Archive for February, 2006
I was hoping the missile launched by James today might whiz by me and skewer some other hapless target. After all who’s rich? Bill Gates. David Beckham. Queen Elizabeth. Not me. Not you.
But here’s James’ description of the rich: they have stuff enough to store; they have enough to live in comfort; they have enough economic clout to drive a hard bargain; they have blood on their hands.
The first three make me wriggle a little. The last shakes me to the core. Because globally speaking I know I am rich and I know I’m part of a world economy that coolly sacrifices the distant poor for my sake. I’m not bringing in the big bucks but I’m wound into the web of it all. And I don’t know a way out. I do have blood on my hands. And James sees that double tragedy: first the sacrificed poor and the world we ravage for profit and fear; and second we who buy our safety only to find we have bought a corrosive fire to eat at our souls.
Gehenna. Gehenna or life, says Jesus: choose. Gehenna is hell. Where the fires never go out. That was meant literally because Gehenna was the Holy City’s dump where all the rubbish was taken for burning and burial. A perfect image for a Jewish hell—the stink, the flames, the sheer un-kosher-ness of it all. Yet after all a city’s commerce has to make some waste, every economy has its costs… There’s a darker memory to disturb us though, buried layers deep, from generations ago when the valley of Gehenna was where Jerusalem took its children to sacrifice to satisfy a hungry God. Past and present, the prosperity of Jerusalem was built on the bones of its slaughtered children, the little ones, the expendable, the poor.
That’s indeed an image for hell. But it’s an image for our daily life and trade too. Just beneath the surface of our struggle and our comfort, our prudence and our profligacy, underneath our economic life there is a sacrifice. A price we pay—or let others pay—for our security.
Is there no way out of that? No way to live justly? No way to wash the blood from our hands?
Jesus seems to say there is. At least he offers that choice: Gehenna or life…
Security and sacrifice both stand on fear. But James and Jesus seem to see differently: what we think makes us safe is what we should be fearing. And what we do fear— a threatening future or a God who wants sacrifice —is all an illusion. Let go your hold, Jesus seems to say, and trust the God who holds you safe. He even did it for us first—let go and lived free—even to the point of death.
What would the world be like if we took him at his word?
February 23rd, 2006
Brandon over at Siris has a bunch of Jesuit jokes today.
My own favourite joke at our expense is this one:
A Franciscan, and Dominican, and a Jesuit were out playing golf one day. They were moving along the course quite well, until they got stuck behind a group of golfers who were taking quite a long time and weren’t letting anyone else play through. Feeling a little frustrated, the three went up to the head of the group and asked what was going on. He told the three priests that they were part of a special program that allowed the blind to play golf. Each blind person was paired off with a sighted player who would help him line up the shot and give him advice on what else to do.
The Franciscan was deeply edified by this display of generosity. He apologized for being so pushy, and announced that he was so impressed by this example of service that he would incorporate it into his own prayer and service to the poor. The Dominican, too, was touched by their example, and declared that he would use this display of service in his preaching, and help others to work with those in need around them.
The Jesuit, finally, was deeply moved by their ministry. He took the fellow aside and encouraged him to continue with his work. However, he had to add one qualification: “Don’t you think it would be a lot easier for everyone if they played at night?”
February 22nd, 2006
There have been several cases of people blind from birth who in adulthood have been cured—or at least the physical impediment to their sight is removed. Sometimes it’s a tumour removed or cataracts, sometimes new corneas grafted in. But even though the cure is complete in one sense the person still has to learn to see for the first time.
That learning can be terrifying, the light painful, the chaos of colour disorientating, the formless field of light confusing. And nothing they had once imagined about the visual world seems to fit the unbelievable experience they are undergoing. They cannot believe their fingers or their ears. Before they could cross the road by ear alone and now the only way to do it is to close their new found eyes and let the familiar skills of darkness take care of them.
Learning to see takes time and those who’ve done it say it never loses its oddness and awful wonder.
I think that’s how we are in this world since Jesus. In some real sense Jesus death and resurrection changed everything—it filled the whole word with its joy. It cured us completely. But still we have to learn to live by its light. We still only half see. People hardly see human half the time. Often we don’t whether to laugh or cry.
And I think maybe that’s a mercy—our being halfway creatures. Nothing might be plain to us but we have two things on our side. Our honesty with God about who and how we are is one. And Jesus is the other. When we can’t see him at all clearly we can rest assured he sees us, always see us. And if we let him gaze on us he will slowly teach us how to see him true, in all his unfamiliar joy.
St. James compares the word of God to a mirror reflecting back our likeness. Well, Jesus is our mirror—as we see him, in his eyes we see ourselves.
February 16th, 2006
We’ve been talking about discernment today, about the way experience moves us and about the risk in that, the risk and the joy and the freedom and the cost. It’s all on show in the gospel too, in Jesus.
It’s all too easy to imagine a Jesus who is a little above it all, who knows a little too much to get upset by life, a Jesus who wears his compassion like pity. Shakespeare has a description of the ideal holy person: “Unmoved, cold and to temptation slow,” he says, “they rightly do inherit heaven’s graces and husband nature’s riches from expense. They are the Lords and owners of their faces.” … I used to think Shakespeare was serious, that he’d hit the nail on the head, and here was the way to be. I was wrong.
Jesus proved me wrong.
When the leper seeks him out, begging to be cured, Jesus, it says, felt sorry for him. Literally the text says something close to his heart churned. The sight of this outcast upsets him enough to give him palpitations. And what he does next—in complete contradiction to his upbringing and religion and common sense—is extraordinary: Jesus touches him. The leper says, “If you want to you can cure me”. And Jesus sounds almost amazed at his own reply, “Of course I want to”. “Of course I want to: Be cured!”
There are two knacks in discernment: letting yourself be moved by life and knowing which movements to act out of and which to ignore. There’s no sign of Jesus pausing to work it out here but I think that comes from practice rather than from always knowing what to do. He’s had so much practice at discernment that sometimes he just knows by taste. There are other places in the gospel where we see him wrestling with discernment but here he is touched and just reaches out to touch.
I said at the beginning that discernment has a risk and a cost. There’s an enormous risk here for Jesus in breaking the law and touching the untouchable—and its not about catching anything—it’s about crossing the line. And he gets to pay the price for it too. The outcast leper gets restored to health and is able to return to town, to home and hearth and ordinary life. Jesus finds it impossible from this point on to do just that—he has to stay outside in places where nobody lived. But still world came to him.
And that the risk of discernment—we never know where it will take us.
February 12th, 2006
I wonder, after today’s piece from Mark’s gospel, what it would have been like if Jesus’ self-imposed secret had been kept? If the silence he asked for, and kept asking for, had, in fact, been respected? Could it all have turned out differently in the end? Would the crowds have been more loyal at the end? Might his message have found a deeper home among the faith of his fathers? Would his reception by the authorities have been somewhat warmer, somehow less confrontational, in some way less lethal? If his silence had been kept?
You can only wonder. And wonder for yourself too. How do I hear him—today, this evening, now—how do I hear him and do I keep his words the way he wants or do I run my own way with them, even in good faith, somewhere he doesn’t want them to go?
There’s an irony that I’m sure Mark intended today. Here’s Jesus imposing secrets while praying for openness. Unstopping the man’s ears and loosening his tongue while asking his witnesses to bind theirs. Maybe Jesus knew it too. Maybe that’s why he groaned as he looked up to heaven and gave that wonderful word of command: be opened.
It’s not that the onlookers are malicious—any more than I might be—it’s just that they think they know better than Jesus what’s good for him. He orders them to hold their tongues but the more he insists the more they publish his healings. They hear but only half hear—they hear but fail to honour.
Jesus might be mighty powerful but he doesn’t always get what he wants—then or now. We are only half-opened to his words and his ways. And who knows how it might turn out this time if we could hear and hear—and hear him right.
I can feel his fingers in my ears. Taste him on my tongue. And see the groan on his lips as he prays again—for me, for you: be opened.
February 10th, 2006
In the pagan calendars Candlemas is a halfway feast—halfway between solstice and equinox—halfway between winter and spring—halfway between darkness and light. The Celtic name for the celebration says it perfectly, Imbolc, meaning something like “in the womb”. Today we are in the womb and celebrating it—we are not yet fully alive but by no means dead.
So today we celebrate in-between-ness. Inbetweenness as a place, a place of meeting, a place where life and death bump into each other: light and dark, old and new.
The relationship between light and dark usually gets made into myth as struggle or bitter opposition or even warfare. But neither the Pagan nor the Christian festival does quite that. The Eastern Church calls this feast “The Encounter” after the meeting between the infant Jesus and the old folk who recognise him—an encounter they meet with relief and not with struggle. Simeon and Anna welcome the new born light and see in him something to fulfil their lives.
But if the light isn’t struggling with the darkness it hasn’t quite replaced it either. We are still waiting. The “light to enlighten the pagans”, “the glory to Israel” may well have seen daylight but the day of the Lord is delayed, the kingdom is only coming. We didn’t even get sunshine today and winter’s got a ways to run.
And maybe that’s not all bad. Maybe Malachi has it about right when he talks of the coming of God: “The Lord you are seeking”—yes. “The messenger of the covenant whom you are longing for”—oh yes. … But “who will be able to resist the day of his coming, and who will remain standing when he appears?”
That confluence of desire and dread marks out the in-between in our own hearts. We do not have undivided hearts. All mixed up in us are life and death, light and dark, old and new, winter and spring. That’s how it is—and maybe that’s how it should be. Look at Jesus. Look at the baby, the child, the growing man. All potential. Who knows how he will turn out? Who knows how we will turn out? Light and dark, life and death, winter and spring.
In truth we are less a battlefield and more a womb. And maybe in the halfway dark all sorts of glories will ripen if we hold them with care and wait their coming to term.
February 2nd, 2006