We do not preach the empty tomb, but the living Christ. The essence of our Easter joy does not reside in the disciples’ finding the place of death to be empty, but in the disciples themselves being found by the One whom we lost in death, now seeking them out as the Resurrected Lord. The empty tomb remains a sign—albeit an indispensable one—of this central Easter mystery, from which it derives its meaning. The discovery of the empty tomb itself constitutes a pregnant silence, a moment of ambiguity: has Christ risen, or have they stolen Him away?
In the New Testament, the precise moment of the resurrection—the genetic moment of meaning—is indicated, but never described in a way that satisfies our avid curiosities, let alone the rigorous demands of empirical science. We cannot study the moment of the resurrection directly, but we can encounter its effects. There are, indeed, many witnesses of Christ’s resurrection, those blessed to encounter The Lord risen and dwelling amongst them, but there are no witnesses to the moment of the resurrection itself: we’re left with a battery of questions—how? when? why?—and the empty tomb, a pregnant silence broken by the Risen Christ’s approach. “As I had always known He would come, unannounced, remarkable merely for the absence of clamour.” (Suddenly).
Perhaps even desiring to isolate the perfunctory moment of the resurrection is wrong-headed in a distinctively modern kind of way. The very silence of Christ’s resurrection points to its unique status. The resurrection of Jesus is not a re-birth: there are no cries of labour, there is no traumatic separation of mother and child. Nor is the resurrection a resuscitation: there are no panic stricken medics, no recourse to the grunting sweaty business of mechanical resuscitation. The time of trauma has passed now, the spectre of death no longer hangs over Jesus as a fearful inevitability: he will never again taste death, for the power of God’s life-giving mercy is stronger than death could ever be. The finality of death’s inevitability is thus destroyed, not by the violent triumphalism of battle, but by the peace of a silent love. The destruction of death is not a violence against death's violence, but the peaceful overcoming of all violence in the silence of eternity.
Whilst not yet the appearance of the living Lord, then, the empty tomb is nonetheless implied by the resurrection, standing as a sign that, paradoxically, points backwards from heaven to earth: “He is not here”, he who lives and reigns is not to be found amongst the dead. The empty tomb is a “room [...] from which someone has just gone, a vestibule for the arrival of one who has not yet come” (The Absence), but it stands as an icon of vindication for Christ's preaching, a confirmation that “Truth Himself spoke truly,” that this Man was, indeed, the Son of God.
The horrors of Calvary remain horrors. They still indicate the gravity of sin, the seriousness with which God—acting out of a covenantal love—regards our transgressions. From the perspective of the empty tomb, however, it is clear that our sins—the sins that nailed The Lord to the tree—will not be allowed to have the final word. Divine love, and not human sinfulness, is definitive, for God is Lord of our lives, not the servant of our sinfulness. The sufferings of the Cross continue to cast a shadow over our fallen world, but the light that falls is that shed by the glory of the resurrection, in which all human sufferings take on light and every tear is wiped away.
The resurrection cannot be contained within the space left vacant by the death that Christ defeated by enduring. The backward-looking perspective of the empty tomb is a function of the forward-looking resurrection-life of Jesus, which has cut a new pathway for humanity to enjoy an eternal resurrection-life with the Trinity. The passion is a remedy for the fall of Adam, yes, but the the meaning of Adam is found in Christ, not the meaning of Christ in Adam: the gift Christ offers for our enjoyment—a share in The Lord’s corporal glory—is greater even than the gift of Eden.
The uniqueness of Christ’s resurrection stands out in stark relief against the backdrop of one of its most obvious New Testament analogues, the miraculous raising of Jesus’s friend Lazarus. Lazarus, who would taste death again, returns to a world that was much the same as the one that he left, structured by the same principles of human possibility. Was not Christ's weeping for Lazarus at least in part a mourning for the trauma of Lazarus’s second death, even if this culmination will be death to eternal life in Christ? The uniqueness of Christ’s resurrection, by contrast, is a unique uniqueness, altering the parameters of human possibility and definitively moving human history forward, by offering—in grace—anew life of unimaginable joy, which we in the Church taste, share and celebrate this Easter, looking forward to its consummation in our own particular resurrections to come.
As the world slept, whilst nobody was looking, the seemingly fixed coordinates of our suffering world were silently transformed by divine love. Yet, “[t]he gamblers / at the foot of the unnoticed / cross went on with / their dicing; yet the invisible / garment for which they played was no longer at stake, / but worn by Him in this risen existence” (Suddenly).
The following pictures were taken during today's Liturgy of the Lord's Passion, at the Priory of the Holy Spirit, Oxford.
Chanting the Passion narrative from the Gospel according to St John
Unveiling the Holy Cross
During the Veneration of the Holy Cross, the choir sang O Vos Omnes (Victoria), Drop, drop slow tears (Gibbons), Caligaverunt oculi mei (Victoria) and Adoramus te (Palestrina). The schola also sang Christus factus est, by Anerio, and the Cantors sang the 'Reproaches' sequence, whose first verse and refrain, in English translation, are as follows.
My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!
I led you out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom, but you led your Saviour to the cross.
Holy is God! Holy and strong! Holy immortal One, have mercy on us.
Laying the high altar for Holy Communion
'Behold the wood of the Cross, on which was hung our salvation. Come, let us adore.'
The Easter Vigil will be celebrated tomorrow night at 10pm.
Although the name of the 'Tenebrae' service (Matins and Lauds during the Triduum) derives from the extinguishing of the candles, leaving the church in darkness (tenebrae in Latin), it is also the name of one of the chants used. Tenebrae factae sunt, meaning 'darkness fell', uses texts from the Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion (Matthew 27:45-46; John 19:30; Luke 23:46).
This recording was made during this morning's service in the church at the Priory of the Holy Spirit, Oxford. The text is given in Latin and English below.
Tenebrae factae sunt, dum crucifixissent Jesum: et circa horam nonam exclamavit Jesus voce magna: Deus meus, Deus meus, ut quid me dereliquisti? Et inclinato capite, emisit spiritum. Cum ergo accepisset acetum, dixit: Consummatum est. Et inclinato capite, emisit spiritum.
Darkness fell when they crucified Jesus:
and about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice:
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
And bowing his head he gave up the ghost.
And when he had received the vinegar, he said:
It is finished.
Here are some pictures of the Mass of the Lord's Supper celebrated last night (Maundy Thursday) at the Priory of the Holy Spirit, Oxford. The washing of the feet (Mandatum) occurred as usual, though it is not shown below.
The empty tabernacle and the high altar
The ministers, and the vessels for Communion
The Deacon begins to prepare the altar
The choir sang Ubi caritas by Duruflé and Ave Verum by Byrd
The altar of repose, where the brethren and others watched till midnight
On Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Saturday, the Morning Offices of Matins and Lauds take a slightly different form. The offices are combined and become Tenebrae, meaning "darkness" or "shadows". The liturgy is so called because it takes place in darkness or at least no additional light save for a triangular hearse upon which 15 unbleached candles are lit. As the office proceeds, each of the candles are gradually put out until all are extinguished at the end, representing the abandonment of Christ by his disciples.
The hearse with unbleached candles in the Priory Church
Solemnity, sorrow, stillness - these are the hallmarks of this "Office of Darkness". It is a fitting way, in addition to the other great liturgies of the Triduum, to enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ's Passion and Resurrection.
Below is a recording of the Third Responsory from this morning's liturgy (Maundy Thursday, Year B), in which we sung, with a sizeable congregation, the words:
R. Revelabunt caeli iniquitatem Iudae
et terra adversus eum consurget
et manifestum erit peccatum illius in die furoris Domini
cum eis qui dixerunt Domino Deo
recede a nobis scientiam viarum tuarum nolumus.
V. In diem perditionis servabitur malus
et ad diem furoris ducitur.
This Latin text can be translated into English as:
R. The heaves will show forth the iniquity of Judas
and the earth will rise against him
his sin will be published on the day of the Lord's wrath,
together will those who said to the Lord:
"Away from us. We do not want to know your ways."
V. He is reserved for the day of doom
and he is to be brought to the day of punishment.
We will continue to post some highlights of Tenebrae over the Triduum. Please join us if you are near Oxford. Click here for details.
The third responsory, Revelabunt cæli, from the Tenebrae service on Maundy Thursday
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.
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
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wednesday of the Fifth Week of Lent: Strange Gods and Modern Idols
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
"Blessed Jordan, worthy successor of St Dominic, in the early days of the Order, your example and zeal prompted many men and women to follow Christ in the white habit of Our Holy Father. As patron of Dominican vocations, continue to stimulate talented and devoted men and women to consecrate their lives to God. Through your intercession, lead to the Order of Preachers generous and sacrificing persons, willing to give themselves fervently to the apostolate of Truth. Help them to prepare themselves to be worthy of the grace of a Dominican vocation. Inspire their hearts to become learned of God, that with firm determination they might aspire to be 'champions of the Faith and true lights of the world'. Amen."
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