Jules Does

Posts Tagged ‘christianity

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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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[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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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?