Monthly Archives: April2017

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Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.  So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.  The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.  He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.  Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.  Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.

Echoing an ancient homily, Meister Eckhart said that it was because Mary Magdalene had nothing else to lose that she dared approach the tomb; the apostles had run away because, by implication, they were still trying to save themselves, or trying to save something for themselves.  She had lost everything else, he said, “and so she was afraid that if she went away from the grave she would lose the grave as well.  For if she had lost the grave she would have nothing left at all.”  In fact, she lost the grave as well, because it was no longer really a grave: it did not contain the body of Jesus.  Yet it was in this state of utter deprivation that the Resurrection took place.  It did not take place on the mountain-tops, or on a bright cloud, but in the heart of the grave, the ‘degree zero’ of human life.  It was because Mary Magdalene had the heart to stay by the grave that she became the first bearer of the news of the Resurrection; she was the first Christian preacher.

At first she could not see Jesus anywhere.  Why?  “Because she kept looking further away than he was,” said Eckhart.  She kept looking for a dead body, an object; but Jesus was alive and standing beside her.  We are at home with objects; they are at arm’s length and we can deal with them.  We make this kind of knowledge-at-arm’s-length the standard of all knowledge.  It is all right for dealing with objects, but the Risen Christ is nearer to us than any object.  “Why are you seeking the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5).

Christians through the centuries have focused a lot of reflection on that large stone laid to the mouth of the tomb.  When Mary Magdalene went to the tomb she found the stone removed.  That large material object – which might appear a convincing objection to faith –  was gone; and she was the first witness to this.  No tomb on earth can hold the Lord.  No material stone, however heavy, can imprison him.  But we should not imagine that material stones are the hardest and heaviest things in the world.  Who would have guessed that thoughts, which are made of nothing at all, could be heavier and harder than any stone?  But experience tells us it is so.  We are able to seal our minds and hearts with immovable stones of prejudice, hatred and fear.  “To behold the resurrection, the stone must first be rolled away from our hearts,” said Peter Chrysologus (5th century).

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for His appearance was like lightning and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”
So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

There is no Eucharist of Holy Saturday.  The altars are stripped bare, tabernacles lie open and empty – an extraordinarily powerful symbol for Catholics.  The whole Church is one with Christ in his death.  It is necessary to experience this.  We have to allow ourselves to experience sadness and loss.  The Liturgy is a wise teacher.

However, piety immediately negates the power of the empty tabernacle by setting up an ‘altar of repose’, much more elaborately decorated with flowers and lighted candles than the high altar ever was.  We find it hard to live even for a day with anything that seems like emptiness.

George Steiner, among others, remarked that our world around us today is a kind of prolonged Holy Saturday: the age between Friday and Sunday, between defeat and hope.  Today, of all days, the Christian heart feels the darkness of the world, and allows itself to look at the darkness in itself.

The emptiness and darkness that we have allowed ourselves to feel will show us the light of Easter all the more brightly.  In the darkness we rise for the Easter Vigil.  Against a black sky we light the Easter fire.  But this would be a forlorn gesture if Christ were not risen from the dead!  Suddenly the Paschal candle is alight. Lumen Christi! – the light of Christ lightens our darkness.  Exultet! – “Exult, all creation…!  Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendour, radiant in the brightness of your King….  Darkness vanishes forever…!  Let this place resound with joy, echoing the mighty song of all God’s people!”

The soldiers took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews”, but, “This man said, I am King of the Jews.”

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) wrote with passion about what he called “the transvaluation of values.”  His word, Umwertung, might also be translated as ‘revaluation’.  All human values had been stood on their head, he maintained, by Christian faith and culture.  He saw Christianity as the greatest curse, “the one great intrinsic depravity.”  It was fuelled, he believed, by a spirit of resentment: the resentment of the weak against the strong, of the sick against the healthy, of the morbid against all that was natural and vital.  He advocated a return to all that was natural, powerful, healthy…. Forty years or so after his death Europe got a taste of what that might mean in practice.

The image of Jesus dying on the cross summed up for Nietzsche all that was sick and despicable.  Is there any credit at all due to this philosopher?  Perhaps this: at least he didn’t pass an unseeing eye over the cross of Christ, as most people do – Christians perhaps more than most.  We have turned the cross into an ornament – something to take the bare look off a wall.  By taming it we have robbed it of its power to shock and challenge our values and priorities.  This is a bigger scandal than Nietzsche and all his explosive denunciation of Christianity.  St Paul wrote, “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:23-24).

For St Paul there is a kind of power in the world, and a kind of wisdom, that cannot be compared with the power of armies and governments.  In our own era there have been many witnesses to this kind of power: Mahatma Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, and countless others.  Like St Paul, they drew their inspiration from the man who said, “To the one who slaps you on one cheek, present the other cheek too; to the one who takes your cloak from you, do not refuse your tunic” (Lk 6:29).  This looks like weakness, but it is stronger than human strength.  “For God’s foolishness,” wrote St Paul, “is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1Cor 1:25).

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.’ For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.

St Augustine had a profound sense of humility.  The three essentials of any spiritual life, he once said, are humility and humility and humility.  Predictably he is moved by Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet.  “It is He into whose hands the Father had given all things, who now washes the disciples’ feet: and it was precisely while knowing that ‘He had come from God, and was going to God,’ that He performed this task of a servant – a servant to humanity.”

And yet Augustine feels he has to twist the words around so that in the washing of the feet, Peter should come first!  “[The text] says ‘Then he came to Simon Peter,’ as if He had already washed the feet of some of the others… But who can fail to know that the most blessed Peter was the first of the apostles?  So we are not to understand that Jesus washed some others first.  Instead He began with Peter.”

It seems to say that while it is all right for Jesus to make himself least of all, it would not be right for Peter.  It is a curious contradiction, and the first of many silly claims to precedence in religious circles.  There’s a kind of humility that is ‘official’ but not real – as when people used to sign letters ‘Your humble servant….’

The astounding thing, commemorated in today’s Liturgy, is that Jesus was genuinely humble; he wasn’t just going through the motions.  His washing their feet was in keeping with his whole life.  He had queued up, shoulder to shoulder with sinners, for John’s baptism of repentance (Matthew 3:13; Mark 1:9; Luke 3:21). Yet John’s gospel doesn’t show him being baptised by the John the Baptist, nor of course queuing up for such a baptism.  Instead, he is said to be just “walking by” (1:35).  This is in keeping with the image of Jesus in the fourth gospel: he is walking above the ground rather than on it.  This, even though the immortal words “The Word became flesh and lived among us” are from this gospel.  It is hard to follow something through to the very end.  Jesus “loved [the disciples] to the end” (today’s reading).  Why conceal the fact that he was also humble to the end?  The two go together.

As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews….’

The crowd that cheered him on were soon yelling ‘Crucify him!’  That’s the way a crowd, “that numerous piece of monstrosity,” tends to behave.  “Who do people say I am?” he once asked.  How could they know who he was?  They didn’t know who they themselves were.  A crowd are not a community; they have no lasting purpose, they hardly even know one another; but somehow they are able to energise one another for the worse.  At his birth the angels sang, “Peace on earth!”  Here he is, near the end of his life, at the mercy of a mindless mob screaming for his blood.

His life has been called “the greatest story ever told.”  It is not only the story of Jesus, it is the story of the world.  It is the two together forming a single story.  He is one of us, he was born here, he walked our streets.  This is how our world deals with such a person.  The death of Jesus reveals many things: the incorruptibility of his spirit, the depth of his love and forgiveness, the reality of his relationship with the Father; it also reveals the barbarity, legal and illegal, that ordinary human beings are capable of.  It shows us “the light of God’s glory shining in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:7); it also reveals the ugly face of humanity.  It is a double revelation.

Is there any hope for our world?  Look again.  He is one of us.  He called us brothers and sisters.  We know we are capable of the worst, but by being one of us he makes us capable of integrity, love, forgiveness…. We are a crowd, but we can be a new community.  It is a double revelation.

He revealed the weakness hidden in power – and the power hidden in weakness.

His resurrection will reveal that the Father is indeed like the Prodigal Father in his parable.  It will also reveal that we too are mysteriously raised up with him – because he is one of us.

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.  Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.  So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”  But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”  Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 
Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”  The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”  Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

Last Sunday’s gospel reading was about light and darkness; today’s is about life and death.  We can expect a similar paradoxical treatment of them from John.

It was dangerous for Jesus to go to Judea again; the authorities were determined to seize him.  When he decided nevertheless to go there, Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  So Jesus faced death to give life to Lazarus.  This is John showing us the meaning of Jesus’ life, or applying the first brush-stroke in this scene.

An alternative (or more accurately, a disjunction) is not a paradox.  Life or death is not yet paradox; the paradox is life in death.  Johann Tauler (1300 – 1361) wrote: “If only we could seek joy in sadness, peace in trouble, simplicity in multiplicity, comfort in bitterness! This is the way to become true witnesses to God.”  Life in death is what we what we are going to see in this scene.  To make it quite clear that we are not dealing with a disjunction but with a paradox, he tells us that Lazarus has been unmistakably dead for four days.

A disjunction is easy to understand.  It is the way of ordinary rational thinking: yes or no, right or wrong, good or bad…. It keeps the two elements carefully apart; it makes opposites of them, it makes enemies of them.  It has the appearance of being very clear and strong: if you talk, for example, about an “Axis of Evil”, you expect nothing from them and you give them no quarter.  It also looks scientific (computers are built on this principle); but it is also quite fictional.  Oscar Wilde once remarked, “In fiction, good people do good things and bad people do bad things; that’s why we call it fiction.”  In reality, good people often do bad things and bad people good things.  Any account of human affairs that sees only disjunction would be a handbook for war, or a work of fiction, but not a gospel of life.

We spend our life trying to avoid even the thought of death.  When we do think about it we think thoughts like: “it will defeat me utterly, it will destroy everything I tried to do.”  The ‘enemy’, then, is not only out there; our worst ‘enemy’ is within.

This is not the way a Christian thinks about it.  The death of Christ shapes our consciousness of death.  St Paul wrote that we are “baptised into his death” (Romans 6:3).  The word ‘baptised’ means ‘plunged’.  “By baptism we have been buried with him into death.”   This is not running away from death and the thought of death.  It seems more like running towards it.  Why?  Because “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”  The place of death is the place of resurrection.  The resurrection is not an alternative to death; rather it is in death that resurrection is to be found.  We are delivered from the crippling fear of death and of everything that reminds us of it.  This frees us to live.

Life in death.  Lazarus is every disciple.

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