Returning Sight

We all have a tendency to be wise after the event, the gift of hindsight being much more common than foresight, especially where our public discourse is concerned. But to reappraise something is not the same as seeing or understanding it for the first time. We all have a store of personal epiphanies  — when we ‘discovered’ a poet or a painter or a composer for the first time and the world seemed new-minted, shimmering with fresh glory and beauty. But the occasions when we reconsidered earlier judgements or revised our former opinions are not usually quite so joyous. There is often a reluctance to accept that we may have misjudged someone or been wrong about the consequences of something. Part of us is glad we know the truth, but part of us would still rather hide from it. Seeing aright can be for us a mixed blessing.

I wonder whether the blind men in today’s gospel (Matthew 9.27-31) were prepared for the gift they received. The text implies that they recovered their sight, i.e. they had not always been blind. Did the world look very different from what they remembered? How did they cope with what most of us would regard as sensory overload, being suddenly able to see? As an image of the transformation wrought by grace, it works very well; and we can say that our Advent journey should lead us to a clearer vision. But — and it is an important but — part of me wants to add that I am not wholly convinced by that idea. Most of us muddle along as best we can, neither seeing very clearly nor deliberately hiding from the truth, just hoping that at the end of the journey we shall have made some progress even if we ourselves cannot see it (as, indeed, we cannot). The best we can do is what we can do, not what we can’t; and if God is at all as we believe him to be, he is satisfied with that.

We can take encouragement from today’s first reading (Isaiah 29.17-24). It is easy to lose ourselves in its lyricism, but at its heart is the solemn reminder about hallowing the Holy One of Israel. To hold God’s name holy means more than showing reverence in our worship or trying to live an upright life. It means seeing and understanding something of the purposes of God, not in the crackpot way of some fundamentalist preachers, but as the saints have always seen and understood, owning the mystery and humble in his presence.

I began with a reference to the disconnect we often experience in our public discourse. May I end with a suggestion? If we are trying to open our hearts and minds to whatever it is the Lord wants to teach us this Advent, it must spill over into every aspect of our lives. Our public discourse must be transformed every bit as much as our inner selves. A challenge for today would be to try to think through how we contribute to that public discourse. Do we add to the blindness, prejudice or sheer aggressiveness we encounter or do we defuse the tension, and allow light and healing to flood in? Do we even try?

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Ambition and Anger

I like St James, whose feast we keep today. I like the fact that he and his brother are Sons of Boanerges (Sons of Thunder) and that whenever he pops up in the New Testament in propria persona, the dust flies. In my mind’s eye, I can see him looking dark and dangerous, glittering with ambition, and not too scrupulous about how many toes he treads on. He gets his mother to ask for a seat at Jesus’ right hand in the kingdom, because, of course, he’s worth it; he helpfully suggests raining fire and lightning down on recalcitrant villages because he knows he can; he alone among the apostles is recorded as having been martyred by Herod Agrippa — he was just too much of a nuisance to go unpunished. He is, I think, a wonderful patron for those of us who have problems with ambition and anger.

I’m quite sure that some of my readers will protest that they are not ambitious or that they are not angry persons. They should stop reading now. This post is for those of us who are both. St James is a fine example of how qualities many regard as ‘unChristian’ can be transformed by grace so that they become not merely neutral qualities but positive helps to salvation. Without his ambition and drive, St James would have been a lacklustre servant of the Church; without his anger and the energy it gave him, he would have been much less courageous. It is worth thinking about that. The very qualities that we might fear in ourselves or others were, in him, vehicles of grace.

That doesn’t mean that, as far as we are concerned, anything goes. On the contrary, and using St James as an example again, I think it was his close friendship with Jesus that transformed natural ambition and anger into something gracious and grace-giving. Can we say the same of our own anger and ambition? Are we ‘friends’ with Jesus? The Christian life is sometimes presented as a war against everything that comes to us naturally and humanly. That is, in fact, an enormous heresy. The Christian life involves struggle, of course it does, but we start with what God gave us — this body, this intelligence, these emotions, these circumstances — and we allow God to make of them, and us, what he wills. Co-operation with grace is the key point, and that co-operation can only be achieved if we become close to God — friends with Jesus, if you like — through prayer.

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