Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Wednesday of Holy Week: Surely not I?

Readings: Isaiah 50: 4 – 9; Psalm 69; Matthew 26: 14 - 25 

It often surprises both Catholics and non-Catholics alike to learn just how much of what we say and hear every time we come to Mass is drawn from the Bible. Indeed, the Church’s liturgy is so suffused with Scripture that can think of the liturgy itself as a kind of performance or acting out of the history of our salvation as revealed in the Scriptures. However, unlike a play or a film, the Church’s liturgy does not simply re-tell the story of our salvation: our re-enactment of the Scriptures re-presents the saving life of Christ to the present moment. In other words, it is through the liturgy that the merit of Christ’s one sacrifice is applied to the here and now.

This sense that the liturgy is a dramatic re-presentation of salvation history through which Christ becomes really present is true of all the Church’s liturgies. The drama is especially ‘full’, however, during the Easter Triduum when we trace in detail the events that led to Jesus’s death, and then on to the glory of his Resurrection. We tell this story so carefully during this Easter season because through a deep involvement and immersion in the true story of our salvation, we become better disposed to embrace more deeply the new life of the Resurrection that Christ offers us. The liturgy invites us to put ourselves in the story and see the history of our salvation not as a gift given to a people that lived long ago, or to humanity corporately, but to each one of us personally.

Yet if we are to put ourselves into the story of this Easter Triduum then this immediately raises the question of which part we are to play, and as we know there are a wealth of characters to choose from. Some loyally stand by Jesus as he prays, they follow him to his trial, they help him carry his cross, they stand beside the cross in sorrow as he dies, they take care of his body and lay it in the tomb. Others sympathize with Jesus’s predicament but do not care enough to get involved and wash their hands of the affair. Still others plot his downfall and demand his crucifixion. In today’s Gospel we confront perhaps the most tragic figure of all, Judas, who sold both his friend and his hope for thirty pieces of silver.

Now Judas’s betrayal is a warning to us that we ought not to approach this Easter season too complacently and assume too quickly that we always stand on the side of righteousness. Over the course of our Christian lives most of us, to a greater or lesser extent, will play most of the roles I have outlined above: there will be times when we serve Christ with enormous generosity and love; there will also be occasions when through weakness we betray him. In our Gospel reading, all the apostles ask when they learn that there is a betrayer among them: ‘Surely not I?’ Yet all would be scattered when Jesus’s hour finally arrived. Crucially, however, all bar Judas had the courage to repent and come back: and Christ perfected these frail foundations and upon them built his Church.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tuesday of Holy Week: Brighton Rock, sin and the point of no return

Poster for the original (and best) film adaptation of Brighton Rock

William Holman Hunt - The Light of the World - Keble College

Readings: Isaiah 49:1-6; Psalm 70:1-6,15,17; John 13:21-33,36-38

In Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, Pinkie Brown, the anti-hero, is keenly aware that the pattern of his life is leading him to damnation. He is constantly worried that come the hour of his death the opportunity of repentance will be denied to him. He becomes bitter against the world and against God considering that he must, in fact, have been pre-destined to hell. He is unable to see that it is his choices, his free will that is leading him along this path.

In the book there are three standout moments where a chink of light pierces into his life, offering the chance for a real conversion. The first comes when he reflects on his relationship with Rose - the bride he has taken to prevent her from testifying against him in court - he discovers, to his surprise, that he remembers it "without repulsion" and the possibility of affection for Rose occurs to him; "somewhere, like a beggar outside a shuttered house, tenderness stirred, but he was bound in a habit of hate".

The second occasion is in a bar, where Pinkie, never normally affectionate nor caring for anyone but himself, feels almost protective of Rose in response to the comments of wealthy men in the bar: "Tenderness came up to the very window and looked in". Yet once more he refuses to repent of his old ways and start afresh.

The third and final time is shortly afterwards as he drives away from the bar, Pinkie becomes aware of "an enormous emotion", likened to "something trying to get in; the pressure of gigantic wings against the glass. Dona nobis pacem...If the glass broke, if the beast - whatever it was - got in, God knows what it would do.” But once again the habits of hate and scorn are too hard to break. Jesus is knocking at the door, but as in William Holman Hunt’s famous painting, the handle is always on our side, he will never force his way into our lives.

There are parallels in today’s dramatic gospel which takes up the scene shortly after Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet and is foretelling his betrayal. When asked who will betray Him, Jesus says that it is the one to whom he will give the morsel when he has dipped it. This action far from making it inevitable that Judas will betray our Lord, shows Judas the path that he is taking. If in his greed or his frustrations with the reality of the Messiah, he is unthinkingly accepting money without thinking of the nature of the betrayal, here, in this intimate act of friendship and confidence – the dipping of bread and feeding to a friend – is his chance to open himself up to love once more. Yet Judas, like Pinkie, is unable to summon the courage to turn to the light; the darkness has become too familiar, too comfortable. Perhaps as he approached the chief priests to take their money, he paused one moment to consider once more what he was doing, yet felt he was just too far along now?

This is certainly something to which I can relate: times where it simply seems easier to carry through with wrong-headed decisions. Occasions where it is difficult to muster the strength to face the loss of face which comes with saying I was wrong and instead continued deceit seems simpler. It is easy to think that we have passed the point of no return and that we are committed to our sinful choices now. Yet this is the trap of the devil. Christ is constantly calling us to repentance; His mercy is never further from us than a turn of the heart.

We often use the phrase “the point of no return”, but when it comes to our sin, no matter how grave, this phrase has no place in the Catholic lexicon. We are not like the fallen angels, whilst we still breathe it is never too late to repent. Judas repented after his betrayal; he goes to give the money back. What compounds the tragedy of his actions, however, is that he no longer believes in forgiveness. As Pope Benedict wrote in volume two of his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy: “His remorse turns into despair. Now he sees only himself and his darkness; he no longer sees the light of Jesus, which can illumine and overcome the darkness. He shows us the wrong type of remorse: the type that is unable to hope, that sees only its own darkness, the type that is destructive . . . . Genuine remorse is marked by the certainty of hope, born of faith, in the superior power of the light that was made flesh in Jesus.”

Pope Francis leading by example as he makes his confession in St Peter's

So this Holy Week, let us reflect, repent and rejoice in God’s forgiveness through the sacrament of reconciliation. Let us follow the advice of Pope Francis: "Everyone say to himself: ‘When was the last time I went to confession?’ And if it has been a long time, don’t lose another day! Go, the priest will be good. And Jesus, (will be) there, and Jesus is better than the priests - Jesus receives you. He will receive you with so much love! Be courageous, and go to confession!”

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Monday, April 14, 2014

Monday of Holy Week

Readings: Is 42:1-7; Ps 27; J 12:1-11

We have started Holy Week, the last days leading us to the most important Christian mysteries. The readings of this week allow us to undesrtand better the significance of these days. In today's Gospel we hear that Jesus, six days before Passover, came to Bethany where lived his friends - Mary, Martha and Lazarus. It was their last meeting. Jesus had a dinner with them. Martha served and Lazarus was reclining at table with him. But in this Gospel the most important and meaningful thing is Mary's action: "Mary took a litre of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair; the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil" (John 12:3).

In ancient Israel anointing was a profoundly symbolic ritual act. Among thosewho were anointed in a special way, because of their role, were prophets, priests and kings. Mary anointed the feet of Jesus, these part of human body which are related to action. This is the beginning, a ritual initialization of what will happen in this Holy Week. Jesus himself announces these events saying that "this is for the day of his burial" (cf John 12:7), because according to Jewish tradition only the dead had their feet anointed. But this anointing is something more. It is a recognition in Jesus the Messiah. Jesus realized meaning and significance Mary's gestures. Thinking about his death and burial, he appreciates her act of anointing him as an anticipation of this honour and dignity, which his body inseparably linked with the mystery of his person, will have even after death. In this Holy Week Jesus reveal himself not only as the Messiah, but also as Priest, Prophet and King.

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday: Why have you forsaken me?

Readings: Mt 21:1-11 (Procession Gospel); Is 50:4-7; Ps 22; Phil 2:6-11; Mt 26:14-27:66

Has it ever bothered you that Jesus on the Cross seems to be abandoned by his Father in heaven? I have certainly wondered why on earth Jesus would cry out, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? After all, we believe he is the eternal Son of God, who never left his Father's side in heaven even while he walked on earth as a man. Even if in some sense we accept that the divinity of Jesus means he can never be truly separated from the Father, nevertheless we may still be troubled by the apparent aloofness of the Father. How could a loving Father look on while his only Son was tormented and crucified, without doing anything to stop it? In other words, we can easily find ourselves joining the chorus of mockers: He saved others, he cannot save himself.... He trusted in God; let him deliver him now if he wants him. For he said, 'I am the Son of God.'

El Greco, The Crucifixion
It is astonishing how quickly we find ourselves on the wrong side! How easily we slip into the mindless stampede of the herd! We are barely into Holy Week, which begins with the crowds chanting Hosannah to the King of Kings, and already we find ourselves echoing the words of the mob on Good Friday: Crucify! Crucify! It is not just the Lectionary which encourages us to connect these two scenes, by giving us both Gospel readings on the same day. It is our very own patterns of thought and behaviour which betray us, which reveal how fickle our hearts truly are. We see a man in distress and think he must have deserved it somehow. This is exactly the attitude Jesus was trying to extirpate in the story of the man born blind, which we heard two Sundays ago. We succumb to this attitude time and again, thinking we are competent to judge the moral or spiritual worth of another, when only God can do that. And that is why we are fickle: we are too quick to acclaim, too hasty to condemn.

But where does that leave us with the cry of Christ from the Cross? The first thing to notice is that it is a quotation, the opening lines of Psalm 22. Jesus knew the Scriptures – and is indeed, as God, their ultimate author – and knew exactly what he was saying. So, what does Psalm 22 mean? Following St Augustine, we can say that the psalms can be analysed in terms of the different voices, or personae, which they adopt. Very often, a psalm will change voice suddenly, without warning, and the reader must be attentive to the shift in position. Modern editions, of course, can use quotation marks and paragraph breaks to suggest how the text should be read; but this does not clear things up entirely. Augustine also insisted that we read the psalms in the light of Christ. They are either about Christ, the head of the Church, or about the Church, which is Christ's body. Sometimes, we hear speaking the whole Christ (totus Christus): Christ united with the Church.

Now, Psalm 22 begins with a pitiful lament, and Augustine argued that Christ is speaking here, not for himself, but on behalf of sinful humanity. And then we can notice the crucial thing: it is not God who has abandoned humanity (let alone Jesus, his beloved Son), but we who have abandoned God. In his own humanity, Jesus takes on the full weight of our fallen state – all the sin and wretchedness of the ages, past, present and future – and can speak truly for humanity when he cries out to reveal how deeply we have cut ourselves off from God. It is as though he is saying, My God, my God, see how far we have run away from you! 

But that is not the end. Read to the end of Psalm 22 and you will see the darkness turn to light, the lament into praise and thanksgiving. For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; and he has not hid his face from him, but he has heard, when he cried to him (v. 24). The moral of the story of Psalm 22 is that the upright person will be vindicated by God. They will be glorified, no matter how afflicted they seem at present to us. To achieve this in our own lives, we must first empty ourselves before God. Although God fills us with life, so often we try instead to be fulfilled without God. The readings from Isaiah and Philippians show us a better way: Christ humbled himself, offering no retaliation to his beastly tormenters, but being obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. In his loving obedience, Christ was perfectly united with his Father, not abandoned by him. And so, in the moment of his final agony and death, that is when the bystanders recognise him for who he really is: the Son of God. Let us walk together towards the Cross this Holy Week, and join our sufferings with Christ, in order to share his glory in the Resurrection.

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Saturday, April 12, 2014

Easter Services 2014

The timings of services during the Sacred Paschal Triduum at the Priory of the Holy Spirit (Blackfriars, Oxford) are given in the poster below. We hope you will be able to join us.

Over the last few days of Passiontide, Godzdogz will continue to offer reflections on the Mass readings of the day. During and after the Triduum we will post some photos of the liturgies, especially for those who are unable to be here.

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Saturday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Readings: Ezekiel 37:21-28, John 11:45-56
Christ before Caiaphas.

In today’s Gospel the Jewish leaders fear that Jesus will soon to convert all the people to him and, by doing so, cause a revolution that will destroy Israel. Against this false prophecy of annihilation comes the true prophecy of Caiaphas: “it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish.” Thus, the Jews began to plot the death of Jesus.

The Jews feared Jesus because they reckoned that he would rob them of their land and their position; Jesus’s Gospel, it seemed to them, disturbed the peace.  An assessment still made by people today. Sometimes a soul fears that following the Gospel, either in its entirety or some small part, will mean life is expunged of all the things normal folks regard as enjoyable.  Don’t Christians hate parties, alcohol and, fun? Don’t they impose strict moral codes of behaviour which suppress creativity and individuality? Indeed, doesn’t Christianity destroy everything that makes life good? If  Jesus is to ruin life; best then to be rid of him.

Sixth century image of Christ.
Hirst's shark in formaldehyde.
The fear that Jesus is going to take the gratification and pleasure out of life begs the question: Is life only worth living when it is pleasurable? Is time not ordered to gratification time wasted? If culture represents how a society views the world around it, and therefore how it values it, then what is there to learn from the fact that, while the apogee of Christian art is found in the works of Mozart or Michelangelo, what passes as the boundary-shattering examples of culture today are things like Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’ or Hirst’s ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’?

Jesus offers a life worth living and celebrating, in all its stages and experiences; it is a life which reaches beyond itself into the eternal, into the dwelling of the Sovereign Love. To prove this it was, as Caiaphas unknowing observed, expedient that one man pour out himself for others; that they might not be destroyed by an empty and meaningless existence, but be granted life everlasting.

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Friday, April 11, 2014

St. Stanislaus, Bishop and Martyr

I'm sure that English readers know very well St. Thomas Becket, bishop of Canterbury, who engaged in conflict with  the English king Henry II and because of that he was murdered by followers of the king in Canterbury Cathedral. The history of the martyrdom of St. Stanislaus, bishop of Cracow, is in some ways very similar. Stanislaus (Polish name Stanisław) was born in Szczepanów, near Cracow, in 1030. He studied in a cathedral school in Gniezno (at that time it was the capital of Poland) and later in Paris. After his return he was ordained priest and after the death of the bishop of Cracow he was elected his successor in 1072. As a bishop he was a ducal advisor and he had some influence on Polish politics. His major accomplishments included bringing papal legates to Poland as well as the re-establishment of a metropolitan see in Gniezno and because of that the German metropolitan see in Magdeburg ceased its claims to supremacy over the Polish dioceses. But he was also regarded as a good pastor of his local church working with a great dedication. He cared for spreading the Christian faith and his preaching led many people to embrace faith or to live more fervently in a difficult time in Poland. He was known to be a truly holy man.

Because of his courageous attitude Bishop Stanislaus became a martyr. He opposed the Polish king Bolesław Śmiały (Boleslaus the Bold). According to tradition the main cause of conflict was his ineffective admonitions of the Polish king for his immoral practices as well as unjust behaviour in relation to the people. He confronted the king, calling on him to change his life and to care for people, threatening excommunication if he did not change his ways. The king responded with furious anger. He decided to kill the bishop. The king entered the church and killed him with his own sword when the bishop was celebrating Holy Mass. Then he ordered his soldiers to dismember the body. This happened in the year 1079. Stanislaus was soon acclaimed as a martyr, while Boleslaus lost his power and left Poland fleeing to Hungary where he entered the monastery to do penance for his crime.  The cult of St. Stanislaus began immediately after his death. In 1245 his relics were moved to Cracow's Wawel Cathedral and he was canonized by Pope Innocent IV in Assisi in 1253.

As the first native Polish saint, Stanislaus is the patron of Poland and Cracow. He shares the patronage of Poland with St. Wojciech (Adalbert) and Our Lady the Queen of Poland. Almost all the Polish kings were crowned in Wawel Cathedral kneeling before his sarcophagus, which stands in the middle of the cathedral. Saint Stanislaus's veneration has had great patriotic importance. Each year on 8th May a procession led by the Bishop of Cracow goes out from Wawel to Skałka (the Church on the Rock). The procession was popularized in the 20th century by Polish Primate Stefan Wyszyński and Arcibishop of Cracow, Karol Wojtyła, who as Pope John Paul II called St. Stanislaus the patron saint of Christian moral order. For many years St. Stanislaus feast day was celebrated on 8th May, but in 1969 the Church moved the feast day to 11th April. In Poland since 1254 the Solemnity of St. Stanislaus is celebrated on 8th May.

Father, may the example of St. Stanislaus of Poland inspire the people of Poland and throughout the world to follow Jesus Christ even in the midst of oppression form ungodly governments. May his holiness of life and dedication to prayer be an example to each one of us in our own state in life and vocation. May his holy priesthood and episcopal service inspire priests and bishops in our own time to care for the faithful and stand up to those who persecute the Church, without fear for their own safety, willing to even shed their blood if called to do so.
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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Dominican Study Week: 7th-11th July 2014, Buckfast Abbey

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Thursday of the 5th Week of Lent: The true Temple

In today’s Gospel we find Jesus preaching in the Temple. Now not only was the Temple the heart of the Jewish religion of the period, it was also understood in the Jewish imagination to be the centre of the universe because it was the place where God had made his home on Earth. We can think of the Temple, then, as the point in which the moral, judicial, and liturgical dimensions of the Law of Moses intersect. The moral and judicial precepts instructed Israel on how to live in holiness and justice. The liturgical precepts offered Israel a way of undoing the sin and disobedience of humanity from our first parents onwards through the sacrifices, prayers, and thanksgiving of the Temple liturgy. Through the God-given precepts of the Law of Moses, then, Israel is made able to live with God and the point of contact between God and humanity is the Temple.

The Cross held aloft
Yet this undoing of sin that the Temple liturgy represents is incomplete. Whilst the Law of Moses draws those who keep it into a certain kind of life with God, neither this Law nor the Temple liturgy was able to overcome humanity’s fundamental alienation from God which is manifested in death. Now as John makes clear to his readers in his Gospel, this is because the Temple itself is only a sign or a figure of the true reconciliation between God and Man that will take place in the person of Jesus, the Word of God made flesh (John 1:14). Jesus is the true Temple, his humanity is the true place of grace, the true place of contact between God and humanity (John 2:19-21). 

In our Gospel reading, Jesus the true Temple declares, whilst standing in the Temple in Jerusalem which is itself a figure or a metaphor of his Incarnation, ‘whoever keeps my word will never see death’ (John 8:51). Those who keep the Word-made-flesh - those who hold on to Jesus - will live forever in friendship with God and friendship with the rest of humanity, because Jesus is God. The Law of Moses did not bring fullness of life because it was not a full share in the eternal and infinite life of God. In contrast, those who keep the Word made flesh enter into the true Temple and themselves become part of that Temple, members of Christ, ‘living stones build up into a spiritual house’ (1 Peter 2:5) which will stand for ever and ever.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Wednesday of the Fifth Week of Lent: Strange Gods and Modern Idols

Readings: Daniel 3:14-20,24-25,28; Canticle Daniel 3:52-56; John 8:31-42

In today’s first reading we can admire the fidelity and integrity of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who refuse to submit to King Nebuchadnezzar’s command that they worship the golden statue that he had erected. Clearly their example is one that we should follow if confronted with the same circumstances, even when threatened with being burned to death as they were. We may think of the Christians who are being persecuted for our Faith each day, and perhaps this Lent we might think how we can help them more. Giving to charities like Aid to the Church in Need is one straightforward way in which we can show some solidarity with our fellow Christians. We might also do well to learn more about the grievous persecution of so many Christians in a world which seemingly holds out tolerance as its chief value. Titles such as John Allen’s The Global War on Christians and Rupert Shortt’s Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack draw much-needed attention to the inconvenient truth which much of the secular press ignores. However, what at first sight we don’t really need to concern ourselves with is worship of a golden statue because that sort of thing does not happen in the 21st century.

This casual dismissal of idolatry as a present concern is exactly what Elizabeth Scalia warns against in her excellent book Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols of Everyday Life. She forcefully argues that whilst our present day idols are much less obvious, alarmingly, they are much “less distant and more ingrained in us”. The golden statue acted as a reflector of the ego of King Nebuchadnezzar, similarly the golden calf of the Jews in Exodus, and today’s modern idols do much the same.

Scalia writes that our modern idols begin with ideas and that “from there we shape them in the psyche, grow them in the ego, and then engage with them intimately, throughout our lives, in our families, our culture, our entertainments, and our political discourse. We create idols out of norms of behaviour, our material possessions, and social status. We even create them out of faith.”
One fascinating example of seeing our reflection in the idols we construct is found by Scalia in the great polarisation at the US 2008 elections. There were those who self-identified as “urbane, sophisticated, polished, and well-educated” that saw themselves in Barack Obama. At the other end of the spectrum were those who identified as “plain-speaking, hard-working, up from the middle classes” who saw themselves in Sarah Palin. In each case the idolisers were hyper-sensitive to any criticism of their preferred politician. Beyond any sane degree to be found in reality, they had allowed that candidate to represent them entirely and any criticism of the idol was thus viewed as personal to them.

Closer to home we might do well to think about how we speak about Pope Francis and Pope Benedict. There are vocal parties in the Church; some of whom hung on every word from Pope Benedict and now wish to underplay the role of the papacy, and there are those who had no time for anything that Pope Benedict sought to do, but who are now fawning over Pope Francis’s every gesture. We must be careful that we do not start ascribing greatness to people on the grounds that they happened to agree with us and creating a false dichotomy between the two Popes in the process. Perhaps our ascribing greatness should be more dependent on the degree to which either is able to encourage us to act with less self-interest and more faith in the manner of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego?

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent: Snakes on the Plain

Few would accuse David R. Ellis of mis-selling his 2006 film Snakes on a Plane: the combination of snakes, an enclosed space and vulnerable human beings is certain to produce an action thriller. From behind the safety of the 'fourth wall' of the screen, of course, we can chuckle at the ridiculous ways the passengers respond to the serpentine threat (dare I suggest the film was also intended as something of a dark comedy?)... but if a snake were to transgress that boundary we can be sure that all laughter would cease and we too would inevitably be caught up in the panic. Indeed, it's easy to sense the panic of the Israelites in today's first reading, trapped as they are on a plain and surrounded by venomous serpents, how could they not be filled with gratitude for God's provision of an antidote, the fiery bronze serpent crafted by Moses and lifted up as a sign of salvation and hope? 

Thankfully, we're fairly unlikely to find ourselves surrounded by venomous snakes of the literal variety. Nonetheless, we too are surrounded by the chaos wrought by the first serpent, the tempter of Genesis 3, through whose enticements suffering, sin and death first entered the world. If we could take a step outside the 'fourth wall' and view the cycle of sin and suffering from God's perspective, I imagine that at times we'd look as chaotic as the panic-stricken passengers of Snakes on a Plane. But try as we might to avoid getting contaminated by sin (like the passenger "Three Gs", who refuses even to touch another person without sanitising his hands), we are inevitably bound up in a world scourged and damaged by our sins and those of our fellow sojourners. Whereas the passengers try to simply hide themselves from the threat (Flynn announces "We need to put a barrier between us and the snakes!"), what is really needed is not only an anti-venom but an ultimate defeat. Salvation must break in from outside the cycles of sin, but it must also break out from inside: what is needed is the incarnation, God's entry into human history without contamination by sin, opening the life of God to man and the life of man to God. 

Indeed, as St. John stresses in today's gospel, God - who stands over and against all the chaotic structures of sin and human disorder - has intervened to lift up for humanity a definitive sign of salvation: his own crucified son, a sign that both points forward to the life of the world to come, and makes that life possible by opening up for us a route out of self-destruction. Whereas the Israelites cast their eyes on the serpent made of molten precious metal, we look to a crucified man as the sign of our hope: the crucified God-man, lifted up before our eyes on the cross, rejected and despised, devalued and discarded. 

Jesus's description of his death as a 'lifting up' simultaneously connects the crucifixion to the Israelite's sign of salvation whilst pointing forward to Christ's 'lifting up' at the resurrection and the consummation wrought by the 'lifting up' of the ascension. Whereas the serpent is repeatedly lifted up, Christ is lifted on the cross but once, a single and unrepeatable offering that is re-presented each time the priest 'lifts up' Our Lord in the celebration of Holy Mass, an oblation that makes possible the many resurrections of the world to come. "The Glory of God is a man fully alive", as St. Irenaeus said. But the paradox of faith is that in order to have our eyes opened to that reality, we have to first fix our eyes on a man fully deceased.

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Monday, April 07, 2014

Monday of the Fifth Week of Lent: Innocence or Injustice?

Readings: Daniel 13; Psalm 23; John 8:1-11

It is better to suffer injustice than commit it. This saying of Socrates in Plato's Gorgias expresses a profound wisdom in the Greek philosophical tradition. But the abstract idea is brought to life and more vividly communicated in Scripture. The story of Job's innocent suffering and perseverance under undeserved duress is the classic account. And today's first reading captures the same essential truth. In the tale of Susanna, after several twists and turns, the moral of the story is that innocence will ultimately triumph.

When the two evil old judges lust after Susanna and conspire to convict her by their perjury, she realises she is 'completely trapped'. Her only two options are horrifying in different ways: she may either preserve her innocence and purity but suffer an unjust death, or save her skin by caving in to their wicked desires. Susanna is helpless in the public court – her testimony alone as a woman counts for nothing, especially against the high social position of the crooked judges – but she has truth and innocence on her side:

"it is better for me to fall into your power without guilt
than to sin before the Lord."

This sounds a lot like Socrates' saying, but it actually goes much further. Indeed, the Greek philosophical position may be un-persuasive for many people. As Polus argued against Socrates, many people commit injustice and get away with it in this life. Surely they are happier people than those innocents who suffer at their hands? The Jewish story, by contrast, refers everything to divine justice. It is the Lord Himself who will vindicate Susanna, stirring up his spirit in the boy Daniel to reveal her innocence to the community. Whether the innocent will be vindicated immediately or in the next life, God will not fail them.

The Christian vision goes further still. When Jesus is presented with the woman caught in adultery, he is faced with a guilty person – unlike Susanna, this woman deserves to receive her punishment under the Law of Moses. But divine justice, made present to her in the very person of Jesus, is a merciful justice. Mercy is the acknowledgment of the truth and the unfolding of that truth in love. To receive mercy, the sinful woman must acknowledge the truth of her sin ('go now and sin no more', she will be told), just as her accusers slink away in shame of their own sinfulness. And then that truth must be unfolded in love: the woman is loved by Jesus, loved by God, despite her sins. That truth and love give her freedom.

This is the same glorious freedom offered to us, if only we acknowledge our own sinfulness, to receive God's merciful love. Ironically, that merciful love has been given through the horrific suffering of a perfectly innocent person – Jesus Christ on the Cross – but this is in order to show that even the worst injustice will never have the last word. In the end, innocence triumphs.
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Sunday, April 06, 2014

Fifth Sunday of Lent: Resurrection of Lazarus

Fifth Sunday of Lent
Readings at Mass: Ez 37:12-14; Ps 130; Rom 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

Approaching the final week of Lent, we read John 11 with its climax on Good Friday in mind. In St John’s Gospel, we hear a story of the man Lazarus of Bethany, the same village of Mary and her sister Martha. But why not just tell the miracle rather than give all this preliminary story? Because as we discover, to have sufferings is the privilege of those especially dear to God. First of all, the sisters Martha and Mary go to Jesus saying “Master, the one you love is ill”. They tell Jesus what is wrong, but they don’t actually ask for anything. So this first message that John might be conveying is asking, perhaps this is one way to approaching Jesus about needs in this way? We often don’t know what we should exactly ask, lest we presume, over-reach or under-reach. Is this a model prayer for our own personal crises? “Look, pay attention for your friend is very sick!”

The reaction of Jesus, to remain for two days in the place he was, is peculiar. Perhaps by the time the messengers reached Jesus, he already knew that Lazarus had died? Frederick Bruner, in his book on the Gospel of John, makes the point that the timing of Jesus is determined exclusively by the Father. We see this not just in the story of Lazarus, but elsewhere in John’s Gospel. But the puzzling delay remains mysterious. The timing of Jesus is strange: who hears of a friend’s family emergency and stays where he is? We must admit with honesty that the Lord’s timing is not always obviously good. This is more or less what we can take from the dialogue with Mary and Martha who are grieving a deceased Lazarus. The honesty of this part of the Gospel goes with a paraphrased dictum of James Baldwin from his book The Fire Next Time, “The Lord never seems to get there when you want him, but when he arrives he’s always right on time”. This saying fits the story in the end. It will all come out in the wash. But it does not lessen the pain of the afflicted parties in the present time.

The paradoxical theme also in the story of the raising of Lazarus, is the Council of Jews and High priests who are plotting to have Jesus put to death. Why was it they were so angered by this miracle? They became so convinced Jesus was some sort of deceptive sorcerer. When Jesus arrived at the tomb of Lazarus, his body had already been in the tomb for four days. Israel’s Rabbinic faith taught that for three days, a soul lingered about a body, but on the fourth day it left permanently. But when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, this teaching is shattered. There was no question about it - Lazarus was dead and to the point of decomposing, as “by now there will be a stench”. But we have a reassurance from Jesus, if you believe you will see the glory of God.

The hope that we have from reading all of the Gospels is that Jesus loves his friends. However, there is still something that sits uncomfortably with the Lazarus story. At least, I feel uncomfortable reflecting on it! Yes, Lazarus was raised from the dead and returned to life. But, being a mortal body, Lazarus would have died (again) later in his life. Perhaps you detect a dour Scot reflecting on death? That may be so, but the point is, Lazarus was just as we are, an immortal soul in a mortal body made of flesh and blood. Lazarus would have died again, and returned to earth as bone and dust. The hope that Christ offers is resurrection for the friend who believes in him. Even when that person dies, he will live again (cf. John 11:25-26). This great promise is that when we die our immortal souls will somehow detach from our physical bodies. And by miracle, we should be able to see without eyes, have some sort of existence with no body. That is a prospect that fills me with fear and trepidation but also curiosity, thinking of the unknown nature of dying and what it is to see God our Father. We are promised somehow, that we will be reunited with our earthly bodies by miracle and through Jesus Christ we will be resurrected into life eternal, at the end of time. 

In the Catholic creed, it begins with “credo in unum deum”. This translates from latin to english as I believe into one God. St Augustine (NPNF 7:276 on John 49:19) is convinced that believing into Christ places Christ into the believer - it is that uncomplicated. “For if there is faith in us, Christ is in us”. Some simple words to remind us that our journey into the trinity starts on this world, with love into Christ.
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Saturday, April 05, 2014

Saturday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Today’s Gospel begins at John 7:40 in the middle of a series of interchanges. It opens: “When they heard these words, some of the people said, ‘This is really the prophet.’” Despite this leading introduction there is no account in today’s reading as to what “these words” uttered by Jesus were, leaving today’s listener puzzling over what Jesus could have said to convince so many.

The answer is not even to be found in the previous day’s Gospel which concluded at John 7:30. So what happened in the missing ten verses? Jesus, facing arrest, proclaimed to the assembled peoples: “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” St John clarified that here Jesus refers to the gift of the Holy Spirit which was to be given after Jesus had been glorified (John 7:37-39).

Christ with the soldiers.
It is interesting that this promise managed to convince those who were sent to arrest Jesus of his status as a prophet, some even going so far as to proclaim him the Christ. Yet, despite the soldiers’ testimony that “no man has spoken like this man” the chief priests and elders of the Jews could not see Jesus as anything other than a false prophet and agitator. None of the authorities, those who knew the Law, had gone over to follow Jesus’s teaching. Clearly then he was a false teacher only able to inspire loyalty in the unlearned common folk. St. Augustine comments that the inability of the Jewish leaders, who were teachers of the Law, to recognise the Lawgiver made manifest Christ’s words “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.” (John 9:39)

This set of events might kindle a distrust of religious authority. It was the religious leaders of Jesus’s day, it is often said, who handed him over to his death. Would the bishops and popes of our day fare any better?

Blessed Pius IX
For the Catholic Church, which is by design an hierarchical institution, these sort of questions can be quite prominent, even in discussion amongst believers. Lord Acton argued that one ought to regard the bearer of authority with more suspicion than any other: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” he said during discussions on Papal Infallibility, as defined at the 1870 Vatican Council under Pius IX. “The office does not sanctify the office holder.”

Dostoyevsky gave a negative assessment of the Catholic hierarchy in his short story about the Inquisitor. There an inquisitor, who had arrested Jesus after the second coming, told Christ that the Church did not need the Gospel, it had moved beyond Jesus and his ‘false’ hope and ‘false’ answers to suffering. For the Inquisitor Jesus was in effect a false prophet- just as the Jewish leaders had said.

What are Catholics to make of all this? Well, the answer is perhaps found in today’s Gospel. What were the words that gave hope to the soldiers of the Pharisees? It was, we learn from St. John’s clarification, that Jesus would grant those who followed him not just the saving Faith, but that he would maintain that Faith in them untainted, like living water. The soldiers had experienced their own priests and they perceived their lack of authority. Jesus offered them a liberation from the human weakness which had best the Jewish priests and blinded them to God; the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Catholics have to accept that their leaders can fail. No matter how charismatic or impressive the priest, bishop or pope is they cannot be relied upon as they are in themselves. Indeed, no Christian would claim for himself the power to stay faithful to God without the help of grace. Thus Christians rely on the bishops and pope as protected by the Holy Spirit. Christians ultimately put their faith only in the authority of Christ, for he alone is always faithful. It was he who promised the protection of the Spirit and he who promised that the powers of hell would not prevail against his Church. We can trust the earthly leaders of the Church precisely because we know that Jesus does not renege on his promises. He said “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). It is through the Church that Christians have access to the same vivifying words that converted the soldiers of today’s Gospel and thus, provided they be in the bosom of the Catholic Church, Christians in any age in any place can know Jesus, recognise and say of him “no man has spoken like this man.”

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Friday, April 04, 2014

The Ninth Station: Jesus falls the third time

Br Samuel Burke OP sees the third fall of Jesus as a cause for sorrow, which can turn to repentance as we open ourselves to receive forgiveness.

Br Samuel will lead the Stations this evening at 5.15pm in the church at Blackfriars, Oxford. 
All welcome.

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Thursday, April 03, 2014

Thursday of the Fourth week of Lent: Humility

Readings: Ex 32:7-14; Ps 106; John 5:31-47 

It is amazing how we can read the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament and vice versa. In this way we are able to understand better not only the unity of the Holy Scriptures, but single biblical passages as well. Today's readings give us a very good example of that, in terms of the attitudes of Moses and Jesus.

The main point of the first reading is a conversation between God and Moses. God is going to punish Israel, because they turned away from Him. They made a molten calf, worshiping it and sacrificing to it. They forgot how God had brought them out from the land of Egypt. Moses as the leader of Israel tries to defend people against God’s wrath. As we can see in today’s Gospel, Israel rejected God not only in the desert. The Gospel shows in some sense a continuation of this story, because most of his Jewish contemporaries didn’t recognize and accept Jesus, the Son of God, who was sent by his Father. Jesus speaks to the Jews about his mission and testimony. He says that the best testimony are the works that the Father gave him to accomplish. They testify that He is sent by the Father. Nevertheless these Jews, who knew the Scriptures very well didn’t discover in them testimony about Jesus. In his speech Jesus refers also to Moses who was for the Jews a very significant figure. He proves to them that if they really had believed in Moses they would have believed Him too, because his words testify about him.

The Jews saw how God brought them out of the land of Egypt, but they didn’t believe Him. They saw Jesus’s life and works, but also in this case they didn’t believe him. They see and hear God’s works. They knew the Scriptures very well, but nevertheless they didn’t believe. How did it happen? Jesus gives an answer to this questions: "How can you believe, when you accept praise from one another and do not seek the praise that comes from the only God?" (John 5.44). They didn’t seek the praise and glory of God, but only their own praise, and because of that they weren’t able to believe God. Only if we seek God, who is our Creator and Redeemer, as well as his praise and glory, will we be able to find our own praise living with Him in eternal life.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Jesuits vs Dominicans? An answer from St Thomas...

The traditional rivalry between Jesuits and Dominicans continues apace. Now there's an excellent article over on The Jesuit Post which promises to settle the dispute once and for all, thanks to the careful and rigorous analysis of the Angelic Doctor himself.

Click the image below to read the article (NB the date!).

I especially liked the 'facepalm' bit and the punchline in that same paragraph (the one beginning 'I answer that...').

Are you persuaded...?

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Dominican Spirituality talks at St Giles' church

Over the last term, the Anglican church of St Giles, just an Aerobie's throw from Blackfriars, put on a series of talks on Dominican Spirituality, given mostly by members of the Blackfriars community. Although the series has come to an end, we are grateful that all the talks were video-recorded and are pleased to share them with you below.

Fra Angelico: An Illustrated Talk
Dr Nicholas Gendle

St Dominic and the Spirituality of Preaching
Fr Simon Gaine OP

The Spirituality of Dominican Government
Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP

St Thomas Aquinas: God as the Ground of Being
Fr Peter Hunter OP

St Catherine of Siena: Compassion and Mysticism
Fr Robert Ombres OP

Meister Eckhart
Fr Carsten Barwasser OP

St Thomas Aquinas: The Gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially Wisdom
Fr Richard Conrad OP

To see the original poster with the same list of talks and links to the videos, click here.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Lent: Controversial Miracles and Unconventional Charity

Gospel Reading: John 5:1-3, 5-16

Today, St. John’s Gospel presents us with a miracle and a controversy. Miracles are controversial enough in themselves, but Jesus seems to be especially provocative in this encounter.

First: the miracle. The miracle takes place at the pool of Bethzatha (or Bethesda) on the outskirts of Jerusalem, near the Sheep Gate, which was on the North-Eastern section of the city wall. This is confirmed by a nineteenth century excavation in which the remains of the site described by St. John were discovered. The man who languished before Jesus is in a bad way. We are told he has been ill for thirty eight years, and the man’s protracted suffering is evident to Jesus. But what exactly is he doing at this pool? The explanation is given in passing and is also to be found in the absent latter part of verse 3 (3b) and verse 4, which the Editors omitted from the the New Vulgate and RSV due to their absence in earlier manuscripts. Though not part of the Bible, or today’s Gospel reading, the verses give some useful context: “...waiting for the moving of the water. [4] For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in, was made whole of whatever disease he had.” So the man was waiting to be healed, waiting to be the first one in the bubbling water but without anyone to help him in. One could be forgiven for thinking that his waiting would survive this episode - certainly, even the man himself seems sceptical of his chances. But he was desperate. He had no other hope, it seemed.

Confronted by this tragic scene, Our Lord takes pity. He heals him with the command: “Rise”. Now in so doing, Jesus had broken the law of the sabbath. This was not the first time he had done so (c.f. Luke 6:1-12). And Jesus does not stop there. After, “Rise” he continues, “take up your pallet, and walk”. In adding the first of these two additional instructions, Our Lord further contravenes the law of the sabbath since the carrying of one’s pallet was expressly forbidden.

Why? Why does Jesus break the law? He does so in order to provide a new understanding of the sabbath. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “The Gospel reports many incidents when Jesus was accused of violating the sabbath law. But Jesus never fails to respect the holiness of this day. He gives this law its authentic and authoritative interpretation: ’The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.’ With compassion, Christ declares the sabbath for doing good rather than harm, for saving life rather than killing. The sabbath is the day of the Lord of mercies and a day to honor God. ‘The Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath’” (CCC 2173).

To this we might add some comment from St. Thomas Aquinas: “[Those Jews] in their desire to imitate God, did nothing on the sabbath, as if God on that day had ceased absolutely to act. It is true that he rested on the sabbath from his work of creating new creatures, but he is always continually at work, maintaining them in existence[...] God is the cause of all things in the sense that he also maintains them in existence; for if for one moment he were to stop exercising his power, at that very moment everything that nature contains would cease to exist” (Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, ad loc.) Thus immediately after today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says in his own words, “My Father is working still, and I am working” (v. 17). 

Our Lord’s teaching in this passage is audacious, in that it challenged the Jewish conventions and provoked enmity; new, in that he provided a modified interpretation of the Sabbath - one that represented a significant departure from what preceded it; and true, in that as St. Thomas reflects, it is not as though God ceased to act at all on the sabbath, and likewise His Son, Jesus, did not cease to act when he met a child in need. In Jesus's teaching we find a profound lesson for ourselves. We may not work miracles, but we can act with charity - even when it seems awkward or somehow 'inappropriate'. Put crudely: love is a trump card, and we should play it whenever we can!

Lord Jesus, grant us to see as you see. Prompt us to help those who are needy. Let us never withhold our charity out of misplaced obedience to convention.

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Monday, March 31, 2014

Monday of the Fourth Week of Lent: who is conforming to who?

Readings: Isaiah 65:17-21; Psalm 29:2,4-6,11-13; John 4:43-54

Today’s Gospel finds Jesus back in Cana, scene of the first miracle of his public ministry. Once more we have a miracle, and once more the dialogue preceding the miracle is troubling at first sight. An official has made the journey from Capernaum to ask Jesus to cure his son who is ill at home. Surely this is an act of faith which merits a more understanding response than Jesus’s seeming rebuke: “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe” (John 4:48)? Surely the effort to find Jesus and to ask him to heal his son is sign of the official’s belief? In any event, the official persists in his request and Jesus commands him to leave, telling him that his son will live - words which are, of course, then fulfilled.

Perhaps it says something about me and the blasé attitude which can form in me to ‘another miracle’ that the preparatory dialogue to the miracle is what immediately grabs my attention. Is there, however, some explanation for the harsh initial words? There is a potential clue in the penultimate verse of the passage where we are told that on hearing that the healing of his son occurred at the time of his conversation with Jesus, the official “himself believed and all his household” (John 4:53). Perhaps Jesus sensed a faith in the official that was incomplete, one that was dependent on seeing signs, and not a faith based on Jesus’s word? This is the explanation offered by the Venerable Bede who sees in the passage an allegory of our faith being formed gradually. He suggests that the official’s faith begins with the asking; grows when he believes Jesus’s words and returns home, but only reaches its maturity on hearing the servants’ confirmation that his son is in fact well again.

However, maybe there is another more vital lesson that we might take if the dialogue between Jesus and the official troubles us and we spend our time struggling to understand it. This time is valuable if it turns into a contemplation on who Jesus is and leads to a deepening of our relationship with Him. The danger, though, lies in the mental effort being expended on trying to make Jesus palatable to our sensibilities, seeking to ensure that He fits within our mould of what God should be like. We do well to remember who is made in whose image!

What then do we learn about Jesus from this miracle, what does this sign tell us about the one that performs it? It is the message that we will hear many times from this point on in John’s Gospel, that Jesus is life-giving. Where Jesus is to be found, life is renewed and restored, if only we will have faith. All our words pale in comparison to this healing and life-giving Word of God.


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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Fourth Sunday of Lent: The Man Born Blind

Readings: 1 Samuel 16: 1-13; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

In the today’s Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Lent Jesus heals the man who was born blind, and in doing so manifests His power to the astonishment of His disciples and consternation of the Jewish priests and leaders. Of course, Christ’s acts of healing, and the negative reactions they receive, are a common thread in all the Gospels. When He healed the paralysed man in Capernaum He was accused of blasphemy, or when He cured the crippled woman in the Temple He was denounced for working on the Sabbath.

Yet, what makes this Gospel so interesting is the account it gives of the reactions of the people who surround Jesus. St. John records the question of the disciples: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Christ healing.
The disciples presume that since the man has suffered such a fate it must be on account of some sin. To the disciples suffering seems to be explained as a result of human wickedness, an idea not confined to ancient Israel. Indeed, the belief that people reap what they sow is not uncommon even today. It is often assumed that ‘bad luck’ is a result of ‘bad karma’; wicked folk get what is coming to them. This is not an unattractive notion, that there might be some kind of self-regulating moral force to the universe brings a certain kind of sense to instances of apparent injustice. Even in the face of seemingly undeserved suffering, like that of the man born blind, a person can begin to rationalize the situation when they apply to the world that law that wicked folk get what is coming to them. We might assume with the disciples that the man was born blind on account of the ‘sins of the Father.’ Or perhaps, in modern (though equally ancient in certain places) terms, we might assume ‘he had done something bad in a previous life…’

Of course, the disciples had a little more to go on than a sub-conscious understanding about how the world worked. They could remember Jesus healing the paralytic man in Capernaum, He told him that his sins were forgiven, and this gave him the power to walk. Or they might recall the healing at the pool of Bethesda. There Jesus healed a man and then warned him: “Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.” Even Jesus seems to say the wicked get what is coming to them!

Thus, upon seeing an instance of human suffering it is not unreasonable for the disciples to ask ‘who sinned that he was born blind?’ Yet, Jesus’s response must have confused them: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.”

In previous instances Jesus has warned that sin causes human suffering, but it seems not to be so in the case of the blind man. Not only was the blind man not responsible, nor where his parents! However, perhaps what baffles most is not that Jesus does not describe the suffering as punishment for some sin but rather that he gives it an entirely different nature; the suffering of the man born blind is thus so that God might be glorified through it.

So suffering might not be a penalty for wrong doing but a means of glorifying God? Perhaps this idea is even less palatable than the concept of suffering as punishment. Why should God need to allow people to suffer just to manifest His glory? This does not seem to be a particularly nice thing for God to do.

Indeed, these sort of questions may have flooded the disciples’ minds. Suffering as punishment makes a certain kind of sense, it resembles justice, but the suffering Jesus has described, the undeserved but meaningful suffering of the man born blind, doesn’t seem so easy to understand.

So how can it be understood? Three questions can be asked, what is the point of this suffering? Why should God apply it to humans? And is it not still then still some form of punishment? 

The suffering of Job
For Christians, there are two clear cases of suffering, not as a penalty for Sin, but as a means of making manifest God’s wonder. First is the case of Job. The righteous man Job was renowned even in Heaven for his upright life and unswerving piety, yet, he was afflicted with the most grievous of sufferings, and to what end? Well, the stated intention was to manifest the truth of Job’s love for God. It was to show that Job did not merely bless the hand that fed him, but also the hand that struck him. By being put to the test Job learned of the depth of his love for God, and not only that, but he was elevated in dignity, by becoming a precursor for that second case of undeserved suffering which is central to human salvation.

The Passion and Death of Jesus was simultaneously the saddest and most glorious episode in human history. Jesus, Truth and Love incarnate, was rejected and despoiled by men and offered up to die the shameful death of the cross. Man nailed Love itself to a tree. Yet God refashioned this grave betrayal on the part of man into their salvation. Man, in his sins, had offended God who is infinitely good, an offence Man, as a finite being, could never atone for. However Jesus, by virtue of his divinity, was capable of offering to God an infinite act of love and thus, as man, He could please God more than all other men could displease Him. Thus, Jesus took His life into His hands and handed it over to wicked men; for love of the Father He made himself a sacrificial lamb whose blood would atone for the sins of the world. Jesus’s suffering was undeserved: how could goodness incarnate merit any pain; and yet it was an act which made manifest the wondrous work of God. For Jesus, by becoming the sacrificial lamb who gave the act of infinite love to the Father was bestowed with the name which is above every name. Jesus, in His suffering is glorified with the name of saviour. His passion and death was His most grievous struggle, but also His most glorious crown, for it was on Calvary that He made manifest His nature, His being Love unending for the Father and His creation.
The scourging of Christ
When man is redeemed from his sins, he rightly rejoices; it is good to be free of a disease. However, what if a man could not merely be freed from the disease but part of the cure? If those undeserved sufferings, like those of the man born blind, in fact manifest the same suffering that Jesus went through, can the suffering man not glory in it? Does the blind man of today’s Gospel, though his life of suffering, not share in some small way in Christ’s infinite act of love? If this is the case, that undeserved suffering joins one closer with Jesus’s sacrificial act, then maybe it is right that God allows it to befall people; suffering can be like a vaccine. The needle might sting or scare the child, but it imbues into the body a new power, a protection from greater harm. So it is with our undeserved sufferings, they can bring us closer to the one who saved us and make us more like Him, which is another way of stating the meaning of life; to become like the one who made us.

So the Christian then, in the face of suffering, can utter the words of St. Paul: “I am content with weaknesses … and calamities; for when I am weak then I am strong.”
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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Saturday of the Third Week of Lent

The English Dominican Simon Tugwell once observed in his excellent little book Ways of Imperfection (1984) that there is a sense in the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers, the great ascetics of the early Church, that the most dangerous kinds of sins involve not so much our actions as our attitudes to those actions. To put this another way, if we are able to recognize and confess that our sins are indeed sins, if we are able and willing to acknowledge that we have done wrong, then even if we succumb to the same temptations time and time again the venom of these sins is to a large extent drawn. The fact that we are able to acknowledge our guilt in itself opens us up to forgiveness and mercy.

On the other hand, if we are unable to acknowledge when we are at fault and instead direct our energies towards justifying ourselves and excusing ourselves even when we have done what is wrong, then we risk putting ourselves beyond God’s mercy and forgiveness simply because we refuse to accept our need for this mercy. In short, we risk refusing God’s grace through overconfidence in our own righteousness. 

In our Gospel reading, the tax collector leaves the temple at rights with God because he has had the courage to look his sins in the eye and ask for mercy, beating his breast. The Pharisee, on the other hand, is so blinded by self-congratulation that he repents of nothing and does not ask for forgiveness. Now it is clear that the Pharisee is in many ways a good man, it seems that there is much in his life that ought to be commended. Nevertheless, he is a proud man and this pride prevents him from becoming intimate with God, it impedes his journey to holiness. Traditionally, Lent is a season where we make an extra effort to make a good confession. Let us not be like the Pharisee, and allow complacency or pride to prevent us from seeking out God’s mercy. Instead, let us be like the tax collector and have the courage to ask for God’s forgiveness in humility and truth.

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