Saturday, April 30, 2011

"My Lord and My God"

The Gospel today (S. John 20:28) enthrones S. Thomas’ thundering confession. From despair to hope, from doubt to belief, from turmoil to rest. Rest in the Divine Mercy of God. It’s a comforting story passed on through the generations. A story that is very easy to comprehend all these years later. We too learn to find hope in despair. We too can move from doubt to belief. We too can rest in the Divine Mercy of God. You see S. Thomas entered that room fighting. He was not willing to give up what he thought could only be rational. He had heard the stories that were beginning to circulate about the Lord having risen from the dead. Even his fellows seemed to have taken leave of their senses. But he was a rational man. If anything was to be salvaged from the wreckage of the last three years it could only be done by level headed thinking. The whispers and tales that passed through the city that day could only do them harm. And that’s the state of mind that he entered that room on the day which would see him surrendering to the mercy of God.
        It was physical evidence that got him in the end. Plain hard facts that he could touch and see which made the walls of doubt crumble down. For some reason Thomas was absent from the first appearances of the risen Lord. Yet eight days later he was amongst his fellows again. Possibly trying to ‘put pay’ to what he could not reconcile to his own rationality. God can use our weaknesses. It was S. Thomas’ rational observation, it was the obvious physical wounds of Jesus, there right in front of him, which brought him to his knees. "My Lord and My God" (Dominus meus, et Deus meus.) a cry that now rings through history. A cry that now challenges us to join in.

          And what does joining in this great acclamation demand of us? Well it is really quite simple, as simple as ABC. When we cry "My Lord and My God" we (A) Ask for his mercy. When we cry "My Lord and My God" we are reminded that we, too, should (B) Be merciful. Finally when we cry "My Lord and My God" we begin to (C) Completely trust in Jesus. Our doubts, like those of S. Thomas become servants not masters. That Great act of mercy on the part of a Creator was not some symbol, it was not a divine discourse amongst the gods. It is not some ancient legend. Rather it has physical evidence in the wounds that had once rushed forth blood and water for the salvation of the world.
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face;
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace the human dress.
William Blake (1757-1827)

Monday, April 25, 2011

Do we really want a change?

In the run up to that wedding several British newspapers are running with a story that changes to the various acts governing the succession to the throne are unlikely. By way of explanation these acts, ranging from the mid 16th century through to the early 18th century, regulate who, and who may not, succeed to the British Throne, and by implication, at least, who reigns as the monarch of other countries currently ruled by Queen Elizabeth II (Long may she reign!). In particular the act effectively excludes Catholics from either being the monarch or being married to those in direct succession to the throne. In practice this means that somebody in the line of succession desiring to marry a Catholic has to renounce their succession rights, It's not a theoretical question as some, quite close actually, have either  married Catholics or become Catholic themselves and have had to renounce. This ban does not explicitly affect Judaism or Islam but given the Queen's position in relation to the Church of England one could envisage problems. There was uncertainty whether Catholics are banned from some other royal offices. I gather that, in theory, a Catholic could hold that rather modern office of Prime Minister (as has happened in some countries) but it was less clear whether they could hold the older office of Chancellor. This was 'cleared up' in 1974 although if a Catholic were to become Chancellor certain functions would be transferred to somebody else.

Now we've got that over with would a Catholic really want to hold the position anyhow? Nothing to do with anti monarchy sentiment at all. I'm a royalist through and through. I do wonder however with the current 'State Church' status of the Church of England (in England- not in Wales or Scotland) whether it would be possible for a Catholic to hold the position when they would be in practice involved in the appointment of senior Anglican clergy and, in theory,  the 'defender' of a protestant faith. It's not a position that could be held without compromise. In short, given the current moral condition of the British state, it's not a responsibility that I would wish on a fellow Catholic. Giving the 'royal assent' to an act liberalising the law on questions such as euthanasia or abortion would find a Catholic monarch excommunicated latae sententiae if not ferendae sententiae.

It would seem that the Anglicans have realised this problem and are not in the mood for disestablishment. I hazard a guess, and it's only a guess, that this reflects the private opinion of the Queen who takes her Coronation vows very seriously. As an act of charity to our fellow Catholics I doubt we should be pushing the question. But then it may be the actual agenda but I suspect it's not the real agenda for some leftward leaning Catholics.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

And the prince of darkness will arise in the West.

The quote above, more of an imaginary allusion, came to mind after reading the news today. A couple of days ago I'd had  a discussion about Holy Week customs in various rites and uses but what struck me was the special way Holy Scripture tends to be used in big chunks at this time of year. The starting point was a friend who observed that one particular group he knew read the whole of Apocalypse in one sitting during their Easter Ceremonies hence my 'imaginary allusion'. I know of other groups that will use Holy Scripture in more intense ways than would be usual. In the Catholic Tradition, of course, we get all Four Passion narratives in their entirety. St Matthew on Sunday, St Mark today, St Luke tomorrow, and St John on Friday.

But back to the Apocalypse. I prefer it's Greek title because it seems to avoid an open invitation to make the revelations within it stand on their own. It was a revelation to St John but one which was left largely not interpreted over the years. In some of the Eastern Churches it's actually not read publicly for fear of causing confusion. In the Latin rite it is there but it's use is quite reserved to particular poetic moments. This is not to belittle it's value within the Canon but rather it stands in a very difficult place of being very hard to understand. The history of Post 16th century Christianity is littered with failed attempts to make it's prophecies fit with contemporary events.

So when we are tempted to see doom and gloom in the future, and I've just walked past some old fashioned apocalyptic preachers in the street, when we are particularly tempted to see an event as an omen of the end of all times, when something happens in the Church we just cannot fathom, we need to grab hold of the balance that the Catholic Church gives too all of these things tempering them with the promises of Heaven and of eternal life. Promises made possible by the sacrifice that we celebrate in these days.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Keeping Calm

Holy Week is not the greatest time for keeping calm, at least for this writer. Is it, do you ask, the complexities of the ceremonial or the extra demands? Is it perhaps the emotional toll that the week can take as we walk the Via Crucis with Our Lord? No, I'm afraid all of these things I can cope with quite nicely. It is however a flash point for one of my favourite themes; Music getting the upper hand in a tail wagging the dog sort of way. To put it into context I've just come back from the chapel where I will be in the morning where I discovered that everything has been set up ready for a sung celebration later tomorrow without any concern for the fact that there are three other services all using the same space (but in very different ways) before then. It means a bit of taking down and setting up again that I wasn't expecting.

I maintain an academic interest in Church music. It's really not my field the Twentieth century atonalism being where I'm much more comfortable however I would loathe to deprive those who like having music in Church or even those who tolerate it out of obedience to the numerous documents on the subject, of what must be a major fix for the year. However I do question again if we overstretch the mark at this time of year in sort of a strange way of making up our neglect at other times. Music adorns the liturgy and is the carrier of the texts authorised by the Church. It can, for some, open the doors to the transcendent. It can, however, too frequently be the cause of grief when it gets out of hand and ceases to be the servant.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Q & A- circa 33 a.d.

Today's Epistle and Gospel, when read together, really form a 'question and answer' form of compendium of the arguments made against Our Lord Jesus Christ during his life time and in the years immediately following whilst the scriptural canon was being written. In the Epistle we have a theological statement of the nature of Jesus' work and significance whilst the Gospel collects together some of the common arguments against Jesus' credibility that the continued to be fired at the early Christian Church. The arguments seem to go beyond the Pharisees normal interests and encompass the concerns of some of the other sects that existed at the time notably in the question of the death of the Patriarchs. At the end of the Gospel we find an interesting point, almost an aside, that the Pharisees thought Jesus too young, in earthly years, to have had the insights he was expounding.

So the arguments against Jesus went something like this; (1) That Jesus was actually subject to demonic possession. (2) That Jesus was placing himself above Abraham- inconceivable for a group who defined themselves by their own descent from the Patriarchs. (3) Finally, that Jesus had not yet reached the accepted age for such teaching. These arguments would have continued to be levelled at the early Church particularly after their expulsion from the synagogues. In answer to these three arguments contra the Epistle to the Hebrews counters that (1) Jesus was the high priest of all good things to come and therefore demonic possession was impossible. (2) that he is actually a new covenant which perfects the work of the the covenant with the Patriarchs going beyond a temporary solution to human sin. Finally, (3) Jesus' significance and existence as high priest exists outside of the normal constraints of this creation. Human judgements of maturity and the like are not significant.

These are not the specific arguments that we are likely to face today however the themes that lie behind them do find new expressions; (1) That the Christian 'movement' is purely the product of mass hysteria. (2) That Christianity is just one equal amongst the many faiths of the world. (3) That the 'historical' Jesus was limited in his earthly actions by the cultural constraints of his time and his reaction against some of them. Each one of these is a stumbling block which are the real challenges to what the Church proclaims and unfortunately tend to get repeated, without any challenge, in much modern 'theologising' within and without the Church. At the essence of all these three is the problem of relativism, that there can be no true 'black and white', no absolute good and evil. Surely that is not what we have received from the Apostles.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Out of the mouths of babes....

I'm not sure what we are supposed to call it these days. When I was growing up it was the 'Feeding of the Multitude'. I guess my childhood coincided with that period of catechesis when people were beginning to get worried about the traditional names of Bible stories for fear that they might exclude some concerned group. A generation before me probably would have known it as the 'Feeding of the 5000'. But that number, by the biblical account itself, excluded some others who were present- women and children. I vaguely remember it being presented as the story of the 'Boy and his lunch pack'. You can probably tell the 1970s had arrived and some pretty nasty paraphrase translations with their accompanying abstract illustrations.

The point of today's Gospel is obviously twofold; (1) to give an account of a great miracle witnessed by many and (2) to tell a story about how sacrifices, no matter how small, even if they are intuitive, can be used for great things by God. In relation to the first purpose we have to remember that the Gospels are primarily documents giving witness to the Divine nature of Jesus- they are apologetic. You can almost imagine that this story just had to be included because presumably many people who had witnessed this miracle were still around and remembered the day well. What details they knew about the origins of their lunch are not clear. Possibly the immediate disciples, and the small boy, were the only ones who knew the full story. And it's that small boy that got me thinking.

Jesus used the sacrificial offering of a mere infant for great purposes on that day. Do we, today, have a tendency to over infantilise (if there is such a word) the spiritual potency of children? Do we avoid giving them credit for the spiritual insights that they have? After all how many times does Holy Scripture exhort us to be childlike in our approach to the faith. I suspect there is a tendency, indeed a presumption, that young children are not ready to cope with some elements of the faith, the Real Presence for example. More likely the adult authors of the catechetical material have been imposing their own doubts onto the minds of younger Christians for whom there is little problem with what we, as adults, tend to fret about.

Some years ago a fellow priest visited a house of  a young family in a parish he was supplying in. It was within the first week and he was not well known. Certainly the children hadn't quite got to grips with his name. The mother of the house, greeting me at the door had a toddler to hand. 'You know Fr Brown don't you?' she said to the child. 'Yes' replied the child. 'He's the one who brings Jesus down to us from the altar.'  As I heard the story of a toddlers simple act of faith all I could think of was; 'Well that explanation is fine to me'.