Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ They answered him, ‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free”?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word. I declare what I have seen in the Father’s presence; as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father.’ They answered him, ‘Abraham is our father.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are indeed doing what your father does.’ They said to him, ‘We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me.
The ancestors of the people Jesus was addressing had been slaves in Egypt in the remote past, and perhaps this made their descendants a little sensitive on the question of freedom. Their pride in their freedom made them deny the real past and claim a fictitious one: “We have never been slaves to anyone,” they said. The ego picks and chooses its facts. Sometimes you feel that personality – an individual’s or especially that of a group – is just the opposite of the truth. Personality is a defence, sometimes a belligerent one; but more often it is like the camouflage that animals use so well to protect themselves. Aggressive talk and behaviour are often a cover for fear; boasting is evidence of a low self-image; a pleaser has no interest in you at all. The truth alone, Jesus said, will set us free.
‘Freedom’, like the words ‘God’, ‘love’, ‘faith’, in practice means whatever you want it to mean. These words are like empty forms into which you pour whatever you want. This is not to suggest that real freedom, love and faith do not exist, any more than it is to suggest that God does not exist. It is to say that there is an inner reality that is not guaranteed by the corresponding word. External forms of freedom have their own urgency, but inner slavery can co-exist with external freedom. I am not fully free until I have inner freedom: in other words, until I am free of myself.
How free are you? Try this experiment. Take a sheet of paper and a pencil and draw a figure that expresses pure freedom – a figure that is pure freedom. Nobody is pushing you or holding you back. There are no guidelines and no expectations, except that the figure should express pure freedom. It is very difficult! But just think: if it is so difficult in such a simple matter, how much more difficult when it comes to highly complex human actions? The truth, Jesus said, will set us free. One part of that truth is that we are not free. Freedom is not a thing of the past; it is something I have to step into in the present, with every step.
Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.” The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died, and so did the prophets; yet you say, 'Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.' Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be?” Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, 'He is our God,' though you do not know him. But I know him; if I would say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him and I keep his word. Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.” Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
“It is the tragedy of the world that no one knows what he doesn’t know – and the less a man knows, the surer he is that he knows everything,” wrote Joyce Cary (1888 – 1957). An expanded version of this insight became known (1999) as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. It says that I need to have at least a little competence if I am to appreciate how incompetent I am; I have to be somewhat clever to know how stupid I am; I have to know a little if I am to realise how little I know. This Effect comes into its own in religion. Claiming to know what I don't know is a form of swindling: it is like putting forged money into circulation. The world is filling up with fundamentalists, all of them claiming to be certain of something. Their very aggressiveness shows that their ‘certainty’ is a cover for disbelief and confusion; it is a drowning man’s grip. When you are full sure of something, there is no aggression, just a quiet resolve to live by it. Fundamentalists are afraid of doubt, so they claim certainties they have no right to, since they have not travelled the path themselves. Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) wrote, “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”
Jesus told his hearers bluntly that they did not know God. This was a stinging criticism of people who considered themselves “heirs of the prophets, and heirs of the covenant." God is not known in the way you know anything else. Knowledge of God is a strange kind of knowledge that seems at times like the opposite of knowledge. Think of the 14th-century classic The Cloud of Unknowing. Intellectual humility is of the essence of theology. Having spoken about the limitations of theology, St Thomas Aquinas then added, “Nevertheless it is useful for the human mind to exercise itself in such enquiries, inadequate as they are, provided there is no presumptuous claim to complete understanding and demonstration.” And in another passage he wrote, very challengingly, “This is the final human knowledge of God: to know that we do not know God.” We might have expected such statements from Meister Eckhart, who said, “If one knows anything in God and affixes any name to it, that is not God; God is above names and above nature,” but to hear the sober Aquinas say the same thing is very challenging.
“Before Abraham was, I am,” said Jesus. This echoes God’s revelation of his name to Moses: “God said to Moses, ‘I Am Who I Am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: `I AM has sent me to you'" (Exodus 3:14). Before Abraham was, “I am,” not “I was.” This is Jesus’ clearest claim to divinity in the gospel. He knew God because he was one with God.
If you refuse to pretend you know something about yourself or the universe, about life itself, then one sweet day, you will notice something very tender and delicate at the core of your being. It is where all affection and compassion come from.
The Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus replied, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?” The Jews answered, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.” Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your law, 'I said, you are gods'? If those to whom the word of God came were called 'gods' – and the scripture cannot be annulled – can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, 'I am God's Son'? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands.
“If I am not doing the works of my Father then do not believe me.” Talking about God is not enough, even when it is Jesus who is talking. This is the greatest challenge to every preacher and every professor of theology. Christians often talk about “the Christian message” as if it could be written on a piece of paper. The Word was made flesh, not ink. St Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “You are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on the tablets of the human heart” (2 Corinthians 3:3).
The word ‘orthopraxis’ was coined to supplement ‘orthodoxy’. Orthodoxy means ‘right teaching’; orthopraxis would mean ‘right action’. Our words have to become flesh too: to reach our fingertips, so to speak. “What good is it,” wrote St James, “if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food: if one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:14-17).
St Bede (672 –735) wrote, “Our Lord first did a thing, then taught it: as it is said, Jesus began both to do and to teach (Acts 1:1).” Meister Eckhart said, “When St Paul spoke a great deal to our Lord, and our Lord to him, this availed him nothing till he abandoned his will and said: ‘Lord, what do you want me to do?’ (Acts 9:6). Then our Lord knew well what he should do. So too, when the angel appeared to our Lady: nothing that she or he said to one another could have made her the mother of God, but as soon as she gave up her will, at once she became a true mother of the eternal Word and conceived God straight away: he became her natural son.”
Many of the Jews who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death.
Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples. Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. They were looking for Jesus and were asking one another as they stood in the temple, ‘What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?’
From the point of view of his popularity, Jesus’ low point was after the feeding of the five thousand: “After this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (Jn 6:66). But now everyone was beginning to believe in him; because of the raising of Lazarus his popularity soared. So the religious authorities stepped in. Their own status was being undermined, but they would not say this in so many words. Instead they said he was a threat to national security.
The highest religious authority in the land, the Sanhedrin, determined to have him killed. There had been attempts on his life before (Jn 5:18; 7:1, 19; 8:59; 10:31), but this time it was official. Caiphas, the high priest, rationalised it: “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” John draws out the many ironies in this event.
First, by raising Lazarus to life Jesus has sealed his own death. But there is the even greater irony that it is through the death of Jesus that life will come for “the dispersed children of God.” Caiphas was thinking only about the Jewish nation (or perhaps only pretending to do so), but by marking Jesus out for death, he was unwittingly bringing about the salvation of “the dispersed children of God”, a much wider group. Without knowing or willing it, he was instrumental in fulfilling the hope of all the ages: Isaiah 11:12; Jeremiah 31:8; Ezekiel 11:17 Micah 2:12-13; 2 Maccabees 17. A third irony (if irony it be) was the plot to sacrifice Jesus “lest the Romans come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” They sacrificed Jesus, but the Romans still came and destroyed both the holy place and the nation.
“Being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation.” It is more than irony; it borders on dark humour. Caiphas the prophet! “Thus even in the most dreaded councils of the wicked, the plan of God goes forward,” wrote a scholar on this passage. “This does not in any way lessen the reality of evil, but it places that evil within a larger framework which is ultimately positive, the framework of divine providence.”
5 April [Palm Sunday]
Mt 26:14 – 27:66
… As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews….’
The crowd that cheered him on were soon yelling 'Crucify him!' That's the way a crowd – "that numerous piece of monstrosity" – tends to behave. "Who do people say I am?" he once asked. How could they know who he was? They didn’t know who they themselves were. A crowd are not a community; they have no lasting purpose, they hardly even know one another; but somehow they are able to energise one another for the worse. At his birth the angels sang, "Peace on earth!" Here he is, near the end of his life, at the mercy of a mindless mob screaming for his blood.
His life has been called "the greatest story ever told." It is not only the story of Jesus, it is the story of the world. It is the two together forming a single story. He is one of us, he was born here, he walked our streets. This is how our world deals with such a person. The death of Jesus reveals many things: the incorruptibility of his spirit, the depth of his love and forgiveness, the reality of his relationship with the Father; it also reveals the barbarity, legal and illegal, that ordinary human beings are capable of. It shows us "the light of God's glory shining in the face of Christ" (2 Cor 4:7); it also reveals the ugly face of humanity. It is a double revelation.
Is there any hope for our world? Look again. He is one of us. He called us brothers and sisters. We know we are capable of the worst, but by being one of us he makes us capable of integrity, love, forgiveness…. We are a crowd, but we can be a new community. It is a double revelation.
He revealed the weakness hidden in power – and the power hidden in weakness.
His resurrection will reveal that the Father is indeed like the Prodigal Father in his parable (Luke 15). It will also reveal that we too are mysteriously raised up with him – because he is one of us.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
Jesus frequently caused a stir in synagogues (4:31-37; 6:1-5, 6-11; 13:10-17; 14:1-5), and he was eventually expelled. Today’s reading makes the reason clear. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing," he said. People were more used to hearing about the past. The past is no threat, but today could prove to be very upsetting. Today is the most difficult day.
Yesterday and tomorrow are no trouble; perhaps that’s why we spend so much time there! Imagine: if they were places – holiday resorts. We would seldom be at home. We would drop in now and then to see that our place hadn't been robbed, but we would leave again immediately. Really, we are robbing ourselves. What use is our place to us?
If all the prophecies of all time are not fulfilled today, when will they be fulfilled? Nothing ever happens unless it happens today. Yesterday and tomorrow are only escapes from home; they are absences. But I can be present only in the present.
Jesus was intensely present. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me...” he read. For his audience these were ancient words, written many centuries before. But for Jesus they were a present experience. In the previous chapter we were told, “The Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” You are, not you were, or you will be. Memory is about the past, but experience is always in the present.
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." This means that it is necessary to respond to it, to be either for it or against it. If it is just in the past, why panic? If it is in the indefinite future, there’s no hurry: there can be endless postponement, and we become used to it. But ‘today’ means that time has run out, you have to jump now. It is no wonder they threw him out (Lk 4:29).
Jn 13:21-33, 36-38
Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, ‘Lord, who is it?’ Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’ Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the festival’; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.
When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus answered, ‘Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterwards.’ Peter said to him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ Jesus answered, ‘Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.
In the spiritual life, Johann Tauler (1300 – 1361) said, we should have “no will to be or become or obtain anything for ourselves.” This may sound more like a description of a dishcloth, but there was nothing weak or servile about the Rhineland mystics. He meant that we should have no agenda of our own. There are many reasons why people are religious, not all of them religious. I could be using religion, paradoxically, as an escape from the deepest questions about life; I could be using it just to feed a need to be on the ‘inside’, whether socially or psychologically; I could be using it as a camouflage for bigotry, following the lead of the Pharisees…. All of these reasons are a betrayal of religion, no better than Judas’s betrayal.
Judas is mentioned constantly in the readings this week. In fact he is mentioned in the gospels far more often than some other members of the Twelve! He was a man who imposed his will and was unwilling to wait. John puts himself as near to Jesus as he makes Judas distant. Such dualism is characteristic of John’s gospel: light/darkness, above/below, etc. John is “reclining near Jesus,” whispering to him; but Judas goes out, and “it was night.”
But notice that there are two betrayers in this reading; the other is Peter. Jesus said to him, “The cock will not crow before you have denied me three times” (in other words, before morning). But Peter had the courage (or perhaps the opposite) to wait for forgiveness; and he was forgiven (John 21). Tragically, Judas didn’t wait; he too would have been forgiven. If he was just greedy for money, he should have been happy; but instead he was plunged into despair; he must have had an agenda that went wrong – some plan to speed things up. It was typical of him, then, not to wait. In a tragic twisted way he died for his Master. Without doubt, God the Father, “slow to anger and rich in mercy,” had pity on him. His daily presence in the Liturgical texts this week is a reminder to check our agendas.
One of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What will you give me if I betray him to you?’ They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?’ He said, ‘Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, “The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.”’ So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.
When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, ‘Surely not I, Lord?’ He answered, ‘The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.’ Judas, who betrayed him, said, ‘Surely not I, Rabbi?’ He replied, ‘You have said so.’
This day is sometimes called ‘Spy Wednesday’, a reminder of Judas’s betrayal of Jesus to the Sanhedrin. Holy Week is under way, with its riveting story of betrayal, suffering, death, and finally resurrection.
Everyone discovers the reality of suffering soon enough, but its meaning takes longer to discover. Popular culture does not reveal that meaning to us; in fact it goes far to make it invisible. It creates a vast dream of comfort, satisfaction and security that couldn't possibly be true to actual experience. Even when the media show us gruesome pictures of human suffering, these are quickly followed by ads for sportswear, faster cars and newer gadgets. The images thereby lose their power, and there is an unspoken assumption that it is all right to pass suffering by.
But this week it is not possible to pass it by. It unfolds before us, with its questions, its power to challenge and uproot. We have to ask: Why suffering? Am I supposed to think that it is good for me? And why do we celebrate and glorify the suffering of Christ, instead of deploring it? What does it mean?
Nobody will ever be satisfied with a quick answer; suffering is too close to us for book answers. Suffering is a different kind of 'knowing'.
"People who have not suffered, what do they know?" said Henry Suso, a man who suffered more than most in a century that suffered more than most (the 14th). Here is his statement in context: "There is nothing more painful than suffering, and nothing more joyful than to have suffered. Suffering is short pain and long joy. Suffering has this effect on the one to whom suffering is suffering, that it ceases to be suffering…. Suffering makes a wise and practised person. People who have not suffered, what do they know...? All the saints are the cup-bearers of a suffering person, for they have all tasted it once themselves, and they cry out with one voice that it is free from poison and a wholesome drink."
“The one to whom suffering is suffering.” He was being precise about this. To many who suffer, suffering isn't suffering as such, but misery and anguish and rejection of suffering. The word 'to suffer' in English means 'to allow', whereas the word 'anguish' comes from the Latin 'ang(u)ere', which means 'to choke'. Suffering, Suso persuades us, is "a wholesome drink." We should not choke on it. The saints have tasted it before handing us the cup; they are the proof that it is not poison.
Have you ever met anyone who never suffered? What would such people be like? They would have no depth, no growth, no awareness; they would be absolutely juvenile. Even the most solicitous parents cannot protect their child from everything. God's mercy did not protect Jesus from suffering, nor Mary, nor any of his disciples through the ages. We cannot expect that it will protect us. It would be protecting us from life, and that would be no mercy.
This 'knowledge' of the meaning of suffering is not book-knowledge or factual knowledge; it is experience that continues day by day and is never finished. It is not the kind of knowledge that gives us security and control (which would be a kind of closing-down) but which opens us up to experience, to new life.
9 April [Holy Thursday]
Before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me….”
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
In John’s Gospel there is no account of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Instead we are told about his washing the disciples’ feet. The feet are the lowliest part of a person, the most down-to-earth; he offered the humblest service. Then he sat down and said, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet.” In equivalent words, “Do this in memory of me.” In even the humblest service we do for one another, Jesus is present; we should talk about a “real presence” in this too; it is a kind of Eucharist.
Almost half of John's gospel is taken up with a description of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Someone noticed that in the first half of this gospel the words ‘life’ and ‘live’ occur 50 times, but not once in Jesus' conversation at the Last Supper. Death is hovering near; there is a significant mention of darkness: “Judas left...and it was night” (13:30). That might seem to make the whole scene a depressing one. However, in that conversation the word ‘love’ occurs 31 times. Love is not afraid of darkness and suffering.
It is easy to love in an atmosphere of light and joy; the test is when hardship comes. A scholar describes the Last Supper discourse: “Jesus disregards himself and his suffering, and shows only love for his own and compassion for their future trials. His words, mingling tenderness, restrained melancholy and triumphant certainty of victory, are set between two actions, one of humble service [washing their feet] and the other of prayer (ch. 17). For all time it is a model of grace under pressure.”
10 April [Good Friday]
They took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them….
Language can only deal with a small part of reality; the rest – by far the greater part – is silence. Death is the great silence ultimately imposed on everyone. “If we are to hear the words of Jesus,” wrote St Ignatius of Antioch (1st/2nd century), “we must hear his silence too.” Kneel by his cross, if you will, but it is better to sit, because we are going to have to stay a long time: all our life, in a way. We have to sit with our own pain and sorrow and resist the temptation to ‘solve’ them or avoid them. Only into silence will they pour out their meaning. Through the centuries millions of people have survived terrible Calvaries because they had learnt something utterly profound from the Cross of Christ.
The French have a proverb: Friday is always the best or the worst day of the week. Which it is to be depends, I suppose, on what's in store for you at the weekend. It is Easter Sunday that makes Good Friday good. It is the end that gives meaning to a story.
11 April [Easter Vigil]
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for His appearance was like lightning and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' This is my message for you.”
So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
There is no Eucharist of Holy Saturday. The altars are stripped bare, tabernacles lie open and empty – an extraordinarily powerful symbol for Catholics. The whole Church is one with Christ in his death. It is necessary to experience this. We have to allow ourselves to experience sadness and loss. The Liturgy is a wise teacher.
However, piety immediately negates the power of the empty tabernacle by setting up an ‘altar of repose’, much more elaborately decorated with flowers and lighted candles than the high altar ever was. We find it hard to live even for a day with anything that seems like emptiness.
George Steiner, among others, remarked that our world around us today is a kind of prolonged Holy Saturday: the age between Friday and Sunday, between defeat and hope. Today, of all days, the Christian heart feels the darkness of the world, and allows itself to look at the darkness in itself.
The emptiness and darkness that we have allowed ourselves to feel will show us the light of Easter all the more brightly. In the darkness we rise for the Easter Vigil. Against a black sky we light the Easter fire. But this would be a forlorn gesture if Christ were not risen from the dead! Suddenly the Paschal candle is alight. Lumen Christi! – the light of Christ lightens our darkness. Exultet! – “Exult, all creation...! Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendour, radiant in the brightness of your King.... Darkness vanishes forever...! Let this place resound with joy, echoing the mighty song of all God's people!”
12 April [Easter Sunday]
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.
Echoing an ancient homily, Meister Eckhart said that it was because Mary Magdalene had nothing else to lose that she dared approach the tomb; the apostles had run away because, by implication, they were still trying to save themselves, or trying to save something for themselves. She had lost everything else, he said, "and so she was afraid that if she went away from the grave she would lose the grave as well. For if she had lost the grave she would have nothing left at all." In fact, she lost the grave as well, because it was no longer really a grave: it did not contain the body of Jesus. Yet it was in this state of utter deprivation that the Resurrection took place. It did not take place on the mountain-tops, or on a bright cloud, but in the heart of the grave, the 'degree zero' of human life. It was because Mary Magdalene had the heart to stay by the grave that she became the first bearer of the news of the Resurrection; she was the first Christian preacher.
At first she could not see Jesus anywhere. Why? "Because she kept looking further away than he was," said Eckhart. She kept looking for a dead body, an object; but Jesus was alive and standing beside her. We are at home with objects; they are at arm's length and we can deal with them. We make this kind of knowledge-at-arm's-length the standard of all knowledge. It is all right for dealing with objects, but the Risen Christ is nearer to us than any object. "Why are you seeking the living among the dead?" (Luke 24:5).
Christians through the centuries have focused a lot of reflection on that large stone laid to the mouth of the tomb. When Mary Magdalene went to the tomb she found the stone removed. That large material object – which might appear a convincing objection to faith – was gone; and she was the first witness to this. No tomb on earth can hold the Lord. No material stone, however heavy, can imprison him. But we should not imagine that material stones are the hardest and heaviest things in the world. Who would have guessed that thoughts, which are made of nothing at all, could be heavier and harder than any stone? But experience tells us it is so. We are able to seal our minds and hearts with immovable stones of prejudice, hatred and fear. "To behold the resurrection, the stone must first be rolled away from our hearts," said Peter Chrysologus (5th century).
[The women] left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, “You must say, 'His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.' If this comes to the governor's ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.
In a culture that did not accept as valid the testimony of women, it is remarkable that the four gospels did not hesitate to make Mary Magdalene’s the first testimony of the resurrection of Jesus.
The chief priests and the Jewish authorities also had a ‘first’: they were the first to give an explanation of the empty tomb. They would be followed by a cloud of theologians throughout the centuries who have tried to explain everything in the Faith. To explain is to explain away, because our explanations never do justice to reality. The word ‘explain’ comes from Latin and means ‘to flatten out’. A mystery flattened out is only a theory at best. Perhaps it will be especially through the testimony of women that the mysteries will become mysteries again.
Alleluia! is our word in the Easter season: sung, played, repeated endlessly. It is a cry of exultation – not a nervous and superficial one, such as you hear at a sporting event, but quiet, because deep. The joy of Easter is a deep joy that is not tied to any passing event but only to the resurrection of Jesus – and our rising with him.
Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
A frequent literary device in John’s gospel is the use of gradual recognition, or misunderstanding as a stage on the path to understanding: see for example, the conversations Jesus had with Nicodemus (ch. 3), the Samaritan woman (ch. 4), etc. In today’s passage we find it once again: Mary thought at first that Jesus was the gardener.
The moment of full recognition was when he spoke her name. This has a great deal of resonance throughout the Scriptures, from beginning to end. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘I am pleased with you and I know you by name’” (Exodus 33:17). Referring to himself, Jesus said, “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep…. The sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:2-3). A faith that does not go to the depth of one’s personal existence is not faith but theory. Even theology is not faith: a person may know a great deal of theology but have no faith. I heard a woman describe her husband, “He’s very interested in religion, but he has no faith.” Conversely, a person may know little about religion but have profound faith. St Thomas Aquinas said that one old lady (una vetera) may have more faith than a host of learned theologians.
Matthew’s account says, “The women left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy” (28:8). A tomb is not a place you come away from with joy: you come away in deep grief in the early days of bereavement, and later on with quiet resignation; hardly with joy! But with the death of Jesus there was to be no 'closure': the past was not to be closed up and sealed with nostalgia. The past had flooded into the present through the open tomb: the past is no longer past, it is timeless. This is the destruction of time. “Christ yesterday and today and the same forever” (Heb. 13:8).
Two of [Jesus’ disciples] were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognising him. And he said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?" He asked them, "What things?" They replied, "The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him." Then he said to them, "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, "Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over." So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him; and he vanished from their sight.
They said to each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?" That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, "The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!" Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
The minds of those two defeated men were turned entirely to the past and its regrets. Everything seemed finished (“we had hoped…”), but now they were without hope.
Jesus did not reveal his identity in a blinding flash, he entered their conversation, he entered the past with them; he sifted it with them – but differently.
Their hopes had been political: “we had hoped that he was the one to set Israel free.” Deep in their hearts they were disappointed politicians, not disciples. It is not so surprising. It is much easier to be a politician at heart than to be a disciple. There are far more politicians in the world than you would think. Millions of people have the mind of a politician. A politician wants to change other people. But a disciple is one who is willing to be changed.
Jesus listened patiently to the version of history that those two men had. He didn’t cut them off after a few words. He heard them out. Had he cut them off, their doubts and objections would have remained inside them, suppressed and therefore all the more powerful. He listened, and in the light of what they said he read the past for them in a new way. “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”
He did not impose his understanding of the past on them. Neither did he impose his understanding of the future. He waited for them to invite him. When they came near the village they said, “Stay with us!” He did not impose himself; he allowed them the courtesy of inviting him freely. Faith is God’s invitation to us: “Go into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet” (Matthew 22:9). In practice it has not always been so: many of us still remember the violence with which religion was forced on us in the past: physical violence in the case of children, moral and spiritual violence in the case of adults. Force always gives rise to counter-force. Many have this counter-force working in them and have become deaf accordingly to the invitation of Christ.
Christ does not force us, he invites us. But it has to be an invitation on our part too. Faith is a mutual invitation, because it is an invitation to friendship with God.
“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” This language is a clear reference to the Eucharistic. “Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him.” This is how future disciples will recognise him too, in “the breaking of bread” – an early term for the Eucharist.
But immediately “he vanished from their sight.” They will not be able to possess him as an object, nor locate him in himself alone. Henceforth he is “the head of the body, the Church” (Colossians 1:18). He did not call us to be ‘alone with the Alone’ (whatever that odd phrase meant!), but to be the new community. And he is no longer simply an historical figure, a regretted lost friend, a memory; he is the way forward; he is the Way to the Father; “through him we have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18).
[The disciples] told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.
While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.
“He stood among them.” John said (20:19) that they were huddled together, with the doors locked, for fear of the Jews; then he uses the same words as Luke: “Jesus stood among them.” He did not have to fumble with a key, or knock loudly (which would have made them lock the door even more securely) or call out (they would not have believed). He just stood suddenly inside the circle of their fear. Left to ourselves we would remain imprisoned forever inside that locked door, and all efforts to bring us out would have the opposite effect. The Risen Lord comes to meet us where we are, comes without violence, without argument or explanation, comes to liberate us into joy.
They had so recently deserted him, but he “stood among them,” and greeted them with peace. Everything in Luke’s account is intended to express the reality of Jesus' presence. By eating he is demonstrating that he is not a ghost. In John's account, Jesus shows his hands and feet to show the marks of the nails, but in Luke's account there is no mention of the wounds. Showing them “his hands and his feet” was intended to show them his physical reality (“flesh and bones” rather than ghostly), but not necessarily the marks of crucifixion. The idiom “flesh and bones” derives from “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” of Genesis 2:23 (Adam so describing Eve), so the reference was to equal and shared humanity.
To say things is easy: just creating a slight disturbance in the air. When we've said a lot of things we have the impression that we've done something, but we have only been breathing in a more complicated way. You can say the universe is 13.7 billion years old, but what have you said? You can say God made the world, but do you have any idea what you said? A good test of whether you understand something is to get yourself to say it without words – to say it with the body. The body is our first language. The verbal language we speak is shadowy beside it. Zen teachers don’t say ‘Tell me’; they say ‘Show me’.
Our “flesh and bones” are material of the resurrection. The Russian theologian, Paul Evdokimov, wrote about the ways in which matter and nature (including human nature) are represented in some forms of modern art. We are looking, he said, at a “closed and atheistic world...a world of still life and dead matter which is no longer the substance of the resurrection.” But the Christian faith affirms that this mortal body of ours, because Christ shared our human nature, is destined for things beyond our power to imagine.
The Liturgy says that God "has restored the joy of our youth." Joy is there when you put yourself fully into something. Small children, when they laugh, are all laughter; when they cry they are all sadness. But as we grow up we learn to drag ourselves along: half-way into things and no more. Half in and half out. If you walked like that you would resemble a person 100 years old. We have to learn to go fully into everything we do and say and think: to die into everything. Then we will know something about resurrection.
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’
When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
When we are in doubt we return to what we know: the past. When we don’t know where we are going, we turn back. When Jesus was dead his disciples returned to their former way of life: they tried to go back to fishing. But “they caught nothing that night.” Even the past could give them no reassurance; they had nowhere to go. They had no future, they thought, because Jesus was dead; and now they seemed to have no past either. Tragedy and failure drove them into the present moment. It was in that cataclysmic Now that they saw Jesus. The Good News reveals itself in the Now. The Resurrection of Jesus is God's new deed.
Can I be said to ‘have’ the faith if I think of it only as an old ideology battling for survival against new? What about that cataclysmic Now that those broken-down disciples had to enter before they could see the Lord? There is a way of appearing very Catholic, and it is to appear very concerned with the past. How could this be the proper emphasis? Our faith is not a form of nostalgia or antiquarianism. We are already too prone to slipping away into the past when the present is too painful. If we follow the same line with our faith, we will not be witnessing to the resurrection of Christ, but only offering one another bland assurances that convince no one, not even ourselves. Unless we experience this ‘dying to oneself’, our words will offer nothing but routes of escape into a reassuring past.
Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.
People did not recognise Jesus very easily when he appeared after his resurrection. Some thought they were seeing a ghost (Luke 24:37); he showed himself “under another form” to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Mark 16:12); and even Mary Magdalene thought at first that he was the gardener (John 20:15).
We give supreme authority to bodily sight: “seeing is believing.” Aristotle said that sight is “our principal source of knowledge.” But this kind of sight was not adequate to recognising the risen Christ. It requires a seeing from the heart and the spirit, not from the eyes. People who claim today to have seen apparitions give the impression that they have exceptional faith; but what they are doing is just going back to eyesight and suggesting that this is superior to faith. Religion is always only millimetres away from fantasy and projection; it can be naive beyond words. A woman who claimed to have had a vision of St Joseph was asked how she knew it was St Joseph. “Sure, doesn't everyone know what St Joseph looks like?” she replied.
God is not captured by the eye, nor even by the mind. “We cannot grasp what God is,” said St Thomas Aquinas. We cannot ‘grasp’ God – neither with our eyesight nor with our minds. God cannot be possessed in the way we possess a thing; it is the other way around: we are possessed by God; we are grasped by God.
Our faith is a bottomless ocean. How could it be otherwise? St Paul prays that the Ephesians, “knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond all knowledge… [will be] filled with the utter fulness of God” (Ephesians 3:19).
19 April [2nd Sunday of Easter]
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
The year was about 90 A.D. John's generation was disappearing; none of the younger Christians had known Jesus in the flesh, nor had they witnessed his appearances after the Resurrection. John's gospel wants to include them. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
Thomas refused to believe what he had not seen; later he saw and believed. What did he see? Nothing that a sceptic couldn’t reasonably doubt. "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead" (Luke 16:30). It takes more than eye-witnessing to make faith. A faith that restricts itself to what is evident to the senses and reason is faith in reason, not faith in God or in Jesus…. Religious faith is not a balance of evidence but an opening of the mind and heart.
Is our faith irrational then? The traditional answer is no: it is not against reason, but beyond it, nevertheless overlapping in part. There is a strong temptation to remain within that overlap, effectively reducing the faith to a kind of "philosophy for the millions." If a person wanted to discredit the faith, the best way would be to argue weakly in its favour. In rejecting the arguments, people would also reject the faith. Sadly, this is just what we often do.
An argument is like a lock; we talk about 'clinching' an argument. It is always useful to ask yourself what you have won when you have won an argument. What have you pinned down and enclosed, what do you now have in your grip? It can often be a lonely thing to win an argument; you are left with a little patch that you have identified with yourself, and you have missed the wide world.
The disciples had locked themselves in. Fear was their motive, as it is the motive behind all locks. Suddenly, "Jesus came and stood among them." It does not say that he knocked on the door and asked to be admitted: they would not have believed him anyway. It does not say he rattled keys in the lock: that would have frightened them even more. Inexplicably, against all sense and reason, he stood among them; he stood within the tight circle of their fear. Fear is a lock that can be opened only from the inside.
Jesus still stands within the sealed and guarded heart, if we dare to let ourselves believe it.
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’
Nicodemus is an interesting character. He appears three times in John’s Gospel: in chapters 3, 7 and 19. In all three scenes he is hesitating and hanging back, or he is arriving too late. He appears a man of hesitation and half-action, the patron saint of all waverers and half-believers.
In his first appearance he comes to Jesus by night, because he is afraid for his reputation. (today’s reading). He was a leader, so he had to be careful and cover his tracks. Such a careful man finds it hard to hear what Jesus is saying about the Spirit. The Spirit is like the wind, Jesus is saying; “you hear its sound, but you don't know where it comes from or where it is going.” And you, Nicodemus, will be like that if you are born in the Spirit; “it is like that with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” What! - not know where I'm coming from or where I'm going? But I have this compulsion to know precisely that at every turn. Then, Nicodemus, you will never know more than you know now; it clings to you, and you cling to it.
In another of his appearances (chapter 7), instead of making an impassioned plea for Jesus he asks a half-hearted question: “Does our law condemn people without first hearing them...?” And instead of following it up, he leaves it hanging in mid-air. He was among other Pharisees, and a moment earlier the question had been asked (it was more a statement than a question), “Have any of the rulers or the Pharisees believed in him?” The sense of the question was, “Can't you see that no Pharisee believes in him!” In that atmosphere of certainty, Nicodemus’s timid question was totally ineffective.
In his third appearance (chapter 19) he was too late: Jesus was already dead. He brought myrrh and aloes to anoint the dead body. He could relate better to a dead Christ. He was not there at Pentecost. He was watching where he came from and where he was going. John’s gospel plays constantly on the theme or light and darkness. Nicodemus was a creature of the shadows, half-way between light and dark.
Jesus said: Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
In Hebrew and Aramaic, the scholars tell us, the same word means ‘spirit’, ‘breath’, and ‘wind’. These are well known and yet unknown realities. Of the four elements – fire, air, earth and water – only earth has fixed shapes; and in the long run even these shapes are not fixed. But the most volatile of the elements is air. The world is perpetually changing, and it’s hard to “get a fix on it,” as they say. But do we have to get a fix on it before we can live in it? Not at all. We live quite successfully with the unfixed and the unknown. In fact there is no fixity anywhere, except as a thought in the mind.
“Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything” (Qoheleth 11:5). The words of Jesus in today’s passage may be an echo of that verse. “The wind blows where it pleases…. It is like that with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” It is the same then with the Holy Spirit as with wind, spirit, breath….
Alan Watts once remarked that “a certain type of mind is frightened by the mutability, the elusiveness, and the mystery of life, and thinks of salvation as a state of everlasting fixity and certainty from which the disconcerting elements of spontaneity, surprise and mystery are largely removed.”
Jesus said, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’
“God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it.” It is much easier to condemn the world than to save it, much easier to say what you disapprove of than to go out and do something useful for other people.
For a couple of years I was receiving a newsletter from an extreme right-wing group of Catholics. The contents were pure poison: slander, calumny, detraction – all the vices whose names we learned in the penny Catechism. The local bishop was the special object of their hate. I frequently asked them to remove my name from their mailing list, but the hateful thing kept coming. A friend told me how to deal with it: don't write ‘Return to sender’ on the envelope; write ‘Refused’. The senders then have to pay the return post! I did so, and it never came again. (Even wickedness has its price: in that case, the price of a stamp.) That group is probably still condemning everyone... but not to me!
It is easier to condemn than to do good. “In the evening of life you will be examined in love,” said John of the Cross. What you have condemned won't figure on the exam-paper at all – it’s the wrong subject. “Those who believe in him are not condemned,” John wrote. Of course he didn't write English! He would be astonished at some of our uses of the word ‘belief’. We speak, for example, about ‘nominal believers’. For John, such couldn't exist. Nor, I think, for earlier speakers of English. The word ‘belief’ comes from an old word, ‘lief’, used by Shakespeare but now obsolete, meaning ‘love’. There cannot be real belief without love. If John were to come back he might say to us, “Don’t tell me what you ‘believe’; tell me what you love.”
Jesus said, ‘The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all. He testifies to what he has seen and heard, yet no one accepts his testimony. Whoever has accepted his testimony has certified this, that God is true. He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God's wrath.’
“The Father loves the Son and has entrusted everything into his hands.” There are many similar phrases in John’s gospel. “The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he is doing” (5:20). “Jesus knew that the Father had put everything into his hands” (13:3). All that the Father has is mine” (16:15). “Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you” (17:7). The Son in turn gives everything to the Father, “All I have is yours, and all you have is mine” (17:10).
Jesus, in turn, has given us everything, “I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father” (15:15). “The glory you have given me, I have given them” (17:22).
The word ‘everything’ seems to be God's kind of word; and the word ‘all’. It was the fundamental command, the ‘Schema Israel’, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut 6:5). God is not interested in how much it amounts to, so long as it is everything: the widow’s mite was “all she had to live on” (Mk 12:44). We may not have much, but we have everything! When we give everything we have we are being drawn into the life of the Trinity.
Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.
When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.
When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’ When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
In Christian art, angels are depicted with wings; they are imagined sitting in the air. But we belong on the earth; we sit on the ground. In today’s gospel passage Jesus invited the people to sit on the ground.
Sitting on the ground is a symbol of poverty and powerlessness; it means we have no illusions of grandeur. We don’t often sit on the ground nowadays, and almost never at Mass. But when we are at Mass we are spiritually those disciples in today’s reading, sitting on the ground in humility and simplicity, sharing our poverty and (because of it) sharing the Lord's gift. Miracles seem to happen in situations of scarcity rather than plenty. Where there is plenty there is no need of miracles. Where there is plenty you don't have to struggle, you don't have to come up against realities too painfully, you just ease your way through with your credit card. But in the story those people had almost nothing. They had only five loaves to feed thousands. John says they were barley loaves. This was the cheapest kind of bread; in fact barley was really considered animal-feed. It is only the very poor who would eat barley loaves.
The miracle is that some kind of abundance came from that poverty. This is not the crude ‘gospel of prosperity’ that you sometimes hear from radio and television preachers. No, John would be sickened by such an interpretation. He is not talking about business, but about the Eucharist. Whatever divides us from one another (greed, self-sufficiency, illusions of grandeur) divides us also from God and God's gift.
25 April [St Mark, evangelist]
“Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptised will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.
Mark had a stormy beginning: he set out on a missionary journey with his uncle Barnabas, and Paul; but he quit after a while (Acts 13:13). Later, Paul refused to take him with him on another missionary journey (Acts 15:37-40). Then there are some years when nothing is heard of him. But when we meet him again, to our surprise he is a prisoner with Paul in Rome (Col 4:10); and Paul makes a few very appreciative references to him in a later letter (2 Tim 4:11). Mark had redeemed himself in Paul’s eyes. See? Even a great evangelist can be in the dog-house for a time. So why not you or I?
Mark’s gospel leaves an impression of breathless haste; it is like a child telling a story. Many sentences begin with “And”; he often uses phrases like “straight away”, “and immediately”; he uses the ‘historic present’ (“Jesus says to them,” not said), which gives a feeling of urgency. The Old Testament took thousands of years to unfold, but the New Testament unfolded in just a couple of years. There is an urgency about the gospels – Mark’s in particular – that makes it quite clear they are not just for reading; they are for doing.
In its original form Mark’s gospel has only a very inadequate account of the Resurrection. It ended at 16:8, “[The women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.....” This would be a very great anti-climax to the story of Jesus; the good news would not have gone very far. Scholars therefore talk about “the lost ending.” There is an ending in place, of course. Today’s reading is from that added part. It is regarded as canonical; but the style shows that it was not written by Mark. Good News gets out, one way or another.
26 April [3rd Sunday of Easter]
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognising him….
Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Emmaus by Cherith McKinstry (1928 – 2004)
St Mary’s Priory, Tallaght
Which of these three figures is Jesus? Not the one with raised hand: he is explaining something, but Jesus did no explaining at that moment; he just listened. The figure in the centre looks female. Did we take it for granted that both disciples were male? The text doesn’t say so; it names one, Cleopas, a man’s name, but it doesn’t name the other. In the story of the resurrection, up to that point, women disciples were far more in the picture than the men were; so it is quite likely that one of these two disciples was a woman. Then Jesus must be the one with the hat. We haven't seen many representations of Jesus wearing a hat. It puts his face in shade – perhaps a nod to the fact that the text says they didn’t recognise him.
There they are: two disciples with heavy hearts, full of regrets and foreboding, going in the wrong direction…. Jesus walks beside them and talks with them, but they are unable to recognise him. This story is an image of the life of the Church. What we have in today’s reading is an example of how Christians should read the Scriptures. The Lord is with them unawares. He teases out their fears and doubts and disillusionment.... He calls their attention to what they had overlooked or misunderstood. Finally they “recognise him in the breaking of bread.” This is a phrase that Luke repeats (verses 31 and 35), as if to make sure we notice it. Throughout, the language is eucharistic, the same that he had used a few chapters earlier in describing the Last Supper (22:19). That phrase, “the breaking of bread”, is used repeatedly in the Acts of the Apostles (also written by Luke) to refer to the ritual meal of the Christian community, the Eucharist (Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7; 27:35). Disciples in every century have continued to recognise him in “the breaking of bread.”
About five years later, Paul, the persecutor of Christians, was to have his strange experience. On the road to Damascus he was thrown to the ground and he heard a voice, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4, 5). Jesus, then, is still beside his followers. He is only dimly recognised and by few. “You were with me,” wrote St Augustine some centuries later, “but I was not with you” (Confessions, X, 27). But we are able to recognise him in the breaking of bread.
The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
“You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” We tend to approach everything and everyone, looking for our needs to be met. This is to be a beggar. It will certainly fall to us at times to be beggars, but we don't need to become full-time beggars. If we always come to Jesus only looking for our needs to be met, we are calling ourselves his beggars, not his brothers and sisters – God's beggars, not God's children. We are invited to come to Jesus to see the glory of God, and to God to do God's will.
In John's gospel, miracles are not so much acts of compassion (as in the other gospels) as signs of the glory of Christ. A sign points away from itself, but people weren't interested in looking beyond, he said. This is a distinctive theme of John’s gospel. John’s gospel was written many years after the others, and his aim was not just to recount the deeds that Jesus did (they were already familiar from oral tradition and from the other gospels) but to try further to discern their meaning. When John recounts a miracle by Jesus he follows up with a long discourse to clarify its meaning. The feeding of the five thousand, for example, is followed in today’s (and tomorrow’s) reading by a discourse on the Bread of Life. The healing of the blind man goes with Jesus’ claim to be the Light of the World (chapter 9). The raising of Lazarus goes with his claim to be the resurrection and the life (chapter 11).
The feeding of the crowd has a deeper meaning. Jesus wants to point to a deeper hunger and thirst in us than the obvious ones. "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water" (John 4:10); "My food is to do the will of him who sent me” (John 4:34).
The crowd said to Jesus, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
They said, “What sign are you going to give us then?” But he had just given them a sign! – a sign that impressed them so much that they wanted to make him king (verse 15). How are we to understand this?
When you look at the original you notice that the verbs are in the present tense, not in the future, as this and other translations have it. So the people do not seem to be asking for another sign, but rather for the meaning of the sign he had just given, as if to say: “What is this sign you are giving us…? Explain what you are doing!” They themselves are comparing his sign with that of Moses, who likewise produced food in the wilderness. Some Jews saw Moses as a king, so these are suggesting that Jesus should allow them to make him king (verse 15).
Jesus replied, “I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.” Again the question of tenses: in this case Jesus shifts their statement about Moses from the past to the present tense. The real provider of bread in the desert was God, and it is the same God (“my Father”) who in the present moment is providing bread for his people. But Jesus is more than a provider of bread like Moses; he is himself the bread that the Father is providing.
Like the Samaritan woman (chapter 4), they misinterpreted his statement, thinking he was talking about bread in the ordinary sense, just as she thought he was talking only about well-water. Later on, when they realised he was referring to himself, and not to bread, they were rather disappointed: “They began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven’" (verse 41).
Including this instance, Jesus uses the phrase “I am…” seven times in John’s gospel: I am the bread of life (6:35); I am the light of the world (8:12; 9:5); I am the gate (10:7, 9); I am the Good Shepherd (10:11, 14); I am the resurrection and the life (11:25); I am the way, the truth and the life (14:6); I am the true vine (15:1, 5). It has an echo of God’s ‘I am’ in Exodus 3:14. Jesus himself is God’s present tense, God’s ‘I am’.
Jesus said to crowd, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”
“Whoever comes to me will never be hungry,” he said. But they had come, and they were hungry! They had followed him up the mountain (John 6:3), bringing no food, and they were starving.
As always in John's gospel, there is another layer of meaning. The food they had eaten was real enough, but it symbolised another kind of food that he was providing for another kind of hunger. “I am the bread of life,” he said. I am what satisfies the deepest needs of humanity. I am the most intimate reality in your life: as intimate to you, as sustaining, as the food in your mouth. I am the one who keeps your awareness bright like a lamp, your heart warm, your will healthy, strong and gentle. I am the one who enables you to raise your eyes, to see beauty and glory in the world, and to open the eye of your spirit till you see God....
In a bookshop I saw the old penny catechism, which I hadn't seen in many years. Someone with an excess of nostalgia had it republished. It was strange to turn those pages again. The words were familiar, and somehow terrible – less for what they said than for what they didn’t say. In the first section, which dealt with God, God was described as Creator and Lord of all things, who rewards the good and punishes the wicked. ‘He’ was well positioned to do this, since he “sees our most secret thoughts and actions.” Nowhere did it say that God loved us – still less that God was love. I was suddenly aware of how damaged many of us were by that catechism. There was no knowledge of God in it. “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8). Mischief isn't only in what you say, it is also in what you fail to say. To fail to say, in a section specifically on God, that God is love, or that God loves us, is to show oneself to have been untouched by the New Testament.
“Whoever comes to me will never be hungry,” he said. That catechism left many starving, and it is not surprising that many starved to death spiritually. Today's gospel reading merits long meditation.
Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
“No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father,” he said. We cannot do it for ourselves – or for anyone else. It is a work of grace, God’s attractive power, not human pushing. In other times it was believed that we could be pushed into faith, or at least pushed towards it. But being pushed makes a person resist. It has often been said that if good were forbidden, more people would do it. The best way to move a person is to attract rather than push: we are more easily drawn from in front than driven from behind.
St Augustine commented on this verse, “He did not say lead, but draw. This ‘violence’ is done to the heart, not to the body.... Believe and you come; love and you are drawn. Do not suppose here any rough and uneasy violence. It is gentle, it is sweet; it is the sweetness that draws you. Is not a sheep drawn when fresh grass is shown to it in its hunger? Yet I imagine that it is not driven bodily on, but bound by desire. In this way too you come to Christ: do not imagine long journeying; in the very place where you believe, there you come. For to him who is everywhere we come by love, not by sailing.”
Attraction is always less clear and often appears less satisfactory than compulsion, but that's our life. Jesus rejected the way of compulsion and chose the way of love. It is messier than any other, sometimes almost chaotic. But the wisdom of the Gospel tells us it is the only one that has no built-in trap.
1 May [Joseph the Worker]
Jesus came to his hometown and began to teach the people in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, "Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?" And they took offence at him.
But Jesus said to them, "Prophets are not without honour except in their own country and in their own house." And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.
In this reading, Matthew’s gospel calls Jesus “the carpenter’s son” (verse 55), but Mark’s gospel simply calls him “the carpenter” (6:3). Mark never polishes the surface of the Gospel story, as the others do. Jesus was a carpenter, of course, as well as being the son of a carpenter. Otherwise, what was he doing for thirty years? We need to celebrate Jesus the worker as well as Joseph the worker.
In the past, manual work was referred to as “servile work”. It was forbidden on Sundays. If you were an accountant you could spend all your Sundays accounting, but if you were a farmer, for example, or a carpenter, you had to remain idle. ‘Servile’ comes from the Latin ‘servilis’, meaning ‘of a slave’. ‘Servile work’ means ‘the work of slaves’. This disdain for manual labour is certainly not from the Gospel – Jesus himself was a carpenter, or rather a builder, a techton (Mk 6:3). It came from class-conscious societies that expected manual workers to be ‘servile’ not only in their work but in their manners. It is tragic that this was ever allowed to infect Christian practice.
When pope Pius XII in 1955 established May 1 as the commemoration of St Joseph the Worker, it was an attempt to steal the fire of the Communist celebration. It was a late move, because in many countries the working classes had already been lost to the Church.
We could honour St Joseph today by consciously seeing our manual work as a way of meditation, and a way of sanctification. Redemption is through the body: every one of the Sacraments makes this evident.
Many of the disciples said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Commenting on John’s gospel, St John Chrysostom (347 AD – 407) wrote, "When questioning about the ‘how’ comes in, there comes in with it unbelief." Is faith capable of standing up to careful scrutiny? Defenders of faith usually say a defiant yes, while unbelievers say an equally defiant no. Perhaps this puts it too simply.
I have a friend who is a karate expert. I once asked him how he could smash a concrete block with his forehead without injuring himself. “I can do it because I don't doubt,” he replied immediately. A doubt, a hesitation, a shadow of fear: these are all forms of withdrawal, he said. When part of your mind is withdrawing while the other part is trying to push ahead, there is an inner civil war and consequent self-defeat. It is not the concrete block that defeats you, but you yourself. If you were to quote John Chrysostom’s saying to such a man, he would nod his head in agreement.
Faith is more like karate than it is like a philosophy. (There is more to it than this, but I am saying this for the purpose of comparison only.) It is often treated in academic circles, even by its defenders, as a kind of weak philosophy, now on the backfoot, an imprecise theory of everything. But it is first and foremost a manner of living. Jesus had little time for explanations. When Nicodemus asked him how a grown man could be born again, he didn’t say, “Let me explain it to you.” He said “Unless one is born again...” (John 3:5). And when asked how he could give his body as food, he provided no explanation; again he simply said, “Unless you eat...” (John 6:53). In each case he just placed the mystery there once again.
Does this mean that we stiffen up when people ask for an explanation of some matter in the faith? (They are quite entitled to explanations of church policy!) No, explanations are fascinating; we have to follow them in order to see the point where they fail. They are at their best at the very point of failure; that is where they really have something to teach us. They are a little like koans in Zen. But don't attempt to do theology without faith – you could hurt your head!
3 May [4th Sunday of Easter]
"Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers." Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
Today is known as 'Good Shepherd Sunday', and each year the gospel reading focuses on some aspect of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. This year (Year A) it is "I am the gate of the sheepfold" (Jn 10:1-10). Year B: "The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep" (Jn 10:11-18). Year C: "My sheep hear my voice … I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish" (Jn 10:27-30).
When Jesus said, "All who came before me are thieves and bandits," he can hardly have meant to include the great prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel…. But there were plenty of his contemporaries who deserved to be described as spiritual thieves and bandits. They are always a plentiful species - or 'we' if the hat fits. The expression 'a wolf in sheep's clothing' we owe to Aesop, whose stories have delighted and instructed children and adults alike for 25 centuries. "A wolf found great difficulty in getting at the sheep owing to the vigilance of the shepherd and his dogs. But one day it found the skin of a sheep that had been flayed and thrown aside, so it put it on over its own pelt and strolled down among the sheep. The lamb that belonged to the sheep, whose skin the wolf was wearing, began to follow the wolf in the sheep's clothing; so, leading the lamb a little apart, he soon made a meal of her."
A deceiver has to look like the real thing – has to look and sound genuine. Otherwise he will deceive nobody. Someone can quote and preach the Gospel to you, making all the right sounds and looking very serious, while robbing you spiritually – robbing you even of the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit in you: your real wisdom, your understanding…your fortitude…your joy…. Jesus gives the Spirit, the deceiver steals it away. You are in far less danger from someone who doesn’t sound in the least like a Christian.
The genuine shepherd "goes ahead of the sheep and they follow him." Perhaps that is the key to discernment. Does your shepherd go before you into the crises and the mysteries, or does he tell you what to do and then just look on? Would he suffer for you? Would he lay down his life – or even just his pride, or a generous measure of his time? If he is reluctant to do this, then beware of him.
But Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He goes before us (as shepherds did in those days). A great 20th-century theologian said, “No matter how low you fall in your life, you will meet Jesus coming up from deeper down to meet you.”
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
“You shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd.” These are the evil shepherds of Ezekiel 34, and Jesus identified the Pharisees with them.
Hearing that passage read in the synagogue throughout his youth, he must have absorbed it to the core of his being. Look at Ezekiel’s list: the weak, the sick, the wounded, the strayed, the lost. When we read the gospels we see that this list almost defines the life’s work of Jesus.
“I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” A scholar writes, "The relationship between God the Father and his Son is the original model and reason for Jesus' fellowship with his own." This knowledge that the Father and Son have of each other is not information or so-called ‘objective’ knowledge. It is intimate knowledge. Strange to say, it is this latter kind of knowledge that needs validation today.
In 1958 the distinguished scientist Michael Polanyi wrote a remarkable book entitled Personal Knowledge, in which he rejected as a fiction the ideal of ‘scientific detachment’. “In the exact sciences,” he wrote, “this false ideal is perhaps harmless, for it is in fact disregarded there by scientists. But… it exercises a destructive influence in biology, psychology, and sociology, and falsifies our whole outlook far beyond the domain of science.” Far beyond, even into the domain of theology. “Don’t talk about love,” I once heard a priest say; “leave that to the Franciscans. Let your motto be Truth!” What kind of truth do you get when you leave out love? Objective? Hardly that. In fact hardly anything. It is just a naïve belief, Polanyi wrote, that “true knowledge is impersonal, universally established, objective.”
The objective view of sheep is mutton. God help the parishioners whose pastor has an ‘objective’ view of them! St Paul’s ideal was different: “Speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). It carries an echo of the intimate knowledge between the Father and the Son.
At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”
It was the Festival of Lights, otherwise called the Festival of the Dedication, a week-long celebration commemorating the consecration of the Temple after its desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes about two centuries before Christ. Its culmination was (and still is) on the 25th day of the Jewish month called Chislev, which corresponds to December. It was a joyful feast, and everywhere was full of lights.
Yet, “It was winter,” says John – unnecessarily, it might seem, as he had already given the exact date. But scholars suggest that the phrase has the same significance as “It was night” at the Last Supper (13:30). ‘Winter’ is a word that evokes bleakness and darkness. The dark shadows are gathering.
Against this backdrop Jesus stands out as Light of the World and the Consecrated One. “I am the light of the world” (8:12), “I have come into the world as light” (12:44). They quiz him: “If you are the Messiah [= the Anointed One], tell us plainly.” Yes, the Father has consecrated him and sent him into the world (10:36).
He is the new Temple, the new Place of Meeting. We can think of the mind of Jesus, the ‘Christ-mind’ (see Philippians 2:5), as a vast lighted Temple, a Tent of Meeting with God.
Jesus cried aloud: “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness. I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge, for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.”
Jesus constantly referred beyond himself: “whoever sees me sees the one who sent me.” Light does that; it is invisible in itself, but it makes everything else visible.
But “the one who sent me,” the Father, is also invisible! – the Father who “lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:14-16). Clearly, light is just a metaphor for God. It is a particularly good one: in fact the word ‘divinity’ comes, they tell us, from a Sanskrit root meaning ‘to shine’. But it is still just a metaphor.
St Augustine wrote a very clear paragraph about it. “Urged to reflect upon myself, I entered under your [God’s] guidance the innermost places of my being; but only because You had become my helper was I able to do so. I entered, then, and with the vision of my spirit, such as it was, I saw the changeless light far above my spiritual ken and transcending my mind: not this common light which every carnal eye can see, nor any light of the same order; but greater, as though this common light were shining much more powerfully, far more brightly, and so extensively as to fill the universe. The light I saw was not the common light at all, but something different, utterly different, from all those things. Nor was it higher than my mind in the sense that oil floats on water or the sky is above the earth; it was exalted because this very light made me, and I was below it because by it I was made. Anyone who knows truth knows this light.”
This light is now our birthright. Still darkness clings to us, or rather we cling to it. We are not imprisoned; we imprison ourselves. Milton wrote somewhere about being one’s own dungeon. Like creatures kept too long in the dark, we are afraid of the light and of the open spaces. We cannot be forced out, because the dungeon is ourselves – we would bring it with us. But we are invited and charmed and coaxed out by the one who called himself “the light of the world.”
Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfil the scripture, ‘The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”
We have now reached a turning-point in John's gospel. Jesus’ public ministry is finished, and he is entering the phase of his passion and death. A scholar wrote, "In the first part of the gospel, which here closes, Jesus lives in complete obedience to the Father; in the second part he will die in the same obedience."
We are at the Last Supper, and he has just washed the disciples’ feet. This reversed the normal practice: it was a courtesy for a disciple to wash a rabbi’s feet. Particularly because of the moment in which it was done, this was a very compelling teaching. Like the Eucharist, it would be remembered forever. In John’s gospel there is no account of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Instead there is the washing of feet. When Jesus sat down again he said, in approximately similar words, “Do this in memory of me.” It is the Eucharist overflowing into practice.
The feet are the lowliest part of the body in a literal sense, and the farthest away from the head. And they are the most truthful, because they are farthest from the mouth. They are willing to go where hands would disdain to go; and when we touch something with the foot we haven't really established any personal contact with it. Yes, the feet are the most disowned part of the body. Yet they are our most fundamental and on-going contact with reality. And they are not the insensitive clods that they may appear to be: they are so highly sensitive that a foot-massage affects the whole body.
“If I do this for you,” he said, “so should you for one another.” The washing of feet stands symbolically for every lowly service we can perform for one another.