Easter Monday 2017

The Three Women at the Tomb by Benozzo Gozzoli (d. 1497)
The Three Women at the Tomb by Benozzo Gozzoli (d. 1497)

I think one could make a case for calling Easter Monday ‘Spin Monday’. The gospel of the day (Matthew 28.8-15) ends with a classic damage limitation exercise being conducted by the authorities. The spin put on the empty tomb is like spin in every age: just enough of the truth (an empty tomb) to leave people wondering whether the interpretation offered is correct or not. A comparison may make this easier to understand. This morning there are varying interpretations of Turkey’s referendum result. Western media are hailing the 51.4% ‘yes’ v. 48.59% ‘no’ of the votes counted as ‘a narrw margin’ — conveniently forgetting that the U.K.’s E.U. referendum result, 51.9% ‘leave’ v. 48.1% ‘remain,’ was apparently a ‘decisive vote in favour of Brexit’. Oh, the irony! But spin is like that. It is seductive, and its manipulation of truth unsettling, but it doesn’t affect substance. The facts remain the facts, whatever interpretation we choose to put upon them; and for us this morning the fact is, an empty tomb and the experience of the women related to us by the evangelist.

The prominent part played by women in the resurrection narratives of the Easter Octave is something to ponder. I’d say they come out of the story remarkably well: they are constant, concerned with practicalities rather than status (who will raise the stone for us? where have they put the body?), uncomplicated in their love, and obedient to the command given them to ‘go and tell my brothers that they must leave for Galilee; they will see me there.’ But there is something more. As today’s passage says, they were ‘filled with awe and great joy’. Awe isn’t something we pay much attention to these days. Joy, yes; we quite like being joyful. But we rarely talk about being awed, and even the ‘awesome!’ of popular speech is so trivialised as to be meaningless. Awe is a strange mixture of wonder, terror, dread, and reverence. To feel awe, we have to forget ourselves — forget about our status, our safety or anything else, and simply experience the truth of what is before us. It is the perfect antidote to spin. The women come away from the tomb believing, and meet Jesus on the way; the guards return to the city worried about their own fate and end up colluding in a cover-up. I think the women got it right, don’t you?

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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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St Jerome: Teacher of Asceticism and Love

St Jerome, whose memoria we keep today, was, after St Augustine, the most voluminous writer of Christian Antiquity. Today he is remembered for many things: his translation of the scriptures into Latin (the Vulgate); his embrace of the monastic life in Bethlehem and elsewhere, including Gaza and Syria; his friendships with women, especially Marcella, Paula and Eustochium; his rather prickly temper; a host of treatises on theology and history, the practice of the ascetic life, ecclesiastical controversies and a wonderful collection of letters, to name just a few. Martin Luther’s disdain has done his reputation no harm. However, I think it fair to say that more people refer to Jerome than actually read him; and those who do read him tend to do so in order to throw light on subjects that interest them more than they appear to have interested Jerome himself.

For example, I think the clue to understanding Jerome is his zeal for the ascetic life. He was repulsed by the laxity he saw all around him. Not for him the idea that ‘love is all you need’ without any qualification. Indeed, his understanding of the need for self-discipline in order to be truly loving sometimes led his followers to overstate the case. The death of the young Blaesilla, just four months after adopting the ascetic practices he recommended, stirred up the fury of the Roman mob, but what has never sufficiently been explained, to my mind, is how the rough, tough, curmudgeon of popular fiction could inspire such trust and devotion in the first place. He made people want to lead better lives; he made them want to know the Lord; and he was hard on himself before he was hard on others. True, his writing shows he could deliver a tongue-lashing, but one never gets the sense that he was out of control. With Jerome it is rather a case of ‘zeal for the Lord of hosts consumes me.’ Very few of us can lay claim to such pure-hearted zeal.

One of the big questions facing the Church today is how we hold in tension what Pope Francis has aptly described as the healing mission of the Church — the proclamation of love and mercy — with its teaching mission — which says that in order to be a Christian one does indeed have to live by certain standards, and they can be tough, involving self-renunciation and discipline. It is easy to get hold of the love and mercy bit; much harder to see that self-restraint is necessary if one is to be loving and merciful. It is no accident that Jerome wrote terrifyingly of hell. Sometimes, one needs the shadow to appreciate the sunlight. Perhaps today we could ask his prayers to enable us to see how we need to change our lives to become better disciples. And one more detail I find telling. Jerome could have translated the scriptures from the Septuagint (Greek version) alone but he put himself to the trouble of learning Hebrew as an adult so that he could read the Hebrew versions as well. That is not just the scholar at work, anxious to use every means at his disposal to ascertain truth; that is the man who loves God so ardently that he is driven to find out all he can about Truth himself and is prepared to make every effort to do so. I wonder how many of us measure up to that?

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Instruct, Inform, Infuriate

I very nearly called this blog post ‘Advice for Mothers-in-Law of Either Sex’. The desire to instruct and inform others is something most of us suffer from. Some are able to keep the desire more or less in check because we are afraid of showing our ignorance. Others are less cautious and quite happy to give everyone the benefit of our superior knowledge and wisdom. The trouble is, our generous-hearted instruction of others can be infuriating to those on the receiving end.

I daresay I shall be accused of sexism or worse when I say that, in my experience, men are actually more prone to giving unasked-for advice than women. I have sometimes listened enthralled as someone dug a deeper and deeper pit for himself, laying down the law on a subject about which I happened to be marginally better informed (that’s nunspeak for something less modest). With half an ear, I listened; meanwhile my mind was running along quite different channels. What had suggested to my interlocutor that I was in need of instruction? What had I said or done to prompt this outpouring? What sort of assumptions were at work and why?

I have never fathomed the mystery, but it has made me think about situations in which there is a very fine line to tread between giving instruction/information and infuriating one’s audience. Preaching the homily at Mass, for example, is reserved to priests and deacons, which means that we Catholics only ever hear from our pulpits the male view of the Gospel or Church teaching. At one level, I have absolutely no problem with that, so please don’t think you can sign me up to any dissident pressure group or similar; at another, I do wonder whether the result is that younger women in particular need to make a bigger imaginative leap than their male contemporaries. I remember when I was young being in an agony of laughter at Lavinia Byrne’s ironic description of how to describe oneself as a Catholic woman: ‘I am a child of God, well, son, actually . . .’ It is so true. Theologically, we understand being ‘sons in the Son’, but expressing our identity as sons of God does require a bit of a double-take (for me, at least).

I have, of course, no solutions to suggest and am not even sure that the problem I have identified is a problem for many. It affects me because I spend so much of my time working with Church documents, listening to homilies and dealing with  questions addressed to the community via our vocations portal or other online resources. I am wondering where the increasingly didactic tone of many Church communications is going to lead. Today’s section of the Prologue (vv 14 to 20) is about longing for life and a right use of speech and action which allows us to hear the voice of the Lord. That, surely, is what we are all aiming at. I just wonder whether we need to think more deeply about how we achieve our aim.

I’d love to know your views, but please, no trading of insults or imputing base motives to others (even if I have been a bit hard on the men myself).

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A Question of Language

I don’t think it appropriate for a Catholic to comment on the debate about bishops within the Church of England, but @ellenloudon and @fibrefairy reminded me on Twitter this morning of something that irritates me profoundly: the use of ‘woman’ as an adjective. A woman is always a person, never a mere adjective. Use as an adjective is as demeaning in my book as calling a mature adult woman a ‘girl’. I’m not very keen on the use of ‘male’ or ‘female’ as nouns, either, unless we are talking about animals. Used as adjectives, no problem; though I often wonder why we need to make the distinction in the first place. Is it really so strange for a woman to be a lawyer or surgeon, for example?

Rocco Palmo has an interesting report of an interview with Lucetta Scaraffia, head of the new ‘women’s section’ of L’Osservatore Romano, in which she argues that, had the Church been more open to women in positions of authority in the Church, we might not have had so many of the scandals that have burst upon us in recent years. I have to say I agree with her in many ways. Perhaps the language used about women is an area we might all reflect on, because for a woman to be able to exercise authority — in whatever sphere, not just the Church — there is need for respect; and our use of language is indicative of the respect we have, or don’t have. This isn’t a question of political correctness, which tends very often to be anything but correct, but of simple justice, reverence and, dare I say it, accuracy.

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Sons in the Son

There is a line in the first reading at Mass today, from Romans 8. 12 to 17, which has been bothering me all morning: ‘Everyone moved by the Spirit is a son of God.’ Theologically, I understand the importance of our being ‘sons in the Son’, and I have no shortage of references in my memory bank to tell me why; but much as I delight in meditating on those words, deeply significant though I find them, they are still immensely difficult for me. I’m a woman, and emotionally I can’t connect with them. My primary human relationship is daughter, not son.

I think this may be why some liturgical discussions leave me (and others) cold. I care about words, I care about beauty and history and all sorts of other things connected with liturgy, but calling myself a son of God just doesn’t work. I notice that the new translation of the Missal is inconsistent in its translation of homo/homines, sometimes using ‘people’ (as in the Gloria), at others ‘men’ (as in the Creed). I can find good theological justifications for the two usages, but still I am left wondering: what am I in the sight of God? As a son in the Son, am I to be defined as a man? In which case, being a woman is profoundly irrelevant, which strikes me as absurd. I don’t have an answer to my question. Indeed, I expect to spend the whole of my life trying to work it out, but it’s a question that concerns a large part of the human race.

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St Teresa of Avila

St Teresa of Avila did everything wrong. By the standards of her day, she was not what a nun should be. To begin with, there was the question of her origins, which appeared to include some converso blood; then there was the fact that she entered the monastery mainly because she thought it the safest course rather than because she had a compelling sense of vocation; once there she had a far from untroubled course learning how to pray; and when she set about her reform of Carmel, she not only travelled the length and breadth of Spain in a way that would have been impossible a few years later, she encountered and faced down an enormous amount of opposition.

In spite of all, she is one of the most engaging of saints, whose teaching on prayer continues to be an inspiration to many. Her writing is intensely personal, practical and wise. She is one of the first two women to be declared a Doctor of the Church and, a reflection of her own trials in the matter, the patron saint of headache sufferers. I rather think St Teresa would have smiled over the latter, especially as she had some frank things to say about nuns who excused themselves from choir, pleading the excuse of a headache. Although I myself have never felt the slightest attraction to Carmelite life, I can’t help thinking St Teresa of Avila did everything right: she is an encouragement to everyone who seeks to know the Lord better.

Christian New Media Conference
I’m participating in the Christian New Media Conference at City University, London, today. If you don’t already have a ticket, why not come along and get one at the door? Registration begins at 9.30 a.m. You can also follow on Twitter, using the hashtag #cnmac11.

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The Birthday of Our Lady

A couple of years ago I wrote of this feast:

The Church celebrates only three birthdays: those of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist. The Birthday of our Lady, which we celebrate today, is a lovely feast, full of light and joy. In the East, it is one of the twelve so-called Great Liturgies. The earliest sermon for the feast is by St Andrew of Crete (though my favourite is by St Bernard) and the day was once marked by a special procession or litania from the Forum in Rome to Sta Maria Maggiore. In England look out for the autumn crocus, the popular name for which, ‘Naked Lady’, is a reference to Mary.

I failed to mention my theory, which I daresay many will shoot down in flames, that devotion to Mary has been both a help and a hindrance to women in the Church. On the one hand we have been given a model of Christian discipleship we can make peculiarly our own: Mary, the strong woman of Nazareth, whose love and faith were unequalled; who gave us our Saviour; who intercedes for us now and at the hour of our death. On the other, we have the ideal no one can ever measure up to: the perfect woman, the eternal mother, someone remote from the inadequacy and messiness of our own lives.

Much of the history of women in the Church can be written as a study of the tension between these two conceptions of Mary. That is why this feast has always seemed to me important. It reminds us of the reality behind the narrative of Christ’s birth, his human lineage; and just as the genealogies of Christ weave into the story some surprising figures, so our ignorance of Mary’s antecedents means we cannot assume that her background was fairytale perfect. We must remember Mary, born an ‘ordinary’ human being, growing up with no one thinking her in any way special, with no education to speak of, no glorious future mapped out for her (a mere girl!), never apparently destined for any great service — and yet, the Mother of God whom all generations would call blessed. Today we think of her small and vulnerable, possibly even a disappointment to her parents, and ask ourselves: would we have passed her by as just another baby, just another girl?

May the prayers of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, help us to see ‘Christ, lovely in limbs not his.’ Amen.

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Widowhood

The feast of St Monica is a good day for thinking about widows and widowers and the whole concept of widowhood. For some, it is a mournful subject, best hurried out of sight along with the widowed themselves. We believe in a world where love is eternal and youth everlasting, where no shadow of mortality or change can sully our happiness. The brutal truth is, of course, that being widowed is an experience many must undergo in every generation. The rest of us acknowledge the sadness briefly and move on: ‘going forward’, we call it. Is that why so many widowed people find it difficult to adapt to life without a partner, because society allows little time for grief or adjustment and is unsympathetic about loneliness and the (often) straitened circumstances in which the widowed, especially women, may find themselves?

St Monica is, in some ways, the archetypal widow; I sometimes wonder whether our ideas about widowhood, and our expectations of the widowed, are the result of her story. She was married to an impossible man, had a drink problem, and spent most of her life trying to save a brilliant but wayward son. If it weren’t for Augustine, I daresay she would be forgotten today. Her life is defined in terms of her relation to others (husband, son) while she herself is, in an important sense, invisible. Her good works are noted, but apart from the struggle with alcohol, we really know nothing of her.

Today we might think of the widows and widowers we know. Do we see beyond the state of being widowed to the person? The Church has always had an uneasy relationship with widows — female, at any rate. On the one hand, we have the ancient Order of Widows, dedicated to prayer and good works; on the other, there are plenty of exhortations, from St Paul onwards, to contain the bad behaviour to which the widowed are said to be prone. For myself, I can only say how grateful I am to the many widowed people who have figured in my life. I have learned something important from each of them, not least how to draw the circle of love wide enough to embrace more than family. That is a great gift and a reminder not to overlook or undervalue the uniqueness of every individual, widowed or not.

Church Times
This week’s edition of The Church Times contains an article about the community and its online work.

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Something for the In-Laws

Everyone loves today’s first reading at Mass (Ruth 1:1, 3–6; 14–16, 22). Looking at the wedding flowers in the church and reflecting how often the ‘Wherever you go’ passage is used of the love of the bride for her groom, I couldn’t help thinking that we’d do better to use it as an encouragement (and exhortation) to the in-laws. Ruth makes that beautiful declaration to her mother-in-law. It tells us something important about the relationship between the two women: the love and mutual concern they had built up over a period of years and its resilience in the face of many trials.

It can’t have been easy for either: Ruth, the Moabitess, the complete outsider, being welcomed into the Jewish family circle; Naomi, the mother of two sons, seeing them both marry ‘out’ and then die before her. It could have led to endless discontent and bickering, but it didn’t. At a time of supreme difficulty, famine, the bond between the two women showed itself immensely strong. We should rejoice that it did, for Ruth was to become one of the ancestors of Jesus — a reminder that there are no ‘outsiders’ in the family of God.

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