Archive for January, 1999
For a dumb ox Thomas has been enormously influential, in and out of his lifetime: doctor of the church, synonymous with a whole way of doing theology, a way that has been both lifted up as the ideal and hated as the worst imitation of real knowledge.
I like it that we are given the readings we are given today to mull over: words that extol humility and inspire a receptive approach to theology. “I prayed and understanding was given to me.” Words that should challenge us to wonder how much our own quest for theology rises from that same wholehearted need for wisdom from on high.
There’s nothing dry or perfunctory or careerist about the love of wisdom in our first reading. It is a driving passion, a vision of beauty, a hunt for illumination. It is an openness, an emptiness, a waiting to receive. And we’re told this was true of Thomas … that you couldn’t tell where the theology ended and the spirituality began … that his prayer and his study were each workings out of the other.
And if that sounds as if his work should be pious or insipid then we have to wonder at what our own study has done to us.
Like us, Thomas lived in challenging times: when one age was passing into another; when institutions were shifting balance and certainties were shaking; when new knowledge of every kind was flooding out all over; when old wineskins were being tested by new wine.
Somehow Thomas’ love of wisdom led him right into the shifting heart of the age: to grapple with the new science, new cosmology. And not to combat it … but to trust it enough to let it warp and reshape his whole vision of God. More than that … to take that hybrid vision right into the heart of the new culture—the university—and face it on its own ground, in its own medium. Thomas found a wisdom for his age exactly where others were afraid to go. And with what he found he created something new and beautiful and enduring.
Not bad for a dumb ox.
January 28th, 1999
Q&A: Who were the first disciples? (Peter, etc. but what do they all have in common? … Yes, they were fishers, yes, they were men, yes, they followed without hesitation, but perhaps above all they were Galileans. People of the Galilee.)
Imagine, with me, Jesus emerging from the desert where he has been since his baptism by John in the Jordan. He stands there, dirty, dusty, bitten by sun and wind. He’s a gaunt shadow of his former self but lit by an unmistakable inner light. Like his Jewish ancestors he has faced the desert, he has entertained its temptations, and found there his own promised land. A land he walks in now. A land to lead all his suffering people into as well. He knows what to do.
So there he stands, drinking his first draught from the well and hearing his first news. And it hits like a blow. John who drew him south, John who baptized him, John has been betrayed and thrown into prison. Can you see the thirst dry up in him? Can you see him buckle under the news? The light in him seems to cloud over and his hopes shiver. What hope does he have if John with all his fire and all his followers can be so easily ended? Who is he, one man, alone and thirsty, to change the world? He doesn’t know what to do.
So what does Jesus do? He withdraws. Away from the South with its deserts and kings. Away from its prisons and priests. Where does he go? He goes home. He goes to the Galilee. …
He goes home but not quite home. He leaves behind Nazareth of his youth and strikes out north through pasture and hillside, thinking. He skirts Sepphoris, the city just four miles down the road, praying. He keeps well away from Tiberius, freshly built and bustling with power, wondering. And he comes to rest in Capernaum. Maybe it’s seeing the lake that holds him. Maybe it’s an inner call. But here he settles. He sets up house in Capernaum: one Galilean among many. His first preaching will be here in the Galilee; His first hearers Galilean; His first followers.
Who are they these Galileans? Imagine, with me, that you are a Galilean: who are you? Well, open your mouth and you’d be known by your accent. You can always tell a Galilean when you hear one. Your voice betrays you. And what does it gives you away? It depends.
A Roman soldier would hear trouble. Galilee is notorious. A hot bed of political trouble and violence. Bandits, our soldier would call them, terrorists. They might prefer to call themselves freedom fighters. But whatever the name, all sorts of religious fanatics stumble out of Galilee with voices in their head crying rebellion and they have to be put down swiftly and efficiently … so our centurion says. No, in the Galilee you keep an eye on your back and a hand on your sword.
Now to a devout Jew, from down south, on the other hand, your Galilean accent would betray not a faith too strong but a faith too weak. There’s too much mixing with gentiles up there; Too many foreigners with their godforsaken ideas passing through. Important beliefs watered down. Practices abandoned. There are idols, for God’s sake. Damned near gentiles the lot of them. Can’t trust them.
No the accent betrays you. You, poor Galilean, are too fanatical for the Romans and too impure for your own people. Neither fish nor fowl. Too many languages struggling in one head. Aramaic for day to day, Hebrew for worship, enough Greek for trade, maybe a smattering of Latin. No wonder you have an accent. You’re neither one thing nor the other. But somehow you come to terms with being in between. Maybe you just get on with your life fishing, or planting, or tending your animals. Or maybe you struggle with it and talk too loudly in bars or turn an occasional hand theft in a good cause. Or maybe you just see another buck to be made even off the back of others, collecting taxes or managing someone else’s property.
So where does Jesus go when he gets his bad news? He comes to you. He sets up house next door. And when he speaks to you it’s in your own voice. And he says the damnedest things that catch you all off guard until he laughs and you with him. And you some of the people he hangs out with make you wonder about him.
Lately though he’s gone a lot. You hear he’s been wandering around, up and down the lake. Preaching, they say, knitting the stuff of lake and land, of sowing and growing and harvest, making it into something surprising, beautiful. Making you think, they say. Making you wonder whether God might not be closer than you’ve ever thought. Making you hope. Making you hope that maybe God too has an accent and juggles too many languages. Maybe God is trouble to some and lax to others. Making you hope that maybe God might like it here in the Galilee. Maybe a light might shine here. Next door. And maybe, if this God were to walk by while you were fishing, well maybe you too might leave your nets and go after bigger fish.
January 24th, 1999
“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” It’s struck me this week as I’ve thought about this phrase that I really haven’t thought much about it before: just taken it for granted as another strange thing in John’s gospel—which is full of strange things. It’s also been easy to overlook because I’ve heard that phrase at every mass—so many times that I’ve given up wondering about it.
So what’s going on? And is there any connection between these two things: John the Baptist pointing out Jesus as he passes by and the priest at mass holding up the consecrated bread and wine, body and blood?
Just using those same words forges a link over 2000 years of history. John the Baptist has his epiphany and we are expected to have ours. But why those words? Why the Lamb of God?
This puzzle, which happens near the beginning of John’s gospel, has a partner towards the end. Another puzzle. The other gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, tell how Jesus gathered his disciples together for the Last Supper, and make that last meal a Passover meal. They eat the lamb and the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs and re-tell the Passover story. How God had sent Moses to lead the Israelite people out of slavery and death in Egypt. How the people had gathered and celebrated their first Passover, the door of their dwellings marked with the blood of the lamb they were eating, so that when the angel of death passed through the land that night to slay the first-born of man and beast only those marked with lamb’s blood would be passed over, ignored, kept safe. And so it was. But as Jesus remembers that event with his disciples, he gives it a twist. He remakes the memory. He consecrates his own body and blood as Passover food. So that just as the Israelite people came to know their God in the event of Passover, so we come to know our God in the new Passover meal which we celebrate every Sunday at this table.
At least that’s how Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell the story. St. Paul too. But John in his gospel tells it differently. He does show Jesus gathering his disciples for a last meal. Tells us about the washing of the feet. But there’s no first Eucharist only a lot of talk. And if you read the small print you discover this meal is happens a day early. This isn’t the night of Passover at all but the day before. Why does John go out of his way to tell it differently, especially, when everyone already knows the other story?
Because John wants to go farther than the other gospel writers would dare go. What happens to Jesus in John’s gospel, when Passover does come, the day after he eats the meal and is arrested and tried? What happens is that he is crucified. It is Passover day and just as the lambs in the Temple are being slaughtered for those Passover meals, Jesus is being slaughtered. “Behold the lamb of God,” says John. And just as that first lamb’s blood marked the Israelites to identify them and make their covenant with God, so the blood of Jesus marks us, makes us his people, bound to God by the blood of a new covenant.
Jesus is our Passover. That is what we are saying before communion when we agree that “this is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” It is as if we are marking our own foreheads with lamb’s blood. And then two things happen. We are marked out for salvation and no angel of death can have us. But we are also marked out unmistakably as one people. That mark has it’s price. The first Passover people, the Jews, have found their mark a hard burden to carry, often because of the persecution of Christian people like us. We, the children of the second Passover, shouldn’t expect that our mark will be any easier to wear. It marks us as friends of an executed criminal. It marks us as co-conspirators in a plot to change the world. It marks us as suspicious and dangerous people.
Are we ready for that? Today?
January 17th, 1999
(Enter messenger hurriedly …) Lord Balthasar! (Hands over a scroll … B reads, ponders, dismisses the messenger, puts down the scroll, turns to congregation )
Buried with a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes … I had almost forgotten him … God knows I’ve tried! Nothing has been quite right since that fool’s errand thirty years ago in my misspent mystical youth. And now he’s dead … embalmed and buried with my spices, my myrrh.
Oh the journey didn’t seem so stupid back then. The signs were there … in the heavens, in the cards, in the embers of the fire. And when the three of us met, each on the same quest, well, it seemed beyond doubt that we were to be witnesses to some great event. A new King among the Hebrews certainly, but something more said our oracles, something much more. We rode so confidently for those two years. Can you imagine it? Two years tramping the ways, staying in fleapits, hiding from bandits, constantly fleeced by merchants with no scruples. Two years building each other up with dreams and visions, and ever more exact calculations of the time and place.
And then things began to go wrong. The complex computation was a little off … not a lot … just that there was the Holy City up ahead, Jerusalem of the mountains, crowned by its golden temple while the charts said, no, down there to the south a little ways.
We trusted our common sense instead of the signs and ended up face to face with that monster Herod—as bad and worse than his reputation—trying to conceal his fear at our naïve declaration of our quest: “where is the babe born to be king?”
Fools, we were, but fools laden with gifts and fools who had travelled for years, and yes fools who knew a threat when we heard it. So we set of quietly, dodged Herod’s spies, and this time followed our star maps, to Bethlehem, some little hole in the middle of nowhere. Ironic really: so close to the centre of the turning world but enough off axis to throw us all askew.
Well, we reached the town by nightfall, bathed as best we could, dressed in our finest, readied our gifts, and wondered where to go. Determined not to be misled again by common sense, we stuck to the stars and passed the big houses, passed the inns glittering with commerce, passed even the meanest hovel, following our star until we couldn’t be mistaken, though we prayed to the gods we were.
A stable, a cattle barn. No mistake … a baby howling inside and a woman shushing it and a man stroking her hair.
They had to be pushed in there, the other two with their gold and incense. I had to push. And the inner voice that had demanded I carry so much myrrh began to make strange sense. A hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes … enough for a king’s burial. But here was a king already buried—if you know what I mean. Not in the Jewelled courts of Jerusalem. Not in the palaces. But in a hovel fit only for stinking cattle. And it was cold. And they looked exhausted, afraid, embarrassed. And we added to that as we knelt to do our part. Melchior with his king’s ransom in gold; Caspar burning his precious incense like it didn’t cost an arm and a leg—and me with half a ton of burial spices. All trying to maintain our dignity as we crushed into a shed. Which is not to say that man and woman and tiny babe were not gracious—even when they realised that our greatest gift had been betrayal—the hungry gaze of Herod upon them. We had made them refugees. What was this little family going to do with the stuff we had brought as they fled furtively across the border to be strangers in a strange land? We never knew. At least until today.
We ourselves had to be furtive as we came home a different way. It seemed we were different too. Anti-climax? It may have been that. Or the fear of what we had done. But we spoke little except to debate the irony of what we had seen. And when that began to run in the same confused circles we spoke hardly at all. Truth be told I was relieved at the parting of our ways and the fall of silence. More relieved to reach home again. Familiar. Comfortable. But strange too. In the stillness I was still moving, at night dreaming of fleeing families.
Of course I made up a story. I couldn’t tell the stupid truth: oh yes we gave away our riches to some poor people in a barn. To be honest I tried to forget. But every year at that time I’d find myself back there wondering, wondering what kind of king is born in a cattle shed and enthroned in a trough. And from time to time I would dream of him, glimpse him growing in obscurity, and wonder whether I dreamed the truth or fancy.
These last few years the dreams have been more frequent and more puzzling. Maybe he was a king after all. His dream-self spoke of a kingdom, god’s kingdom, as he worked his wonders, lived with the poor, scandalised the powerful, gathered the crowds. … But then the dreams ended in blood and pain and I prayed they were false. But it seems not. Buried with a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes.
But also the rumours: of resurrection, of new life, of a kingdom come. But the empires go on. Cruelty goes on. The poor still flee the mighty. And I think I have another journey to make. But where in the world do you go to find the kingdom he promised?
January 14th, 1999