Our Biblical Blog /'Examined Life'
Our Biblical Blog /'Examined Life'
Confronted by joy (Jn 11:1-45)
The fifth Sunday of Lent is called Passion Sunday. Except the cross and stained-glass windows, all images and statues are veiled. We are deprived of their beauty and the consolation they offer to our senses. In the Catholic tradition, it seems that we are no longer given a ‘support’ to our prayers. But are we really left alone?
Not at all. It is like a child when learning how to walk, who no longer has the support of the hand of their parents. From now on, we have to rely more on the efforts of our faith. Things get more and more serious in Jesus’ life. Step by step he is closer to his passion.
So what is the message of this fifth Sunday? First, we have to exercise our most beautiful ability, prayer. We have to ‘walk in our faith’, we have to progress in our love for Jesus and our neighbours. Now without the support of our beloved church, as we are not allowed to enter it because of the corona virus. We are to carry on in our friendship with Jesus without the joy of meeting each other physically. So, in terms of a practical message of this Sunday, we need to pray on a regular basis for the present needs of our society. Prayer for those effected by the virus, and for all those, who work in the frontline is crucial. Lazarus, who was raised from the dead, is a symbolic reminder that through our prayer we must remember them, personally. We must remember the dead of whom we hear in the news. They cannot remain a number, unnamed, and unremembered by the community. Please, let us pray for the deceased every day.
In all this, we are following Jesus. We imitate him when he is confronting sickness, death and separation, weeping along with his friends, and then restoring Lazarus to life and to the bosom of his family and community. Through our prayers, we bring life, consolation, and future joy.
Yes, joy. Passion Sunday reminds us that we must not allow these painful times to derail our faith. Whatever happens around us, we should never lose joy in our faith - even if it is now entering Passiontide. There is a symbolic story, which illustrates well this point. ‘A few months ago, a powerful image of [coming to life] appeared on YouTube. Perhaps some of you have seen this video of a severely deaf baby, Georgina Addison of Harrogate, captured by her father at the moment when her new hearing aids were switched on. The way this beautiful child’s whole being lights up with life and joy at hearing the sound of her mother’s voice for the first time is for me a most striking visual metaphor of how we are all made for the Word of God, and only thrive when alive with God’s life.’ (Laurentia Johns OSB, The Tablet 28 March 2020)
How can we search for this joy, rediscover it, and preserve it? Let it be our personal task for the remainder of this Lenten season. And let this personal quest be grounded in the daily prayer-life of our church.
These days, there is one question which is resurfacing time and again. Where is God in the midst of these ordeals? Where is the power of the Gospel, the teaching of the Son of God – when we face the frightening news of death, and the further spread of the virus. Why God does not heal?
The answer is not easy. God is not something which is outside life, one moment He is not there, another moment he jumps in, deus ex machina, and then he is there and effective. Our Good Lord is always there. He has been always with us, as He is there, in those situations of despair, healing, and hoped recovery.
Yesterday, at 8 pm, people went to their windows, and on their balconies they clapped and welcomed the heroic efforts of the NHS, those who work in the frontline. This thanksgiving and gratitude, I think, is our answer to the question: ‘Where is God in all this suffering?’
He is there, in the work of those committed hands. He is there in the professional efforts of doctors and nurses. He is there in their despair, when they can’t help. He is there in people’s dying, in the anxiety and grief of their relatives. He is there in the efforts of healing, and in the recoveries, which are taking place. He is there in the volunteers’ work and bravery. He is there in our police, in our council workers, in the efforts of our politicians.
Still the question remains relevant, even if unanswered. Where are you? Where is your God?
Our present anxieties and changed life shed a fresh light on the second set of tablets which God re-wrote after Moses had destroyed the first ones. The verbal instructions we read in Exodus 34:18-26 are a ‘user manual’ or serve as footnotes to the Ten Commandments. Before the outbreak of the corona virus we read these verses almost in a neutral way. Who would be interested in details of life and rituals pertaining to an agricultural society?
Yet, the description of feasts, pictures of rural life, harvest time, autumn works – are precious snapshots of life itself. These scenes are attached to worship, sacrifice; life with God. We are reminded by the divine revelation how precious our banal life is. These ‘verbal instructions’ to the Tablet want to highlight that life, shared with God, is never banal. It is always Sacred. Our ordinary life is always something to be cherished, valuated, and constantly revaluated, and thus elevated to this level.
Our dramatically changed life, perhaps, will teach us to read the whole of this chapter, positively. The prohibition of mixing with ‘those outside the covenant’, on one level, sounds harsh. Yet, in view of our presently endangered life, this can be heard as a call to appreciate life with God itself.
‘Write down these words for yourself; for on the basis of these words I have established a covenant with you and with Israel.’ (v.27) These verbal instructions are like ‘positive S.O.S. signals’ sent to our shipwrecked world. Cherish life! Fight for its banalities, appreciate them, and preserve them. When life is shared, that is lived with God, all what is lost at the present can be restored.
Moses’ role is clear in these passages. He prays for Israel in all circumstances. For their health, for God’s forgiveness, safety, and new beginnings. It is good to know that prayer has such an important function, when practiced for the community.
In these difficult times, let us ask ourselves: who are our intercessors? At the moment, it seems, these are the frontline workers. Those, who are in the midst of constraining the corona virus. Doctors, NHS workers, the police. And, those, who have been suffering from this terrible illness. We don’t know how, but our lives are interconnected. It is Christ, who in a conscious way, intercedes for us – he is with us.
Today, when in Christian churches public services are suspended, we find ourselves in a similar situation than Jesus’. To start with the good news, that we are with him in this similar situation. Sunday worship is for the people, not the people for Sunday worship. Sunday worship is for people’s health, in the most comprehensive sense. It serves the health of our souls, its eternal health, and also our mental and bodily well-being. Now, the suspension of public service wants to save people’s life and safeguard their physical health.
It is a shock for the people, as Sunday worship is part of our mental well-being, and a tool of our physical renewal. It is a shock for the priest, for whom the Sunday worship with their brothers and sisters is always the high point of their week. This being together with the Eucharistic community is the core of our identity, who we are.
Yet, we can have a look at this serious constraint on all of us in a different way. And this seeing our changed routines differently, is equal in significance to today’s miraculous healing in the Gospel when the blind man regained his sight. In the light of divine grace we can recognise that not coming to church, giving up this part of ourselves, can be done out of love. Our self-discipline can and will save someone else’s life.
‘Go and wash in the Pool of Siloam (a name means “sent”)’ This sending for us is the beginning of a learning curve. We will learn to see our faith differently, including our church activities. We are called to recognise and live by the Spirit of Encouragement on a daily basis. Our eyes are sent to get use to the light of Jesus’ presence in our worries, in the work of the medical stuff, in the suffering of the sick, in our joint efforts to overcome the threat to our life. We need to keep praying. We need to remain connected with our churches – via prayer and other forms of support. That is why it is important to remain a praying community. Our printouts for ‘Sunday Worship at Home’ might be a good help in order to maintain the prayer life of our mother church via both our personal and these set prayers.
The news, we all know, are terrifying. Still we don’t know whether it will liberate the forces of our ‘the shadow side’. Individual and collective fears, selfishness, antisocial behaviour, God forbid, violence and crime. What has been happening now is equal to the social and mental trauma caused by war. This fourth Sunday of Lent could not be a more timing message. Its name is ‘Laetare’, rejoice! The stakes, as mentioned, are high. Saving lives, containing the virus, social solidarity - are the practical implications. However, there is a crucial aspect to our remaining faithful to God and neighbour. This is the spiritual stake. If we remain a praying family of God - now scattered in our homes but centred on the prayer life of the church - we will have a chance to go through these horrors psychologically unharmed. The trauma can break the psyche of our children and that of ours, and can leave seriously wounded. Remaining daily in Jesus’ healing presence gives us the chance to remain who we had been before the epidemic. All the joys of our live, the banal joys and hopes of it, needs to be preserved and re-planted into the future, when its time comes.
So let this verse of today’s Gospel be our promise and strength. ‘So the blind man went off and washed himself, and came way with his sight restored.’
Water from the rock (Exodus 17)
A wonderfully encouraging image while facing the challenges of the corona virus. Thirst was an existential threat to the Israelites, just as the virus is threatening the life of many today. ‘Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.’ (Exodus 17:6) And as a consequence, water restored the physical and spiritual health of the community. We need this ‘water’, this divine sustenance of our life. We need to get strengthened and stay positive, and brave. Just as the Israelites got strengthened to face the next challenge, the army of Amalek. They had not been able to win if not strengthened by the living water; the presence of their God.
The second part of the story is equally relevant. In the battle against Amalek’s army, there are ups and downs. Moses extends his arms in blessing in order to give support to the fighters. ‘Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed.’ We need a divine support in our own fight against the epidemic. Civil authorities, local governments, healthcare workers, the affected, all need this divine sustenance – to stay strong, positive and compassionate.
Giving this support is the function of our churches, through its set prayers in the morning and evening prayers, and in the Eucharist. This praying presence is like that of Moses. It is unseen, remains hidden – but is a vital support. This image confirms the importance of our churches being kept open for prayer. The Eucharist, even if in a private mass, on Sundays must be uninterrupted. Even if Christians have to find different ways of connecting to this ‘Mosaic’ existential centre. But Moses' hands grew weary, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side. So his hands were steady until the going down of the sun.’ (Exodus 17:11-12)
On the Feast of Saint Joseph, we should not miss the appreciation of the work of the saints, who, do the same work of intercession – at God’s throne. Divine Presence, help our efforts!
All concern that overrides all other issues in life is our worry about the corona virus. We will leave this theme, its practical implications, to the end of mass-notices. It is real shock to all of us. This week end I was thinking a lot about it. A lot is in our power about what happens, and a lot is not. I concluded that our faith is the biggest support, and it is wise to embrace this sustenance.
That is why it is so important to keep our heads above the water. Our Lenten season offers this so required distance from all our genuine fears. That is why it is so good to know that the divine flow of hope - the wisdom of the church, its set prayers, the Biblical readings for the week - is uninterrupted. It is not an escapism. We prayed the stations of the Cross on Friday, we had our morning and evening prayers and daily mass (online and in person) - and these prayers were about similar anxieties about life and salvation. We can feel how God breathes both the call for repentance and hope upon the people of the covenant. We should not miss this contact.
The Benedictine nun of Stanbrook Abbey, sister Laurentia captures this moment of contact beautifully. In her Lenten meditation for today she highlights one single moment. This is the birthplace our faith, hope, and love in God. ‘The encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman shimmers with the same unexpected energy: there must surely have been eloquent eye contact between this woman and the divine-human Word who emphathises with our deepest need. In “The Samaritan Woman”, a poem he published before he was elected Pope, Karol Woytila writes: Within your eyes, I,/ drawn by the well,/am enclosed.’
In our coming week, let us meditate on two aspects of this encounter. Lent has the powerful look of Jesus, actually, as a spiritual encounter, Lent is when our eyes can meet God’s eye. So, let us ponder on what this exchange of glance might feel, and what conscious change can it bring about. Sister Laurentia suggests ‘removing other things which may be clogging up the interior well, especially busy-ness and false desires, and giving ourselves space and silence to be aware that we are “thirsting for God.”’ She continues, ‘It can be tempting to fill the void with other, shorter-term satisfactions… If, like the Samaritan woman, we can enter into honest dialogue with Jesus through prayer and openness to the Scriptures, none of these blockages need be a barrier; all can be removed by the Word who knows us and thirsts for our love… the heart will begin to function as it was made by God to do!’ (The Tablet, 14 March 2020, p.10.) Let this latter be our desire and objective in this Lent: what it means that ‘our heart will begin to function as it was made by God to do.’
In order to be set on this journey for the remainder of Lent, let the following image from Saint Francis de Sales assist us. He has a beautiful image describing how love is practiced in hope. ‘When the falconer removes the hood from his bird and it sights its prey, it immediately launches itself upon the wind and if held back by the leash, it struggles with extreme ardour on the falconer’s hand. So too when faith has dawn aside the veil of ignorance and has made us see our supreme good, which we still cannot possess because we are held back by the conditions of this mortal life, it is thus that we desire it./ When our intellect has been properly turned to consideration of what faith presents as its supreme good, the will immediately takes great joy in this divine object. Even through it is still absent, it begets an ardent desire for its presence. Hence the soul utters a holy cry, “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth. It is God for whom I sigh/For him my soul does cry.”’
So let these two images remain and challenge us, ‘the exchange of glances’ in today’s Gospel, and the moment when the ‘falcon is set free’.
Broken yet unbroken
‘Moses spoke thus to the sons of Israel; but they did not listen to Moses because of their broken spirit and their cruel bondage.’ (Exodus 6:9) This sentence is almost a cultural parable. Is not it an apt description of the human condition when the human being suffers from an inner loss of energy, the loss of orientation towards the Sacred?
We can see this broken spirit in panic reactions to the spread of the corona virus. Gut reactions, irrational fears, even physical aggression surfaces. People got frightened of someone coughing, or ‘Chinese looking’. The latter being for the media has put an indelible stamp on Chinese people as their country was the origin of the epidemic. Or, think of the emptying of the selves in the supermarkets. People are buying irrational amount of goods.
Let us be careful not to governed by fear or ‘our broken spirit’. This global capitalism, true, has put a ‘cruel bondage’ on us, casing our spirit broken. Yet, our soul is never broken if it reconnects to ‘our better self.’ Where can we find it? We Christians can – and actually have to – turn to the wisdom of the saints. It is high time to resource from the unbroken spirit of Church. We need their peace. Conversing with the writings of our saints will let us transcend the bondages and fragmentations which consumerism enforced on us. (We have thought of it that its underlying language is paralysing fear.)
Facing the challenge of containing the spreading of the virus – this event – is changing us forever. The turbo-boosted modernity, which we all enjoy in a narcissistic way, has been collapsing for good. It will change our life-style and the parameters of the economy in drastic way. Yet the real stake is to come out from this present hell with a renewed spirit.
We will need this unbroken spirit more than anything else. Compassion, solidarity, self-restraint, and self-sacrifice will need to fuel our actions. Otherwise, all the shadows in us will be set free and we can fear a social apocalypse, the cruel survival of the fittest.
I can’t imagine other way than recreating the breathing oxygen of our Lord’s wisdom, of which layers have thinned long ago. Yes, we need the healing Jesus, his miracles and gift of health, and spiritual resilience. Even this healing must come first from within, with the recognition of our ‘a broken spirit and cruel bondage’.
Rediscovering the joy of God
We humans are created to happiness. Regardless of one’s values it is happiness that we are striving for. The Catechism teaches us that we are created for happiness in God.
The scene of the Transfiguration is the revelation of this joy of being with God. It was a very intense, literally mystical, experience for the three disciples. Their joy was attached to the revelation of the coming suffering of their Master. Yet, this same intense delight, spread evenly, is waiting for us in our Christian life. We are simply made for being with our Saviour both in joy and suffering. This closeness, this friendship and partnership, should give us delight.
If this daily joy is not present, it signals a work to be done from our part. We must fill up (remove) this distance (Radio 4 interview with teenagers who abandoned their faith. The sadness of the soul is real.). The Orthodox Christian mystics teach that Jesus was always transfigured, revealing his Beauty. People just could not perceive it, for their senses were not ‘lifted up’ to sense this vision.
God always desires us to respond to his presence and experience the joy over life with Him. As Saint Francis de Sales puts it, God never ceases ‘inspiring us’. It is up to us if we follow this inspiration. Listening to these daily inspirations is the very ground of our daily joy. (The story of birdie who went up to the top of the trees that has parents might find him.)
Let us think about it and let us be inspired by Jesus’ Transfiguration. For the Christian community it is crucial to have this daily joy and delight in our God. This experience of delight is vital for us as a community, too. Why? For this is the very witness through which others got inspired to know Christ. Only when this joy is seen want people become Christians.
But what happens if this daily joy does not come? If our faith is not passionate enough ‒ to be perceived as something which is different, like Jesus’ Transfiguration? For the life of Christians is like the extension of Jesus’ Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. Particularly at crucial moments for someone, it must become visible.
Our first reading, Abraham’s call, provides us with the missing key. ‘The Lord said to Abraham, “Leave your country, your family and your father’s house, for the land I will show you.”’ Let it be our concern what does this journey into God’s joy look like in our own life! Lent actually poses this as a commandment: let this journey of our soul be the most important concern! What do we have to leave behind? What journey(s) we must make in order to experience daily the joy of being Christians?
‘…I will show you’ that land, says the Lord. We need to be exposed to the beauty of the abode where God dwells with us. It is God’s showing us his things. Perhaps we should accept his ‘showing us around’, which means that we need to spend a special time with God. A special time of prayer and quiet thanksgiving. A time when our heart beats together with God’s heart. When our eyes see together with God’s eyes. This is an importance of quiet time and quiet prayer with God. If this meeting is not present, how and when and where could our Transfiguration take place? How could passion for God emerge in us? How our transformation into an inspiring community would emerge?
This specific time, Abraham teaches us, must take place in God’s language, in his fashion. It is not our ‘style’ and option but is to be according to God’s taste. For an unknown reason, God prefers the prayers of his Church, the Morning Prayers, the Evening Prayers, particularly the liturgy of the Eucharist. God can be present everywhere, in all of our actions, but he wants us to meet him and spend time with him, in his own language, in his own fashion, in his House. Still the centre of his self-revelation remains our Churches and Chapels, our prayers in it.
Lent invites us to try to make this extra mile, in the specific language God wants to speak among us.
The Cloverfield Paradox
A not a terribly edifying story, yet the Cloverfield Paradox (Netflix) is a thought-provoking movie. Personally, I don’t’ understand why all our entertainment must be violent and soaked in blood. Only blood, sex and violence sells? These and similar soap-science fictions, however, are an unmasked revealing of what is going on in our culture. All the uncontrolled desires and instincts, all our godlessness, lack of faith, and killing instincts surface in them. Our science fictions are the best patients on the psychoanalytic coach of God. The unconscious is set free.
And what we hear on that couch is not too encouraging. In our film, an experiment goes wrong. Instead of creating unlimited energy for a power-hungry earth, multiple universes are created. Worlds and their parallel worlds fight for the place of the other. Demons, monsters, madness – unlimited! – are set free. We are no longer the ones we had been before the accident. There is no longer a valid identity. A multiverse of nothingness emerges from us erasing everything what is sane and human.
Painful, but it is a good model of where we are now. The Cloverfield Paradox is the new human condition, and that of faith and revealed religion. The overheated energy-reactor, which causes the catastrophe, models very well the over-excited civilisation we build. Energy, nature, and human resources are used and devoured excessively. Like an overheated nuclear reactor out of control.
The movie forces us to ask: what version of the world are we living in? Have we taken up the best options, or on the contrary, the worst ones? What version of our self we are? Are we living as our better selves, realising our human potentials – or just marching into becoming a monster-culture? And when science fiction becomes real, the fear of the corona-virus which shipwrecks our global world in our own sight, is not helpful either.
It is against this background that the value of the real should become so blatantly obvious. The experience of Biblical history and faith is the only constant. The only redeeming one – which can preserve the sense of the unity of the world. Our painfully failing apart world (and psyche, our individual stories) can get centred only by entering this ‘bio-time’ or ‘bio-experience’. That’s why it is so sobering and so joyful to catch the message from the distant, long lost universe of grace. ‘Jesus said to his disciples: “Ask, and it will be give to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; the one who searches always finds; the one who knocks will always have the door opened to him.”’ (Mat 7:7-12)
Everything else is a weightless, free falling object outside this search – the conversation with our Redeemer.
These are verbal Icons, expressions of how the world is seen from Saint Augustine's..