Fr Peter’s newsletter notes - April 2006
Posted on April 1st 2006 in Weekly messages
Holy Week - Sunday 9th April 2006
The story of the Passion, invites us to make a choice for or against Christ
There would be no better time than Easter to release a book about some long lost fragments from the so-called Gospel of Judas. I have also met one Israeli antiquarian who has a copy of a letter Jesus wrote to the Sanhedrin outlining a possible compromise over the Temple and His status. These are very old documents, dating from within a few hundred years of the death of Jesus Christ. There are many more, some still to be found by either peasants or archaeologists. They all form a fascinating insight into the religious turmoil of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and the fragmentation of religious ideals in front of a decaying pagan cult of the Roman establishment. In other words, a situation not so different to now. The Church of England has formed the backbone to an establishment cult until very recently, and both its internal fragmentation and recession into the backdrop of religious life has left the way open for the formation of many quasi-Christian groups, using particular parts of the former culture of this land. There is no conspiracy here, just a collective lack of nerve, and the naïve belief by the religious authorities that making faith easier - in other words, not having any impact on life! - will somehow make it more attractive.
The story of the Passion, with its detailed account of the last day of Jesus' life, invites us to make a choice for or against Christ. The protagonists in this bloody drama are not mere actors. Those who oppose Jesus are at liberty to do so, but God, as the origin and end of all, can use this opposition for His own purpose. This is not the same as saying God caused Judas to betray His Son, or Pilate to condemn Him to death. The more important question for us is whether we are to betray Jesus as Judas did, for motives that might well seem eminently sensible at the time; or to engage with Christ by becoming His disciples, either like Simon of Cyrene who answered the call to carry the Cross, or the women whose witness of the death, burial and later resurrection of Jesus, is told the world over. Simon of Cyrene - the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time - is a good model for any reluctant believer. Did he expect to encounter Jesus? Probably not, but when he did there was no protest. Did he expect his son, Rufus, to be a recipient of St Paul's thanks when he wrote to the community in Rome? Not on that fateful day. God's Church is built by His providence using the patient and the reluctant and, even more mysteriously, the antagonistic. The method not taken up is that of conspiracy. That can safely be left for the vacillators, the unstable and the over imaginative.
Second Week of Easter - Sunday 23rd April 2006
The seeming pointlessness of faith in a pagan world should not obscure the divine ordering of history.
This was the second year that all the Old Testament readings were read out at the Easter Vigil at St Mary Moorfields. In the past I had always worried that the first part of the Vigil would be too long with all seven Old Testament readings, but my fears had been groundless. This year I was especially struck by the Christ-like meaning each reading possessed. I knew they had been chosen by the Church for this very reason, but hearing them in sequence brought this home to me. Each reading though integral to the Jews points beyond to Christ; the creation as a work of the Trinity; the sacrifice of Isaac as an image of that of Jesus; the liberation from Egyptian slavery as the precursor of the true liberation effected by Christ; the fidelity demanded by the Prophet Isaiah and the image of the Suffering servant realised perfectly in Jesus; the wisdom of God revealed in the life of Jesus; and finally the fulfilment, through the gift of the Holy Spirit of Ezekiel's prophecy of placing a heart of flesh inside each believer.
This Christ centred vision of the Old Testament demonstrates the direction of history as guided by God's providence. This direction of the course of history cannot be reduced to the human concepts of 'unity and control' because the mystery of God in choosing the Jews to be the recipients of His care is greater than human reason can grasp. However these readings do show a 'bigger picture', to the mere flow of historical events, and of which we can become a conscious part long after the first Easter. The striking aspect of the Gospels on the Easter Vigil is thier brevity; just eight verses in St Mark. Every reading has pointed to this one event, the Resurrection, and yet so few words. This is because the history of the Resurrection is the life of the Church. Indeed it can only be written at the end of time, when Christ, as St Paul describes will be 'all in all'. That final day will be of the Father's choosing, and this lack of precision or human timescale can make the daily living of the faith seem rather pointless.
The unifying element of this 'bigger picture' is the work of the Holy Spirit, that animates the Church as a whole, each individual believer and is abroad in the world. The Holy Spirit is the love between Father and the Son and is sent outwards, as promised and effected by Jesus, onto the Church, and to embrace each believer, and to so guide all future believers to encounter Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit in this sense completes the work of Jesus Christ, and the drive to this completion is the direction of history. This is a history that requires our co-operation and will not come about without it. The conversion of the world, the command of the risen Jesus to the disciples required their active involvement, as it does ours. The details are yet to be finalised yet we can be sure that our own individual lives of faith and witness do make a difference.
Perhaps before embarking on this divine mandate, we must convince ourselves of the reality of the Resurrection. The risen Jesus opened the minds of the apostles to read the Scriptures, and that should be our wish as well, as well as to have our minds and hearts opened to see the reality of the Resurrection around us. The first place to look is at the continued life of the Church itself, both at the large scale, the Pope and the Bishops and in the small scale, the individual parish. Despite nearly two hundred years of secular prophecy in Europe about the collapse of the Church, the end is not yet. However it could be were there not some to take up the challenge of Christian living, and that challenge is addressed to us.
Third Week of Easter - Sunday 30th April 2006
The Church must rediscover its divinely inspired common purpose which underpin faith and morals
The Feast of St George was moved by the Catholic hierarchy to last Monday and so made me think again on the nature of being English and Catholic. It has certainly become more common to see the St George's flag, not simply being flown from the aerials of white vans, but also now available on the shelves of Marks and Spencer. The last is probably part of an early marketing drive for the impending football World Cup which begins in just over a month's time. The more flags the better, because the sheer number means that St George has been taken out from the unsavoury and sinister fringes of politics. I do not think it is a co-incidence that the flag emerges when an English sporting team - whether football, rugby or cricket - swings into action. Sport has now become the new social cement that can unite the most disparate of people and, in a world of many seemingly incompatible faiths, now acts as a substitute religion. In this way sport can act as a force of good and, as it was in ancient Greece, be a mark of civilisation. Of course there are going to be malcontents and troublemakers who will use such occasions to extract a few minutes of tawdry fame but that should not detract from a legitimate support for one' own nation, or to feel pleased for their achievements should they be forthcoming.
This quasi-religious position of sport raises a number of questions, first the public position of religion in modern Britain and, secondly, the ability or desirability of forging a national identity. By one of those mysterious acts of providence, the Gospel for the Feast of St George was the first part of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. The subject is the necessity of rebirth, and Jesus is telling Nicodemus that one must be born from above to merit eternal life. This being 'born from above' is the descent of the Holy Spirit onto the believer, which occurs in the sacrament of baptism. Rebirth comes about through the recognition of God through His revelation which, for the Christian, receives its completed form in Jesus Christ.
Just as an individual has to be reborn from above, so by analogy must the nation. This will not be one of explicit faith in Jesus necessarily, but in the providence of God who, through His Law and Spirit, guides His creation. The particular working of God's providence is achieved through the acceptance of 'the human measure', that humanity both individually and collectively has intrinsic value. National team sports at their best can demonstrate this so well, being the combination of individual talent and collective responsibility. Every team has to speak a universally recognised language of playing, and abide by the set rules. One famous philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, applied this game theory to help his understanding of the nature of human language. This is something desperately needed now in our society, where the combination of so many shrill voices advocating every possible combination of right and wrong, and the false gravitas of management speak turning all moral problems into matters of process, has made so many men and women despair of the public realm and its institutions. The Churches have not been immune to this despair, and hence the dwindling numbers attending Church on a Sunday.
I do not know if 'football is coming home', but unless the Church can rediscover its divinely inspired common purpose that gives coherence to the 'rules of faith and morals', and can reach out into the world, something rather unsuspected will be coming home, a 'For sale' sign on your local Church and presbytery.
The Passion according to St Mark, Part 3 of 3 (15;1-47)
The handing over of Jesus, as if a common criminal, by the Sanhedrin to Pontius Pilate fulfils part of Jesus' triple passion predictions. The silence of Jesus in front of the accusations against Him causes Pilate's amazement. This wonder, like every other instance in Mark's Gospel of wonder, has a divine source, and makes the use of the title 'King of the Jews' highly ironic.
The sense of sinful blindness that overtakes the same crowds who welcomed Jesus as the Messiah on his entrance to Jerusalem is now made manifest. They want Pilate, who has asked their opinion, to have Barabbas released as part of the Passover amnesty and not Jesus. The name Barabbas literally means 'son of the father', and so the crowds have favoured the thief instead of the just man, the impostor rather than the real 'Son of the Father'. This condemnation of Jesus imitates that of the Suffering Servant, 'who has done no violence and in whose mouth was no deceit'. Pilate recognises Jesus' innocence but, having handed the initiative to the crowd, placates them by handing over Jesus to the soldiers to be scourged and crucified.
The similarity with the Suffering Servant continues as Jesus is mocked as the 'King of the Jews' with 'insults and spittle' at best and beaten with a fake sceptre, and crowned with thorns at worst. The passing of Jesus on the road to Calvary is a call just as much as His passing the Sea of Galilee. So the call at the end of the Gospel, of Simon of Cyrene to carry the Cross, parallels the dropping of the nets and the following of Jesus by Peter, James and John that begins the Gospel.
The crucifixion is described in the sparsest language, but what incidentals that are mentioned, the dividing of garments and the wagging of heads are details found in Psalm 22. The first verse of this Psalm, containing Jesus' last words, indicates that His death was according to the Scriptures. The loud cry which marked His last breath was witnessed by the centurion in charge of His crucifixion. He literally saw and believed. This man, Jesus, who had been derided, tortured and given the title 'King of the Jews' was really the Son of God. The Cross of Jesus now becomes the unique place to meet God.
I believe in the Holy Spirit (CCC683-701)
The section on the Holy Spirit is the third and final part on the Creed in the catechism. The Holy Spirit is the most mysterious person of the Trinity because the Holy Spirit does not possess His own voice as such, but makes the knowledge of Jesus as the Son of God (which is faith) possible. Hence His presence can be easily overlooked. The Holy Spirit has been revealed late in the history of God's revelation. In the Old Testament the Father is seen clearly while the Son remains obscure. The New Testament places the Son, Jesus Christ, at centre stage, as well as giving a glimpse of the Holy Spirit in action. Now after Pentecost the Holy Spirit is seen more clearly in the life of the Church and especially in particular facets of her life, especially in the Sacraments, and structure of the Church.
The glimpses of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament show that the task of the Spirit is to awaken faith in Jesus Christ as sent by the Father, and not to reveal further details about God. The existence of the Holy Spirit as a divine person is only known to those who have faith because the Spirit only 'speaks' of Jesus Christ. The experience of the Spirit in our lives of faith is both 'objective', the Holy Spirit speaks of Jesus Christ, and 'subjective' as He animates our hearts, and makes this knowledge of Christ an active force in our life.
Throughout the life of Jesus the mission of the Holy Spirit is united to that of the Son. At the moment of His conception Jesus is anointed with the Holy Spirit (a fact celebrated at the Annunciation). The power of the Holy Spirit was visible throughout the public life of Jesus. John the Baptist alluded to this power when he spoke of Jesus as baptising with fire and the Holy Spirit. After the death and Resurrection of and His return to His Father at His Ascension, the glorified Jesus is able, with the Father, to send the Holy Spirit onto all believers. The same power has been given to the Church as a whole, and to each individual in the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, Marriage and Ordination. (to be continued)
I believe in the Holy Spirit (CCC702-747)
The creed states that The Holy Spirit 'spoke through the prophets', and so the voice of the Spirit that predicts the coming of Jesus can be found in the Old Testament. The full revelation of the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost, when the Spirit descended upon the apostles and completed the gradual unfolding of the reality of the Trinity. The Trinity has existed since before time, and so the Word (the Son), through whom everything was created, and the Breath of God (the Holy Spirit) are at the origin of all life, both spiritual and natural. The Holy Spirit is responsible for the restoration in believers of the divine likeness after Jesus Christ has ascended to heaven, so that they may share the life of the Trinity.
The action of the Holy Spirit may be most acutely seen in John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary who are both prepared for the coming of the Son of God into the world. John the Baptist is filled with the Holy Spirit even within the womb, a fact revealed at the Visitation of Our Lady to her kinswoman Elizabeth. The Holy Spirit prepares Mary in a special way to receive the Word. She is preserved from all sin from the moment of her own conception (the Immaculate Conception). Mary assists in the completion of the Father's plan, and gives birth to His Son. The Holy Spirit also brings others to Christ through Mary, the shepherds, the Magi, and continues to the end when Jesus, dying on the Cross, hands Mary and John over to each other, and so Mary becomes the Mother of the Church.
The active presence of the Holy Spirit within Him is announced by Jesus in his first sermon in the Nazareth synagogue. Throughout His public life, Jesus intimates the existence of the Holy Spirit (e.g. to Nicodemus). He promises that the Father will send the Holy Spirit in Jesus' name so that he might lead the disciples into the fullness of truth concerning Jesus. This is made possible by His death on the Cross when Jesus gives up the Spirit which he subsequently, after His Resurrection, breathes into the disciples. Thus the mission of Jesus and the Holy Spirit now becomes the mission of the Church. 'As the Father has sent me even so I send you'.