Grief

The grief of the people of Norway one year on from the Breivik massacre is compounded by what happened a couple of days ago in Aurora, Colorado. At the back of most people’s minds is the thought, ‘It could happen again.’ Where the technology exists (guns, grenades, etc), there will always be people mad enough or bad enough to use them for mass murder and there is practically nothing that can be done to prevent it. Does that mean we are both helpless and hopeless? I don’t think so.

Death is something we must all experience sooner or later. When it comes early, or to someone we love, or with pain and distress, we rebel against it. Everything in us cries out for life. It is for life that we were created, after all. But for a Christian, life is changed, not ended, by death. The trouble is, we don’t know what lies beyond this life. All the assurances in the world can do nothing to overcome our personal feelings of doubt or difficulty. We must cling, as Mary, Martha and Lazarus clung, to our friendship with the Lord and trust that he will not abandon us after death any more than he has abandoned us in this life.

Grief weighs us down, shuts out the light, makes everything seem empty and hollow. At such times, it is good to look at a crucifix, that strange and terrible symbol of God’s aching love for us.  When there are no more tears to be shed and all the words that could be said have been said; when there is only the numbing pain of loss and the bleakness of an empty tomorrow, then the crucifix reminds us that God is not apart from us, uninvolved or uncaring. The bowed head of the Christus reminds us that he is with us always. He shares our sorrow, but unlike any other comforter we may have, he can and does transform our sorrow into joy.

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St Thomas: Luminous with Love and Delight

St Thomas has always been a favourite of mine and, I daresay, of many people. His doubt makes him easy to relate to, but his faith — that clear-sighted ‘My Lord and my God’ — makes me tremble. It is the kind of faith I would like to have myself: gloriously generous, absolute. Fortunately, it is not the kind of faith I have been given. I say ‘fortunately’ because the questionings and hesitations that I, at least, experience are undoubtedly part of the way in which God draws me, and without them there would be a dissonance between my ordinary life and my supernatural one.

St Thomas is a great encouragement as one who made sense of religion, who worked through the doubts and difficulties to come to an understanding that was luminous with love and delight like the very Wounds he touched. It is an understanding and knowledge that I pray will be given to all of us one day.

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Low Sunday

I love our homely English name ‘Low Sunday’ for Dominica in Albis, the Octave Day of Easter, when those baptized at the Easter Vigil traditionally laid aside their white garments and put on an Agnus Dei made of wax blessed by the pope to remind them of their newborn innocence in Christ. Another name is Quasimodo Sunday, from the words we sing at the introit of the Mass, Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite ut in eo crescatis in salutem si gustastis quoniam dulcis Dominus. Alleluia, Alleluia. (‘As newborn babes desire the rational milk without guile,’ etc, from 1 Peter 2.2). Low Sunday, however, is my favourite: it describes exactly that lowering of intensity we feel at the end of the Easter Octave. We have sung alleluia over and over again, rejoiced and given thanks: there seems nothing left to give. Joy, like grief, reaches a point where it almost numbs the senses.

Then we hear again the gospel of Thomas’s encounter with the Risen Christ in John 20. 19–31. I have often remarked that the Church uses John’s gospel at the peak moments of the Christian year. Surely this moment, when the forgiveness of sin is proclaimed and Thomas’s doubts are resolved, is a peak moment for all of us. It shows us not only what Christ accomplished through his Death and Resurrection but also why he suffered. His wounds are transfigured: love and compassion have made them beautiful, so that they are no longer blemishes but the source of grace and healing.

Christ’s Risen Body will always bear the wounds our sins have made upon them. That is not an easy thought. We are forgiven, we are redeemed, but at what cost! Surely we can tremble with Thomas at the enormity of the gulf that separates us from God, and the enormity of the love that spans the gap between. Low Sunday confronts us with the mercy and forgiveness of God less brutally than Good Friday, perhaps, but just as insistently.

The end of the Easter Octave is not the end of Easter. Low Sunday invites us to go deeper into the mystery at the heart of the Easter message. Just as the flame of the paschal candle continues to burn, so we too must continue to explore what it means to respond to our Lord’s invitation, ‘Doubt no longer but believe’.

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Forgiveness

Many of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus include a showing of the wounds in his body. I used to think that they were intended to elicit or confirm faith. A prime example would be the showing to Thomas, but reading today’s gospel, Luke 24. 35–48, made me think again. Could it be that these showings have another purpose, one that the disciples found even more necessary — an assurance of forgiveness?

You’ll notice that Jesus never finds it necessary to show the women his wounds. As far as we can tell from the gospel narratives, they never abandoned Jesus and were never afraid when they met him again after the Resurrection. When Mary Magdalene met him in the garden she wept, but for her supposed loss rather than consciousness of any sin or betrayal. The men do not get off so lightly, especially when they are gathered together in a group. There is consternation when Jesus appears among them, doubt, disbelief, a whole gamut of emotions, including fear. Jesus reassures them and shows them his wounds. This showing not only demonstrates who he is but also what he has done: ‘God in Christ has reconciled the world to himself’.

Just in case any of my female readers is quietly congratulating herself, I had better point out that we are all among the male disciples now. We are all in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness which come to us through Christ our Lord. Those wounds on his body are there for all eternity as a sign of his love and forgiveness. We are each one of us ‘graven on the palm of his hand’.

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Loss of Life

Yesterday’s tragic coach crash in Switzerland will have touched the hearts of many. Trying to make sense of the loss of so many young lives is doomed to failure. How can we reconcile what we believe about God, that he is all-loving, all-knowing, all-caring, with death and destruction? For myself, I think the only truthful answer is, we can’t. However much we try, we cannot know the mind of God. We do not know why he allows such tragedies, and I think we belittle the loss and the suffering if we claim that there is some ‘higher purpose’ involved. How can we be so sure? Why should he die? Why should she get cancer? Why should they lose their home and family? Why, why, why?

Perhaps ‘why’ is not the most important question to ask. Could it be that, when such tragedies occur, God is looking for a different response in us? Are we, who are not directly involved, called upon to affirm the goodness of God and our own trust in him? The Book of Job challenges our confident assertions about the nature of God even as it stretches our understanding. Today, as we pray for those who were killed, their families and friends, let us add a prayer for ourselves, that we may learn whatever it is that we need to learn — and let us not be too quick to assume that we know what that is.

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Life, Death and Holidays

I have been spending the time after Christmas typesetting an Order of Service for a Requiem Mass and Funeral. It wasn’t what I intended, and I’m quite sure the bereaved family would much rather not have to deal with such things. They have lost someone they love at a time when everyone else seems to be holidaying and making merry.

My own father died shortly before Christmas 1999, so I have an inkling of how difficult it can be to deal with grief when the rest of the world is in festive mood. The sudden stab of memory, the tears rising in the throat, the effort it takes to appear cheerful when one has to accept invitations/attend events one would much rather refuse or ignore — they all seem much worse when tinsel and the popping of corks form the backdrop.

It is at such times that we confront the truth of Christmas. Christ was born, not so that we might indulge in some syrupy romanticism but so that we might confront the reality of sin and death. Bethlehem leads inexorably to Calvary. We know the story does not end there, that the Resurrection transforms defeat into victory and that at the end of time, when, please God, all are gathered into the Kingdom, the purpose of Christ’s earthly life will have been achieved: the salvation of mankind.

We know that, but when the heart is aching and the world seems cold and bleak, it is difficult to believe. Spare a thought (and a prayer if you can) for those who have been bereaved this Christmastide.

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Thinking Aloud about Society

Yesterday, as our Silence Days were coming to an end, three subjects dominated British media headlines: George Osborne’s Autumn Statement, the prospect of public sector strikes today and the attack on the British Embassy in Tehran. Only time will tell which will have the most lasting effects on society. I am probably in a minority in thinking that the attack on the embassy could have the most disastrous long-term consequences, not just for Britain but for the west in general. Why? Because I think that, irrespective of what the Chancellor does or does not do, we are in for a prolonged period of economic stringency, which no amount of striking is going to change. The attack on the embassy, however, and the anger which fed it mark a departure from the standard of behaviour and practice on which modern diplomacy relies; and if it be true, as many suppose, that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon, that anger and that refusal to observe diplomatic conventions is troubling. Those old enough to remember the Cold War will recall what it was  like to live with the ever-present idea of nuclear annihilation. Does that shadow begin to loom over us again, and if it does, how do we reconcile it with what Advent is about?

The only way in which I can begin to answer that question for myself is to say that it is bound up with trust. Advent reminds us of the trust God placed in his Chosen People. Despite the misunderstandings and the backslidings, the Covenant remained firm and the promise of a Messiah was indeed fulfilled in Jesus. But if God’s trust in humanity remained unshaken, how much more was human trust in God tested to the uttermost? Mary’s acceptance of her role as Mother of God expressed an unequalled  faith in God, a faith that we can only marvel at and be grateful for. The present situation also calls for trust and faith. That is something we all need to work at this Advent.

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