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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Saturday Lent Week Five: John 11: 45-56

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You fail to see that it is better for one man to die for the people, than for the whole nation to be destroyed.

As a young boy I was brought up in the richness of Catholic faith. Its powerful symbolism opened new dimensions of reality for me. I had as mature an image of God as I could at that age. Increasingly, though, I related to this distant, elevated ever-observing, supposedly loving and yet terrifyingly cold construct of our collective imagination a bit like a bank robber would to a surveillance camera.

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” St Paul insists that we have to grow up religiously and break through into the reality, not the construct, of the divine dimension. These words from today’s gospel come from the High Priest who, with a political ruthlessness ever present in the corridors of power, gives us a key to this maturation of our understanding about the Easter story. This re-telling is soon to go into high gear for those of us following the liturgies.

As a child I was given a simple, in fact a greatly over-simplifying, explanation of this myth-shattering story. Debt-redemption. The suffering and death of Jesus, the innocent lamb-sacrifice, was explained as the paying off a debt that humanity owed to a good and loving Creator. If you asked what the debt was, you were told the story of Eden and the fatal piece of fruit that brought death and misery into the human condition. In that form it was an inversion of the Santa Claus story. Father Christmas gives you something for nothing. God the Father punishes people for things they didn’t do and calls it original sin. Like a credit card debt you can’t pay off, the guilt just kept getting bigger and bigger.

After a certain age and level of reflection this becomes an insult to most people’s intelligence. They look for a better explanation or they go off looking for the truth in another direction altogether. The High Priest’s comment helps. It exposes a universal dynamic in every human society and all communal relationships. Rene Girard, the French thinker, recognised it as a scapegoat mechanism whereby in a time of crisis a group in conflict blames its woes on an innocent victim – who is sacrificed, brings a temporary peace and is often later divinised. We still do it with Jews, gays, immigrants, anyone who is ‘other’ to the majority.

The Passion of the Christ reflects this universal dynamic, but does so uniquely from the victim’s perspective. The mask is exposed – although, because it is such a useful mechanism, we continue to use it, choosing to be unconscious of what we are doing. Lent and meditation are able to change this choice and make us conscious of what we are doing and what our true relationship with the Father is. The problem is not with the divine nature but with the human psyche. How can you help people to grow up and take responsibility for themselves? By treating them as adults. The Easter story is for grown-ups.

Inside the crowd mentality, however, humans act like animals or young children. We go with the strong and trample the weak if that seems the safest thing for us to do. The story we will soon be re-telling reveals the huge solitariness of the alternative to the crowd. It shows how personal experience and myth merge. Rejection, suffering, death and the tomb are solitary ordeals. Let’s face it. But it is not the whole story, nor, happily, is it the end of the story.

 

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Friday Lent Week Five: John 10:31-42

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If you refuse to believe in me, at least believe in the work I do

What might that work be – then and now?

After St Anthony of the Desert meditated for twenty years in solitude his friends came to find him, expecting him to be dead or deranged. Instead he emerged physically and mentally radiant, healthy and rational. For the rest of his life he was known for healing the sick, comforting the sorrowful and reconciling the divided. These are not bad ways to understand what good work and a meaningful life means. But these works express a deeper state of being. Whoever touches that in themselves and stays there, becomes capable of changing the minds of others – turning them towards the same depth in themselves. It doesn’t matter if you ‘believe’ in that person or not.  Or, at least, your opinion of them is secondary to your being touched and changed by them, through them.  Believing what you see their work makes it easier to see who the person behind it really is.

This implies a certain kind of leadership. Not the kind that is merely defined by results and success or charismatic powers of persuasion. But the kind that exposes the hidden dimension of goodness both within us and at the heart of all human relationships. This is disturbing, indeed revolutionary, because so many of our assumptions, about ourselves and others, are constructed on a major under-estimation of our essential goodness. Often it is even worse, we have a low sense of self and a basic distrust of others.

The court is corrupt, the fields are overgrown with weeds, the granaries are empty; yet there are those dressed in fineries, with swords at their sides, filled with food and drink and possessed of too much wealth. This is known as taking the lead in robbery. Far indeed is this from the Way. (Tao Te Ching LIII)

The socially destabilising impact of vast discrepancies of wealth in society is increasingly obvious. Is it unreasonable to think that Brexit might be related to almost four million children living in poverty in the UK? When Lao Tse was writing, in the sixth century BC social expectations were very different but the wise person’s insight into essential goodness was the same as ever. With that insight comes outrage and the deep sadness of the prophet when they see how deluded we can all become and how unmerciful and unfair we can act in that state of delusion.

The mystical meaning of Easter we have been preparing for nearly six weeks cannot be separated from its works. It is not, firstly, about belief but experience. Belief grows from experience. To be touched by the Resurrection sends us back to life with new ways of seeing and a radical challenge to our values.

Unfortunately, for those who think the guide book is the journey, how this happens can only be understood by passing through the whole process that leads to resurrection. Suffering and ultimate loss cannot ultimately be avoided. That’s the good news.

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Thursday Lent Week Five: John 8:51-59

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‘Before Abraham ever was, I Am.’ At this they picked up stones to throw at him.

You might have thought that anyone hearing such a statement, even if you didn’t like the person, even if you thought they were either mad or a genius, would have said ‘explain what you just said before I stone you to death.’ However, in this and in the other great “I Am” sayings, Jesus is revealing another dimension of reality so disturbingly different from our familiar way of seeing, that his very words threaten the existing order.

Under totalitarian regimes poets and artists are the greatest threat. Those resisting the power-holders, by political or violent means are more easily repressed. Great thinkers, however, change firstly, not structures. Their vision, insights born of direct experience, open new dimensions of reality for others. One of the greatest of modern mathematicians, for example, was Emmy Noether. On a par with Einstein, she opened new ways of perception in algebra and physics that forever transformed the way things in these fields are seen. Her original ideas entered so deeply into the basis conceptual framework that she is rarely even quoted. She didn’t just add words to the vocabulary but expanded the language itself.

Jesus does this to the whole human view of the world. This is why it is so depressing when his revolutionary sayings, born of his direct experience of the Father, are diverted from their true intent and used to defend particular moral opinions or religious structures. Not only are contemplatives the true revolutionaries. True revolutionaries, in any field, are contemplative by nature and mystical in their vision of reality.

Rightly, he was considered dangerous to the prevailing order but at an even deeper level than his critics imagined. It took his death to free him from the repressive power of his critics and to liberate his vision (his spirit) which continues to enter into human consciousness to change the nature of reality for us. It would have been nice if he had been recognised and listened to by the authorities. But that is bound not to happen when to accept such a new way of seeing threatens not only your institution but all that you have built your life upon. Nobody wants to undergo total transformation. We like change that we can control. So, his violent rejection by his contemporaries was bound to happen and, if we feel there was a plan, it was even part of the plan. Even those who loved him misunderstood him.

Our daily spiritual practice and the coming days of the Easter mysteries attune us to seeing this and to understand what Jesus meant when he used the ‘I’ word. Jesus was not saying – as those who wanted to stone or crucify him confusedly feared – ‘I am God’. He was saying ‘God is I am. This is what I am saying’.

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Wednesday Lent Week Five: John 8:31-42

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Yes, I have come from him; not that I came because
I chose, no, I was sent, and by him.

Yesterday, I was watching some new-born lambs. Like young children they bounce wildly along a spectrum: at one end, obsessive attachment to their mother, at the other boundless energy in exploring a brave new world. They are adorable, endlessly fascinating and delightful. Well, maybe not endlessly, but very charming. I thought ‘who could ever wish them harm?’ It must be their very innocence that makes them such a powerful symbol of innocence abused. From the paschal lamb sacrificed in the dark days of the Exodus to the ‘Lamb of God’ acclaimed at every mass.
 
Everywhere here the world is greening. Fertile smells long buried in the cold earth are emerging. Winter’s long solitude is expelled by endless new relationships of all kinds of living things appearing from nowhere, emerging into light and bringing light with them. Even on a chilly spring day there is the warmth of life. It’s all happened since time immemorial but it’s always fresh and new. The English poet George Herbert caught it in the opening lines of his great poem, The Flower, comparing the cycle of nature with the cycle of his spiritual darkness and rebirth: ‘How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean Are Thy returns!…’ 
 
In contrast to the oppressiveness of dark forces, like fear and oppression, or violence and rejection, with their secret history of guilt and shame, a new authority appears: the authority of innocence. It can look oppression and fear directly in the eye and disarm them. Spring is very tender compared with the brutishness of winter but it is irrepressible. At the right point in its cycle it is irresistible.
 
In the gospel of John, Jesus’s words often reflect what early Christians’ dawning realisation of who Jesus really is. Taken out of context, some of the words sound overbearing. They are spoken in the echo-chamber of the community that was discovering the Christ dimension. Today’s gospel includes the words I selected above, which show not self-fixation but a person in whom the dimension of eternal springtime is dawning. In the consciousness of Jesus, his innocence of pride is his authority. It is not constructed by him, but drawn entirely from an other: the one who ‘chose’ and ‘sent’ him.
 
‘Chose’ and ‘sent’ are words to describe an experience that awaits us, too, if we penetrate deeper than ego-consciousness. When we become our true self, we see that we are already living in a network of relationships as wide as the cosmos, a communion of being, a community of beings immersing us in ultimate reality. It makes us as humble as we can ever be. In Jesus that same humility flashes out as authority and self-knowledge. As an innocence of powerful vulnerability.

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