Lent 3 (year B), 4 March 2018, Fairacres Convent.
I have a new College laptop, which is very lovely, but as a computer and operator we haven’t quite learnt each others’ ways yet. It comes with AutoCorrect, which tries to change words it thinks are mis-spelt usually into an American spelling, but it make some changes quite creatively along the way. I tried to type deification this week, and it swapped it for desertification. Actually, although it didn’t make sense in the context, I was quite pleased because it had made a new link this lent. If we are searching for deification, we had better go down to the desert, and embrace the searing mystery of God. For some reason which I can’t really explain, it’s led me to ponder what some of those who have inhabited the desert came to understand. St Macarios of Egypt, for example, came to see who we are as humans as being profoundly an agent of connection in the universe – standing between God and the material world, between heaven and earth: all things in creation have a meeting place in the human being. So, rather than depersonalizing and exploiting nature and other people, and desiring to possess the spiritual realm, we are, in reality, priests. Our life participates in the harmony and reciprocity of the Word who creates and redeems. Going into the desert doesn’t mean displacing ourselves from nature, but entering deeply into our truest character by participating in the reconciliation of all things in Jesus Christ.
The outcome of this priesthood that we all share, whether we recognize it or not, is that the world may fulfill its destiny and be transfigured in the light and presence of God. Our prayer, and love, and our being in God, offers the world to God in our praise and worship. Things of the earth, in the Eucharist, and in them all earthly things, become part of an overflowing transaction. We offer, and simultaneously at that moment, God bestows divine Love and beauty on the creation of which we are stewards. It is of course far too much for us to think of all that! That our little lives enclosed together in this pleasant part of Oxford, marked by squabbles, forgiveness, Love, compromises, and ordinariness, are actually part of the cosmic Word – Christ reconciling all things. God to creation; heaven to earth; supernatural to natural; sacred to profane; sinless to sinner: the walls of separation do not reach to heaven, but are dissolved in the living Sacrament of God’s and presence in the sacrifice of this priesthood.
Perhaps our lives don’t feel that elevated! But the God who made us without our cooperation, does not save us without our involvement. Our priesthood has to proclaim to all people “Every day the door is open to you”. But, by revealing to creation the beauty hidden within, also means to reveal the essential destiny and identity of all creatures – that is, to assent freely and joyfully to this reconciliation, by welcoming Love into in the sanctuary of our hearts. This sounds very pious! St Paul, in the Epistle this morning, warns us about human wisdom being thwarted, & signs being demanded. God’s folly is wisdom indeed. I began to reflect what this means for someone exploring theology for a living, and wondered what is the most profound theological wisdom of recent decades has been. There are some very wonderfully clever theologians of course, but I sense that the most pertinent and profound insight of the 20th century was something that emerged from the darkness and devastating desert of the First World War. A centuries ago, three peasant shepherd children in Portugal, Lúcia dos Santos, and Francisco & Jacinta Merto, had an experience in Fátima. It is indeed problematic in many ways: and was exploited by the fascist government, and deeply associated with traditionalist, conservative Catholicism. But despite – or even perhaps because of – this, it strikes me that the prayers that emerged from that encounter are a leitmotif for the 20th and 21st centuries, because they embody and give to us a simple pathway to exercising that true priesthood which is our nature. One of the prayers is very familiar to any who say the rosary:
O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell; lead all souls to heaven especially those most in need of thy mercy.
Other prayers also plead for pardon, for those who do not believe, do not adore, do not hope, and who do not love.
Prayer is expanded here to include the fiery hells of trench warfare, the hatred and greed of Nations and competing races, and our reparation and priesthood (rather than it being their problem) is prompted. The thought in these simple prayers is shockingly strong – they steal into the temple of our hearts, and challenge us not to look out to others, but to bring them in – thereby exposing our self-obsession, and giving us the opportunity to lose it in love and service.
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry – after being pushed to interfere at the wedding in Cana of Galilee by his mother! – by entering the very holiest place on earth, the Jerusalem Temple, to re-establish it as the house of God, a place of prayer, an open door to heaven at the feast of the Passover. That is, of course, a very dangerous time for demonstration or objection in occupied Israel – this purging of corruption in the synoptic accounts is indeed the things that triggers the authorities to seek to destroy Jesus. But John’s Gospel has a different plan. This is to be the tenor of Jesus’s ministry. The intersection between heaven and earth was no longer to be here or any place else, but in the one who is Spirit, and truth. Still, the story is shocking. Jesus is a scary figure – we would no doubt label him as an out-of-control troublemaker. He’s just not reasonable, but dangerous. When our adversaries “lose it”, we can rejoice deepdown, because it makes us feel reasonable and justified. We are in the right, because we are mature; they are difficult people, and naïve – they are irrational, and foolish, and we can surround ourselves with familiar and comfortable words which make us feel wise because they are the out-of-control ones.
But this Lent, might not our High Priest seek to gain access to the temple of our deepest hearts to come in? Will we welcome him in the light of this gospel, knowing that he will likely need to turn the tables? His presence alone can take us out of the distorting things that we have constructed to make us feel supported, into the desert. For he would show us his presence and beauty in those we think of as our adversaries and enemies. He is there in those who do not share our view of things, those we enjoy to see provoked or rebuked. That’s where He is, too, and if we are going to grow up, then all falsehood, all tribalism, all clannishness must be overturned and exposed as corruption in the temple of our hearts.
That’s why every day we are, in the words of St Benedict, to begin again: to repent and believe, to learn mercy rather than to sacrifice others in the temple of our hearts. He desires mercy, not violence. It doesn’t happen all at once. We will seek again to destroy other people’s reputations and dignity; but if we invite him, Jesus will be a guest again, to turn the tables that we have moved into the temple of hearts for our own advantage.
In the meantime, during our Lenten fast, we are invited to abstain from a world with our a greedy, needy, broken, and breaking Self at the centre, and to learn mercy. In the simplest terms, like the words of Fátima, this means:
- Feeding the hungry;
- Giving drink to thirsty;
- Clothing the naked;
- Welcoming the stranger;
- Healing the sick;
- Visiting the imprisoned;
- Caring for the dead.
And thankfully, even though we are enclosed, that can and does happen in this community – even if the spiritual acts of mercy on closer to your vacation:
- to feed the doubtful with loving counsel;
- to showing the ignorant the beauty of Christ and the life of faith;
- to name set and to unpick it, by loving sinners;
- to forgive offences;
- to bear patiently with those who do us ill;
- to pray, to really pray, for the living and the dead;
- and to care for our cosmos, our shared planet, with all its communities of humans and of creatures, because we are creation’s priests.
Just see that we do this! Commit to these priorities of mercy above all other obsessions and distractions, so that Christ may come into the deepest silence of the temple of our hearts, without having to move all the furniture first!