Archive for November, 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