Category: Gospel


AMDG

In the current spate of stabbings in London, poisonings around the world and threats of war,  the post-resurrection stories of peace have a particular resonance.  It seems that Jesus’ favourite word after his resurrection is “peace.”    It is almost always the first word on his lips when he appears to his apostles: “Peace be with you.”  In the Gospels, this greeting appears after the trauma of his death and amidst the joy of his resurrection.  He is not recorded as giving this peace before his resurrection,  In fact, famously in Matthews Gospel, he said I did not bring peace to the world but a sword. However the risen Christ does offer this peace and it is an antidote to our modern, secular society where is so much stress, depression, and anxiety.

Christ’s peace is different to the peace that the world can give. The Resurrection unleashed a power that reached down to the dead, even to hell. Similarly, the power of his peace reaches all aspects of our life.

So imagine you are one of the disciples, encountering the risen Lord.  He invites you to look upon his glorious but wounded body and even to touch those wounds. As we gaze on those wounds we can see how far Christ’s gift of resurrection peace goes…

  • First, peace for our minds.  When we look at the wounds on his head left by the crown of thorns, we know for certain that his forgiveness is everlasting; our consciences can be at rest.
  • Secondly peace for our hearts. When we see the large wound in his side caused by the spear of the soldier,  we see that this opens up to us a way to his heart.  Thus we have the powerful devotion to the Sacred Heart and more recently the Divine Mercy.  We know for certain that we are loved with an undying, unconditional love.
  • Third, peace for our soul. When we look at the wounds caused by the nails in his hands and is feet, it reminds us that now, in the words of Teresa of Avila, we are his hands and feet.  He is asking us to continue the work that matters. This is a worthwhile mission, that will satisfy our thirst for meaning.

Only the risen Christ can give a peace that reaches into all areas of our complex and complicated lives. Let’s pray that it is something our political leaders start to experience.

 

AMDG

Linda Woodhead is a sociologist of religion based in Lancaster in N.W.England. She is particularly interested in examining how religions confirm or challenge power relations in wider society.  Recently she has focused on showing how new ‘post-confessional’ ways of being religious have eclipsed a traditional ‘Reformation style’ of religion in Britain. Her observations are always worth reading and I enjoyed recently finishing her ‘Christianity – A Very Short Introduction’.  It is actually not that short, about 120 pages, which in our attention-deficit age is reasonable. It is one of the excellent ‘VSI’ series (very short introductions) that Oxford Uni Press produce, which currently numbers over 510 titles. My main ‘takeaway’ from the book is her theory about the ‘two modernities’ and how Christianity has responded to them.

The first modernity – often referred to as ‘The Enlightenment’, dominated Europe in the Eighteenth Century.  Woodhead explains how this led to the rise of ‘Liberal Christianity’. Challenged with a development in historical sciences, driven by the concern that modern people would be alienated from Christianity, the Gospels underwent a process of demythologisation by influential liberal theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann.  This was controversial and lead to the ‘explaining away’ of miracles and an undermining of the supernatural. According to ‘form-criticism’, the events narrated in the gospels had their origin in preaching, so the actual narrated event is secondary, a mythological development. So for instance, many liberal Christians would question the need to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  I remember studying theology in Edinburgh and was in a minority in the undergraduate class who believed in the historicity of the resurrection, the others believe it only had a symbolic or even metaphorical value.  The emphasis of this liberal current in Christianity was rational & ethical.  This was the Christian response to the intellectual flourishing of the enlightenment and according to Woodhead was successful for a hundred years, but it seems now that this form of Christianity, particularly liberal Protestantism is in crisis, perhaps even dying.  Recently it has been Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict) who has offered a credible critique of this method.

The second or ‘late modernity’, started in the 1960’s was a rejection of all authority and a turn to the individual and subjective. Church-going started to fall precipitously, as a result of this, as religious and moral duty and social conformity no longer had any ‘pull’.  Liberal theology found itself on the defensive, and conservative Bible-based churches started to grow, with the emphasis being on personal-experience.  A Christian ‘sub-culture’ started to emerge and grow, fundamentalism started to thrive, with radio and network channels and held its own against the corrosive influences of popular culture and became more and more politically influential.  Evangelicals started to grow in this climate too – reinforcing family values, dissolving confessional differences, focusing on the ‘born-again’ experience.  Charismatic Christianity started also to emerge in this climate.  Christianity – once part of the establishment has become a conservative counter-culture.

I find Woodheads account much more nuanced and convincing that the blanket ‘narrative of decline’ that I often come across in the UK and even more sharply in Ireland.  If you have time to read this accessible and fairly cheap book I would recommend it.

AMDG   Homily given at Midnight Mass, at the Holy Name Manchester, 2016

shepherds-seekingTonight as so often before we are invited to that manger in Bethlehem – but maybe after this year of surprises, as our future seems more uncertain than ever before – as we are aware of a terrible persecution and suffering of so many of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world – we are coming to the manger with a deeper longing than usual. We have just listened to the timeless words of Luke – the turning point of human history is recounted – the birth of Christ from which we measure time and dates.  Through Luke’s words we are invited to listen to the message of the angels and discover anew an unexpected joy. Obedient to the angels we are invited to accompany the shepherds in leaving the darkness of the night and come to witness that strange scene around the manger.  We are called back 2000 years ago to experience a new light that has come in such an expected way into our human world.

Maybe this year the darkness around the manger seems to press in more.  The world without God – is dark – A world without God is brutal – The world of the powerful were the weak are trampled upon – discarded. This dark world is the world of Caesar Augustus, of King Herod, of Bashar Assad, the world of Game of Thrones, perhaps even the world of the Apprentice.  It is a pagan world –  It is survival of the fittest, mafia gangs – a world saturated with sex without love, a world where so many young people are made to feel ugly and insecure, a world where the old feel abandoned and a nuisance. Where refugees are made to feel worthless and unwanted, we have 7 refugees sleeping next door tonight.

It is into this messy world that God chose to enter – into its messiness and fragility.  And we need Jesus Christ more than ever before – as for so many people – hope seems to recede, anger seems to bubble up everywhere – we need someone to give us Hope and to give us Joy.  Essentially at Christmas we need to find some time to gaze at the crib –  to gaze at this curious way in which hope and joy has come into a dark world.  We need to squeeze some time out from our feasting and partying, from our boozing and box sets – to spend some time look at the crib.

e40e5abaccfc35f4ccf077910302958aWe know a new born human baby is helpless – uniquely in the animal kingdom.  Often primates rely on their parents but no-one is as helpless as the new-born human.  Why out of all the animal kingdom are baby humans so dependent on their mothers?  We are told that this is because of the underdevelopment of our brain after 9 months. So the Almighty -Omnipotent God chose to enter our helplessness.  Because of this vulnerability and this helplessness – at birth neuroscientists tell us that babies have a repertoire of skills to get their Mother to fall in love with them – they are bonding machines.  Let’s imagine Jesus bonding with Mary. We know that human babies love to gaze at Faces –  Jesus would be lying next to Mary and look at her face.   After a while he would develop a seductive sense of timing, knowing when to look to attract her gaze and then when to look away and then when to look back at her to attract her gaze again.

Jesus, like we did when we were little,  would become extremely good at reading Faces – noticing tiny differences in the muscular movements around the eyes and mouth of Mary.  We know that in experiments with babies where they stare at a gallery of faces they usually stop and stare longer at their mother’s face. A famous experiment   demonstrated that 6 month old babies could recognise different features in the faces of monkeys which adults can’t. So in their powerlessness Babies see more than we do in our busyness.  What does the baby Jesus see when looking at your face?   What would it be like standing there in the shadows and watching the infant Jesus stare at his mother – – Jesus would stare at her and she would gaze back…. watch them bond. The mother of God with the incarnate deity.  Maybe then Jesus would stare at you in the shadows, lurking at the edge of the manger … with all of the light and dark of your own life – what would that feel like?

e7576dc944ad965f5e0deb1a1a20fc05We know that equally as important as the power of this gazing – is touch.  In fact Babies will forego food for touch –  Some of our skin receptors have a social function – social touch helps the brain develop, it reduces stress and blood pressure.  God in Jesus needed to be touched – God is no longer so far above us, totally transcendent, distant – but in Jesus Christ he needed the touch of Joseph and Mary. Maybe when we gaze at the Crib – Mary will allow us to hold the Baby Jesus.  Like all new mothers – feeding him – holding him she would have experience a deep sense of fulfilment that she would never imagine before.  Can we watch her feeding God?

Let us be amazed by that – The all powerful God, creator of the galaxies and the universe, needing to be touched by us ….. and He still does as we take him into our hearts in the form of communion – that incredible sacramental self-giving of God.

So as we come out of the shadows with the shepherds tonight – into that unique light of Bethlehem – we are invited to be transformed by that encounter with God made man….  We are invited to live in that light even in the midst of this hurting and fragile world …..  we are invited daily to touch Almighty God who longs to be touched by us …. Something that we can do in a unique way in Holy Mass….  Let this special Mass, Christs Mass change us.