Jules Does

Archive for March 2016

Hahaha ok so it turns out I suck at doing this!

Seriously though, my apologies. I wanted this to be more or less a daily thing, but then I didn’t prioritise it and, well, it kind of fell away. Sorry. Holy Week is upon us (starting tomorrow with Palm Sunday), so the end of Lent is very much in sight. I hope some of this series has been helpful for you; I know that using this blog to think through some of the readings has made me take them much more seriously, so I’m grateful for that. Maybe I’ll do it again next year if I can.

But on to today’s readings. Today is a little unusual, since the readings we have are for the Feast of St Joseph, the foster father of Christ, rather than readings chosen particularly for Lent. But (of course) the readings still point beyond themselves to larger ideas about God’s kingship, providence and especially His fatherhood. I don’t promise I’ll do a good job here, as I’m very tired, but I’ll just put down some of the things rattling around in my head.

It is because of Joseph that Jesus can be called Son of David, which was one of the titles for the Messiah promised in the Old Testament – Mary herself was not descended from the famous Old Testament king, but Joseph was, and by marrying Mary and raising Jesus as his son, St Joseph included Christ in his lineage and thereby fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies, prophecies like the one in the first reading. Although the passage refers more obviously to King David’s son and successor Solomon, who built the first Temple in Jerusalem, Christians view this passage as referring to Christ in His position as Son of God and Son of Man/Son of David. Indeed, the Christian interpretation would note that the reign of David’s descendants on the throne of Israel absolutely did not last forever, as this passage promised it would, so it must be referring to something else, namely the eternal kingship of Christ.

The second reading goes on to tell us that, through the sacrifice of Christ, who was descended from Abraham, we have all been made descendants of Abraham and have thereby fulfilled God’s promise to him (made way back in Genesis) that He would make his descendants as numerous as the stars (phew, thanks for sticking with me through all of those pronouns). It is because of this adoption that non-Jews like me can claim to be heirs to the promise that God made not only to Abraham but to all those who came after him, like Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and the rest.

So, just to refresh our memories, there have been two adoptions thus far: God adopting David’s descendants and us being adopted as Abraham’s descendants. The third reading kind of turns that trend around; instead of God adopting us, mankind (as represented by Joseph) adopts God.

There are two possible Gospel readings for today. In the first, Joseph obeys the command of the angel of God and marries Mary, despite the fact that she is mysteriously pregnant. In Catholic tradition, it is understood that Joseph, although not free from Original Sin, led a sinless life. How can we tell? Fun fact: Joseph has no lines in the Bible! All we know of him are his actions, every one of which involves looking after Mary and the child Jesus, whether that’s bringing them to Bethlehem, taking them away to Egypt, looking after them in Nazareth or helping Mary look for Christ when He goes missing in the second of the two possible readings for today. It is this singular devotion to caring for Our Lord and His mother that shows us Joseph’s saintliness.

But, lest we get too caught up in our St Joseph fan club, Christ reminds us in the second possible reading that, more than anyone here on Earth, God is the Father of all of us. Despite the fact that Mary refers to Joseph as “your father”, Christ points out that He had been busy with the business of His true Father, the Father with a capital F who adopted Abraham and David and who, through the sacrifice of Christ, would adopt us all into one huge family in heaven.

Apologies if any of this is murky, but the bottom line is that, somewhere in the tangle of fathers and Fathers and adoption and losing and finding and death and life, we find that we’ve all been bound up together as brothers and sisters through several wondrous choices, especially the choice of a wordless man in Israel to adopt a child who wasn’t his own and to bring Him safely to adulthood so that He could fulfil God’s plan to adopt all of humankind.

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So the readings for today are… confusing?

I mean, the first reading is pretty easy-going, with lots of typical symbols that we’ve been hearing about lately – mountains made low, people returning home, God’s consolation and so on. Same goes for the Psalm, which is all about God’s great compassion and kindness. So far so good!

But then, there’s the Gospel. And the Gospel for today is a little bewildering. There are a few themes we can pick out, like the fact that God is beyond time (hence He carries on working on the Sabbath), and the fact that Christ has come so that whoever believes in Him will be given eternal life, which is all well and good, kind of Christianity 101. But that’s not the bulk of Christ’s long, poetic statement, as conveyed by John. Instead, Christ offers us a glimpse into the life of the Trinity, about how the Son relates to the Father, what the Son is supposed to do, what the Father allows the Son to do, and so on. The Son is the judge, but He only judges according to the will of the Father, who doesn’t judge. The Father, who is the source of life, has made the Son the source of life and also the supreme judge by merit of the Son also being the Son of Man.

It’s enough to drive a girl to drink.

Talking about the Trinity can sometimes seem like an impossible task, and to be perfectly frank it’s something that I’m usually happy to gloss over. Perhaps I do this at my own peril – after all, the Orthodox and Catholic churches were divided in the Great Schism in the 12th century partly because of a disagreement over the nature of the Trinity, specifically over whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father (Catholics say yes, Orthodox say no). But do I know why the line was drawn there exactly, and what the arguments on either side actually were? No, I do not. Would I understand them even if I did a little Googling and found them? I very much doubt it.

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I mean, if you say so.

If you’re confused like I currently am, I would really love to tell you about a book I’m reading. It’s called Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, and was originally published in 1884. The main character is a square (named A. Square), who lives in 2-dimensional space in the Kingdom of Flatland. Stay with me! During the book, he visits other kingdoms called Lineland (where everyone is a line and can only see forwards and backwards; the concept of left and right have no meaning) and Pointland, which has no dimensions at all. It sounds mad, but it’s very charmingly written and more than a little reminiscent of The Phantom Tollbooth, which is also wonderful.

Eventually, our protagonist enters Spaceland, or 3-dimensional space. Gone are the circles and squares of his world, and here are spheres and cubes and pyramids and cones and other shapes moving in all directions! A. Square is dazzled by having his mind opened in this way and attempts to tell his family and friends back in Flatland, but to no avail. In the end he is imprisoned. He simply lacks the language to explain the nature of the third dimension to those who only know two dimensions. To make matters worse, he has a sneaking suspicion that there might even be a fourth dimension, but he’ll never find anyone who might have the slightest idea what he’s talking about.

Maybe you can see where I’m going with this. Perhaps Christ’s insight into the life of the Trinity is equivalent to a cube trying to explain itself to a square. This might explain why the descriptions and definitions kind of loop back on themselves in a slightly odd manner; perhaps it is the poetry of God clashing with the prose of humanity. Maybe the Gospel reading can’t be picked apart and analysed like a parable or a miracle because there’s no picking apart to be done. It’s like trying to pick apart an ocean.

Anyway, why this reading in Lent? How does it relate to the other readings? My guess would be that all of the readings are offering us an glimpse into the life and character of God. The Old Testament readings talk of low made high and rough made smooth and of unfailing love that surpasses even the love of a mother for her child, which is difficult enough, and the Gospel goes even further in reminding us that we don’t really know anything about God beyond what He has revealed, and even that is only a fraction of His true nature. Maybe the message is that we need to rest in our lack of understanding occasionally, trusting in our loving God to tell us in His own sweet time. If that sounds anti-intellectual, I assure you it’s not intended that way at all. It’s just that we need to remember sometimes that we are squares trying to understand cubes.

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Ok, so I have been pretty terrible at posting lately, and I apologise. Part of the reason is being busy and not managing my time super well, but another part of the reason is that sometimes these readings are either really challenging or, frankly, a little blah, and I just don’t feel like writing about them. And that’s no good.

Biblically speaking, the desert is often used to suggest the obvious – barren, empty, lifeless, inhospitable. Sometimes, though, the desert can be a crucible for change and growth and challenges. For me, this Lent, the desert has been a lot of the former. Sometimes in doing these readings, I feel like God is really communicating with me, pointing out things that I need to realise. I know that I cling to moments of grace like Tarzan swinging through the trees, grasping one tightly and riding it to the next one. If the next one doesn’t come soon enough, then I fall. But maybe what I need to do is think of grace more like the springs of water we’ve been told about so often this season, and fill my canteens while I can so that I can eke it out until I find the next spring, whenever that may be.

It would be simple enough to attribute my tendency to seek new graces instantly to this generation’s short attention span and sense of ‘I want it and I want it now’ brand of entitlement, but in reality this is something that has been going on for millennia. Sometimes I feel like the Bible even panders to our desire for things to happen and happen right this very second. In the first reading for today (at least in the translation at Universalis), God tells us that He is creating a new heaven and a new earth “now” – twice. The new heaven and earth is obviously wonderful, with abundant life for all and an end to infant mortality, as well as delicious food and enough to spare, and it is happening now. God’s grace will spring up for all right now. It is happening even as He speaks.

The immediacy of the first reading doesn’t initially seem to mesh well with what happens in the Gospel reading. In it, Christ returns to Cana, the location of his first miracle, having done a bit of travelling in the mean time and, crucially, no miracles between then and now. Hardly the “now, now” arrival of God’s kingdom mentioned in the first reading. When the man whose son is ill approaches Christ to ask for healing for his son, who was apparently over a day’s journey away from Cana at a town called Caesaraea, Christ chastises him slightly, claiming that the people are dependent on signs to inspire their faith rather than being capable of belief on its own. Again, not exactly a “now, now” moment. To that charge the man makes no reply or defence, but simply asks again that Jesus heal his son.When Jesus promises that the child will recover, the man leaves immediately, and encounters his servants on the road the next day, coming to bring him the good news of his son’s recovery.

What was that man thinking as he travelled? He would have had to stop and stay the night somewhere and continue on his way the next morning. Did he really think that whole time that his child would certainly be healed, even though Jesus had only said the boy would be healed and hadn’t even seen him? He would have had to hold on to his hope until he made it back to his home, going step by step, only as fast as his legs could carry him. But he doesn’t even make it home before his servants intercept him to tell him the good news.

I like this man, and he’s a good example for people like me in how to take grace as it comes. For him, his perception of the miracle of his son’s healing came both slowly and quickly; slowly in that he had to go all the way home to see the miracle performed, but also quickly in that the news of it came while he was still on the road, not quite expecting it just yet, but looking forward with faith to it coming soon. The miracle of course, was one of those immediate transformations promised in the first reading, but it took time for his awareness of what God was doing to match up with the reality. All he could do was walk steadily towards it.

It’s important, then, to remember that God is indeed working “now, now”, but our understanding may be obscured by our own distance from God, our other preoccupations, or other such obstacles, and that it’s crucial that we keep walking forward. Under the desert sands, between each tiny spring of water, lies a huge, sustaining reservoir.

[Oh look, another late post! Whoops.]

The readings for Monday of the third week of Lent are a lot like the ones I wrote about on the 17th (Wednesday of the first week), in that the Old Testament reading describes a non-Jew’s response to the message of God as conveyed by His prophet, and the New Testament reading features Christ naming this non-Jew as the sort of person from whom the Jews could stand to learn a little about God’s love. Obviously the same things I discussed then about humility and contrition apply here, but rather than cut-and-paste my thoughts again, I’d rather focus on a section from the Old Testament reading and use it to think about Lent.

So, Namaan comes to Israel for a cure from Elisha (prompted by his slave girl, who is a captured Israelite – again, God uses one person’s horrible situation to change the course of the lives of others), but is offended when the cure suggested is almost laughably simple: go bathe in the Jordan 7 times. Namaan scoffs and is prepared to leave, but his servant reminds him that Namaan would have gone to huge, heroic lengths if that was the advice given, so why not do this small thing, if that is what is asked?

Reading the lives of the saints, it’s easy to think that the way to live one’s faith to the fullest is to live in a constant blaze of glory. Saints are always doing hugely dramatic things – escaping death, being gruesomely tortured, going to far-flung places to spread the Gospel, living on pillars, working God’s miracles, giving up everything to nurse the sick and dying – and sometimes, to be perfectly honest, it gets me down. Facing down hostile monarchs is all very well, but what am I to do here, in this life? I have a husband and a child, I can’t very well go and live on a pillar in the desert!

If you feel a similar way, then I have just the saint for you: St Therese of Lisieux. When she was a teenager, St Therese joined the Carmelite Order and became a cloistered nun, which meant that she never left her convent. Like, ever. During her brief life, she developed a way of behaving called ‘The Little Way’, where what really mattered was doing small things with great love.

That’s it. No scaling of impossibly high mountains, no fasting for six days out of seven, no becoming amazingly impervious to flames. Just doing small things with great love. This included being nice to nuns she found irritating, or being really diligent in her tasks in the convent garden and kitchen. Nothing glamorous or thrilling, just little things. What set Therese apart was that, in her heart, she was doing everything to the best of her ability and all for the love of God.

I really identify with Namaan, because I think somewhere, deep down, I believe I’m supposed to be doing something really exciting and extraordinary for God, like moving to the darkest Amazon and translating the Bible into indigenous languages while swatting mosquitoes and delivering babies with no electricity or medical training, or suddenly getting stigmata during a 24-prayathon. It’s almost like I think that my current life is too ordinary and tedious to be what God wants me to do. But St Therese shows how God can be calling us to do the little things in life, not only because the people who are off doing huge things need the support of other people (who have things like jobs and so forth) in order to help them achieve such greatness for God, but also because we can find God in the little things as well.

I like to think that I would be willing to do something really tremendous and difficult for God, but I often overlook the fact that my fairly domestic life has the capacity to be really tremendous just by being lived authentically and with love. It is possible to meet God in housework, in childrearing, in rest, in shopping, in domestic life, just as it’s possible to meet him on the top of a pillar or during horrible torture and death. What matters above all is what’s in our hearts and whether or not we have the humility to do what God has asked of us, whether that’s flying to the moon or doing the dishes. Holiness is absolutely within our reach if we will reach out with love and humility.

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