by Digitalnun on April 12, 2015
It is good that as we in the west celebrate the Octave Day of Easter our Orthodox friends are also celebrating Easter. But as the cry Christos Anesti echoes round the world, there is a darker, more dreadful memory being recalled. Our distance in time from the Armenian Massacre does not lessen its horror, nor does the situation of Armenians and Greeks under Ottoman rule seem so very different from the position of Christians and Yazidis today in areas dominated by Islamist regimes. Contempt is sometimes as difficult to bear as persecution, but it always tends towards destruction. What begins as comparatively minor injustice ends in cruelty and the taking of life. But why do I link these events with St Thomas and the gospel of the day, John 20.19–31? Please spend a moment or two looking at this picture by Caravaggio.
Christ stands before us without the usual crossed nimbus. Caravaggio wants to emphasize his bodyliness, the physical reality of the Resurrection. This is no ghost, this is Jesus of Nazareth, risen from the dead. Thomas places his finger deep within the wound in Christ’s side, but his eyes are wide, questioning, not looking at him at all. We know that Thomas will respond with ‘My Lord and my God!’ but for the moment he is doubting, wondering, overwhelmed by the experience of being invited to test Jesus. Those terrible wounds will become channels of grace and healing, but Thomas must know their dreadfulness before he can know their power. It must have been a moment of unequalled terror as Thomas felt the wounded flesh and knew he was touching the wounds of the Son of God.
Thomas and the other disciples had locked themselves away in a private room for fear of the danger outside. They were confused, wary, unsure what to believe or do; and suddenly they experience mercy. Thomas had refused to believe, and the very forcefulness of his refusal suggests a tormented mind. Now, in this dramatic fashion, he is set free from his doubts and hesitations and, like the other disciples, he is commissioned to set others free. But at what cost to Thomas himself? Did he have to battle the rest of his life with a feeling of guilt, of having failed to come up to the mark, of having failed to believe when he ‘ought’ to have done so?
We cannot know; but the doubts of Thomas have not only helped confirm the faith of us who come after, they have also helped us understand something of the nature of divine mercy. It is more than mere clemency. However deserving we may be of correction, God does not see us as primarily wayward children, in constant need of a salutary rap over the knuckles (or whatever the modern equivalent may be). His attitude towards us is one of utter compassion. He shares our suffering, our failures, our most difficult moments. He has identified so completely with us that he has become human in the person of Jesus Christ. The Armenian Massacre, the suffering inflicted on Christians and Yazidis by IS and similar groups, God knows these things from the inside, as it were. Today we celebrate Christ’s victory over everything contrary to life and happiness, even death itself. He will bear the wounds of his own death on the Cross for all eternity; and for all eternity the redemption he won for us will be lavished upon us. That is the mercy we celebrate; that is what Thomas experienced when he touched Christ’s wounded side.
by Digitalnun on April 11, 2015
Faith and doubt are two sides of the same coin. I’m a bit suspicious of those who claim never to have had any doubts, and I’m not entirely convinced by those who claim never to have had any twinges of faith, either. Even Bertrand Russell had a moment of believing that the ontological argument for the existence of God was valid, though tossing his tobacco tin into the air seems to have resulted in a change of mind soon after. The addition to Mark’s gospel that we read today, Mark 16.9–15, twice mentions the disbelief of the disciples when faced with the testimony of Mary Magdalene and Cleopas and his companion. What is going on?
One thing that is certainly going on is a very natural, human reaction to the death of Jesus on the Cross. The dead don’t rise again, and whatever Jesus may have said about it during his public ministry didn’t make sense then and was largely forgotten after the Crucifixion. It is only with the Resurrection that his words fall into place. Another thing that is going on is the transformation wrought by the Resurrection in Jesus’ body. The Risen Christ is familiar yet different. If we look at the other Resurrection stories, the disciples are variously described as ‘dumbfounded’, ‘disbelieving’, ‘hesitating’. Whether Jesus stands on the shore or in the midst of them while they are at table, there is a strangeness about him now; the disciples hold back a little, unable to take in what has happened. Only Mary Magdalene and Peter seem to be able to grasp the situation all at once — and how different their reactions are, with Mary wanting to cling to him, and Peter, in his confusion, wanting to jump into the water to get away from him!
Tomorrow Thomas will speak for all of us when he demands to place his hands in Christ’s wounds before he will believe, but today we are faced with making a choice based on faith — not our faith only, but the faith of the early Church. Once the choice is made, we are commissioned to go out and proclaim the Good News. How we do so will depend on our individual circumstances, but each one of us is, in some sense, a missionary, charged with building up the faith of others. That doesn’t mean ignoring doubts or questions, but it does mean allowing the Risen Christ to change us utterly.
by Digitalnun on April 9, 2015
Today’s gospel (Luke 24.35–48) is one I love. Humans get lost in the wonder of it all: Jesus suddenly appearing, standing among the disciples and showing them the wounds in his hands and his feet. It is all joy and gladness, shimmering light and peaceful beauty. For us dogs it is all about eating. Jesus eats a piece of grilled fish (yum, yum) to prove he is not a ghost. I prove I’m not a ghost every chance I get, but there is clearly something special about Jesus’ eating that piece of fish, and I think I know what it is — because I’m a dog and not an intellectual, so I don’t need to get complicated about these things.
The most sacred ritual Catholics take part in is the Eucharist, and every meal they eat contains echoes or reflections of that. Bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, and God is disclosed through the act of eating and drinking. That is quite wonderful and special. The spiritual and the physical are inseparably united. Even us dogs recognize the holiness of eating, the sharing of life, and in today’s gospel we see Jesus demonstrating that fact to the disciples. Some people are so holy (sic) they think they have to get rid of the bodily in order to be spiritual, but here is the Risen Christ celebrating the holiness of the body and his own bodyliness by eating. BigSis calls it the grilled fish test. It’s one I’ll happily take any time.
Apologies to all those who don’t like a dog discussing these mysteries.
by Digitalnun on April 8, 2015
Predictably, immigration has turned out to be one of the major sub-themes of the General Election debate, and I wouldn’t mind betting that today’s gospel, Luke 24.13–35, is being quoted by many in support of the notion of welcoming the stranger in our midst.
The Emmaus story is challenging on many levels. We are all familiar with ‘Emmaus moments’ when the veil over the ordinary is lifted and we see, as for the first time, the true meaning of something. Broken bread and a shared cup become the Body and Blood of Christ and we understand, as never before, what that means. Someone speaks, and the words touch the very depths of our being. We long for Jesus to explain the scriptures to us, and then realise that he does so every time we open them or hear them read. He accompanies us every step of the way, no matter how long or lonely our way may seem. The stranger, the alien, is God in disguise.
Here this morning is an illustration of the Emmaus story that presents another kind of challenge. We are used to hearing about the prejudices of our ancestors, their anti-semitism and their hatred of those who were different. Our rediscovery of the Jewishness of Jesus is often regarded as a modern phenomenon, but I have a small collection of medieval images that make me question that. Here are Jesus and the two disciples breaking bread at Emmaus, and all of them are wearing the characteristic Judenhut or Jewish hat of the time. It is all the more remarkable because the illustration is thought to come from Norfolk, perhaps even Norwich, and is dated about 1190.
Why is that remarkable? A mere forty years or so earlier the spurious story of William of Norwich had stirred up virulent anti-semitism. A hundred years later such anti-semtism was a major factor in the expulsion of Jews from England. But here, in 1190, we find an illuminator who has no hesitation in portraying Jesus as a Jew among Jews. It is worth thinking about that.
We are often quick to make assumptions; quick to condemn. Just as the Emmaus gospel encourages us to welcome the stranger in our midst, so its portrayal through the ages encourages us to examine more critically the attitudes we have inherited from the past. Immigration is something we must all think about and find a just and fair response to. Our starting-point might usefully be that of Cleopas: open about our hopes and fears, and ready to be convinced.
by Digitalnun on April 7, 2015
How many of us try to create God in our own image and likeness and end up with a very shrunken conception of him! Again and again the disciples failed to understand Jesus or what he was about. They wanted a king, a political leader, someone who, humanly speaking, was a success. Instead they got a ‘man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’ who died a criminal’s inglorious death. The women didn’t understand, either, but at least they stayed with Jesus to the end, along with the Beloved Disciple; and Mary Magdalene stayed outside the tomb, weeping, once they had performed the last offices for the dead. And then? And then it was Easter. Mary saw Jesus through her tears and saw more clearly than any of the others, because she saw with a heart washed clean by love.
What happens next is a lesson for us all. Mary is told not to cling to Jesus but to go to the disciples and tell what she has seen. She is the apostle of the apostles, announcing the Resurrection. Peter and John will later verify the truth of what she has asserted, but for now, she is the messenger, entrusted with a great joy. The same is true for us. Whatever graces we may be given, whatever insight or understanding we may be granted, is not for ourself alone, but we lay our insights and understanding before the Church, that they may be verified. We, too, are just messengers — and what a glory that is!
by Digitalnun on April 4, 2015
Holy Saturday is a day out of time, a day for doing nothing, because God is acting — powerfully, incomprehensibly, mercifully — while the earth remains silent and still, awaiting the Resurrection. In the past, I’ve said that the whole of monastic life is lived in Holy Saturday mode (see here or here) and I was thinking principally about the fact that we are suspended between heaven and hell, going on as best we can, placing all our hope in the God we cannot see; but I begin to think that the connection is both simpler and more mysterious. Holy Saturday is traditionally associated with the Harrowing of Hell, when Christ descended into the underworld to free the spirits of the just who had died before his coming. It is a day of mercy, and all of us live by the mercy of God. That is what we really mean by Holy Saturday as a day of waiting, a day when we await the mercy of God.
The tenderness of this illustration, as Christ takes the spirits in Sheol by the hand and leads them out into the light, would melt the heart of anyone. It makes me wonder why we are sometimes so anxious to consign others to hell. Don’t we all long for God to be merciful to us? Haven’t we enough sins of our own to worry about, without condemning those of others? Perhaps, today, we could spend a moment or two thinking about how we judge others, and the harm we sometimes do by imprisoning them in our judgement of them.
Tonight, during the Exsultet, we’ll sing of the felix culpa, the happy fault, the necessary sin of Adam, which brought us such and so great a Redeemer. It is theology trembling on the brink of heresy, breath-taking in its conception of God’s wisdom and mercy. Holy Saturday reminds us that sin and death are no barrier to God. He will lead us into everlasting light, if we will but let him.
Note on the illustration
Unknown : Initial D: The Harrowing of Hell, mid-1200s, Tempera colours, gold leaf, and ink on parchment Leaf: 23.5 x 16.5 cm (9 1/4 x 6 1/2 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 14, fol. 110 Used by permission under the Open Content Scheme, with thanks.
by Digitalnun on April 3, 2015
The brutal death of those Christians in Garissa who were killed just because they were Christian reminds us what this day is about: forgiveness and sacrifice — a forgiveness and sacrifice drenched in blood and suffering. Here in the West we like our Good Friday sanitized. Our crucifixes are often impossibly pious, plastic representations of ectomorphic figures stretched on equally impossible crosses that inspire little devotion. More rarely, they are beautiful, sometimes even bejewelled, objects of delicate workmanship and exquisite materials.
As we chart the changes in design, we glimpse differences in perception, shifts in devotion, that underline how our understanding grows, takes new forms, throws new light on the death of Christ: the poignant twist of the body (added in the ninth century), the heavy crown of thorns (added in the thirteenth), the head raised towards the Father (mainly since the seventeenth century) find a parallel in the music and poetry of the age that created them. But always there is that distancing from the blood and horror of the event. It takes a Julian of Norwich, writing of the drying wind that passed over Calvary, or the falling of Christ’s blood in drops as large as a herring scale, to jerk us out of our complacency.
Ultimately, of course, it is our own experience that enables us to interpret the crucifix. Do we see it as a hammer with which to bludgeon others into submission? You must believe as I do or you are destined for hell. Or do we see it as a symbol of love and mercy, unmerited love and mercy, that somehow, amazingly, redeems us from sin and death? A miracle of grace meant to be shared with others.
Good Friday 2015 is one with that day on which Christ died for our sins in Roman Palestine two thousand years ago. It asks of us just as much as it asked then. Will we follow in the way of forgiveness and sacrifice, however brutal or messy that may be, or do we choose something else, something less demanding?
by Digitalnun on April 2, 2015
Year after year I have tried to say something worth thinking about on Maundy Thursday. This year I have only an image and a single thought. The image is from a twelfth century English manuscript, with a text added later in the fifteenth century. It shows the Beloved Disciple crumpled in sorrow and distress on Jesus’ breast.
It is the poignancy of that image which strikes me. Tonight there will be many fine homilies on the three major themes of the Maundy Thursday liturgy. There will probably be a nod or two in the direction of the Leaders’ Debate on TV and the irony of discussing human greatness when the words and actions of Jesus are entirely about humility and service. But, for all the brilliance of our preachers and all the loveliness of the liturgy we celebrate, we come back to those essential elements: the self-giving of Christ, and the pain of those who love him and would spare him suffering if they could. Yet again we are faced with an extraordinary and life-giving paradox: God’s ways are indeed not our ways, but only in him can we find life and peace and balm for our souls.