Jules Does

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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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Sometimes, readings are like a film – they all hang together to make a pretty coherent story, which you can follow easily. But sometimes, like today, readings are more like a meal – each serving belongs to a different food group and has something slightly different to contribute, and it can be hard to see what connects them all (if there’s a connection at all).

To my mind, the readings for today are almost better when read in reverse. In the Gospel reading, Jesus tells his listeners that God is not in the business of using bad things like death or suffering to punish bad people. But it’s not all good news – people who suffer may not be worse than the rest of the population, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the population is fine. In fact, the rest of the population needs to get its act together and bear fruit, or it too will be destroyed, uprooted like a disobedient plant. Yikes.

The reading from Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians puts a new spin on the “they were bad, so they died” dogma. The Israelites who died in the desert during the forty years of wandering did so not only because they had displeased God (even though they all started from a place of purity, having been baptised by going through the Red Sea and so on) but also to serve as a warning to us against being lazy in our faith – we need to be careful that we don’t fall away, even when we think we’re safe and comfortable. Like Friday’s readings, this passage suggests that our suffering can play a larger role not only in our lives but in the lives of others, even if it is as a warning.

The Psalm, on the other hand, exhorts us to remember God’s infinite mercy and love for us, how he rescues us from sin and redeems us. It also mentions how God gave His law to Moses and the Israelites, and that allusion takes us to the first reading, where Moses encounters the Burning Bush and receives the mission from God that will lead to the exodus from Egypt, the forty years of wandering, the entry into the promised land, and eventually the coming of Christ. This is before anyone has disobeyed God and been punished with death, before the horror and joy of Passover, before any of the plagues on the Egyptians. Here we are right at the beginning, with God revealing His name to Moses, former prince, shepherd and murderer.

I think the verse that manages to connect all of these readings can be found in this reading, in verses 7 and 8 – God has heard the suffering of his enslaved people, and will bring them out into a land of unfathomable plenty. Egypt is sometimes a metaphor for sin and fallenness; just as the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, so we are often slaves to sin, unable to do good even though we would like to. God hears our cries, He knows that we want to live in freedom, so He himself comes down to rescue us. It may be the case that we all deserve death as the wages of sin, but God gives us time to return to him and to bear fruit.

It is also significant that the gardener in the parable doesn’t just agree that the vine should be removed. Instead, he begs for it to be given another chance and promises that he will take extra care of it, giving it extra attention and nourishment in order to encourage it to grow. We know that Christ came and poured Himself out for us on the cross in order to redeem us; and more than that, Catholics know that He comes to us in every Mass and nourishes us with His word in the Bible and, crucially, with His very body in the Sacrament of Communion, just as the gardener nourishes the vine so that it can produce fruit.

Today’s readings balance God’s love and God’s justice and remind us that we need to be rooted in and nourished by God if we are going to have a chance in this sinful world. If we persevere, He will lead us out of slavery to sin into the Kingdom of Heaven, which will be more wonderful than we can predict. We mustn’t get too comfortable, but should always be challenging ourselves to do better, to love more, to serve more and in doing so to bear fruit for our God. So, what fruit are we bearing? Are we patient with others? Do we have self-control? Are we gentle and kind? Are we patient? Are we joyful? If not, maybe we need to draw more deeply on the nourishment God is offering us, rather than resting in our complacency. After all, bearing fruit takes energy and strength, strength which God will provide in abundance.

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[Note – I know this post is 2 days (!) late, but the readings were so good that I didn’t want to skip it.]

So, today’s readings are a bit of a downer! In the first reading, Joseph is thrown into a well and then sold into slavery by his brothers because he keeps having these dreams in which they (or representatives of them) bow down before him, and their pride is so wounded that they decide to murder him. Over dreams. And a coat.

The Bible is full of terrible people.

The second reading isn’t much better – Jesus tells a parable of a group of tenants who are so dementedly possessive that they repeatedly assault and/or kill representatives of the landowner who, it should be noted, isn’t even trying to throw them out! He only wants the portion of the land’s produce that is due to him. Hardly unreasonable behaviour. The parable alludes to Jesus’ impending death and the opening up of the Kingdom of God to non-Jews and other unmentionables who were not exactly on the Pharisees’ side of the fence. Again, this passage makes for rather gloomy reading.

However! The key to today’s readings is in the Psalm for today. It summarises what happens to Joseph after he is sold into slavery: he is brought to Egypt, where he successfully interpreted the Pharaoh’s dream and helped the land prepare for seven years of famine. For me, the key verse is this one: “He sent a man before them, Joseph, sold as a slave”. The Greek for this verse literally means “to send to”, but I quite like the possible double meaning of “send before”, as in “to send previously”. God had famine in store for the Egyptians, but He also sent someone to them before the famine took place in order to help insulate them from the worst of it.

Similarly, although the parable ends in death and destruction, the Psalm helps reminds us that Christ has come so that we don’t necessarily have to be thrown out of the vineyard, so that we can stay and reap the bountiful harvest. Out of the suffering of Joseph and of Christ, an entire people can find a homeland (literal or metaphorical) – their suffering has a redemptive purpose.

It may not have been apparent to Joseph, sitting in that well waiting to be sold into slavery by his own family, and it may not always be apparent to us when we are suffering, but God can use our suffering and our pain to work wonders for many people – in Joseph’s case an entire country, in Christ’s case the entirety of humanity. I know “everything happens for a reason” is an awful thing to say to anyone who is going through something horrible, but we can draw strength from the tale of Joseph, stuck in a hole in the ground, and God’s gigantic plans for him.

Are you sitting in a dry well? What is limiting your vision of God’s plans for you? I pray that you will have the strength to trust God until your horizons open up a bit more and you can see how He can work in and through your pain.

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It’s very late here, so I’ll keep this short.

Today’s readings rather wrong-footed me. Both the reading from Jeremiah and the Psalm for today used the imagery of a well-watered and fruitful tree to symbolise the person who is planted in God’s love and wisdom, capable of surviving even when everything around them seem like the desert. The tree’s deep roots give it stability and allow it to tap into the water which sustains it. By contrast, those who do not turn to God dry up and blow away, insubstantial, inhospitable and temporary.

So I thought for sure we’d have the Parable of the Sower for our Gospel reading, or some metaphor of the True Vine or something similarly agricultural. But no, we get the story of Lazarus and the rich man. This story has the power to make us a little uncomfortable, since it speaks frankly about the unbridgeable gap between Heaven and Hell (the fact that it speaks of Hell at all might be enough to make us a little uneasy, keen as we are to focus on God’s love rather than His Judgement – Lent is a good time to think about the Four Last Things). To be honest, it makes me so uncomfortable that I don’t really want to write anything about that aspect right now – I’ll leave it to you to Google around and hopefully find some words of wisdom from more qualified writers than I (here’s a really good start).

What I would like to focus on is the rich man’s request to Abraham:  “…pity me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames.” If we have in mind the image of God as water, even the smallest hint of God and His love would be a great relief to people suffering in the scorching heat of their own wickedness (remember that the wicked were destined to blow away like chaff and are compared to a desert wasteland). Abraham refuses, and the rich man then begs him to send a messenger to his remaining brothers on Earth to warn them of the burning torments that await those who ignore God during their lives. Once more Abraham refuses, and says that the brothers can listen to Moses and the prophets (i.e. the Scriptures). The written words of God is like a great source of water, and by drinking deeply of these it is possible to remain nourished and comforted by God forever. That is significant as well, that the drying up and withering promised by Jeremiah and the Psalmist happens to the wicked not necessarily during life, but certainly after death. This might be of help to us when we see the wicked resolutely not perishing and blowing away in the wind – God is playing a longer game.

However, that is not the end of the requests – the rich man continues to ask that Lazarus be sent to warn the living of the situation they might find themselves in, but Abraham says that those who don’t believe the Scriptures wouldn’t believe what they say even if someone returned from the dead to confirm what is written. And there the parable ends, on this rather sad and sour note. But how fortunate we are to have skipped ahead a few chapters and seen that God has done it anyway – Christ passed through death and returned to tell us not of the pains that await us after death, but of the fact that He conquered death itself and that the gates of Heaven are open to us now, thanks to Him.

Frequently in the Old Testament God promises to make rivers in the desert, to take that which is dry and unfruitful and make it into a rich place full of life. We can see now that the water which will achieve this, the water that the rich man longed for in his torment, is not just any water, but the Living Water offered by Christ in His living, dying and rising.

Sorry that this is a bit brief, perhaps when I sleep on it more will occur to me, but this is what I have for now. I hope very much that it’s of use to you.

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