Sunday, 20 April 2014

"You are baked into the bread which is the body of Christ": Augustine on the Easter sacraments

You have been raised with Christ ... you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

Colossians 3:1-3, from the Epistle reading at the Mass of Easter Sunday.

In a sermon of Easter Sunday, addressed to those who had received the sacraments of initiation at the vigil, Augustine rejoices in how through the sacraments our lives as disciples are, in the Risen One, caught up in the very life of God:

That bread which you can see on the altar, sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ. That cup, or rather what the cup contains, sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ. It was by means of these things that the Lord Christ wished to present us with his body and blood, which he shed for our sake for the forgiveness of sins. If you receive them well, you are yourselves what you receive. You see, the apostle says, We, being many, are one loaf, one body. That's how he explained the sacrament of the Lord's table; one loaf, one body, is what we all are, many though we be.

In this loaf of bread you are given clearly to understand how much you should love unity. I mean, was that loaf made from one grain? Weren't there many grains of wheat? But before they came into the loaf they were all separate; they were joined together by means of water after a certain amount of pounding and crushing. Unless wheat is ground, after all, and moistened with water, it can't possibly get into this shape which is called bread. In the same way you too were being ground and pounded, as it were, by the humiliation of fasting and the sacrament of exorcism. Then came baptism, and you were, in a manner of speaking, moistened with water in order to be shaped into bread. But it's not yet bread without fire to bake it. So what does fire represent? That's the chrism, the anointing. Oil, the fire-feeder, you see, is the sacrament of the Holy Spirit.

Notice it, when the Acts of the Apostles are read; the reading of that book begins now, you see. Today begins the book which is called the Acts of the Apostles. Anybody who wishes to make progress has the means of doing so. When you assemble in church, put aside silly stories and concentrate on the scriptures. We here are your books. So pay attention, and see how the Holy Spirit is going to come at Pentecost. And this is how he will come; he will show himself in tongues of fire. You see, he breathes into us the charity which should set us on fire for God, and have us think lightly of the world, and burn up our straw, and purge and refine our hearts like gold. So the Holy Spirit comes, fire after water, and you are baked into the bread which is the body of Christ.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

"The story of our brother Judas" and the Exsultet: our night of resurrection

In his homily at the Liturgy of the Passion, preacher to the papal household, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, beautifully connected "the story of our brother Judas" with the joy of the Exsultet.  Tonight in the celebration of the Vigil, our stories in which we have acted as our brother Judas are transformed in union with the Crucified and Risen One who bestows life on us through the sacraments:

Here is what the story of our brother Judas should move us to do: to surrender ourselves to the one who freely forgives, to throw ourselves likewise into the outstretched arms of the Crucified One. The most important thing in the story of Judas is not his betrayal but Jesus’ response to it. He knew well what was growing in his disciple’s heart, but he does not expose it; he wants to give Judas the opportunity right up until the last minute to turn back, and is almost shielding him. He knows why Judas came to the garden of olives, but he does not refuse his cold kiss and even calls him “friend” (see Mt 26:50). He sought out Peter after his denial to give him forgiveness, so who knows how he might have sought out Judas at some point in his way to Calvary! When Jesus prays from the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34), he certainly does not exclude Judas from those for whom he prays.

So what will we do? Who will we follow, Judas or Peter? Peter had remorse for what he did, but Judas was also remorseful to the point of crying out, “I have betrayed innocent blood!” and he gave back the thirty pieces of silver. Where is the difference then? Only in one thing: Peter had confidence in the mercy of Christ, and Judas did not! Judas’ greatest sin was not in having betrayed Christ but in having doubted his mercy.

If we have imitated Judas in his betrayal, some of us more and some less, let us not imitate him in his lack of confidence in forgiveness. There is a sacrament through which it is possible to have a sure experience of Christ’s mercy: the sacrament of reconciliation. How wonderful this sacrament is! It is sweet to experience Jesus as Teacher, as Lord, but even sweeter to experience him as Redeemer, as the one who draws you out of the abyss, like he drew Peter out of the sea, as the one who touches you and, like he did with the leper, says to you, “I will; be clean” (Mt 8:3).

Confession allows us to experience about ourselves what the Church says of Adam’s sin on Easter night in the “Exultet”: “O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!” Jesus knows how to take all our sins, once we have repented, and make them “happy faults,” faults that would no longer be remembered if it were not for the experience of mercy and divine tenderness that they occasioned.

Friday, 18 April 2014

"Entrance to the life which is true life": Augustine and the opened side of the Crucified

One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.

John 19:34, from the Gospel reading at the Liturgy of the Passion.

"Pierced" is the accurate translation, but throughout the Church's reflection on the Passion, attention has been drawn to the close resemblance in Greek to the phrase 'to open'.  So close, in fact, that a word play - based on phonetic resemblance - does seem to be occurring. The Latin translation of John known to Augustine read "one of the soldiers with a spear laid open His side".  For Augustine, this leads us into a beautiful reflection on the meaning of the Passion:

A suggestive word was made use of by the evangelist, in not saying pierced, or wounded His side, or anything else, but opened; that thereby, in a sense, the gate of life might be thrown open, from whence have flowed forth the sacraments of the Church, without which there is no entrance to the life which is the true life. That blood was shed for the remission of sins; that water it is that makes up the health-giving cup, and supplies at once the laver of baptism and water for drinking. This was announced beforehand, when Noah was commanded to make a door in the side of the ark, whereby the animals might enter which were not destined to perish in the flood, and by which the Church was prefigured. Because of this, the first woman was formed from the side of the man when asleep, and was called Life, and the mother of all living. Truly it pointed to a great good, prior to the great evil of the transgression (in the guise of one thus lying asleep). This second Adam bowed His head and fell asleep on the cross, that a spouse might be formed for Him from that which flowed from the sleeper's side. O death, whereby the dead are raised anew to life! What can be purer than such blood? What more health-giving than such a wound?

The lifeless Body hanging on the Cross is Life.  The Wound which confirms death opens to us the Life poured out in Baptism and Eucharist.  Here - in the very midst of bitter death, shameful failure, utter powerlessness - we encounter Life, we taste Life, we enter Life.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

"Found by the lowly God": Augustine on the stripping and washing which saves

[He] got up from the table, took off his outer garment, and tied a towel around himself.

John 13:4, from the Gospel reading at the Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper.

For Augustine, this taking off of the outer garment speaks of the humility of the Incarnation - of the One who came seeking a humanity deceived by and lost in pride.  It also points forward, to another stripping, another washing, that of the Cross. It is the hermeneutic of Incarnation and Cross, of our being "found by the lowly God".

Why should we wonder that He rose from supper, and laid aside His garments, who, being in the form of God, made Himself of no reputation? And why should we wonder, if He girded Himself with a towel, who took upon Him the form of a servant, and was found in the likeness of a man? Why wonder, if He poured water into a basin wherewith to wash His disciples' feet, who poured His blood upon the earth to wash away the filth of their sins? Why wonder, if with the towel wherewith He was girded He wiped the feet He had washed, who with the very flesh that clothed Him laid a firm pathway for the footsteps of His evangelists? In order, indeed, to gird Himself with the towel, He laid aside the garments He wore; but when He emptied Himself [of His divine glory] in order to assume the form of a servant, He laid not down what He had, but assumed that which He had not before. When about to be crucified, He was indeed stripped of His garments, and when dead was wrapped in linen clothes: and all that suffering of His is our purification. When, therefore, about to suffer the last extremities [of humiliation,] He here illustrated beforehand its friendly compliances; not only to those for whom He was about to endure death, but to him also who had resolved on betraying Him to death. Because so great is the beneficence of human humility, that even the Divine Majesty was pleased to commend it by His own example; for proud man would have perished eternally, had he not been found by the lowly God. For the Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost. And as he was lost by imitating the pride of the deceiver, let him now, when found, imitate the Redeemer's humility.

(The illustration is Sadao Watanabe, Christ Washing the Feet of St Peter, 1963.)

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

"Judas is central to the plan of salvation": the Story of Love writes the account of betrayal

When [Judas] had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified ..."

John 13:31, from the Gospel reading at Mass for Wednesday of Holy Week.

As Sarah Coakley emphasises in her beautiful and profound reflection Holy Week reflection "Betrayal", John's account here of Judas' actions is shot through not with condemnation but with salvific significance:

So here we meet the heart of the matter, and its most paradoxical twist. Judas, the betrayer, is central to the plan of salvation. To understand the paradox better, we have to notice that the word used for Judas as "betrayer" (from the verb paradidomi) more accurately, or literally, means to "hand over." This verb, rather than the one that more strictly means "betray" (prodidomi) is the one invariably used of Judas in the New Testament (except only once and quite exceptionally, in the gospel of Luke). That word play, that little linguistic pun between "hand over" and "betray," therefore, is present every time Judas is mentioned. It is actually "handing over" Jesus that it is Judas's divinely-intended and necessary work to do, even as he also "betrays" him. Jesus, because of Judas, becomes the one who can be "handed over" to his own Passion.

And now, in his "handed-over" state, Jesus is, as it were, made "passive" to the world and so manifests his love in a new way, as we shall be remembering in the coming days: only thus does he enter into his "glory." Now he speaks little, whereas before he taught; now he does no miracles, whereas before marvels attended him; now he despairs in the garden, whereas before he triumphed; now he is despised, whereas before he was adulated. Now he dies, whereas before he brought others back to life. Jesus is constrained into a new posture of pure, passive love. All this unfolds as a result of Judas's necessary act of "handing over."

And so, as we ask what this paradox means for us, now, we see that the Judas question cuts deep into the heart of the problem of our own "uncleanness" as we approach the Passion - of our own experiences of betraying as well as of being betrayed. Can betrayal and true (divine) love co-exist? If it was necessary that Jesus be "handed over," if being handed over in this way is of the essence of Jesus's love and passion, then why must Judas suffer for it? Why must he be betrayed as the betrayer, when what he did in "handing over" was what he "had to do" for the sake of the very unfolding of the "glory" of that divine love?

... If betrayal is so deep a part of human sin, and so profoundly entangled also with the story of love and salvation, then it cannot actually be betrayal per se that must be repressed or obliterated in the Passion. Rather, what is held up to us is the amazing possibility that even betraying, as well as being betrayed, can become part of the terrible stuff of being "handed over" to the full and deepest meaning of Christian love. God can make love, excessive love, even out of human betrayal. On this view Judas's tragedy was that - unlike Peter - he despaired of that possibility; he could not conceive of that excessive sort of forgiveness. (And indeed, who knows but that God may not have still forgiven him after death? I cannot myself believe that divine love does not extend to the terrible agony of the suicide.)

"And Jesus said, 'What you are going to do, do quickly ... Now is the Son of Man glorified.'" Deep in the heart of John's gospel is a truth that even the earliest church found hard to swallow, lurching between ever-new layers of condemnation of Judas in the New Testament, and then at the other extreme to a weird gnostic adulation of him that occurred much later in the so-called Gospel of Judas, which was designed to sneer at the material eucharistic sacramentalism of the new "orthodox" church. But surely the truth lies deeper than these two alternatives, as we've begun to glimpse, and as John's gospel intimates. For in the fallen realm of the desire to order and control, the act of "handing over" can strangely coexist with a form of human love which tragically resists the true vulnerability and excess of divine love. Yet even this distortion of love, God can weave into His plan, allowing His Son thus to be "handed over," and holding out again and again the offer of forgiveness and grace to the betrayer.

In the gathering darkness of Holy Week, today's Gospel reading is a sign of the grace which embraces the most broken aspects of our lives - the stories of greed, of betrayal, of shame.  The grace of the Crucified embraces and transforms our greed, betrayal and shame to be bearers of and encounters with reconciliation, hope and love. 

In the words of Julian, as we behold the Crucified, we can confess that "sinne is behovely."

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

"Revealing the participation of the universe in His Cross": on being drawn to our Crucified Creator

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.

John 12:32, from the Gospel reading at Mass for Tuesday of Holy Week.

The Crucified draws all people because, in the words of Irenaeus, "He has imprinted the form of the Cross on the universe".  We are drawn to the Crucified because our Creator is the Crucified - not One alien to us but the One who has shaped us, given us breath, sustains us.  We have been created to discern, receive, adore, love, and have communion with the Crucified. 

The Cross is not imposed upon us from 'outside' as an alien entity.  The alien entity, rather, is the sin which distorts our hearts and minds, our loves and perceptions.  In a world disordered and diseased by this alien entity, the Crucified reigns from the Cross, shattering the power and pretensions of sin. 

We behold the Crucified and are drawn to Him - we return to the One who in gracious, self-emptying love created and formed us.

By His obedience to death on the Cross, He wiped out the ancient disobedience wrought on the tree.  He is Himself the Word of almighty God, who in His invisible form pervades us all and encompasses the breadth and length, the height and depth, of the whole world, for by God's Word all things are guided and ordered.  Now God's Son was also crucified in them [the four dimensions], since He has imprinted the form of the Cross on the universe.  In becoming visible, He had to reveal the participation of the universe in His Cross.  He wanted to display, in visible form, His activity in the visible realm, namely that it is he who makes bright the heights, that is, what is in heaven, and reaches down into the depths, to what is under the earth, and spreads out the length from East to West, and, like a pilot, guides the breadth from North to South, and calls together all the dispersed, from all the corners of the earth, to the knowledge of the Father.

(Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 34.)

Monday, 14 April 2014

Captured by the Crucified: the silence at the heart of Holy Week

The liturgies of Holy Week are an extended encounter with and meditation upon the Cross of the Crucified.  Our response culminates in the Liturgy of the Passion on Good Friday.  It culminates not with a doctrinal statement of the atonement.  Nor with social activism. 

Rather, we kneel in silence.  We venerate the wood the Cross on which hung the Saviour of the world.

Not with doctrinal statement.  Not with activism. 

But in the silence of adoration, with genuflection, kiss or touch.

We respond with the heart, in the imagination, through the emotions.

We are, to paraphrase Austin Farrer, captured by the Crucified.

You cannot give a lecture at the foot of the cross.  Ultimately we fall silent, with the reverence that is due to holy love and mystery.

Graham Tomlin Looking through the Cross (ABC's Lent Book 2014).

Surely it is evident that the Father accepts the sacrifice of Christ, not because he demands it, still less because he feels some need of it, but in order to carry forward his own purposes for the world ... Let the rest be adored in silence.

Gregory of Nazianzus.

Seek the answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine; in the longing of the will, not in the understanding; in the sighs of prayer, not in research; seek the bridegroom not the teacher.