Homilies - March 2010
Select a homily to read:
Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion: March 28, 2010 by Fr. Simon
The Passing of St. Benedict: March 22, 2010 by Fr. Simon
Fifth Sunday of Lent: March 21, 2010 by Fr. Hilary
Fourth Sunday of Lent: March 14, 2010 by Fr. John
Third Sunday of Lent: March 17, 2010 by Fr. Simon
- March 28, 2010
- by Fr. Simon
- Isaiah 50:4-7
- Philippians 2:6-11
- Luke 22:14 –23:56
Without doubting anything of the reality of this majestic messianic occasion, we might sense that some aspects of its narration have been re-composed to emphasize the glory of Christ over and above the simplicity of what probably happened. A rabbi, a healer and now a raiser from the dead is finally entering Jerusalem – not for the first time if, as John records, he went up each year for the festival – but this time knowing that it was his last time. Sure, he was very popular for he had done all things well, we are told; ‘he had made the blind to see and the deaf to hear, and he had preached the Good News to the poor, of which the other rabbis seemed incapable. He was worth following, especially if he was also somehow going to get rid of the Romans, though to many he must have seemed an improbable candidate. Dressed in a rabbinical garb roughly like the other doctors of the law, he would all the time be bearing a different message in his heart, a message such as we are about to hear from the prophet Isaiah, a message which he would have learned from Isaiah, a message of total degradation, not of exuberance and of waving palms but of mockery and spittle.
Have you ever been in a situation when everyone is shouting and cheering you on, half of them not even knowing why but just joining the crowd, while inside you are just dreading the worst because that is all you can think of, or feeling gravely sick because that’s all you can feel, yet trying to hide it for fear of upsetting the love of those around, be they close family or thronging friends? Have you ever been gravely ill and longed for the family, friends and neighbors to just go away because they really don’t understand?
Perhaps Jesus had that feeling as he descended into the Kedron valley, passed that garden on the Mount of Olives where he often went with his disciples and where he was likely to go at least once more. Perhaps, with it being springtime, the walls of Jerusalem ahead of him evoked a vision captured in a much later hymn, “Jerusalem the golden with milk and honey blessed”, and that’s how he would have remembered it from previous pilgrimages for it was paschal time, and the weather predictably golden, but this year it is all different; the golden spring sunshine only serves to sharpen the interior pain.
Jesus, only you and Judas, know that your enemies have gathered inside those golden walls. Today’s crowd cannot even imagine how you could have any enemies. As you climb up the other side of the valley, almost parallel with those golden walls, you can hear the words of Isaiah screaming in your ears like tinnitus: “So too, I set my face like flint: I know I shall not be shamed” – but at what a cost.
“But I am happy for the crowd now”, says Jesus. “Did I not say, ‘I have piped and you did not dance’. Well, now you are dancing; you are doing my Father’s will and mine.” Inside that gate are those who do not know how to dance. For a time the future is theirs. We pass now into that time.
“Master, we will follow you wherever you go.”
Prior Simon McGurk
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- March 22, 2010
- by Fr. Simon
- Acts 5:12-16
- Rev. 1:9-13, 17-19
- John 20:19-31
Having several other, less important things on my mind, the thought of a homily for today sprung upon me rather suddenly. Indeed I felt a little like Fr. Joseph last Thursday morning when faced yet again with a homily on St. Joseph. It occurred to me that there is a certain optionality about the readings for such a feast, especially as there are two sets provided and every year we get Proverbs on “Listen my son…” very Benedictine, very prologial, but perhaps there is another angle.
I just thought that Benedict himself might be allowed to choose his own readings for a change but as he did not lay down any indications, I thought where better than to look at the Rule and see which passages he most quotes. What were those most on his mind? Of course, this is a fairly random approach and does not necessarily dictate what readings he would have chosen for his own funeral but they must be some sort of indication of his character, since, apart from the somewhat rarified tales of St. Gregory, we have little biographical inkling of the real man.
As you will appreciate, the Holy Rule is nothing if not a scripture-based document. Its 73 brief chapters are just peppered with scripture references, 327 of them. No one could accuse St. Benedict of being abstract, merely devotional, dogmatic or pre-Vatican II. No, he draws down always and everywhere directly from the very words of God to the betterment of our lives and for our ultimate salvation as individuals and as a community.
I have cheated somewhat because, to my surprise, nowhere does he in fact quote that opening line from chapter 19 of Leviticus, “Be holy for I the Lord your God am holy”, but he does quote the other verses 3 times, and it seemed an essential lead-in to the reading for one cannot help assuming that Benedict saw being holy as the ultimate goal of his monks. His exhortation to run for the Holy Tent of psalm 14 makes this clear. We won’t get into that tent unless we qualify, that is, unless we are holy.
First Reading, from the book of Leviticus (ch. 19, vv.17, 18 & 32)
The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.” You shall not bear hatred for your brother in your heart. Though you may have to reprove your fellow man, do not incur sin because of him. Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countryman. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. Stand up in the presence of the aged and show respect for the old. Thus shall you fear your God. I am the Lord.
After the prologue, much of the rule may appear to us moralistic and disciplinary. But to say that would be to do Benedict an injustice. There is always a sense in which good Christian morality, and especially monastic morality, is going to be Old Testamentarian, that is, walking exactly in the footstep of the law. Only, in our time, that law is now revealed no longer as essentially the letter, but as Christ himself. The letter will always be necessary to enunciate the law, but the letter has now become the Word. Jesus, though he does not abolish one jot or stroke from the law, broadens it out into a “way”, a way which is himself, a way which has as its base, “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you”. This becomes the platform for the ultimate expression of love, coming from the Old Testament itself, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your strength”, as Jesus said to the rich young man, “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself”; and lest these be relegated by us to the level of mere spiritual platitudes or file references on charity for a later date, Jesus then “emptied himself , to assume the condition of a slave, and became as we are”.
Jesus did this because he above all could see, as Benedict warns us, that “the gate is narrow and those who find it, he says, are few. That’s pretty worrying. We don’t like to think about it much; we quickly go into denial over that one, but Benedict obviously takes it very seriously because it comes from the Lord himself. Like Jesus, he knows there will be lots of monks crying out “Lord, Lord” but they will have no assurance of being heard. Benedict wants to save those monks from themselves.
Gospel reading according to Matthew. (ch.7, vv.12-14 & 21)
Jesus said to his disciples: “Do to others what ever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets. Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.
There is a comfortable semi-Pelagian pace about monastic life which allows us to measure our way towards the kingdom. Recently, there took place the Washington marathon. All those runners will have been pacing themselves for weeks before, with their stop watches and their iPods, achieving a comfortable stride, in readiness for that great day. But on the day itself, they are really challenged to run for the prize; there is no place for pacing, for measure or even for iPods. The Pharisees measured themselves towards the kingdom but they were going nowhere; they were in rehearsal mode and actually on the wrong running track.
And did not the apostles themselves say to Jesus at this point: “Then Lord, who can be saved?” If it is that narrow, then what hope is there for us. Well, the clue begins with out first reading. First of all, you have to cease any negative attitudes or behavior toward your brother. “Do not incur sin because of him”, say Leviticus – that’s not him causing you to sin; that’s you sinning from within your own heart and mind because of him. You must take no revenge – unknown in monasteries, of course, which is why St. Benedict has included a special chapter, number 71, ‘On the presumption of striking another monk at will’. “Stand up in the presence of the aged and show respect for the old”, he says. I’m not sure where that puts most of us. Surely it all boils down to “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Sure, yes, I know that; now what else? Talk about something real. What about the heating, the wine for tonight’s dinner, my doctor’s appointment, the health bill?
St. Paul is more perceptive, which is why Benedict quotes from Romans so often, particular with regard to the good zeal we ought to have towards one another. It sounds like standard stuff: let love be sincere, hate evil, love one another, anticipate one another in showing honor, don’t grow slack, etc. Thinks: “must put all that down on my Lenten list,” prefaced by “Will try not to… or will try to…”.
Second reading, from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans. (ch. 121, vv. 10-11)
Let love be sincere; hate what is evil, hold on to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; anticipate one another in showing honor. Do not grow slack in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, endure affliction, persevere in prayer.
But do we really think that Jesus or Benedict thinks that our lives are so futile that most of us just won’t make it through the narrow gate? What was the point of starting out? I might as well be a good materialist, an epicurean. Since it appears that if we run towards the tent and do all the things which Benedict and the psalmist say, we can expect to arrive at the tent so maybe there is a way in which the entrance can be broadened.
I believe there is and I believe Jesus and Benedict thought so too. Our neighbor, our brother is the one who determines the width of the gate or the door to the tent. There is a complicated mixture of metaphors here which Jesus also uses in John, chapter 10, where he speaks of himself as being both the shepherd and the gate. Our brethren are our shepherds and they can open the gates to our hearts as wide as we have need, as wide as we have desire. Our brethren are there for the express purpose of opening our hearts and minds, for our hearts are our gates. Some monks come to monasteries for the express purpose of narrowing down, of finding spiritual harmony and getting a lifelong mitigated satisfaction from it. They are on the wrong track. They haven’t yet noticed their brethren, not really. For them the door is still very narrow. And the only key to their salvation is their brother. Your brother monk is the crowbar with which to prize open your own narrow heart.
Prior Simon McGurk
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- March 21, 2010
- by Fr. Hilary
- Isaiah 43;16-21
- Philippians 3:8-14
- John i:1-11
On this Fifth Sunday of Lent look forward to Holy Week and the Easter Vigil; the great commemoration, and can we say presentation of the paschal mystery?
Paschal mystery? paschal schmancel, it is a mystery indeed! We can focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus of course. Resurrection is unusual, but what is that to me, to us? I think, I hope, I pray that our second reading will provide us a path, a path up to. and possibly into this mystery.
Context is all! We bring our individual and communal contexts, in every sense, where we are now, to this celebration. That is one dimension. The liturgy of the Word is another. A prayerful hearing of God’s word to us in the Scripture:. A hearing that is a context for the Eucharistic Prayer and Communion.
In our second reading we heard seven verses from the second chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Philippi was the first European city that St. Paul evangelized. Paul sailed to it across the Dardanelles from Troas, the site of Troy in Asia Minor. It was named by the great ruler Philip of Macedon. By the time of St. Paul it had been part of the Roman Empire for centuries. The governing class spoke Latin, but the majority of the population was Greek and spoke Greek, a language that St. Paul grew up with along with Hebrew, in Greek speaking Tarsus. Early in his missionary visit to Philippi Paul was beaten and imprisoned. Acts reports his miraculous deliverance. The Letter to the Philippians suggests that he spent considerable time there, leaving behind a strong community with an administrative staff.
The letter to the Philippians came some years later; it provides an important context for today’s reading. Its literary form has been described as a “letter expressing friendship.” Paul repeatedly expresses love and praise for the community It is a faithful and united church. But another theme is also presented, a need for deeper unity in he community. For example he prays, “complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing.”
AND THEN comes the statement near the heart of the mystery we are pursuing, in some familiar words. As we hear them, I ask you to look first at the central panel of our stained glass window, the crucifixion; then, after a pause, as the reading continues, turn your eyes to this wooden crucifix suspended from the ceiling.
“Have this mind among you which is also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped; but he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being in human likeness; and being found in appearance as human, he humbled himself, being obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”
And therefore God highly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every other name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is LORD, to the glory of God the Father.
Surely these words are poetry; it’s highly likely that they come from an early Christian hymn, possibly modified to some degree. A hymn is a poem, a song, an expression of the profound reality of Christ’s death and resurrection. Nothing could be more dramatic than this “about face.”
I might point out that this wooden crucifix is a symbol of the risen Christ. It was carved by our Fr. Stephen Reid. Jesus’ body has a “risen” shape, quite different from the stained glass picture. His eyes are open. This style is in fact earlier than that of the window, originating in the fourth century.
What does this hymn mean for us? In Philippians St. Paul tells us what it means for him. In the following chapter he is dealing with “enemies,” some opponents, probably Jewish Christian teachers who emphasize obedience to the Law and “attach little importance to the cross.”1 Paul’s answer begins with verses showing his excellent curriculum vitae as a Jew, concluding, “In zeal I persecuted the church, in righteousness based on the law I was blameless.” Then comes a most dramatic turnabout: “But what things were profit to me, these I have reckoned loss on account of Christ”(3:7-8). He then launches into the seven verses that are our second reading.
All that went before he now considers “refuse,” to use a polite translation. He who had persecuted Christians now considers “everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord; ” to have the righteousness that comes though faith in Christ, whose effect is “to know him and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (vv. 10-12). Acts tells us of Paul’s extraordinary experience on the road to Damascus, and how he was baptized there. If we were baptized as infants, we certainly didn’t experience such effects.
Conversion for Paul was a huge change of mind and heart. “Knowing” in Scripture –and in Greek tradition has a profound spiritual sense, we could say a deep spiritual union. For Paul, this “knowing, ” this union, led also a sense of sharing Christ’s risen life and to a sense of sharing Christ’s suffering. At this point Paul was a prisoner in Ephesus. He sees his conversion as a beginning, not an end. He uses the metaphor of a race to describe his pursuit “toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.” He models all this to encourage the Philippians to do the same.
We could say all this was St. Paul’s discovery and living of the Paschal Mystery. What of ourselves? The ancient rite of the Christian Initiation of Adults was renewed by the Second Vatican Council. In parishes today men and women are preparing to be baptized at the Easter Vigil. Baptism has the symbolism of a dying and a rising. One is immersed in the waters of baptism to rise to new life in Christ. For the first time they will fully participate in the Eucharist by receiving the body and blood of Christ. They will receive the Sacrament of Confirmation.
To return to the question with which we began, St. Paul’s example is an invitation to go deeper, to find Christ himself in a personal way through our hearing of God’s Word in the Scriptures, in our participation in the Holy Eucharist, to be aware of and to live the paschal mystery.
Fr. Hilary Hayden
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1. Bonnie B. Thurston and Judith M. Ryan, “Philippians and Philemon” (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2005) 119
- March 14, 2010
- by Fr. John
- Joshua 5:9a, 10-12
- 2 Cor. 5:17-21
- Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
What is Christ’s Word to Our Time and Place?
I was preparing to speak about the parable of the Prodigal Son or the two sons in the Gospel today. But I recalled that Jesus’ parables were tailored to those whom he was directly addressing and the issues they raised. The Jews at the time of Jesus did generally have a strong moral sense, much stronger than the current Greco-Roman culture. On a Sunday in the Washington D.C. following the legalization of same sex marriages, I doubt that Jesus would give this Sunday’s parable to an assembly of his faithful disciples.
What would Jesus do? What would he say in such circumstances? Some of his disciples in our country may well have been led astray by the example and the sophistry of those advocating sexual practices clearly condemned by Scripture and a very long and unanimous Christian tradition. Some of his disciples may have concluded from how prevalent these new views are that the way of Christ no longer holds; there is a new world view in place.
In my view, Christ would in love strengthen the faith of his little flock. And we can cull from the Gospels what he would likely say to do so. But before doing that it is important to recall the respect we should give to all God’s children. The situation of active homosexuals calls for understanding. Their family structure, problem in adolescence and even some genetic contribution could make a homosexual orientation more likely for them than for the vast majority of men and women. But large numbers of men or women so inclined do not go on to actively live out their orientation, celebrate Gay Pride, justify it by saying that God made me that way, and demand that their same-sex union be accepted by society not only as a civil union but as a genuine and equal alternative form of marriage.
Many young people have other developmental challenges from birth or accident or family structure that are limits and cannot be taken as indicating the human norm for them. There are through large parts of the United States Christian support groups for homosexuals helping them to live Christianly and even in some cases to find a healing of their orientation. Limits on the expression of our sexuality apply to all of us. Scripture has condemned all direct genital expression of love outside of marriage, without discriminating between heterosexual and homosexual. Following conscience and Christ costs, as all true love does.
I do not consider Christ homophobic or hating or not loving homosexuals in his teaching on sexual morality. He went behind the Mosaic law to hold up the first two chapters of Genesis as God’s norm for human sexual expression. There we find that God designed man and woman to be united in marriage in intimacy and in fruitfulness of offspring. We can acclaim human sexual expression in this manner as uniting flesh and spirit, man and woman, spouses and the larger human community and through all this the spouses and God. Homosexual unions lack this and cut it off.
Christ prepared his disciples for opposition to him and his Way. He did say that he would be the cause of division. He asked: “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three . . .” (Luke 12: 51-52). He said, “You will be hated by all because of my name” (Luke 21: 17). And he explained: “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. . . . And they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know the one who sent me . . . Whoever hates me also hates my Father.” John 15: 20, 22, 23).
Though this opposition to him is an evil, he allows it. He leaves people free to reject him. That the Father’s Kingdom will prevail does not depend upon forcing people to accept it, even though the Church at times in practice did seem to think so. But people are responsible for their response to Christ and to his Father. He notes that people are responsible for the scandal they give by word or example – or, at times, silence – that leads others astray: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea” (Mk 9:42).
Jesus had given sufficient evidence that his ministry was from the Father, and yet people were still clamoring for more signs. To some of these he responded: “As for you, Capernaum: ‘Will you be exalted to heaven? You will go down to the nether-world.’ For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” (Mt 11: 23-24). It was pride and resistance to God’s word that led some people to want still more evidence than Jesus had already given them.
There is, indeed, ambiguity cast over every historical situation, so that people can interpret any situation in quite opposed ways. Some people are not morally responsible for an erroneous conscience. And some people are more responsible for resistance to Christ’s words than others. On another occasion, warning his disciples to be prepared for the return of the master at an unknown time, he tells them:
That servant who knew his master’s will but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will shall be beaten severely; and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating shall be beaten only lightly. Much will be required of the person entrusted with much (Luke 12: 47-48).
In our circumstance in Washington D. C. it is an elite minority who have engineered the legalization of same sex marriages. This elite did not want to put it to a referendum because they knew it would be defeated by those they considered less sophisticated than themselves, as it has been elsewhere in the United States. This shows two things. First, there are very large numbers of people in our country whose conscience in this matter has not been changed by the cultural elite. Secondly, a number of revolutions in the twentieth century as well as ours have been carried out by an aggressive minority imposing their views on a majority. There are about five or six percent of men and women in the United States who are homosexual, twice as many men as women. It is not that a legal code can or should legislate all morality. Most people in the United States would probably accept a provision of a civil union for homosexuals while opposing legalizing such unions as marriage.
Fidelity to Christ has at times called the followers of Christ to accept being persecuted as the cost of fidelity to him. It has always called for simple refusal to succumb to the attractions of the immediate goals of the flesh, power or money by giving them priority over conscience and Christ.
Though in immediate circumstances many people will take the direction of a society such as ours as what will prevail, and thus lose trust that Christ’s way will prevail, we are called to believe that indeed Christ will prevail and those who reject him and his way will be either converted or overcome. Do we identify ourselves more as citizens of the United States or as disciples of Christ? May our belief in the resurrection of Jesus who was rejected and his gift to us of the Holy Spirit enable us to keep faith with him and witness such faith by our lives and our words.
Fr. John Farrelly
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- March 7, 2010
- by Fr. Simon
- Exodus 3:1-8,13-15
1 Cor. 10:1-6, 10-12
Today’s first reading is one of those foundational texts upon which the whole of the later history of the people of God is based. It is the moment which God chooses to make Moses his friend and when Moses reciprocally makes God his friend by standing his ground and not running away in fear. It is not the first instance of God establishing friendship with a leader of mankind: we find God in the Garden of Eden “walking with Adam in the cool of the day”, we find God taking Enoch directly to heaven to be with him, we find God befriending Noah and promising never to destroy the earth again, and we find God befriending Abraham, his wife and his sons by promising to make their descendents as numerous as the sand on the shore of the sea.
In each case the circumstances are different and this time the circumstances are brutal: oppression of the people he has chosen as his own by the Egyptians. The story of Moses is both improbable and real. He should have been drowned in the River Nile as he whimpered in his reed basket, watched over by his sister until Pharoah’s daughter happened along. Thereafter, he should have just melted into Pharoah’s household and kept his Hebrew nose clean until he got the governmental assignment which his education merited. But he chose to become a champion of his own race, even though they scarcely recognized him. Doubtless he looked and talked posh so two rough-hewn fighting Hebrews were hardly likely to take notice of him. He was foolish enough to pick a fight which threatened to expose his identity as the murderer of an Egyptian, so escape and shepherding seemed the only option, after all it was in the genes.
The Lord may be my shepherd but it was sheep that lead Moses to Mount Horeb, and sheep don’t stay on level ground if they can see a craggy hill with grassy tufts. It was sheep who led him to the strange phenomenon of an unconsumed burning bush, something which has puzzled theologian and scientist down the ages. But the bush only points beyond itself, it is a symbol, it incites Moses’ natural curiosity – and wouldn’t it ours? – until Moses stumbles into an area where, evidently, trespassers are normally prosecuted. But not this trespasser. The bush is not God, it is a decoy to get Moses into the place of God, from where God would call out to him by his own very Egyptian name. “Moses, Moses!” God cries. Innocently, Moses replies: “Here I am”, boldly, pretending not to be afraid. “Come no nearer”, says God obligingly, since people who approached too close to God were traditionally consumed by fire or whatever convenient geophysical cataclysm was to hand. But, no, significantly, Moses is not asked to flee or to curl up and die. He is simply asked to do one common courtesy, which Pharoah’s daughter might well have taught him anyway, that of taking off his shoes. Why? Because the place upon which he had stumbled was nothing less than ‘Holy Ground’. That is, God’s very own ground, his space as we say, where only the holy could stand and survive. And then it all comes out: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob”. Moses reflects that this is the same God whom his great forefathers worshipped on the mountain, El Shaddai or was it El Elyon, he couldn’t quite remember: it had been so long and there had been so many other gods in Pharoah’s palace. So, in appropriate terror, he did the correct thing and just covered his face, being afraid to look at God. That’s what we do when God’s around, isn’t it.
However, God is not primarily concerned with Moses; he tells him that he is really concerned with his people who are being oppressed, dreadfully – bricks without straw and all that. Remember, Moses has been absent for a while with those sheep. It takes a long time before the Egyptian Bureau of Investigation drops a homicide case. God has very big ideas; he is not only going to rescue this depressed rabble from a current super-power but he is going to lead them to a land originally promised to Moses’ forefathers, Abraham Isaac and Jacob. Moses gets the message; he repeats his instructions like a good Egyptian civil servant but his only problem is: who should he say had sent him? It would be like Hilary Clinton suddenly dropping in on the Iraqui elections in a spirit of American magnanimity and a concern for true democracy justice, to assure them of her support, and the people saying to her, “Yes but who sent you? We didn’t hear from your Mr. Obama. Whose side is he on?”
Then God makes the pronouncement which medieval theologians thought had been saved up for their metaphysical speculation, and linguists thought was for their semantic researches, but God only meant it as a practical statement. ‘You want to know who I am: they will want to know who I am. Okay, I understand’. Tell them “I am who I am”. Try that. Say to them, ‘“I am has sent me to you”, and just to reassure them, I am the same God that your ancestors worshipped. I am real, I am the One who really IS”, not like those hundreds of gods you were brought up on in Pharoah’s palace I am ready to do in you the great work I have enjoined upon you. I am with you all the way. Yahweh’s the name. But you don’t need to put the vowels in if you find that difficult’, – which later on they did.
St. Paul takes up the story of those great Israelite forefathers who were very much his forefathers, and he reminds us of how they were led by God through the desert. He makes a surprising statement in saying that they were baptized into Moses. One supposes that since God’s new people have been baptized into Christ, so the old people must have been figuratively baptized in some way into the Great Prophet, and to steal a little Scholasticism from our medieval forefathers, the ‘matter’ was the Red Sea. The language of his rabbinical forefathers was much more fluid and less specific than our own: using a late and fanciful reading of the rabbis of his time, he refers to the spiritual food and drink in the desert. Was this the manna which was physical and the water from the rock which was physical, both re-clothed with a spiritual meaning? Paul was a Pharisee and they believed that God’s true nourishment was spiritual. Most extraordinarily he speaks of the rock which Moses struck actually following the people so that they could drink wherever they were – this seems to be a later rabbinical gloss on the Pentateuch – but for Paul that rock turns out to be Christ himself, from whom the true living water flowed even unto eternal life. Their rock was always behind them, being blown along by high desert winds and leaving its trace in the dust, rolling until had reached the hour of Jesus. But that was long after so many of them had died because, despite all God’s gifts, they remained a rebellious and sinful race. Only when they stumbled upon the rock of Christ were the able to be saved. Paul writes all this as a warning that, despite all God’s rescue plans and his careful shepherding, the people were recalcitrant and failed to fulfill their side of the bargain. Paul shows himself especially concerned because, as we read, he is expecting the parousia, ‘the end of the age’, the end of the world, like the Jehovah’s witnesses last week… or is it next week? He wants the Corinthians and us to be ready. There is no place for complacency just because we have an all-loving and all-merciful God. He is not deceived. He is as free to be rejected as we are to reject him.
St. Luke comes up with this gruesome episode which puts a real black mark on Pontius Pilate even before he reached the judgment seat for Jesus. In order to insult the Jews to their core he mixed the blood of executed Jews with the blood poured out for ritual sacrifices. People seem to be saying, ‘we knew they were criminals but what can they have done to have Pilate make such a heinous example of them?’ ‘No’, says Jesus, ‘they did no worse than any of you and if you don’t start to change right now you could have a fate far worse than they. After all, their deaths disgusting as they were, were only physical deaths. We know nothing of their spirits. Now and again, a church collapses on its people, as happened with the tower of Siloam. Recently, the cathedral of Port au Prince collapsed and crushed most of the people in it, and the Archbishop who was a short distance away: 3 years ago the entire city of Pisco, centre of the wine industry in southern Peru, including its cathedral, collapsed with people in it praying: about 30 years ago I remember a modern church in north Italy collapsed upon its congregation as they were leaving from Mass and over a 100 were crushed to death.
A bad architect? A faulty design, it was said in the post mortem. A bad God? A faulty design? Should God have waited for the whole earth to settle down and cool before creating life? But could such a cooling and inert planet produce, let alone sustain life? Is it worse to die of long term cancer than to die instantly under the roof of one’s cathedral? Is it worse to be aborted or to die of a shrapnel wound while serving one’s country in Afghanistan, or to be knocked down and maimed for a vegetative life after stepping inadvertently in front of a bus? Though we can all be forgiven the unexpectedness of it all, in fact there is only one of those who truly “knows not the day nor the hour” and that is the aborted baby, because in God’s world beyond time the day and the hour are always now. Nevertheless, we read in Ezekiel, “The Lord desires not the death of the sinner but that he should repent and live.” For our sake, God has chosen to become incarnate so that, as one of us he can redeem us. We can’t have it both ways and have a god who keeps messing about with natural causes and we should be cautious about miracles which seem to suggest that he does. God is not callous, unfeeling towards human disaster any more than he is about the carnage which goes on in the animal world, but his primary business is not keeping the show on the road, as we would want it; his primary business is making it all holy and raising it all up anew.
Jesus’ final parable is very daunting. We have all been planted, like a fig tree but we consistently produce bad grapes. These just have to be thrown away. In this new age we have every kind of stimulant, fertilizer and God’s seemingly unlimited patience which endures whether we are in Afghanistan, in the cathedral, in an intensive care ward or on the open road in a Toyota, but do we live as if we were being truly nurtured by God, as he tried so hard with his crude and uneducated tribesmen in the desert. When we have every advantage he and we could ever think up, are we really any better than those tribesmen or their modern equivalent, the Taliban. Fig trees don’t have to do anything except grow under God’s ordinance and protection. But as Nathanial the apostle long discovered when Philip told him he’d found the Messiah, fig trees also have large dark and plenteous leaves and provide a huge spread for God’s sun-burning creatures to nurture under. God created us to co-create with Him. Our problem is that if we are withered then we can’t produce what it was we were created for, and if we are desiccated then we fail by omission in our very mission to heal the world.
Returning to our first reading, crucial for us in this story is not the defeat of the Egyptians, even though that was the Passover event which made the founding of the people possible. Nor is the holy name Yahweh the key, though it was a most significant attribute. No, the key was, as we find out later in the book of Leviticus, that Moses stumbled into holiness. God later gives as his primary commandment: “Be holy for I the Lord your God am holy”. That prefaces the ten commandments; keeping the commandments is how you become holy but the first injunction of the laws, both old and new, is that we actually become Michaels, Mi-cha-el, ‘who is like to God’. The whole of our salvation history is directed to that: to be like God himself, and therefore able to be his intimate friend.
And that’s why we are ‘doing’ Lent. To be renewed in holiness, the holiness which we were given as a free gift – literally stumbled upon like Moses – when we were baptized. And we recall those words in St. Peter’s first letter: “For you are a holy people, a consecrated nation, a people set apart”. Indeed, this season of Lent was invented by the church as a preparation for those being catechized for baptism at Eastertide, those seeking to be holy unto eternity, as the Lord our God is holy. Lent is par excellence, the season when we should reflect on our own baptism, even if we cannot actually remember it. We can read up on it. Maybe there are some old family photos around. At all events, we must meditate in Lent about what baptism is / was for and get with the tide again. So that we can, as our own Holy Father Benedict says: “Look forward to holy Easter with the joy of spiritual longing”.
Prior Simon McGurk
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