Sunday, 30 September 2012

Dazzling Darkness: Exodus 24



Over today's readings hangs the constant threat of fire. In this morning's Gospel, Jesus talked about the purging flames into which we must cast those wayward parts of ourselves which bar our way to God. And as tonight draws in, Moses ascends into a cloud of darkness to find the devouring fire of the glory of God. Jesus invokes the threat of Hell; for Moses, the danger is getting too close to God's own blinding light.

The fire of God does not destroy, but perfects. His blazing glory burns away our iniquities, cauterizes the wounds they leave on the perfect Image in which He made us; yet in so doing, it heals us, and once we are healed, we can warm ourselves by the fire. And, when our eyes are accustomed to it, we can see so much more clearly by its light, see it reflecting off everybody, everything; but while our eyes are still weak, its brightness is blinding, a dazzling darkness, leaving us to grope blindly up the steep mountain towards the warmth we who are far off can only just feel. God is dangerous: fire that heals only by first burning, light that gives sight only by first blinding.

There is a curious symmetry between Moses' ascent of Sinai to bring forth the Law of the old covenant and Jesus' ascent to the cross to bring forth the Spirit of the New. The Old Covenant begins with Moses making a bloody sacrifice with all the people of Israel, ascending the mountain partway to feast with a select band of followers, going alone to stay for forty days in the darkness where God dwells, beholding the glory of the Lord, and bringing back the tablets of Law to Israel. The New Covenant is like a mirror image. It begins at the other end. Jesus' ministry begins with Him being blessed by the glory of the Lord when the Holy Spirit descends on Him in baptism. He goes alone for forty days into the dark wilderness where Satan dwells, and then He has his meal, the Last Supper, again with a select band of followers, until finally He ascends to the Cross. There Jesus, God the Son, does not behold God the Father, but quite the opposite, experiences absolute Godlessness as He descends to Hell. Then, He returns resurrected to give us the unbloody sacrifice of bread and wine as a New Covenant, not of the Law but of the Spirit, and for everybody, the entire world.

More broadly, Moses' ascent of Sinai is through the darkness of God to the light of God, from the multitude of Israel into solitary union with the Divine. Jesus' ascent of the Cross, conversely, is from the light of God, through the darkness of Satan to forsakenness by God; but He emerges from His lone journey to be infinitely multiplied in His new, universal Body, the Church. Moses ascends from the many to the One; Jesus descends from the One to the many.

Nonetheless, the New Covenant, sealed by Jesus' self-sacrifice for the world, would not have been possible without the Old. He says Himself that He came not to destroy the Law but to fulfil it. Moses' ascent into the darkness of God is the prerequisite of Jesus' descent into Godlessness, the emptying of Hell by which our salvation is assured: we do not have to go to Hell, because Jesus has been there for us. We do not have to know those flames. But if we would see the glory of God illuminate all of His Creation, we must shield our eyes and climb like Moses, however painfully, towards the searing, blinding light of God's glory: by the discipline of repentance, allowing His fire to sear our sins and cauterise the wounds they leave; and by ascending into the darkness of the Sanctuary, to grope blindly towards the dazzling Eucharistic mystery of His invisible yet luminous Body and Blood. For as we consume Him, so are we consumed in His glory.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Cleansing Fire



The first message of this Sunday's Gospel was memorably inverted by George Bush II in his attack on the "Axis of Evil," when he announced to the world that 'whoever is not for us, is against us.' As a learned colleague has pointed out to me, this is the tenor of Mt 12.30 and Lk 11.23, but I prefer the Marcan (and hence older) account here, where Jesus says that 'whoever is not against us, is for us.'

Jesus' call here is for charity, not enmity: charity towards all those who work in His name, even when they are  aberrant in their beliefs and schismatic from the one Church He founded. Our prayer for Christian unity must be grounded in love, not contempt, however difficult we might find it (and I am by no means exempt!).

Jesus' subsequent threats of Hell are harder to take. He tells us to sever those parts of us that drag us into the Pit. As always, we have to take such threats alongside God's will and Jesus' promise that, in St Paul's words, all things will one day be completed in Christ. Jesus died for the salvation of all Creation. Who are we to say that God's will shall not be done?

Nonetheless, the only absolute guarantee of salvation remains baptism into the Church of Christ, washing the dirt of sin away from the shining Image of God in which we were all made; and then, immersion in the pattern of repentance, and reception of Christ in the Eucharist, so that we can be constantly reconformed to that primal Image, polishing away the grime of sin. The call to purge ourselves of the sin which mars that Image and distances us from God remains urgent, even for those of us who rest secure in the victory of Christ's self-sacrifice.

I am afraid that all of us have parts of ourselves which need to be purged by the flames. With discipline, we can make the searing heat a pleasant tickle, or even a warming glow, something we welcome because it is purifying us and bringing us closer to the cool refreshment of God's light. The Church gives us both the cool light and the hot: the searing pain of Confession, which empties our selves of sin, and the healing balm of the Eucharist, where Christ refills those empty selves with His divine, self-sacrifical love. That love, living in us, the Church, is the gift by which the whole world must be saved, all things brought back into unity with their Creator.

Friday, 14 September 2012

The Mass reveals Christ more deeply than words: Mark 8.37-38


Again, we are faced with the paradox of Mark telling us about Jesus telling his disciples not to tell anyone about Him. This time, Jesus has asked them the misleadingly simple question: Who do you say that I am?
Predictably enough, if we have followed Mark's portrayal of the disciples so far, they come up with all the wrong answers. Finally, Peter seems to get it right, when he proclaims that Jesus is the Christ. This is where Jesus tells them all to keep his identity secret.
And well He might, since the next paragraph shows how little the disciples understand even when they know that He is the Christ. They are clearly expecting a very different Christ - that is, a very different Messiah, since 'Christ' is simply the Greek translation of that Hebrew word - from the suffering servant that Jesus depicts. Even when he plainly predicts His execution and resurrection, the disciples cannot or will not believe it. And so, those famously harsh words to Peter: Get thee behind me, Satan!
But this is not just a matter for the disciples of yore. It should come as no surprise that so many people even now cannot or will not accept the kind of Messiah that Jesus is, and the kind of God that He has revealed Himself to be. Christians have been mocked and persecuted for their crucified God from the outset. This is why, in the early Church, this great mystery of our faith - that Christ has died, is risen, and will come again - was revealed only to the baptised and confirmed initiates, and even then not in words. Everyone else was ejected the church after the readings from Scripture, leaving only the faithful to participate in that mystical action by which Christ revealed Himself more intimately than words could express: the sacrifice of the Eucharist.
So let us come to Mass this week in deep gratitude for the privilege of knowing Christ for who He really is, consuming Him as He consumes us in the depths of His self-giving love.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Mark's Jesus: Open your ears before your mouth!


Muslim prayer begins with the admirable gesture of raising the hands to the ears to listen to God. Given Mark's account of the failure of the disciples to listen and their propensity to speak instead, there is surely something to learn here.

"I can't wait to get out and tell people about Jesus!"

My heart sunk at these words from the lips of an enthusiastic young ordinand training for supposedly Anglican ministry at an Evangelical seminary. The Bishop had asked him what he was looking forward to, why he wanted to do it, and this was his answer: 'Telling people about Jesus.'

Well, perhaps you're more generous and forbearing than I am, but when people come up to me and start 'telling me about Jesus' I start to remember my atheist past more fondly and frankly feel like lamping them. The sheer patronising presumption of those who think they can go around 'telling' people things about Jesus, that all their Bible study gives them privileged knowledge of Him that we poor infidels just don't get, drives me round the bend. One even drew me a neat little picture of salvation with stick figures in six boxes on a sheet of A4. I just about managed to smile and thank him. But this sort of tedious lecturing goes completely against what Jesus Himself wanted in today's Gospel passage.

We heard from Mark about two of Jesus' miracles in Tyre and Decapolis. I'm going to focus on the second miracle, but it's worth noticing from the outset of the first that when Jesus entered the house of the possessed girl, in Mark's words, he 'did not want anyone to know he was there.' He certainly wasn't going up to strangers and 'telling them' about himself. Instead, he was quietly moving among them, doing the work of God which speaks so much more loudly than words. To paraphrase the famous words of St Francis, He was teaching the Gospel, but using words only where He had to. He arrived like a thief in the night, without fanfare or announcement.

But it is the second miracle that interests me more, here. Even more than the first miracle, Jesus wants the second kept quiet: in fact, He explicitly orders the disciples not to tell anyone about it. Perhaps this is because the second miracle involves more secret stuff: the use of spittle and the touching of the tongue are widely recognised as fairly typical Middle Eastern magical formulae. So, perhaps Jesus did not want this particular healing advertised because the Jewish authorities would disapprove. That's possible.

Yet I think there's rather more to it than that, embedded in the nature of the miracle itself. Jesus is healing a deaf man who could barely speak. 'Ephphatha,' he commands: 'be opened.' First, the man's ears are opened and then his mouth begins to work so that he can speak plainly. An interesting paradox, no? Jesus is telling the disciples to keep schtum about a man He has just given the power of speech.

Let's look closer still. The man gains the power of speech only after his ears are open. Only once he has been enabled to listen can he truly speak. Compare this with the verbose disciples. You may remember from the last time I preached on Mark that in his account of the Gospel, the disciples are always failing. They fail to understand who Jesus really is right up until the Resurrection, and Jesus is constantly having to correct their misguided ideas and teachings. Yet this man, when Jesus has opened his ears, begins to speak plainly.

'Ephphatha,' 'be opened.' Our main job as the Christians is not to TELL people about Jesus, but to HEAR Him in them, to SEE Him in their faces and in their hearts. And the only way we can do that is by allowing Him to open us, to make us receptive to His presence in ourselves, in others and in all His creation. Our God is by nature communal, dialogical, not the stern Father issuing edicts, 'telling us' about Himself, all one way ; but Father and Son in conversation, listening to one another, bound in mutual receptivity by the love of the Holy Spirit. And that's how we need to be. Receptive, open, loving, seeking always for God, humbly aware that others may know His love far better than we do: seeking God, never imposing Him. 'Ephphatha,' says the Lord, 'be opened,' and your loving action will say far more about Jesus than any words.

But how? How do we let Jesus open us? It can't just be through the Bible, because the Bible is still human words, and Jesus doesn't seem to think much of those. It's always worth remembering that the only words He wrote Himself were scrawled with a stick in sand to be blown away, and we don't even know what they were. If Our Lord had wanted us to pass Him on just through words, surely He might have taken the trouble to write some down. But no: after the Resurrection, even when He spoke to them, His disciples did not recognise Him. It was not in words, but in the action of the breaking of the bread that Jesus opened their eyes. He opened us in baptism, too, when we died to self and were emptied to be filled by Him; but human sin congeals and blocks out the light. And so, it is by repentance and by reception of His living Body at the altar that we continue to be opened within: open like the emptiness of His Cross, the emptiness of His tomb, the emptiness of His Virgin Mother's womb, so His love can be born in us anew. Long before the Church had any Bible, its Bishops were repeating the action Our Lord had taught them in the breaking of the bread. It is the Mass, not the Bible, which makes the Church.

Well, after all I've said, the next time someone tries to tell me about Jesus I suppose I'd better surpress my violent urges and try my best to listen and to love. Quite probably, I'll fail. But at least I can try to follow Jesus own commands a bit better myself: 'Stop telling people about me. Shut your mouth and open your ears! Maybe then you'll hear me, from heart to heart, speaking without words.'

Anyway, following Jesus' words, it's probably about time I shut my mouth now, but please allow me one small announcement: as an exercise in listening deeply to Christ within, we are starting 45-minute sessions of meditation before the Blessed Sacrament every first and third Sunday at 5, starting next week. I'll be guiding the sessions following some of the principles of Zen meditation that I've been practising for years now and found helpful, so if you're interested in learning to meditate in a Christian idiom, then please do come along.