St. Gregory of Nazianzus
If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.
John’s gospel takes up the theme of truth with notable frequency, and it is worthwhile for us as Christians constantly to take up this theme as well. Whether in our prayer, work life, or social life, our play, creative pursuits, or our time alone, we should remind ourselves that Jesus has claimed to be the Truth. Truth for us is therefore not some celestial force or an impersonal ideal; it is rather a person who graciously invites us into a deep and intimate knowing.
It is this very personhood, however, that begins to present our normative categories with some resistance, confusion, and misunderstanding. We may theorize about an idea all we like; but the depth and profundity of a personality will never fit easily into any theoretical category you or I propose. For if God is not simply an impersonal force or ideal, but a person, we may know of God only that which God has revealed. About a force, we may speculate; but to know a person is to open one’s self to the vulnerability of encounter. Encounter that might even change the nature of the inquirer.
It is clear that we need to be careful and discerning about the ways we speak and think about truth and the ways we suppose we understand who God is. St. Gregory of Nazianzus whom we remember today, spent his life thinking deeply about God’s nature and defending a particular way of understanding who God has revealed God’s self to be: namely, a trinity of persons ὁμοούσιονin one substance.
Acts 9:1-9 | John 21:1-14
There’s no going back. There’s no going back. Once you have said ‘yes’ to Jesus, once you have met the Risen Lord and said YES to his invitation to ‘follow me,’ nothing is the same again. For, as Saint Paul says in 2 Corinthians: “If you are in Christ, you are a new creation. Everything has passed away, see everything has become new.”[i]
In our readings today there are two wonderful accounts of how the greatest leaders of the church – Peter and Paul – each had to learn, in a way which was both humbling and painful, that to follow Jesus, first meant a real death to the life which they had lived until then. They had to become a new creation. They had to be born anew before God could use them for the work of the Kingdom.
So when, in our Gospel today, Peter says, ‘I am going fishing’ – I’m going back to the old life – that was no longer possible. He was a good fisherman, his strong hands were skilled with the ropes and the nets. But although he toiled all through the night, he caught nothing. Something had changed. What had changed was that Jesus had called him to follow him, and he had said YES. But what he was yet to learn was that he could not follow Jesus on his own terms, in his own strength, in the old way. That had died.
These skilled hands of the fisherman would be used by Jesus, but first Peter had to come to Jesus empty handed. And perhaps there is no more poignant moment in all the gospels than when Peter comes ashore, and sees Jesus sitting beside a charcoal fire. That word ‘charcoal’ is only used twice in the New Testament: here and in the courtyard of the High Priest Caiaphas, where Peter stood warming himself, and where he denied knowing Jesus three times.
…the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed… (John 20:8).
Once I got lost in the fog on the water. The more I paddled into this thick, eerie, pea-soup fog the more lost I felt. Fog was all around me. I didn’t know where I was. I was directionless. I was lost. I couldn’t get where I wanted. My fear was heightened because one of our children, then young, was with me. Eventually, I could see the outline of some unfamiliar land, but land it was. Then came the welcome sound of hammering, a lobsterman working on his boat. I paddled near him and asked. “Where am I?” It was an anxious question. He told me where I was and how to get where I needed to be. Then, like a good teacher, he asked, “Where’s your compass?” When I got back home from vacation, I knew I was lost in more ways than just on the water. So I wrote about the Fellowship of Saint John because I needed a compass. I’ve been grateful to the Brothers ever since.
“Where am I?” “How can I get on course?” “Where’s my compass?” is another way to ask: “Who is God for me?” “How can I grasp the divine presence in my life?” “How can I feel what is alive and vibrant in me, again?” These, for me, are Easter’s questions.
To answer such questions, early and medieval teachers turned to that wonderfully erotic Hebrew love poem, the Song of Songs.It’s not an obvious place to look. The Song suggests the human and divine in relationship are like lovers. Is that how you describe your relationship to God? Like you’re lovers. Hark! My beloved! Here he comes, bounding over the mountains, leaping over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. There he stands outside our wall, peering in at the windows, gazing through the lattice. My beloved spoke, saying to me: “Rise up, my daring; my fair one, come away”(Song2:8-10). It’s an amazing sketch of human-divine-relationship. Do you experience God as your lover? Or is that just a stretch too far? For me, Saint John’s Day is about the intimacy of God.
The rabbis interpreted the poem symbolically. The symbolic interpretation of scripture is, after all, an old way to read sacred texts, not a ruse foisted on the modern Christian world by Anglican liberals. How else might we read Scripture than as an attempt to articulate a reality that’s clearly beyond us? How can we talk about the ineffable, the mysterious, the Unknowable except in figures and enigmas?
A teacher of mine once described a time Martin Buber gave a talk at his college. In the course of the questions, a student asked about someone named “Yahweh.” Buber stood silent. He looked at the inquirer, “Whose name is that?” The student answered, “God’s.” Buber said, “Ah, you know God’s name. Tell me the answer to the question: Whose name is that?” The Songanswers Buber’s question in poetry that celebrates human-divine-love. It’s graceful. It’s sensuous. It’s erotic. Two lovers profess love for each other. Our relationship with God is like lovers. One scholar writes:
Bernard <of Clairvaux> was convinced that the Song of Songs’ central theme—the passions and love play of the wedding night—provides the best analogy for describing the human encounter with the divine. The claim is breathtaking. We today use the term ‘mystical marriage’ without thinking about how astonishing it is to claim that God and a human being can so unite as to be ‘married’… The secret of mystical marriage is the discovery that to be oneself is to be in love with Love… …this meant that God is love in the absolute sense—that love is God’s being, God’s substance. And because God is Love itself and because we as creatures are made in God’s image and likeness, we are by nature lovers. There is nothing more natural to us than loving…
So we hear about the race to the tomb. The other disciple, the one Jesus loved, is faster than slow-footed Peter. The beloved disciple believes because he sees. So we say, “Seeing is believing.” But what did the beloved disciple see? “…the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.” The face-cloth is what we call a “handkerchief.” Sandra Schneidersthinks: “The face veil is best understood as a Johannine…sign (symbol) in and through which a…person can encounter the glory of God revealed in Jesus.”The beloved disciple comes to faith by sight. “The priority of love is the basis of spiritual insight.”
I am moved by what the writer Herta Muellersays about a handkerchief:
DO YOU HAVE A HANDKERCHIEF was the question my mother asked me every morning, standing by the gate of our house, before I went out onto the street. I didn’t have a handkerchief. And because I didn’t, I would go back inside and get one. I never had a handkerchief because I would always wait for her question. The handkerchief was proof that my mother was looking after me in the morning. For the rest of the day I was on my own. The question DO YOU HAVE A HANDKERCHIEF was an indirect display of affection. Anything more direct would have been embarrassing and not something the farmers practiced. Love disguised itself as a question. That was the only way it could be spoken: matter-of-factly, in the tone of a command, or the deft maneuvers used for work. The brusqueness of the voice even emphasized the tenderness. Every morning I went to the gate once without a handkerchief and a second time with a handkerchief. Only then would I go out onto the street, as if having the handkerchief meant having my mother there, too.
Can it be that the question about the handkerchief was never about the handkerchief at all, but rather about the acute solitude of a human being?
What an apt description of us. The acute solitude of human beings. Did the first Easter story suggest a remedy for the acute solitude of human beings?Can Easter be proof that God is looking after us? …an indirect display of affection … love disguised as a question … the tenderness … having <God> there? Pema Chodron said: “Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there is some hand to hold.” Some hand to hold. The acute solitude of human beings. “the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head.”
I suspect that it brought to mind for John—the one Jesus loved, the beloved disciple—the intimacy of relationship. The intimacy of God with human beings. So we prayed today: “Eternal Father, whose Son Jesus drew the Beloved Disciple into deep intimacy with himself… Grant that we…may ever be Christ’s friends and witnesses, that through us…many may come to believe…”
Prayer is not just a good feeling in the heart but about growth, change and transformation when we can be open, vulnerable and real. Can we pray our way through our own fragility, stay in that vulnerable place and feel God’s unconditional love? Can we allow ourselves to be changed by our prayer, to leave self behind, to see God in all things, to trust and love another, to cross boundaries and transcend limitations? Because it’s all about love. Think how different our life would be—deeply converted to neighbor, to ministry to those different from us—if we saw ourselves as lovers!
Dorothy Day once said:
We cannot love God unless we love each other. We know God in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet, and life is too—even with a crust—as long as there is companionship. We have all known loneliness. We have learned that the only solution is love. And love comes with community.’
…and he saw and believed…
Cf. Richard A. Norris Jr, The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators(Grand Rapids, MI, 2003).
William Harmless, Mystics(Oxford, 2008), p. 47f.
Sandra M. Schneiders, Written that you may believe(New York, 2003), p. 202.
Herta Mueller, “Every word knows something of a vicious circle,” Nobel Lecture, December 7, 2009
Ephesians 4:7-8, 11-16
There’s a cartoon with Jesus talking to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, who are sitting in a circle. One of them is looking out the window, distracted; one of them is dozing; one of them is doodling; one of them is fiddling with his tunic. Jesus notices all this, and he says to the group: “Now listen up! I don’t want there to be four versions of what I’m saying….”
Well, we have four versions of the Gospel, all quite similar, and yet each one distinctive. Today we honor the witness of one of these Gospel writers, Saint Mark. Mark was not one of the original 12 apostles; however Jesus also appointed a wider circle of 70 disciples, believed to have included Mark.[i]Information in the New Testament about his life is sketchy, though we know that Mark was a fellow missionary at various times with Saints Paul, Barnabas, and Timothy.[ii]We can infer Mark had a close relationship with Saint Peter, who writes about “my son Mark.”[iii]And according to the Acts of the Apostles, his mother’s house in Jerusalem was a center of Christian life.[iv]In Egypt, the Coptic Church remembers Saint Mark as its founder and patron, Mark having been martyred in Egypt in year 68.
In his Gospel writing, Mark keeps a secret. It’s actually Jesus’ secret. In Mark’s Gospel account, Jesus will typically ask something, listen to something, do something like perform a healing or other miracle, and thenJesus will say, “Don’t tell anyone.” In many instances, Jesus insists on silence.[v]And it’s not just with outsiders. The same pertains to his relationship with the 12 apostles. Early on, Jesus asks them, “‘Who do yousay that I am?’ Peter answers, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And [Jesus] sternly orders them not to tell anyone about him.”[vi]
So what’s going on? Why the secret?
Easter II :: 4.28.2019 | John 20:19-31
Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.
Today is perhaps my favorite Sunday of the year. It is known by a variety of names, depending on one’s tradition: Divine Mercy Sunday, Low Sunday, Pascha Clausum, The Octave of Easter, Empty Pew Sunday or, as it is still known among my more incarnational friends from theological school, Side-Wound Sunday. Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters have frequently called this day Quasi modo Sunday, after the first line of the Introit traditionally sung at the beginning of Mass on the Second Sunday of Easter: Quasi modo geniti infantes, alleluia. “As newborn babes, alleluia, desire the rational milk without guile, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
Today the divine gift of mind mixes and comingles with the gifts of flesh and blood; and an encounter with the Risen Lord offers us the new milk of a renewed, guileless knowing. As the risen and glorified body of Jesus meets His broken and weary disciples, so too our weary rationality meets and is gathered up into the reality of the Paschal Mystery. Today we remember that when the faithful doubt in love, God prepares a spring of faith, “gushing up to eternal life.”
When the disciples report to Thomas that they had seen the Lord, he baulks. Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.A twin,Thomas is likely well acquainted with the liabilities of mistaken identity, and John begs us not to hear this as a faithless objection. Chapter twenty of John’s gospel contains three encounters with the Risen Lord, and in each of these encounters, the characters perform poorly. Mary only recognizes Jesus after He speaks her name; gripped by fear, the disciples lock themselves away; and Thomas—who was willing to go to his death with Jesus in chapter eleven—simply asks for something as tangible as the rest of them have received. John is not attempting to paint for us a picture of an inadequate faith. He is attempting something much deeper: a portrait of the complex, enigmatic realities of the paschal encounter, realities where doubt and unknowing become preludes to God’s creative word of truth.
It’s Easter Day! Today our Lord Jesus Christ has been raised gloriously from the dead. Alleluia! Today is a day for rejoicing. He is Risen: Alleluia!
But on Monday, just six days ago, I was not rejoicing. I was tearful. I was staring in shock and stunned silence – as you may have been too – watching those pictures of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burning. I first went to Notre Dame when I was 14; I was staying with my pen friend’s family in Paris. I was struck dumb, even at that age, with the beauty, the colour and light, the sheer holinessof the place. I remember we lit candles, and sat gazing in wrapt silence at a great rose window, shimmering like a jewel.
Throughout most of my life, as a parish priest in England, I tried to go back most years to Notre Dame, to light candles and pray for friends and parishioners who were sick or in need. Back to the place where for me, in Eliot’s words, “prayer had been valid.”
So it was heartbreaking to see this place of beauty and loveliness where I have for years felt so close to God, mauled and wounded and ravaged by fire.
“It is finished.”[i]
Logically, there should be no more to say. “It is finished.” The altar is naked, the flame extinguished, the holy water dried up.
And yet, we linger here where powerful truths have been expressed and ineffable mysteries suggested.
The Truth: that the Love of God risks everything, forsakes all sense, abandons natural order, acts contrary to human expectation. We read in this truth the voluntary self-gift of God’s only-begotten Son “into the hands of sinners” that he fashioned from clay.
And the Truth: that the Love of God can – and shall – convert every instrument of death that cruel humans can invent into a key that opens the door to Life. We read this truth in the Cross that bore his Body.
And the Truth: that the Love of God endures the worst imaginable suffering. Through this, not in spite of this, as a ray of light pierces the darkest storm cloud, God’s glory is made manifest. We read this truth in the flesh of Jesus Christ: beaten, bleeding, broken, dying…drawing all people to himself.
Maundy Thursday. If you’re anything like me, you may have to be reminded each year what the word “maundy” means; it’s not a word that comes up in everyday conversations. “Maundy” is derived from the Latin word mandatum, from which we get our English word “mandate.” Mandatum, then, refers to a mandate or a command. In the context of tonight’s liturgy, it is tied to Jesus’ words in John 13:34, where he gives his disciples a mandatum novum, a “new command,” namely, to love one another as he has loved them.
What’snewabout that? we might ask. After all, hasn’t God always been a God of love, and haven’t God’s people always been instructed to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself”? (Luke 10:27)[ii]This command did not originate with Jesus and his followers; it was deeply embedded in the religious tradition they practiced.[iii]
The command itself isn’t new, but the radical wayin which Jesus teaches and embodies it surprises and challenges Jesus’ disciples; it goes beyond their expectations[iv]:
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”[i]In dying, we live. Anything would be more palatable. Nothing is so essential. We must surrender, losing and letting go, being vulnerable again and again, dying to ourselves in order to live. This Holy Week we face Jesus on the cross.
When serving as a hospital chaplain, I found it exhausting continually listening to heartache. One day I realized Jesus was listening to the same heartache yet not for a few minutes per person and not just how many people I met. Jesus knows everyone and listens to all hearts, to everyone sick and dying, to all who are grieving, to each in any kind of suffering, and indeed to us all. Jesus draws the whole world to himself with a loving ear in a listening embrace.
All of us need and glory in the cross. Jesus invites each to die to self-sufficiency and secrecy. Jesus invites us to pray the whole truth of our lives, naming what weighs us down, our grief and questions, our wounds and concerns, as well as joys, thanks, and desires. Jesus listens directly and in the flesh through other people. Jesus, exposed and vulnerable on the cross, invites us to expose ourselves, share our inner life and struggles, pray in the dark, and pray our hearts.
Telling our stories can be painful, like touching wounds, a kind of death. Like wheat dying to bear fruit, safe exposure of our story heals. We like to edit, restrict, categorize, or deny our lives. Good listeners help by attending to our stories with their surprises, seeming contradictions, and scattered pieces. Listeners help us hear how these pieces together form us.
In Jesus’ day, palms were carried in joyful, triumphant processions by Jews and Romans alike. Roman soldiers, returning from a successful conquest, would wave palms as they returned home to their welcome. Jews used palm adornments for their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to the Festival of Tabernacles. And palm decorations were carved in stone within the Temple. Palms symbolized an oasis in the desert, victory in public games and in conquests, and a sign of blessing and homage.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem replicates how the Roman Emperor and his emissaries would enter the city: on a roadway strewn with palms, and with the crowds waving palms, shouting their praise. The crowds welcoming Jesus are shouting, “Hosanna,” which, in Hebrew, means “savior.” “Savior” is the very title already claimed by the Roman Emperor. The Roman Emperor’s titles included the “Savior of the World,” and “Son of God,” and “Lord of Lords.”[i] That’s the Roman Emperor. Unlike the Emperor and his party, whose processional entry would be on magnificent Persian stallions, Jesus is on a donkey.