Sunday, 30 March 2014

Man born Blind

GospelJohn 9:1-41 
As Jesus went along, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, for him to have been born blind?’ ‘Neither he nor his parents sinned,’ Jesus answered ‘he was born blind so that the works of God might be displayed in him.
‘As long as the day lasts
I must carry out the work of the one who sent me;
the night will soon be here when no one can work.
As long as I am in the world
I am the light of the world.’
Having said this, he spat on the ground, made a paste with the spittle, put this over the eyes of the blind man, and said to him, ‘Go and wash in the Pool of Siloam’ (a name that means ‘sent’). So the blind man went off and washed himself, and came away with his sight restored.

  His neighbours and people who earlier had seen him begging said, ‘Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some said, ‘Yes, it is the same one.’ Others said, ‘No, he only looks like him.’ The man himself said, ‘I am the man.’ So they said to him, ‘Then how do your eyes come to be open?’ ‘The man called Jesus’ he answered ‘made a paste, daubed my eyes with it and said to me, “Go and wash at Siloam”; so I went, and when I washed I could see.’ They asked, ‘Where is he?’ ‘I don’t know’ he answered.

  They brought the man who had been blind to the Pharisees. It had been a sabbath day when Jesus made the paste and opened the man’s eyes, so when the Pharisees asked him how he had come to see, he said, ‘He put a paste on my eyes, and I washed, and I can see.’ Then some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man cannot be from God: he does not keep the sabbath.’ Others said, ‘How could a sinner produce signs like this?’ And there was disagreement among them. So they spoke to the blind man again, ‘What have you to say about him yourself, now that he has opened your eyes?’ ‘He is a prophet’ replied the man. However, the Jews would not believe that the man had been blind and had gained his sight, without first sending for his parents and asking them, ‘Is this man really your son who you say was born blind? If so, how is it that he is now able to see?’ His parents answered, ‘We know he is our son and we know he was born blind, but we do not know how it is that he can see now, or who opened his eyes. He is old enough: let him speak for himself.’ His parents spoke like this out of fear of the Jews, who had already agreed to expel from the synagogue anyone who should acknowledge Jesus as the Christ. This was why his parents said, ‘He is old enough; ask him.’

  So the Jews again sent for the man and said to him, ‘Give glory to God! For our part, we know that this man is a sinner.’ The man answered, ‘I don’t know if he is a sinner; I only know that I was blind and now I can see.’ They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ He replied, ‘I have told you once and you wouldn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it all again? Do you want to become his disciples too?’ At this they hurled abuse at him: ‘You can be his disciple,’ they said ‘we are disciples of Moses: we know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ The man replied, ‘Now here is an astonishing thing! He has opened my eyes, and you don’t know where he comes from! We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but God does listen to men who are devout and do his will. Ever since the world began it is unheard of for anyone to open the eyes of a man who was born blind; if this man were not from God, he couldn’t do a thing.’ ‘Are you trying to teach us,’ they replied ‘and you a sinner through and through, since you were born!’ And they drove him away.

  Jesus heard they had driven him away, and when he found him he said to him, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ ‘Sir,’ the man replied ‘tell me who he is so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said, ‘You are looking at him; he is speaking to you.’ The man said, ‘Lord, I believe’, and worshipped him.
  Jesus said:
‘It is for judgement
that I have come into this world,
so that those without sight may see
and those with sight turn blind.’
Hearing this, some Pharisees who were present said to him, ‘We are not blind, surely?’ Jesus replied:
‘Blind? If you were,
you would not be guilty,
but since you say, “We see,”
your guilt remains.’

John takes this story very seriously; I assume we are meant to as well. John enjoys using the idea of 'seeing' throughout it gospel. Comparing the superficial with deep understanding and asking which level do you think you are on?

This story of the 'man born blind'  reads like the transcript of a trial. And in many ways, it is. Jesus' disciples have been with him all this time. They have witnessed  all the works that Jesus has done; have listened to all the words of forgiveness and justice. Yet they still cling to the idea of a 'scapegoat'. They still comply with the idea that there are people within the community who are the 'other' and the 'lesser. Guilty of nothing more than fulfilling a need for someone to blame. 

Jesus didn't believe it. He didn't seen anything wrong with being blind, or lame or a leper; what bothered him was the judgement that went along with it. That there were people, rites and traditions that  decided who was 'in' or 'out' when his Father looked at everything and pronounced it, him, her, them - 'Good'.

When the disciples ask the question 'who can be blamed for this disability?' it must be hoped that they are beginning to think twice. But they still wait for a cure- for the man to made whole in their eyes so that he can be accepted. 

With a delightfully creative gesture Jesus turns to the good earth for the healing. And, without even asking, the man is given his sight; returned to his family; his assumed 'sin' is washed away in Siloam's water. Yet not much seems changed.

There is still a need for a scapegoat. So the finger points to Jesus. It seems that that someone can look godly; act godly and speak godly - but that doesn't make them godly. Not if you have already made your mind up. 

Which some of the Pharisees have - any friend of his is no friend of ours. Like us the Jews relied on their clerics to give them the answers. Why should they not trust them now?

You can say 'we see' but what do you see? Is the rules, the status quo? You cannot heal on the Sabbath; you cannot heal at all without there being a price; you cannot take away sin without sacrifice. You cannot befriend the stranger or question prejudice. 

Sadly, our faith remains full of exceptions and prejudices. We worship knowing that even the religious media is full of hate and discrimination. How are we to live as disciples except by 'seeing' the Word.

We read the Gospel to remind ourselves that hatred and exclusion are human failings not God's. In asking God to heal us of our blindness - in prayer and in life - we become witnesses. The works of God - kindness, generosity and compassion -  can be displayed in us when we have been bathed in the Light of World. 


Friday, 21 March 2014

Anam Cara

John 4:5-42 

Jesus came to the Samaritan town called Sychar, near the land that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well is there and Jesus, tired by the journey, sat straight down by the well. It was about the sixth hour. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink.’ His disciples had gone into the town to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘What? You are a Jew and you ask me, a Samaritan, for a drink?’ – Jews, in fact, do not associate with Samaritans. Jesus replied 

‘If you only knew what God is offering and who it is that is saying to you: Give me a drink, you would have been the one to ask, he would have given you living water.’
‘You have no bucket, sir,’ she answered ‘and the well is deep: how could you get this living water? Are you a greater man than our father Jacob who gave us this well and drank from it himself with his sons and his cattle?’ Jesus replied:
‘Whoever drinks this water
will get thirsty again;
but anyone who drinks the water that I shall give
will never be thirsty again:
the water that I shall give
will turn into a spring inside him,
welling up to eternal life.’
‘Sir,’ said the woman ‘give me some of that water, so that I may never get thirsty and never have to come here again to draw water.’ ‘Go and call your husband’ said Jesus to her ‘and come back here.’ The woman answered, ‘I have no husband.’ He said to her, ‘You are right to say, “I have no husband”; for although you have had five, the one you have now is not your husband. You spoke the truth there.’ ‘I see you are a prophet, sir’ said the woman. ‘Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, while you say that Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.’ Jesus said:
‘Believe me, woman,
the hour is coming
when you will worship the Father
neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.
You worship what you do not know;
we worship what we do know:
for salvation comes from the Jews.
But the hour will come
– in fact it is here already –
when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth:
that is the kind of worshipper the Father wants.
God is spirit,
and those who worship
must worship in spirit and truth.’
The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah – that is, Christ – is coming; and when he comes he will tell us everything.’ ‘I who am speaking to you,’ said Jesus ‘I am he.’
  At this point his disciples returned, and were surprised to find him speaking to a woman, though none of them asked, ‘What do you want from her?’ or, ‘Why are you talking to her?’ The woman put down her water jar and hurried back to the town to tell the people. ‘Come and see a man who has told me everything I ever did; I wonder if he is the Christ?’ This brought people out of the town and they started walking towards him.
  Meanwhile, the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, do have something to eat; but he said, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples asked one another, ‘Has someone been bringing him food?’ But Jesus said:
‘My food is to do the will of the one who sent me,
and to complete his work.
Have you not got a saying:
Four months and then the harvest?
Well, I tell you:
Look around you, look at the fields;
already they are white, ready for harvest!
Already the reaper is being paid his wages,
already he is bringing in the grain for eternal life,
and thus sower and reaper rejoice together.
For here the proverb holds good:
one sows, another reaps;
I sent you to reap a harvest you had not worked for.
Others worked for it;
and you have come into the rewards of their trouble.’
Many Samaritans of that town had believed in him on the strength of the woman’s testimony when she said, ‘He told me all I have ever done’, so, when the Samaritans came up to him, they begged him to stay with them. He stayed for two days, and when he spoke to them many more came to believe; and they said to the woman, ‘Now we no longer believe because of what you told us; we have heard him ourselves and we know that he really is the saviour of the world.’

This year, our Lenten Letter from the Bishop was about Confession, with the clear exhortation of how Confession is  the Sacrament of Lent and how Confession will bring us back into the company of God. The word, Confession, was used so many times that  I started to shrivel into my seat. After all Confession suggests that I am filled with a wrongness that I am avoiding. Confession suggests guilt and shame. Confession is what has kept people silent and unhealed for far too many years. 

The Sacrament of Lent is not Confession; it's Reconciliation. In centuries past  Confession was a practice that led to punishment - being shunned by your community, sometimes for years. 

The Sacrament that we share now come from the practice of the Irish Monks; the practice of Anam Cara - the soul friend - where brothers would speak to their Abbot or trusted elder and share in the experience and the peace-giving of another traveller on the road. It was a practice of knowing our humanity and God's grace given in spite of everything. A sacrament of friendship and renewal.

Confession waits for condemnation, Reconciliation seeks wholeness and relationship.

 I had never really connected the Samaritan woman with the Sacrament until this last week when  I was talking with the RCIA group as they prepare for this Sacrament without the traditional fears of dark confessionals, grumpy priests or fears unheard. Nevertheless, there is something about admitting to your weaknesses in front of another human being. I reminded them of the Woman at the Well.

Jesus is sitting, waiting;  his friends off feeding the body rather that the spirit - other priorities; other places to be. 

The woman comes to the well. Maybe no great sinner (though aren't we all?) but not right.  Something not right about a woman who has grieved for five husbands and whatever the circumstance of the present relationship. Certainly something not right about a woman coming to the well alone; without women friends; without a child on her back or running around her feet.

Not an outcast; she returns to her village quite believing that she will be heard. She can certainly hold her own in conversation with a stranger - but something.

She knows herself;  her longings; she wants to feel right. She is prepared to do the work; she enters into dialogue with the 'enemy'; enters into relationship with this man who knows her in spite of  the bravado and the stigma of who she is or is not. Jesus  has what she needs. He speaks with an openness of heart that encourages her to have the confidence and humility to ask for it.  Not out of shame or even guilt; but with with the faith she already has and the optimism that God's grace is the answer. God's grace will be revealed in her. She will know herself loved.

And then, she has the generosity of spirit to pour out that grace on others. bringing them to the well, whilst Jesus' disciples are still wondering what he has been up to. 

What a wonderful way this would be to approach the Sacrament especially in this time of Lent -when we are seeking our way through desert paths - what an opportunity to find an oasis in which to sit with a friend; to be unburdened; to be made new.


Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Feast of St Joseph

Every year the parents of Jesus used to go to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up for the feast as usual. When they were on their way home after the feast, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem without his parents knowing it. They assumed he was with the caravan, and it was only after a day’s journey that they went to look for him among their relations and acquaintances. When they failed to find him they went back to Jerusalem looking for him everywhere.
Three days later, they found him in the Temple, sitting among the doctors, listening to them, and asking them questions; and all those who heard him were astounded at his intelligence and his replies. They were overcome when they saw him, and his mother said to him, ‘My child, why have, you done this to us? See how worried your father and I have been, looking for you.’
‘Why were you looking for me?’ he replied ‘Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs?’ But they did not understand what he meant.
He then went down with them and came to Nazareth and lived under their authority.

The Gospel reading for today says it all really. Joseph – who are you? Father with a small ‘f’ when I have a father with a big ‘F’. Jesus obviously was not a naturally diplomatic child.

The feast day is even called ‘Joseph the husband of Mary’. A bit like calling him ‘him indoors’. For a church so male dominated we treat Jesus’ first male role model as a bit of an afterthought. Remember that it was not only Mary who said ‘Yes’ – it was Joseph’s ‘yes’ that avoided her being stoned to death or exiled from the community. He must have been an incredible man; utterly compassionate; to have been able to have faith to honour Mary; to refuse to bow under the undoubted slings and arrows of the doubting and gossiping neighbours; to persevere with giving Jesus the most normal of childhoods. Joseph, who must have been the role model that gave Jesus his compassion; his generosity; his respect for women and children; his knowledge of the working man. Jesus at thirty is a man of great character and personality; a man’s man who is able to have healthy relationships with women; to have them as his friends. No mean feat at any time; certainly suggestive of a family life that displayed mutual love, devotion and respect. And yet we know nothing about him.

These days it is not unusual not to know much about your father; long working hours mean fathers are absent from the normal family day; single parent families are increasing in number; police blame the rise in gangs on the lack of a positive male role model; men in the media are often famed for bad behaviour; male characters in our soaps are always a bit dodgy or pathetic. In many ways the understanding of what it is to be a man had got a bit lost. Joseph stands for the ‘Unknown Father’ we know nothing about.

But not at least in the Catholic Church; the domination by men of the Catholic Church is well known and comes in for comment and criticism on a daily basis. I know; I have studied it; women’s theology, feminist theology; I am a member of two groups supporting women’s ordination. Linked to this are the daily reports of abuse and misconduct by members of the clergy and religious; the last time I tried to find information on priests for a school project I had my computer closed down for breach of policy access to inappropriate content.

More and more I find myself getting uncomfortable about the whole thing. Not because I believe that men are the root of all evil but because I believe that they are not. I am not going to talk about those that are guilty of abuse because they could be any men; such men know about finding positions of trust; know about secrecy and deception; know how to charm their way into people’s lives; know how to live a two-faced life – they fill the media screens and pages but they do not fill the church. We forget those taken for granted; the many,many good priests.

I know priests have plenty of other feast days but today I am giving them Joseph, the Unknown Father.

Like Joseph they say ‘yes’ to a life based on faith rather than any guarantee. What does a twenty-odd year old man know what they are letting themselves in for whether fatherhood or priesthood, it’s a ‘yes’ to mystery. But the love that causes a priest to say ‘yes’ is the most Christlike – it is agape love – the love of the Good Samaritan who gives to strangers; whose love projects outwards without the need for possession.

But then, we are not strangers, we are family and they are ‘father’ with the small ‘f’ doing the work of the Father with the big ‘F’. Ok they may be not long out of seminary and lacking in wisdom or experience some of the time; but the sense of fatherhood is there; the responsibility; the commitment; the duty to care. And they grow, and grow beautifully, especially when supported by their ‘family’, becoming godfathers; favourite uncles and wise elders.

Even if they don’t know us; don’t get on with us; don’t agree with us; that’s by the by. Like a good father they will do what they can; what they need to do and be there despite everything if it all goes wrong and celebrate joyfully when it all goes right. Priests will have thousands of children; lots who are older than they are; across miles of parishes and years of devotion. And people will remember them and the effect that they had on their lives and thank God for them. But they won’t make the news, the papers, the media hype and in years to come they may be as unrecognised as Joseph; but it won’t matter because they were there when they were needed and they did what they were called to do.


Sunday, 9 March 2014

Away from it all

Sunday GospelMatthew 4:1-11 

Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, after which he was very hungry, and the tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to turn into loaves.’ But he replied, ‘Scripture says:
Man does not live on bread alone
but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’
The devil then took him to the holy city and made him stand on the parapet of the Temple. ‘If you are the Son of God’ he said ‘throw yourself down; for scripture says:
He will put you in his angels’ charge,
and they will support you on their hands
in case you hurt your foot against a stone.’
Jesus said to him, ‘Scripture also says:
You must not put the Lord your God to the test.’
Next, taking him to a very high mountain, the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. ‘I will give you all these’ he said, ‘if you fall at my feet and worship me.’ Then Jesus replied, ‘Be off, Satan! For scripture says:
You must worship the Lord your God,
and serve him alone.’
Then the devil left him, and angels appeared and looked after him.

‘led’ being the nice way of putting it – the Holy Spirit being the original exponent of ‘tough love’.

The Spirit leaves Jesus with no option and he finds himself restlessly wandering through the desert and, long before the forty days have even begun,  the very first temptation could have been – let’s get back to the Jordan. Let’s get back to that golden moment when my Father publicly acknowledged me in front of John; in front of my friends; in front of everyone. Let me feel that feeling again. 

And then, perhaps Jesus hears the voice of the Spirit:

Why should you be in the desert?
Why would I want you here experiencing all these things?
Because it’s not all about you.

Jesus has just had the mountaintop experience of all time. Theologians discuss at great length when was the moment when Jesus knew he was Divine? 

Was it ‘always and everything’ ,or, did the understanding grow along with his human development? Well, if he didn’t know by by his thirtieth year, sitting on the riverbank listening to the teaching of John, then, I would guess probably this point. 

Baptism brings about transformation. And Jesus is human, has been human for thirty years – with all the experiences of emotion that human life has given him. How overwhelmed must he feel?

Just think about it; have you ever experienced the ‘Eureka’ moment in faith. A time when you have struggled; you have climbed the mountain; until the moment you stand on the peak the clouds break and the sun shines on you. Like Jimmy Cagney, you are ‘on top of the world’. And in that explosion of happiness you feel joy and relationship and you feel God’s eye upon you. 

Then, all too often, you feel pride, vanity; you feel that you did it ‘all by yourself’; you feel powerful.

If God is feeling kind, you generally don’t get left there for more than a few seconds.

The ego gets a quick peek; enough to realise how foolish you are and then the mountain crumbles leaving you back on level ground and wondering why that happened. And it happened because it not all about you. In fact it’s not about you at all.

Whatever gifts, talents, opportunities you have been given, they are to do what God needs you to do. If you get there, if you do it, then all you have done is what you were meant to do. There may be a bit of job satisfaction in it – but the job continues – so get off the pedestal, take a moment, and get on with it. Finding the pleasure and joy in being where you are meant to be.

And it’s comforting to see that God treats his Son exactly the same way. The risk that it would peak too soon; that it would be over before it was even begun was too much.  Jesus did not know what he was getting himself into-yet. 

 The people at the riverside were only the beginning and there were many roads to travel before the time came.

Jesus needs time; to see what lies ahead; where the pitfalls are likely to be;   where his help would come from. He needs to see his Father's plan in a place where there is no distraction. What better place than the desert.

When Jesus faces the devil in the greatest temptations he doesn’t take him on himself; he doesn’t use his humanity; doesn’t use violence or argument; he knows who is the greater and calls on the strength of the Father – the Word of Scripture.

When he tells the devil ‘You must not put the Lord your God to the test.’ he knows that this also applies to himself; a surrender of will that accepts the promise of a harsh journey with very few mountain-tops.

During Lent we can use the temptation in the desert in our own meditations; how much of what we do is fulfillment of personal ambition? How much is pride and vanity? 

We offer ourselves to be led by the Spirit into the journey of Lent. It may be arduous journey at times and as soul searing as any sandstorm but at the end, we can expect angels.


Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Enter In

Today we enter the paradox that is Lent.

From today we are no longer in Ordinary Time which, in itself, is a wonderful concept - we are now in Extraordinary Time; as near a 'real time' example of Kairos time, God's own time,  as we are likely to experience in this life.

By time (?) you get to my age you are already aware that time is not as simple as it is supposed. The clock may tick at its regulated rhythm but the passing of moments, hours and days have no predictable pattern; dragging or  racing with an urgency or ennui of their own.

We have our traditions; the ashes we use this Wednesday are made from the leftover palms of the previous Palm Sunday. The mark of our beginning created from the failed triumph of last year's entry into Jesus' place of execution - back and forth.

The Forty Days are not even forty days. The intention to recall the time Jesus spent in the desert after his Baptism, is punctuated by the Sabbaths - as we share the journey towards death we are constantly reminded of the Resurrection which is to come; to travel without the benefit of hindsight is almost impossible - back and forth.

Across the world there will be the emptying out of flowers and easily removeable paintings, photos and statues from the body of the church; soon the bigger statues and stations of the cross will be shrouded in purple robes - 'all the better to not see you with, my dears'. Drawing our attention to what we had taken for granted all these months; like God, their presence made more intense by their absence - back and forth.

A personal symbol for me in Lent is the spiral and the labyrinth.  An illogical and unworldly path; from circumference to centre no more than a step - yet it can take ten minutes to follow the twists and turns that draws the spirit in. A labyrinth  illustrating this strange inward turning journey; this walk into a desert landscape; this voyage without  landmarks.

Simply following a yearning into the centre; into our centre; into Godspace. And then having no alternative but to spiral out again; a gyroscope of faith - back and forth.

Like Advent, the world is keen to distract us from the journey - the  chocolate we may be intending to forego is already on display - promising that the next weeks will be all worthwhile. 

They will be - but the proving won't be in the lost inches and pounds.

In Lent, we make the choice to turn again; to become unworldly; to escape the expectations. We choose to accept what life truly means. We choose to deny ourselves the distractions that keep us from living an authentic life. If we take this denial seriously we accept some suffering rather than questioning the need for it; somehow we understand the need. That there is solidarity in suffering...solidarity with a God who chose to suffer to set us free; who, in some Kairos moment, continues to suffer and who needs us, in our freedom, to chose to walk beside him.

Blessed journeying.