Friday, 30 August 2013

A feast of the poor and the lame

Jesus' parable this Sunday (Luke 14.7014) is about seating plans. One could, I suppose, take his command quite literally and throw parties at your house for the very poor, though to do so might seem rather Victorian, in the 'let them have soap' sort of sense, and I doubt whether many would want to come along. But this is, after all, a parable: so perhaps we can find a wider meaning.

First, it obviously says something about the pecking order, and our own perceptions of where we belong in it. Put yourself at the bottom so you won't be embarrassed when someone else puts you where you belong - sound advice, no doubt. But I think we need to go deeper, and question the whole nature of this order. What does it mean, and frankly, what does it matter where I belong in it?

Secondly, it says something about choice. A good host spends time deciding who should sit where: who will get on with whom, who really won't, who shall we land with the notorious bore? Such considerations are surely necessary at any normal dinner party. But Jesus is not just talking about a dinner party. He's drawing attention to our wider tendencies to pick and choose our company, to avoid those who tire us or try us, to form comfortable cliques and shun the outsider.

So, third, this necessarily has implications for us as a church and, indeed, the Church. It is no coincidence that Jesus chooses the context of a feast to make his point. The feast at which absolutely all are called to, without qualification (as Fr Michael preached last week), is the heavenly feast and its prefigurement in the Eucharist, the eternal feast which the Church exists to perpetuate.
Clique churches - churches for enthusiasts of one particular thing, whether it's skateboarding (yes, such churches exist), a specific genre of music, a certain kind of person, or a prized liturgical formula - are quite contrary to the spirit of the Gospel. We become private interest groups at our peril.

Let us renew our efforts to welcome as many and varied people to our table as we can. Perhaps before we chat to our friends after Mass this Sunday, we might each find someone new to talk to? That would be a start.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

"I came not to bring peace, but a sword"


The peace of God which passeth all understanding. So begins the traditional blessing. But what is this peace of Christ? 

From Jesus' words today, it seems a rather strange sort of peace: the peace that is born of fire and the sword, distress, division of families and communities. Is that what I am wishing on you when I bless you at the end of Mass?If that is indeed the peace of Christ, then no one can say that Jesus did not practice what he preached. Look at his own family. His mother was promised, earlier on in Luke's infancy narrative, that her heart would be pierced by the sword. And so it surely would be, when she stood and watched only son die on the cross. 

This, I think, is part of the rationale of the great Christian feast celebrated last Thursday, of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Very ancient tradition has said that Our Lady did not die, but rather passed without death straight into heaven. The idea is, I think, that as a mother watching her own child's die, she had already in some way died herself. A second death would be superfluous.


And how Jesus treated her in life was not always what we would nowadays consider exemplary: remember him ordering her around at the wedding at Cana, or the time when she tried to come to his door and he asked "who is my mother?" And just before he died, he handed Mary over to John, to become the mother of the new Church he left behind. Putting it mildly, biological families seem to be a fairly low priority for Jesus. The peace of Christ is not about complicity with inherited mores, not about loyalty to ones blood at all costs.

I suppose Jesus' attitude towards peace must have been coloured by the famous peace of the Empire He lived in: the famous "Pax Romana" of Emperor Augustus, a peace won by crushing freedoms and rival kingdoms. Even political peace is not something that should be maintained at all costs. Within the peace of Christ, there is room for resistance, room for disobedience, and that means room too for strife and suffering.

A saint whose feast we kept last Wednesday knew this all too well. Maximilian Kolbe was born at the end of the 19th century in Poland under German occupation. I suppose you could say that there was a sort of Augustinian peace there, too: the peace guaranteed by the oppressor through crushing resistance. Poland was restored to independence in Kolbe's lifetime, only of course to lose it again later to the same oppressors. It is said that in his youth he had a vision or a dream in which he was offered a choice of purity or martyrdom. He chose both. In his lifetime, he became a Franciscan friar, and set up a community which eventually numbered over 600. He was dedicated to waging spiritual warfare against the oppressive forces of materialism and worldly empire, and was keen to make use of every modern means of communication at his disposal to do so. He set up radio stations and magazines, not only at home, but even in Nagasaki in Japan, to spread the gospel of Christ. He knew by bitter experience that true peace has to be fought for.

The purity of his life was enough to make him a saint, but it was crowned by his death as a martyr. Interred in a Nazi concentration camp, he befriended several Jews. A sort of decimation was taking place, where people were randomly selected to be executed. A Jewish man with a family was chosen. Maximilian Kolbe offered his life in exchange, and it was taken. He gave it not for the protection of his blood family, nor even for the protection of one of his Christian family in the church, but for someone who was not in any conventional sense related to him at all. Did he give it peacefully, with a calm mind, an untroubled countenance? I don't know. I rather doubt it. But that's not the point. Because surely what today's gospel shows us is that, whatever the peace Christ brings is, is not that sort of peace. It's a peace that comes with the fire and the sword.

Christians used to talk rather more about fire than we do now. Hellfire especially. Is this the kind of fire that Jesus is talking about? In a way, I think yes. The baptism of fire that Jesus is to undergo is a dipping into suffering a dipping into despair, a dipping into Godforsakenness. That is what the Crucifixion is: God knowing really and truly utter Godlessness. The source of everything being swallowed into the nothing. Or as we put it in our Creed, the Son of God descending into Hell. But it is a fire that Jesus descends into only to rise out of it again, and to pull out its denizens with him. It is a purifying fire, made so because Jesus by passing through it has purified it for us. And so we have nothing to fear from the fire or the sword, however deeply both may pierce us.

Jesus's words today are challenging. And we can see in the Blessed Virgin Mary and in St Maximilian Kolbe how we are to respond to His challenge. With Mary, we are to stand by the Cross, to stand with the suffering, those we love and those we don't, and yet love Jesus still. With St Maximilian, the important thing is not so much his martyr's death, as the person he has become to die it. God willing, we will never face his fate, but we can still become the sort of person he became. We do so by prayer, with hope and courage, and with acceptance of the fire that purifies and the sword that pierces us.

The peace of Christ that we Christians are called to is not some sense of inner calm, although we may enjoy that sometimes. Rather, it is a state of heartfelt gratitude for Crucifixion: not just Jesus', but our own; gratitude for the fires which purge and make us clean; willingness to offer up ourselves as part of Christ's sacrifice, knowing well that what is not crucified cannot be resurrected.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Avarice and attachment


Have you heard the one about why don't Buddhists don't hoover under their sofas? It's because they've got rid of all their attachments.

Of course, in Buddhism, 'attachments' doesn't really refer to a vacuum cleaner's nozzles. According to the Buddha, we exist in a state of suffering, and this is because we crave things, because we are always wanting. The remedy he taught is to get rid of those cravings, to sever all attachments. "He who has a thousand loves has a thousand sufferings," as one Buddhist saying goes.

Jesus sounds quite Buddhist today when he warns us about our tendency to get attached to things we shouldn't. Things of the world. In the parable, it's a bigger storeroom, to stock up more and more food the rich man will never eat. I suppose a modern analogue would be a bigger garage or a house with a bigger attic to store up all the stuff we want to keep but never use. But there's far more to it than that, of course. Jesus condemns 'avarice of every kind,' and in his letter to the Colossians, St Paul marks out greed particularly as 'the equivalent of worshipping a false god.' Attachment to things on earth is a kind of idolatry, putting stuff where only God belongs.

Buddhists, whose religion is probably more wary of idolatry than any other, are not meant to be attached to anything (basically). But I wonder, is there anything that a Christian can properly crave for? Looking at some of the things that Jesus said, you'd think maybe not. After all, when Mary Magdalene saw Him Resurrected, His words to her were the famous 'noli me tangere' you see in so many church windows: 'do not touch me' or 'do not cling to me.' And we are told in Philippians 2:5-11, an ancient hymn dating from even before the time of St Paul, that 'though He (Jesus) was God, He did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.' The Divinity emptied itself into a man, but that man would not even cling to His divinity. It seems that clinging, grasping, wanting, desiring are not good things even, maybe, when their object is God. So can it ever be right to be greedy for God?

I think the answer to that question has to be yes and no. Yes, because there is something that Christians can and should be attached to, be greedy for, even crave. And no, because the nature of what we are trying to grasp makes it impossible, like trying to grasp an eel, or as Jacob found, like trying to wrestle with an angel.

Love is what we must crave for, since we are shown in Jesus Christ that God is love, and we must always seek God. There is the 'yes,' then. The difficult thing about grasping it, though, is that the nature of that love is absolute, unconditional self-giving, epitomised in the Incarnation - God giving Himself to become human - and the Crucifixion - the God-man giving Himself for humans to become one with God. Absolutely self-giving love.

And this is where the 'No' comes in: if we ever do grasp it, get attached to it, then we haven't really grasped it at all. We are trying to grasp the ungraspable, that which by its very nature is to be given away. It is what it is because you pass it on, let go of it, let it slip away: you could say that Christ-like love is the ultimate in non-attachment. It is exactly the opposite of grasping and craving and unhealthy attachment, fixation. Take our love for people, for example. It has to be open-ended. You say you love someone for who they are right now: well that's okay, as long as it doesn't stop you loving them for what they will be tomorrow. But if we love someone only because they fit a fixed idea in our minds, then it is not really love at all. If we say, "I love you, because you're just this sort of person, or just that sort of person," then we are constraining that person, not allowing them to grow and change, and that is not love at all. It is self-oriented instead of oriented towards the beloved. And in fact, it is a kind idolatry: an act of possession and ownership, rather than of the absolute giving which true, Christ-like love demands.

Exactly the same principle applies to our love of God. If we think we love God because He fits some notion of ours, or because we get some emotional high or feeling, say, of inner peace out of Him, then again, we're constraining Him and making an idol of our own invention. We're replacing His inconceivable mystery with a banal certainty, a clergyman's platitude. But St Augustine said, "if you understand it, it is not God." I'm afraid that if love is unconditional, then it must be uncertain. Our love for God must be a voluntary blindness, an utter trust, a total self-giving of our selves into His hands so that He can make us an instrument of His self-giving in the world.

This uncertainty in love has the unfortunate side-effect of suffering. The infinite depth of Christ's love is that He gave His life with the deep desire - craving, even? - that all beings would be saved through Him. Until that is fully realised, and as long as Christ loves, He must suffer. If we live in his love as His Body the Church, truly giving ourselves into the flow of the sacrifice He made on the Cross, yes, that means we will suffer. He suffered once for us; now He suffers in us and with us.

We do have a proper yearning, craving, desire as Christians: to sacrifice ourselves into the eternal flow of God's love, with all the suffering that entails. A thousand loves bring a thousand sufferings? Bring them on. We must love and take the suffering that comes with it, and offer up that suffering freely, and let ourselves be drawn into Jesus' self-giving sacrifice. We must attached to non-attachment, greedy to give: ourselves as a living sacrifice, as we pray at every Mass.

In a word, the Christian's proper craving is for Crucifixion; and our only attachment is to the Cross.