June 16th 2019
The Holy Trinity
Students, now facing finals, may be looking ahead to their graduation. The longed-for end of years of academic toil comes into sight, but a new type of toil called employment awaits. We humans are always engaged with work in one form or another. In the same way our search for truth continues throughout our earthly life.
The only ‘graduation’ from the school of The Truth is through the portal of death because The Truth is a supernatural endowment we receive over our lifetime. We are able to receive The Truth in proportion to our willingness and capacity to engage with it. As a result, the journey to The Truth has many stops and starts as well as false turnings resulting from Satan’s attempts to make subtle but significant alterations to the signposts.
Despite Jesus’ repeated attempts to forewarn the apostles of his approaching Passion and Death, they appear not have grasped the significance of this particular Passover meal in Jerusalem. St. John’s Gospel extract for Trinity Sunday (16:12-15) begins with Jesus telling the disciples at, what we refer to as ‘The Last Supper’: “I still have many things to say to you but they would be too much for you now”. Are not these words perhaps reminiscent of our childhood when, pestering our parents for information, we heard something similar? Older children are not usually given to believing that anything is too much for them though experience confirms, at a price, what elders tried to impart for free!
Jesus continues: “But when the Spirit of Truth comes he will lead you to the complete truth …” For Jesus, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth who labours to bring God’s Truth to humankind. This labour of love we call Revelation because it is not our discovery or our creation, it is God’s gift.
Prayerful contemplation of Jesus’ life and teaching allows Revelation to continually open up for us the depths of Jesus’ words and how they infuse every aspect of our lives. No human has fully grasped the significance of Jesus’ teaching about God and about life, about the world we currently inhabit and about nationhood.
This Sunday’s passage from John gives us what might be called, the principles of Revelation. The implications of Jesus’ statement: “The Spirit of Truth … will lead you to the complete Truth …” is that whatever we presently hold to be The Truth remains incomplete in our comprehension. What we have received, down the ages, through Revelation and the authoritative teaching of the Church embodies the fulness of Truth but our sin-damaged life so impairs our spiritual vision that we are able to grasp only fragments of the unifying spiritual totality of The Truth. Our celebration of Trinity Sunday marks such a moment. As the gathered Church, we vocalise, prayerfully, our belief in the Holy Trinity through the words of both the Nicene and Apostles’ Creed as well as through many of the prayers of the Mass and celebrations of the seven Sacraments.
Our most frequently used Trinitarian prayer is The Sign of the Cross – “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” Though most frequently used (and, sadly, abused) we bless ourselves with the words that our well beyond our comprehension. The prayer is an act of faith for we believe in the Holy Trinity, Three Persons in One God, without comprehending their nature or understanding how they relate to one another. God’s continuous revelation comes to us in multiple forms but in a uniquely special way through the Second Person of the Trinity whom we identify as Jesus of Nazareth, God-made-Man.
Faith, then, is when we deliberately step-off the pathway of logic and comprehension and accept what we cannot presently comprehend as The Truth because it has been given unique verification by Jesus, the Son of God-made-Man. Someone once compared God calling us to have faith in Him with a parent calling a young offspring to have faith in stepping off the edge and trusting that the parent’s open arms will catch him. Faith is condition-less trust in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
God, our loving Father, is always actively revealing himself. It is true that God’s supreme and unsurpassable revelation came to us in Jesus; but Jesus is not a figure in history, he is a living Person and, therefore, in him God’s revelation continues. The Spirit of Truth continues to lead us into an ever-growing realization of Jesus and his message for us today. The more we align our life with that of Jesus, the more he becomes real for us and the more his Spirit will be able to reveal to us. In order to receive this Revelation, we must proclaim our faith, our trust, that Jesus is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity coequal with the Father and the Spirit.
Perhaps, this is a day to review, just how casually perhaps, we make the Sign of the Cross.
The Christian celebration of Pentecost lacks the ‘visibility’ of Easter and Christmas. Commercial interest has overpowered and obscured the religious significance of Christmas and Easter that, for so many, it is little more than a secular holiday. Pentecost, having no commercial trimmings, slips past almost unnoticed, even by some of the Baptised. Pentecost is one day with no Octave to add emphasis, as Easter and Christmas have.
We are so accustomed to living in the 24 hr., seven day, twelve months, time frame that it is requires a deliberate effort to think outside of it. Yet, if we are to grow in understanding and appreciation of the full impact of the Incarnation, Pentecost is irreplaceably important. In our world nothing is of permanence, including ourselves. For example, when we speak, our words, unless recorded, disappear as soon as they are uttered. Some short-lived memory of them may linger in the minds of those who hear us, but they are quickly overlaid by on-going speech.
It is so different for Jesus. Being both Divine and Human, his words contain his immortal life; they live on for ever, after he has uttered them. Their ‘life’ enables his words to be heard today by those who choose to listen, as clearly as they were heard by his companions when Jesus first uttered them. This ‘listening’, requiring dedicated attention and wholehearted affection, is achieved through the listener’s soul and heart. Moreover, Jesus’ ‘living word’, for He is the Living Word of God, communicates his life to those who choose to engage with him. Our brief extracts of Scripture at Mass end with either ‘The Word of the Lord’ or ‘The Gospel of the Lord’. Our response of either ‘Thanks be to God’ or ‘Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ’ is not an acknowledgement of dead words but of the life-giving presence of the Living God. And here is the question, do our worshipping communities communicate, by the vitality of their response, their belief in the presence, in their midst, of their life-giving Lord and Saviour? Liturgical ceremonial is empty pageantry if the soul and heart is not engaged.
The gift of Pentecost enables us to step aside from the 24-hour, 365 day ‘entombing’ frame, and ‘breathe’ in the timelessness of the Lord who calls us to share his life. It could be said that we no longer read his words, as we would some ancient manuscript, but rather we embrace his living word and, in so doing, welcome his truth into our fragile, recovering-sinner lives.
One, painful, consequence of doing this is that we experience the ‘clash of wills’; namely, The Will of God and the Will of Satan. In this world of our self-imposed exile, the battle is joined and will remain so until God declares the end of time. Presently, the battle is being fought not territorially, where we expect belligerent conflict to be conducted, but within ourselves where the engagement knows no respite.
How vital, therefore, it is that people are continuously offered the opportunity of listening to the Living Word of the Living God! The mind may switch to acknowledged preachers and major occasions. They have their place. It is no less important that the neighbours and work-colleagues of the Baptised be presented with the Living Word in a non-ostentatious manner on a daily basis. The silent making of the Sign of Cross before eating is a communication. The Spirit-inspired response given by the Baptised to hostility or jibe may cause others to ponder. If the Baptised knowingly and lovingly carry within them the Living Word, the Spirit will lose no opportunity to initiate an engaging outreach or the offering of an appropriate response. As easy as this may seem, none should underestimate the disruptive powerful influence of the Evil One who battles to thwart the Spirit and drown-out the Living Word.
Pentecost is so much more than a liturgical day of twenty-four hours. When we welcome the Spirit into our personal lives, and the life of our religious communities, we are engaging with the Author of Life without end. As Jesus, in his earthly life, experienced conflict with power of the Evil One we should expect nothing less. We do not have to look beyond our self for encounters with the Evil One for, as recovering sinners, our defences are continuously under siege; a siege that can be cunning and subtle as often as it is brutal because Satan is no novice.
When, at the Last Supper, Jesus said: “Do this in memory of me” – was his final statement at that assembly a reference to his immediate words and actions or to his entire life on earth, or was it a case of ‘both and’? The total expressiveness of Jesus’ human life from beginning to end is as alive today as it was when our Saviour walked on this earth. Today, Jesus is alive in us, please God, his adopted and much-loved body on earth that we refer to as The Church. Yes, the Church today knows what it is to be wounded, as did Jesus. But today, tragically, Christ’s earthly body has inflicted wounds on itself through the invasion of the Evil One. That the Church is an assembly of recovering-sinners does not always mean that it is in recovery mode. Sometimes, we let our defences fail and Satan loses no opportunity.
So, Pentecost is a general call to arms. We are called to re-engage with the Spirit by a re-ordering of our lives putting the Living Word first and foremost and being supported in this by our Baptised family, both particular and universal.
Where do we start, you might ask? Well, I was heartened by something written by Alan E Lewis (‘Between the Cross and Resurrection’. Eerdmans):
“To be willing to hear a faith-creating Word is an act of faith in itself.’
This gives us hope that our every thought, word and action, however seemingly small and unnoticeable, which God’s Spirit prompts in us, has a purpose that lies within the intricate Will of the One God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Today, we have a choice of 2nd Readings. Both bring this reflection to a conclusion with uplifting words for a Body under siege.
“Brothers and sisters:
No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit;
there are different forms of service but the same Lord;
there are different workings but the same God
who produces all of them in everyone.
To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit
is given for some benefit.
As a body is one though it has many parts,
and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body,
so also Christ.
For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,
whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons,
and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Cor.12:3-7,12-13)
“Brothers and sisters:
If Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin,
the Spirit is alive because of righteousness.
If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead
will give life to your mortal bodies also,
through his Spirit that dwells in you. (Rom.8:8)
Seventh Sunday of Easter
7th Sunday Of Easter
Searching Jesus’ prayer for meaning is a prayer in itself. In John’s Gospel extract for this 7th Sunday (17:20-26) Jesus shares his prayerful thoughts with his disciples at the Last Supper. Knowing that extreme pain that was shortly to embrace him, Jesus’ vocalised prayer to his heavenly Father has particular significance. This was to be Jesus’ last vocal communication with his disciples before his crucifixion and death. Here he reveals his love for God and for the humanity with which he has been endowed by his heavenly Father.
“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, so that they may always see the glory you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”
How are we to understand Jesus’ prayer? The Second Vatican Council document, ‘Gaudium et Spes’, tells us:
“For by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every person”.
We derive our image and likeness from our Creator, God. This inheritance endures irrespective of the choices we make throughout our life on earth when exercising our God-given free will. At the Last Judgement we will recognise God who, likewise, will recognise us, individually.
Jesus prays that we, his members, may be with him where he is. If we interpret this to mean being with him in heaven then, necessarily, we must be prepared to share his earthly journey. There is no way to heaven other than Jesus’ way and that includes all that we recognise by the word ‘Calvary’. While our lives are unique and entirely dissimilar in experience, each of us is certain to encounter death.
In our journey to the point of death we have, as the Baptised, the choice to offer our life, daily, to Jesus as our willing share in his redemption of the world. A redemption that is still unfolding and which will continue to unfold until the Father decrees the end of time. This is where Jesus is looking for us to join him – “to be with me where I am”.
Jesus’ prayer continues:
“…..so that they may always see the glory you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”
What is this ‘glory’ and how does it differ from the secular understanding of the word? In secular terms, glory is associated with riches, military strength, prestige and power. These were the characteristics the Jewish people had expected in their promised Messiah, their deliverer. Instead, Jesus came from Nazareth, a place held in no regard, – “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Nathaniel asked Philip (John 1:46). Jesus rode on a colt, the foal of a donkey, not a stallion of war when he entered Jerusalem (Matt. 21:7)
So, what is ‘the glory’ that Jesus prays his disciples may always see? Perhaps these clues may help identify ‘the glory’ to which Jesus refers.
One: Jesus identified the Cross as his glory. He never spoke of himself as being crucified. Instead, he spoke of being glorified when referring to his Crucifixion. Jesus’ life on earth was his battle with Satan’s empire of death that had entrapped his heavenly Father’s beloved creation. The death-knell of death was not a bell tolling but the Crucified Jesus’ final words” “It is accomplished.” (John 19:30)
As disciples of Jesus, Christians are called to find the reflective glory of Christ in whatever form of cross they are called to bear. A Christian’s cross may vary in form and content in the course of life. Christians are to see their cross not as a penalty for sin, but a call to participate in humanity’s redemption from sin which is Jesus’ life’s work (John 5:17). The more demanding and difficult the cross, the greater is the willing bearer’s participatory role of sharing with Christ in humanity’s redemption. It is said that Simon of Cyrene resented being compelled by the soldiers to help Jesus carry his cross to Calvary (Matt. 27:32). But, by the time they reached the summit, Simon had come to believe in Jesus. His sons, Alexander and Rufus, probably boys at the time, are mentioned later in the history of the early Church as believers.
Two: Jesus also gloried in being perfectly obedient to the will of his heavenly Father. Much of life’s contest is in battling between self-will and God’s will. When we live exclusively for self, as not a few have, we meet with sorrow and disaster not only for ourselves but also for others. Wholeness of life, God’s glory, is found in choosing and implementing God’s will which incorporates the wellbeing, here and hereafter, of all who allow God to have an active presence in their life.
Three: The glory of Jesus was identifiable from how, here on earth, he reflected his special and unique relationship with his heavenly Father. In Jesus, it became clear that nobody could live as he did unless they were at one with God the Father. It is to God’s glory when people see in us, as Jesus’ disciples, a reflection of God’s grace.
As his disciples, we believe that we will share in the experiences of Christ, though not to the same degree, in walking in his footsteps here on earth. As Jesus said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’ (Matt.16:24) . St. Paul wrote to the young Timothy: “If we have died (to self) with him (Christ), we shall also reign with him”(2Tim 2:11-12).
Jesus, in his prayer, extends his vision to include all peoples:
“Holy Father, I pray not only for them,
but also for those who will believe in me through their word,
so that they may all be one,
as you, Father, are in me and I in you,
that they also may be in us,
that the world may believe that you sent me.
And I have given them the glory you gave me,
so that they may be one, as we are one,
I in them and you in me,
that they may be brought to perfection as one,
that the world may know that you sent me,
and that you loved them even as you loved me.”
If we truly share our earthly journey with Christ, his glory will be visible in us and we shall share in his glory in heaven. Perhaps this word-picture may help. A single daisy in bloom is a perfect creation. So, too, is a rose in bloom. Both reflect perfection, but they are quite incomparable. Perhaps, please God, despite our fragile attempts at discipleship here on earth, others journeying with us along life’s path will have been attracted to discover and so to love our, and their, Redeemer.
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.