“I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” Like most of Scripture the above statement has meaning on a number of levels. Firstly it means that my life here on this physical earth is never full or complete. Can never be full and complete. All life here on earth can never be permanently sustainable. It is limited and circumscribed. It is fragile and changeable. Can swing from great to terrible. As the years go by It is subject to an ever greater need for healing. Permanent and deﬁnitive healing and fulness of life is not possible in this physical world. The life of Jesus of Nazareth was subject to the very same laws and restrictions during his whole life here on earth. For him fullness of life only came with death and resurrection. Permanent and deﬁnitive healing only came through death and resurrection into the Eternal Life of God. This is the gift he gave us. So too for you and I. Fulness of life, permanent and deﬁnitive healing will only come to us with death and resurrection into the eternal life of God. That is our destiny. That is why we were created and born. Secondly my life here on earth can have a certain direction and fulness or can be directionless and empty. Some young, unattached people, and not so young, unattached people can boast of their freedom. They can, up to a point, do what they like, when they like. But a time comes when this much vaunted freedom seems to pall, seems empty and pointless. There is something missing. It is only when their inward focused attention and self-centred concerns begin to look and focus outwards that life begins to bring a certain fulness. It is often when they commit themselves in love to another person and begin a family that their life begins to ﬁnd fulness and meaning. The very sort of life they avoided in the past is the very thing which brings satisfaction, fulness and meaning to their life. So fullness of life is possible, up to a point, even here in this physical world. Strangely enough it comes, not from self-satisfaction but from selﬂessness. Not from acquisitiveness but from sharing. Not from freedom to do whatever I like whenever I like but from the freedom to serve the needs of others. Is this not embryonic Christianity? Is this not the ﬁrst step in understanding the message of Jesus of Nazareth? Christianity is recognising all people as my immediate family – especially orphans and refugees. John 4. ‘Jesus said to them. My food is to do the will of him who sent me.’ John 6. Jesus said ‘I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me.’ How strange it is that even here on earth fullness of life only comes from looking after others, from service to others and not, as one would expect, from just looking after oneself.
For many years I was plagued by the ogre of obligation. Religion for me was a plethora of obligations to be fulfilled. This attitude and belief was nurtured by those plagued by the same ogre. I now believe that this is the devils greatest tool for denigrating God and destroying the peace and joy which worshiping God should bring. It presents God as a demanding taskmaster who punishes for noncompliance. Nothing is further from the truth.
The root of the problem seems to be anthropomorphism. That is attributing to God our own human attitudes and mores, as for instance equation God with our own kings, emperors, rulers etc.
Within our church (and all churches and religions, as in politics and all social organisations ) we have the people who believe that members must be compelled and required to do the right thing in all aspects of life by passing laws which must be obeyed under pain of punishment. This is what I mean by the ogre of obligation. It deprives a person of freedom by instilling the fear of punishment for non compliance. One can see the point of this when you consider aspects of life like traffic laws etc. but when it comes to God, where the whole point and aim is to love God and our neighbour it is totally inadequate and counterproductive not to speak of insulting. How can you legislate for love? How can you compel love? How can you demand love under pain of punishment?
1 John 4. ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.’ Rom. 8. ‘For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, Abba, Father! The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.’
In the secular world love is commonly downgraded to physical intercourse, or love of another’s bank account or power or fame. But the love of which we speak here is appreciation, admiration, trust, mutual support, liking, friendship, steadfastness, honour, gratitude etc.
This is the love one hopes for from a marriage partner, from one’s children, from one’s friends and relatives. This is the love that God hopes for from his beloved children. It cannot be legislated or demanded or required or compelled. It is spontaneous, it is genuine, it is truth, it is persistent. So you can see how inappropriate it is to set up obligations when it comes to our relationship with our God. You can see how inappropriate it is for me to even think of obligation in my relationship with my God. Obligation under pain of censure poisons my relationship with my God just as it would poison my relationship with my marriage partner or my children. True religion (no matter which brand) is built on the realisation of what my God has done for me, and appreciation of God’s goodness, faithfulness and love. This gives rise to a sense of gratitude to my God. Then all my religious practises ( be it mass, prayer or sharing my good fortune with the needy) flow from this ever increasing sense of gratitude and hopefully (with God’s help) will evolve into genuine love.
Another way of looking at it is that an obligation is only an obligation if I do not want to do it. I have to be compelled to do it under pain of some punishment for non-compliance. For example I can only oblige you to run a marathon if you are not willing to do it freely. If you are willing and want to run a marathon I cannot oblige you to do it. The obligation fades away in the face of your willingness to do it.
So doing something because I am obliged to do it only proves that I do not really want to do it. Gratitude and love cannot exist under these circumstances.
‘Jesus said to him. Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ It is not just Thomas who found it hard to believe that Jesus of Nazareth had risen from the dead. All the Apostles had the same problem. We read; ‘When he had risen, early on the ﬁrst day of the week, he appeared ﬁrst to Mary Magdalene. She went and told his companions who were mourning and weeping. When they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe.’ ‘The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.’ ‘Then they returned from the tomb and announced all these things to the eleven and to all the others. The women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James; the others who accompanied them also told this to the apostles, but their story seemed like nonsense and they did not believe them.’ The Apostles had to see or at least experience the presence of the Risen Lord in some way before they could believe. It was not sufﬁcient for them to be told. I suppose there are people who can believe in the Risen Lord just because they have been told by people they can trust. There are people who can believe in the Risen Lord (in God) by their power of deduction, reasoning and logic. Many act as if they believe because it is the safest option. But for most of us our belief is, at least halfhearted unless we have had some experience of the Risen Lord. These experiences can be as different as the persons who experience them and can be meaningless if explained to others. They are personal to the person. It is very often through suffering, rejection, failure and other types of distress that we receive these experiences. It can be an ability to forgive, the diminution of anger or hurt, the ability to love or the realisation of being loved etc. etc. I do not know if one should actively seek or pray for such an experience. It seems that our God visits these experiences on his beloved children in his own good time and when they are capable of receiving them. The general idea is to keep the door open at all times.
Easter is above all, a festival of light. This light signiﬁes the clarity and understanding brought to us by the teaching and example of Jesus Christ. At the time of Jesus it was important to determine the arrival of daybreak when the ﬁrst offerings were to be made in the temple. A rabbi asked his students what criteria might be used to determine that the night had ended. One student said the night had ended when there was enough light to tell a goat from a sheep. Another said when you could distinguish an apple tree from a ﬁg tree. The rabbi gave this answer: `A new day has arrived when you can look at a human face, and see a brother or a sister. If you are unable to see a brother or a sister in every human face, you are still in the darkness of night.’ How do my present day attitudes look in this light? Has a new day arrived for me?
Today is Holy Thursday. Today is the start of the Last Supper, arrest, trial, sentencing, execution, burial and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth – God made Man. Today’s ceremony is a representation of His Last Supper. His Last Supper is a symbolic enactment of the events of Thursday evening through to Sunday morning. It is a re-enactment in signs and symbols of the latter events. It is the way he gave us to remember Him and these events. ‘Do this in memory of me’ he said. Today I want to highlight one aspect of receiving Holy Communion which is generally not emphasised. The consecration of the bread and wine separately symbolises the death of Jesus. Separation of body and blood inevitably brings death. Just before Communion the priest drops a small piece of the host into the chalice while saying ‘May this mingling of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ bring eternal life to us who receive it.’ This symbolises the resurrection – the reunion of body and blood symbolises the return of life. So when I receive Communion I am united with the Risen Lord – with the Lord who is now seated at the right hand of the Father in Eternal Life. In more mundane terms it is being given the title deed to the house; to the property. It is now mine. I am already living in Eternal life. I am already a sharer in the Eternal Life of the Father just as Christ is a sharer in the Eternal Life of the Father. Receiving the Eucharist symbolises an already existing situation. Holy Communion symbolises my already possession of eternal life. The actual giving of eternal life now, and the guarantee of the future possession of eternal life. This sounds funny but when I receive Communion I sometimes (in my own mind) wander around in Eternal Life greeting my deceased relatives and friends and chatting with them. ‘Surﬁng the cloud’ as you might say. (Or maybe I am just a candidate for the psychiatric ward!!) So receiving The Eucharist, plants me spiritually and solidly in Eternal Life – in union with my God – I await my physical resurrection to experience this with my physical senses. Christianity is living out this spiritual reality in my daily life. Struggling to get across to the Apostles what Christianity means in practise, Jesus jumped up, grabbed a basin of water and a towel and washed their feet. ‘I have given you an example he said.’ It is a pipe dream or it is what gives meaning and purpose to life.
Today I talk about our spiritual life. For hundreds of years our Christianity has based its spirituality on the monastic model of spirituality. A bunch of men or women living together in community (in a convent or monastery), spending maybe four, ﬁve, six hours each day in prayer and meditation, was seen as the ideal way of life for a Christian. It was regarded as the best and most spiritual way to live. This left 95%-99% of christians struggling with a way of life which was regarded as basically inimical to spiritual development, that is to having a close relationship with God. One was encouraged, even required, to set time aside for prayer, meditation, the mass, sacraments and other cultic practises in order to re-energise ones spiritual life. Just like recharging a battery. Few, immersed in the struggles, joys, duties and responsibilities of family life had the opportunity or the desire to do this on any regular basis . In this way everyday daily life became detached from the spiritual life. Became detached from the things of God. My ﬁrst consciousness of an alternative, and for me, more attractive, spiritual life, came when, in the nineteen ﬁfties I read a book by an American parish priest. Lacking the time or energy for the approved monastic style of spirituality he talked of making his everyday parish activities his prayer and his spiritual nourishment. For example in those days before Eucharistic Ministers were taught of he had to do a lot of bringing communion to the elderly and the housebound. So instead of becoming hassled and annoyed with driving in city trafﬁc and rushing to make time for the required periods of prayer, he would belt out the hymn ‘Sweet Sacrament Divine’ at the top of his voice as he drove along. This not only calmed him down physically but also gave him more spiritual nourishment than the required periods of prayer which he constantly failed to perform. In other words he made his work as parish priest, with and among his parishioners, his prayer and source of spiritual nourishment. I too will always be trying to play catchup, always be experiencing a spiritual lacuna in my life, always feeling that I should be doing something else, someplace else, until such a time as I make my everyday life to be my prayer life and my spiritual life also. For example delivering your children to school in the morning and collecting them in the afternoon can be a hassle, or on the other hand, it can be doing exactly what you should be doing at this particular time, what God wants you to be doing at this particular time, what is the very most important thing for you to be doing at this time. Doing it with good humour, a grateful heart, and gentle demeanour is your prayer at this particular time. That is where you get your spiritual nourishment at this time. Extending this attitude to everything I do and say every day is, I think, the way for us. What I should be doing or have to be doing at this particular time in this particular place must be my prayer and my source of spiritual nourishment. I do it in union with my God by dipping in and out of the presence of my God, even if just momentarily, from time to time. This attitude of mind is also known as walking in the presence of God – living in the presence of God. To set aside time for formal prayer is good and highly recommended but not always achievable, even in ones own home. Making my everyday activities my prayer, turns my whole day into a prayer and keeps the presence of my God at least in the background of my mind and consciousness. With some effort I may ﬁnd myself living my whole day in the presence of my God, even when the amount of time when I am consciously in communication with God may be relatively short. This type of spirituality can work for me whether I am lecturing in philosophy or shovelling manure.
Today’s Gospel reading is a fascinating and detailed account of the Pharisaic mindset. One’s very erudition in a subject can blind one to reason and right judgement. One’s expertise is ones pride. These two combined to bring tunnel vision and refusal to see the obvious. Today’s Gospel is about seeing. A blind man, born to darkness all his life, sees. The Pharisees, as a group, priding themselves on their knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures and their expertise in distinguishing right from wrong and truth from falsehood are blind to the obvious. If I think carefully and truthfully over my life I can ﬁnd occasions when I too have fallen into the same trap. I know what to do, I understand the situation, I know who is at fault, only I can solve the problem, my line of reasoning is the correct one, my response was the only possible response, I know right from wrong etc. (Every taxi driver in the country knows the solution to all the country’s problems) Looking back now I can feel the prods of guilt, the uncomfortable waves of embarrassment, at my failure or deliberate refusal, to see. Parallels of today’s Gospel can be seen all around us in disputes between individuals, companies, tribes, nations, political parties, churches etc. not only between them but internally also. We Catholics must not, as a church or as individuals, be too strident in our claims to being ‘The One True Church.’ History shows, as does our own experience, that our claimed oneness and truthfulness is a well patched garment. Todays Gospel reading illustrates nicely the words of Jesus of Nazareth; “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike.” It is well known that one can ﬁnd more faith in the pew at the back of the church than in the book lined study of the theologian, the parish priest, the archbishop or the cardinal. The religious Pharisees answered (the once blind man) and said to him, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” Then they threw him out.” ‘Threw him out’ was not just telling him to ‘get the hell out of here’, it was a formal excommunication from Judaism. Jesus hearing this went looking for him until he found him. Having spoken together the man said; “Lord I believe, and he worshipped him.” Jesus did not even bother to see the Pharisees. They were blind and couldn’t see.
Todays Gospel reading is so packed with symbolism, with references to the tribal history of Israel, with allusions to traditional practises, gender inequality, and historical tribal animosities that I will not even try to make sense of it for you. That is unless you have a couple of hours to spare. A great theme or symbol in the Bible are water. For areas like the middle east which are desert, semi-arid or subject to periodic and prolonged droughts, water is very much bound up with life and health. People are accustomed to travelling long distances to obtain water. It is a great blessing, equivalent to life itself. Having a constant and dependable source of water was a very great gift indeed. Even here in England if you have ever experienced dry taps for a short period you will get some idea of the importance of water in our lives. We have all experienced the rejuvenating effects of an early morning shower. Jesus uses this constant preoccupation with water in his teaching and parables. “Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” We all have a great thirst for love, for compassion, for recognition, for appreciation, for respect. We cannot get enough of these things. The lack or denial of these things, especially as we grow up, can have grave consequences in our lives. Can cause great damage. Jesus of Nazareth claims to have, and freely offers us, all these things. As he said “whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst.” But do I have the bucket to lower into the well of living water? There always seems to be this hitch. God’s gifts are there before me. They are freely offered. But I lack the motivation, the ability, the will, the courage, to reach out and take them. I do not have the bucket and am not willing to go to the trouble of going and getting one. I instinctively understand that accepting God’s living water will mean surrendering my life to God. Handing over control to God. Saying goodbye to self-interest. As Jesus said “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me.” But I don’t want this. I am not ready for this. I like to dip in and out as I feel like it. So what’s the solution? I don’t know. I am in the same boat as the rest of you. The saints and Jesus of Nazareth tell us that handing over control to God is the path to true freedom – freedom to love and to be loved.
Todays Gospel reading is full of symbolism. Without understanding the meaning of these symbols it doesn’t make much sense. Jesus goes up a high mountain. Jesus is often depicted as going up a mountain or hill when he wishes to make an important speech or perform an important action. The mountain signiﬁes a place of revelation. It brings to mind mount Sinai where God appeared to Moses and to the people of Israel. Where he made a covenant with them and gave them the ten commandments. Where his presence was signiﬁed by peals of thunder, ﬂashes of lightening and dense clouds. It does not necessarily mean that he actually climbed all these mountains or hills. If it did, then he was quite a mountaineer. He brought along Peter, James and John to witness what was to happen. He was transﬁgured in their sight ; his face and clothes shining brightly. Moses and Elijah appeared with him, talking with him. Moses represents the laws of the Old Testament and Elijah the prophesy of the Old Testament. Moses and Elijah were not transﬁgured. This signiﬁes that Jesus was more important that Moses and Elijah. In the Old Testament nobody was more important than Moses and Elijah except God. Peter, missing this signiﬁcance, suggested that they build three shelters one for Moses, one for Elijah and one for Jesus. ( This assumes that Peter regarded them as equals.) This building of shelters refers to the very important Jewish feast of Tabernacles which happened at harvest time every year when the grape and olive pickers lived in little shelters in the ﬁelds until the harvest was gathered. It was a time of joy and camaraderie. It harkened back to when the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years and lived in temporary shelters. Peter had no sooner ﬁnished speaking when a bright cloud enveloped them ( the cloud signifying the presence of God) and a voice from the cloud said “this is my son, listen to him.” ( this also correcting Peter’s assumption that Jesus, Moses and Elijah were equals). The great teachers of the Old Testament were Moses and Elijah. Now God has replaced them by sending His own Son to be our teacher and exemplar. The one who must be listened to is now Jesus of Nazareth and not Moses or Elijah. The three Apostles were terriﬁed and fell face down to the ground. But Jesus came and touched them telling them not to be afraid. Jesus touched the sick and brought them healing and joy. Here his touch frees his Apostles from fear of the God, often depicted in the Old Testament as vengeful, cruel and judgemental. The God of Jesus was ‘Abba’ the beloved parent. This clash between the God of Moses (the God of Law) and the God of Jesus of Nazareth (the God of Mercy) was a major problem in the early church. The ﬁrst council of the Church ( the council of Jerusalem) was devoted to solving this clash of opinion and attitude. One section of the church ( Jewish and conservative) wanted Christians to observe all the traditional laws and regulations of the Old Testament ( putting new wine into old wineskins, as Jesus himself described it ). The other section ( mostly Gentiles or non Jews ) wanted none of this, as they regarded such traditions and regulations as irrelevant. It is uncanny that we have the very same problem in our church today. Pope Francis and his followers want us to put the new wine ( Christianity) into new wineskins. A group of cardinals, bishops, priests and some lay people want to hold on to the old wineskins at any cost. That is basically what the present debate and contention in our church is all about. This debate and contention is not necessarily bad. In fact it is good and healthy – as long as my side wins!!!
Today’s gospel reading illustrate symbolically the temptations that Jesus of Nazareth had to contend with all his life.
On examination we will find that they are the very same temptations every one of us has to deal with also, in one way or another, throughout our lives.
The first is the temptation to put my physical desires before the wellbeing of others. To put my self interest first. It concerns my physical appetites. Comfort, eating and drinking, sexual desire, dress, how I look, possessions. As usual, all these appetites are in themselves good and God given gifts. The problem is my allowing all or some of them to rule my life. I allow myself to become the slave of one or some of these appetites. Even worse, it damages or even ruins the lives of those closest to me. Galatians 5. “I say, then: live by the Spirit and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh. … Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions. … In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”
The second temptation is particularly applicable to religious leadership. Using God or the Church to promote ones own importance is a constant temptation. Religious organisations are tempted to put their own glorification, their own interests, before the glory of God. Church leaders can try and exercise control over everyday matters over which they have been given no authority. For example …… Church authorities have been given authority to lead people to God. They have been given authority to selflessly seek the total wellbeing of the ordinary members. The temptation is to overstep this.This can be true of all human organisations of course. The party, the company, the club, the religious organisation, can become more important than the members it is supposed to serve. People in leadership roles insist on clinging to power when well past their sell by date. I don’t think our Church or our parish should seek to publicise the good work that we do. I don’t think that, alluring as it can be, we should be speaking of how good we think we are, how well we think we are doing, what we think we have accomplished. A good antidote to this acclaim seeking is to read Mark 10: 17-22. “As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered him, … You know the commandments: ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honour your father and your mother. He replied and said to him, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth. Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to (the) poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”
The third temptation is the allure of power, of control, be it in the home, the church, the country or the world. Just look at our world today or any day. Is not the desire for more power, for more control, behind every military, diplomatic, political and economic move. Within our own church there is a struggle for control. Losing control is a great fear in each and every one of us.
Mark 9. “Then Jesus sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to
be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
Luke 6. “You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
I don’t think that, during this Lenten season, I will run out of issues that need to be addressed in my life.