Apocalypse is about the triumph of God

Meditation by Frances Flatman on next Sunday’s Readings :-

The modern world approaches ‘Apocalyptic’ in terms of terror and destruction, and I suppose when we have so many like the present incumbent of the White House chucking threats at all and sundry this may be understandable, but it was not the way in which ancient writers understood this term.

By the 2nd to 1st century BCE there were Jewish writers who were beginning to probe the nature of the God-man relationship, and clearly for them the time honoured text of scrupulously fulfilling of the law so that all would be well, along with temple sacrifice, was not enough. Among them were the ‘Wisdom’ writers, and it can be no accident that at the same time ideas of eternal life, and resurrection developed. For some Jews this simply meant that Israel would come out on top, and the reign on earth of the Messiah would be universal; Israel would be all powerful and destroy all those enemies which had smashed her and caused such suffering. It all remained a very material and earth-bound thing. But this was clearly not the case for everyone, and for the writer(s) of Daniel and others it was to develop into an altogether more mysterious and hopeful thing, in which the God of Israel would finally meet with his chosen, even those who had died, and whose relationship with Him would develop into something altogether more spectacular and glorious. The fact that this kind of Apocalyptic was born out of great suffering, in this case, the rule of the Seleucid tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes: he of the Maccabean Revolt, can be no accident. Certainly the belief that God would vindicate the dead, the ‘sleepers’ of Daniel, (12:1-3) and that they would thereafter have an immortal life, here described as ‘Bright as stars for all eternity’ is a pointer to the fact that we should not read apocalyptic literally but poetically, for the writers are stepping out into the unknown, searching for language with which to express this new and deeper understanding of our relationship to God. What we do know is that Jesus was influenced by this literature, for there are echoes of it throughout his teaching, and especially of Daniel 7 in which the Son of Man is brought into God’s presence and rewarded for his faithfulness.

The fact that the Gospel writers record Jesus’ own use of Apocalyptic, and the context within which he does so, is very important. In our Gospel (Mark 13:24-32) so close to his passion and death, we find Jesus coming out of the Temple in Jerusalem and passing judgment upon it, indeed, forecasting its utter ruin and desolation. I think that like all apocalyptic this is Jesus’ personal comment on his relationship with the Temple and its hierarchy who will so shortly put him to death. Time after time in Mark’s Gospel we have met Jesus in head-on collision with these very authorities, be they priests, Pharisees, Sadducees or scribes, and we have come to realise that the conflict between him and them was irreconcilable.

Then there was the ever growing hostility between Jews and the Roman occupiers of Palestine which we know was getting increasingly worse. Jesus did not have to be especially clairvoyant to realise that it would end in revolt, as it did in 66-70 CE, with catastrophic results for the Jews; and by the time the synoptic writers wrote their gospels between the 70’s-late 80’s it was simply a matter of fact, to be incorporated into their Gospel accounts. Describing these events, Jesus simply used time honoured language to convey the situations about which he was speaking. We should not suppose for a moment that either he or the Gospel writers, or indeed earlier apocalyptic thinkers, actually expected the implosion of the cosmos; but certainly they wished to convey by this language the dramatic, even shattering effects of the changes to be wrought by his death and resurrection, and on the Jewish people.  Just as we use poetic imagery to convey either great love or pain: ‘My love is like a red, red rose’, or Owen’s description of the dead of the Great War starkly as ‘Dying like cattle’, neither of which are true, but which convey so much; so Jesus used time-honoured images to convey the effect of his death and resurrection and the wholly new life into which it would incorporate his followers. Traditional inscriptions found on ancient city walls recording the once-in-a-lifetime visit of an emperor to some remote city in Turkey often speak of his ‘Coming in the clouds”, God-like in power and majesty. Small wonder then that our writers borrowed this turn of phrase for the one who really was what he said he was!

Our writer of Hebrews (10:11-14.18) continues his project of distinguishing between Jesus and the high priestly sacrifices of the Temple, and here delivers his devastating critique. The latter offer “Over and over again the same sacrifices which are quite incapable of taking sins away.” Christ, ‘By his single offering has achieved the eternal perfection of all….When all sins have been forgiven there can be no more sin offerings.” We have to get into the language of scripture, just as we do with so much language which we use every day. If we simply stick with its strange imagery, we can end up having all manner of strange and quite erroneous ideas about our faith. Apocalyptic is meant to convey a positive understanding of things to us, as it did to ancient Israel, for in the end it is about the triumph of God who has loved us in Christ into his life, and has a marvellous future for each one of us. Mind-blowing? Yes. Bringing death and destruction? Most definitely not.

 

 

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Homily on facing death with faith

November is the month when we think about death. Not so much because it’s the month when World War One ended, although that has certainly helped focus people’s minds, but much more because we begin November by praying for all the Dead on All Souls Day; and so the custom has grown up of continuing to remember the dead right through this month. I remember as a boy (I wasn’t brought up as a Catholic) how I was taught that thinking about death like this was not healthy, and so I actually failed myself and my family when my mother died, by arranging not to have a big funeral and instead to send her body off for cremation with the tiniest of private ceremonies.

Since then I have seen, and indeed conducted, very many funerals and have discovered how wrong I was, and how important it is to have proper prayers and ceremonies when our loved one’s die. Death is often sad, but trying to hide the sadness, is actually no help at all to those who are grieving.  And why? Because death is the one thing we humans cannot defeat. Modern medicine may delay it (indeed most Doctors sadly see death as a defeat) but in the end it comes to all of us, and then the only power to whom we can turn is Almighty God. I remember being shocked when I joined with a Black Pentecostal Pastor to conduct a funeral many years ago, and when the body had been lowered into the grave, he called out “Who will be next? Who will be next?”  I was shocked, but then I realised he was right. Each of us needs to be prepared for death, for we never know when it will come, and then we will really understand our need for God.

Now what has all this got to do with the two stories of widows, that we heard today in our 1st Reading (1 Kings 17:10-16) and in our Gospel? (Mark 12:38-44)  The answer is that in each case they are preparing for death and in doing so teach us a lesson about life. The first widow actually says that she is preparing to cook a last meal for herself and her son ,“And then we shall die.” The second has nothing left apart from the few coins that she gives to God. She is not a sweet and very generous old lady, she is a beggar woman who will soon die of starvation just like the first; and it is interesting in her case that Jesus does not help her. Why? Because he too is about to die on the cross.

For Christians the message is clear to see. We know that Jesus faced death, and that he alone defeated death; and so we know that the way to face death in every moment of our life, is to live our life in and with Jesus. For with Jesus, death is not the end, but becomes the way to eternal life, and that is why as Christians we’re called to live every day like that widow gathering sticks, for face to face with death, she does not turn in on herself. as she might have done, but shares her last meal with the Prophet Elijah.

I’m reminded of St Maximilian Kolbe, that Polish priest who was imprisoned in Auschwitz and there offered to take the place of a man who was about to be killed. It was in one sense a futile gesture, just like the widow offering a share in her last meal, and yet such actions in the face of death are what makes us fully human. To die that someone else might live is the most powerful act of love there is, and that’s why we do not just celebrate as Christians, the Resurrection of Jesus, but also celebrate his death, because in this sacrificial love God is most fully present, and where God is most fully present, we are most fully human.

Elijah the Prophet also says a word to the woman that Jesus will go on to use a lot, for he says “Do not be afraid.”  This is such an important word for all of us, isn’t it. “Do not be afraid.” Of course we often will be afraid, certainly of dying if not of death, but I don’t think Jesus is telling us that it is wrong to be afraid, rather we are being told that when we are afraid, we must hear his voice and know he is with us.

The second widow, the one in the Gospel, has conquered her fear, presumably because of her trust in God. That is why she can give all her money to God, and then be content to die. Note how Jesus links this to the problem of having possessions, for the more we have the more afraid we seem to be of losing them. You remember the story Jesus tells of the rich man gathering more and more into his barns,(Luke 12:16-20 and God says to him “You Fool!” because, just when he is saying “I can eat, drink and be merry”, he dies; and all his attempts to be happy are destroyed. Our trust must be in Jesus, never in anything or anyone else, for with Jesus death is defeated, and need not be feared.

Moments when we need to dive into hope

A Meditation from Frances on next Sunday’s Readings (32nd):-

Just recently I noted with relief the evacuation of the remaining White Helmets and their families from Syria by, of all unlikely people, the Israeli forces! The White Helmets are the men who risk their lives to rescue the victims of Assad’s bombings. What remains however in my mind are the photos of those young men who have been killed in the course of this work. I recall pictures of slight young men with embarrassed, self-deprecating smiles, people who never sought fame but simply found themselves in the right spot at the right time, and whose decision to stay and give their lives for others was quite simply motivated by character; what they were and the conviction and integrity which required them to stay and help their fellow human beings, come what may. Our Readings this week are all about such moments of decision, times when to be true to oneself, people could do no other than follow their conviction even to death.

Such was the woman in our Gospel passage, (Mark 12:38-44) the woman noticed by Jesus at the Temple, and whose story follows very closely on last week’s Reading. Jesus,, as we saw was in the holy city for Passover and the last week of his life. It was a time of final confrontation, of burning of one’s boats, and he notices a woman who epitomises his own situation. We have to remember that this was a time when there was no Social Security, no regular help for the very poor, although beggars abounded. My guess is that this lady had quite simply come to the end of the road. Devoid of family, friends,, and any financial help she turns to the only help she can, to God in the Temple, and makes the final offering of her two remaining copper coins. She knows she is going to starve to death and, at this crunch moment, just gives herself to God, to the only one she trusts will be merciful – in death. We notice that Jesus does not intervene to save her, she gets no last minute reprieve and he has already passed unfavourable judgement on the rich and their way of life. They could easily have helped her, but did not. He observes how they also give large donations to the Temple, gifts befitting their rank and status, and which were observed by the public; and he noted that, just like us, they gave from their surplus wealth. In effect, it cost them nothing but gained them a great deal from the respect they got from society.

Our poor widow is an alter-Christus. Finally, in extremis, she has flung all her hope on God, just as Jesus will do a couple of days later, trusting in the Father, in whom everything in him insisted that their relationship was true; and Jesus, true to his instincts, went ahead, trusting he was right. He had belief, but no certainty that God would vindicate him by resurrection. Like the widow, he just followed his conviction of a merciful redeemer. There will be moments in every life when we too have to make that dive into hope. It may be before vital surgery, or the question of a relationship; it may be in the moment of our martyrdom. There is that in human beings which, fired by grace, gives us the ability to make such amazing leaps of faith, life changing moments.

In the Letter to the Hebrews (9:24-28) the author, who spends a lot of time comparing the Jewish temple high priests unfavourably to Jesus, discusses what differentiates them from Jesus.  Clearly he was writing principally for Jewish-Christians in Rome who were under pressure to forsake Christ and return to full practice of Judaism. His point here is that the Temple they served was a man-made construction, whose entire purpose lay in the continual repetition of rites of animal sacrifice in a never ending cycle of sin and atonement, which by their very nature could never achieve their aim of making sinful human beings whole in their relationship with God. But the self-offering of Christ on the cross, he points out, was a unique event requiring no sequel of repetition; since Jesus has taken-on the sin of the entire world by the willing sacrifice of his own person. Jesus, unlike the Temple priests who operated in the temple, entered ‘heaven itself’, and, face to face with divinity as beloved Son gives the Father the only satisfactory offering, the one which makes him and through him us, wholly one with God. We have to think of two great leaps of faith here: that of Jesus who believed he was the Father’s ultimate gift to the world, and made that one and all important act of self-sacrifice; and of the recipients of the Letter, those, (like us) who are asked to make that leap of faith into the absurd, casting aside all that they had previously learnt of God through Judaism, and to launch out into the deep, following Jesus the missionary/healer/messiah, whose understanding of the God-human relationship was so radically different.

Our Reading from 1 Kings (17:10-16) helps us on that difficult journey by way of the story of Elijah and the pagan woman of Sidon. We note that the woman was not a Jew, but a pagan, so that the story stretches out to embrace foreigners – a leap into the unknown, someone despised by Jews. Clearly there was a famine, and people were dying, and the prophet himself was desperate; also he was in hiding, hunted by the king who had turned to paganism and was after his blood. My guess is that the woman herself was at the end of her tether, rather like the widow of the Gospel. Her gods had clearly failed her and she and her son were about to eat their last meal and die. Was the appearance of Elijah something of a shot in the dark, a last hope? Somehow he persuaded her to make that ‘leap of faith’, the one which paid off in her case, and did so for Elijah too; and out of this most unlikely of alliances came a great story of hope and trust that the God of Israel will not fail. Indeed, he has not through the long and difficult times in which he offers salvation to his people, to those who make that great leap out into the dark. I pray we too may follow in their footsteps.

 

Jesus prays for us eternally

The great commandment to love God that we heard in our 1st Reading today (Deut 6:2-6) and in our Gospel (Mark 12:28-34) must make us happy to belong to a people, the Christian people, who base our lives on love. But if we think about it, I expect it also makes us sad that we do not live up to our Christian calling. I try to love God with all my heart and mind and soul, but I fear that love of other things often creeps into my thoughts and prayers.  Jesus also says “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt 5:43-48) But this is perhaps even more difficult, isn’t it? For trying to love people I do not like, who behave in horrible ways, is an immense challenge for all of us.

The question then is how can we ever become one with God who is perfect, how can we ever be drawn after death into heaven, if we fall so far short of the love God shows us? St Paul was certain that there was only one answer. He had begun life as a Pharisee, and the Pharisees believed that we could follow a series of rules and regulations that would make us perfect. But then Paul met Jesus, and became aware how far short he was from the glory of God. In his Letter to the Romans (7:24-25) he puts it like this, “Wretched man that I am, who will rescue me from this body of death?”; and another Christian, the writer of the Book of Revelation, (Rev 5:4) weeps bitterly that “No-one is worthy.” But then he is answered from heaven, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain.” ; and the Lamb of course is Jesus. He is the one who was slain, and so St Paul can say “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

This is the heart of our Christian faith, that we cannot get to God alone, by our own efforts; but that we can get to God if we put our trust in Jesus and in his sacrificial love. But what does that mean? Do I just have to have a nice feeling of trust in my head, and that’s enough? Well yes it’s a start, but No it is not enough, for the Bible makes it clear that to be one with Jesus, we need to be linked to him in and through one another. Jesus doesn’t say “Just think about me and you will be OK”, he says “When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matt 18:20) and then just before he dies he gives his friends one special way of gathering in his name, when he has that Last Supper with them and says, as he give them the bread, “This is my body.. Do this in memory of me.” St Paul, in his Letter to the Corinthians, (11:25-27) says very firmly that this is what Christians must do, because “When you eat this bread ….. you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

So putting our trust in Jesus doesn’t just mean trusting in him by ourselves. We are linked to him, and thus to God, by belonging, by being members of his family, of his holy people. Now our 2nd Reading today (Hebrews 7:23-28) puts this in a rather different way, because in the Old Testament one of the main ways you belonged was by visiting the Temple in Jerusalem and asking the priests there to link you to God through their prayers and the sacrifices you offered through them. The problem with this, as the writer points out, is that priests aren’t perfect. They are humans like us. The answer is that God provides the one true priest – Jesus – who can lead us to heaven. So the writer says “It follows.., that his power to save is utterly certain, since he is living for ever to pray for all who come to God through him.”

We need to remember then how wonderful it is that Jesus is praying for us, for all of us, and that when we gather together to pray and to receive him in the bread that is his body, the priest who says the words of the prayers is not the one who is praying for us; for the one who is actually praying for us is Jesus, present with us. And Jesus is the Lamb who was slain, he is the one who has died for us, and he is the one who is alive for ever so that through him and with him and in him, we are drawn into the love of God which is eternal life with him for ever.  

Of course that doesn’t mean we can sit back and be horrid people. God needs and accepts our imperfect efforts to be good and loving, and uses them in the process of purifying us; but if we think these efforts alone get us to God then we’re in great danger. Why? Because we’re beginning to take pride in ourselves as good and holy Christians rather than accepting our limitations and putting our trust entirely in God and his grace.  Yes, we must try to love God and our neighbour with all our heart and soul and mind, but above all we must trust God to purify us, a process we call purgatory. It is God in and through Jesus who transforms our weak efforts to love into the perfect love by which we become one with him for ever. 

 

Jesus gifts himself to us and for ever

A Meditation from Frances on next Sunday’s Readings (31st):-

We are getting very close to the end of the Liturgical Year of Mark, and our Readings reflect this in quite a stark and dramatic manner. We are being pushed to consider precisely what our faith is all about. (Mark 12:28-34) Our Gospel Reading places us with Jesus in the last week of his earthly life. He is in Jerusalem for his Passion and death and we have witnessed his ‘triumphal entry’ into the city; his attack on the temple and his confrontation with the Sadducees over marriage in heaven; and we have witnessed his devastating attack on the scribes, chief priests and Pharisees, the parable of the vineyard. Clearly there is no turning back, the die is cast. It is our moment of choice too.

In his encounter with one of the scribes, Jesus explores the nature of the Commandments, their ranking and significance and the requirement that we love God totally: ‘heart, soul, mind and strength’; and Jesus interpolates with the injunction that we follow exactly the same pattern in our relationship with others too. It’s about the totality of God, isn’t it? We should not read this passage as a collection of depressing ‘ought’s’, at which we shall inevitably fail, but rather Jesus’ invitation that we be godlike – which was always what he had on offer right from the beginning of his ministry, and what he would sacrifice his life to achieve for us. This is precisely why understanding the context in which Mark has placed all these encounters is so critical. Jesus did not die to make you and me just a bit nicer, he gave his life to make us divine, totally one with Father, Son and Spirit, sharers in the Trinity. The significant thing is that at the end of the encounter this scribe is in complete agreement with Jesus, recognising that a life lived out in this manner far supersedes the making of temple sacrifices. Jesus and this man are entirely on the same wavelength, suggesting that there were those in mainstream Judaism who knew and approved of Jesus and his mission, and among those who ultimately took up the faith in Jerusalem.

You see, Jesus was not a rogue element in Judaism, but someone, something there right from its earliest days. We see this in our Reading from Deuteronomy (6:2-6), compiled in the late 7th century BCE, and including even older material; and deriving from a time when there was no conception of eternal life with God, resurrection or anything beyond this material world. Since this was the case, early Judaism was indeed very materialistic; all its focus in its relationship with God was concerned with law obedience which would bring divine favours, literally the giving of the Promised Land, ‘A land where milk and honey flow.’ The great tragedy for Judaism would be its blind focus on its earliest gift and discovery of God, and its unwillingness to grow, to take that journey to its ultimate destination in Jesus and our divinity; but the revelation of God to his chosen was always about this, about the fullness of God to us and in us which is what all our Readings this week are about.

The Letter to the Hebrews, (7:23-28) written clearly by a follower of Paul after the latter’s execution, and who wrote either during or after the failed Jewish Revolt 66-70 CE to Jewish-Christians in Rome who were under some pressure from the Roman authorities compares and contrasts the Temple high priesthood with that of Jesus. The fact that he speaks of the former priests in the past tense indicates that the Jerusalem Temple had already been destroyed in 70 CE by Titus and his troops, as the city fell and was sacked. The high priests had stayed and fought to the end in this brutal civil war and revolt against Rome. Clearly under pressure, as Christians had been under Nero, and highly suspect as Jewish Christians, some of this synagogue/house church considered returning to full Judaism and claiming the ancient privileges of Jews, notwithstanding the suspicions of them because of the Revolt.

Our writer considered it his life’s work to convince them to remain within the Church, and he does this by appealing to the absolute difference between the Jewish high priesthood and that of Jesus.  Death, as he so starkly phrased it, put an end to the lives of those former priests. He might even have pointed to their fate in the revolt, or certainly to the fact that they had continually to be replaced due to their mortality. He might even have alluded to their well known corruption, and certainly to their limited role through the Temple animal sacrificial system. All those details would have been there in the background. By way of definite contrast, he points to the unique, eternal priesthood of Jesu Christ, who is eternally alive and continually making intercession for us, so unlike the Temple priests who only did so for a fee.

Sadly our Jerusalem Bible translation clouds our comprehension of the passage: ‘To suit us the ideal high priest would have to be….” makes it all look like a matter of our choice! But when we follow the Greek, things become much clearer: ‘For it was fitting’, or as some have it: ‘Indeed, such is our high priest’, and the writer goes on to elucidate the qualities of Jesus:  ‘Holy, innocent, uncontaminated, beyond the influence of sinners, and raised above the heavens; one who would not need to offer sacrifices every day, as the other high priests do for their own sins and then for those of the people, because he has done this once and for all by offering himself.’

It is the finality, the highlighting of the utter difference between the old high priesthood and that of Jesus which is so stunning. They dealt with things, signs and symbols. He gave himself, and having given his entire being for our salvation, we can be absolutely sure that he has the power to achieve what he promised. Judaism was always subject to the weakness of its officials. Jesus, because he is the fullness of God incarnate, simply gifts himself to us and that forever.

 

 

On shouting in prayer and praise

Some people might find the idea of shouting in prayer a bit odd, but prayer is any way in which we communicate with God; and since we see two different people do that by shouting in today’s Readings, we need to look at what that’s all about. In our First Reading, Jeremiah (31:7-9) encourages us to shout when we want to praise God; whilst in our Gospel (Mark 10:46-52) we hear the blind man shouting to Jesus for help, and his shouts were heard. So two ways of shouting are worth using when we pray, in which one is a shout of praise and the other a shout for help.

When we shout in praise to God, we most often do it through song. “Sing to the Lord a new song; play skillfully on the strings with loud shouts.” is just one example from the great Hymns that Jesus knew by heart and would have sung with others. We call these Hymns, the Psalms, and that was from Psalm 33, but there are many many other examples encouraging us to sing and to shout. Most shouts to God in praise are best expressed in song, not least because we can do it altogether. Singing out in a loud voice to God is a vital part of being human. We should of course sometimes sing quietly, even almost under our breath, for singing of any kind offers to God a different part of our brain from speaking. That’s why we find it much easier to remember the words of songs, as we sing them, than words that are only spoken. We must always remember that these great shouts of praise to God are as much part of prayer as our quiet times. St Paul says that prayer will sometimes be “sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26) and we must pray in silence like that too; but we must have a balance, and shouts and songs of praise are equally important. As Jeremiah says “Proclaim. Praise. Shout.”

The second use of shouting in prayer is what we heard the blind man doing in the Gospel. He shouts for help, and note that he shouts even louder when the people tell him to be quiet. But remember that God knows our hearts and our needs even before we ask him, so we do not shout to God to make him hear us. Prayer is not about us trying to get God to open up to us, for he is always with us : he knows our hearts and our minds. Prayer is actually the way we open ourselves more and more to God, so that when we are sad or desperate or in pain, our shout, our cry to God for help, is the way we really share with God our deepest troubles, and our need for him, so that he can enter with his love in an even deeper way to bring us comfort and support. Here again we may shout out loud, or with silent sighs too deep for words. Both are ways in which we open up more and more to God in prayer.

There is however one other way that we can shout in prayer that might surprise you, and that is shouting AT God. There are times when things go so wrong for us that in our desperation, we want to really shout not just TO God but AT God, almost blaming him for the problem, even though we know it’s not really his fault.  In one great example of this from the Bible, Isaiah cries out (64:1) “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” ; and that’s certainly the way we can sometimes feel when we are really low. Now some people would say that shouting at God like this is wrong, but I would argue that God is big enough and loving enough to cope with us when we cry for help even like this; for we’re not meant simply to show our polite side to God, as some people think, as if prayer was like addressing some powerful person who we do not want to offend. Prayer does not have to be polite.

 If Jesus from the cross can shout out “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”, then we can too. Here again, he is using words from another of the Psalms, (22) which just shows how often these great Hymns can express some of our deepest feelings. I think that people get confused here because they know it is wrong to curse God, and think that shouting at God is the same. But as we can see from that shout of Jesus, it’s actually very different. Jesus doesn’t shout against God. That would be impossible for him; but he does share in as forceful way as possible the pain and agony that he is going through as he dies that horrible death; and we are thus given permission to do something similar when things are really tough for us.

As Christians we are meant to share everything with God, our greatest joys and our greatest sorrows, and all the other more ordinary things in between. Sharing our whole life with God is what prayer is, and that’s why we need to do it regularly both alone and with others; for in doing so we are not just letting God’s love and grace flow more fully into us, but also through us to others.

 

Jesus hears our cry

Here is Frances Meditation on next Sunday’s Readings (30th)

In a modern world blessed with good health services and private medical care, we wealthy westerners are rarely confronted by the terrors of death and overwhelming illness which was so much a part of ancient life, and of course still affects the Third World. Roman dynastic history could have been so different but for the death during childbirth of Julia, daughter of Julius Caesar and wife of Pompey. Millions might have been spared a violent death, and when a whole succession of the heirs of Augustus died it looked as though the entire project of imperial rule could go down the pan. For ordinary people with equally cruel and appallingly high death rates, from problems of childbirth, childhood illness, war, famine, fire and other illnesses all contriving to make life a terrifying and very uncomfortable process for all, rich or poor alike, it just got worse. Ancient cities would have been all too familiar with the daily funeral processions heading out of the cities, and the sick and physically disabled, reduced to begging would have been a common feature at the gates of any city.

Small wonder then that Jeremiah, (31:7-9) writing during the Babylonian Exile of the 6th century BCE, pictures God’s salvation of his people under the Persians in terms of help for the ‘blind and lame, for the pregnant women and even ‘those in labour’. For us today, a pregnancy is often something to rejoice about, a looking forward to a new life, a new future. For ancient women it could be your death knell, as complications in pregnancy and any difficulties at labour usually meant your death. Small wonder then that many went to curious lengths to avoid it, from using crocodile dung pessaries ,to encouraging partners to use prostitutes or slaves for sex, or in Augustine’s case of ‘safe-period-only sex.’  Indeed Paul’s advice on staying single, far from being frowned upon, must have been a positive godsend!

It requires a world like that to imagine precisely why Jesus became so popular with the poor, and those for whom no amount of cash or power could save from death or crippling illnesses. In our Gospel, (Mark 10:46-52) we meet Jesus at Jericho, clearly at one of its gateways, where he met Bartimaeus, rendered utterly without means of support by his blindness, seemingly of long duration. I imagine he was dumped there every dawn to beg by his desperate family. There he would sit, hoping for the tiniest of copper coins, so that he might get something to eat at the end of every pointless and depressing day. Imagine the hardship, the drudgery, the sorrow and shame for this man, unable to play any part in the upkeep of his family or any role in the society into which he had been born. The response of the crowd to his cries for help ‘Elision me’  ‘Have Pity!’ says it all; and the crowd tries to shut him up – he is of absolutely no worth and should have no right to attract attention, especially from a visitor like Jesus. But Jesus has heard his cry and responds, ‘What do you want me to do for you? Master, let me see again.’ Here is one, stripped bare of all pretension, one who can only call out for mercy, humanity at rock bottom, as we all are who suffer incurable illness or conditions which threaten to exclude us from  our true place as participators in the human race. Jesus, redeemer and bringer of God’s kingdom, responds by restoring his sight. Now no longer a captive of Jericho and its dusty gateway, Bartimaeus ‘Followed him along the road’. Bartimaeus has a life, and will follow the author of all life when and where it takes him.

This is why our Reading from Hebrews is so important. (Heb 5:1-6) Its writer, speaking to a group of Jewish Christians in Rome about the 70’s CE, speaks of the significance of the Incarnation. Jewish high priests of the Levitical line, he points out, are subject to human weaknesses like everyone else; and were there to secure the purification of the people through the temple sacrifices. But more recently they ruled this system with a rod of iron, and many would have been aware of their corruption, nepotism and veniality as they exploited their power over the Temple for personal gain. By the time of writing, the Jewish Revolt had collapsed with massive casualties and the Temple destroyed. The writer of Hebrews clearly wrote to inspire Jewish Christians to cut their ties with Judaism, and take on board the positive and vital change that Christianity gave them. The situation was so very different with Jesus. Indeed, though sent from God himself and utterly without sin, unlike all those other priests, Jesus was total in his solidarity with us and total in his obedience to the Father and, as the letter continues, we see this  etched out in his own personal suffering even unto death. Few writers could have so eloquently marked this terrifying and total change in the God-man relationship as the work of this writer. Whereas formerly, Jews were held in thrall to the law and the Temple sacrifices, and could be cut off from worship by all manner of illnesses, misfortunes and disfigurement, here in Hebrews we meet Jesus, totally like us, one who will be taken apart sinew by sinew in crucifixion, despised by the systems of this world; and yet one whose death and vindication by the Father will establish beyond all doubt his own and our own complete solidarity with God, the one the opening verse of Hebrews describes as ‘Creator of the worlds, the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. Who could possibly resist such an offer!