Saturday, 30 April 2011

Yearning to believe

GospelJohn 20:19-31 


In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews. Jesus came and stood among them. He said to them, ‘Peace be with you’, and showed them his hands and his side. The disciples were filled with joy when they saw the Lord, and he said to them again, ‘Peace be with you.
‘As the Father sent me,
so am I sending you.’
After saying this he breathed on them and said:
‘Receive the Holy Spirit.
For those whose sins you forgive,
they are forgiven;
for those whose sins you retain,
they are retained.’
Thomas, called the Twin, who was one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. When the disciples said, ‘We have seen the Lord’, he answered, ‘Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands and can put my finger into the holes they made, and unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe.’ Eight days later the disciples were in the house again and Thomas was with them. The doors were closed, but Jesus came in and stood among them. ‘Peace be with you’ he said. Then he spoke to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; look, here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer but believe.’ Thomas replied, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him:
‘You believe because you can see me.
Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.’
There were many other signs that Jesus worked and the disciples saw, but they are not recorded in this book. These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name.

I have always thought of this as a two sided Gospel - that the gift of the forgiveness of sins and the doubtful Thomas make a complex passage for reflection. Especially as most homilies I have heard tend to concentrate on Thomas and his unfortunate  reputation. I was reminded today that whenever I have seen an either/or in the Gospels that I should look for a both/and. Thomas and the forgiveness of sins belong together.

I have to admit that my sympathies have lay more and more with Thomas over recent years. It is easy to criticise him now that we imagine we understand the Resurrection. Although I would sincerely question how we could ever truly understand the Resurrection? Perhaps we have been taught to believe, have accepted the evidence of others to give us a faith that we could never have imagined for ourselves.

I sympathise mostly because of repeated conversations with my students, particularly the older ones,  when they demand proof that Jesus exists; that God exists; that heaven exists. They are studying Theology but they don't believe it - it doesn't give them answers.

Lots of Thomases making the same demands as two thousand years ago and who, really, can blame them? They live in a world of cynicism and disbelief; they live in a world that, as far as they can tell, hasn't benefited much from the Resurrection even if it did happen. There is still suffering; bad things still happen.

Although there is a lot of bravado when challenging authority; there is something else in their challenge that wants to be comforted and proved wrong. False hope is far worse than no hope and this is what Thomas fears. As he was away from the group; it seems that he had managed to find some reason to carry on; caring for others in the community, getting supplies? However he feels inside; he has started to rebuild himself; he has put on the brave face and put away hope. A survival instinct that is not always healthy but is all too common.

His grief has sent him so far outside himself that only the physical presence of his Risen Lord will bring him back; the words of reassurance that tell him it is true.

Blessed indeed are those whose sense of God allows them to 'just know'. Although who can say if the time will come when 'just knowing' will not be enough?

An option with the students is to withdraw from the debate; to suggest that 'we have a lesson to finish'; that it can't be discussed now; that perhaps they should talk it over with their family. To blame them for their doubts as we so readily blamed Thomas. If I just give their doubt back to them - would this be retaining their sins; would this be keeping them from a Truth that  they deserve  as much as I do? Is this the link?

I saw a cartoon recently where Thomas was challenging the Twelve - 'How come you never get 'denying Peter' or 'Runaway Mark?'.

And it's true; their 'sins' have been forgiven -why not Thomas? Because doubt is a dangerous emotion in a group of believers; especially believers who have doubted themselves. Doubters are mirrors to our own anxieties; our own disbelief echoed back to us.

But what else can I do? What I do is try to be some sort of witness; which  is difficult because that means giving  them 'me' - why I believe; things that have gone wrong in my life; where God was when they happened;  I have to be  vulnerable to them (nerve-wracking I have to admit) -  letting them have the opportunity to look at my wounds and my scars. Being as open in my faith around them as I would be with my church friends.

Does it get rid of the doubt? Well at least what they get is some honesty and that helps- knowing that even believers don't have all the answers.  They will always need that personal experience but perhaps with gentleness and invitation, instead of accusation and blame they are a little nearer meeting Jesus, their Lord and their God, for themselves.

wordinthehand2011

Thursday, 28 April 2011

X-ian


GospelJohn 21:1-14 

ebbing tide at Lindisfarne


Jesus showed himself again to the disciples. It was by the Sea of Tiberias, and it happened like this: Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee and two more of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said, ‘I’m going fishing.’ They replied, ‘We’ll come with you.’ They went out and got into the boat but caught nothing that night.
  It was light by now and there stood Jesus on the shore, though the disciples did not realise that it was Jesus. Jesus called out, ‘Have you caught anything, friends?’ And when they answered, ‘No’, he said, ‘Throw the net out to starboard and you’ll find something.’ So they dropped the net, and there were so many fish that they could not haul it in. The disciple Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord.’ At these words ‘It is the Lord’, Simon Peter, who had practically nothing on, wrapped his cloak round him and jumped into the water. The other disciples came on in the boat, towing the net and the fish; they were only about a hundred yards from land.
  As soon as they came ashore they saw that there was some bread there, and a charcoal fire with fish cooking on it. Jesus said, ‘Bring some of the fish you have just caught.’ Simon Peter went aboard and dragged the net to the shore, full of big fish, one hundred and fifty-three of them; and in spite of there being so many the net was not broken. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ None of the disciples was bold enough to ask, ‘Who are you?’; they knew quite well it was the Lord. Jesus then stepped forward, took the bread and gave it to them, and the same with the fish. This was the third time that Jesus showed himself to the disciples after rising from the dead.


Given the Judaic practice of using  mystical numbers to underpin story I have spent time in other years trying to work out what was so meaningful about one hundred and fifty three fish. This year I think I may have it - there is nothing meaningful about them - the meaningful part is the need to count them. 


The benefit of the four Gospels is the four voices that tell the story; the problem is. if you are not careful, you mix them up and the meanings are lost. The stories may be similar but they are not the same - they have their own melody.  


I don't know why but I had always assumed that Peter jumped into the water to get to Jesus first but this is not suggested at all. In fact Simon Peter is acting very much as I do when I am experiencing a feeling that he may well be feeling.  


In John there are ways of 'seeing' from the superficial to the deep insights; grace-filled or transitory. The beloved disciple, being innocent and loyal sees ' knows' the Lord even at this distance. Simon Peter, feels Jesus' eyes on him and feels ashamed; he knows he is forever guilty of denying Jesus at the trial; he is not reconciled to what he has done. This big, strong man was Jesus' best friend yet look at what he did, couldn't save him; wasn't even at the foot of the cross. What must Jesus think of him? So, like Adam in the garden, he grabs his clothes and hides away; going into the water; into his element, so as not to deal with the excitement of the others; knowing that his joy is tempered by another emotion - shame. 


When the rest of the disciples finally come ashore, Simon Peter goes back onto his boat; the one place where he is still in charge, lets the other disciples disembark and takes over all responsibility for the catch -this is what he is good at; this where he can prove himself


Eventually, however, he must come onto dry land nearer and nearer to his Lord, but there is still an opportunity to prevaricate - 'let's count the fish'. Like tidying the cutlery drawer, putting all the books on the bookshelves into alphabetical order or sorting out the recycling - anything; anything other than look his friend in the eye and deal with what has gone before; however long it takes to count to one hundred and fifty three. 


And yet, what is it that he is avoiding? A warm and ready welcome; hospitality; an invitation to be fed. No accusation; no exclusion; no judgment - but too hard to believe?


He who takes away the sins of the world begins as he means to go on - it is us who find it hard to believe.




Litany for the Unworthy


Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world
have mercy on us
We who demand to be fed
We who listen but do not understand
We who would have followed the crowd
We who would have ran away
We who have the answers
We who do not show mercy
We who do not say thank you
We who know better
We who define you
We who can only go so far
We who betray you
We who cage you
We who do not see you
We who love you
Have mercy on us

And let our hearts be broken

Let our hearts be broken
By your generosity of your love 
By the humility and obedience of your kingship
By the injustice and cruelty of your sacrifice
By the knowledge of your innocence
Let our hearts be broken
so that through our wounds 
you may enter
And take away our sin
Amen


wordinthehand2011

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Wonder

Gospel Luke 24:35-48 


The disciples told their story of what had happened on the road and how they had recognised him at the breaking of bread.


They were still talking about all this when he himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you!’ In a state of alarm and fright, they thought they were seeing a ghost. But he said, ‘Why are you so agitated, and why are these doubts rising in your hearts? Look at my hands and feet; yes, it is I indeed. Touch me and see for yourselves; a ghost has no flesh and bones as you can see I have.’ And as he said this he showed them his hands and feet. Their joy was so great that they still could not believe it, and they stood there dumbfounded; so he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ And they offered him a piece of grilled fish, which he took and ate before their eyes.


Then he told them, ‘This is what I meant when I said, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets and in the Psalms has to be fulfilled.’ He then opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘So you see how it is written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that, in his name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses to this.


Some months ago I went to a dinner dance - not my usual sort of thing; an annual event at my husband's sports club. Over many years I have got to know the players and their partners only through events such as this;  once we have exchanged updates on families, holidays and health it can be a struggle for conversation; well for me.


This time, someone asked about my job and I was telling them about the pastoral work it involved. Suddenly it went around the table that not only did I work in a Catholic school; but that  my work was informed by my faith and that, not only did I go to Mass, but that it wasn't just on Sundays. I discovered that I was sitting at a table of 'lapsed' Catholics all quite astonished that this was the way I lived my life. My husband turned his eyes to heaven and went and sat elsewhere.


The conversation continued as people 'confessed' when they had given up on their faith; when science; grief; boredom or cynicism had got in the way. How it was something to reminisce about; but something that had been left behind like Father Christmas, a childish memory, because life can't be lived like that. But then, quite maudlingly, they wanted the reassurance that it could; that it wasn't too late; that there is always hope.


I almost didn't know what to say; I can get quite evangelical when asked to speak to groups who have gathered to listen; I try to live my faith in my everyday life but I couldn't tell where this was going. There was a sense of real responsibility in however I responded. It seemed as if I was meant to let them in on some great secret.


 Knowing what to do when people are asking you for proof is difficult - I can't prove God exists; I can't explain suffering or evil; I can't say why it's not a waste of time. That's as bad as trying to explain what love is, what joy is.


 I admitted how I had struggled in the past; how it hadn't been easy; how sometimes it still wasn't. I told them that sometimes I try to do the right things and hope they are for the right reasons; and sometimes I just have to sit and wait and pray , and sometimes the flames of hope are fanned; the ghost that is faith suddenly becomes real; opens eyes and heart; feeds me and makes me whole and when it does - I know God is present - he, himself standing beside me.



Loving God, loving people, is my whole life; May it always be my whole life, 
this is what I hope for.— Charles de Foucauld


wordinthehand2011

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Vaya con Dios


GospelLuke 24:13-35

The Hermitage - Assisi


Two of the disciples of Jesus were on their way to a village called Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking together about all that had happened. Now as they talked this over, Jesus himself came up and walked by their side; but something prevented them from recognising him. He said to them, ‘What matters are you discussing as you walk along?’ They stopped short, their faces downcast.
  Then one of them, called Cleopas, answered him, ‘You must be the only person staying in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have been happening there these last few days.’ ‘What things?’ he asked. ‘All about Jesus of Nazareth’ they answered ‘who proved he was a great prophet by the things he said and did in the sight of God and of the whole people; and how our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and had him crucified. Our own hope had been that he would be the one to set Israel free. And this is not all: two whole days have gone by since it all happened; and some women from our group have astounded us: they went to the tomb in the early morning, and when they did not find the body, they came back to tell us they had seen a vision of angels who declared he was alive. Some of our friends went to the tomb and found everything exactly as the women had reported, but of him they saw nothing.’
  Then he said to them, ‘You foolish men! So slow to believe the full message of the prophets! Was it not ordained that the Christ should suffer and so enter into his glory?’ Then, starting with Moses and going through all the prophets, he explained to them the passages throughout the scriptures that were about himself.
  When they drew near to the village to which they were going, he made as if to go on; but they pressed him to stay with them. ‘It is nearly evening’ they said ‘and the day is almost over.’ So he went in to stay with them. Now while he was with them at table, he took the bread and said the blessing; then he broke it and handed it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognised him; but he had vanished from their sight. Then they said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?’
  They set out that instant and returned to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven assembled together with their companions, who said to them, ‘Yes, it is true. The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.’ Then they told their story of what had happened on the road and how they had recognised him at the breaking of bread.




 The definition of Emmaus is 'warm spring' so it has been suggested by some that these disciples were on their way to a spa town to 'cheer themselves up' - to clear the smell of tragedy and fear from their skin. But they are downcast, and keen to share their grief; eager to speak of Jesus as their leader; open about their desire for their people; and more than willing to walk with a wandering preacher who can give them some hope through the words of scripture. And happy to bring this stranger to the place where they were going to spend the night.


They are not cowards then or running away - they simply do not know what to do with themselves. As a reaction to grief this is probably one of the healthiest - to go to a place where you are safe - to share your grief with a sympathetic ear - to allow yourself to be comforted. They sound like good people.


We 'living in hindsight' people suggest that they should have stayed in Jerusalem - the Holy Place; should have waited it out; should have had some faith in the words of the women. Jesus calls them foolish but are they any worse than the others? And it would appear that his exclamation is more exasperation - as it has been many times with the other apostles and disciples. They are certainly worth tracking down and bringing home. Their hearts still eager for the Word and full of the gift of hospitality for the stranger, as Jesus had asked of them. 


Why didn't Jesus appear more fully to the people who had remained behind in Jerusalem? Because it is the Holy Place? Because there has always been a certainty of faith; of status; because it is no longer about Jerusalem? Luke, as the Gospel writer to the Gentiles makes it clear that Christ is wherever you are and however you are.  The road to Emmaus takes a certain journey through the celebration of the Eucharist; the journey of those who seek him with yearning hearts and without certainty. God cannot be confined; as the Father proved to Abraham by sending his people out so Jesus proves by walking alongside those who need him. 


 Maybe when we are dealing with grief, losing hope, questioning faith, then we do need to wander back into the desert to find our own sacred space.  If we are really searching for Truth then our heart will call to Jesus whether we know it or not. And he will lead us to his table; he will feed us himself.


What Christ gives us is quite explicit if his own words are interpreted according to their Aramaic meaning. The expression 'This is my Body' means this is myself.
Karl Rahner

wordinthehand2011

Unbound


GospelJohn 20:11-18 




Mary stayed outside near the tomb, weeping. Then, still weeping, she stooped to look inside, and saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head, the other at the feet. They said, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ ‘They have taken my Lord away’ she replied ‘and I don’t know where they have put him.’ As she said this she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, though she did not recognise him. Jesus said, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and remove him.’ Jesus said, ‘Mary!’ She knew him then and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbuni!’ – which means Master. Jesus said to her, ‘Do not cling to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go and find the brothers, and tell them: I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ So Mary of Magdala went and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord and that he had said these things to her.



Yesterday, I went to see the new  Marvel film Thor. Having been a great comic-book fan since childhood it is with great trepidation that I go to see any of the 'film of the comic'. But, certainly, this had been made with the fondness and devotion of makers who love their heroes.  Having watched it in Digital i-max hyper-reality - every compliment has to be given to the cgi and visual effects artists for their  'imagineering' of the Nine Realms. But it is in the achievement of visualising the characters that makes this sort of film a success.


Thor, as big and as mighty as he is, is an innocent; impulsive, guileless but without compassion, without the wisdom of experience or the understanding that 'might' is not always 'right'.  Only when he is sent away; sent to earth to become a human does he gain an appreciation of what it like to lose, to be overtaken, to be limited by his own body and by how others exert their authority over him.


His brother, Loki, is the better diplomat; seems to have the greater insight but he is a magician; his desire is to gain power; the power to be the authority over others.


In school I am often accused of being able to see 'God-stuff' in everything. Why should today be anything different?


It is in the relationship with those who are weaker that Thor comes to understand why he was given power and what the misuse of that power can lead to. His sending away means that he is faced with uncertainty; he becomes aware of the fraility of life; hre realises that he doesn't have the answer to everything.

His loyal Asgardian friends (who, earlier in the story, admitted that they owe much to Thor's faith in them) come to his aid only to also be sent away to help the humans and, it is in doing this and in sacrificing himself for those in danger - that Thor becomes himself again and more than himself - someone that his father can be proud of.

Only then is his hammer, Mjolnir, returned to him and he is returned to the fullness of his power (given that his 'compassion' still includes a fair amount of violence and destruction but then he is a war god).

God's power, God's mercy fills far more than Nine Realms; fills and overflows. The power and influence of God, of Jesus, only works properly when it is moving outwards. Mary is one of the superheroes, since she has been saved she has not left Jesus' side, through betrayal, condemnation and death; her presence at the Resurrection overlooked or made light of in some of the Gospels; in this passage the encounter is so hesitant, so full of misunderstanding that it feels full of truth. Jesus is the centre of her life; surely she had intended to be by his side always? To have this second chance...but there are others who need to know; followers more afraid and despairing than she is ,who need to be called.

I have been asked by other Christians if I claim Christ as my personal Lord and Saviour? Honestly, I have to say 'no'. That I have a personal relationship with Jesus is undoubtable, but I try not to cling to him;   he is not 'mine' unless I believe that he is everyone else's.

 The truth of the Resurrection is not just for Mary, not just for me. Jesus cannot be who he needs to be if his people hold on to him. The quest is much bigger than that.
“So You haven’t really sent me away from You, after all. When You assigned me the task of going out among men, You were only repeating to me Your one and only commandment: to find my way home to You in love. All care of souls is ultimately possible only in union with You, only in the love that binds me to You and thus makes me Your companion in finding a path to the hearts of men.” Karl Rahner


wordinthehand2011

Monday, 25 April 2011

Truth?


GospelMatthew 28:8-15 

Filled with awe and great joy the women came quickly away from the tomb and ran to tell the disciples.
  And there, coming to meet them, was Jesus. ‘Greetings’ he said. And the women came up to him and, falling down before him, clasped his feet. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers that they must leave for Galilee; they will see me there.’
  While they were on their way, some of the guard went off into the city to tell the chief priests all that had happened. These held a meeting with the elders and, after some discussion, handed a considerable sum of money to the soldiers with these instructions, ‘This is what you must say, “His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.” And should the governor come to hear of this, we undertake to put things right with him ourselves and to see that you do not get into trouble.’ The soldiers took the money and carried out their instructions, and to this day that is the story among the Jews.

Catherine de Hueck Doherty, in her book 'Poustinia' talks of her native Russia and  beggar pilgrims known as the jurodivia;  those who are called to a life of abject poverty, prayer and pilgrimage. They follow the instructions given by Jesus to his disciples regarding what they might carry with them and leave the rest to God. They are often considered simpletons or fools and this pleases them very well - because they are - they are fools for Christ. They pray for God's forgiveness for calling his Son a fool. 

Just yesterday, the Resurrection brought us all into a new world of redemption; the unique pivotal moment of our relationship with our God who sacrifices all for us, and today we are trying to put it all into perspective. 

Pilate asked, during Jesus' trial, 'What is truth?' and did not receive an answer. Answers are generally much less important than questions, in life generally and certainly where faith is concerned. When there is uncertainty people will grasp at answers for many reasons -because they want life to make sense; because they do not wish to be taken for fools. 

Having come so far in the past weeks, the desert journey of Lent; the calling and falling, the reliving of Holy Week - anticipation, theatre, ritual, tragedy and celebration - we may feel something of an anti-climax today as the Church gets it breath back. Many people making the comment that it will be good to get 'back to normal'; putting the purples and the reds back into their boxes. The Spring break over , we could have the time back that we have given to prayer and contemplation, we could be returning to a rational, reasonable life.

On Easter Sunday Jesus escaped the tomb. In fear, his enemies covered up the truth - covered it so well that they believe to this day.

Our Easter journey will hopefully have allowed God to escape the 'box', the restrictions,  we have created within ourselves. We will have new questions, new directions  and new roads to travel. This is a time of renewal and rebirth for all of us; if we can cling to the Truth that our faith guides us to believe in, in spite of its foolishness and uncertainty, then the Truth will indeed be stranger than fiction but it will be more important than being taken for fool - indeed there will be no need to even try to ' get back to normal'. 

wordinthehand2011


Saturday, 23 April 2011

Sabbath

The light went out. He was the Light, so that was weird; the paradox of being and not being was hard enough when he became human but this was beyond his poor brain’s understanding. Then he realised his brain couldn’t understand anything anymore. He was dead; the betrayal, torture and execution he had foretold had happened; his body devastated; broken beyond any ability to function. The valves in the chambers of his heart blasted open; his lungs like wet sea sponges sodden with fluid, the air sacs filled with black stagnant blood soaking up the redundant oxygen. The unwieldy drop from the cross had left its mark; marrow seeping from stress fractures in the once strong bones of his thighs. The cells that had rushed to heal the many cuts and bruises now surrendering to putrification and decay

He wasn’t sure what he had expected. A pause in time? There was something in that that would have been welcome after all the trials his recent life had caused him. But not all trials – there was so much joy that also belonged to his humanity – remembering his life; how he had grown; to see, to recognise; to name the world before him; and now for his tongue to shrivel in an agonised mouth; eyes to turn milky and hardened in their sockets. Remembering the uncoordinated mysteries of babyhood. Learning to touch, to hold, to create with tiny fingers and thumbs that had gradually become strong and callused. To hold on to his father’s same strong fingers as he had pulled himself to his feet and toddled across the kitchen floor. The spare frame of his body that had carried him out of the Galilee to an outlaw’s death twisting and contorting as the fluids in his joints calcified into stony crystals.

And no words; no thoughts to create words; no mouth to speak; no ears to hear.
Yet he was the Word; or was he? What was a God in a dead body? No different to any human corpse? His mother had not felt his presence, his friends had sobbed and wailed into their robes. He was dead. The inside of the tomb was black; he didn’t need to see - he knew this because his Father has turned away and that was the moment the whole of Creation had turned black.

Did his Father continue to turn in on himself, stilled to despair; distressed beyond the meaning of distress that his own child could be killed by his chosen people; was the Spirit still raging her grief across the air currents? The Creator and the Creative lost without their guiding star. They, who were completeness, now driven apart. How long would they last without him? Beloveds grieving the Beloved; how could he ever find them again?

He was here; woven into the physicality of this parody of flesh, blood and bone. He had delighted in the living; the sensations of touch, taste, smell; the glory of language, gesture, nuance; the experience of friendship, frustration, laughter and fear. He had stepped into his Father’s dream and it had been wonderful beyond words. The dying, too, had been part of that life. Unwelcome, suffering the agonies of pain caused through betrayal, corruption and violence, but still, somehow, life. How his body had borne so much; how his brave heart had driven him to rise and rise again knowing the path of descent that he was taking. And now dead, apart, alone, deaf, mute, paralysed, out of time, nowhere. The miracles he had worked to bring wholeness to others would not work here; the call he had sent out for Lazarus could not rise from this emptying shell. Without the Father’s power to draw upon; without the Spirit’s breath to bring life; he was helpless. Condemned again and again to death.

The God of Nowhere, fell truly silent; mindful in a body without a mind. Meanwhile, his body, seemingly inert, did not understand this concept of dead. The taking of his life had given his body a mind of its own. Chemical reactions were in place; bacteria worked and fed and grew, nails and hair pushed on through the skin. Tiny inhabitants of the tomb visited the body, in spite of the unfinished anointing with myrrh and the spices; feeding on skin flakes and bone fragments. His flesh began to disintegrate but then, its own miracle, to transform, to find a new way to be; seeking to be absorbed into the great universal melee of life. His body still sang its song; at a quieter level; a slower cadence; a softer melodic frequency; but it sang.

And as his body became less and less attached to its worldly memory it turned more and more to God; each cell; each atom knowing the Creator in a way the collective body never had. Noticing the God nearby; they turned first to him for guidance, seeking the next step in the weaving, instinctively knowing that death is never the end; for there is nothing that God had made that has been lost; simply another threshold, another becoming. The Word roused himself and smiled at his own foolishness; remembering how often he had shepherded these small awareness’s back into the weaving; feeding the complex minutia of the earth. Here was the Father in their very existence and here was the Spirit in their eagerness for life; their capacity for rebirth. And he was here; acknowledged by these tiny lives’ desire to be transformed. No longer the fear of separation – knowing that God was completeness.
He, who had borne every ill in Pandora’s Box had found Hope hidden at the bottom.

‘Dead’ was the refusal to believe that this could happen; the despair at losing what he had; the fear that Love no longer existed. In the air around him he felt the souls of the dead; drifting aimlessly; the certainty that they had been forsaken by God cruelly cocooning them; each into their own private Hell. Death had closed their eyes and the darkness had overcome them. He called to them but they would not listen; hope was a lost dream in their everlasting sleep.

Instead he called to himself; the cells that had made up his human form crowded round him. ‘I will be myself again’ he told them ‘myself inside and out.’ The weaving began; the flesh and the divinity dancing together drawing Light and Life into every atom, every pore. The healing knit bones and drew torn skin together, stitched sinew and counted fingers and toes until there were only the places of piercing left. ‘Leave them’, he said ‘so they will know me’.

Hope drew on memory then to feed the heart; the unwavering look of love in his mother’s eyes; the ‘that’ll do’ nod of pride from his father; the rousing cheer of his friends when he finally threw a fishing net without making a cat’s cradle of it; the soft kiss of a woman’s understanding of his dream; the trusting arms of a child around his neck.

He began to shine; the brightness of a nova star; incandescent beyond imagining. The darkness retreated; finding no place to hide, no shadowed corner, no place so deep, no exile so far that the Light could not reach. So bright that the eyes of the dead were opened and their veiled vestiges of flesh warmed. They turned to him at once and were gathered gratefully into his arms. ‘We are going Home’ he reassured them, ‘there are so many rooms in my Father’s house.’

He opened his eyes to the clammy, dusty darkness of the Tomb; a grey-pink light finding cracks in the stonework; a hint of a new dawn. He felt the rhythm of the Dance through the soles of his feet and heard the song of the Spirit in the arms of the fruit trees. Distractedly he rolled one of the winding cloths between his fingers as he listened to the faint, grief-laden heartbeat of a woman standing watch in the morning shadows of the garden and the mournful echoes of loss and despair from the locked windows and upper rooms of an old friend’s house. He could think of no reason to be still be here, when Hope, Light and Love were needed out there. The stone surrendered easily, unwilling to hold the Lord one single second more, and, as he stepped out, the grass rose up to bathe his feet in the morning dew of the first Easter day.

wordinthehand


Friday, 22 April 2011

Recall

Good Friday

Impossible to know what to write on this day. The Gospel of so many words cannot hope to describe  the reality of this day. Better perhaps to keep silent.

It is the keeping silent that I am going to share.

At the death of a loved one, an almost immediate response is to revisit memory; the last time you met; the first time; remember; remember.

Today just before three o'clock I was part of a service held at our sister church. The service understood the need for silence and there was the opportunity for meditation and reflection after the readings and prayers. The day was beautiful, the stones warmed by the days of sunshine warmed the air itself. There was a light and a peace that reminded me more of Assisi than our own housing estate - it was a moment in time - a sacred silence.

Except for a young family with toddlers who had joined the service. I have a granddaughter myself- two year olds are not best suited to meditation. These children were regular church-comers - absolutely welcome to be with us on this day when 'family' should be together. Easy to explain an inability to meditate on the distractions of toddling feet and insistent chatter.

Whenever I get this excuse in my head- one of the desert fathers brings his comment 'it is no skill to meditate when it's quiet - the skill is is to meditate in an iron foundry'. So I set my heart to it and suddenly time shifted and it was the sound of the child that took me.

I remember very little of my childhood - maybe because there is little to remember. I was a sickly child,  a stranger to school - from when I was six or seven, more often to be found lying in bed in my tiny boxroom of a bedroom with a blanket over the window; suffering from migraines and a variety of viral infections leaving me lying in bed unable to do anything other than lie in bed.

The only real sense I had was hearing; and this became honed with time and experience and this strange sense of presence - gauging the atmosphere of the house, of a person, of the street.

The moment that I was reminded of was a summer afternoon; air warmed, draught-less, a heaviness in the air - perhaps a storm on the way. Lying, listening - I could hear my brothers in the house fidgeting to go back outside, the washing machine on its second spin; the TV talking to itself in the corner; my mum's voice as she negotiated with the boys as to why they should stay out '5 more minutes'. The shrill calling of other children in the street and in the back yards; barking dogs; other mums - and dads, other TVs; the hum of airplanes, traffic and car radios,  the yowl of the police siren. The song of blackbirds, hysterical chatter of starlings; relentless coo of pigeons and the lonely calls of seagulls. If I really tried I could catch the rumble of the Liverpool to Ormskirk train as it rattled through Seaforth station; the klaxons on the docks as they heralded the change of shifts and the horns of the ships as they crossed the Mersey 'Bar'  on their way upriver to unload or out to sea.

A whole world relentlessly going on without me; people who carried on as if I wasn't there; a feeling of premature burial - that I had  been dismissed.
 Except, that after I had accounted for all sounds; all the sensations and intuitions,  there was still something else, someone else. Someone who was there; present - nowhere to go, no-one else to be with.
Someone happy to just sit and be; to pass the day; to say to a sickly, awkward, overlooked child  'Here I am'.

I would, I do, tell people that there has been no time when I didn't believe in God. There isn't. But today, today took me back to the day that I met not just God, but Jesus.

To think, that on the day he died, he thought of me.

wordinthehand2011





Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Quickening

Gospel Matthew 26:14-25 

One of the Twelve, the man called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What are you prepared to give me if I hand him over to you?’ They paid him thirty silver pieces, and from that moment he looked for an opportunity to betray him.


Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus to say, ‘Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the passover?’ ‘Go to so-and-so in the city’ he replied ‘and say to him, “The Master says: My time is near. It is at your house that I am keeping Passover with my disciples.”’ The disciples did what Jesus told them and prepared the Passover.


When evening came he was at table with the twelve disciples. And while they were eating he said ‘I tell you solemnly, one of you is about to betray me’ They were greatly distressed and started asking him in turn, ‘Not I, Lord, surely?’ He answered, ‘Someone who has dipped his hand into the dish with me, will betray me. The Son of Man is going to his fate, as the scriptures say he will, but alas for that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! Better for that man if he had never been born!’ Judas, who was to betray him; asked in his turn, ‘Not I, Rabbi, surely?’ ‘They are your own words’ answered Jesus.

It is always interesting to read reports of the same event by different Gospel writers. Yesterday, we had this same moment written by John; where John manages to suggest that our failings, as shown by the failings of the apostles, are no barrier to Jesus' love for us. Perhaps this compassion is a lesson learned in maturity by the long lived John.

Matthew is not so forgiving. Judas is held fully responsible for his actions; no visitation by Satan here. Jesus indicates the betrayer as someone who has shared food with him (taken food from him) without the intimacy of being fed by Jesus. And the statement 'better for that man if he had never been born' - a curse and a condemnation from Jesus for whom nothing was beyond forgiveness? Remembering that he was about to give his life for that very belief.

Matthew is so often the angriest of the writers. The followers of the Way were slowly and sometimes violently being edged out of the Temple community. Betrayal within families and friends; people who could not be trusted, the people Saul was involved in before his conversion. And in the fear and desperation of the times - people who would be better if they never existed; according to Matthew.

The differences between Matthew and John are a reminder of the difference between justice and mercy. The 'Matthew' in us would look at those that hurt us and judge them totally responsible for their actions; the 'Matthew' would accuse them of taking advantage of our generosity, of our trust; the 'Matthew' - still in touch with the Law - would expect judgement and retribution.

John, as we saw yesterday, understands in these most dreadful of situations, that we are all capable of terrible things and that, without limit, Jesus will be ever-merciful - it is then up to us to forgive ourselves.
Unfortunately, not always so easy.

wordinthehand2011

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Previous engagement


GospelJohn 13:21-33,36-38

While at supper with his disciples, Jesus was troubled in spirit and declared, ‘I tell you most solemnly, one of you will betray me.’ The disciples looked at one another, wondering which he meant. The disciple Jesus loved was reclining next to Jesus; Simon Peter signed to him and said, ‘Ask who it is he means’, so leaning back on Jesus’ breast he said, ‘Who is it, Lord?’ ‘It is the one’ replied Jesus ‘to whom I give the piece of bread that I shall dip in the dish.’ He dipped the piece of bread and gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. At that instant, after Judas had taken the bread, Satan entered him. Jesus then said, ‘What you are going to do, do quickly.’ None of the others at table understood the reason he said this. Since Judas had charge of the common fund, some of them thought Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the festival’, or telling him to give something to the poor. As soon as Judas had taken the piece of bread he went out. Night had fallen.
  When he had gone Jesus said:
‘Now has the Son of Man been glorified,
and in him God has been glorified.
If God has been glorified in him,
God will in turn glorify him in himself,
and will glorify him very soon.
‘My little children,
I shall not be with you much longer.
You will look for me,
And, as I told the Jews,
where I am going, you cannot come.’
Simon Peter said, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus replied, ‘Where I am going you cannot follow me now; you will follow me later.’ Peter said to him, ‘Why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ ‘Lay down your life for me?’ answered Jesus. ‘I tell you most solemnly, before the cock crows you will have disowned me three times.’

And to think that the disciples thought they were going to a celebration; that the fellowship would be made stronger; that Jesus' influences would make some change. If Jesus intended to use his influence surely he would have kept Judas near, made Peter stay away- his foresight could have saved him (saved them) but he leaves them their freedom and neither of them can help themselves. 
The betrayal by a trusted friend; the foolishness and misunderstanding of his best friend. No wonder Jesus calls them 'little children' - still they struggle with his message even though they have been with him all this time.
 And yet he still loves them; intends to die for them; sees in them the glory of his time on earth. The betrayer who is fed from his hand; the fool who doesn't listen; the rest of them 'wondering what he meant'. Several glasses of Passover wine may have made them befuddled - but not really any worse than usual. 
If there was a sign of the authenticity of the Gospels it is how openly inadequate Jesus' beloved friends and disciples are at dealing with whatever he asks of them. And yet how much he loves them; how he never stops loving them even in their failing. 
It is one of the greatest signs of hope; knowing that we are often no better; rejecting, betraying, misunderstanding what it is that Jesus wants of us; allowing sin into our hearts and our decison making, not once but many times in many situations far less serious that this one.
I suppose that, as little children, it is recognising that we can only do our best and that our best may not good enough - but doing it, or not doing it, anyway. It is knowing that 'perfection' is not how we are judged - we ar not judged. It is knowing that even when our actions are completely against what God wants - Jesus loves us. That the place where he has gone - perhaps we may not follow by ourselves- but, when the time comes ,  he himself will bring us home. 

wordinthehand2011


Monday, 18 April 2011

One or the other?


GospelJohn 12:1-11



Six days before the Passover, Jesus went to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom he had raised from the dead. They gave a dinner for him there; Martha waited on them and Lazarus was among those at table. Mary brought in a pound of very costly ointment, pure nard, and with it anointed the feet of Jesus, wiping them with her hair; the house was full of the scent of the ointment. Then Judas Iscariot – one of his disciples, the man who was to betray him – said, ‘Why wasn’t this ointment sold for three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor?’ He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he was in charge of the common fund and used to help himself to the contributions. So Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone; she had to keep this scent for the day of my burial. You have the poor with you always, you will not always have me.’
  Meanwhile a large number of Jews heard that he was there and came not only on account of Jesus but also to see Lazarus whom he had raised from the dead. Then the chief priests decided to kill Lazarus as well, since it was on his account that many of the Jews were leaving them and believing in Jesus.


I have just read a commentary about this passage of scripture that talked about the Martha and Mary phenomenon.
Martha, you will notice is waiting on the visitors; serving her brother, her friend and all the hangers on eager to see the 're-newed' Lazarus and the miracle worker. And doing all this without a murmur of discontent; she has accepted the role of servant - a role that all Christians should recognise within themselves. Knowing that our lives are not 'all about us' and that we have the opportunity to nurture the fellowship and family of God through hospitality and welcome.

Good enough you may think.

Mary, on the other hand is again awarded the higher acknowledgement - that she focuses all she has; everything of value, on Jesus. That her actions replace the scent of Lazarus' death with the scent of resurrection. That she is able to discern the truth of the journey that Jesus is making. That nothing is too much for her where her faith and her Lord is concerned.

Much more spiritual; much more important - or so this commentary suggested. Martha - never good enough - Mary - too good to be true.

I imagine Jesus looking at these women and saying 'I love you both'.  And so he should.

Tonight our parish celebrated a tribute to the Passover Meal. Eighty people came along to experience something of what the Last Supper was really like - five glasses of wine, multiple courses of food, children running underfoot, laughter and downright ribaldry. The feast appears as if from nowhere -  although it is not from nowhere at all - it is from people who choose to take the time and make the effort to work together to bring this celebration to others; for the sake of others; for the sake of the community; for the continuing of a fairly new but uplifting tradition.

It is only when this Martha-work has been done that Mary can show herself. In the prayers; in the understanding of faith and commitment and relationship that stretches from the time of Moses to the present day. It is only within the comfort of this hospitality that the community in all its diversity can share the experience of this feast and see within it the legacy that has become the Mass. It is only in the relationship of faith that a silence lasting several minutes can follow the sharing of Elijah's cup around the gathering.

There is a great danger in choosing an either/or approach to life. Jesus doesn't do it. Human and Divine; God and Man. He sees what is and also what could be.  He knows that it is as important to 'do' as it is to 'be'. He sees the sinner and the beloved in the same person. He would choose Martha and Mary.

wordinthehand 2011

Saturday, 16 April 2011

No U-turn












When they were near Jerusalem and had come in sight of Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go to the village facing you, and you will immediately find a tethered donkey and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you are to say, “The Master needs them and will send them back directly”.’ This took place to fulfil the prophecy:
Say to the daughter of Zion:
Look, your king comes to you;
he is humble, he rides on a donkey
and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.
So the disciples went out and did as Jesus had told them. They brought the donkey and the colt, then they laid their cloaks on their backs and he sat on them. Great crowds of people spread their cloaks on the road, while others were cutting branches from the trees and spreading them in his path. The crowds who went in front of him and those who followed were all shouting:
‘Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heavens!’
And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil. ‘Who is this?’ people asked, and the crowds answered, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’

GospelMatthew 21:1-11 
Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord!





It's quite strange listening to Matthew's Gospel today when it has been John's words all week.

The people Jesus had been speaking to in John were people who listened and believed much of what Jesus was saying; much but not all. They had challenged Jesus' standing against Abraham, Moses and the prophets and had not been happy when Jesus put himself before them all. Believers turned into stone throwers in a matter of sentences - unwilling to accept what they have heard or seen - needing to put limitations on someone who is just a man. And then Jesus challenged the concept of being 'just a man' if you accept God as your Father.

Jesus argues himself into a corner of unacceptability; but today, that is all by-the-by


This celebration and public exhibition of support for Jesus comes after last week's Gospel where Lazarus was raised from the dead. At a time when all roads where leading to Jerusalem - all the gossip and news was heading there too and if Jesus already had a reputation from his previous visits to the Temple- and he did - then this last miracle would have tongues and ears burning. The anticipation overflowing when Jesus meets the prophet's sign; entering the city on a donkey. 


Much as he has been a thorn in the Temple's side there is no denying that Jesus has become someone to be reckoned with. And the Jews were not expecting their Messiah to be God, simply to be sent from God. There had been some nearly-messiahs in the past - it was almost worth taking the risk because they wanted to be free. They wanted another Moses to stand up to their oppressors and, this time, chase them away; they wanted Jerusalem to be all theirs.


This is 'crowd mentality'; this is diversion; this is a  public expression of national and religious pride that suits everyone except the Romans. And that certainly suits Jesus' enemies. The common people will be dismayed when Jesus does not take on the role of freedom fighter; the religious will become more intimidated at Jesus' actions in the Temple and the Romans will simply seek to assert control.


Holy Week begins with an unruly crowd looking for excitement and spectacle. Whether they believe that this man could be the Messiah is a moot point- it is a festival time and hope springs eternal.  In the main they will be let down - Jesus is not that kind of man. Although the moment in the Temple may be a stirring moment for some - generally Jesus has commited himself to a path that will end in betrayal, suffering and death. His choice has been made at the gates of David's city; the opportunity for escape into the Lenten wilderness- lost. 


Today, we have the choice of how this entry in Jerusalem will continue for us. Will we follow on; sharing as much time as we can with Jesus in the days to come or will we allow ourselves to be distracted by the rest of the world; by the busy -ness of  our lives - only remembering  who it was we were cheering when the time comes to condemn him for having not lived up to our expectations.


wordinthehand2011