Mercy and Forgiveness — 3 (to be continued)

After our brief overview of the Old Testament background (post 1) and the different emphases of what might loosely be described as Latin and Greek ideas of sin (post 2), I’d like to continue by looking at some of the post-Resurrection gospels. What I don’t say is as important as what I do, so please don’t expect the argument of a whole book in a single paragraph!

There are some features common to all the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus:

  • he appears suddenly;
  • he is the same, but different;
  • he urges his disciples to a deeper level of faith and understanding;
  • he speaks words of mercy and forgiveness (even if he does, at times, remind his hearers that they have been slow to believe);
  • he commissions his disciples to act — announce his Resurrection (Mary Magdalene); preach the Good News (disciples at Emmaus and at the Ascension); follow him (Peter); forgive sins (disciples in the Upper Room).

It is with the words of mercy and forgiveness and the commission to forgive sin that we shall principally be concerned here.

If we look at John 20. 19–23, a sequence of events the Fourth Gospel describes as having taken place in the evening of the first day of the week, the very day of the Resurrection, we note several interesting things. Jesus appears among the disciples without warning, greets them (probably with the word shalom, which means much more than ‘peace’ as we understand it: it is a blessing that confers life, fulfilment, perfection), invites them to look at his wounds, again bids them ‘peace’ and commissions them to share in the same work that he was assigned by the Father. He breathes on them, imparting his spirit, re-creating them as Adam was created when God first breathed the breath of life into his nostrils; and then, importantly, he speaks these words:
‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

I’ve never been convinced that we should see here an institutionalisation of the sacramental power to forgive sin. What I see first of all is a sharing in the life and mission of Christ given to the nascent Christian community. It is a participation first and foremost in Christ’s healing of us, restoring us to life and wholeness, and it is the whole community, not just part of it, that is entrusted with the mission. That is why Thomas’s absence is so significant. It is not just that he is one of the disciples closest to Jesus, one of the apostles, it is because the Christian community is incomplete without him and Christ’s charge is laid upon all. So what are we to make of that addition: ‘if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’? Does it mean that by sharing in the mission of Christ we also share in the power to give/withold life, or does it mean, rather more shockingly, that we shall be accountable for any failure of others to attain fullness of life? Not so much giving us the power to judge others but laying upon us the responsibility for others? I don’t have the answer to that question, but I think it is one we should ask ourselves because it takes us into the heart of the meaning of mercy and forgiveness and the purpose of Christ’s death and resurrection. (cf John 3.16–17)

This is made clearer by considering John 20. 26–30. Again it is evening, the first day of the week, but now we are at the octave day, the point where time and eternity intersect (see, for example, this post) , and Thomas is present. Jesus again appears suddenly and greets the disciples with ‘peace’. Then he invites Thomas to touch his wounds and urges him to believe. Thomas’s corresponding affirmation of faith immediately joins him with the other disciples, and John’s purpose in writing the gospel is fulfilled: ‘These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.’

In both gospel pericopes, the wounds of Jesus are significant. They have become channels of grace and healing. We are once more confronted with what the Exsultet dared to call the ‘happy fault’, the ‘necessary sin of Adam’. It is overcome because Christ has destroyed death for ever. Christ’s wounds do not disappear; they are transformed; and there is a lesson for all of us in that. Our humanity is not to be denied but allowed to become what it is meant to be. We are to become ‘sons in the Son.’

Thus I would argue that it is new life, not the repayment of a debt, that Christ bestows upon us and in which we rejoice at Easter. Sin cramps us, makes us sick and distant from the Father and one another; forgiveness frees us, restores us to new vigour and ends the ancient enmities that divide us, one from another. It is indeed the work of mercy, a wholly unmerited gift of God.

In my fourth and final post on the subject (tomorrow?), I hope to tease out a few implications and take into account some of the objections readers have raised.

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The Exaltation of the Cross 2014

If you look back on this blog, you will find I have written about this feast every year; and although I have not always taken the same theme or considered the same aspect of the feast, every year I have found myself moved by the thought that the Cross, and all that Christ endured on it, is not only a sign of God’s love for us, it is also, in its own way, God’s apology to us for all that we suffer in our turn. On the Cross the Creator bowed his head, so to say, before his creation. That is a shocking thought — rightly so — but perhaps it helps to make sense of what otherwise is cruelly meaningless.

The news that David Haines, a British aid worker, has been beheaded by an IS extremist is, at one level, simply one more personal tragedy to add to the millions the world has already suffered. Inevitably, we ask why. How can a loving God possibly allow such things to happen? Then we turn to the Cross and realise that Christ himself asked the same question, even as he gave the answer. That paradox lies at the heart of this feast as it lies at the heart of human history: We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you; for by your Cross you have redeemed the world.

Suggestions for further reading from this blog (link in blue)
Exaltation of the Cross 2011
Exaltation of the Cross 2013

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Tiredness Stills

We all know that tiredness kills. It is a sign we have seen thousands of times as we hurtle along the motorways, and I daresay there can’t be many of us who haven’t said, ‘He/she will be the death of me,’ as we wearily tried to respond to yet another call on our time and attention. But tiredness also stills. It strips away much of the false self we create for ourselves, with its noisiness and endless activity. It leaves us as we are: naked, vulnerable, and possibly much nicer than the public self we present to the world. Tiredness shows what we are made of, and it is, as Hopkins would say, ‘immortal diamond’.

Recently, I have experienced my fair share of tiredness, and for someone who has always been full of energy and ideas (we all have illusions about ourselves. Ed.), it has been quite hard to accept. At first one struggles against it, as though one could, by sheer will-power, overcome the limitations of mind and body. But one soon realises that that is impossible. One must go with the flow; and sometimes one discovers in the very tiredness a purpose and meaning one did not know existed. It is as though tiredness, by showing us how human we are, allows scope for the divine.

I have often wondered what was in Jesus’ mind as he lay with his head on a cushion, asleep in the boat, obviously dead-tired. We all know he awoke to a storm, which must have been nightmarish —except that Jesus stilled the storm with a word. Power flowed out of him, weary as he was, because he put up no barriers to his Father. Maybe there is a lesson there for all of us who feel a bit tired and weary today.

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Of Kindness and Unkindness

The value of kindness is often under-rated. We all know how a small gesture of courtesy, a thoughtful remembrance of something important to us, a smile, a word, can transform our day from bleakness to sunshine. The opposite is true of unkindness. A harsh word, a contemptuous gesture, can leave us feeling diminished. One of the things that has troubled me for a long time is the way in which the online world often seems to give free rein to unkindness. Even on this blog you will find a few comments that are deliberately rude and provocative, as though giving offence were somehow the measure of independence of mind (it isn’t). Yesterday I ‘listened in’ to one or two Twitter conversations prompted by Dr Meriam Ibrahim Ishaq’s case. What struck me forcibly was the number of people who used this poor woman’s plight as an opportunity to be rude and belittling about religion. There was no attempt at argument. It was like children saying, ‘ya, boo and sucks!’ — only the people doing the name-calling were not children. They were adults, many of them with university degrees and presumably some degree of intelligence.

We can rationalise such behaviour by saying that, if one believes something to be absurd, treating it with contempt simply underlines its absurdity. Possibly, though I myself would argue that to ridicule successfully one must be really witty. ‘Force without mind falls by its own weight,’ and I’m sorry to say there are many instances of that to be found online. The horrible insults and threats to which Professor Mary Beard and others have been subject are not merely examples of a particularly nasty misogyny, they are also the result of the two big dangers of the internet: its anonymity and immediacy. Some people hide behind the shield of anonymity. Others are a little too prompt to express their views. I have sometimes written things I wished I hadn’t in the heat of the moment or expressed myself clumsily when a little more thought and time might have spared both the reader and me some pain. But deliberate unkindness? No, I don’t think I have been guilty of that; so where does it come from?

This morning I read a sad little message on Facebook from a FB friend who has an advanced cancer. Yesterday he informed all of us via a status update that the tumours are still growing and unless the next round of chemotherapy can achieve something, the prognosis is poor. It was honest, brief, and to the point. But he was accused by some of ‘sympathy seeking’ and rubbished. To me, that smacks of cruelty, but I think it is a cruelty born of fear. Did my FB friend tap into a little reservoir of fear in his reader that led to that explosion? Was it his cancer, or the other’s fear of cancer that called forth the resposne?

I think those of us who are Christians have a duty to watch our behaviour online with particular care. We can build up or tear down. To be kind, to attempt to lessen the world’s pain rather than adding to it, may not attract much notice, may not make us ‘big names’ but it is surely worthwhile. Jesus in the gospel calls us his friends ‘if you do as I command you’. Loving as he loved means loving in all the little, everyday things of life, often in simple, human kindness rather than in huge, dramatic sacrifices. We may be mocked for it, but wouldn’t it be better to be mocked for being kind than condemned for its opposite?

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The Jewishness of Jesus

The Road to Emmaus
The Road to Emmaus

This illustration might have been better used yesterday, when we read the first half of the Emmaus gospel, but I think it still has a point to make. In today’s section of the gospel Jesus explains to his disciples how everything in the Mosaic Law and the prophets pointed to himself. He identifies completely with the Jewish people and their experience. In exactly the same way, the medieval illustrator of the Emmaus story did not hesitate to show Jesus wearing a Judenhut or Jewish hat (Latin pilleus cornutus). Compare and contrast the situation today, where Jesus is too often portrayed as a blue-eyed, fair-haired, rather bloodless figure who would have been entirely out of place trudging the roads of Roman Palestine or fishing with Peter and Andrew on the Sea of Galilee. Despite the best efforts of Geza Vermes and others, we still seem to have difficulty with the Jewishness of Jesus and thereby impoverish our understanding. (I speak generally, as I know there are many who are sensitive to this aspect of Jesus.) Why is there a problem?

I think part of the answer lies in fear of the stranger. People who observe different cultural norms, who eat different foods, wear different clothes, speak a different language are always suspect. If, in addition, they hold radically different ideas about the meaning of the same texts — in this case, what Christians know as the Old Testament scriptures — the problems are compounded. When history is thrown into the mix, and centuries of anti-semitism and persecution are considered, it all looks very bleak indeed. However, there are bright spots, too. In the twelfth century, the Cistercians were very keen to understand the scriptures aright, and there are a number of instances of Cistercian monks sitting at the feet of local rabbis in order to learn Hebrew and study the Bible and other Jewish texts, just as, a little earlier, Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, had ordered a translation of the Koran to be made so that his monks might understand Islam better.

Understanding the other, welcoming the stranger, is still a challenge for us today. When David Cameron spoke of Britain as a Christian country, some took it as a slight on all who are not Christian. The debate continues to rage, but I think myself it is a largely phoney debate because the terms cannot be defined sufficiently precisely. From ‘cultural Christianity’ to missionary endeavour/proseletysing fervour (choose as appropriate) and the infinite varieties of church allegiance, the concept is susceptible of a thousand different interpretations. What matters, surely, is that those of us who regard Jesus Christ as our Lord and God should attempt, however imperfectly, to be as loving and generous as he. Love is the golden rule of Judaism as of Christianity and, as St Paul remarks, is the one thing that can never hurt our neighbour. Perhaps we might think about that today.

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Words, Words, Words

Depending on your interests, today is remarkable for being Shakespeare’s 450th anniversary, the feast of St George (only it isn’t, because the Easter Octave takes precedence), or the day we read Luke 24.13–35 and our hearts burn within us as Jesus opens the scriptures to us. The connection between all three is words.

Words tumble from our lips, ooze out on the page, trip through our tweets and generally identify us as human — we are not so much homo sapiens as homo loquens. The trouble is, as Swinburne remarked, ‘words divide and rend’ as much as they unite. Misunderstandings, deliberate falsehoods, churlish or rude remarks, they all contribute to the world’s pain. Just as a word can illuminate, enchant, build up or otherwise contribute to another’s well-being, so a word can break down, destroy. The monastic practice of silence, the cultivation of ‘few and sensible words’, stems from a realisation that in Christ God has uttered the only word that is utterly loving, forgiving and redemptive. That is the Word we must embrace and allow to speak through us today.

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Good Friday 2014

The imagery of the Crucifixion has become so familiar it no longer shocks. We look at our crucifixes and see the twisted body, hanging bloodied and bowed, pierced through with nails, crowned with thorns, and barely register the suffering. The historically-minded will tell you that the crown of thorns was added only in the thirteenth century, that the poignant twist of the body is not found before the ninth-century cross of Lothair, but these are mere details. It takes a Julian of Norwich, with her account of the drying of Christ’s flesh on Calvary, or his drops of blood the size of herring-scales, to make us connect our theology and our feelings.

It was not always so. Anyone who reads ‘The Dream of the Rood’ or some of the lovely Harley lyrics on the Crucifixion will know the depth of personal tenderness the Passion and Death of Christ evoked among our Anglo-Saxon forebears. I myself have always loved the prayers in the Book of the Nunnaminster — some of the earliest, if not the earliest, written for and possibly by women in the Benedictine community at Winchester in the late ninth/early tenth century. Here is the one on the Crown of Thorns, always a painful subject for a Benedictine, for our peace is found only within its saving circle — a reminder that Jesus is, as the Song of Songs proclaims, ‘a lily among thorns,’ our saviour from despair, our own true love who forgives our most grievous sins:

Merciful God, my only help, you did not refuse to wear on your wise and lovely head a crown of cruel thorns. I thank you and ask that whatever sins I myself have committed through misuse of my own wicked and senseless head you will forgive, for I am pierced by the sharpness of all my wrongdoing, as if by thorns, unless protected by your help, Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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Priesthood and Eucharist | Maundy Thursday 2014

The Last Supper; Unknown; Regensburg, Bavaria; about 1030 - 1040; Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment; Leaf: 23.2 x 16 cm (9 1/8 x 6 5/16 in.); 83.MI.90.38
The Last Supper; Unknown; Regensburg, Bavaria; about 1030 – 1040;

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today’s liturgy is so full, it weighs heavy on heart and mind. There is the Chrism Mass, with its powerful reminder of the great gift of priesthood and then, this evening, the beginning of the sacred Triduum with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper when we ponder the amazing gift of the Eucharist and Jesus’ commandment to love one another as he has loved us. We have barely registered these before we are plunged into watching with Christ in the Garden at Gethsemane, conscious of sin and betrayal. There will be no let up, no lessening of tension, until the Easter Vigil. We are one with Christ on his long, last journey from this world to the next.

In previous years I have attempted to single out some aspect of the day’s events for reflection and prayer. Today, however, I suggest we think about the Preface used at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. It contains in a nutshell the theology of this day:

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God,
through Christ our Lord.
For he is the true and eternal Priest,
who instituted the pattern of an everlasting sacrifice
and was the first to offer himself as the saving Victim,
commanding us to make this offering as his memorial.
As we eat his flesh that was sacrificed for us,
we are made strong,
and, as we drink his Blood that was poured out for us,
we are washed clean.
And so, with Angels and Archangels,
with Thrones and Dominions,
and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven,
we sing the hymn of your glory,
as without end we acclaim:
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts . . .

Note on the illustration
Unknown, illuminator
The Last Supper, about 1030 – 1040, Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment
Leaf: 23.2 x 16 cm (9 1/8 x 6 5/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig VII 1, fol. 38,/small>

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Palm Sunday 2014

On a previous Palm Sunday I wrote:

Today, wherever our Palm Sunday celebration takes place, we are in Roman Palestine two thousand years ago. One question we might ask ourselves is, where do we stand? Are we with the crowd following Jesus and singing hosannas; with the bystanders, looking on from a safe distance; or with those indoors, dismissing what is taking place as just another riotous assembly it is better to keep clear of? Our answer can tell us a great deal about ourselves and the way in which we see the unfolding of Holy Week.

Holy Week is quite brutal in the way in which it demands choice from us. If, during the rest of the year, we are rather unremarkable Christians, regular in our church-going and dutiful in giving to good causes, but keen to avoid drawing attention to ourselves and definitely not the stuff of which martyrs are made, this week reminds us that in following Christ we have made the most radical choice imaginable, one we must live to the end. We cannot simply bumble along the way; we must deliberately choose to follow wherever Christ leads.

I think today I would want to nuance that a little. This is the first time I’ve been unable to take part in the Palm Sunday Mass and Procession; so this year I am not among the followers singing hosannas but among the bystanders who look on from afar. Does that mean I am any less involved? Surely not.

There are many ways of following; many ways of being close to the Lord. One of the hardest is to feel we have no choice, are unable to follow in the way we would wish. It is important to remember, however, that the essence of discipleship is to follow as the Lord chooses. We must all accompany Jesus on the journey to Jerusalem, to Calvary and beyond. How we get there, when we get there, doesn’t matter. We can trust him to show us the way. ‘I would be at Jerusalem,’ says the Pilgrim in Hilton’s Scale of Perfection. That is all that matters.

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On Being an Outcast

Has it ever occurred to you how many of the women mentioned in the Gospels are outcasts — people who do not conform to the norms of polite Jewish society but are, in some sense, rule-breakers? Even the Lord’s own mother came dangerously close to being ‘put away’ for the sin, as it might appear, of unchastity. The household at Bethany was unusual, to say the least, with Mary daring to sit at the feet of Jesus among the men, and Martha taking charge of rather more than the dinner arrangements. Then there is Mary Magdalene, from whom seven demons had been cast out; Joanna and the other women who broke with the usual social norms to follow Jesus and his disciples and provided for them out of their own resources; the woman with the issue of blood, who broke the rules of cultic purity; the notorious sinner who washed Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee; the woman taken in adultery; the Syro-Phoenician who dared to ask a favour of a Jewish rabbi; and the Samaritan of today’s gospel, who has done more for our faith than many who led lives of blameless orthodoxy.

One could argue that the presentation of women in the Gospels merely reflects the prejudices of the men who wrote them, but I find it interesting that so many of the women are portrayed as courageous, insightful and much more attuned to Jesus’ message than many of his male disciples. There is a challenge here for the whole Church. It has nothing to do with questions of ordination or non-ordination; nothing to do with power or ecclesiastical politics, but everything to do with discipleship, how we follow Christ. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews exhorts us to go to Jesus ‘outside the camp’. I think we could all usefully reflect on what going outside the camp might mean for us today. To be an outcast, to be outside the conventionally respectable limits of society or Church, may not be what we thought discipleship would mean. Reading through the gospel passages where these women feature would be a very good way of asking ourselves how we measure up to the Lord’s command, ‘Follow me!’ For isn’t following Jesus what Lent is all about?

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