We are preparing for Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the church. Next week, we are remembering Jesus’s return to Heaven. In two weeks time we are celebrating the birth-day of the church; the rebirth and renewal of who we are now as children of God.
With Pentecost, the old man will die. Our past ways will become past, our sins, when confessed, forgotten. This will be our spiritual resurrection, being resurrected by joy and Life.
So these last days of the Easter period is an anticipation of the end of our own lives, when our life will be ending, and, our new life, our new existence begins with the Risen Lord. How does this preparation look like from our personal perspective, and from the point of view of the Lord? I found a beautiful passage from Saint Francis de Sales, which illustrates this passage from the old life into the new.
‘Finally, the heavenly King having brought the soul which he loves to the end of this life, he assists her also in her blessed departure, by which he draws the soul to the marriage-feast of eternal glory, which is the delicious fruit of holy perseverance. And then, this soul, wholly ravished with the love of her well-beloved, putting before her eyes the multitude of favours and succours with which she was prevented and helped while she was yet in her pilgrimage, incessantly kisses this sweet helping hand, which conducted, drew and supported her in the way; and confesses, that it is of this divine Saviour that she holds her felicity, seeing he has done for her all that the patriarch Jacob wished for his journey, when he had seen the ladder to heaven. O Lord, our soul then says, you were with me, and guided me in the way by which I came. You did feed me with the bread of your sacraments. You did clothe me with the wedding garment of charity. You have happily conducted me to this abode of glory, which is your house, O my eternal Father. Oh! what remains, O Lord, save that I should protest that you are my God for ever and ever! Amen.’
So, from our point of view, let these two weeks be a thorough review of the gifts you were given. Let it be a thorough recalling of the persons, the great helps, supports, our challenges and our escapes, our recoveries from illness. Let it be part of our daily prayers of ‘instantly kissing this sweet hand’ of Providence. Also, let us give thanks for gift of our faith, for its ups and downs. ‘Seeing what Jesus has done for our soul’, will increase our joy and prepare our feast at Pentecost. What a privilege it is to stand in the long line of faith, indeed starting from the Patriarchs!'
But also, let us be challenged by Saint Francis’ vision from a different angle. Let us try to enter our Lord’s mindset. What will be his feelings and thoughts of thanksgiving on the day of Ascension? What a wonderful and rich prayer it must have been when he looked back on his life with his beloved disciples? What future he saw in them, what future joys of their faithful service.
And let us humbly imagine, and this is not imagination, ourselves in the prayers of our Lord. For in his love for his disciples all future Christians were included. All future disciples. And this humble and the same time most privileged title is the key. In his return to the Father, when surveying his mission on Earth, he prayed, and went through the lives of all his disciples, future and present. This is the stake in our lives: to be counted as his disciples. To have this special relationship, to be part of his special love and prayers for his disciples.
Cannot we conceive Pentecost as Jesus’ permanent, ever-lasting prayer, of which prayer we are part of? From this perspective, Pentecost simply means, ‘being prayed for’. Let us take Saint Francis’ vision seriously, as a guide, to ‘put before our eyes the Lord’s multitude of favours’ for us. Let us grow together into a living faith of thanksgiving. Let us become his disciples through this thanksgiving.
Have we noticed the change in our readings? We have left behind the Easter stories of the Gospel. Now are entering the teaching ministry of Jesus. The normal, day to day life of the church resumes. We experience the toiling work Christians. In our own ups and downs we can recognise the experiences of the early church. What actually happens, through these readings, is the new life of the church. That new life which is governed and sustained by the Resurrection of our Lord. It is working life, where work, joy, failures, and new beginnings blend. The point is that the focal point, the nourishing centre, always remains the same: the Risen Lord!
This yearning for our Easter joy - never leaves us. Like the glory of God in the desert which led the Jewish people, this Light of Easter, is guiding us. It inspires us. We can truly say, ‘our dream is the Risen Lord’. Our dream is life with Jesus... So, as an exercise, can we spend some time in answering the question. ‘What is your dream about Christian life?’ ‘What life do you imagine with Jesus for Saint Augustine’s?’ ‘What is your dream about your own religious life, how do you imagine it with Jesus?’
Easter, our communion with the Risen Lord, symbolically and literally, is our dream. Compared with our daily life this ideal, this first love, is like a dream. It feels like something to return to, something to be recalled. The joy of the Easter celebration, as a ‘dream’, is leading us, this ‘dream’ wants to merge with our present life. It wants to fertilise and transform our deserts, our personal shipwrecks, or our unfinished businesses. It wants to fulfil our ‘dreams’.
In this coming week, our readings would like to make us think about the significance of the Risen Lord in our lives. Again, I would like to apply few of Melinda Powell’s thoughts from The Hidden Lives of Dreams to answering this question. Why is it so important to ‘dream about Jesus’, and imagine and re-imagine our life with Him? The ‘Hidden life of Dreams’, in our context, can mean the hidden life of Easter, the hidden life of our ‘Easter-dreams’. She says: ‘we can appreciate how our drams challenge us to think and to feel “outside the box”. We can do so by attending to our right brain’s [‘our Easter imagination’] metaphoric and associative qualities, characteristic of the intuitive, creative mind, rather than the left brain’s [practical intelligence ready to opportunistic compromises with reality!] more linear and rational approach.’ The result is not illusionary day-dreaming or escapism. On the contrary, ‘these are not different ways of thinking about the world: they are different ways of being in the world.’
So, is it worth ‘dreaming Easter’? It is well worth dreaming and imagining our life with the Risen Jesus. It is this creative imagination which makes our life real, the most real. ‘Such intuitive knowing has significant implications not only for how we view our dreams [our meditations on our Easter life with Jesus] but also for how we share the earth [the gifts of life] with one another.’ The final point I want to make is that Easter as the centre of our imagination is about sharing. Faith, our ‘dreaming faith’ [as ‘thinking’ faith!] is the only realm that connects us. Easter, as our creative imagination, is the only way to unite all people, to see the human family as one and united.
Let us re-read today’s readings in this light. All confirm the significance of following the desires of our imagination to be and work with our Lord. ‘There are many rooms [dreams] in my Father’s house… I am going now to prepare a place for you, and after I have gone and prepared you a place [‘dream’], I shall return to take you with me.’ [To bring to realisation our dream work!] ‘I tell you most solemnly, whoever believes in me [dreams about life shared with me] will perform the same works as I do myself.’ Keeping our Easter-faith (Easter-dreams!) alive is so important that the Apostles decide to invest into the work of faith. Actually, keeping ‘the creative imagination of faith’ is what they are investing into and what they want to preserve at any price: ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the word of God so as to give out food; you, brothers, must select from amount yourselves seven men of good reputation, filled with the Spirit and wisdom; we will hand over this duty to them, and continue to devote ourselves to prayer and to the service of the word.’
So let us think about how important it is to live the truth: our dream is Easter!
Faith is the key
Where has our search within the octave of Easter led us? Let us share the insights we have gained in this intense and intimate period of prayer - as it were, ‘our bonding with the Risen Lord?’ The prayers for each other is part of this sharing.
The second Sunday of Easter invites us to listen to the experiences of the early Church – our first brothers and sisters who met the risen Lord and developed a special, new life with Him.
We have learnt together with them that Easter is a special zone. Those who entered it understand how history has been changed once and for all. ‘What became clear and grew to be a certainty for the Church was that God himself had intervened with his almighty hand in the wicked and rebellious life of the world…and had set Jesus up as Lord of the world.’ (Günter Bornkmann, Jesus of Nazareth, further quotes from him.) The point is that Easter is all about God’s work. ‘Easter is above all else God’s acknowledgement of this Jesus, whom the world refused to acknowledge, and to whom even the disciples were unfaithful. It is at the same time the intervention of God’s new world in this old world branded with sin and death, and setting up and beginning of his reign. It is an event in this time and in this world, and yet at the same time an event which puts an end and a limit to this time and this world. To be sure only faith can experience this.’ Are we ready to be witnesses of this ‘zone of life’? Are we ready to keep our eyes open, to keep our eyes of faith opened by Easter open - at any price?
Our first Christian brothers and sisters share with us an another important experience. ‘The men and women who encountered the risen Christ at Easter have come to an end of their wisdom. They regarded themselves as those who have been conquered, whose former lives and beliefs have come to naught.’ And this is the key: they were conquered - they were conquered by faith. The learning curve the disciples had undergone is of vital importance for us.
Initially, they were in a dream-like, semi-conscious state, still in grip of their previous self. ‘What they experienced is fear and doubt, and what only gradually awakens joy and jubilation in their hearts is just this: They, the disciples, on [this] Easter day, are the ones marked out by death, but the crucified and buried one is alive. Those wo have survived him are the dead [the captives of their old life and thinking], and the dead one is the living!’
The big question is, how can one enter ‘into the zone’ of Resurrected life, the communion with the Risen Lord? And here, our first brothers and sisters share us with their most vital teaching. It was not enough, and for us today, it is not enough ‘to hear of the Resurrection.’ Nay, it is not enough to see meet the Risen Lord physically, as did the women at the tomb, the disciples on the road to Emmaus, or apostle Thomas today. And this seems to be the top secret of Easter and that of Christian life. ‘It [is] the resurrected Christ who first reveals the mystery of his story and his person, and above all the meaning of his suffering and death.’ As if rewinding the timeline on a security camera footage, the crucial moment in the Easter story is when Jesus imparts faith, living faith to his disciples.
This is the crux of the matter. ‘Faith in Jesus’, faith itself, has nothing to do in believing in something ‘invisible’, which is not here, which is imaginary. Faith is a vital organ, a new organ in us. ‘Faith’ is more real than anything else. Faith has more weight than anything else. It is through this medium, through this ‘oxygen of new life’, through which we have to break away from the chronology, agendas, and life of ‘this world’. For entrapped ‘in this world’, this world does not allow that freedom, that imagination and that free intimacy with God which only Easter imparts to us.
Faith is, actually, our shared language with God. It is primarily his language, which is like that of a caring parent, is always embracing us, guiding us, and protecting us. Faith is the ‘real’. And it calls us, to imitate God’s mouth and words. It calls us, as the beloved disciple taught us in the Apocalypse, our second reading to tell God who were are, who we have become, and who we can become through our Easter faith.
Lazarus, after returning from death to life, was given a time. A time for reflection. He could process what had happened to him, and how precious his ‘second chance’ was. His life was interrupted in the most dramatic way. He died, and, through the personal gift and miracle by Jesus now he had to answer the why of his regained life.
He is one of the table company of Jesus, who himself is giving his final teaching. ‘Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table.’ (John 12:2) The ‘why-s’ of his personal quest for the meaning of his return, thus, is inseparable from his listening to Jesus. Whatever answer he gives he forever remains in the presence of his Divine friend. I just wonder how our individual (and collective!) lives would be formed if we answered our questions connected to the Lord.
Just as we are interrupted now by the threat of the corona-virus; death itself. Can we see this as a ‘positive interruption’? As marking out a special time for us to reflect on who we are; and who we are in relation to Jesus. For, in a sense, since the interruption of the corona virus, every moment of our life is like that of Lazarus now, who ‘is sitting with him at the table’.
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.’
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!
These are verbal Icons, expressions of how the world is seen from Saint Augustine's..