Jules Does

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A short meditation tonight, I think.

Today’s Old Testament, Psalm, and New Testament readings all have something significant in common: they touch on the deep problem that lies at the heart of all religions, namely the problem of evil, particularly when that evil happens to good people. Both the Psalmist and Jeremiah complain to God that the evil majority are plotting their downfall, and that the power of God now is their only hope for deliverance. Jeremiah’s prayer is especially poignant: he is being persecuted by the same people whom he defended before God. Talk about ingratitude.

In keeping with yesterday’s theme of humility, in the reading from Matthew today Christ reiterates how the Messiah must go to Jerusalem to suffer and die at the very hands of the people whom He was sent to save. And, of course, the disciples miss the point again. Rather than focussing on how the climax of Jesus’ ministry was to be His execution, they squabble over their exact placements in the throne room of heaven. All that Christ can say for certain, however, is that the sons of Zebedee (whose mother is the rather uncouth person who asks Christ for heaven’s seating plan) will suffer and die as He himself would. Moreover, he tells them all that the whole concept of heaven is bound up in the servant being greater than the master, that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, that if they want to be first in heaven then they must be the servant of the very lowest person on Earth, giving their very all as He Himself was to do.

I think sometimes that when we do something good for someone, we expect gratitude or goodness in return. We expect the homeless person to smile gratefully after we give them 50p; we expect people who live on state benefits to behave better than we would expect anyone else to in order to make them somehow more deserving of the state’s support; we expect the outcast to be grateful for our company; we expect the feet we washed to stay clean, or at least not to kick us. When we don’t encounter the gratitude we think we are owed, it is tempting to stop doing good, to stop being the servant of all.

But what is it that we can learn from both Jesus and Jeremiah today? It is that sometimes we are humble and good to people who maybe don’t act very grateful, and maybe it makes us wonder whether it was worth being good to those people in the first place. Maybe, like Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren says in the above gifs, we feel that people who don’t have the good sense to respond to love with love simply don’t deserve love in the first place. And you know what, maybe they really don’t deserve it. Or perhaps questions of who deserves or doesn’t deserve love are irrelevant. Perhaps instead what really matters is our behaviour and not the reaction of others, either for good or for ill. The gratitude or otherwise of the recipients of any good deeds we might do is irrelevant.

These readings got me thinking of this quotation by Kent Keith that is often attributed to Mother Teresa (it was painted on the wall of her House in Calcutta), and I will leave you with it today.

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Often in the Gospels, we see Christ encounter people who are eager to know how to be good. They want to know exactly what it is that they need to do to please God and in so doing gain eternal life. These stories always pull me up short because I too would like to know what to do to be a good person and to go to heaven – who doesn’t? The rich young man from Matthew 19 and I have a lot in common. For those of us who like having clear instructions to follow, asking the Lord God Almighty for a simple list of do’s and don’t’s is very tempting.

What’s more, God often obliges! Brilliant! Not only do we have the 10 Commandments (“The ULTIMATE Ten Rules To Being A Good Person… Number Six Will BLOW YOUR MIND”), but we also have passages like today’s first reading: do the following good things, or you’ll bring down your own destruction upon your heads. Right-o, God! Search for justice, be kind to orphans and widows, got it. Thanks, God!

We may at this point be ticking boxes off in our heads. Have I oppressed any widows lately? No? Good, more heaven points for me. Have I been striving for justice? Well, I signed that change.org petition the other day, so I’d say that counts. Gosh, getting into heaven is a breeze!

But then comes the Psalm for today. This should shake us out of our complacency in time for the Gospel, since it has one of those pesky allusions we get so often during Lent to the fact that our sacrifices (in the case of the Old Testament the sacrifices are animal offerings, but we can easily exchange those for our Lenten sacrifices or even our good deeds) are not of interest to God. What really matters is the disposition of our hearts – after all, how can we sacrifice to God and speak about the ways He has told us to live while all along our hearts are at best asleep and at worst actively hostile to true, internal change?

The Gospel for today goes even further. The passage is intriguing, as Jesus actually tells his followers that the Pharisees and scribes make good points and give advice that ought to be followed. This may surprise us slightly, as only a few chapters earlier Jesus tells his followers to be on their guard against the Pharisees and Sadducees. The real problem with the religious elite, Jesus explains, is that they do not practice what they preach. They are tremendously bound to this world, despite being religious teachers who seem to do and say all of the right things. Jesus tells his followers that they are supposed to go to the other extreme – shun titles of honour, reject the temptation to be exalted over each other, seek to be the lowest.

What an inversion of the normal world! What would society look like if we all genuinely treated others as better than us? What would happen if we all wanted to serve each other genuinely? What would happen if the words of our mouths and the deeds of our hands matched our hearts?

One verse from the Gospel reading has really stuck with me today. It’s verse 4: “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but will they lift a finger to move them? Not they!” What are these burdens? In the context of the rest of the passage, the burdens must be the religious standards the Pharisees tell everyone else to stick to – be careful not to do this, be sure to do that – while ignoring their own advice. If the Pharisees shouldered the same burdens as the people whom they advised, the burden would be much lighter. I see the logic of this – how frustrating and lonely is it to be following a certain course of behaviour and to see others, particularly those who claim to be doing the same thing, doing exactly nothing. Similarly, I always feel guilty when someone catches me doing something that I myself have advised them not to do. The shame of being caught in hypocrisy!

Thinking of hypocrisy and the difference between what I say, what I do and what I believe led me to think of how Jesus, who is the exact opposite of a hypocrite, reveals this aspect of His nature in the New Testament. Far from burdening others, His burden is light. Instead of leaving us to get on with our own problems, He invites us to cast our burdens on Him because He loves us and tells us to share each other’s burdens as well. While the Pharisees burden people and refuse to lift a finger to help, Christ picks up the burden of His cross and carries it all the way to Calvary to die for us.

Lists of how to be good will always be incomplete, because there is an infinite range of different situations in which we can find ourselves – being consumers, parents, friends, children, students, employees etc etc. Ultimately what we really need are guiding principles rather than specific rules, and today Christ gives us some of the greatest and most challenging principles of all – humble yourself. Mean what you say and do what you mean. Above all, love each other.

That list’s much harder to tick off, isn’t it?

 

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Well, so far it’s been a bit tricky to keep my Lenten resolution of writing every day, and for that I apologise. Today’s post will also be a bit short, as I am full of cold and also knackered.

Conveniently, today’s passages are also pretty succinct. The first comes from the First Letter of Peter and is all about responsible Christian leadership. Although Peter addresses the church elders, we can all apply Peter’s guidance to any situation in our lives where we have charge over people, whether in our work or personal lives. When we put ourselves or are put in any leadership position, we are acting as reflections of the One who is the leader of all, Christ. We are therefore called to lead as He did, namely with humility and justice.

But who is Peter to be giving us advice anyway? Well, the Gospel reading for the day tells the story of how Christ made Peter the rock upon which the Church is built, an awesome responsibility indeed. Christ’s words to Peter are so important and so crucial to the Catholic understanding of the nature of the Church that they are inscribed around the inside of the dome of St Peter’s in Rome.

In this exchange, after Peter confesses that Jesus is indeed the Christ, Jesus gives Peter tremendous authority – the very keys of the Kingdom of Heaven (which is why Peter is so often depicted holding keys or sitting at the gates of heaven in jokes). He is told that whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven, and vice versa, a promise which we believe has a great deal to do with the absolution of sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (you might know it better as Confession).

And how does Peter wield this awesome power? As Christ wanted – with great humility and joy, shepherding the flock until, as promised in the first reading, the Great Shepherd comes again.

St. Peter is one of my favourite saints because he is so tremendously human. He’s not the favourite disciple, and he’s certainly far from being the most faithful. He’s grouchy and a little quick to make rash promises, but in the end he gets where he needs to be. I suppose that’s why I like taking his advice when he gives it, because I recognise so many of my own sins in his behaviour.

Leadership can be a gift from God, and a great crucible in which our faith can be tested and displayed. Peter’s advice applies to us whether we are teachers, parents, managers, spouses, priests or in pretty much any walk of life. Authority is meant to be held with joy and humility, doing our best to show through our leadership the perfect leadership of Christ our King and Shepherd.

I’ll be the first to say it – Lent is a bit of a downer.

However! After the difficult questions raised by the past few days’ worth of readings, we get a bit of a break today, a day where we are reminded of God’s saving help. Which is a relief to be honest, as I was starting to feel a bit hopeless about the whole thing.

The first reading is taken from the Book of Esther – it’s not very long, go read it now! – and is actually a section which does not feature in Protestant Bibles. I think this is a shame, as it’s a really powerful passage, but anyway. Esther is about to face her husband Xerxes, King of Persia, which you would think wouldn’t be a problem, except that absolutely no one is allowed to come see the king without an invitation on pain of death. To make matters worse, Esther has to think of a way to get Xerxes to rescind an order promoting the killing of the Jews, but she hasn’t told Xerxes that she is a Jew herself. So Esther turns to God in her worry. She puts on sackcloth, puts ashes and dung in her hair (can you imagine a queen with dung in her hair?) and prays from the depths of her soul that God will save her and all of her people. She repeats how alone she is and reminds God of His promise to make the Jews an inheritance for His own. We know from later in the book that Esther is successful and even manages to turn the decree on its head, resulting in the death of Haman, the official who had plotted the massacre of the Jews, as well as the deaths of his ten sons and of many others who wanted to destroy God’s chosen people. It is clear that God does not forget his promises.

The Psalm for the day also dates from the time of Israel’s captivity, and begins with the famous image of the Jews weeping for Zion by the rivers of Babylon. But that’s not the aspect of the Psalm that is emphasised in today’s readings and response. Instead, the reading is full of praise and blessing, and the response says without hesitation “On the day I called, you answered me, O Lord”. God is quick to hear his children, and will not only hear, but act as well. To apply that idea to our current situation, whenever we look to God to support us in a difficult situation, whether over something trivial like really wanting to break your Lenten penance or perhaps over something more serious, God will be there, and be there at once.

The Psalm kind of glances as why this might be the case, but the reason given in the New Testament reading is put much more strongly and clearly: God responds to our needs because God loves us as Our Father. It is as simple and as astounding as that.

But hang on! you may be saying. I prayed for something ages ago, and it was certainly not given to me on the day that I asked for it! In fact, I never received an answer at all! So much for God answering me at once. Well, Christ has an answer for that too. He explains that no father on earth would give his son a snake when he asked for a fish, or a stone when he asked for bread, so we can conclude that the converse is also true. No father, when his son asks for a snake, would actually give him a snake, or would give his son a stone when he knows that the child needs bread, regardless of what the child is asking for. Children are famously terrible at knowing what they need and what is good for them, and it is the parent’s job to give the child what they need.

Sometimes with hindsight it is possible to see moments where we have been asking for snakes and God has given us fish. I used to pray so hard that my first boyfriend would see the error of his ways and come back to me (be nice to me, I was 16 and ridiculous), but God did not make that happen. Instead, he allowed me to meet new people who helped me grow and change and walk the path that has led me to today and to my marvellous, unique and irreplaceable son. Thanks be to God for giving me nourishing bread rather than cold stones!

It might be easy then to leave Mass all content in God’s love, thinking about bread and fish and all manner of good things. But that’s not the end of the reading.

This passage marks the end of the Sermon on the Mount, that tremendous speech that takes up two chapters in the Gospel of Matthew, and the very last sentence not only summarises the sermon, but also everything in the Bible that has come before: love your neighbour as yourself. God will give us what we need, and this will enable us to love each other fiercely and without barriers. Since we have such a generous God, we too can afford to be generous and give others what they need. Again, this use of this passage during Lent serves to draw our attention to Lent’s focus on alms-giving and revealing the love of God (both ours for Him and His for us) through love of neighbour. Our love of God is not meant to be just a private thing, but something which nourishes us and strengthens us to go out into the world and spread that love and trust and faith around.

I’m experimenting with the title formats, can you tell?

Anyway, welcome to Wednesday, and if you thought the readings for the past few days had been a bit vague in calling for us to turn away from sin and towards God, then I have some good news for you: today’s readings are punch-to-the-gut direct. In the past few posts I’ve overlooked the Psalm for the day, but today’s Psalm and its response “A humbled, contrite heart, O Lord, you will not spurn” are really in tune with today’s theme of heavy contrition and not resting on one’s laurels.

We begin with a reading from Jonah, and not the fun part where he gets swallowed by a fish. When we meet Jonah and he receives God’s instructions to go to Nineveh and preach repentance, Jonah has already learned his lesson from the fish incident and therefore toddles off to Nineveh without complaint.  Jonah goes to this city and walks across it, proclaiming as he goes that God will destroy the city in forty days (there’s that measurement of time again). Notice that he doesn’t say anything more complicated than that, just that Nineveh will be destroyed. Now, Nineveh in this case stands for all things  evil and godless, much as the city of Babylon would do in later Biblical writings. Crucially, of course, the inhabitants of Nineveh were not Jews, and were therefore not the chosen people. They had no access to the one true God, worshipping idols instead.

So what do these godless people do when they hear the word of the God in whom they do not believe? Do they laugh Jonah out of town? Ride him out on a rail? Ignore him?

In fact, they do none of these things. Instead, everyone from the king to the lowest animal of the field puts on sackcloth and ashes and fasts and prays for God to spare the city, and He does. They don’t know in advance that God will turn from His anger, but they decide to show God their penance anyway. What could have prompted such an incredible conversion of heart in so many people? Only the most profound outpouring of divine grace through the unworthy (and grouchy) vessel known as Jonah.

In the New Testament reading, we hear of the “sign of Jonah”, which I won’t go into too deeply now, suffice to say that some think it refers to the three days Jonah spent in the fish’s belly and the corresponding three days in which Christ suffered, died and rose again. Others disagree. The reading here makes it relatively clear (to me anyway) that Christ says that the Son of Man has come to warn the people (especially the Jews, the people of God) that repentance is necessary, for the kingdom of God is near, just as Jonah came to warn the Ninevites. He also has a sting in the tail for his listeners who may have thought they they were better or more righteous than the Gentiles simply by virtue of being Jewish – Christ uses the examples of the Queen of Sheba and the city of Nineveh to remind everyone that God’s grace is accessible to all, Jew and Gentile alike.

Both the Queen of Sheba and the Ninevites went drastically out of their normal patterns to seek the Lord – the Queen came all the way to Jerusalem from Africa, the Ninevites at all levels of society fasted and humiliated themselves for days – and the unspoken question here is clearly:

“And what are you doing to seek the Lord? Are you journeying? Are you fasting? Are you considering your sins? Are you seeking the Lord’s grace and wisdom? Because don’t think that just because you tick one particular box on the census regarding your religion that you’re definitely ‘in there’ with God. Don’t think that just because you go to the right building at the right time on the right day and move your hands and legs in the right ways that you don’t also need to repent and seek the Lord and be saved. You absolutely do, we all do, and there may be some people whom you consider to be beyond help who will be able to rise up at the Day of Judgement and face the Lord, and they will condemn you. But it is not too late! The Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe the Good News!

So, we’ve come to the end of the first week of Lent. How has it been for you? I failed in my Lenten “resolution” almost immediately and by accident by ordering a hot chocolate on Saturday because I straight up forgot I was giving up chocolate.

I have three university degrees.

Anyway, on to today’s readings. By the way, for those of you without a missal or who don’t understand how missals work or what liturgical year we’re in (cough cough me cough), I get the daily readings from Universalis.com, which also has resources to help you pray the Hours.

The passages today – Isaiah 55:10-11 and Matthew 6:7-15 – both strike me as pretty well-known passages. They’re comfortable, like old shoes, and you’ve probably heard them preached on before, or perhaps touched on lightly as barely needing explanation. In the first reading, God affirms that His word cannot but succeed in this world. It goes from Him, achieves its end, and returns to Him in triumph. The New Testament reading is the Lord’s Prayer, the one bit of the Bible that pretty much everyone knows.

So the two passages are familiar enough, but in combination? I have to say, I was a little surprised. After reading the Old Testament passage I thought for sure we’d have the Parable of the Sower, another instance where the word of God is linked to something growing and flourishing, but no, the Church in her wisdom has given us the most familiar prayer in Christian history. Clearly a little more thinking is in order.

The Lord’s Prayer is nothing less than the Word of God teaching us what words to speak to God. John 1 tells us that the Word was with (and, indeed, was) God in the beginning, and through the Word everything was made. It’s a beautiful meditation, and well worth reading as often as possible. So here is that world-creating Word, using His own life-giving words and putting them in the mouths of all Christians from the very beginning of Christianity until Judgement Day. We know from the first reading that the word (or indeed Word) of God achieves God’s aims, and we know from yesterday’s readings that God’s aim for us is nothing less than holy perfection. So this passage, just like all of the words spoken to us by God (either by Christ or by the Spirit to the prophets and authors of the various books of the Bible), must be given to achieve God’s purpose of making us holy.

So, how has the Lord’s Prayer made you holy lately? When you pray, do you do it with sincerity, approaching God as your Father? Do you say the words and truly mean them? Do you skip over the short sentences praising God in order to get to the bit where you ask for things?

Do you think about what it really means to ask God that His will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven, or that His kingdom come?

Do you choke a bit on the ‘as we forgive those who trespass against us’ section?

Have you switched off by the time you ask to be delivered from evil?

I know my answers to these questions. And they make giving up chocolate seem like too small a penance for this penitential time.

Like in yesterday’s readings, these passages help to remind us not to get too comfortable. Don’t treat these passages like comfy slippers you can slip into and out of when you like. A better comparison would be to approach them like you would the gym or some form of exercise – perhaps going is a habit, but each time you focus on what you are doing in order to better yourself in some way.

And you feel better at the end for having gone.

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Copyright Mary Fleeson/Lindisfarne Scriptorium, found here

 

Sometimes, Christianity can seem a bit easy. Living when and where I do, I don’t face persecution for my beliefs; indeed, they’re relatively well-known and widely shared to the point where the holy days of my religion are national holidays. There aren’t any prescriptions about what I can and can’t eat (apart from meat on Fridays), or where I can or can’t go, or much about what I can or can’t wear (the chilly temperature lends itself nicely to full-coverage clothes as the default). Yes, Christianity can sometimes seem like a bit of a doddle, a gentle walk through life and a golden celestial handshake for all eternity at the end.

But then come readings like today’s.

Both the Old Testament and New Testament readings for today (Leviticus 19:1-2, 11-18 and Matthew 25:31-46) clearly set out God’s expectations for our behaviour as His people. His reminder that we are to be holy as He is holy (Lev 19:2) has a memorable echo in the New Testament, Matthew 5:48, when Jesus tells us to “be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect”. And how are we to be perfect? Well, Leviticus gives us some pretty clear guidance in that area: don’t show preference to the underdog or to the big shot, but treat all people with perfect justice. Don’t hate people and let anger fester in your heart, but talk to the person who has upset you. Do not exploit or oppress the vulnerable, including those who work for you. Love your neighbour as yourself.

Already a lot of those commandments seem incredibly challenging. Act with perfect justice? Confront people who upset you rather than holding grudges? Love others to the same extent that I love myself? How is this to be achieved? Well, God reminds us several times in this passage that He is the Lord, and this repeated statement should serve to remind us that God’s Kingship is not only the reason for us to behave the way that He wants us to but it is also the mechanism by which we will be able to do this at all. God has made us His people, and he will help us carry out His commands, because He knows that there is no way we could do them on our own.

As though the commands of Leviticus weren’t enough, we are told again in the New Testament reading that God demands that we live our belief. The good are not rewarded for staying out of people’s way, for putting their heads down and getting on with things, being nice to people when it is convenient for them. No, the good respond to the needs of others actively – clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, feeding the hungry. Those who are sent away from the presence of God are not those who made the naked that way, nor did they take food away from the hungry or make people sick and lonely. Instead, they simply fail to respond to the needs of others. They are like the people in the parable of the Good Samaritan who pass by on the other side of the road – they aren’t responsible for the man’s plight, but neither do they work to alleviate his suffering.

This command to help others actively ties in nicely with our Lenten directive to give alms. Alms don’t need to be exclusively monetary – you can give alms by spending time with people, or using your talents in the service of others. Call someone who might be lonely. Help out at a mum-and-baby group. Make tea for the people in your office. Do the washing up without being asked. Self-giving can take forms both large and small, but the important thing is that you give yourself for others, and in doing so love others as yourself. If we do that, Christ tells us, we will be serving Him.