Wednesday, 1 April 2015

"Because Jesus loved him ..."

After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.' (John 13:21)

From the Gospel reading at Mass, Wednesday of Holy Week

Jesus willed to be troubled at this time for two reasons. First, in order to instruct us in the faith. For suffering and death, which human nature naturally shuns, were drawing near to him; and when he realized this, he became sad because they were harmful and evil for him. And so he willed, by a judgment of reason, to be troubled even in his soul, to show us that he had a real human nature. This excludes the error of Apollinaris who said that Christ did not have a soul, but the Word took its place. 

Secondly, he did this to aid our own progress. According to Augustine, he saw that the traitor was about to leave and return with the Jews who wanted to capture him. By this action, Judas was severed from the society of the saints and drew down a sentence of death upon himself. And because Jesus loved him, this made him sad.

Thomas Commentary on St John's Gospel, Chapter 13, lectio 4

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

"The passion by which he will be glorified"

Jesus answered them,‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified'  (John 12:23)

From the Gospel reading at Mass, Tuesday of Holy Week

This is why he says, 'now is the Son of man glorified', that is, the passion by which he will be glorified is now beginning. Indeed, Christ was glorified by the passion of the cross because by it he conquered the enemies of death and the devil: "that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death". Again, he acquired glory because by his cross he joined heaven and earth: "to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross". Further, he was glorified by his cross because by it he acquired all kingship. One version of Psalm 95  says: "Say to the nations that the Lord has reigned from his cross." Again, Christ was glorified by the cross because he accomplished many miracles on it: the curtain of the temple was split, an earthquake occurred, rocks were split and the sun was darkened, and many saints arose, as Matthew states. So with his passion drawing near, these are the reasons why our Lord said, 'now is the Son of man glorified'. It is like saying: now my passion is beginning, the passion which is my glory.

Thomas Commentary on St John's Gospel, Chapter 13, lectio 6

Monday, 30 March 2015

"Appropriate to the mystery"

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany ... (John 12.1)

From the Gospel reading at Mass, Monday of Holy Week

This number is very appropriate to the mystery to be enacted. First of all, because of the number itself, for six is a perfect number. For God completed the works of creation in six days. For this reason it was appropriate that it should take six days to accomplish the work of the passion, which would restore all things: "to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross"; "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself". 

Secondly, it is appropriate to the mystery, considering its foreshadowing. For Exodus commanded that on the tenth day of the first month every man was to take a lamb for his household and keep it for the sacrifice. Thus it was also on the tenth day of the first month, i.e., on the sixth day before the fifteenth day, that our Lord decided to enter Jerusalem, drawing near to the place where he would be sacrificed. 

Thomas Commentary on St John's Gospel, Chapter 12, lectio 1


Sunday, 29 March 2015

"With humility and weakness he attracted the entire world"

The young ass is an awkward animal ... The king comes to you, I say, not to harm you, but to set you free; thus he adds, 'sitting on an ass's colt'! This signifies the mercy of the king ... He is not coming as a haughty king ... by coming with humility and in weakness he attracted the entire world: "The weakness of God is stronger than men". 

Thomas Commentary on St John's Gospel, Chapter 12, lectio 3

Saturday, 28 March 2015

"Befitting the universal salvation of the entire world": Thomas on the mystery of the Cross

On the eve of Holy Week, word from St Thomas on the mystery of the Cross.  What is striking here is that Thomas offers no formula for understanding the Cross, but a series of reflections - grounded in the patristic witness - on the nature of the Lord's Passion:

It was most fitting that Christ should suffer the death of the cross.

First of all, as an example of virtue. For Augustine thus writes: "God's Wisdom became man to give us an example in righteousness of living. But it is part of righteous living not to stand in fear of things which ought not to be feared. Now there are some men who, although they do not fear death in itself, are yet troubled over the manner of their death. In order, then, that no kind of death should trouble an upright man, the cross of this Man had to be set before him, because, among all kinds of death, none was more execrable, more fear-inspiring, than this."

Secondly, because this kind of death was especially suitable in order to atone for the sin of our first parent, which was the plucking of the apple from the forbidden tree against God's command. And so, to atone for that sin, it was fitting that Christ should suffer by being fastened to a tree, as if restoring what Adam had purloined; according to Psalm 68:5: "Then did I pay that which I took not away." Hence Augustine says in a sermon on the Passion: "Adam despised the command, plucking the apple from the tree: but all that Adam lost, Christ found upon the cross."

The third reason is because, as Chrysostom says in a sermon on the Passion: "He suffered upon a high rood and not under a roof, in order that the nature of the air might be purified: and the earth felt a like benefit, for it was cleansed by the flowing of the blood from His side." And on John 3:14: "The Son of man must be lifted up," Theophylact says: "When you hear that He was lifted up, understand His hanging on high, that He might sanctify the air who had sanctified the earth by walking upon it."

The fourth reason is, because, by dying on it, He prepares for us an ascent into heaven, as Chrysostom says. Hence it is that He says: "If I be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all things to Myself."

The fifth reason is because it is befitting the universal salvation of the entire world. Hence Gregory of Nyssa observes that "the shape of the cross extending out into four extremes from their central point of contact denotes the power and the providence diffused everywhere of Him who hung upon it." Chrysostom also says that upon the cross "He dies with outstretched hands in order to draw with one hand the people of old, and with the other those who spring from the Gentiles."

The sixth reason is because of the various virtues denoted by this class of death. Hence Augustine in his book on the grace of the Old and New Testament says: "Not without purpose did He choose this class of death, that He might be a teacher of that breadth, and height, and length, and depth," of which the Apostle speaks: "For breadth is in the beam, which is fixed transversely above; this appertains to good works, since the hands are stretched out upon it. Length is the tree's extent from the beam to the ground; and there it is planted--that is, it stands and abides--which is the note of longanimity. Height is in that portion of the tree which remains over from the transverse beam upwards to the top, and this is at the head of the Crucified, because He is the supreme desire of souls of good hope. But that part of the tree which is hidden from view to hold it fixed, and from which the entire rood springs, denotes the depth of gratuitous grace." And, as Augustine says: "The tree upon which were fixed the members of Him dying was even the chair of the Master teaching."

The seventh reason is because this kind of death responds to very many figures. For, as Augustine says in a sermon on the Passion, an ark of wood preserved the human race from the waters of the Deluge; at the exodus of God's people from Egypt, Moses with a rod divided the sea, overthrew Pharaoh and saved the people of God. the same Moses dipped his rod into the water, changing it from bitter to sweet; at the touch of a wooden rod a salutary spring gushed forth from a spiritual rock; likewise, in order to overcome Amalec, Moses stretched forth his arms with rod in hand; lastly, God's law is entrusted to the wooden Ark of the Covenant; all of which are like steps by which we mount to the wood of the cross. 

Summa Theologica III, 46.4

Friday, 27 March 2015

Lenten meditation: the liturgies of Holy Week

During the Fridays of Lent, a series of Lenten meditations will be posted. Each meditation, based on the Gospel of the coming Sunday, will reflect upon devotional practices which lead us to enter more fully into the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection.

The Gospel for this Palm Sunday is the Passion according to St Mark. 

Lenten meditation: the liturgies of Holy Week

"Since early days Christians have observed with great devotion the time of Lord's passion and resurrection" [1].

The liturgy of Ash Wednesday told us that these forty days of fasting, prayer and penitence are a preparation for this next week that lies before us ...

A week in which the Church's liturgy takes us to Jerusalem's crowded streets, to an Upper Room, a desolate hill outside the city walls, a cold, dark Tomb.

What this next week is not, however, is an ecclesiastical version of the historical re-enactments seen at grand stately homes or 17th century battlefields.

Something much more radical happens in the liturgies of Holy Week.

We glimpse this when we hear the words Mark uses to introduce his Passion narrative, the gospel reading for this Palm Sunday:

"On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed ..."

Ancient mysteries and prophecies of sacrifice and redemption, of poured out blood and liberation, are to be fulfilled in this week.

This is the week when God acts, when God is encountered, liberating and redeeming, in flesh and blood reality ...

Flesh and blood reality lived out and poured out in a context that we can too easily recognise.

Holy Week occurs in a place governed by a world-weary, cynical politician (Pilate) and a power-hungry, ambitious rival (Herod).

It includes a grubby, behind-the-scenes exchange of money to buy allegiance.

There are fundamentalist terrorists and there's torture and a public spectacle of bloody death.

And then there is the fickle crowd, one moment shouting nationalistic religious slogans, the next demanding the blood of a scape-goat.

The Church is also easily recognisable during Holy Week.

We are the disciples.

Judas, conflicted, greedy, tormented, betraying.

Peter, loud and brazen in his boasts, broken and choked with tears after his denial.

The other disciples, overtaken by fear and cowardice, fleeing from the Cross and the Crucified.

If the world of the politicians and the crowd looks uncomfortably familiar in Holy Week ...

How much more should the actions of the disciples make us, the Church, feel uncomfortable?

We see there are own uncertain, compromised, confused lives of discipleship.

And yet ... it is in this loveless world, mis-shapen by power, ambition and violence, that God acts in Holy Week.

It is in the midst of this loveless, compromised and failing Church, that God is revealed.

How?

In the liturgies of Holy Week we experience how.

In a donkey and children waving palm leaves on Palm Sunday - not in a mighty empire, or angry insurgents, using shock and awe.

In a slave washing feet on Maundy Thursday - not in ambition or status.

In the Bread and Wine which, as darkness falls on Maundy Thursday, become the fulness of Mystery and Love - not in wealth or possessions.

In the hard, bloodied Wood of the Cross on Good Friday - not in success or achievement.

We can begin to see the radical nature of Holy Week ...

How it exposes the loveless pretensions of the world ... and of the Church.

How - through palm leaves, Bread and Wine, and the Wood of the Cross - it brings healing hope to a world lost and confused, to a Church compromised and fearful.

For in the liturgies of Holy Week, we encounter the God who, in flesh and blood, comes not to condemn but to save, not to judge but to heal.

In the midst of the deceits and failures, denials and betrayals, ambition and selfishness, God becomes the Passover Lamb ...

God gives God's Self, God bleeds and dies, for love of a loveless world, for love of a too frequently loveless Church.

In the liturgies of Holy Week, we see, touch, taste, the reality of Love ...

So that we who too easily, too often, wound ourselves and others with our lovelessness might, caught up in the Paschal Mystery of Cross and Resurrection, become bearers of this divine Love.

In the words of a great Anglican theologian of the 17th century, Lancelot Andrews:

"Christ pierced on the Cross is the very book of love laid open before us ... Which sight out to pierce us with love too" [2].

------------------------

[1]  Church of Ireland Book of Common Prayer 2004, 'Service for Ash Wednesday'.

[2]  Lancelot Andrewes' Good Friday sermon, 1597.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

On not taming the mystery: Richard III and Passiontide

There is something profoundly appropriate about the reinterment of Richard III occuring during Passiontide.

Here is a story of a vanquished king, shamed and disgraced, buried with haste and in fear, now received with honour.

Here is a story of a time of wrath and bitter division, of bloodshed and clashing allegiances, now giving rise to reconciliation.

Here is a story of a failure, despised and rejected, now embraced by grace.

Commenting on the events surrounding the reinterment, +Nick Baines has said:

Redemption is always on offer – even when self-righteous people resent the fact. Remember the prodigal son, the father who waits in hope for him to return, and the elder brother who resents generosity, forgiveness and new life. According to this way of seeing people and their purpose, to fail is not necessarily to be a failure. The story can never be said to have ended.

The Catheral's liturgical provision for the ceremonies surrounding the reinterment has given wonderful expression to this. These ceremonies have declared that the remains of a failed, defeated, despised king are, through the grace of baptism, prayer, absolution and eucharist, caught up in the Paschal Mystery.

In a recent letter to a theological faculty in Argentina, Pope Francis declared:

Without mercy our theology ... wants to tame the mystery.

The reinterment of Richard III during this week echoes the proclamation of Passiontide and Holy Week - the mystery cannot be tamed, for in it are caught up our experiences of failure, defeat, and shame. 

We who have passed through water, who have been anointed with oil, who offer prayer, who receive absolution, who partake in the mystery of bread and wine over which solemn thanksgiving is offered, we share in the Paschal Mystery.

We receive the abundant mercy of the Cross which brings us - as compromised, failed and shamed as Richard Plantagenet - to Resurrection.