February 17th 2019
Apart from those seasons having their own distinctive character, thirty-three or thirty-four weeks remain in the yearly cycle that do not celebrate a specific aspect of the mystery of Christ. Rather, especially on the Sundays, they are devoted to the mystery of Christ in all its aspects. This period is known as Ordinary Time.
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time (17.02.19)
‘Contrast’ is one theme that threads through the 6th Sunday’s Scripture extracts. The prophet Jeremiah (1stReading) contrasts those who trust in themselves with those who trust in God. St. Paul (2nd Reading) contrasts those whose vision is limited to the here and now with those who believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the Gospel, Jesus contrasts those who bring blessings with those who bring curses.
Most people have heard of the phrase ‘No Man’s Land’. It describes ribbons of land that divide and contrast hugely different regimes of power. A long established contemporary political example is the ‘DMZ’ (demilitarised zone) that has separated North and South Korea since 1953. The Korean ‘DMZ’, 160 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, forcibly divides one people. But no ‘DMZ’ is a barrier to Evil.
Mythology contains many falsehoods about supposed protection from Satan, for those who continue to believe in Evil. Some wear a gold cross as a protection. Others continue to hang up garlic. A commonly heard misconception is: ‘I don’t do anything wrong’. Hospital chaplains tell of the clusters of ‘miraculous medals’ attached to a patient’s pillow in the belief that they will bring about that patient’s recovery. Just as a physical ‘DMZ’ or the wearing of a ‘holy’ symbol may give the impression of a secure barrier, we know in our hearts, it is not. Our defence against Evil is nothing we wear or have near to hand. A person’s only defence is the vitality of their heartfelt and lived faith in Jesus, which cannot be conjured up in a moment. The religious furniture of our churches may be a comforting sight but they cannot substitute for faith.
It may be helpful to reflect that contrasting opposites, in the physical world, actually touch one another without the intervention of any type of ‘DMZ’. For example, an oasis in an arid desert. Look at the Egyptian capital of Cairo. It is the world’s 15th largest metropolitan area. Yet it is encapsulated, on its landward fronts, by the enormity of the Saharan desert. You can, as it were, step off the edge of city life and into the sand-dunes.
The analogy of the cheek by jowl existence of an oasis in a desert also aptly identifies the daily dilemma for Christians in this earthly exile. While the Son of God walked on this earth there was no ‘DMZ’ between Jesus and Satan. The battle between them was unceasingly very close. At every breath of his earthly journey, Jesus would have been intensely aware of the devilish closeness of his, and our, implacable nemesis. The encounters we read of in the Gospels (e.g. Herod’s murder of the Innocents Matt: 2:16; Satan’s temptation of Jesus Matt. 4:1-11; Peter’s rebuke of Jesus Matt.16:22-23) are but snippets of the incessant battle that reached from Bethlehem to Calvary and which continues today in Christ’s Body on earth, the community of the Baptised. For, as St John tells us, this world is in the power of the Evil One (1 John 5:19)
Some members of our Christian family, who face daily physical persecution, quickly learn to distinguish fellow Christians from persecutors. Christians faced with neighbourly indifferentism have a significantly more difficult task. For, lurking beneath that indifference, could be a potential persecutor. Committed Christians, in the UK, are more likely to be faced with apparent indifference than with out and out persecution, at least for the moment.
But the constant proximity of apparent indifferentism can be injurious to the Christian. It can weaken and undermine the spiritual commitment of the Baptised. This is the more true when both share the same living space. No one can forcibly take God’s love and grace from the Baptised, as Jesus said:
“The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life; they will never be lost and no one will ever steal them from my hand.” (John 10:27-28)
But besieged Christians can be induced to relinquish their thirst for God’s sustenance, his grace, substituting for it the abundance of false life that is so prevalent in an ever more secular Europe. Christians need one another to sustain an ever- watchful alertness faced, as we are, with rampant Evil. God’s Word is our light.
The Letter to the Hebrews (4:12-13) tells us:
“For the Word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.”
If the Word of God penetrates soul and spirit and divides marrow from the bone, then it is as well for us to remember that the Evil One will have similar access, while we abide in this land of exile. For Satan not to have such access would upset the equilibrium God promised for our free will. God wants us to love him because we choose, freely, to do so.
It is helpful to remember always that, in this world, love is not a state of perfect being. We think of the word love as a verb. But it is also an active noun, like the word struggle. To love God, as He calls us to do, is to struggle to be like God as we have seen God express Himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Shadowing our every effort to love God will be our nemesis. This battle, in which there is no ‘DMZ’, was initiated with our Baptism and it continues until our last breath when, please God, we can say “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit”.
Someone said, “I hope I remember the words when I am dying.” A fellow Christian and good friend responded, “My friend, those words of Psalm 36 prayed by Jesus as he breathed his last, have been on your lips daily throughout your life. You know them by heart.”
Each moment of each day is sacred because in it we make a choice. There is no ‘DMZ’, no middle ground, God and Satan are before us and the choice is ours.
Always in a Hurry http://ronrolheiser.com/
Haste is our enemy. It puts us under stress, raises our blood pressure, makes us impatient, renders us more vulnerable to accidents and, most seriously of all, blinds us to the needs of others. Haste is normally not a virtue, irrespective of the goodness of the thing towards which we are hurrying.
In 1970, Princeton University did some research with seminary students to determine whether being committed to helping others in fact made a real difference in a practical situation. They set up this scenario: They would interview a seminarian in an office and, as the interview was ending, ask that seminarian to immediately walk over to a designated classroom across the campus to give a talk. But they always put a tight timeline between when the interview ended and when the seminarian was supposed to appear in the classroom, forcing the seminarian to hurry. On the way to the talk, each seminarian encountered an actor playing a distressed person (akin to the Good Samaritan scene in the gospels). The test was to see whether or not the seminarian would stop and help. What was the result?
One would guess that, being seminarians committed to service, these individuals might be more likely to stop than most other people. But that wasn’t the case. Being seminarians seemed to have no effect on their behavior in this situation. Only one thing did: They were prone to stop and help or to not stop and help mostly on the basis of whether they were in a hurry or not. If they were pressured for time, they didn’t stop; if they were not pressured for time, they were more likely to stop.
From this experiment its authors drew several conclusions: First, that morality becomes a luxury as the speed of our daily lives increases; and, second, that because of time pressures we tend not to see a given situation as a moral one. In essence, the more in a hurry we are, the less likely we are to stop and help someone else in need. Haste and hurry, perhaps more than anything else, prevent us from being good Samaritans.
We know this from our own experience. Our struggle to give proper time to family, prayer, and helping others has mainly to do with time. We’re invariably too busy, too pressured, too hurried, too-driven, to stop and help. A writer that I know confesses that when she comes to die what she will regret most about her life is not the times she broke a commandment, but the many times she stepped over her own children on her way to her den to write. Along similar lines, we tend to blame secular ideology for so much of the breakdown of the family in our society today when, in fact, perhaps the biggest strain of all on the family is the pressure that comes from the workplace that has us under constant pressure, forever in a hurry, and daily stepping over our children because of the pressures of work.
I know this all too well, of course, from my own experience. I am forever pressured, forever in a hurry, forever over-extended, and forever stepping over all kinds of things that call for my attention on my way to work. As a priest, I can rationalize this by pointing to the importance of the ministry. Ministry is meant to conscript us beyond our own agenda, but deeper down, I know that much of this is a rationalization. Sometimes too I rationalize my busyness and hurry by taking consolation in the fact that I came to be this way legitimately. It’s in my genes. Both my father and my mother exhibited a similar struggle. They were wonderful, moral, and loving parents, but they were often over-extended. Responding to too many demands is a mixed virtue.
It’s no accident that virtually all of the classical spiritual writers, writing without the benefit of the Princeton study, warn about the dangers of overwork. Indeed, the dangers of haste and hurry are already written into the very first page of scripture where God invites us to make sure to keep proper Sabbath. When we are in a hurry we see little beyond our own agenda.
The positive side to haste and hurry is that they are, perhaps, the opposite of acedia. The driven-person who is always in a hurry at least isn’t constantly struggling to get through the morning to the lunch hour. She always has a purpose. As well, haste and hurry can help make for a productive individual who is affirmed and admired for what he does, even as he is stepping over his own children to get to his workplace. I know this too: I get a lot of affirmation for my work, even as I have to admit that pressure and hurry prevent me much of the time from being a Good Samaritan.
Haste makes waste, so goes the saying. It also makes for a spiritual and a human blindness that can severely limit our compassion.
Ruled By Numbers
Numbers have always had a prominent place in our lives. As very small children we may been talked to count our tiny fingers and toes. We would certainly have learned our numerical position among our siblings and probably our wider family.
Catholics, of a certain age, will likely remember their religious life being ruled by numbers. When, for example, you were expected to go to Confession at least every two weeks. When you had to fast from food and drink (except water) from the preceding midnight if you intended to receive Holy Communion the following morning. Fast days were regulated by numbers. Depending on your teacher, you may have been told to eat no more than 4 ounces of food at breakfast and 6 ounces at supper. One meatless meal was allowed in the day. 21stcentury Catholics may think such measures to be unbelievable, but then 20th century Catholics found it hard to believe that their forebears had been expected to fast every day throughout Lent.
Of course, there were (as there still are) the casuists. For example, some believed in measuring out 4 ounces of, say, dry porridge oats. By adding the water after weighing the oats, a more substantial breakfast was enjoyed! The same casuistic reasoning was applied to dried vegetables!
Whenever mathematics hold sway in the living out of our faith, it would be fair to say that we had, to a worrying extent, lost our way. St Peter, about whom we read in St Matthew’s Gospel for this 24th Sunday (18:21-35), quite likely felt that he was being magnanimous when he asked Jesus: “How often must I forgive my brother(sister)? As many as seven times?”
As a practising Jew, Peter would have been taught from his earliest years that he was required, under Jewish law, to forgive a person who sinned against him three times. (See the Book of Amos chapters 1 and 3) By asking Jesus if he should grant forgiveness seven times, Peter was doubling the required legal number for granting forgiveness to another and adding one! Once again, Jesus’s response would most likely have caught Peter by surprise: “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”
More than a few scriptural scholars would contest the Jerusalem Bible translation. Instead of “seventy-seven”they believe that Jesus had said: “seventy times seven”. This would bring a total beyond comprehension – 70×7=490; 490×7=3430 and so on. In other words, Jesus was indicating that, for him, forgiveness was unlimited. And if it was for him, then it will be so for his heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit. In other words, God is a Trinity of compassion and forgiveness when we, made in his image and likeness, open your heart and genuinely seek his forgiveness.
The Catholic Church’s preoccupation with numbers was particularly evident in the Sacrament of Reconciliation – formerly called “Confession”. The penitent was expected to state the time lapse since their last reception of the sacrament. Individual sins where to be identified with a number corresponding to the number of commissions. In most cases the penance imposed by the priest was a set number of prayers such as the ‘Our Father’ and/or ‘Hail Mary’. Judaism’s preoccupation with numerical regulations found continuity in the structures of governance within the Roman Catholic Church!
The impulse to measure by numerical quantity is ingrained in our nature. It could be argued that without numeracy everyday life would become impossible. It could equally be argued that the Church, by incorporating the dominance of numeracy in its rules and regulations, strayed away from the example Jesus set. There is no evidence in the Gospels that Jesus used numeracy to determine how we should implement his teaching except by way of being generous. Jesus used multiplication to demonstrate that as God is generous so must we practice that virtue. In Matthew’s Gospel (5:40-42) we read: “…if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well; and if someone forces you to go one mile, go two with him. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.…” You may or may not be aware that in Jesus’ day a Roman soldier had the authority to make a Jew carry his burden for one mile.
Jesus emphasises his answer to Peter with a powerful parable exemplifying God’s generosity (18:23-35). It teaches a lesson – running through the entire New Testament – that we must forgive if we are to receive God’s forgiveness. “Blessed are the merciful,” said Jesus, “for they shall obtain mercy” (Matt.5:7) As soon as Jesus had taught his chosen band his own prayer – the ‘Our Father’ – he directed their focus to one petition in particular namely, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. Jesus explained: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14-15).
Why this should be so is shown in the parable for this Sunday. Look at the contrast between the two debts. The first servant owed his master 10,000 talents. One talent in today’s money would approximately equal £240. Therefore, 10,000 talents would equate today to almost 2½ million pounds Sterling. The size of this servant’s debt becomes even more clear when you consider that the total annual budget for the province of Galilee, a wealthy province, was only 300 talents. By contrast, the debt of the fellow-servant was a mere trifle! 100 denarii would be less than £5.
Nothing that Jesus calls us to forgive can even remotely compare to all that our heavenly Father is willing to forgive us. His forgiveness of us is conditional upon our forgiveness of others. We have been promised forgiveness for a debt that is beyond all repayment. The human race has brought about the death of God’s only Son and unless we forgive others we have no hope of finding mercy.
The ease with which we pray the ‘Our Father’ is born of constant repetition. It is a good thing that we have ready access to that prayer. However, if the words pass our lips with inadequate consideration then we are in danger of foregoing God’s forgiveness through a lack of attention to the specifics of God’s words. Did the penances that we were given in confession – say the ‘Our Father’ 10 times, for example – really encourage our understanding of the prayer of Jesus?
The twin themes of mercy and forgiveness have found constant expression in both the spoken and written words of Pope Francis. He is God’s emissary to a generation that sadly reflects the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“You will listen and listen again, but not understand,
See and see again, but not perceive.
For the heart of this nation has grown coarse.” (Isaiah 6:9-10)
This coarseness of heart is not medical but spiritual. The health of the human heart is affected by both internal and external factors – for example: the clogging of the arteries or the lack of bodily exercise.
Spiritual coarseness of heart occurs when there is an absence of God’s grace. This occurs not because God refuses us his grace when we choose not to accept it. At first, this refusal of grace can be through procrastination – “Oh, I will get round to prayer etc later”. Meanwhile, Satan edges ever closer to cleverly withdrawing us from God’s grace.
The remedy is in our own hands. Jesus patiently and lovingly awaits us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Praying the Psalms
Our problem is that we too-seldom actually do this when we pray. Rather than lifting up to God what is actually on our minds and in our hearts, we treat God as someone from whom we need to hide the real truth of our thoughts and feelings. Instead of pouring out mind and heart, we tell God what we think God wants to hear – not murderous thoughts, desire for vengeance, or our disappointment with him.
What makes the psalms great for prayer is that they do not hide the truth from God and they run the whole gamut of our actual feelings. They give honest voice to what is actually going on in our minds and hearts.
Sometimes we feel good and our spontaneous impulse is to speak words of praise and gratitude and the psalms give us that voice. They speak of God’s goodness in all – love, friends, faith, health, food, wine, and enjoyment.
But our lives have too cold, lonely seasons when disappointment and bitterness spontaneously boil under the surface. Again the psalms give us honest voice and we can open up all those angry and vengeful feelings to God.
Other times, we fill with the sense of our own inadequacy, with the fact that we cannot measure up to the trust and love that is given us. The psalms again give us voice for this, asking God to have mercy, to soften our hearts, to wash us clean, and give us a new start.
And then there are times too when we feel bitterly disappointed with God himself and need some way to express this. The psalms give us this voice (“Why are you so silent? Why are you so far from me?”) even as they make us aware that God is not afraid of our anger and bitterness, but, like a loving parent, only wants for us to come and talk about it.
The psalms are a privileged vehicle for prayer because they lift the full-range of our thoughts and feelings to God. For a number of reasons, we struggle with that. First, because our age tends to eschew metaphor and, taken literally, some of the images within the psalms are offensive. Secondly, we tend to be in denial about our true feelings. It’s hard to admit that we feel many of the things we do feel, from our private grandiosity, to our sexual obsessions, to our jealousies, to our occasional murderous thoughts. Too often our prayer belies our actual thoughts and feelings. It tells God what we think God wants to hear.
The psalms have more honesty.
Mary Under the Cross (6 OF 6) http://www.ronrolheiser.com./
[Last in a six part Lenten series on Mystical Images]
One of the most popular images in all of scripture (an icon that’s been endlessly painted, sung, put into litanies, written up into poetry, and used to triggered every kind of pious feeling) is the image of Mary, the mother of Jesus, standing silently under the cross as her son dies.
As Jesus was dying, the Gospels tell us that Mary, his mother, stood under the cross. What’s in that image? What’s in this picture that invites us to more than simple admiration, piety, or sympathy?
This is a mystical image and it is anything but pious. In the Gospels, after Jesus, Mary is the most important person to watch. She’s the model of discipleship, the only one who gets it right. And she gets it very right under the cross. What’s she doing while standing there?
On the surface, it seems she isn’t doing anything at all: She doesn’t speak, doesn’t try to stop the crucifixion, and she doesn’t even protest its unfairness or plead Jesus’ innocence. She is mute, seemingly passive, overtly doing nothing. But at a deeper level, she is doing all that can be done when one is standing under the weight of the cross, she’s holding the tension, standing in strength, refusing to give back in kind, and resisting in a deeper way.
What’s meant by this?
Sometimes well-intentioned artists have painted Mary as lying prostrate under the cross, the wounded mother, helplessly distraught, paralysed in grief, an object for sympathy. But that doesn’t honour what happened there nor teach its lesson. Prostration, in this situation, is weakness, collapse, hysteria, resignation. In the Gospels, “standing” is the opposite, a position of strength. Mary “stood” under the cross.
Still, why the silence and why her seeming unwillingness to act or protest?
In essence, what Mary was doing under the cross was this: She couldn’t stop the crucifixion (there are times when darkness has its hour) but she could stop some of the hatred, bitterness, jealousy, heartlessness, and anger that caused it and surrounded it. And she helped stop bitterness by refusing to give it back in kind, by transforming rather than transmitting it, by swallowing hard and (literally) eating bitterness rather than giving it back, as everyone else was doing.
Had Mary, in moral outrage, begun to scream hysterically, shout angrily at those crucifying Jesus, or physically tried to attack someone as he was driving the nails into Jesus’ hands, she would have been caught up in the same kind of energy as everyone else, replicating the very anger and bitterness that caused the crucifixion to begin with. What Mary was doing under the cross, her silence and seeming unwillingness to protest notwithstanding, was radiating all that is antithetical to the crucifixion: gentleness, understanding, forgiveness, peace, light.
And that’s not easy to do. Everything inside us demands justice, screams for it, and refuses to remain silent in the presence of injustice. That’s a healthy instinct and sometimes acting on it is good. We need, at times, to protest, to shout, to literally throw ourselves into the face of injustice and do everything in our power to stop the crucifixion.
But there are times too when things have gone so far that shouts and protests are no longer helpful, darkness is going to have its hour come what may and all we can do is to stand under the cross and help eat its bitterness by refusing to participate in its energy. In those situations, like Mary, we have to say: “I can’t stop this crucifixion, but I can stop some of the hatred, bitterness, jealousy, brute-heartlessness, and darkness that surround it. I can’t stop this, but I will not conduct its hatred.”
And that’s not the same thing as despair. Our muted helplessness is not a passive resignation but the opposite. It’s a movement towards the only rays of light, love, and faith that still exist in that darkness and hatred. And, at that moment, it’s the only thing that faith and love can do.
As the Book of Lamentations says, there are times when the best we can do is “put our mouths to the dust and wait!” Sometimes too, as Rainer Marie Rilke says, the only helpful thing is to absorb the heaviness: “Do not be afraid to suffer, give the heaviness back to the weight of the earth; mountains are heavy, seas are heavy.”
That’s not passivity, resignation, or weakness; it’s genuine, rare strength. It’s “standing under the cross” so as to help take away some of its hatred, chaos, bitterness, and violence.
So this is the image: Sometimes darkness has its hour and there is nothing we can do to stop it. Sometimes the blind, wounded forces of jealousy, bitterness, violence, and sin cannot, for that moment, be stopped. But, like Mary under the cross, we are asked to “stand” under them, not in passivity and weakness, but in strength, knowing that we can’t stop the crucifixion but we can help stop some of the hatred, anger, and bitterness that surrounds it.