Thursday, 17 April 2014

"Found by the lowly God": Augustine on the stripping and washing which saves

[He] got up from the table, took off his outer garment, and tied a towel around himself.

John 13:4, from the Gospel reading at the Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper.

For Augustine, this taking off of the outer garment speaks of the humility of the Incarnation - of the One who came seeking a humanity deceived by and lost in pride.  It also points forward, to another stripping, another washing, that of the Cross. It is the hermeneutic of Incarnation and Cross, of our being "found by the lowly God".

Why should we wonder that He rose from supper, and laid aside His garments, who, being in the form of God, made Himself of no reputation? And why should we wonder, if He girded Himself with a towel, who took upon Him the form of a servant, and was found in the likeness of a man? Why wonder, if He poured water into a basin wherewith to wash His disciples' feet, who poured His blood upon the earth to wash away the filth of their sins? Why wonder, if with the towel wherewith He was girded He wiped the feet He had washed, who with the very flesh that clothed Him laid a firm pathway for the footsteps of His evangelists? In order, indeed, to gird Himself with the towel, He laid aside the garments He wore; but when He emptied Himself [of His divine glory] in order to assume the form of a servant, He laid not down what He had, but assumed that which He had not before. When about to be crucified, He was indeed stripped of His garments, and when dead was wrapped in linen clothes: and all that suffering of His is our purification. When, therefore, about to suffer the last extremities [of humiliation,] He here illustrated beforehand its friendly compliances; not only to those for whom He was about to endure death, but to him also who had resolved on betraying Him to death. Because so great is the beneficence of human humility, that even the Divine Majesty was pleased to commend it by His own example; for proud man would have perished eternally, had he not been found by the lowly God. For the Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost. And as he was lost by imitating the pride of the deceiver, let him now, when found, imitate the Redeemer's humility.

(The illustration is Sadao Watanabe, Christ Washing the Feet of St Peter, 1963.)

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

"Judas is central to the plan of salvation": the Story of Love writes the account of betrayal

When [Judas] had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified ..."

John 13:31, from the Gospel reading at Mass for Wednesday of Holy Week.

As Sarah Coakley emphasises in her beautiful and profound reflection Holy Week reflection "Betrayal", John's account here of Judas' actions is shot through not with condemnation but with salvific significance:

So here we meet the heart of the matter, and its most paradoxical twist. Judas, the betrayer, is central to the plan of salvation. To understand the paradox better, we have to notice that the word used for Judas as "betrayer" (from the verb paradidomi) more accurately, or literally, means to "hand over." This verb, rather than the one that more strictly means "betray" (prodidomi) is the one invariably used of Judas in the New Testament (except only once and quite exceptionally, in the gospel of Luke). That word play, that little linguistic pun between "hand over" and "betray," therefore, is present every time Judas is mentioned. It is actually "handing over" Jesus that it is Judas's divinely-intended and necessary work to do, even as he also "betrays" him. Jesus, because of Judas, becomes the one who can be "handed over" to his own Passion.

And now, in his "handed-over" state, Jesus is, as it were, made "passive" to the world and so manifests his love in a new way, as we shall be remembering in the coming days: only thus does he enter into his "glory." Now he speaks little, whereas before he taught; now he does no miracles, whereas before marvels attended him; now he despairs in the garden, whereas before he triumphed; now he is despised, whereas before he was adulated. Now he dies, whereas before he brought others back to life. Jesus is constrained into a new posture of pure, passive love. All this unfolds as a result of Judas's necessary act of "handing over."

And so, as we ask what this paradox means for us, now, we see that the Judas question cuts deep into the heart of the problem of our own "uncleanness" as we approach the Passion - of our own experiences of betraying as well as of being betrayed. Can betrayal and true (divine) love co-exist? If it was necessary that Jesus be "handed over," if being handed over in this way is of the essence of Jesus's love and passion, then why must Judas suffer for it? Why must he be betrayed as the betrayer, when what he did in "handing over" was what he "had to do" for the sake of the very unfolding of the "glory" of that divine love?

... If betrayal is so deep a part of human sin, and so profoundly entangled also with the story of love and salvation, then it cannot actually be betrayal per se that must be repressed or obliterated in the Passion. Rather, what is held up to us is the amazing possibility that even betraying, as well as being betrayed, can become part of the terrible stuff of being "handed over" to the full and deepest meaning of Christian love. God can make love, excessive love, even out of human betrayal. On this view Judas's tragedy was that - unlike Peter - he despaired of that possibility; he could not conceive of that excessive sort of forgiveness. (And indeed, who knows but that God may not have still forgiven him after death? I cannot myself believe that divine love does not extend to the terrible agony of the suicide.)

"And Jesus said, 'What you are going to do, do quickly ... Now is the Son of Man glorified.'" Deep in the heart of John's gospel is a truth that even the earliest church found hard to swallow, lurching between ever-new layers of condemnation of Judas in the New Testament, and then at the other extreme to a weird gnostic adulation of him that occurred much later in the so-called Gospel of Judas, which was designed to sneer at the material eucharistic sacramentalism of the new "orthodox" church. But surely the truth lies deeper than these two alternatives, as we've begun to glimpse, and as John's gospel intimates. For in the fallen realm of the desire to order and control, the act of "handing over" can strangely coexist with a form of human love which tragically resists the true vulnerability and excess of divine love. Yet even this distortion of love, God can weave into His plan, allowing His Son thus to be "handed over," and holding out again and again the offer of forgiveness and grace to the betrayer.

In the gathering darkness of Holy Week, today's Gospel reading is a sign of the grace which embraces the most broken aspects of our lives - the stories of greed, of betrayal, of shame.  The grace of the Crucified embraces and transforms our greed, betrayal and shame to be bearers of and encounters with reconciliation, hope and love. 

In the words of Julian, as we behold the Crucified, we can confess that "sinne is behovely."

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

"Revealing the participation of the universe in His Cross": on being drawn to our Crucified Creator

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.

John 12:32, from the Gospel reading at Mass for Tuesday of Holy Week.

The Crucified draws all people because, in the words of Irenaeus, "He has imprinted the form of the Cross on the universe".  We are drawn to the Crucified because our Creator is the Crucified - not One alien to us but the One who has shaped us, given us breath, sustains us.  We have been created to discern, receive, adore, love, and have communion with the Crucified. 

The Cross is not imposed upon us from 'outside' as an alien entity.  The alien entity, rather, is the sin which distorts our hearts and minds, our loves and perceptions.  In a world disordered and diseased by this alien entity, the Crucified reigns from the Cross, shattering the power and pretensions of sin. 

We behold the Crucified and are drawn to Him - we return to the One who in gracious, self-emptying love created and formed us.

By His obedience to death on the Cross, He wiped out the ancient disobedience wrought on the tree.  He is Himself the Word of almighty God, who in His invisible form pervades us all and encompasses the breadth and length, the height and depth, of the whole world, for by God's Word all things are guided and ordered.  Now God's Son was also crucified in them [the four dimensions], since He has imprinted the form of the Cross on the universe.  In becoming visible, He had to reveal the participation of the universe in His Cross.  He wanted to display, in visible form, His activity in the visible realm, namely that it is he who makes bright the heights, that is, what is in heaven, and reaches down into the depths, to what is under the earth, and spreads out the length from East to West, and, like a pilot, guides the breadth from North to South, and calls together all the dispersed, from all the corners of the earth, to the knowledge of the Father.

(Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 34.)

Monday, 14 April 2014

Captured by the Crucified: the silence at the heart of Holy Week

The liturgies of Holy Week are an extended encounter with and meditation upon the Cross of the Crucified.  Our response culminates in the Liturgy of the Passion on Good Friday.  It culminates not with a doctrinal statement of the atonement.  Nor with social activism. 

Rather, we kneel in silence.  We venerate the wood the Cross on which hung the Saviour of the world.

Not with doctrinal statement.  Not with activism. 

But in the silence of adoration, with genuflection, kiss or touch.

We respond with the heart, in the imagination, through the emotions.

We are, to paraphrase Austin Farrer, captured by the Crucified.

You cannot give a lecture at the foot of the cross.  Ultimately we fall silent, with the reverence that is due to holy love and mystery.

Graham Tomlin Looking through the Cross (ABC's Lent Book 2014).

Surely it is evident that the Father accepts the sacrifice of Christ, not because he demands it, still less because he feels some need of it, but in order to carry forward his own purposes for the world ... Let the rest be adored in silence.

Gregory of Nazianzus.

Seek the answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine; in the longing of the will, not in the understanding; in the sighs of prayer, not in research; seek the bridegroom not the teacher.


Sunday, 13 April 2014

Palm crosses and Passion: beginning the Holy Week journey

The people of the Hebrews
with palms before thee went;
our praise and prayer and anthems
before thee we present.

They are ancient words which we sing every Palm Sunday as we carry our palm crosses and begin the journey that is Holy Week.

With those words, with our palm crosses, we find ourselves in this story of the Passion ... we place ourselves in the midst of that crowd, waving palm leaves, making 'sweet hosannas ring'.

Sweet hosannas. There is a joy to our Palm Sunday procession.

After the disciplines of Lent, and the sombre liturgy of the forty days, we rejoice. The One we follow is King, sent and anointed.

In these past Sundays of Lent we have seen His Kingship made manifest - as He promises living water to the Samaritan woman; gives sight to the one born blind; restores Lazarus to life.

Today begins with us in the crowd joyfully acclaiming this King.

Then we hear ourselves speak different words, we are confronted with another side to our part in this drama.

We stood again as the crowd, this time as the Gospel of the Passion was read. 

Our 'sweet hosannas' died out, replaced with something much darker.

'Crucify', we cried.

It's stark, isn't it? We - we - call for this King to be crucified.

From 'hosanna' to 'crucify'. How fickle and inconsistent we are as disciples.

We have the words of praise and prayer on our lips ... but these exist alongside the reality of our failures, our brokeness, our sins.

And, as on this day, the words of praise and prayer are often drowned out by our pride, anger, lust, greed.

Fickle and inconsistent, at our best.

Then there are the dark times, the times when we collude and give ourselves over to pride, anger, lust, greed.

The times when our words, thoughts and actions are 'crucify'.

So we turn to our palm crosses.

They tell us that the heart of Holy Week is not the story of our fickleness - or our betrayals.

The heart of Holy Week is the Crucified.

He bears the cross, He bleeds, He dies.

The Crucified bears and endures the sin of the world.

In fiery love and deep forgiveness He absorbs our pride, anger, lust, greed.

That fiery love and deep forgiveness are ours.

When we pass through the waters of Baptism we are united to the Crucified.

We are then signed with the Cross.

In the Eucharist, as the memorial of the Cross is set before us, we enter afresh into the Cross, we are united afresh to the Crucified.

Through our Baptism, through our sharing in the Eucharist, the fiery love and deep forgiveness of the Cross become ours.

Our fickleness, our failures and betrayals - in Holy Week we encounter, at source, an infinitely greater reality.

We encounter the fiery love, the deep forgiveness of the Crucified.

These define us, these give shape to our lives - individually as disciples, corporately as Church.

In Holy Week we experience this afresh.

Today we hold palm crosses in our hands.

We will hear the proclamation of the Gospel of the Passion.

On Maundy Thursday we will hear, see and taste bread and wine becoming the sacrament of the Passion.

On Good Friday we will venerate the Cross of the Crucified.

On Easter Day we will behold the Cross in our midst, with the grave shroud victoriously cast over it.

Here is the heart of our journey.

Here fiery love and deep forgiveness embrace us.

An ancient Palm Sunday sermon urges us:

"Let us run to accompany him as he hastens toward his passion".

We will do that today and over these next days of this Holy Week.

Through sacrament, scripture and prayer, let us accompany Him.

Let us accompany Him to the heart of the mystery of our redemption ...

Where fiery love and deep forgiveness heal us, liberate us, restore us.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

"The wood of the Cross confutes me": Cyril of Jerusalem on redemption, wood and sign

On the eve of Holy Week, words from Cyril of Jerusalem's Catechetical Lecture 13, "On the words, Crucified and Buried".  Cyril points to how the physicality of "the wood of the Cross" and of our making the Sign of the Cross declare the flesh and blood reality of redemption:

Jesus then really suffered for all people; for the Cross was no illusion, otherwise our redemption is an illusion also. His death was not a mere show, for then is our salvation also fabulous. If His death was but a show, they were true who said, We remember that that deceiver said, while He was yet alive, After three days I rise again. His Passion then was real: for He was really crucified, and we are not ashamed thereat; He was crucified, and we deny it not, nay, I rather glory to speak of it. For though I should now deny it, here is Golgotha to confute me, near which we are now assembled; the wood of the Cross confutes me, which was afterwards distributed piecemeal from hence to all the world. I confess the Cross, because I know of the Resurrection; for if, after being crucified, He had remained as He was, I had not perchance confessed it, for I might have concealed both it and my Master; but now that the Resurrection has followed the Cross, I am not ashamed to declare it ...

Let us not then be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the Cross our seal made with boldness by our fingers on our brow, and on everything; over the bread we eat, and the cups we drink; in our comings in, and goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we rise up; when we are in the way, and when we are still. Great is that preservative; it is without price, for the sake of the poor; without toil, for the sick; since also its grace is from God. It is the Sign of the faithful, and the dread of devils: for He triumphed over them in it, having made a show of them openly; for when they see the Cross they are reminded of the Crucified; they are afraid of Him, who bruised the heads of the dragon. Despise not the Seal, because of the freeness of the gift; rather honour your Benefactor.

Friday, 11 April 2014

"A 'virginity' of listening": on why we need the Fathers to make Scripture strange

Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFMCAP, the preacher to the Papal Household, today delivered a homily on the need to read Scriptures with the Fathers, seeking to discern the 'spiritual sense' of Scripture.  He begins by highlighting the consequences of reading Scripture with the Enlightenment:

The same thing happened to Scripture in the modern world that happened to the person of Jesus. The quest for the exclusively historical and literal sense of the Bible, based on the same presuppositions that dominated during the last two centuries, led to results similar to those in the quest for a historical Jesus opposed to the Christ of faith.

What the Fathers do is exemplify a deeper, richer and - ironically - fresher reading of Scripture than the narrow and shallow preoccupation with "the exclusively historical and literal sense":

The goal of our reflection is to see how the Fathers can help us to rediscover a "virginity" of listening, that freshness and freedom in approaching the Bible that allows us to experience the divine power that flows from it.

The Fathers' reading of Scripture was no patristic innovation, driven by Platonic concerns.  It was rooted in the experience of encountering the One who is Incarnate, Crucified, Risen:

In their reading of the Bible, the Fathers were following the path initiated by Jesus and the apostles, so that fact itself should already make us cautious in our judgment of them. A radical rejection of the exegesis of the Fathers would signify a rejection of the exegesis of Jesus himself and of the apostles ...

Personages, events, institutions, laws, the temple, sacrifices, the priesthood—everything suddenly appears in another light. It is similar to a room being illumined by the light of candle when a powerful neon light is suddenly turned on. Christ who is "the light of the world" is also the light of the Scriptures.

In a powerful analogy, this transformation of the meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures by the Cross and Resurrection is compared to the experience of the Holy Eucharist:

The clearest example to help us understand what happens in that moment is the consecration in the Mass, which is in fact a memorial of that event. Nothing apparently seems changed in the bread and wine on the altar, yet we know that after consecration they are completely other than what they were, and we treat them quite differently than we did before.

Admitting that there were "weaknesses in the Fathers' exegesis ... pushing symbolism to excess", the on-going significance of the Fathers' reading of Scripture is in exemplifying how to read Scripture "with faith", within - rather than outside - the experience of encountering the Crucified and Risen One:

So what is still valid, then, in the legacy from the Fathers in the field of biblical interpretation? Perhaps here more than anywhere else, they have a decisive word to deliver to the Church today that we must try to discover. Apart from their ingenious allegories, their bold applications, and the doctrine of the four senses of Scripture, what characterizes the Fathers’ reading of the Bible? It is that—from beginning to end, and at each step of the way—it is a reading done in faith; it started from faith and led to faith. All their distinctions between the historical, allegorical, moral, and eschatological readings can be narrowed down to a single distinction today: reading Scripture with faith or reading it without faith, or at least without a certain quality of faith.

Thus Scripture becomes a living Word addressed to the Church, to the disciple:

This means not only reading the Word of God but also our being read by it, not only probing the Scriptures but also letting ourselves be probed by them ...

It is the distinction between a personal reading and an impersonal reading of the Word of God. I will try to explain what I mean. The Fathers approached the Word of God with a recurring question: What is it saying here and now to the Church and to me personally?

They were persuaded that Scripture—in addition to the historical events that it attests, the truths of faith that it presents to all to believe, the obligations that it points out, and the things to hope for (the famous four senses of Scripture)—always has new light to shed and new tasks to point out for everyone personally.

The homily is a powerful call to retrieve a dynamic and vital reading of Scripture, liberated from the stifling constraints of the Enlightenment and modernity.  That metaphor of the transformation that occurs in the Eucharist starkly highlights what is at stake - the Crucified and Risen One present, giving himself to the Church, transforming us that we may more fully share in Cross and Resurrection. 

Retrieving the vitality and strangeness of patristic readings of Scripture surely has a significant role to play in the renewal of catholic Christianity's life and witness.  In a post-Christian culture which believes it cannot be surprised by the story of the Christian Scriptures because that story was a cultural commonplace until relatively recently, in which the Enlightenment's emphasis on the "exclusively historical and literal sense" has shaped how both cultural conservatism and cultural liberalism understand Scripture, in which the 'texts of terror' deeply offend, the Church needs a reading of Scripture that makes strange, startles, surprises.  Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa has pointed us to such readings.