Archive for 2003
As gospels go this is my favourite in all the year—and not just because I get to watch all your faces fall when you hear those words of Matthew’s: “A genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham…”
The mind-numbing litany we get today hardly seems a good way for Matthew to open his gospel, his one attempt at Good News. It’s dull and, even if you like lists, all the meaning gets rubbed away by the rumble and the repetition. So has Matthew blown it … lost his chance of grabbing our attention? lost his claim on our wandering hearts?
Well, slipped into the laundry list are enough subversive details to make us sure that Matthew has something important to say. For a start, the list is back to front … the standard biblical genealogies, like Luke’s, run the list backward and not forward as here.
Then there’s the unconventional lineage: the line runs through Isaac, not Ishmael the elder son; it passes through Judah, the fourth of Jacob’s sons—it’s not the usual list of heirs
Then there are the four women pointedly inserted into this long list of men. Sarah and Rebekah are left out but Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba are here. Tamar who is so determined to add a child to this dynasty that she disguises herself to have sex with her father-in-law. Rahab, the Jericho prostitute who collaborates with Israeli spies in the downfall of her own city. Ruth, the woman from Moab who uproots herself to go with Naomi and her God. And Bathsheba, taken by King David after he murders her own husband, Uriah. … Yes, says Matthew, God has gone to some lengths to keep this story line going—even dragging in convenient foreigners when the plot threatens to stall. And what a story! Adventure and horror, sexual intrigue and murder, incest and idolatry. “But,” as Kathryn Hepburn says in The Lion in Winter, “what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”
So here we are close to the climax of that family history. Fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian deportation, and fourteen from there to Christ. And look how much Matthew wants us to notice those three fourteens, even cutting out three or four kings to make the numbers fit. Three fourteens, he says: human genes, human blood, and human destiny growing together in a divine drama.
Here comes the fabulous finale: Eleazar was the father of Mathan. Mathan the father of Jacob. Jacob the father of Joseph and Joseph the father of … No! The last fourteen is only a thirteen. Jacob the father of Joseph who is precisely not the father of Jesus but only the husband of Mary of whom Jesus was born. Forty one generations of human struggle and expectation all get set aside at the last minute. Jesus, our messiah, is grafted onto the family tree. He may be Son of Abraham but not by blood. From now on, says Matthew, history is a thing of the past. Instead, something new is about to happen. That’s the Christmas event for Matthew—something unimaginable. Something we couldn’t prepare for. Something we would never predict. This is God making a fresh start. A new creation. In Jesus we have a clean sheet: we are no longer bound by the past—anything can happen!
December 17th, 2003
I get a great view up here of your faces when those first words of Matthew’s ring out: “A genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham…” And it’s not a pretty sight.
The mind-numbing litany that follows hardly seems the way for Matthew to begin his gospel, his one attempt at Good News. It’s dull and all the meaning seems leeched out by the rumble and the repetition. So has Matthew blown it … lost his chance of a stellar opening? lost his claim on our inattentive hearts?
Well, slipped into the laundry list, are enough subversive details to make you sure that Matthew has something important to say. For a start the list is back to front … or at least the standard biblical pattern runs the list backward and not forward as here.
Then there’s the unconventional lineage: the line runs through Isaac, not Ishmael the elder son; it passes through Judah the fourth of Jacob’s sons. So it’s not the usual list of heirs: the line to David and on to the Son of David follows divine reckoning and not human.
Then there are the four women pointedly inserted into this long list of men. Tamar who is so determined to add a child to this genealogy that she disguises herself to have sex with her father-in-law, Judah. Rahab, a prostitute in Jericho who collaborates with Israelite spies in the defeat of her own city. Ruth, the woman of Moab who leaves her home to go with Naomi wherever she will go. And Bathsheba, taken by King David after he murders her husband, Uriah. … Yes, says Matthew, God has gone to some lengths to bring the story to this point, keeping the plot going by whatever means necessary, even dragging in convenient foreigners when the story line threatens to wander. And what a story! Adventure and horror, sexual intrigue and murder, incest and idolatry. “But,” as Kathryn Hepburn says in The Lion in Winter, “what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”
So here we are close to the climax of that family history. Fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian deportation, and fourteen from there to Christ. Oh, and how Matthew wants us to notice those three fourteens. Even enough to cut out three or four kings to make the numbers fit. Three fourteens: human genes, human blood, and human destiny building up to a divine drama.
Here comes the triumphant crescendo: Eleazar was the father of Mathan. Mathan the father of Jacob. Jacob the father of Joseph and Joseph the father of … No! The last fourteen is only a thirteen. Jacob the father of Joseph who is precisely not the father of Jesus but only the husband of Mary of whom Jesus was born. Forty one generations of human struggle and expectation are all set aside at the last minute. Jesus the messiah is grafted onto the family tree. He may be Son of Abraham but not by blood. From now on, history is a thing of the past. Instead, something new is about to happen. Something unimaginable. Something we couldn’t prepare for. Something we couldn’t predict. God makes a new start. In Jesus we have a clean page. A wordless baby to speak the word which gives the world a fresh start.
December 17th, 2003
I have one image of Francis Xavier that I hold dear. It isn’t of him before the warlords of Japan; it isn’t of him baptising thousands in one day; it isn’t even of him dying within sight of that further shore his zeal for souls urged him onto.
My image is a more humble one. It’s the way Francisco would take the fond letters sent to him by Ignatius and the other companions and carefully cut out their signatures so he could pin them inside his cassock over his heart. As he wrote to Ignatius: ‘these I carry always with me to be my solace and refreshment’.
Heroic zeal is a good thing. Wise apostolic inculturation is maybe even better. But Francis reminds me that good things only grow in good soil, long prepared with love.
So, I pray for the zeal and I pray for the wisdom but, before both, I pray to be rooted in rich relationships that will give meaning and warmth to the whole enterprise.
December 2nd, 2003
Somewhere in the last decade I must have had a major conversion experience because I used to be one of those people who love to read ahead at ever increasing pace to get all the more quickly to the end of the book. Now I discover myself reading ever more slowly so that the book, and its spell over me, will only be broken when I can wait no longer.
I suspect somewhere in there is the key to apocalyptic readings like the ones with which we end the Church year today.
The end of the story makes all the difference to its telling—and even more difference to its living. What looks like a tragedy can be turned around in the last pages so that if we could have known the ending back around page 153 when the heroes were dying like flies we might have felt differently about the whole tale.
That’s the nature of apocalyptic writing: here we are on page 153 and the times are tough but we know that somewhere, chapters ahead, the Author is going to vindicate all our hopes. All we have to do is endure.
And that’s my problem with apocalyptic history: its political stance. Why bother to change the present when God will rewrite the story anyway? All the true believer has to do is endure and keep himself pure and preferably well-armed in a small compound somewhere in Idaho. And I say ‘himself’ because apocalyptic seems a peculiarly masculine viewpoint.
But apocalyptic isn’t the only way of telling today’s story from the prospect of tomorrow. Our year closes today with the future waiting to spring upon us like a trap but it opens tomorrow with prophecy. And prophecy suits me much better. It has promise. The future which prophecy promises is of a piece with the past and the present. And, whatever hints the Author gives us about ultimate endings we can be sure that we’ll only get to them by writing our own pages as we go along. Prophecy makes us all authors of the future and co-authors with God.
So here we are, tonight, our new year’s eve, where the past meets the future, our pens poised to change the world: what will we write.
November 28th, 2003
Isn’t it the dream of religion at its most basic that we each get what we deserve … call it fate or fortune, karma or comeuppance? If we are bad, if we seize the gold and silver of Jerusalem and exterminate Judah, then our armies will be defeated and we will die in a fit of melancholy in a strange land. If we are good, well there’s milk and honey, or at least there should be. It’s that cosmic ‘should’ we all long for. If God loves me it should turn out alright. Somehow…
But the ‘should’ recognises that it isn’t so. And there’s the big question. Hopkins asks ‘why do sinners ways prosper and why must disappointment all I endeavour end? Were’t thou mine enemy, o thou my friend, how wouldst thou worse than thou dost.’
Karma answers, well it will all turn out right in your next life: mosquito or man – it’s up to you. Certain strands of Christian thought put the reward and punishment just the other side of death in heaven or hell. But I think the real message of Jesus is that God is totally pro-life. God doesn’t play economic games with human souls. There’s not a punishing bone in God’s body.
Jesus died to put the lie to the power of punishment and tell the truth about his God, the God who stayed his father even when his religion cast him out as a criminal.
November 22nd, 2003
Zeal, fervour and legitimate anger: they make a dangerous brew. A murderous brew. You could see it then; you can see it now. It’s the fuel of suicide bombers and the fire of terror.
Yet we are given to mouth the words of the psalm: I will show God’s salvation to the upright. Uneasy words, embarrassing words, that force us to feel our complicity with what gets done in the name of religion in all ages and all places.
But what strikes me about those words is how contrary to pride they are; how unpartisan and deeply un-divisive.
What do I know of God’s salvation? … We know something of God’s salvation because we have tasted it, have each experienced it in our life. But isn’t it true that our experience of being saved by God is, at root, just a little humiliating. Isn’t the truth that we were handed our salvation on a platter at just the moment when we were at the end of our tether, all out of resources? Isn’t the truth that God continues to give us freely what we dearly wish we could deserve? Isn’t the truth that what always stands in the way of our growing relationship with God is that we will not accept what we cannot pretend to have earned?
And that place of grace, that place of salvation, is where we each meet: vulnerable, chastened, … free. And that is what I think we are called to show forth… This place where we are all brothers and sisters in simple need, and simple joy.
November 20th, 2003
I used to love the stink of sulphur and smoke that told you things were under way. The sky burning and the ground littered with spent carcasses of fireworks. As a kid we’d spend the weeks running up to bonfire night out in the freezing evenings scavenging bonfire wood and dragging from door to door our “Guy” begging for money for fireworks. A serious work.
A cold and complex work: keeping your wood dry; keeping it out of the hands of the big lads down the hill who would raid yours to make theirs bigger. Calculating just what proportion of rockets to bangers to roman candles made the best of the meagre money you’d scrounged together.
And then come tonight … the Guy would be burning away, the fireworks would be screeching and exploding all around, and you’d be baking potatoes and sausages in the fire—frozen on one side, scorched on the other—you and the sausages.
“Remember, remember, the fifth of November: gunpowder, treason and plot.”
None of us really thought that we were burning an effigy of a Catholic caught 400 years ago in a plot to blow up the King and all his ministers. Or, if we thought it, we didn’t think it strange. Or even consider the power of propaganda to keep such a memory going for four centuries.
King James, so his own tongue told it, was warned in a dream, by God himself no less, that the filthy, treasonous Catholics were plotting to blow him up and all parliament with him. He dispatched his men straight to the spot under the parliament building were Guy Fawkes, Catholic and munitions expert, was in hiding with enough gunpowder to blast them all to Kingdom Come. Fawkes was arrested, tortured, and killed along with whoever else it was expedient to polish off at the time. And every year since Guy Fawkes has been burned in effigy by hordes of school children out for some fun. But Fawkes was a fall guy … who was really behind the gunpowder, treason and plot? “Jesuits,” said the king. “Lying, equivocating, treacherous, devil Jesuits!”
Now that’s probably all propaganda. But it makes you wonder what was so troublesome about those Jesuits, whether real or imagined, that it was worth inventing rituals so powerful that they persist even today. Why did James fear them so? Why, more recently, did the El Salvadoran military fear the professors of the UCA? Or any number of political powers between the two in time and space.
The answer is in the readings today. And it extends beyond the Company of Jesus to anyone who wishes to walk in company with Jesus. “The word is very near to you” and “Unless a grain of wheat…”
November 5th, 2003
In the gospel today we get to the pith of apostolic poverty: to be on the road, with no bag, no money, no shoes even, nothing to help you on your way, just the clothes you stand up in, and nowhere to stay except the first place that will take you in.
Extreme, eh? As Luke tells it, everything needs to go unneeded if you are on the road for Christ, everything has to be dressed down to bare basics.
… Well, that should be getting us nicely depressed, either bemoaning the rigours of our own apostolic calling, or giving rueful thanks to rank among the un-chosen, the great un-called.
… But what interests me tonight is not what seems to be stripped away but what remains, what it seems is essential to being sent with good news. And it’s this: apostles always come—and go—in pairs!
Isn’t that strange? Isn’t it surprising? You can go barefoot and battered but you can’t go alone. You can beg and bother but not by yourself. Company is the supreme evangelical virtue.
Listen to Paul whining on in the first reading. How he’s been deserted, this one’s gone, that one’s gone, he’s left alone, unsupported, and unloved. Don’t we empathise with him just a bit? Even to the point of despising him a little? He says publicly what we only say to ourselves—we need company.
To be company was, it seems, Luke’s real role, and Luke’s sanctity. We celebrate him today as evangelist—a spreader of good news—but his first evangelical job is to be company, just that. To be the one who hangs around when all the others leave.
Being a sidekick doesn’t seem like much of a vocation—being Robin to Paul’s batman, Tonto to his Lone Ranger—but it is. And maybe the highest.
There’s an image out there of Jesus as the strong, silent type. Self-confident, self-sufficient, self-possessed, and self-controlled. And maybe he was. But what we know about him for sure is that he needed company, delighted in it. He was no hermit. He chose disciples. He gathered hangers-on. He sought out dinner invitations right and left. He sat and nattered with scoundrels and saints. … He liked people. He liked company. Needed it, I’d venture.
Ultimately, I guess, he gets that from his dad … from God. Because we believe that strange trinitarian thing about God: though God might be one, somehow God is also company. God wouldn’t be God if it weren’t for the companionship at God’s heart.
Jesus wouldn’t be God’s son if he didn’t need company. And maybe the highest vocation open to any of us is to be just that: company for the one who calls us.
October 17th, 2003
Be careful what you ask for!
By hitching these sayings about asking, searching, knocking onto the parable of midnight hospitality, Luke seems to defuse them. ‘Ask and it will be given to you, search and you will find’ but … but it might take a while and it might take repetition and you might have to be persistent.
Something’s wrong with this picture: either God is like a grumpy, recently-roused householder who doesn’t want to be disturbed or God is like a good father who knows how to give good things to his children.
The God who appears in need of serious nudging gets an outing in today’s brief excerpt from the prophet Malachi. “Where are you God? And why aren’t you smiting evildoers and rewarding us good ones? I mean you must have standards … all we want is for you to make them clear. We want you angry God—at least at them?”
Be careful what you ask for?
I think I must have it wrong in the gospel. I’ve been assuming that the grumpy man inside the house was God and you and I are standing outside asking for what we need. But I wonder if that isn’t back to front? I wonder if God isn’t the one outside, the one asking, the one waiting for us to open up. I think maybe we are the ones saying “go away and don’t bother me—it’s late, we’re shut, I can’t”. But—thank God—if we won’t listen for friendship’s sake God’s faithfulness will finally get through to us. Our God is the persistent one, yes, and the good parent who knows how to give us what we need—but, more than either, the one with the gentle knack of getting us to open the closed door of our own hearts to what we don’t even know we need, or desire, even though that longing burns hidden in our bones and breathes in our every breath.
October 9th, 2003
Today, in celebrating the guardian angels, we celebrate God’s care for creation. For ourselves certainly, but for the whole created world too. The God who made the world loves it. The God who fashioned you loves you.
But what we celebrate particularly today is the way God’s love and care is mediated by creation itself. All we know of God we know by being embodied in this world; God’s touch of care comes to us through the crowd of creatures with which we share our lives.
It’s become increasingly obvious in the last decades that we, little creatures, are having a impact beyond our scale on our planet, our corner of creation. Our own care for ourselves has been at the expense of the careful balance sustaining the globe we share.
One Christian response has been to begin to talk about ourselves as stewards of creation—as if we have been given the task of guarding and conserving while the owner is away; as if we were owning up to our impact but promising to use our power for the good.
The celebration today ought to make us blush at such hubris. What the guardian angels remind us is that it is creation which is our steward and not the other way around. The tradition tells us that countless created agencies have an interest in creation beyond our own. Once upon a time every place and people, every trade and time, had their presiding angel, the guardian of their welfare, the agent of God’s concern, the echo of significances far from everyday. On the whole we’ve lost the ear for such spirits, learned not to see them. Even if the shiver down our spine in certain places still takes us by surprise. Even if we long as a culture to be visited by angels and live in world alive with presence.
We were not made to steward but to be stewarded. At least not entirely. What role we have we have to learn.
If we have guardian angels, I imagine so too do the elephant and the mosquito, the salmon river and the slag heap, the ozone layer and the ocean deep. Our first job is not to guard and guide but to be guarded and guided. We need to listen to how God’s care for creation is mediated and carried by creation itself. And that’s a skill the tradition calls discernment of spirits and nowhere can it better be learned than on retreat.
October 2nd, 2003