It is evening on the first day of the week. Remember that St. Johns Gospel is rewriting the creation story in Genesis. Earlier, the Beloved Disciple and Mary of Magdala realise that Jesus is with God. Now, they discover that He is also in their midst. Jesus is with God (ascension) and with them (resurrection) at the same time. He is the bridge connecting us with God. The Mediator between the Sacred and the Creation. He is as He has always been. 'And there was evening and there was morning, the first day'. (Genesis 1:5)
Notice how the first words He speaks are words of Peace! These words are spoken with the gesture of opening His hands and showing His side. He shows them what Love has done to Him. How the waters of new birth now flow from His Heart, to them and through them. They are being sent as He was sent. Staying in His Peace, and being faithful to the Love that has no end, will be their guide and their strength.
And then, when all has been said and done, there is really only one message that the new community has to bring. It is a message of forgiveness. This is the word that will make or break the new creation, just as it makes or breaks us. I turn once again to John O'Donoghue, who puts this call to lead in the work of reconciliation more beautifully than I could. It is his 'Blessing for Love in Time of Conflict'.
When the gentleness between you hardens,
And you fall out of your belonging to each other.
May the depths you have reached hold you still.
When no true word can be said, or heard,
and you mirror each other in the script of hurt.
When even the silence has become raw and torn,
may you hear again the echo of your first music.
When the weave of affection starts to unravel,
and anger begins to sear the ground between you.
Before the weather of grief
invites the dark seed of bitterness to find root
may your souls come to kiss.
Now is the time for one of you to be gracious,
to allow a kindness beyond thought and hurt.
Reach out with sure hands to take the chalice of your love
and carry it carefully through this echoless waste.
Until this winter pilgrimage leads you towards the gateway to spring.
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.)
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".
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.
When I was about seven, my granny took us to Saltcoats, the holiday Mecca of the west coast of Scotland. It was mid-summer and still an icy gale swept from the North Pole over the sunbathers who shivered behind their windbreakers! My first trip to the beach, I dashed towards the sea and ran straight into an underwater hole. I sank like a corpse and managed to swallow what felt like a gallon of water. I can still taste it to this day. Too much salt, too much salt.
Isaiah's poetic prophecy in today's first reading is beautiful but it lacked maturity as it only applied to people in the community. I've always thought that one of the marks of any genuine spirituality is the wideness of its embrace. I become suspicious the moment I hear the language of exclusion, whether that is of individuals or groups. Exclusions create control, heightened security and territory that needs to be defended.
The Divine Teacher, on the other hand, situates His disciples in another place. You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the World! We are something and we may not know it. When this happens, people lose their flavour. There is nothing to savour. It gets trampled underfoot. Jesus seeks to convince us of our high value. He cuts through any sense of self that cripples and halts - I am a sinner - I'm no good - I'm useless - I lack the skill etc. He fixes a new truth in the minds and hearts of His disciples. Hot on the heels of this compliment there is a warning which is meant to strengthen our freedom to be the salt that we are. We are here for the benefit of the earth. He calls us to bring zest, meaning and light to all.
Over the last few weeks, we have lost some wonderful members of our community. It was important to family members that they are remembered as people who made the world a better place. I guess we would all like people to say that when our own time comes. But what if people were to say, after we are gone, that the world has become a less interesting place! We were a shot of zest, adding just the right amount of salt to every bland situation. I wonder if something gets lost when we limit our understanding of salt and light to just good works. We seldom think of it as meaning creative engagement with a wily world. Yet the people of salt and light are called to be visionaries who are not afraid to try something new. If the experiment fails, we don't retreat to our old ways but find even more creative energy to address the situation before us. Think Big. Think New. Think Creative.
Teilhard de Chardin once wrote that he was afraid that people would lose their zest and passion for the coming to be of the world. He noted that if we do not find this drive in ourselves, we have not yet searched the full depth of our heart and mind. Perhaps we are afraid of what we might find there. Jesus reminds us that we have no need to be afraid. No need to be afraid!
It was all going wrong. John has been arrested by Herod and swaps desert for dungeon. His wilderness voice must find a way through the prison bars. Authority figures do what they like to do best - silence what threatens them. But notice what Jesus does. He moves immediately right into the heart of Herod's domain, steadily into the teeth of resistance. This is a dangerous move. But it was always so for those who carry light into darkness, life into death. What will happen to Jesus now?
Notice again Matthews insight. Underneath the machinations of human monsters, prophecies are unfolding. As Jesus fulfils the prophecy of Isaiah he is no fool, playing into the hands of evil men. He is moving according to Gods plan, proclaiming a message that cannot be locked up or silenced. The torch has passed from John to Jesus. The voice that cried in the desert now zings down the town streets, into residential areas and into the houses of Gods' children. The Kingdom of Heaven is closer than you think. If you are sitting in darkness and the shadows of death, God is arriving as the remedy. As Light and Life! Problem: God is now but people are not!
So, Jesus needs help to uncover the hidden heaven. He needs people to fish for people. But first they must let go of one way of seeing the world and embrace another. If they are going to swim in the spiritual sea where all people swim, they must come to see the deeper and wider dimensions of life. They see hints of this in Jesus and move to follow Him. He will teach them that people are not fish and that they will 'catch' people only by appealing to the deepest desire of their hearts.
Jesus is not hiding from Herod. He is teaching, proclaiming and healing through all Herod's territory. He is on a mission. Johns' imprisonment is not going to stop Him and people are fascinated by him.
Here we must pause to remember all the people who have fascinated us in our life. Can you remember those you admired and wanted to imitate? Every day, people are leaning into life and coaxing it towards redemption. These are people who make the world a better place. When we catch them 'at it' we are fascinated and want to know more. When we see someone thinking, speaking or acting in a way that we are not yet able to but we wish we could - we apprentice ourselves to them. Isn't a disciple just a fascinated person who desires to know and do what they see in another? We gravitate towards them and learn something new. We have probably been doing this all our lives
I heard a story once about a drug rehabilitation centre. One day, an ex-resident turned up in the reception area with a cricket bat, shouting and screaming and banging his bat on the furniture. Everyone dived for cover. But the manager came out of her office, walked right up to the guy, put her arms around him and gave him a big long hug. His violence transfigured into sobs. She held him in that strange embrace for a while then led him to a chair and waited for the police to arrive. He never let go of the bat.
I want to know what makes this woman tick! And I have a hunch that she knows exactly what drove Christ back into Galilee.
John the Baptist doesn't just see Jesus, he sees into the heart and mission of Jesus. His invitation to 'Behold' means something worth looking at is before us. John calls Jesus the 'Lamb of God' and so do we. Yet, the sin that He takes away cannot just be seen as the individual transgressions we might make. What is taken away is the experience of being isolated from God. Jesus frees the temple animals, because they are no longer needed. The disciples go with Him at the time when animals were sacrificed in the Temple and find everything they need in Him. What is needed is to have communion with the Beloved Son of God.
John also admits to what he does not know. He has to grow in his understanding and relationship with Jesus. John is granted a sacred communication that Jesus and the Spirit are inseparable. He has to work at this insight to make it bear fruit. Coming to see the truth of Jesus takes time, patience and a genuine desire to come and see what He is revealing. We see a pattern develop. John sees Jesus, witnesses to Him and creates new disciples. Two new disciples see Jesus, witness to Him and create more disciples. It seems that we have to find out the truth about Jesus for ourselves but others who have already discovered it can show us the way.
We should ask ourselves a question about our relationship with Jesus and how we share this with others. We don't do this by having yes or no, right or wrong answers but by sharing the adventure we have been enjoying. It means we have to be honest about how our faith in Him has changed and developed. This kind of uncompromising honesty means that our sense of the adventure might be complex.
I came across a story about three people who arrived at the door of a spiritual teacher. She asked all of them the same question. "Did you come to me because of others or because of yourself?" The first answered that they had been sent by others. They were dismissed. The second answered that they came of their own accord. They were dismissed. The third stammered that they had heard of the teacher from others and yet, they also felt that they had come on their own - part curious, part frustrated, part searching and a whole lot of other reasons and motives which were hard to describe. The spiritual teacher said, "You'll do." The honest, complex person was accepted.
I don't know all of the reasons I am drawn to Jesus and struggle to follow Him. But in my own mind, hallmarks of genuine testimony begin to take shape. Honest self-examination, complexity and humility. If my testimony is meant to attract others to Jesus, I worry sometimes that after hearing or seeing me they might look elsewhere. But I also see that I must not over worry on this point. If I try to package Jesus, I lose the only truth that sustains me. You might agree that giving testimony is tricky ground. But what's the alternative?
The Galilean stood high on the hill,
alone on the hill. Safe on the hill.
and he did not like it.
Like a God, Paul said, who,
alone in the Heavens, high in the Heavens, safe in the Heavens,
one day looked down to catch the eye of every human being looking up.
And the slow tear of God began to make a tear in the Heavens.
From toe to knee the tear was Compassion
for all the blood that would never again find a vein.
From knee to chest the tear was desire
to unbreak every broken heart.
From chest to eyes the tear was love,
to kiss all who must enter the cave of death.
From eyes to earth, the tear became Jesus,
watching the brown river breaking against the waist of John the Baptist,
who was busy burying people with his big shovel hands
and then lifting them fresh and new
with a force more violent than childbirth.
The Gospel is filled with stories in which people come to see and love in
themselves what Jesus sees and loves in them! Jesus sees the child of God in us with
such clarity that we begin to see it in ourselves. But first he must know it in himself. The
One who awakens others to love must first himself be awakened. In the Gospels, Jesus
walks the pathways of Love and helps us to do the same. All that he says and does -
his meetings, his stories, his teachings, his deeds - are in the service of this awakening.
I think that the way we come to reverence and love our true self is the real reason that
Jesus allows John to baptise him. He not only shows us how to allow ourselves to
welcome the Spirit, and listen for the voice of the Abba. He shows us how to disentangle
ourselves from all that is not Love. What he learned at the Jordan was this:
ONLY WHEN WE ASCEND OUT OF THE WATERS WHERE WE ARE GIVEN A NEW
HEART WILL WE SEE THE DOVE OF PEACE AND HEAR THE VOICE OF LOVE.
Last week we had the launch of the Year of the Word, the first Sunday of Advent. This week we receive a clear message from Matthew in his Gospel, a Gospel inspired in him through God, his own relationship with Jesus and those around him and through the acceptance of the Holy Spirit to guide him.
History buffs can attest to the fact that in those nations led by monarchies or other autocratic figures, each successive king, queen, dictator or despot accedes to the throne with a certain show of power. By flexing their political muscles, a ruler asserts his/her domination over the subjects of the realm, whose loyalty is usually but not always assured. With God, however, the situation is entirely different. No force is exerted, nor is there a display of might; rather we are invited to accept God’s reign, i.e. allow the saving will of God into our lives and in doing so we walk in the footsteps of Jesus and accept the guiding help of the Holy Spirit.
In today’s Gospel John the Baptist explains by word and example precisely how we should go about preparing a welcome for Jesus. Those who came to hear John speak, in the Judean desert near the Jordan, were told, “Reform your lives!”. Reform or repentance indicates that welcoming the reign of God requires a conversion. In Hebrew, the word for conversion, or shubh, implies that a person has found himself/herself on a wrong path or going in a wrong direction and has made a complete about-face or turnaround. In Greek, the term for conversion is metanoia, which means an absolute change of mind and will. Conversion is not simply a personal decision to better oneself; rather it is the free response by someone to God’s calling. In other words, conversion means offering a welcome to God who will continually come and knock at our door and we must decide the welcome each of us will provide when, how and if we answer that knock.
Another way of understanding conversion is to look at it from the perspective of how we might identify ourselves with Jesus. One of Matthew’s objectives in writing his gospel was to help his community to explore and assert their own identity. In doing so, it was hoped that an individual would identify themselves with Jesus through every thought, word, deed and decision and in doing so would be in harmony with God. In other words, the individual would be a disciple of Jesus and welcome God and Jesus into every part of their life, provide good example and be a disciple of Jesus.
This is the challenge for each of us this Advent Season. This Advent (like every Advent) we are not only called on to reflect on our lives and to properly prepare for a celebration of the birth of Jesus but also and more importantly prepare for second arrival of Jesus coming into the world, As Christians we acknowledge through scripture that one day Jesus will be revealed to us again. This is an integral part of our belief and through the Book of Revelation are aware of what that second arrival will mean for the Salvation of the World. So, each of us needs to prepare and to look at our lives – that means how we conduct our lives and to reflect on every thought, word, deed and decision. We need to be honest and open with ourselves and seek answers to questions such as: are we in harmony with God; are we good disciples of Jesus; do we allow the Holy Spirit into our lives; are we prepared, are we ready for Jesus?
Finally, I leave you with the thought and final question to reflect on in that Matthew in the Gospel makes the point that religious heritage will no longer be enough grounds for salvation. What does this mean to us in 2019?
Clearly we are called through the Word of God to ensure that this Christmas is not only a celebration of the Birth of Jesus but is a good and sound reflective period which allows us to decide what we need to change and prepare for the second arrival of Jesus
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