Holy Thursday: John 13:1-15

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Giotto di Bondone (–1337)

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?

In St John’s account of the Last Supper there is more emphasis on the washing of the feet than on the bread and wine. But both points of view focus on the body.

To understand how central the human body is to the meaning of Easter – indeed to the essence of Christianity – we need to think of our own body. Thinking of our body usually has two options. One is, how attractive or unattractive I feel myself to be physically. There is a brief, even gloriously immortal, period in life when we (never with a hundred percent certainty) realise that we are young, fit and may even be actually competitive with other bodies in the market place. There are a few among our contemporaries who are gloriously certain of this for a time. If they were in a slave market in ancient Rome, they would be the most popular item for sale. This – hopefully – is only a minor key in our self-estimation; and for most of us it is subdued. But for a certain period of time we may be confident about our physical being. Increasingly, today, however, and tragically, young people feel alienated from their own bodies, as self-harming and eating disorders show.

The other option comes later, when we think of our bodies, not as being attractive or unappealing, but in terms of performance or survival. When our bodies become medicalised – and trapped in a dualistic medical system of tests and experiments – ‘my body’ becomes alienated from the person who says ‘my’ or ‘mine’. In fact, every use of the possessive pronoun suggests a degree of alienation from any true relationship. What can we ever say, for sure, is really ‘mine’ or ‘yours?

At some point – as when we are being cared for in hospital, or when we sell oneself on the streets – somebody else may even own it. When Jesus says, ‘this is my body’, however, he owns his own body. That means, not ‘possesses’ but that he is his body. How else, except with this degree of self-incorporation, could he give it to others – give himself as an embodied being? He is fully embodied and accepts this incarnational truth of himself, regardless of what his body may look like or how well it may be performing. It is not possessed and managed by specialists and insurance companies. Only in that state, when we enjoy bodily freedom, without our bodies being possessed by others – whether for medical treatment or for the pleasure of others – can we say, ‘this is my body. For some people, in the middle ages or today, the words of consecration ‘hoc est corpus meum’ are words of power and include the deepest meaning of the community in which they are spoken.

For others, these words may be merely remnants of a magical past. The truth is found in between, in the web of relationships that make up the body. We all, uniquely, belong to a greater body than our private body which shrinks and withers in its individuality. The other body dies but is raised in its uniqueness, to a new and greater intensity of life. For those who have the taste of the Eucharist this is something we can share day by day. Even for those who don’t have this connection, meditation gives access to it.

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Wednesday Holy Week: Matthew: 26:14-25

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The Son of Man is going to his fate, as the scriptures say he will

The great wisdom traditions hold deep, universal secrets about the nature of reality. But they are not as explicit as we, as literal-minded, scientifically trained people, would like. Our experience in the spiritual dimension today has been greatly impoverished and so we have almost lost the art of reading the ancient scriptures of any tradition. As a result, the modern phenomenon of religious fundamentalism has developed and the unifying awareness of a universal truth expressed in universal symbols has been undermined. Whoever wrote the account of creation in the Book of Genesis might well be astounded today by the 42% of Americans who reject belief in evolution and think that it all happened in six days. God’s ‘word’ for them has become linguistic rather than existential.

By reading the scriptures of his tradition in the light of his own experience, Jesus was able to understand and express himself with unique authority and depth of meaning. This began a chain reaction which eventually became a new tradition. From the Christian reflection on scripture, in the light of the unprecedented experience of the Resurrection, came the ‘new testament’. These short texts of four gospels and the letters from teachers in the early communities themselves became a scripture of primary experience. They emerged directly from a deep and fresh spiritual experience, not fully understood, but which became a perennial inspiration for mystics, theologians and artists.

What emerged is something uniquely characteristic of Christian consciousness, awakened by contact with the crucified and risen Christ. Firstly, it concerns the reality of the person who asks us ‘who do you say I am?’ – a question that can only be authentically answered from the frame of our own self-knowledge. Secondly, or at the same time, it concerns an understanding of God as Trinity, a three-way communion. Jesus speaks of the Father as his source and goal and he proclaimed his non-dual unity with it. But he also speaks of the Spirit whom he will send to continue and to guide the development of his teaching, the Holy Spirit who is the real successor of Jesus.

Yet trinity has long been an intuition of the human mind in its seeking of God and ultimate reality. Whether this is because the mind, reflecting its source, is structured in this way – we think in threes – or the other way round – has to be an open question. But it is more than coincidental that ancient Egyptians, the Vedas, the Indian tradition of sat-cit-ananda (being, consciousness, bliss); the three manifestations of Buddha; the Greek philosophical idea of humanity (intellect, soul, the body of the world); Lao Tze (non-being, eternal being and the great oneness that produce the ten thousand things multiplicity of the world); that all these and Christianity’s vision of God as Father, Son and Spirit, speak of ultimate mystery in this three-dimensional way.

We encounter this truth within ourselves – the ‘immanent trinity’ that lives the exploding life of its love within the human heart. But we also meet this interior reality in what theologians call the ‘economic trinity’- in the external processes and events of daily life, provided we have learned how to see them. ‘When you make the two into one then you will enter the kingdom,’ says the Gospel of doubting Thomas. What makes the two into one is the three. This is not theory. It is life.

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Tuesday Holy Week: John 13:21-38

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He dipped the piece of bread and gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. At that instant, after Judas had taken the bread, Satan entered him. Jesus then said, ‘What you are going to do, do quickly.’ None of the others at table understood the reason he said this.

The Last Supper was a stranger meal among friends than it may at first appear. In the opening sentences of its description we confront an insight into the intense drama of human relationships through which we are all led to our ultimate awakening to relationship – oneness – with the ground of being.

Jesus begins the meal by saying one of those present will betray him. Not the best way, we might think, of starting an evening of friends together. His comment, however, throws the obvious, familiar dimension of life, of conviviality and relationships open to a dimension the boundaries of which are unseeable. What does it mean? Why did he say this now? St John says that the disciples looked at each other wondering what he meant. Their exchange of glances further complicates the texture of this community. Jesus appears isolated, intensely solitary. He has exposed a radical flaw in their fellowship. But he is only drawing attention to it not giving details about it. It must be something they need to be aware of.

Peter, the leader of the disciples, asks John, the one Jesus was closest to, to find out who the traitor is. As in any human group there are layers of intimacy and these create the danger of rivalry and jealousy. The disciples are often described arguing among themselves about their respective positions. Jesus responds by giving a piece of bread to the traitor and ‘at that instant’ Satan entered Judas. The moment of direct communication between them triggered the shadow, the dark force. What it was, what motivated it or how we can explain it psychologically, we will never know. ‘At that instant’ Judas began the process by which he became a byword throughout history for betrayal, the eternal shame of bad faith. And yet, he is not only an integral part of the plot. He also illuminates the meaning of the story

Why then do we feel such a strange sympathy with him, the outcast who betrayed his friend and then committed the ultimate rejection of himself? Why is there this strange intimacy between him and Jesus as they share this knowledge, excluding all others present, of what he will do? An intimacy that seems the opposite of the one with the beloved disciple and yet includes it. This may be the key to the whole mystery. 

All the contradictions and oppositions of life, even the great divide between the dead and living, are capable of being reconciled and united.Read other Lent Reflections 2019: Week 1 
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Monday of Holy Week: John 12:1-11

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The house was full of the scent of the ointment.

This week is a penetration of the mystery of Jesus of Capernaum who is the Christ for those who see him with the eyes of faith. Travelling into any mystery involves encountering new dimensions of reality where the logical mind and common-sense protest at the infringement of absurdity. This doesn’t make sense. It’s all a myth. All nonsense! These reactions may indeed be well-founded, so we should give them a respectful hearing: dialogue with atheists is better than preaching to the converted. But they may also be the signs that we are making progress across the inter-stellar spaces and encountering a reality that contains us rather than the image of a reality we observe through a telescope.

On this journey of faith – such it is – we can flash backwards to past events and see what they reveal of the present and of our direction into the future. I met someone once who had almost drowned and did indeed see his ‘life pass before him’ like a movie being rewound – or fast-forwarded, he couldn’t say which. One day we will find out for ourselves.

The stories of this week do the same. Today we flash back to a meal. Jesus ate a lot – or at least frequently. At dinner once with friends and guests, Mary of Bethany broke open an expensive jar of ointment and anointed his feet. The house was filled with the perfume of the nard and of her spirit of service.

Two people can look at, or go through, the same thing and yet react in polar opposite ways. Some people at the dinner must have been transported by Mary’s spontaneous, symbolic act of tender homage and, then, felt it touching their senses through the scent of the perfume. Judas – who will be an important guide for us through the meaning of the Holy Week and Easter mysteries – and whom we are all closer too than we like to think – reacted differently. He looked at the price tag on the jar and complained about the waste. There is a time to bargain and a time when true value transcends dollar value.

Perfume lingers long after the moment it is released. In the spiritual dimension it spreads beyond time and space, unfading in the air forever. A good deed of pure service, a smile and tender touch in a moment of failure and grief, a chance gesture that illuminates the whole truth and opens the heart to what it never knew before: in the depth dimension that enfolds all dimensions and in which past and present merge, these impossible to forget. Mahatma Ghandi once compared the gospel to the perfume of a rose and pointed out how far institutional Christianity had travelled from its teacher. “A rose does not need to preach. It simply spreads its fragrance. The fragrance is its own sermon…the fragrance of religious and spiritual life is much finer and subtler than that of the rose.”

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Palm Sunday: Luke: 22:14-23:56

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Yet here am I among you as one who serves!

The story opens with a triumphal entry and ends with total rejection and failure. Between the beginning and the end comes the great unravelling. It is the recurrent pattern in life that we prefer to ignore. Success, completion, contentment come with a graciousness that we could not have imagined filling us with the delightfulness of gratitude. There is nothing more wonderful than the gift of feeling full of thanks. Instead of asking or imagining we only have the need to receive.

But before gratitude has had time to be fully enjoyed, the wheel turns. We are usually taken by surprise by a new turn of events in which celebration is replaced by anxiety or anger. The rejoicing crowd melts away and a mob surges forward intent only on causing us harm by depriving us of the ability to thank.

Meditation and personal discipline certainly train us in some measure of detachment so that we can be better prepared when we discover the gash leaking the contents of the bag of flour just received as a gift. But meditation and asceticism do not solve or avert problems. They only bring us to an encounter with the mystery in which the pattern repeats itself and which enables us to transcend it only by going through it. Today I saw a photo circulating everywhere in the media, the first photo of any black hole which was taken from a hugely distant galaxy called M87. It has a dark centre, the event horizon beyond which not even light can escape, surrounded by a halo of brilliant, joyful light. The co-existence – or sequencing – of opposites seems to be an integral part of nature everywhere. Life and death cannot, apparently, exist separately.

In human consciousness this mystery would crush us, as surely as a black hole would swallow us, if it were not for the miracle of the spirit of service. Self-giving is the only way to survive the roller-coast ride of life. Jesus rode in triumph into Jerusalem, like a successful political candidate. Everyone loves success. Crowds are at their most adoring when they are high on success. But he seemed unmoved, unattached to it all.

Before he was sucked into the black hole in Gethsemane, he celebrated a last meal with friends among whom he knew the one would push him over the edge. The mood was not sombre but serious. Seriousness, as John Main said, leads to joy. The tone of the evening was surprising, set by a leader who had always been a man for others, who would serve to the end even those who betrayed him and his hopes. Service reveals a different kind of thankfulness, which cannot be obliterated by its opposite.

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