellously calm, is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown. (p.141)
And DH Lawrence in his 'Pax', speaks of -
... a cat asleep on a chair, at peace, at peace ... Sleeping on the hearth of the living world, yawning at home before the fire of life feeling the presence of the living God like a great reassurance a deep calm in the heart. (p.700)
I always ask people who are celebrating their birthday, if they can hear the Song the Angels Sang on the day that they were born!
After that, we are given the Gift of our Name. I always make something of this in the Celebration of Baptism. I explore that reason a name has been chosen and it's meaning for the little one. Everybody's name means something. Mary (Myriam) has its roots in rebellion and means, 'the one who changes everything'. Peter means Rock and Paul means Small. Having a name means that I am somebody, worthy of tenderness and respect.
But knowing someone's name doesn't mean we know them. It is often recorded that the first disciples of Jesus betrayed him in the end. This can sometimes be used as a 'get out clause' for our own failures. Certainly, they are encouraging. But it is also true that all of them laid down their lives for him in the end. This is inspiring.
Notice how, in their moment of Grace, when they meet Him for the first time, Jesus gives them a new name.
We mirror this in the Celebration of Confirmation, when our young people will have a new name from The Lord!
The Psalmist puts it like this,
And you shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of The Lord
A Royal Diadem in the Hand of your God
And you shall be called by a new Name which the mouth of The Lord will Give.
Recently, a man heard The Lord call Him by a new name. It was Francis, and he has changed the face of the earth. As we give thanks to God for the keystone lives and work of Peter and Paul, might we ask how our own name gives us a great clue to our own Vocation.
And as for the first line of this reflection, keep listening and then sing along!
CATHOLIC PARISH OF ST JOSEPH & ST MARGARET CLITHEROW
St Joseph’s Church. 39 Braccan Walk, Bracknell, Berkshire, RG12 1HA (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 1HA (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