Jules Does

Posts Tagged ‘bible

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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.

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[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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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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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