Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Cross awaits us everywhere

Second Sunday of Lent Year B

Today, the Church wishes to take us on another journey with Christ but provides us with a radical change of scenery. From last week’s dreary oppressively harsh conditions of the desert of Temptation to this week’s stunningly beautiful mountain of the Transfiguration. I don’t think any one of us can read this unusual account without his mind being flooded with questions. What is this strange glory that shown on the face and the garments of Christ on the mountain top? And why did Moses and Elijah from the Old Testament appear with him on the mountain? And why did this voice come suddenly from heaven in the brightness of a cloud? And why was it that Peter and James and John alone of the disciples were chosen to view this event and why were they there?

Our first question is: What is this glory that appeared on the face of Christ on the mountain top? All three of the evangelists Saints Matthew, Mark, and Luke — record this account, each with minor differences. But all of them agree that Jesus selected these three disciples and led them apart unto a high mountain. Why were they there? St Mark in his signature abbreviated style provides no clue but St Luke tells us that the Lord had gone up the mountain to pray. And as the disciples were watching him, “there in their presence he was transfigured: his clothes became dazzlingly white, whiter than any earthly bleachers could make them.” St Mark’s mention of earthly bleachers emphasises the unusual nature of this manifestation, a shining forth of supernatural light that could not be caused by any natural phenomena. They were witnessing the uncreated glory of His deity shining through His humanity.

But in the gospel of St Mark, the Transfiguration is certainly meant to point also to the Parousia, Christ’s return in glory at the end of time. In Chapter 9:1, just before the Transfiguration, St Mark has our Lord make this prediction, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.” St Mark puts the account of the prediction and the Transfiguration right together and he shows us that the Transfiguration is a fulfillment of what Jesus said, what he meant when he said, there are some standing here who will not taste of death before they see the kingdom of God come with power. And that’s our first clue as to the meaning of this strange event. For it obviously then is a picture of the coming kingdom. A little foretaste granted to these three disciples by which they leaped over the intervening centuries and were, as it were, present at the coming of Christ in his second return to earth. The transfiguration looks forward to the hour of His return.

Here’s our next question: Of all the significant figures in the Hebrew Scriptures, why was it Moses and Elijah in particular that showed up here with Jesus? Why not Abraham? Or David? Or some of the other worthies of the Old Testament. Well, Moses was believed to have single handedly written the Law; Elijah represented all the Prophets. So, when God’s voice from heaven said about Jesus “Listen to Him!” that indicated that the Law and the Prophets must now give way to Jesus who will replace the old way with the new way. He is the completion of the Law and the fulfillment of the prophecies in the Old Testament. The Law and the Prophets are swallowed up in him. That all they have to say to mankind, is included, and added to, in the expression in the life of the Lord Jesus, in the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth.

Now, one last question. Why is that Peter and James and John are the disciples chosen to see this and to learn this lesson? Why them? And the answer very briefly is this. These are the only three men among the disciples who before this had openly and vocally avoided the principle of the Cross. Our Lord had foretold many times that He would have to suffer and die but His disciples never wanted to hear about it.  Peter so belligerently denied that He undergo such suffering that Jesus had to rebuke him on the spot, identifying his mentality with Satan. And therefore Peter was included in this group because he’d rejected the Cross. How about James and John? In Chapter 10, we see how they shamelessly tried to wrangle out of our Lord, seats of honour on His right and His left. They were certainly not thinking about the cross but perhaps, thought of the Lord ascending His throne of glory. Again, our Lord had to introduce a corrective. The seats of honour are for the Father to assign but every disciple is called to drink from the cup of the Passion, every disciple must be prepared to take up his or her cross and follow the Lord on the road that leads to Calvary.

Therefore, these three men all shared something in common. They all had a skewed idea of glory, an idea which had no place for the cross. In fact, all three had turned their backs to the Cross. And as such, they were rejecting the very thing that would have ensured them eternal glory. All three would have longed for redemption but failed to see that redemption taking place through the cross. The full realisation of the redemption of the bodies will be in the resurrection of the body, not merely in a transfiguration. And there can be no resurrection without the cross. That was why the Lord brought these three up the mountain. Through the experience of the transfiguration, Peter, James and John were given a glimpse of heaven in order to strengthen them for the terrible struggles and suffering that was yet to come. Peter, James, and John needed the glory of Tabor before enduring the horror of Golgotha. The Transfiguration of Christ is preparation for the Cross. His Disciples are in need of this strengthening, in order to face the Cross of their Teacher, as well as their own crosses.

There’s a mistaken idea about Christianity today that because Jesus went to the Cross, we’ll never have to. Nothing could be further from the truth. Each of us has a cross to carry. As Thomas a' Kempis reminds us, “The cross, therefore, is always ready; it awaits you everywhere. No matter where you may go, you cannot escape it, for wherever you go you take yourself with you and shall always find yourself.”  The great spiritual master then adds this wise piece of advice, “If you carry the cross willingly, it will carry and lead you to the desired goal where indeed there shall be no more suffering, but here there shall be. If you carry it unwillingly, you create a burden for yourself and increase the load, though still you have to bear it. If you cast away one cross, you will find another and perhaps a heavier one” (The Imitation of Christ, Book II, chapter 12).

How do we know this to be true? Well, our Lord has shown us in the example of His own life, His death and His resurrection. He went to the Cross in order that we might go with him there. And on through that Cross to the Resurrection beyond. The transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor tells us that the glory of the resurrection will only take place through the sufferings of Good Friday. The transfiguration teaches us that the experience of the cross is necessary in order for Easter to take place. You can’t have the glory of a Resurrection morn without the darkness of a crucifixion. And so as we accept the death of our own plans, our own agendas, our own need to be in control, then beyond lies the power and the glory of what we can only glimpse as a shadow in the transfiguration — a restored humanity which we’ll share with him in glory when He returns in all His splendour, power and glory.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Lead us not into temptation

First Sunday of Lent Year B

Recently, during an hour long interview with Pope Francis on Italian television, he was asked about a new French translation of the Lord’s Prayer for use in the liturgy. Basically, the Church in France had changed the line that in English reads “and lead us not into temptation” to one that means “do not let us fall into temptation.” Commenting on the change, the Pope said, “It's me who falls. It's not Him who pushes me into temptation, as if I fell. A father doesn't do that. A father helps you to get up right away. The one who leads into temptation is Satan.”  That’s true and St James would agree with him, “When tempted, no one should say, 'God is tempting me.' For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.” But all three Synoptic gospels also indicate that Jesus was “driven” or “led by the Spirit” into the wilderness in order to be tempted by the devil. What do we make of this?

Today’s story of the temptation of our Lord, taken from the Gospel of St Mark, is unique. St Matthew and St Luke add details of the temptation that have become the centre of many homilies, talks and retreats. But Mark’s version is notable both for its brevity, its harshness, and its reference to ‘wild animals.’

Unlike St Matthew and St Luke, which speaks of Jesus being led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, St Mark the Evangelist uses a much stronger Greek verb, “ekballo,” translated as “drove” in our English text. The word suggests violent expulsion. This same word is used 17 times in the gospel of St Mark.  It is used 11 times for casting out demons.  It is used for “tearing out one’s eye and throwing it away” (9:47), and used in the cleansing of the temple when Jesus drove out the merchants in the temple (11:15), and when the evil tenants threw the heir out of the vineyard (12:8). It is as though the Holy Spirit grabbed Jesus by the scruff of His neck and threw Him into this strange encounter.  The Holy One of God who alone can drive out Satan and his minions, is Himself, driven out, literally ‘exorcised’ by none other than the Holy Spirit. Certainly Jesus was no reluctant participant. He was no mere puppet of the Holy Spirit.

The juxtaposition of the work of the Spirit and that of Satan is both intentional and ironic. These temptations didn’t just happen by accident. Our Lord did not just happened to be in the desert by chance. It was the Holy Spirit himself who propelled Jesus into the wilderness.  This was God’s doing. There is something deliberate here. If that seems scandalous and disturbing, that is, the thought that God who had found favour with His Son, would lead Him down this path of being tempted, it would be good but still not comforting to know that confrontation with evil is an essential part of the Son’s mission. Why would God do this?

Perhaps God wants His Son to take the offensive against temptation, and not just be on the defence. Our Lord, the Anointed One of God is being sent to be God’s challenger of evil, as was Job. But God is not sending His Son into the lion’s den without any aid. The movement and presence of the Spirit reassures the Lord that He is not alone in facing this trial and all the future trials He must experience in order to complete His mission. The Holy Spirit is with Him to help Him resist the temptations. It is also important to note that though the Holy Spirit drove Our Lord into the wilderness, He did not lead Him into temptation. The Holy Spirit does not do the testing.  He leaves that to another. 

The evangelist also seeks to draw a profound parallel between the present and the past, thus highlighting the significance and effects of Christ’s mission. Genesis 3:24 in the Septuagint (The Greek version of the Old Testament) reads, God “drove out the man from the Garden of Eden” into wilderness.  They were cast out. We now see the beginnings of the grand reversal.  In the gospel scene, the Spirit “drove” or cast Jesus into the wilderness to face the temptations wherein Adam and Eve failed, to begin the journey of turning the wilderness into a garden again.  By facing and overcoming these temptations, our Lord is regaining Paradise lost. But our comparison with the Eden and the First Adam is not done. The “wild beasts” occur only in St Mark’s version of the story of temptation.  Some scholars see in this an allusion to the sufferings the early Christians had to endure. Just like the early Christian martyrs who were being thrown into the Roman amphitheatres to be killed by ferocious wild beast, Our Lord shares their predicament. But here there is a difference, the angels accompany Him as they will accompany the Christian martyrs even in this final moment of testing.

But there is another and perhaps preferable explanation – it is Jesus the Second Adam taking His place as the Lord over His creation. Adam sinned and nature was cursed. The garden was exchanged for a wilderness. In Jesus the restoration has begun with the animals of the wilderness being part of the new Eden.  Mark’s text reads, Jesus was “with” the wild animals.  This is the language of intimacy. The original harmony of creation, injured and marred by the Fall, is now being restored.

The fact that the Lord is tempted yet did not sin tells us that there is a distinction to be made between temptation and sin. Too often the very experience of temptation makes us feel sinful, as if we have already sinned, but that is not necessarily the case. Our Lord, who never sinned, experienced temptation. Therefore, experiencing temptation is not to be equated with sin. Sin occurs only when we choose to yield to the temptation. The lyrics of an old Negro spiritual highlights this point and also the value of facing our temptations and overcoming them, “Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin. Each victory will help you, some other to win.”  

So God does not do the tempting – He does not push us to make us fall nor does He put evil desires in our hearts. But He does bring us into the presence of many tests and temptations. In fact, every step we take is a step into the presence of temptation. There is no moment of your life that is not a moment of temptation, and we should not labour under the illusion that we will not be tempted. That’s a given. In fact, that’s what life is: endless choices between belief and unbelief, pride and humility, obedience and disobedience, selfishness and generosity. Temptation is a test of a person’s ability to choose good (virtue) instead of evil (vice or sin). Such moments of testing purifies and there is growth in virtue when we choose, by the grace of God, not to yield to them.

Lent is upon us. This is the time when we train to battle with the perennial wilderness, the Devil and the temptations he throws at us at every turn. Adam was expelled from the earthly paradise, the symbol of communion with God. Now, in order to return to that communion and thus to eternal life we must pass through the wilderness not just of Lent but of life. We must pass through the test of faith. Not alone but with Jesus who proceeds, not just with us but ahead of us, and who has already conquered in the fight against the spirit of evil. This liturgical time invites us to renew our decision to follow Christ on the path of humility in order to participate in His victory over sin and death. In Him we now live our lives. Let us welcome Lent by embracing its way of voluntary sacrifice, of fasting, prayer and almsgiving. In so doing, we will receive the much needed grace it offers and be made ready to celebrate in greater freedom the Victory Feast of the Resurrection.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Dirt next to Godliness

Ash Wednesday 2018

You may have seen this slogan plastered on the walls of public toilets, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” One may find it interesting that though this seems to be an age-old advice, it is actually a relatively recent innovation dating from the 18th century, and promoted by the great Methodist preacher, John Wesley. But it wasn’t always like that. The different strata of society practiced hygiene differently at different times throughout human history. For the first-century Roman, being clean meant a two-hour soak in baths of various temperatures, scraping the body with a miniature rake, and a final application of oil. For the aristocratic Frenchman in the seventeenth century, it meant changing your shirt once a day and perhaps going so far as to dip your hands in some water. It was said that Napoleon wrote to his beloved Josephine, “I will return in five days. Stop washing”. The last two examples may seem strange but during the Middle Ages, water was considered a deadly substance and the general opinion was that bathing might unbalance the humours and lead to illness. The rich and the famous were no different. In fact, they may have taken this aversion of water and cleanliness to another level.

One notorious example is Isabella of Castille, who with Ferdinand of Aragon, whom she married, united Spain and liberated these lands from the last Moorish kingdom. Isabella boasted that she had only ever bathed twice: on the day she was born and the day she married. She saw it as an act of piety. Bathing was an indulgence of the flesh; abstaining was a pious act. Cleanliness was not next to godliness. On the contrary, it was considered next to ungodliness. After the conquest of Granada, the Moors not only had to give up their religion to survive the Inquisition, they also had to give up bathing. Isabella and Ferdinand ordered the Moorish baths to be destroyed and bathing was strictly forbidden. With all this dirt building up, did the royals really stink to high heaven? We can only imagine how royalty smelt. This may explain the reason why Ferdinand and Isabella had only one child. They may have consummated their marriage just only once and kept apart for fear of killing each other with their body odour.

Why all this talk about personal hygiene, cleanliness and dirt. Well, it’s Ash Wednesday again! The beginning of our holy season of Lent. It’s a day to get all dirty and dusty, and not have to put up with a lecture from your parents or your wife. It is the day when every Catholic gets marked by the ashes, both saint and sinner, old and young, even baptised and non-baptised.  This is a day of humility, and willingness to gaze wide-eyed into the mystery. It is a day for confessing the ways that we have thought we were pure, only to discover before the confessional, that we are sinners in need of forgiveness and redemption. Though this may seem to be a strange cosmetic, our sin unlike the ashes on our forehead is more than skin deep. We do dirt because we are dirt. We sin because we are sinners. That’s the scriptural diagnosis. We are all terminally sick. We don’t need to put a mask over our sin and peel off the dirt. We simply can’t scrub our dead sinful flesh away. We need something far more radical: we need a new heart. Thus, the accompanying words during the imposition of the Ashes, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”

But apart from the call to repentance, the thought of Ash Wednesday is quite literally, mortifying. The ashes aren’t just a symbol of our sin; they’re a reminder that what God brought out of the earth and gave His breath of life to also returns to the earth. Death is one great compost pile of dirt, dust, and ashes. Our dirt isn’t a smudge, or slight surface damage. It’s a reminder that what we are made of will one day be unmade. We are mortal, fragile creatures. We are part of creation unfolding … one small part in an intricately connected universe that has a beginning and most certainly an end.

Yet, Ash Wednesday is also the day when we do feel special, special enough to be marked by God himself, marked not for extermination but saved from all damnation. Today, celebrates the beginning of God’s divine rescue plan. Though the dirt may be un-washable, the blot of sin indelible, the depths of our depravity great; the depths of God’s love for us is far greater. God will not let us wallow in the dirt, nor rot in our sin, nor are we irreversibly condemned to die the eternal death. The wonder proclaimed at Christmas and that which finds its culmination at Easter is this: God put His eternal Son in the same human body that you have. And He bears your humanity forever. “This is my beloved Son, down in the dirt for you.” “Incarnation into human dust for you.” Born to take on your dirt and sin and death. All the dirt we do and the dirt we are, Jesus became. “For our sake God made the sinless one into sin, so that in him we might become the goodness of God.” Christ, the Immaculately Perfect One, who knew no dirt, and dust and ashes and death became our dirt, dust, ashes and death so that He might breath resurrected life into our flesh. Uncleanliness has now been transformed into godliness.

That is why the ashes are made in the sign of the cross. For on the cross, our sins have been forgiven, we have been redeemed. Christ’s very body was rend and beaten, judged and condemned, punished and killed for us. And then the Lord who breathed the breath of life into Adam, gave up His spirit. And His body was buried in the earth. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” But there is an exception, Jesus. He would not stay in the dust and dirt of the earth. For on the third day, the Lord rose from the earth. The Potter stepped out of the mud and clay of His creation. And on Easter the true Adam, the truest Man there is, rose out of the ground once and for all. And here lies the great exchange. It is a marvellous reversal. In Christ’s holy death He makes you clean. In Christ becoming your dirt, He makes your sins that were scarlet, as white as snow. You brought only sin, dirt, and death…But Christ gives you His forgiveness, life – His very body and blood. And all of your dirt, sin, and death have been washed away.

So today, at the beginning of Lent, we allow ourselves to be marked once again with ashes to remind us of who we are, we are sinners in need of repentance, we are mortal beings whose bodies will one day return to dust. But we await in hope. Because at the end of Lent, we celebrate life over death, purity over dirt, light over darkness. We await the breath of life that continues to re-create us and make us new again. So although you may question the veracity of the claim that cleanliness is next to godliness, we do know one thing for certain, God has made you clean. So, as you come forward to receive your ashes, the priest or the extraordinary minister of communion may make you dirty with these ashes, but only One can make you clean, pristinely and immaculately clean, it is Christ who assumed your dirt in order that He may make you white as snow! Christ has overcome your dirt and death by taking on the dirt and death we’re made of and all the dirt we’ve done. Our ashes, and weeping, and mourning may tarry for the night, but the joy of Christ’s resurrection comes in the morning.