May
2020

GOSPEL COMMENTARIES

1 May [Joseph the Worker]
Mt 13:54-58
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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 May
Jn 6:60-69
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]
Jn 10:1-10
"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.” 

 

 

 

4 May
Jn 10:11-18
“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. 

 

 

 

 

 

5 May
Jn 10:22-30
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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 May
Jn 12:44-50
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.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 May
Jn 13:16-20
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.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8 May
Jn 14:1-6
Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.  And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

The metaphor of ‘path’ is universal in spirituality.  It is so deeply embedded that it scarcely seems a metaphor at all.  The metaphor extends itself into ‘climbing’, and gives us the titles of many classics: The Ascent of Mount Carmel (St John of the Cross), The Ladder of Perfection (Walter Hilton), A Ladder of Four Rungs (a 15th-century translation of a book by Guigo II), etc.  

In this passage Jesus spoke of a ‘place’.  This too is a metaphor, of course.  Eternal life has no geographical location.  He also spoke of the path (the “way”) in this passage: “You know the way to the place….” 

Metaphors are not strictly true or false in the way that literal speech is.  For this reason they don't exclude one another – as is clear from the way Jesus used two apparently opposite ones in the same sentence. 

Let’s dwell for a moment on the metaphor of place.   The ‘place’ of spirituality is always here, this place – just as the time is always now.  Are we not already here now?  Yes and no.  Physically I am always ‘here’, and the time is always ‘now’.  But in every other way I can be simply absent.  From this angle, spiritual development is less like making a journey than waking up from a dream.  In the dream you are in San Francisco or in Paris.  But to come back to reality you don't need to book a flight, you don't have to travel at all.  All you need is someone’s elbow in your ribs! 

An older translation had “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.”  The word comes from Latin manere, ‘to remain’.  ‘Mansion’ means a place where you stay.  In a hyper-active age it is helpful to be reminded not to move!  Let’s hear from Meister Eckhart: “People say: 'Alas, sir, I wish I stood as well with God or had as much devotion and were as much at peace with God as others are…. I can never manage it unless I am there or there, or do this or that; I must get away from it all, or go and live in a cell or a cloister.'   In fact, the reason lies entirely with yourself and with nothing else. It is self-will, though you may not know it or believe it…. Though we may think one should flee these things or seek those things – places or people or methods, or company or deeds – this is not the reason why methods or things hold you back: what prevents you is you yourself in the things, for you have a wrong attitude to things.  Begin therefore with yourself and forget yourself.”

 

 

 

 

 

9 May
Jn 14:7-14
Jesus said, “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

“Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied!”  One should hope so!  There is nothing beyond.  But perhaps what John had in mind was the echo of a passage in Exodus.  There Moses said to God, "Show me your glory, I pray," which the Septuagint translates, "Show me yourself" (Exodus 33:18).  God's reply was, "You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live."  But Jesus’ reply to Philip stands in perfect contrast to this: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

This was a clear expression of Jesus’ intimacy with the Father.  He is saying he cannot be understood apart from his relationship with his Father: “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”  On another occasion he said, “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30).  But he never said, “I am the Father.”  Between him and his Father is a vital relationship, and also a vital distinction.

Without imagining that we are ‘explaining’ Jesus and the Father, we can say that this is what personal life is like.  Inanimate things can fuse together as an amorphous whole, but union in personal life retains all vital distinctions.  There is union, and simultaneously difference.  Some holy person once said, “God and I are not one and we are not two.”  How do we understand this?  Try and figure it out!  According to the head we are two; according to the heart we are one.  Is that the answer?  An answer can be too clear.  I think we can answer it really only with our life, not with words. 

“The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do.”  ‘Faith’ and ‘works’ together in one phrase!  There have been centuries of argument about these words.  It’s clear, though, that Jesus is not referring to some sort of manipulative strategies on our part, but to action that flows directly from faith.  Without such action there would be no evidence of life.  As Paul put it, “the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). 

“In fact, [they] will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”  Jesus’ greatest work is still to come: his death, resurrection, ascension, and his sending the Spirit.  That Spirit will be poured out on them in abundance at Pentecost.  Johann Tauler said, “Imagine the Rhine in flood, with all the dams and barriers cleared away. How it would come rushing down in full stream, overflowing its banks as if to drown and submerge everything, filling all the valleys and meadows in its way! That is just how the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and all those whom He found ready to receive Him. And so He still does, unceasingly at every moment.”

 

 

 

10 May [5th Sunday of Easter]
Jn 14:1-12

Jesus said, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.  And you know the way to the place where I am going."  Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."  Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied."  Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?  Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.  Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

"I go to prepare a place for you," Jesus said.  We should not think of it as a physical space, but inevitably we do: that is how our imaginations work.  But we can free up the image a little, as St Teresa does with the 'interior castle'.  Eternal life does not mean being fixed as in amber; we will be alive in God, not dead in God.  God is a God of the living, as Jesus said (Matthew 22:32). 

"I am the Way," Jesus said.  Not a physical path, nor a programme, but a person whom we know.  We have seen him on his way: it is a way of forgiveness, love, hope, justice.  No one can come to God by force or violence, by tricks or shortcuts….

"I am the Truth," he said.  The truth is not abstract.  It is living in the eyes and mind and heart of this Friend.  We cannot reach it simply by thinking, nor even by agonising about it; it is not a formula or a theory; it is word made flesh. 

"I am the Life," he said.  Not just survival, nor half-life, but life to the full.  Not a question endlessly deferred, but life here, now, within our grasp. 

"Lord, show us the Father," said Philip.  His request echoed that of Moses, who said to God, "Show me your glory" (Exodus 33:18).  He believed that Jesus was capable of organising an experience for them such as that of Moses or Isaiah.  There was daring in the question: God had replied to Moses' request, "You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live" (Exodus 33:20).  His reply to Philip has shaped Christian awareness of Jesus' identity, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father…. I am in the Father and the Father is in me" (see also John 10:38).  He does not simply represent the Father, he presents him.  His words and actions have the Father as their source. 

"The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do."  His works have the Father as their source; so a disciple's works too have the Father as their source. 

 

 

 

 

11 May
Jn 14:21-26
Jesus said, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”

The word ‘abide’ is used repeatedly in the part of John's gospel that we are reading at Mass these times (10 times in the first ten verses of chapter 15).  It is variously translated as ‘live’ and ‘remain’ and 'make your home'.  It is a beautiful word.  It was a word much beloved of Meister Eckhart.  He wrote, “It is not right to love God for His heaven's sake, or for the sake of anything at all; but we should love Him for the goodness that He is in Himself.  For whoever loves him for anything else does not abide in Him, but abides in the thing he is loving Him for.  If, therefore, you want to abide in Him, you must love Him for nothing but Himself.” 

That is how a person behaves at home: we love the people there for their own sakes, not for what we can get from them.  St Teresa of Ávila said she would like to close down both heaven and hell, so that people would do good for its own sake, not because of greed or fear, and would love God for God's own sake.  That would be abiding in God. 

Equally, the Trinity abides in us.  “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”  He promised too to send the Holy Spirit.  This means that the Trinity lives in us.  And we in the Trinity. 

How did we get the idea that God was distant from us?  I suppose it was because many people spoke to us about God and neglected to mention that “God is love”.  Love brings near.  Fear separates, it makes you want to run away.  How terrible that we run away from our very Source like frightened animals!  How terrible that we feel like strangers and exiles from our own home, our abode. 

In the immortal story that Jesus told about the Prodigal Son, the father saw his son “while he was yet a long way off…and was moved to pity.  He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly.”  Then he gave him the best robe and put a ring on his finger.  This ring symbolised that he was a true son, and not a servant as he wanted to be.  That was Jesus describing God our Father.  How then could we ever have imagined that God was distant from us?  Even when we try to make ourselves distant from God, God remains close to us.  To quote Meister Eckhart again, “You need not seek Him here or there, God is no further than the door of your heart; there He stands patiently awaiting whoever is ready to open up and let Him in. No need to call to Him from afar: He can hardly wait for you to open up. He longs for you a thousand times more than you long for Him.” 

‘Abide’.  It is a word you might use to describe what you are doing in meditation: you are abiding, you are making your home in Christ, you are within his mind.  You are in God and God is in you.  You are in your true home. 

 

 

12 May
Jn 14:27-31
Jesus said,Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe. I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.  Rise, let us be on our way.”

In the Scriptures peace is always much more than a cessation of hostilities.  It is a right relationship with God and with others – with others because with God.  In this picture, there is no peace if there is no peace with God.  But we often settle for less, calling it peace: if we are not actually fighting, we say we are at peace.  We always say that war “breaks out,” implying it was always there, dormant, within us, just waiting to cross over into action.  Why not talk about peace breaking out?  Of course it can only break out if it is first within us.  But it is.  “Peace I leave with you,” Jesus said, “My peace I give to you.”

The Jews of old (and still today) say, “Shalom!” – which means, “Peace!”  This fine greeting too can become superficial unless we see some depth of God in it.  It was not just a vague wish for the other person, “Don’t worry, be happy!”  It was a prayer for full harmony with God – for salvation.  Here is the original text in which Jews were told to greet and bless one another with ‘Peace’: “Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them, ‘The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace” (Numbers 6:22-26).  This is a wonderful blessing, worth learning by heart, and using bravely on special occasions (instead of “Good luck!”).  It is a prayer for “the peace that the world cannot give.” 

An elderly German lady once asked me how we say “Grüß Gott!” in English. “We say, ‘Hello!’” I said. She looked at me in disbelief.  “That is not a greeting!” she announced. “That is something one says at a microphone to see if it is working!” God has to be in our greetings, she said; otherwise they are nothing but empty words. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

13 May
Jn 15:1-8
Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

Does society exist for the benefit of its members, as Herbert Spencer believed, or the members for the benefit of society?  If you say the first, you seem to be setting the stage for complete individualism; but if you say the second are you not sponsoring fascism?  So which is it going to be? 

We spontaneously assume that questions are perfectly clear and correctly put, and that only answers can be true or false.  (This assumption may have something to do with our early schooling.)  But there can be false questions, and the question above is surely false.  It is like asking whether your head is for the benefit of your body, or your body for the benefit of your head.  In a living organism everything is for the benefit of everything else.  The question assumes a false opposition.

St Paul said Jesus is the head of his body, the Church; he is the head, we the bodily members (see Colossians 1:18).  We cannot be divided from the head and retain any life at all.  Nor can a member separated from the body remain alive.  A living body is an organism, not a collection of parts.  We have to be careful about the images we use to describe the Church. False separations creep in subtly.  The image in today’s reading is even more striking than Paul’s: a vine and its branches.  Unlike a tree, where you can distinguish clearly between trunk and branches, the vine is just all branches!  “I am the vine and you are the branches”: the vine is the branches!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

14 May [St Mathias, apostle]
Jn 15:9-17
Jesus said, ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.  This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.’

Matthias might seem to have arrived when it was all over.  After the Ascension he was chosen by lot to fill the place left by Judas’s defection.  Peter made a speech: “‘One of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us – one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection….’  And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:15-26).   

It might seem that he arrived late, but in fact he was part of it from the very beginning of Jesus’ public life till the end; however, he is not mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament.  He played second fiddle – a vital position.  And just as he came from obscurity, he vanished into it again.  There was an apocryphal tradition that he preached the Gospel in Ethiopia, but it cannot be substantiated.  And there was a lost apocryphal Gospel of Matthias, mentioned by Origen and other early Christian writers. 

It would be interesting to know more, but when you have said that someone was a disciple of Jesus you have said the essential thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

15 May
Jn 15:12-17
Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

A wicked man, about to die, meets an angel at the gates to Hell.  The angel says to him: "It is enough for you to have done one good thing in your life, and that will save you.  Think hard.” The man remembers that one time, as he was walking through a forest, he saw a spider in his path and detoured so as not to step on it.  The angel smiles and a spider web comes down from the sky, allowing the man to ascend to Paradise.  Others among the condemned take advantage of the web, and begin to make the climb.  But the man turns on them and begins to push them off, fearing that the web might break.  At that moment, it breaks, and the man is once again returned to Hell. "What a pity," he hears the angel say.  "Your concern with yourself turned the only good thing you ever did into evil."

Jeanne Guyon, the 17th-century French mystic, wrote: "Those in the highest state of religious experience desire nothing except that God may be glorified in them by the accomplishment of His holy will.  Nor is it inconsistent with this, that saintly people possess that natural love which exists in the form of self-love.  But their natural love, which in its proper measure is innocent love, is so absorbed in the love of God, that it ceases, for the most part, to be a distinct object of consciousness; and practically and truly they may be said to love themselves in and for God.  Adam, in his state of innocence, loved himself, considered as the image of God and living for God.  So that we may either say, that he loved God in himself, or that he loved himself in and for God.  And it is because saintly people, extending their affections beyond their own limit, love their neighbour on the same principle of loving, namely, in and for God, that they may be said to love their neighbours as themselves. It does not follow that just because our self-love is lost in the love of God, that we are to take no care and to exercise no watch over ourselves.  None will be so seriously and constantly watchful over themselves as those who love themselves in and for God alone." 

This matches exactly what St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153) described as ‘the fourth degree of love: when you love yourself for God’s sake.’  “Happy is the one who has been found worthy to attain to the fourth degree, where one loves oneself only for God’s sake.... To love in this way is to become like God.  As a drop of water seems to disappear completely in a quantity of wine, taking the wine’s flavour and colour; as red-hot iron becomes indistinguishable from the glow of fire, and its own original form disappears; as air suffused with the light of the sun seems transformed into the brightness of the light, as if it were itself light rather than merely lit up; so, in those who are holy, it is necessary for human affection to dissolve in some ineffable way, and be poured into the will of God.”

The ego requires fight if it is to exist.  If it is not fighting it cannot exist.  So even when there is no one there to fight with, you fight with someone in your mind.  The ego isn’t in you; it is between you and another.  It is nothing in you.  In real love there is no ego, because there is no fight.  Yet are lovers not often fighting?  Yes.  Their being longs for love, their egos long for fight; so they do both, by turns.  

 

 

16 May
Jn 15:18-21
Jesus said, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, “Servants are not greater than their master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.”

There must be some dividend in hate; otherwise why would so many people invest so much time and energy in such a destructive passion?  There is some secret satisfaction in hatred. 
There’s nothing in this world so sweet as love,
            And next to love the sweetest thing is hate.  (Longfellow)
When you love, you lose yourself in some sense; you forget yourself, you take leave of the ego.  But hatred strengthens the ego by strengthening the sense of separation.  In a word, you feel you really exist when you hate; and perhaps this is the secret dividend.  And there is an illusion of being equal to the thing you hate.  It is a caricature of the equality in love.  If you hate an individual, you appear to be that individual’s equal.  If you hate a whole class of people, you are almost an archetype. 

Love needs to understand hatred if it is to escape its contagion.  Much of its work consists in dismantling structures of hatred.  That means dismantling the ego, and that is dangerous work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

17 May [6th Sunday of Easter]
Jn 14:15-21
"If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.  "I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.  In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.  On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.  They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them."

"The Lord is my shepherd," yes, familiar.  How would you feel if you heard someone say, "The Lord is my defence lawyer?"  Yet that is the basic meaning of the word 'paraclete'.  It has many different connotations, of course, in John's gospel: spokesperson, mediator, intercessor, teacher, comforter, consoler…. Everything except accuser.  There is hope for us all. 

If this sounds new to you, then you may have been thinking of God all along as your enemy and accuser.  Don’t be surprised: millions are in the same boat. 

"I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate," Jesus said; clearly, he himself is the first.  He is explicitly called that in 1 John 2:1, "We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the just one."  Sadly many Christians feel that Jesus too is their judge rather than their defence lawyer, spokesperson, mediator….  The accuser is Satan, not Jesus!  “The accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God” (Rev 12:10). 

The other Advocate or Paraclete promised by Jesus is the Holy Spirit.  He is a witness to Jesus; he will continue the work of Jesus, mediating the divine presence to the disciples; he will remind them of what Jesus taught them, he will continue to interpret Jesus to them. 

At the end of volume 1 of his 3-volume book on the Holy Spirit, Yves Congar, one of the greatest of 20th-century theologians, has a section entitled 'Substitutes for the Holy Spirit.'  He quotes the severe criticism by a P. Pare who claimed that the Catholic Church has three substitutes for the Holy Spirit: the Blessed Sacrament, the Blessed Virgin and the Pope.  Congar writes, "This criticism is certainly exaggerated…. Nonetheless, Pare is criticising something not entirely fanciful." Congar then goes on to quote hair-raising statements by popes, cardinals and bishops of the past that gave rise to Pare's criticism.  It shows clearly that when we leave the Holy Spirit out of the picture, we damage not only that particular doctrine of the Faith but all the other doctrines as well.  Congar continues, "Vatican II was explicit in giving the Holy Spirit the rightful place." 

Pope Pius IX (pope from 1846 to 1878), wrote, "The beginning, root and indefectible source of the unity of the Church is the supreme authority… of Peter and… his successors in the Roman throne."  But Pope Paul VI wrote in a very different vein, “It is the Holy Spirit who animates and sanctifies the Church.  He is her divine breath, the wind in her sails, the principle of her unity, the inner source of her light and strength. He is her support and consoler, the source of her charisms and songs, her peace and her joy, her pledge and prelude to blessed and eternal life.” 

What the soul does for the body the Holy Spirit does for the Church.  “Without the Holy Spirit,” said Ignatius of Laodicea (Orthodox Metropolitan, at the third assembly of the World Council of Churches at Uppsala, in 1968) “God is distant, Christ is merely an historical figure, the Gospel is a dead letter, the Church is just an organisation, authority is domination, mission is propaganda, liturgy is only nostalgia, and the work of Christians is slave labour.  But with the Holy Spirit, Christ is risen and present, the Gospel is a living force, the Church is a communion in the life of the Trinity, authority is a service that sets people free, mission is Pentecost, the liturgy is memory and anticipation, and the labour of Christians is divinised.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

18 May
Jn 15:26—16:4
Jesus said, “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning. “I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you.”

‘We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,’ wrote Paul (1 Corinthians 1:23).   What Christians proclaim is an event that has taken place, not a religious system or simply a ‘message’.  “The New Testament,” said a scholar, “is neither a collection of thoughtful essays nor an attempt to construct a system of ethics.  It bears witness to a unique history, and it discovers the truth in the history.”  Paul once tried the way of sweet reason (Acts 17), but people only laughed at him.  It may have been at that moment that he found his own voice.  From that point on he would proclaim “Christ and him crucified,” the event that was the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

This is why eyewitness and testimony are crucial.  Philosophical arguments and theories, while they may propose faith to you, can never bring you there.  Some people are hindered rather than helped by them.  A scholarly lady said to a confrère of mine, “It was Aquinas’s proofs for the existence of God that brought me into the Church.”  “I’m happy for you,” replied my friend, “they almost drove me out of it.”  Philosophical arguments, by their very nature, express skepticism and chosen limits to what one is prepared to accept.  In some periods of history there was a wide streak of rationalism in theology that alienated many and boxed up the faith in a suffocating system.  Large traces of this still exist.  The faith is not plausible, and any account of it that makes it so is throwing away the kernel of it.  There is nothing plausible about existence, or the world, or God, or the Incarnation, or the death of Jesus, or his resurrection…. What we proclaim is not a plausible account of life, a ‘philosophy for the millions,’ made palatable by striking images and stories, but a series of extraordinary events: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. 

“You are witnesses of these things,” said Jesus (Luke 28:48).  This was spoken to “the eleven and their companions.”  But ultimately it is spoken to every disciple.  We are to witness what the Spirit, the ‘Advocate’, has witnessed to us in our hearts and in our lives, among the community of believers.  We are to speak from experience.        

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

19 May
Jn 16:5-11
Jesus said: “Now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’  But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”

Here Jesus sounds more like a visitor than someone who took on our nature and became one of us forever.  ‘It is to your advantage that I go away.”  We have to try to understand how it is to our advantage.  “If I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you,” he added.  Rather than clarifying it, however, this makes it more obscure.  How could the continued presence of Jesus hinder the coming of the Spirit, the Paraclete?  In John’s gospel, the Paraclete is the continued presence of Jesus. 

Henceforth it is through the Spirit that we know Jesus.  The Spirit, the ‘Advocate’, he said, “will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (Jn 14:26).  Jesus is withdrawing his visible presence, but his Spirit remains with us. 

“It is to your advantage that I go away,” he said.   How is it an advantage?  If we assemble a few ordinary experiences we may find an approach to it. 

Every teacher, sooner or later, has to stand back.  If a teacher stays at your side forever, there are important things you never learn: independence, mental courage, an inner vigour that can only come from taking your own risks…. In other words, you have to learn from your own experience, and that is what a good teacher always sends you back to in the end.  Parents, too, have to learn to stand back.  The children of parents with very strong personalities are often passive and weak.  Whenever you see a powerful leader, look at what his leadership is doing to his followers.  He may think he is “strengthening the brethren,” but this is exactly the blind spot of an extravert.  Jesus has the wisdom to trust us, even though we make mistakes.  He wants to inspire us from within, not to control us from without. 

Does this mean that we lose Jesus, in some way?  Certainly not; the Holy Spirit is the spirit of Jesus.  This Spirit, Jesus said, “will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.”  Richard Rohr’s comment on this: “What you thought was sin was only your own guilt, what you thought was righteousness was self-righteousness, what you thought was justice was only your instinct for vengeance.”   These distinctions can only be learned from the inside. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

20 May
Jn 16:12-15
Jesus said: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

Someone said hindsight is always 20/20.  But hindsight is exactly what you don’t have in the present moment. 

In simple matters of fact, hindsight is a simple thing: you can see within the hour that you backed the wrong horse – or within seconds that you said the wrong thing.  But in deeper matters, hindsight is a slow process of realisation.  The Holy Spirit gives hindsight on Jesus. This is the Spirit working in us, the patient inner teacher, opening our minds slowly to the light that has long since come into the world.  The Spirit guides us (hodegeo) along the way; it is Jesus who is the way (hodos) itself – indeed the truth itself (Jn 14:6). 

“The Spirit will guide you into all truth,” that is, all the truth about God.  The Son has revealed the Father, and now the Spirit will reveal the Father by revealing the Son.  We are being attracted by the Spirit into the inner life of God. 

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”  The disciples to whom these words were addressed had the best of excuses for not having hindsight: the event had not taken place yet.  The event was the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.  They could not possibly have understood him at that time, except as a remarkable man. 

When disciples of any age consider Jesus without the guidance of the Spirit, that is what they find: a remarkable man.  There were so many boring things written in the 19th century about the ‘moral excellence’ of Jesus…. This would only get him a place among the Pharisees.  It is the Spirit alone that can draw us into the mind of Jesus. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

21 May
Mt 28:16-20 [In countries where the Ascension is celebrated today, Thursday]
The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

The Ascension marks the beginning of the time of the Church.  The solemn language of today's gospel reading marks it clearly.  The institution is already beginning to take shape: baptism is the rite of initiation into it, in some such way as marriage is the initiation of family.  The Church of this gospel reading is the Church here below, made up of human beings, mandated to teach, to preach and to initiate new members through baptism. 

There is a contrasting image of Church in the second reading, Ephesians 1:17-23.  There Paul tells the same story: "God…raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places."  But the angle of view is different.  The Church that is born of this event seems purely inner and spiritual, without apostles, without baptism, without institutions.  This Church is the Body of Christ, waiting here below, striving to come to perfection, member by member, so as to be like its Head and to follow him into glory and become "one body and one spirit" with him. 

Are there two Churches, then, or perhaps two visions of Church?  The Vatican II document on the Church (Lumen Gentium), is clear: "The society structured with hierarchical elements and the mystical Body of Christ – the visible society and the spiritual community, the earthly Church and the Church endowed with heavenly riches – are not to be thought of as two realities. On the contrary, they form one complete reality which comes together from a combination of human and divine elements” (no. 8).  It is sometimes hard work to hold the two together, especially today when many are disillusioned by the scandals within the organisation.  But battered and broken though it is, the Church has not been abandoned by Christ.  St Augustine wrote, "Just as he did not abandon heaven when he came among us, he does not abandon us when he returns there.  He is raised above the heavens, yet he suffers all the anguish that we, the members of his body, suffer."  “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross” (1 Peter 2:24).

Jn 16:16-20 [In countries where the Ascension is celebrated next Sunday]
Jesus said: ‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.’ Then some of his disciples said to one another, ‘What does he mean by saying to us, “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me”; and “Because I am going to the Father”?’ They said, ‘What does he mean by this “a little while”? We do not know what he is talking about.’ Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, ‘Are you discussing among yourselves what I meant when I said, “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me”? Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.’

The word for ‘a little while’ (mikron) is used seven times in this short passage.  Something is about to happen soon, but they don’t know what.  This is the way to be scared.  They can tell that it has something to do with death: the word here for ‘mourn’ is a word that is used for grief at a death. 

“You will have sorrow, but your sorrow will turn into joy.”  He did not say it would be replaced by joy, but it that it would turn into joy.  Joy will not come by repressing sorrow but by allowing it to be transformed. 

If I repress sorrow it does not go away; it is still there, working in me like a silent cancer, sapping my vitality from within.  And my ‘joy’ will have a quality of desperation; it will only be a mask for fear, like whistling in the dark.  I will be in the impossible situation of someone trying to run away from himself.  It is only by looking into the heart of sorrow that I can find real joy.  This contradicts common sense, but that is what you can expect from the Gospel. 

The Resurrection happened in the tomb.  This death-and-resurrection event, which we call the Paschal Mystery, is the heart of our faith, and if the heart isn’t beating, the body is dead.  We have a lot of cheap knowledge: knowledge that has not been bought at the full price of experience.  It is easy to sign up to a list of beliefs; it is as easy as saying ok.  But everyone knows only one or two things really.  We know the dying and rising of Christ to the extent that our own life is being shaped by it, no more, no less.  The disciples made an honest admission, “We don’t know what he is talking about.”  That is always the first step in understanding: to understand how little we know. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

22 May
Jn 16:20-23
Jesus said:Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labour, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. On that day you will ask nothing of me. Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.”

In the Irish language there are two different verbs for ‘ask’.  If you are asking a question, the word is ‘fiafraím’; if you are asking for anything else (help, for example), it is ‘iarraim’.  It is the same with the final verse of today’s reading.  Two different Greek verbs are translated as ‘ask’. One, ‘erotao’, is used for asking questions; the other, ‘aiteo’, usually refers to petitions.  It is not as watertight a distinction as in Irish, but the idea is the same. 

‘On that day you will ask (erotao) nothing of me.  Very truly, I tell you, if you ask (aiteo) anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.’  Paraphrasing this we could say, “When you see me again you won't be full of questions, you will be doing something: you will be interceding with the Father in my presence.”  Any teacher in any school will tell you how quickly a religion class disintegrates into a debate, and further into a shouting match.  It is much easier to talk about something than to take it to heart or to do it.  Talking is often a substitute for doing. 

A 19th-century British Prime Minister, William Lamb, once famously remarked, on hearing an evangelical sermon, “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade the sphere of private life.”  One way to avoid the challenge of religion is to keep it out there in the public sphere, along with ceremonies like the Changing of the Guard.  Another very successful way, paradoxically, is just the opposite, and it seems to be the preferred one today: make it so private that you no more need to give an account of it than you do of your circulation or your digestion. 

But the Faith is something you do in the first place, and afterwards talk about if you must.  “I'd rather see a sermon than hear one any day.”  An adherence to the Faith that is not also an adherence to prayer – Liturgy and informal prayer – and to service of others, is only talk.  Oscar Wilde said that talking was the only form of exercise he ever took.  Spoken like a Christian!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

23 May
Jn 16:23-28
Jesus said, “On that day you will ask nothing of me. Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.  ‘I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father. On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father.”
“On that day” (that is, ‘when you see me again’, after the resurrection) “if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.”  He is saying that our prayer should be addressed to the Father, but “in my name”, that is, in the presence of Jesus.  This is the pattern of prayer in the Liturgy.  The Eucharistic prayer is invariably addressed to the Father, “through him (Jesus), with him and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit.”  All our prayer has the pattern of the Trinity stamped on it. 

This does not mean that we should never pray to anyone but the Father.  In the Catholic tradition we feel free to pray to Jesus, Mary and the saints, but always in the full knowledge that the Father is the ultimate destination of all prayer – just as all streams, even the raindrops running down your window pane, are making their way to the sea. 

‘Ask the Father,’ Jesus said.  If you put the emphasis on the word ‘ask’, you get words in different languages like pray, pregare, prier, beten – all of which mean ‘ask’.  But one of the Irish words for prayer is ‘paidir’, which comes from the Latin ‘Pater noster’ (Our Father).  The focus is firmly on the Father. 

I once met an elderly lady in the Philippines who made it her apostolate to spread devotion to the Father.  Everyone else, she said, has promoters and devotees of all kinds, “but the poor Father is totally neglected already!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

24 May [Ascension]
Mt 28:16-20

Mt 28:16-20 [In countries where the Ascension is celebrated today, Thursday]
The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

The Ascension marks the beginning of the time of the Church.  The solemn language of today's gospel reading marks it clearly.  The institution is already beginning to take shape: baptism is the rite of initiation into it, in some such way as marriage is the initiation of family.  The Church of this gospel reading is the Church here below, made up of human beings, mandated to teach, to preach and to initiate new members through baptism. 

There is a contrasting image of Church in the second reading, Ephesians 1:17-23.  There Paul tells the same story: "God…raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places."  But the angle of view is different.  The Church that is born of this event seems purely inner and spiritual, without apostles, without baptism, without institutions.  This Church is the Body of Christ, waiting here below, striving to come to perfection, member by member, so as to be like its Head and to follow him into glory and become "one body and one spirit" with him. 

Are there two Churches, then, or perhaps two visions of Church?  The Vatican II document on the Church (Lumen Gentium), is clear: "The society structured with hierarchical elements and the mystical Body of Christ – the visible society and the spiritual community, the earthly Church and the Church endowed with heavenly riches – are not to be thought of as two realities. On the contrary, they form one complete reality which comes together from a combination of human and divine elements” (no. 8).  It is sometimes hard work to hold the two together, especially today when many are disillusioned by the scandals within the organisation.  But battered and broken though it is, the Church has not been abandoned by Christ.  St Augustine wrote, "Just as he did not abandon heaven when he came among us, he does not abandon us when he returns there.  He is raised above the heavens, yet he suffers all the anguish that we, the members of his body, suffer."  “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross” (1 Peter 2:24).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

25 May
Jn 16:29-33
Jesus’ disciples said, ‘Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech!  Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’

It was not the first time that disciples claimed to have perfect understanding.  Earlier in the gospel Peter had said, “We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (6:69).  The same Peter also claimed to be ready to lay down his life for Jesus (13:37).  Both claims proved to be more than a little premature. 

Ignorance is bliss, we say.  It is effortless and unlimited, a calm unruffled sea.  But knowledge has narrow boundaries that are the cause of endless argument and conflict.  Knowledge always drives you out of some kind of paradise and sets you against your brother.  Then begins the long futile struggle to regain that infinite calm… by knowing everything.  It is ultimately futile because everyone, even the most learned, remains ignorant – only about different things.  And so the wisest words of all are “I don’t know.”  Socrates wanted to know who was the wisest person in Athens.  The Delphic Oracle replied, “You are!”  “That is impossible,” said Socrates, “because I am aware that I know nothing.”  “That,” said the Oracle, “is why you are the wisest person in Athens.”

Those disciples of Jesus thought they had finally understood everything about him.  They were full of confidence – because they had not yet seen the cross.  “The cross of Christ,” as Paul would see so clearly later on, “is foolishness,” but this foolishness is God’s wisdom.  “Where is the one who is wise?  Where is the scribe?  Where is the debater of this age?   Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world…?  Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (I Cor 1:18-24).   Before the crucifixion the disciples thought they finally had it all together, that they had Jesus in a kind of frame; but he promised them that they would be scattered.  They would all be scattered until they were gathered again beyond the cross by the Risen Christ. 

In the New Community, the Church, it is a new kind of knowledge that will hold them together: a knowledge that doesn’t look like knowledge at all.  The mystics through the ages have spoken of it from experience.  “The mind is amazed at the extent of all it can understand,” wrote St Teresa of Avila, “for God wills it to realise that it understands nothing of what he represents to it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

26 May
Jn 17:1-11
After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.  I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

“This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (verse 3).  In other words, eternal life is a relationship with God and Jesus. 

This relationship is real now, in this life; it doesn’t have to wait until after we have died.  There is a human tendency to project things into the future (that's one of the ways we cheat ourselves).  When it comes to ‘eternal life’ we tend to project it right out of this world.  This is not a religious instinct; it is just a normal lazy tendency to put everything off till another time.  The religious instinct is to dive in here and now.  Eternal life is now, not later on.  You could shock your friends by saying that there is no such thing as a next life.   All life is now.  As you live, it is always now; when you die it will be now; after you have died, it will be now.  Nothing was ever done, nothing ever happened but now

The expression ‘pie in the sky’ was a parody of a pious hymn called ‘The Sweet By and By’.  If we don’t stay with the here and now, we are left dreaming about a sweet by and by.  Look  through the gospels and notice how often Jesus uses the word ‘today’.  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4.21).  “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9).  “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).  Our hunger for life, like our hunger for food, can't be put off till tomorrow. “Give us today our daily bread” (Mt 6:11).  The hymn went: “In the sweet by and by / We shall meet on that beautiful shore.”   After the death of Jesus the downhearted disciples went back to the only thing they knew: fishing.  In the grey light of dawn (and not through rose-tinted spectacles) they saw a familiar figure on the shore.  “[John] 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” (Jn 21:7).  That shore was not in another world, it was here; and time was not the sweet by and by, but now.  It was here and now, and Peter dived in. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

27 May
Jn 17:11-19
And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

“Many believed in his name” (Jn 2:23); “They have not believed in the name…” (Jn 3:18).  These are common expressions in the gospel.  They occur in today’s reading, “Keep them in your name,” and “I kept them safe in your name.” 

What is there to believe in a name?  A name is only a word.  Is our faith just a belief in a set of words?  On TV haven't we seen frenzied mobs, too often, shouting slogans, claiming to be defenders of their faith?  What are we defending when we defend our faith?  Words?  Could someone die for a few words? 

St Thomas Aquinas wrote, “The act of faith is not directed to the formulation but to the reality.”  We don’t believe in the Creed, we believe in God.   

In the language of the Scriptures, the name is equivalent to the person, or the presence of the person.  The Jewish practice of calling God ‘The Name’ appears to have been imitated in early Christian references to Jesus.  “They rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonour for the sake of the Name” (Acts 5:41). 

In today’s reading then, Jesus is saying, “I kept them safe in your Presence… Holy Father, keep them in your Presence.”

When you make the sign of the cross you could equally well say: “In the presence of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

28 May
Jn 17:20-26
Jesus said, ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. "Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’

“That they may all be one.”  That each may live somehow beyond the ego…. The ego wants above all to be separate and independent, but on its own terms.  When it suits it to merge itself it will do that too.  There are many lower mergings of the self: fascism, mob violence, alcohol and drugs, addictions and compulsions of all kinds…. These offer a kind of forgetfulness, assuaging the pain of isolation.  And so the isolated ego swings between these extremes, each extreme driving it back to the opposite extreme with increasing force.  That is the life of the ego when it is in full command.  When this is translated into society, and popular culture glorifies it, how can society be other than violent and self-destructive? 

Love is a higher merging of the self: a merging that is not a flight but a reaching out.  It is the only thing that will save us.  Other creatures have the safeguard of healthy natural instincts that are not twisted by a crazed intelligence.  But we are at our own mercy.  Learning to love now means learning to survive. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

29 May
Jn 21:15-19
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’
(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.)  After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

In Greek, as in every language, there are several words for ‘love’.  ‘Philein’ means to love someone as a friend; ‘agapan’ means to love someone in the distinctive New Testament sense: to love them unselfishly, unconditionally, creatively, in the way that Jesus loved.  This kind of love is mysteriously deeper and wider even than friendship, because it doesn’t depend on like-mindedness as friendship does; it can even reach out to include enemies. 

In English translation the difference does not appear, but it is there in the original Greek.   Peter was not able to rise to heroic love, agapè, but he could manage friendship.  “You know I love you,” he replied to Jesus (using the word ‘philein’).

Do we have to say he failed the test?  No.  Friendship is a deep mystery in itself; “I have called you friends,” Jesus said (Jn 15:15).  It is the best rehearsal for agapè.

But it is not without difficulties.  Goethe once said that when our friends are with us we don’t think the same of them as when they are absent.  This, he said, is because “absent friends are yourself, and they exist only in your head; whereas the friends who are present have individualities of their own.”  This is a sharp insight into the brittleness of friendship: it can be infiltrated and even swallowed up by the ego.  I may love my friends only so long as they love me and agree with me and support my self-image.  “No medicine is more valuable than a friend,” said St Aelred of Rievaulx.  But what if my friend makes a diagnosis that doesn’t flatter me? 

Perhaps it comes to this: I must be aware how subtly and quickly the ego begins to deny the independent existence of the other person, turning him or her into a function of myself.  I must realise: it is the other person’s difference from me that will teach me and challenge me and drive me out of my ego-trance.  But at that point, friendship is already turning into agapè. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

30 May
Jn 21:20-25
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’
            So the rumour spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’ This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.
But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

At an earlier time Peter sounded very courageous, even heroic.  “Lord, why can I not follow you now?” he had said, “I will lay down my life for you” (Jn 13:37).  As events unfolded, he failed to live up to his brave talk, preferring instead to save his own skin.  That was a profound lesson in humility, and he was now a more truthful man for it. 

Today’s passage is the closing scene of John’s gospel, and in it Peter is invited once again by Jesus to “Follow me!”  Peter is now in a better position to understand what following Jesus will involve.  Jesus spells out the cost of that love that Peter has just professed three times (yesterday’s reading).  In his youth Peter was able to follow his own sweet will, but now “you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (verse 18). 

Peter has been given a leadership role in the community: “Feed (or tend) my sheep.”  He can have no illusions about what that will entail.  He will not lord it over others; instead, like the Good Shepherd, he will give his life for them.  He was crucified during the persecution by Nero in the mid-sixties of the first century.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

31 May [Pentecost Sunday]
Jn 20:19-23
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.’

A French writer describes the human spirit as “the unassailable, unchangeable, indestructible core, the keen point of the soul which alone can approach the Absolute and unite itself with the Divinity” (Jacqueline Kelen, La Faim de l’Âme).  This idea of spirit as a hard inner core is widespread, even among people from whom you would expect better.  Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), in his famous book Walden, gave this account of why he went to live in a hut in the woods: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life ... I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”  Such aggressive verbs!  -  to front, to suck out, to put to rout, to cut, to drive, to reduce….  All this tough talk about a hard inner core is somehow unconvincing.  People who are sure of their strength don’t talk or write like that.  It is more defiant than descriptive.

The word ‘spirit’ means breath.  This does not suggest a hard aggressive core but a soft give and take.  St Peter, who was probably much tougher than Thoreau, could use gentle language to describe that ‘inner core’: “the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4).  It matters a great deal how we describe our inner being; it matters not only for our self-understanding but also for our understanding of God.  We are the primary image of God, and if we have a hard mechanical sense of ourselves, our image of God will be similarly hard and separate.  It may well match the image of God in, say, Sheehan’s Apologetics long ago, but it has nothing to do with the Father of Jesus Christ.  St Paul, who was even tougher than Peter, could write, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Eph 4:30).  The Spirit of God is gentle, which does not mean weak.  Real strength is always gentle.  One moment’s experience of God's Spirit is enough to do away with all talk of an indestructible inner core attempting to “approach the Absolute and unite itself with the Divinity” – as if we could do such a thing by our own heroic efforts.   

By way of relief, read these lines by Jessica Powers on today’s feast of Pentecost:
That was the day when Fire came down from heaven,
inaugurating the first spring of love.
Blood melted in the frozen veins, and even
the least bird sang in the mind’s inmost grove.

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 June
Mk 12:1-12 
Jesus began to speak [to the chief priests, the scribes and the elders] in parables. ‘A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watch-tower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But those tenants said to one another, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this scripture:
“The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
   and it is amazing in our eyes”?’

When they realised that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.

The vine was a symbol of the people of Israel. 
            You brought a vine out of Egypt;
            to plant it you drove out the nations.
            Before it you cleared the ground;
            it took root and spread through the land.  (Psalm 80: 9,10)
Israel was the vine, a special object of God's care.  (See Isaiah 5:2-7, on which Jesus based the parable in today’s reading.)  Jesus once identified himself as the true vine (John 15:1ff); he was the best of Israel, God's beloved.  But in this parable he is identified not as the vine but as the son and heir to the vineyard.  Mark says, “They killed him and threw him out of the vineyard” (v. 8).  But Matthew reverses the order: “They threw him out of the vineyard and killed him” (21:39).  Likewise Luke (20:15).  They must have been thinking with hindsight about the way Jesus actually died.  He was led out of Jerusalem and killed outside the city, not killed inside and then thrown out. 

How they see Jesus in every detail, and every detail in Jesus!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 June
Mk 12:13-17
Some Pharisees and some Herodians tried to trap Jesus in what he said. They came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?’
But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The Caesar’s.’ Jesus said to them,  ‘Give to Caesar the things that are the Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’  And they were utterly amazed at him.

Because Judea and Samaria were troublesome areas, the Romans imposed direct rule on them  -  and as part of the programme, this census tax.  This was the cause of deep anger and resentment among the people.  Judas the Gaulonite, for example, had proclaimed that taxation was a form of slavery, and he called for violent resistance.  His rhetoric influenced many, and taxation was a burning question.

The question they asked Jesus was a trap, concealed under a layer of flattery.  If he said it was right to pay the tax, he would incur the anger of the people; and if he said it was not right, he would be reported to the Romans as a revolutionary.  There seemed to be no way out of the dilemma. 

In the ancient world, coinage was considered the property of the ruler, since it had his image on it.  Jesus asked them to show him a coin.  This was clever, because by possessing a Roman coin they were already showing themselves to be collaborators with the Romans.  This was a sore point, especially for Pharisees.  He only had to say, “Give back to Caesar this worthless thing that belongs to him in any case.”  Then he added, “Give back to God what belongs to God,” as if to say, “You were made in God's image: you have his image stamped on you, just as this coin has Caesar’s image stamped on it.  You don’t owe your souls to Caesar.” 

This principle has served societies well, when it has been observed.  This saying, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,” was of great importance to the early Christians, because they were often accused of disloyalty to the state; see, for example, Acts 17:7: “These people...have broken every one of Caesar’s edicts.”  Paul wrote an exhortation to loyalty to the state (Rom 13:1-7).  Clearly there is a tradition of civil loyalty that goes back to Jesus himself. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 June
Mk 12:18-27
Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. There were seven brothers; the first married and, when he died, left no children; and the second married her and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise; none of the seven left children. Last of all, the woman herself died. In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her.’
Jesus said to them, ‘Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.’

Just like yesterday, there is a cunning question, a deceitful ‘why?’ in today’s gospel passage.  If you thought that questions were always neutral requests for information, these passages show you otherwise.  The Sadducees didn't believe in life after death; but here they are, asking a question, the point of which is to reduce such a belief to absurdity.  But Jesus didn't tailor his answer to please them: the dead, he said, will be “like the angels in heaven.”  He knew that the Sadducees didn't believe in the existence of angels, any more than they believed in a next life.  It is a lesson in how to deal with dishonest questions: don't give up your ground, don't backtrack. 

How does one hold belief in the resurrection?  With the mind alone?  If so, then it would be no more than what Pascal called “the big bet” (le grand pari).  It goes as follows: You can't really lose by believing in it, for if there is life after death, you will not be disappointed; but if there is not, again you will not be disappointed – because to experience disappointment you would have to exist!  But Jesus did not come to proclaim the Safe Bet; he came to proclaim the Good News.  When he said as he died on the cross, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” he was not taking a bet on the resurrection; he was entrusting his whole being, body and soul, to the Father.  Unless I am trying to do that, as far as I am able, I don’t really believe in the resurrection – neither that of Jesus nor of anyone else. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 June
Mk 12:28-34
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked Jesus, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’
Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself” — this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’
When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.

At last a man with a fairly honest question!  It was a much debated question among rabbis: “Which is the greatest commandment?”  As they tended to expand the Law into thousands of regulations, they also tried to pick out its essence and express it in the shortest form. The scribe in today’s Gospel passage came with the usual question.  When Jesus answered, the scribe said, “Well spoken, Master!”  It was like a teacher saying, “Good boy!”  He sounded more like an examiner than a questioner.  But he was better than the ones we saw yesterday and the previous day.  “You are not far from the Kingdom,” said Jesus.  The Kingdom is more than reciting the correct formulas; it is God’s grace invading us like a great wave and sweeping us out of our depth. 

To love your neighbour as yourself is called The Golden Rule.  Sometimes we hear people say that it is the heart of the Gospel and a distinctively Christian teaching.  It doesn't take long nowadays to discover that it is common to many religions and philosophies.  Four or five centuries before Christ, Plato wrote, “May I do to others as I would that they should do to me."  In today’s gospel passage Jesus was replying to a question about the Mosaic Law; he was giving his interpretation of it; he was not giving his own teaching.  When he spoke for himself he did not say, “Love your neighbour as yourself;” he said, “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34).  Many people love themselves in ways that are twisted and destructive.  I know a few people from whom I would run a mile if they threatened to love me as they love themselves.  Our self-love is not a reliable guide to how we should love one another.  His love for us, not our love, is the measure of love. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 June
Mk 12:35-37
While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, ‘How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared,
“The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
            until I put your enemies under your feet.’ ”
David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?’ And the large crowd was listening to him with delight.

Today's passage puzzles the scholars greatly.  It could bear several interpretations.  The people who were listening to Jesus were clear in their minds that the Messiah would be a descendent of King David – because of a text in their Scriptures, “I will establish the throne of his [David’s] kingdom forever” (2 Samuel 7:13).  They were clear: they knew the kind of Messiah they wanted.  Whatever interpretation his saying is to bear, it is obvious that he is ruining their clarity.  He is either saying that the Messiah will not be a descendent of David, or that he will be much more than a descendent of David. 

There are people who insist on clarity above all else, thinking that clarity is a proof of truth.  But there are many things that are clear and false.  When we think we have understood something we say “I have it!”  We use the words ‘having’, ‘grasping’, ‘holding’, and the like.  Even the word ‘concept’ (from Latin concipere) means ‘to grasp’. These words should make us pause, because fundamentally it is not we who seize the truth, it is the truth that should seize us.  As Chesterton put it, we are not here to get the skies into our heads, but to get our heads into the skies.  To promote false clarity is to be an enemy of the truth.

Jesus seems to have enjoyed tying the scribes up in knots.  Sometimes it happens that scholars become so immersed in texts that they don't look at what is staring them in the face.  Jesus was standing there, but they were debating texts.  The “large crowd,” however, incurious about texts, “was listening to Jesus with delight.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 June
Mk 12:38-44
Jesus said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’ He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

Clothes are for warmth and protection, but the layers accumulate – layers of meaning.  Clothes become an assertion of one’s self-image, one’s identity.  Clothes say, “This is who I am.”  Clothes are a language.  Uniforms assert membership of a particular class: the army, the police, the clergy….

The Scribes loved to “walk about in long robes and be greeted obsequiously in the market-place.”  A language is an agreement; there is no such thing as a private language.  What use is a special hat if no one knows what it is saying?  One gets the feeling that people who depend on robes and uniforms and badges and insignia must be very unsure of themselves and are craving recognition from others.  The Scribes believed that their knowledge of the Law was the sum of all wisdom and the only knowledge worth having.  But that belief was insecure while there was even one person who disagreed.  How Jesus threatened their identity!  He challenged them and beat them in argument, though he had never been to rabbinical school.  He earned their unremitting hostility. 

In today’s passage he pointed out a casualty of the Temple system: the poor.  A widow at that time was the very symbol of poverty and helplessness.  In that world, for a woman to lose her husband was to lose her identity.  This poor widow of no identity was being exploited by people who clung desperately to a superficial identity.  It is the tragic story of the world. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 June [Trinity Sunday]
Jn 3:16-18
For 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.

This is the famous icon of the Trinity by Andrei Roublev (1360 – 1430).  The three Persons are seated around a table in an attitude of harmony and peace; the very lines of the icon create a circle within which the unity of the Persons, the manner of their presence to one another, is visible.  At the focal point of the icon there is a cup between them on the table.  It is a wonderful use of symbol and suggestion.  The Trinity hints at the Eucharist.  It is as if the divine Persons were saying to us: be one with one another as we are one (see John 17:21).  To make the invitation even clearer, there is an empty place at the table. 

Last Sunday was Pentecost Sunday, the feast of the Holy Spirit.  It was the end of the Eastertide Liturgy.  Today, having (as it were) collected all three Divine Persons, we celebrate the Trinity.  We are taking a look at our God.  Or admiring the full scope of the Christian revelation.  It is vast: it is as vast as three religions!  You can’t miss God.  No matter which way you point (up to the Father, out and around you to Jesus, and in to the Spirit) you are embraced in the vast presence.  Christianity is able to feel with all the religions of the world, because it has something of them in itself.  Of course Christians have often ignored or despised other religions in the course of its history, but that is not the spirit of Christianity.  We are to “discern the spirits” (1 Cor 12:10), to see which come from God.  The spirit of our Faith is as wide as the world – wider than the world. 

We are being invited and drawn into the inner life of the Trinity, to sit at that empty place at God's table.  The Father is the destination, Jesus is the way, the Spirit is the inner urge to move that way. “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Fathers who sent me” (Jn 6:44).  Commenting on this in the fifth century, St Augustine wrote: “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 journeyings; in the very place where you believe, there you come.  For to him who is everywhere we come by love, not by sailing.” 

The Trinity is living in us and we in the Trinity.  This contrasts sharply with the experience that many people have of God; but we are never to doubt it.  The life of God is ours, and it is to be ours even more.  Jesus once said, “It is the Father living in me who is doing this work” (Jn 14:10).  We should all be able to say the same. 

Let’s try to understand this in a homely way.  When you do something awkwardly you know all too well that it is you who are doing it.  Your thumbs get in the way, you drop things, the job takes a long time.  But when you do something skilfully it is as if it happened by itself; it happened through you, you were just a finely-tuned instrument.  I have heard golfers say things like this, and potters and carpenters.  Such skilful actions are like moments of grace – natural grace.  They give us some impression of how supernatural grace works.  Something perfect happens through you and you say, “Thanks be to God!”  In such moments you are free of the ego and you can say “the Father living in me is doing this work”.