This is an edited Version of the Homily Given at the Holy Name, Manchester on Feb 9th 2015
We all know the Genre of documentary where we get to follow 24hrs in the life of a celebrity … A day in the life of Paris Hilton – or Steven Gerard….. Well today’s gospel (Mark 1 29-37) gives us, without the cameras and the irritating commentary, A day in the life of Jesus Christ ….. It is at the beginning of Marks Gospel and is unusually full – the Healing of Peters Mother-in- Law, and then the healing of the crowds after sunset- and then the key – Jesus’s pre-dawn prayer in a lonely place – and then his journey preaching and casting out devils.
If you were the producer of this programme – in the midst of all the demands being placed on Jesus – you would make that Prayer before the dawn the hinge moment of the documentary – that is the key scene. Sure all the miracles and his teaching would be very telegenic, but that period of prayer in a lonely place, on his own, before dawn is the key to understanding Jesus. It is here we see his union with the Father – it here we understand where he gets his power from, his energy and compassion…. And perhaps most interestingly it is here where we see how he keeps his equilibrium amongst so many demands and so many expectations.
We all lead busy lives, and we know how easy it is to lose our balance and sense of perspective – Listen to Job in the first reading ‘Months of Delusion I have assigned for me – Nothing for my own but nights of grief’ It is easy for us to get sucked into the business of our lives and start thinking like this – St Ignatius refers to it as Spiritual Desolation. Someone who seems to have lost that sense of balance, that equilibrium this week is the famous atheist Stephen Fry. On Irish TV he was asked what he would say to God if he went to heaven. Fry responded, “I would say, ‘How dare you. How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that’s not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. The God who created this universe, if he created this universe, is quite clearly a maniac, an utter maniac, totally selfish.”
While Stephen Fry’s complaint reveals more about Stephen Fry than Almighty God (as this comment piece suggests it may be difficult to distinguish sometimes) , it is still a very a common complaint made, maybe in a less strident tone, and a question worth asking. If your friends know about your faith – It might well come up again and again in conversations in the pub, in the lecture theatre, in the lab, in the gym ….. You are a Christian Why does God Allow Evil? Isn’t Steven Fry right? In my response I might want to point talk of free will. We may do what we like. God, as a loving father, does not force us to do anything, but allows us to learn and grow. When we get it wrong unless we regret and try and change our life then evil proliferates. In ways we cannot comprehend the vast majority of the suffering and evil in the world comes from this basic reality. However as Christians we also have this great hope – the resurrection. God is no stranger to suffering as we see in the cross of Jesus but the darkness of the Cross and Good Friday becomes the new hope of Easter. So matter how bleak it appears, despite the greatest evil, all that is beautiful, good and true will triumph.
So these challenges – made to us in pubs or in friends houses – actually become a wonderful opportunity to witness to our faith and give account of our hope… and why faith filled people often live joyful lives….. as someone once said it is better to light a candle that curse the darkness…..
Today’s readings give us a lot to ponder about. In the book of Job we have the most powerful exploration of this problem of pain and suffering – I haven’t come across another text in literature from any culture that looks this problem in the eye and tries explores it so bravely and honestly – It is at the beginning of Chapter 38 that God answers Job from the whirlwind and gives him a tour of the cosmos…. Where you there Job when I created the heavens and the earth – He shows Job the Plan of Salvation that spans all of space and time.. So if you want to answer your sceptical friends questions immerse yourself in the book of Job .. and then remember that in the Gospel we see how Jesus keeps his equilibrium in the face of so much suffering and brings his healing power to all those people who come to him …….
But the best way to answer this critique of faith – actions rather than words – how you live your life – do we try and imitate Jesus – do we try and bring healing to peoples lives – do we put our faith into action? Here at the chaplaincy there are many ways to respond to suffering – the foodbank of course – our great SVP group who made three homeless runs this week and volunteer in many other ways – and at the end of mass tonight you will get a great chance to meet Clara who organises volunteering placements in some of the poorest parts of the world for Jesuit Missions… So its better to light a candle than curse the darkness and you can inspire you sceptical friends by putting your faith into action
Jesus will ask you at the end of time – What have you done for the sick, naked, hungry, for the poor…….
Today we are moving into the Third Week of the Exercises – where we contemplate Christ in his Passion. It is a ‘test’ of discipleship and any elections made in the Second Week. Often a dry and difficult period in prayer – as the mystery of the cross is so difficult to penetrate. Luckily we have a great saint today – Edith Stein. I am privileged to be celebrating mass today too, so this is my reflection on this great woman.
On the eve of the third millennium, John Paul II named three women as new patrons of Europe, one of them was St Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein. She was a saint of the second millennium, who would accompany us into the third millennium, the Pope said.
Why was Edith Stein so close to the Popes heart? Why did he feel she was such a powerful patron for us as we entered the new millennium?
It may be helpful to think of three stages to Edith’s Life 1) The towering intellect and public genius 2) Conversion and an irresistible call to a hidden contemplative life 3) Her embrace of the cross and Confronting evil in Auschwitz…. And in this incredible journey she synthesised the dramatic history of the twentieth century in her own heart.
The first part of her life was a journey from Judaism to atheism, of outstanding intellectual achievements, as a pupil and then teaching assistant of the famous phenomenologist Husserl who supported her ambition to be the first female professor – she was fascinated with truth and with empathy, the subject of her doctoral dissertation. She had built a great intellectual tower – but she did not stay on top of it looking down at the rest of us – like so many of the so called ‘new atheists’
World War One intervened – she worked as a nurse – but the moment when her unbelief collapsed was when one of her colleagues was killed in Flanders. She visited his widow and encountered a women with deep faith – This was in her own words: My first encounter with the cross and the divine power that it imparts to those who bear it . ….…… This was a generation whose experience of War had penetrated their hearts, and the search for truth was not a merely intellectual exercise
So the second phase of her life began – resuming lecturing after the War – she read the New testament, and Kierkegaard and interestingly the Spiritual Exercises – all of which made a deep impression on her (notice she only read the Exercises – she didn’t make them) However the breakthrough was when visiting a friend she picked up the biography of St Teresa of Avila and read it all night – at the end she simply said ‘this is the truth’ – she was to be baptised a Catholic and her work became a combination of Scholarship and Faith ….. ten years later she entered the contemplative Carmelite life – and took up the religious name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
Like our own Hopkins – she was to stop writing as she enthusiastically immersed herself into religious life. This self-imposed silence was to finish as she published a book called ‘The Science of the Cross’ to mark the 400th anniversary of St John of the Cross birth….. This immersion into the mystery of the Cross was to be prophetic as she was to imitate her beloved Jesus …..
He turned his face to Jerusalem and his passion – she was to be taken to Auschwitz with her sister who had followed her into ‘Carmel’ . The rounding up of Jewish converts was in retaliation to the Dutch Bishops letter condemning Nazism and its ethnic cleansing. Her last words to her sister were Come we are going with our people’ as they were rounded up with 987 Jewish Christians and sent today to the gas chambers.
So three steps – from an intellectual tower, to a silent life of adoration and then this profound welcoming of the cross.
One of my fellow Jesuits said yesterday – so many of us want Christianity without the cross – let us pray with Teresa Benedicta that we learn to serve our crucified Lord.