In the novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, the elderly pastor, John Ames, in musing over his life, notices how the word ‘just’ can mean something depreciative or something affirmative – depending on how one views the situation. ‘There I was, with just you!’ Here ‘just you’ can mean ‘only you and what good was that to me?’ Not nice. Or ‘just you’ can mean ‘what more could I have wanted, you and you alone fill me with joy!’ In the first stance, the speaker betrays begrudging acceptance, the second, openness to mystery, joy, abundance.In this Sunday’s Gospel Jesus states that the Spirit will teach us ‘everything’. This is an extraordinary statement. I am very conscious of what I don’t know, about the world, about people…and especially about God. And I’m sure you feel the same way too. Does this mean that the Spirit isn’t teaching me or you? This is how I get my mind around this conundrum: sometimes I wonder about how the ants in our garden view us. If one of us tried to teach an ant and the ant was just interested in its own anty world, it isn’t going to learn anything. But if the ant is interested in more, then it will find what little it learns ¬would be just marvellous. The Spirit is trying to teach us. But if we try to conform the Spirit to just what we want, we will be disappointed – the Spirit will not be tamed. But if we are open to what the Spirit wants, we will be just surprised by joy, time and time again.
The Voice! How much is conveyed by the tone of a voice. We might think that it is the words that convey the meaning but if we think about it we realise that this is often not true. Said with kindness, harsh words can convey love. Said with disinterest, the sweetest words mean nothing, at best. Jesus highlights this with the contrast between the Good Shepherd and the hireling. Imagine the difference in the tone of voice between the two. The Good Shepherd calls and the sheep follow for they hear love and care. The hireling may say the same words, but the sheep refuse to listen. They know the hireling is only there for personal benefit. Each Christian has heard the voice of Jesus calling him or her. We each need to stop and retune our lives according to this call of intimate, personal, unique love. Our name, called in love, is important to Jesus – so it should be to us. It is good to sometimes stop and listen to the tones in our own voices and to ask ourselves what they convey. Is it the tone by which Jesus calls us? The challenge the Good Shepherd gives to each of us is to convey in our voices the love we hear in his.
Uproar was the disciples’ response to the risen Jesus. Joy, terror, dismay, confusion, wonder ran riot within them. Jesus dealt with this by grounding them in a sense of his physical presence, stretching their understanding by showing how the Scriptures revealed what had happened to him. He then challenged them to share this Good News with the entire world.<br>By comparison, our experience of Resurrection seems rather thin. So maybe we should pause and seriously ask ourselves, where could we recognise and experience the Risen Jesus? Could it be in our physical world, as we go beyond ourselves in love and service, doing deeds that don’t come easily to us? Could it be in stretching our minds and hearts to appreciate the riches of the Scriptures and our religious tradition and see what they tell us about Jesus? Could it be in taking up the challenge to present the Good News to the people with whom we live? If you are like me, these questions stir up all sorts of reactions within me: terror at what it might cost, confusion as to what I could actually do, wonder at how it might turn out. But maybe the only way for us to enter into the Resurrection is to be discombobulated like those disciples at the first Easter.Uproar was the disciples’ response to the risen Jesus. Joy, terror, dismay, confusion, wonder ran riot within them. Jesus dealt with this by grounding them in a sense of his physical presence, stretching their understanding by showing how the Scriptures revealed what had happened to him. He then challenged them to share this Good News with the entire world. By comparison, our experience of Resurrection seems rather thin. So maybe we should pause and seriously ask ourselves, where could we recognise and experience the Risen Jesus? Could it be in our physical world, as we go beyond ourselves in love and service, doing deeds that don’t come easily to us? Could it be in stretching our minds and hearts to appreciate the riches of the Scriptures and our religious tradition and see what they tell us about Jesus? Could it be in taking up the challenge to present the Good News to the people with whom we live? If you are like me, these questions stir up all sorts of reactions within me: terror at what it might cost, confusion as to what I could actually do, wonder at how it might turn out. But maybe the only way for us to enter into the Resurrection is to be discombobulated like those disciples at the first Easter.
In the Gospel of John, the giving of the Holy Spirit is associated with the power to deal with sin. The power to forgive is given to all disciples and is to be the distinctive mark of Christians. This isn’t the human forgiveness that can say ‘it’s okay’ after an apology is offered and restoration is made. No, this is the power to deal with dirty, dark, raw sin. Jesus’ forgiveness leads to a profound transformation of the heart that enables us to offer peace, love and benevolence to people who have deeply wronged us, irrespective of whether they repent or not. It is loving as God loves.
Julie Morris, in her book Forgiving the Dead Man Walking recounts her journey, her long journey, of coming to forgive Robert Lee Willie, a murderer and rapist, who had abducted her, repeatedly raped her and threatened her with death. The effect of the trauma in her life is clearly told: her life was a mess. Her anger lashed out in all directions, to her parents, to herself, to Robert Willie, to her God. Only as she forgave herself and others did her life grow to some form of equanimity. The struggle to forgive Robert Willie was long and hard and, at heart, it was a struggle to understand and enter into God’s way of loving. Her forgiveness was not cheap. She carries her wounds, not as symbols of defeat, but as signs of the Spirit’s power to transform our hearts in ways beyond our imaginings. She learnt to love as God loves.
This power to forgive is Jesus’ Resurrection gift to each of us. We each have our own story, our pains, our wounds, times when we have sinned and when we have been sinned against. We know what dirty, dark, raw sin is. Still Jesus comes to us, showing us his wounds, breathing the Holy Spirit upon us and telling us that we too can love as God loves us. [The picture of “cancelled” Thomas with Jesus is at Hosios Loukas, a historic walled Byzantine monastery situated near the town of Distomo, in Boeotia, Greece. ]
In the fine biographical movie, ‘Temple Grandin’, we follow the emergence of Temple from being a child confined by her autism to her becoming a woman able to use her autism as a way to interact with and change her world. Her mother had a profound influence on her but what a journey it was for that woman. Continually her hopes for her daughter were challenged, dashed and sometimes transformed. In spite of pain and difficulty, she never gave up hope. Ultimately this hope was rewarded but never would have she dreamt that her daughter would make her name as a prominent abattoir designer! At the heart of the Easter mystery is the transformation of people’s hope in God. All the people in the Gospel story had their hope in God challenged: Pilate and the religious authorities, the soldiers, the people taunting Jesus, the disciples, the women who came to the tomb. All had certain beliefs about God and how God should act in the world. These in turn affected how they understood Jesus. Those who were rigid in how they thought God would act missed what was happening. Those prepared to be challenged through their pain and confusion came to see and recognise the risen Jesus. We, too, have our hopes and when they are challenged by reality, we need to remember that the reality of God’s love was shown in the crucified, abandoned one, who chose to rise quietly from the dead. As we seek to embrace that reality, our hopes will be transformed – into what we do not know – but we do know that we will be transfused by love.
‘Well that gave me a lift!’ A lift is often what is needed when we are in dark, difficult places in our lives, needed when we are suffering, grumpy, overcome by being our small-mindedness or small heartedness, or even when we are just overwhelmed by our own selves. So what is the lift Jesus offers us? The glory of the Cross. Oh! That’s not quite what we want. We want ‘out, elsewhere, to something easier’. Jesus offers ‘through and up’ with him. Jesus challenges us with the vision that what we see as negative, simply isn’t only that. There is more in the situation we judge negatively because God is within that situation. If we believe that there is more to our difficulties, suffering, grumpiness, pettiness, ordinary situations, we will see more – we will see the light. If we are not open to the possibility of more, we will not be able to see – to be lifted up by the grace of God. The trick is to be open. The challenge is to see greater possibilities within the situation as it is now. One way of doing this is trying to imagine how aspects of the situation could work for good in our lives. Another is to ask what is positive in the situation. Another is to ask Jesus how he sees the situation. What we are looking for are the cracks that let in the light of Grace.
If God put on a better show in church, the ratings would go through the roof. Imagine if at every Eucharist, our experience was like the Transfiguration – all of us stunned with the glory, filled with the most awesome fear, an experience so rich and wonderful that, like Peter, we want to stay permanently. Well, maybe not every week. With the assurance that it would happen once a year, many, many people would turn up each and every week. So why doesn’t God put on a better show? Why are those insights into the reality of God’s love so rare?
I don’t know. I do know that if I, and many of us, were running a religion we would make it much more attractive than what it mostly is. Much as we tend to blame the preaching, the translation, the choice of hymns or whatever, God could still put on a fireworks display… and doesn’t. What I’ve come to in my understanding is this. God wants us to: Come freely offering the love of our hearts, Come freely, even in the midst of ordinary life, Come freely, in the midst of suffering, Come freely, even when the shadows of this world fall away and we see the true reality of God’s love underpinning all reality. True love is given freely and God treasures the true love of our hearts so much that he will not coerce our response in love.
Taken any risks with your faith lately? My own tendency is to think that faith is something that should make us feel safe and with a well-developed faith we look to God for protection. But a genuine trust in God can make us act in other ways, ways that can led us to risk all that we have, even if it appears to be little.
The leper in this Sunday’s Gospel was an outcast. Yes, he had a skin disease but the people of his time understood this not as an illness but as a sign of his sinfulness. I can imagine him sitting destitute and despised on the fringes of his society, not allowed to come any closer than two metres to anyone, wondering what he had done to deserve this. Was he such a greater sinner than all his family and friends? Out there wondering, he well could have gone to the wild places of the spirit that questioned the interpretation of the law that had caused his situation. Hearing of this healer, Jesus, he would have pondered long and hard. Healing a leper was considered almost as great a feat as raising the dead. Then he came to his decision: he took the risk; he came back into society and found Jesus. What was truly amazing is that he did not ask Jesus for a cure. His words: “If you want to…” imply that he believed Jesus to have divine power. Sitting on the margins, taking the risk of coming back, had loosened his mind and heart to be open to the person of Jesus in a way that those comfortable in society were not.
How people make decisions is a popular theme for current psychological research. For anyone who thinks they make wise decisions based on reason, the results are not looking good. We are more likely to be influenced by prejudice, emotion and impulse than we would like to admit. One way to counter our biases is by developing good habits of mind and heart.
So what has that got to do with the Annunciation? Many paintings, especially from the Renaissance period, show Mary not only at prayer but more especially reading the scripture at the time of the Angel’s greeting. What is implied is that the woman who said, ‘Be it done unto me according to your Word,’ had been trying to live according to the Word of God before she was faced with the momentous decision to become Mother of God. A lifetime, true a young person’s lifetime, of trying to see God at work in her ordinary life made her heart capable of making a decision that was beyond credulity. In the history of Israel that she had pondered, she saw God’s almighty love working in the most unlikely of places. Well she regarded herself as an unlikely person for God to work through but she trusted God’s power and love to do the impossible within her.
And what about us? If we are having trouble trying to find God’s Word for our lives, maybe we need to regularly try to find God’s Word in the small events of life. That is, we need to discipline our hearts in small things so that when big decisions come we are attuned to the heart of God. Morning offering, grace before and after meals, prayer for those we journey with to and from work – there are a multitude of ways we can be open to the Word of God spoken in the ordinary events of life. As we build the habit of shaping our lives according to the Word, we make ourselves ready for the times when God will call us beyond what we believe humanly possible but which we discover is more than possible for God.
Today, 15th August, we celebrate the Solemnity of The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Teaching of the Assumption of Mary became widespread across the Christian world, having been celebrated as early as the 5th century and having been established in the East by Emperor Maurice around AD 600. St. John Damascene records the following:
“St. Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem, at the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), made known to the Emperor Marcian and Pulcheria, who wished to possess the body of the Mother of God, that Mary died in the presence of all the Apostles, but that her tomb, when opened upon the request of St. Thomas, was found empty; wherefrom the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up to heaven.” From wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assumption_of_Mary [The image is of a stained glass window in the Church of Our Lady of the Children Nîmes Beausoleil France. (Hence all the children with wings.)]
The disciples must a really gulped when Jesus told them feed the crowds. They had so little in their hands and there were many, many people behind them. It must have felt like a long pause before Jesus took the food, blest it and started handing it back to them to take around…and he just kept on handing it out….quietly, simply a loaf, a fish at a time. It would have taken some time to feed so many and then even more time to collect what was left over. How must the disciples felt then. In that time of serving and collecting, they were being taught the most basic aspect of discipleship: trust in God.
We too often feel that God has placed us in situations that are beyond us. True, our miracles are not usually as extra-ordinary as the multiplication of the loaves but they are no less real. Virtually every person reading this can think of situations where they were challenged beyond their capabilities and where, with the grace of God, they rose to the occasion. Almost always, God’s grace was given quietly in an undramatic way. Just as at the feeding of the multitude, there was no fanfare but in their heart of hearts they knew God’s grace has carried them beyond their expectations.
It is important for us to recognise and remember these personal miracles. Many years ago, a wise man suggested that we carry these ‘moments of grace’ around with us, like stones in our pockets and in the spaces in our lives, the times of waiting, we can remember and ponder on them. I have found this an amazing exercise. What was one moment of God’s grace, one experience in the past, has often been multiplied over and continued to feed my spirit. The remembrance has renewed the miracle and helped me to continue to trust in God.
When Jesus says that he offers us an easy yoke we may well object given that a yoke was used on animals and slaves to do hard and difficult work. The image appears, at first, demeaning. Be that as it may, let us leave aside this first emotional reaction to the image and ask just what a yoke does. A yoke was a device, usually put around the neck of an animal, or even a person, to enable them to perform a task that was usually beyond them. No animal is ever going to be able to plough a field using only their hooves or their brute strength. A man yoked to a plough is far more effective in preparing a paddock for planting than trying to do it with a spade. Essentially, a yoke was not only a labour saving device, it was something that enabled a far superior job to be done. Still that leaves the issue of its use being demeaning to a person. The yoke most often used in Jesus times (click red text for a picture of an ancient yoke) was a double yoke – one in which two beasts or people dragged the plough or load. When Jesus calls on us to take up his yoke and says that it easy, his burden light, it is because he is there alongside of us. Jesus fully recognises how hard and difficult our lives may be at times. We may well feel like beasts or slaves caught in situations beyond our control. He, too, has not only lived our life and died our death, he desires to be yoked to us sharing our burden and strengthening us in bearing our load. Sr Kym Harris osb