The Gentleness of Christ

I love Dante’s characterisation of St Luke, whose feastday it is, as scriba mansuetudinis Christi, scribe of the gentleness of Christ. Gentleness isn’t a quality that gets a very good press these days. We seem to admire more those who are loud in their own praise, the doers of deals, the ‘strong men’ of the Kremlin and the White House. Those who do value gentleness are often considered to be milksops, people who exalt weakness because they are incapable of strength. What a topsy-turvy way of looking at things! Only the truly strong and brave know how to be gentle, because to be gentle is to admit the truth of any and every situation and meet it with dignity and resilience. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the gentle man par excellence; the one who, in Julian’s words, ‘was never wroth’ but looked upon our sins with the eye of mercy, even as he hung upon the cross to die for us.

Can we emulate such gentleness in our own lives? The English origins of the word suggest nobility, and we would all like to be noble; but there is something more if we look at the Latin gentilis from which our English word comes. Gentilis literally means belonging to the same clan or gens; so to be gentle is to be of the same family, the same blood or, as we might say today, one with the other. I think that if we look at the life of Christ, especially as portrayed by St Luke, we can see immediately how closely Jesus identified with others. His courtesy towards women, his patience with his disciples even when they were jockeying for position, these spring from an understanding and human sympathy that we can try to cultivate. To be gentle with others is not to say ‘anything goes’ or allow others to trample us at will. It is to find in Christ the courage and strength we need to meet everyone and everything with the same compassion and generosity of spirit — to be, in other words, channels of his love and grace to the world.

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St Luke, Asia Bibi and the Challenge of Being a Christian

You might be expecting me to write about the Magnificat, as I have often done in the past (e.g. see here) or about evangelisation, the medical profession, painting or women-in-the-gospel, all of which are fairly predictable themes for this feast day; but what struck me forcibly this morning was, what would St Luke write about if he were alive on earth today? In one way, I think his subject would be unchanged: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Saviour. But I think there might also be a fairly devastating critique of the way in which we Christians live and proclaim our faith. Do we truly believe what we say we believe? Do we want to share the Good News with others? Or are we so very British and diffident that we find enthusiasm (literally, being filled with God) in rather poor taste?

This morning, somewhere in Pakistan, Asia Bibi is living with the knowledge that she has been condemned to death by hanging because she refused to convert to Islam when accused under the country’s blasphemy laws. Reports of the case suggest a squabble on the fruit farm which got out of hand. A cup of cold water (how biblical is that!), tempers fraying, an escalation of words on both sides and then a life imperilled. Two politicians who spoke in defence of Asia Bibi have already been murdered and the Government of Pakistan is now in the ‘difficult’ position of upholding a verdict many see as unjust. The trouble is, governments do not care as much about justice as they say they do; and unless some face-saving formula can be found, Asia Bibi will surely die.

What would St Luke make of that? I think he would applaud Asia Bibi for her steadfastness of purpose and condemn the Pakistani government and judiciary for their cowardice and political chicanery. But I suspect his severest words would be for those of us in the West who do nothing more than wring our hands, metaphorically speaking, in the face of such outrages. We are too concerned about upsetting other nations, unless there is some economic advantage to be had. We have become lukewarm in our faith, preferring our domestic disputes about marriage and divorce, liturgy and practice, even, at times, the cut of our vestments, to the life and death issues faced by our brothers and sisters in less comfortable parts of the world. Praying the Magnificat in the light of what Asia Bibi faces is an unsettling experience. I suspect that is exactly what most of us need: a shake-up by the Holy Spirit. The questions posed by St Luke in his gospel are just as relevant today as they were in the first century. Answering them is just as difficult, too.

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The Mirror of Love

Nostalgia is the most adult of emotions, and one of the trickiest to navigate. We can be inspired by the past or, more exactly, our version of the past, or we can be imprisoned by it. It can energize us or make us angry. Nostalgia is a kind of homesickness — and ‘home’, as we know, can be a good memory or a bad one, but it never lets us go. Our lives reflect the love and goodness we have experienced, or their opposite.

I wonder whether St Luke, whose feast we celebrate today and whose gospel has qualities we do not find in the other evangelists, had an unusually happy childhood. I have sometimes imagined him growing up among a host of sisters, indulged, teased and challenged by turns. Some of the interactions he records between Jesus and women have just that kind of friendly respect that men who are at ease with women display. His interest in Mary, too, suggests that he was fascinated by everything about Jesus and did not despise the family details.

Did St Luke grow up among girls? I don’t know, and my kind of speculation is historically inadmissable; but his gospel brings a warmth and humanity to the story of salvation that we need to remember. I am all for theology, liturgy, etc, etc; but we need to keep a lively sense of our home being not here but in heaven, from whence we await our Saviour, a Person, not an abstraction. We meet him every day in the faces of those we encounter. Do our faces mirror the love and respect Jesus has shown us? In other words, do we allow others to see Jesus clearly in us?

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Magnificat

Sometimes the Church’s liturgical year can seem very far removed from the concerns of ordinary people. Today we celebrate St Luke, and some of us will have had thoughts running down predictable channels, e.g. Gospel, Acts, allegedly a physician and an artist, wrote better Greek than his fellow evangelists, seems to have been more friendly to women than they, etc, etc. For others, St Luke is but half-remembered, as in the phrase ‘St Luke’s summer’ (which means that this year he won’t be thought of at all). For the majority, however, I suspect the fact that today is Anti-Slavery Day will have more  impact. The statistics are appalling: 27 million people enslaved world-wide; human trafficking into the UK at its highest-ever level; and Christians are talking about St Luke?

Secular-minded people will never understand how the commemoration of a man who died nearly two thousand years ago can matter today. Of the many aspects of his life and work we could single out, I would like to suggest just this: the canticle we know as the Magnificat. It is a tissue of Old Testament quotations put into the mouth of Our Lady and sung every evening at Vespers. In other words, somewhere in the world, at whatever hour of day or night it may be here in Britain, someone is singing this ancient prayer, proclaiming through the darkness the Church’s trust in her Lord, her belief in his goodness to the poor, his fidelity to his promise. It is the prayer of the poor and the humble, the oppressed and downtrodden; and it is sung by the whole Church, no matter how rich or comfortable an individual part of it may be. It is the song of a people set free and, as such, we Christians should sing it tonight on behalf of those still in chains. St Luke’s Day and Anti-Slavery Day have more in common than you might think.

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