Lost: Wednesday of Holy Week 2021

Photo by Trym Nilsen on Unsplash 

Many call today ‘Spy Wednesday’, the day when Judas finally betrayed Jesus and went in search of those who wanted him dead. Matthew’s account (Matthew 26.14-25 ) is a familiar narrative, but I wonder whether it is not a little too simple, too inclined to portray Judas as the arch-traitor beyond redemption. We know that despite the deal made earlier with the Chief Priests, there was still time for a change of heart, for a renewal of the old love and friendship between Judas and his Lord. But it didn’t happen, not then, at any rate, and we are left pondering the dynamic of what did occur. How we interpret that says as much about us as it does about Judas.

For generations, Christians have taken delight in placing Judas firmly in hell. We have off-loaded onto him all the betrayals and broken trust that has afflicted the world throughout the ages, and we feel safe doing so because what could be more villainous than to betray our Saviour for a paltry 30 pieces of silver? It is vicarious justification for actions that would otherwise seem harsh and unforgiving. But notice the image that stands at the head of this post. It is a lost toy, a sad little bear. It wasn’t chosen arbitrarily. 

To me the photo is a reminder that Jesus and Judas were friends, and Jesus never stopped loving him. What might that mean? There is an innocence, a playfulness, about friendship we often forget when we think of Jesus and the disciples. Judas, himself possibly a Zealot, may have been disappointed in Jesus’ failure to become the political leader he hoped for, but was Jesus disappointed in Judas? Did Judas’s company bring him joy right up to the end and that painful parting of ways? Was Judas a friend still, lost in some ways, but always close to his heart? In other words, is it possible that we see the relationship between Jesus and Judas in ways that fit our own narrative rather than what truly occurred between them?

We cannot answer such questions with certainty, but those words of Jesus, ‘Better for that man if he had never been born!’, suggest to me not the prospect of eternal punishment but of eternal anguish. If true, Jesus did not approve of what Judas had done but forgave him and grieved at the suffering that lay before him. That is an important point, because it leaves open the question whether Judas is condemned to hell for all eternity in the way we tend to assume. In any case, we must remember it is Judas’s despair of God’s mercy, not his betrayal, that has always been considered the greater sin. We can see why. Such despair is to doubt the very nature of God, his love, mercy and forgiveness.

That thought should make us uncomfortable. The way we see Judas says a great deal about how we ourselves see God and the trust (or lack of it) that we have in his love and forgiveness. God does not approve of sin, anyone’s sin. He does not endorse the wrong we do or pretend it doesn’t matter, but he does forgive — utterly. It is we who hold others (and sometimes ourselves) to account, we who say ‘I cannot forgive X or Y’ as though it were a virtue in us; and we habitually assume God is of the same mind. Perhaps today we might spend a few moments thinking about that. Jesus on the cross suffered and died for us while we were still sinners. How dare we be less merciful than he? How dare we make ourselves, or anyone else, to be lost? We are not discarded toys. We are infinitely precious in God’s eyes, and his desire is that we should be with him for all eternity.

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Preparing for Holy Week 2021

On the Eve of Palm Sunday

Today will be a day of hustle and bustle throughout the land as we prepare to celebrate Holy Week — with slightly fewer restraints than last year, but still with a number of restrictions. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has issued detailed guidance on what may or may not be done, and what it recommends should be done. You can read it here, and I would urge you to do so if you can (it includes the revised intercession IXb for Good Friday). It is a reminder that the liturgy is not a private possession, as it were. Whether we celebrate as one among thousands or on our own, we do so as part of the Church. Having the mind of the Church, acting in accordance with her precepts, her tradition, is not an arbitrary matter. It doesn’t mean we can’t innovate or adapt, but it does mean that we do so in accordance with the principles she gives us.

Domesticating the Liturgy

Tonight our Jewish friends will celebrate the first night of Pesach or Passover. More than any other group, I think Jews understand the domesticating of the liturgy. Martin Buber often spoke of the dinner table as an altar — something many Christians have forgotten with today’s trend towards fast food, takeaways and the Netflix supper eaten in front of a screen. I suggest we need to re-think that. For many Christians this year, home will be where Holy Week and Easter are principally celebrated, and we need to find ways of doing so with dignity and recollection. Here in the monastery we have always had a substantial domestic liturgy accompanying every day of Holy Week but especially the Paschal Triduum. We revert to an older, simpler form of prayer, much of it chanted monotone save for the achingly beautiful Christus factus est and so on. We read the Last Discourse before Compline and huge quantities of scripture and psalmody at other times. It is a demanding week, as it is for everyone, but because our domestic liturgy takes place in the monastery, in our home, it blurs the distinction between public and private, and because what we do strives to be always consistent with the Church’s tradition, it illumines the public liturgy in a way nothing else could.

A Suggestion

As you prepare for Holy Week, may I suggest you give some thought to how you can ‘domesticate’ the liturgy without making things complicated or burdensome or adding loads of devotional elements that will merely tire you out? For example, I’ve mentioned reading the Last Discourse from the gospel of St John; or perhaps you could pray Psalm 118 (119) over the course of the week. As it ducts and weaves around the theme of the Law, it reminds us of the New Covenant made in Christ. And if you find you can’t do any of these things, if for you Holy Week is just getting through as best you can, do not berate yourself. Holy Week, like redemption itself, is his gift to us. Receive it gladly.

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Drawing Closer to Holy Week: Sunday V of Lent

Spring may have only just begun, and tomorrow we shall celebrate the transferred Solemnity of St Benedict (his Transitus, or birthday into heaven), but there is still a chill about today having nothing to do with temperature or mood. If we have not been serious about Lent before, we are now. Holy Week is on the horizon, and the liturgy is insistent in its call to conversion, suffering and death. 

Bleak? In one way, yes. Most of us find the prospect of suffering and death easier to contemplate in the abstract than reality. The fact that both are unavoidable and bound up with our eternal salvation is scant comfort. We know we must allow the Lord to inscribe his law on our hearts and enter into a new covenant with him. We know we must learn to obey. Most important of all, we know we must begin to turn towards the cross as sentence is passed on this world. (cf today’s Mass readings: Jeremiah 31.31-34; Hebrews 5. 7-9;  John 12. 20-33.) But no-one is denying how hard it can be, nor the reluctance some of us may feel.

Many will say, isn’t that what we have been trying to do all our lives? Indeed, but this week before Holy Week seems to me pivotal. There is an unavoidable urgency about it. Until now, we’ve been doing our best, trying to focus on the Lord rather than how well or otherwise we are doing. It’s been a joyful and refreshing simplification of our everyday lives. In the desert of our hearts, love of the Lord has ben rekindled as the prophet Hosea promised. But now it is that distant view of Calvary which takes centre stage and we know that we must either take our stand with Christ or not stand at all. The moment of choice will soon be upon us, and we must make ourselves ready. Already the cross is calling. If we find that prospect daunting, we should remember that we do not face it alone but in union with every generation, with our Saviour himself.

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What Can I Do?

How often do we respond to a crisis or emergency with those words? In a monastery, where we own nothing and neither our time nor ‘our bodies and wills’ are at our own disposal, as St Benedict says, it can be particularly hard. Of course, sometimes the desire to help is more a reflection of the desire to quieten our own conscience than anything nobler, but, by and large, the will to do good to others is there. We pray, we give whatever we can, and we hope for the best. What we actually do may seem little enough: a kind word, a smile, picking a few items of litter from the verge, restraining ourselves from replying to an angry tweet. The point is, life is made up of little things. Most of us are not in a position to do much about the world’s gravest problems, but there are plenty nearer home that we can tackle. So, if I have any message at all for this morning, as we come to the end of the fourth week of Lent, it is a simple one. Be encouraged. Be a prophet for our times, leading by the example of doing what you can, when you can, as you can, and placing everything in the hands of God to bring to fruition.

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The Chuckit List

Today’s gospel, Matthew 5. 20–26, is about forgiveness — something we all find difficult, especially if we try to forgive others in our own strength or think of it as a once-for-all process. It becomes even harder when we hear Jesus telling us that it is not those who have offended us we most need reconciliation with but those who have something against us. Forgiveness is clearly both simpler and more complicated than we might have thought, but there is no escaping it. We live by the mercy of God and that mercy is to be shared with others.

Yesterday, in a different and much sadder context, I was introduced to the concept of the Chuckit List. It is rather like a Bucket List in reverse: not a list of things we want to do or acquire, but a list of things we can let go. May I suggest that we each think about our own Chuckit List — of grudges, resentments, quarrels, prejudices, misunderstandings, estrangements — and resolve to let them go. In setting others free, we are ourselves liberated; and it is never too late to learn that lesson.

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Making a Splash?

Who does not love the story of Jonah? Every detail is perfect, with a rich vein of humorous exaggeration throughout. We’re told it took three days to cross the city of Nineveh, so this is conversion on a vast scale. Everyone, even the animals (!), put on sackcloth as as sign of repentance and joined in the general fast. Jonah himself comes in for some gentle teasing from the Lord, but it is clear he was an effective speaker and won the hearts of his listeners. Despite a regrettable tendency to run away and get cross when things didn’t turn out as he wanted, he was, ultimately, a success. We remember Jonah.

Jesus tells the crowds that ‘someone greater than Jonah is here’ but one wonders whether his rhetoric made as great an impression as Jonah’s is said to have done. Throughout the gospels we see him experiencing misunderstandings, opposition, and, ultimately, a kind of failure: death on the cross. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the failure was no failure at all; but at the time Jesus was not a big success. We remember Jesus, but we are conscious of the contradictions and the suffering that marked his triumph. The resurrection comes out of a dark place, darker than any whale’s belly.

And what of us? Do we want to make a splash, be celebrity saints, as it were? Someone once said rather cruelly of Thomas Merton that he was the kind of hermit who needed a neon sign outside his hermitage. We can be a little like that, wanting our good deeds to be noticed, especially during Lent, when we are trying harder to live holy lives. We can want to be remembered, have our fifteen minutes of fame as it were, but ideally without much hardship or contradiction. We forget that we are called to be followers of the Lord. We can never be holy except he makes us so, and that will always involve an experience of failure and, at times, discouragement. Let us pray for the grace to meet the challenge we face.

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Lenten Fruitfulness

Today is the memoria of St Polycarp, whose name means ‘fruitfulness’ in Greek (you can read an earlier post specifically about him, St Polycarp and the Grace of the Elderly, with some thoughts on ageing and dying, here: https://www.ibenedictines.org/2016/02/23/st-polycarp-and-the-grace-of-the-elderly/), but it is today’s Mass readings that I want to consider this morning.

Isaiah 55.10–11 assures us that the word of God always attains its purpose, while the gospel, Matthew 6.7-15, gives us the text of the Lord’s Prayer and reminds us that forgiving others will secure our forgiveness in return. It is a circle of grace that begins and ends in God. How often do we overlook that and try to batter God into submission to our will through all the penances and good works we take on? As if we could!

Those autumnal apples pictured above remind me of Keat’s ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ (it’s his anniversary today, too) and the sheer abundance of God’s mercy. I think we forget how lavish God is in his care for creation, including us. Perhaps one of the things we need to do this Lent is to allow that amazingly generous, merciful God to replace the more niggardly, exacting image most of us have of him. That would make our Lent more fruitful — not easier, for more would be asked of us — but certainly more fruitful. Shall we try it?

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In the Desert with Satan and the Wild Beasts

יוסי אוד yossi aud Pikiwiki Israel, CC BY 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

The First Sunday of Lent

The first Sunday of Lent always sees us in the desert with Jesus, confronting temptation. This year we read Mark’s account, and as it is so brief, I’ll quote it in full:

The Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him.  

After John had been arrested, Jesus went into Galilee. There he proclaimed the Good News from God. ‘The time has come’ he said ‘and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.’

Mark, 1. 12–15.

The first two sentences may be short but they are full of significance. The Greek verb used for the action of the Spirit is very strong. Jesus is, as it were, forced into the desert where his companions are Satan, the wild beasts and angels, none of them exactly comforting. Being looked after by an angel may sound better than being tempted by Satan or pursued by hungry leopards, but as soon as we think how angels are described in the Old Testament, our vision of charming little putti gives way to the awe-inspiring beings of fire and flame who surround the throne of God — not what one would call immediately reassuring.

The Temptations and the Public Ministry

Jesus in the desert is being exposed to the kind of radical insecurity few of us know in the West. He is to learn how to rely on God, and God alone. The temptations he faces, and which the other evangelists delight in detailing, are often used by preachers as an introduction to Lent. Indeed, I’ve used them like that myself, as many previous posts will attest. But Mark doesn’t allow us to linger in the desert or waste time speculating about Jesus’ experience. He turns our attention to John, the Forerunner, and the beginning of the Good News.

I don’t think that’s an accident. We are being asked to move in one swift bound from contemplation of the temptations Christ endured at the start of his public ministry to the purpose of that ministry. The temptations matter, of course, but not as much as the reason for Jesus’ life on earth taken as a whole. There is an urgency about Mark’s gospel that, more than anything else, convinces me of his belief in the importance of what he is saying. Our salvation is at stake; we cannot dawdle on the way. We must repent and believe, NOW.

Our Lenten Pilgrimage

Repentance has two aspects: being sorry for our sin, for (literally) missing the mark, and turning to the Lord — conversion, change. I think that turning to the Lord precedes being sorry for our sins because it is only in response to grace that we can even begin to see that we have sinned. Belief is similar in many ways. We have to be touched by God with the gift of faith before we can believe. We can’t argue ourselves into belief or will ourselves into belief. We have to wait for God to act, and most of us don’t like waiting for anyone or anything, not even God.

Lent can seem very long: forty days of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Forty days of trying to come closer to the Lord. It is easy to want to give up, have a little rest by the wayside; but Mark will have none of that. Our pilgrimage to Easter starts now. Let us pray that we may be attentive to the Lord and follow his lead. We may meet Satan and a few wild beasts on the way, but there are those formidable angels, too. Perhaps they are a comfort, after all.

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Clenched Fists and Wicked Words

Photo by Luis Quintero on Unsplash

Lockdown and Lent

A number of people have got quite stroppy with me recently, saying that they are not giving anything up for Lent, they have suffered enough during lockdown, thank you very much, their aim will be just to get through each day. I cannot quibble with part of that. Some people have suffered hugely; but I would query the idea that Lent requires some form of self-imposed suffering. That would make God a monster, delighting in the pain of his children; and I have not the slightest hesitation in saying God is not like that. Lent is about becoming closer to the Lord, becoming more free, more joyful. Christian tradition has always valued prayer, fasting and almsgiving as means to that end, but they are not ends in themselves, nor should they be interpreted narrowly. An illustration may make this clearer.

Clenched Fists and Wicked Words

Today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 58.9–14, with its references to clenched fists, wicked words and sharing with others, is an excellent way of examining our conscience. What is more useless than a clenched fist, which can neither give nor receive? What is more pointless than a wicked word, which injures both speaker and hearer? Even if we have nothing material to share with others, we can rein in the others and share as much by not doing as by doing. There are days when my illness makes me think I’m incapable of anything more than just existing, can’t be ‘nice’ to others or contribute in any meaningful sense to the common good. That’s when the real work of conversion begins, when we realise that what we value may be reinforcing an idea we have of ourselves that is actually hindering us on our way to God, making it all about us again, not him.

A Different Approach

So, don’t worry about giving up wine or chocolate or saying an extra decade of the rosary or whatever you decided to do for Lent. Take control of your thoughts first. Cultivate kindness and generosity of mind: it will lead to action. Watch your speech: restrain that angry word, pause before you tap out your opinion on social media, make friends with those who think differently from you. Be honest with yourself and trust God for the rest. To be fair, I haven’t seen this working in myself yet, but I have seen it in others, so there is hope for us all.

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Fasting and Greed

Being Thought Greedy

None of us likes to be thought greedy, so we make a 1,001 excuses for any unbecoming conduct we’re inclined to blush for, ranging from genuine need (‘I was starving’) to being misunderstood (‘I was just tidying things up’). The photo of the little boy with his head in a cake makes us smile, not recoil. It is how we like to think of our own weaknesses — endearing foibles rather than failings. Alas, it won’t wash. Greed isn’t just about food and drink or overindulgence in material things. We can be greedy for attention, comfort, celebrity status (by association, if nothing else), all kinds of things. We can be greedy for life itself at the expense of others.

Physical Fasting

I certainly believe in the value of actual, physical fasting from food and drink and I am grateful that, after a lifetime in the monastery, I can draw on the accumulated wisdom of generations of nuns. The monotony of our Lenten diet is part of our fast, but we don’t go in for extravagant gestures like the legendary religious sister (Order/Congregation discreetly veiled here) who decided she would eat nothing but one bowl of porridge every day during Lent and expired at the end of it. Nor do we confuse the physical fast with any other kind of ‘giving up’, e.g abandoning social media for a few weeks or foregoing a favourite pastime. Which brings me back to the subject of greed.

Greed

The antidote to greed isn’t fasting but generosity. Restraining ourselves from x or y can be a useful discipline, but it isn’t what the Lenten fast is about. Fasting, like everything else in Lent, is meant to lead us closer to God. The rumblings of our tummies are incidental. What we aim at is the clear-headedness and simplicity that will free our prayer and deepen our response to God, and experience shows that not being weighed down with too much food and drink is a help in that. Our greed, any tendency to possessiveness, to claim something or, worse still, someone, exclusively for ourselves requires more than a trifling sacrifice of a few morsels of food or drink to put right. It requires a complete change of attitude, and for most of us that is a longer and harder task. Maybe that is what Jesus is hinting at in today’s gospel. When the Bridegroom is gone from us, then we must fast in earnest and give of ourselves as he gave his life on the Cross. Lent is a good time for learning how to do that.

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