Ecce Agnus Dei: on the Blessed Sacrament being saved

One on the most remarkable stories around the tragic fire at Notre Dame is that of Pere Jean-Marc Fournier. Already a hero of the Bataclan massacre, the fire brigade chaplain entered the burning cathedral and rescued the relic of the Crown of Thorns. And the Blessed Sacrament.

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In the reporting of Fr Fournier’s rescue, it is the relic that has been emphasised. This remains the case, perhaps surprisingly, in the Catholic Press. But I doubt this reflects how the priest himself sees things: the relic is a reminder of the Lord’s passion, the Sacrament is the Lord himself, present as our food. The one merely points to what the other is.

Already there’s a certain lesson: things are not always as they seem – against a certain horizon, what appear to be small pieces of bread matter infinitely more than priceless relics. Here in microcosm is the gospel which values the widow’s meager offering over the extravagances of the rich. The world is turned upside down, and God views history from the underside.

But more needs to be said. Because perhaps it is not obvious after all why the Blessed Sacrament ought to be rescued from a fire. It would be a superstitious view of the eucharist which worried that Jesus might somehow be harmed by damage to the Hosts. On the contrary, Aquinas’ sequence for the feast of Corpus Christi is clear:

They, who of Him here partake,
Sever not, nor rend, nor break:
But, entire, their Lord receive.

St Thomas has in mind here those partaking of Christ in communion – the Host being broken, individual Hosts being chewed. But the point transfers to burning Hosts. In no way is Christ, risen and glorified in heaven, sacramentally present on the Altar, diminished if the media of his sacramental presence are destroyed. His mode of presence in the sacrament just isn’t like that.

So why rescue the Blessed Sacrament? Out go all pragmatic and calculating considerations, out goes any thought of keeping Jesus safe (the risen Jesus does not need us to keep him safe – noli me tangere). The act can only be a superfluous one, performed out of sheer devotion, of witness to the Lord present in the eucharist. And that is why, I think, it deserves more attention than it has been getting. At a point of radical choice, faced with the threat of death, not subject to any need or obligation, this man declared himself for the eucharist and all that is contained in it – a life of divine love and service, culminating in the Cross, glorified in the Resurrection. That is as good an example of what evangelisation in the 21st century might look like as any that comes to my mind. Not least because, if the story of Fr Fournier’s rescue is told with proper emphasis, it is likely to invite the question ‘why?’

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‘The vanished power of the usual reign’

Today Christians gather and remind ourselves of two things, that we are going to die and that we are sinners. “To dust you will return”, “turn away from sin”. There is a popular misconception about the Church, that it is a collection of people who think they are better than everyone else, superior and righteous. Of course Christians do often behave as though this were the case, but just to that extent they are failing to be the Church.

The truth is almost exactly the opposite, the Church is not a club for the sinless (there have only ever been two sinless human beings, and each of their relationships to the Church is unique). The starting point of Christian life is a recognition that one is a sinner amongst sinners, and that in spite of this, in divine indifference to it, we are loved by God. The imposition of ashes is witness to this shared reality of sin – we are all together caught up in the world’s falling short of God. The theme of solidarity in sin, that there is something corporate about our plight, is – I think – important. It was important to Paul, ‘as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive’. It is evident in the corporate reading of the Passion on Good Friday, where all present take the part of the jeering crowd, symbolically participating in the great sign of the world’s sin, Jesus’ crucifixion.

There is nothing remarkable about sin; all of us are in the same boat. Recognition of this shared reality etches away at the glamour of sin, whilst also pushing back against our self-hatred, our fear that we are somehow so much worse than anyone else. The truth is much more mundane, the whole human race is systematically in rebellion against God: this can manifest itself in grotesque ways, more often than not it works itself out tediously in our petty resentments and envies. Either way, God cannot be harmed or swayed from his eternal love by our wrongdoing. It is only our own rebellion which makes it seem as though we are unforgivable. God offers us not only forgiveness but a share in God’s life, freely and out of sheer love, quite apart from anything we do or deserve. Indeed so free is this gift that even our ability to accept it is God’s gracious gift (it’s a mistake of course to think that God’s grace makes something less free from our perspective).

If sin is corporate, then so is our redemption. I cannot be redeemed privately. To be forgiven by God is to become part of the story of humankind’s rejection of God and redemption in Jesus Christ. To recognise that I am a sinner along with everyone else is to recognise also that I hope to share the life of the Kingdom along with everyone else: we who once belonged to the kingdoms of the world, to the ways of being less than human which mean oppression, injustice, small-minded humanity turned in on itself, we now belong, already as a free gift, to the coming reign of God. And it is precisely because this is the story of everyone, the story of every human being, caught up in war with themselves in a world of injustice and hatred (as well as, of course, a world of great love and joy), that it is appropriate that the beginnings of redemption be lived out corporately, in the Catholic Church – which just is the sacrament of humankind on its way to God – in her ashes, and especially in the sacrament of reconciliation

 

Breaking the cycle of revenge

I think it’s a pretty sure that a good proposition of people who warmed to last week’s gospel didn’t like this week’s and vice versa. There is a temptation for people who warm to the social aspects of the gospel (in that horrible modern phrase, as though the gospel writers separated the social and, say, the theological) to like Luke’s Beatitudes, but to be put off by all this stuff about loving one’s enemies, and worse still, forgiving those who hurt us. Isn’t this a call to be reconciled over and above seeking justice? Haven’t the oppressed been called to forgive their oppressors?

Now, the fact that something has been misused is no good reason to reject it: a point which is often missed in the moralistic frenzy of contemporary social action is that the vulnerability  to misuse of something is indicative that there is something worthwhile about it. Evil, Thomas insists, is always parasitic upon some good.

Moralism, the way of life which consists in taking umbrage and dealing out petty punishments, shows us exactly why forgiveness has to be central to the kind of life which makes the Kingdom of God present even in this mess of a world. If one is always on the look out to accuse, always bearing grudges, the possibility of genuine shared living with others vanishes. Moreover, if one cannot look at others, in all their sinful inadequacy, and see them as beings who could be shown mercy, then one cannot do the same about oneself. The neurotic attempt to enforce codes, whether conservative or liberal, comes from a deep suspicion that one is not, oneself loveable. The life of the moralist, in other words, is just the life of Hell on earth. The good news is that this life is based on a lie, we are loveable, because one of us is God, loved with the eternal love with which the Father loves his only Son.

Still, we find forgiveness hard. At least part of this is that we have a mistaken picture of forgiveness, founded on a mistake picture of ourselves. We tend to think that forgiveness is first and foremost something that happens inside of us, a matter of feeling. (Even worse, we sometimes think that forgiveness must always involve a restoration of relationship – this idea really can be used to keep the abused with abusers etc.: theologically it represents the naively mistaken view that the reconciliation of the End Times can be a full reality here and now – it is so obviously harmful and wrong that I won’t bother saying more here).

We are afraid that we might be hypocrites if we speak words of forgiveness but don’t feel warm and fuzzy towards those who have hurt us. We worry that our heart might never quite be where our mouth is. Immediately, of course, we become sceptical about all forgiveness. Did so and so really forgive me? How do I know she meant it? Forgiveness, according to the compendium of wrongheadedness that is Wikipedia, involves ‘letting go of negative emotions’. What was, for the gospel writers, a sign of the coming of God’s Reign has become a form of DIY psychotherapy.

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The mistake here is one about meaning. Meaning is not something that happens inside my head, in some private place: as though words have to have meaning bestowed on them by some kind of mental magic. It is not the case that the authenticity of my words of forgiveness is contingent on me feeling the right way (a similar mistake about the words ‘I love you’ has caused a lot of misery). When the father of Stephen Lawrence forgave his son’s killers he did it just by saying the words ‘I forgive you’. Those words were public, observable, and contained in themselves the act of forgiveness. There could be no doubt about what had just happened, a man had forgiven his son’s killers. This, spoken words of forgiveness, and withdrawing from any attempt at retribution, is what forgiveness looks like. Feelings most often follow words, but some scars run too deep to be healed in this life. Still, that has nothing to do with forgiveness. The person who cannot bear the thought of, say, ever meeting their friend’s attacker again, is filled with disgust at the sight of seeing him, is not necessarily unforgiving. They are someone who loves their friend deeply, who is distraught at what happened, and is trying to live through the consequences as the kind of fragile, feeling, creature that we are.

We are called to forgive. I don’t think I’m particularly good at this myself. But there’s no use pretending that we’re called to anything other than radical forgiveness, forgiveness of the worst and most contemptible human beings, forgiveness of those who have caused us the deepest hurt, as we ourselves have been forgiven by the Father. Anything else is not the gospel. This would be a cause for despair if it wasn’t the case that our ability to forgive others, such as it is, is already the gift of God, the effect of charity poured out by the Father who comes out to meet his wayward children even as they seek to return to him.

Woe to the rich

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Luke is my favourite gospel, not least because of the theme of justice for the poor and hungry which runs through its telling of the story of Jesus’ life (and continues into the story of the newborn church in Acts). It is Luke who has Mary sing about the hungry being fed and the mighty put down. It is Luke who has shepherds worship the newborn Jesus (the pious description ‘humble’ of these shepherds doesn’t really cut it in terms of the impoverished, unclean and uncouth outcasts the evangelist has in mind).

There is a great temptation to ‘spiritualise’ biblical passages dealing with poverty and riches, as though God were concerned solely with some ‘inner’ part of me (the part which will survive my death), but had delegated less sublime matters to Donald Trump and the FTSE100. This is a travesty of the Catholic faith and antithetical to biblical religion. The temptation to think this way, however, runs deep and is fed from central aspects of modern living. So think about the Beatitudes. Luke’s version was read at mass today. But what most people think of when they hear talk of the Beatitudes is Matthew’s version (from Ch. 5 of his gospel):

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

There is no real sense of the gospel involving conflict on the part of its followers here (admittedly they are going to be reviled and persecuted). Instead the ‘peacemakers’ are declared blessed. Crucially it is the ‘poor in spirit’, rather than ‘the poor’, who get a positive mention here. It is easy  for modern readers to hear these Beatitudes as communicating a depoliticised gospel, concerned with the inner and ‘spiritual’, and perhaps with being nice, making up with people (peacemaking). Nobody need feel threatened by such a gospel. Nor does this passage from Matthew condemn anyone. Were Matthew writing today, he would probably not have much to fear from the government’s Prevent strategy against religious extremism.

I ought to say, it is not Matthew’s fault that we moderns are so prone to read him in this way. No good Jew, as Matthew was, would have had any time for a division between the secular and spiritual. The ‘poor in spirit’ are the anawim of the Old Testament, the poor who wait for the Lord, who own their poverty as indicating their dependence on the God of Israel, continuing to hope for their coming redemption. But though their poverty is understood in relation to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it is real material poverty, the stuff of empty bellies and dashed hopes, for all that. Similarly, Matthew would have understood that God’s coming Kingdom, the reality of the ‘righteousness’ for which many hunger, was a this-worldly business. Nor is ‘peacemaking’ a woolly matter of shaking hands and agreeing to differ. It involves the radical transformation of the whole creation, such that the child may safely play in the adders’ nest, to use Isaiah’s image.

Still, we have to work to bring Matthew’s vision concerning poverty and peace back to this world from the ‘spiritual’ place to which modernity consigns religion. Luke is more blunt (in Ch. 6),

20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.

22 ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

24 ‘But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.
25 ‘Woe to you who are full now,
    for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
    for you will mourn and weep.

26 ‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

It is the poor (those in poverty) who get the Kingdom and the hungry (those with empty stomachs) who get fed. You have to try to spiritualise this passage (and of course people have tried). The meaning is plain: the Kingdom of God is coming among us when poverty is done away with, and when hunger is abolished. Worse still for the spiritualisers, we get woes. Luke, who also tells us the story of Lazarus and the rich man, a parable which promises damnation to those who oppress the poor, has Jesus curse the rich and the well-fed. Just as in the Magnificat, the world is to be turned upside down. And, with worldly pragmatism, Luke’s Jesus is aware that poverty and hunger are social phenomena based on exploitation – things cannot go better for their victims unless things go worse for those who benefit from them. Good news for the poor is bad news for the rich. (Of course, Catholic tradition would want to add – but people can repent of their past exploiting of others and receive the good news as genuinely that. This is right, but we shouldn’t add it too quickly. The discomforting of the comfortable is central to the message of Jesus, and of the prophets before him).

Luke and Matthew almost certainly had a shared source, a collection of Jesus’ sayings known by modern scholars as Q. It’s a interesting question whose Beatitudes are closer to that source, and whether each evangelist modified their source, and why. From a Catholic perspective, however, both sets of Beatitudes are canonical scripture, and in each of them we encounter the teaching of the Lord, now risen from the dead. At the present time, with the temptation for the Church to fit neatly into an unthreatening slot in the world very real, we have a particular need for Luke’s Beatitudes . The Kingdom of God, inaugurated by Jesus, growing in the world and made sacramentally present in the Church is good news for the poor. And that comes with a warning for those who benefit from the poor being poor.

And we ought to expect to meet confrontation when we say that. It would be strange if the powerful looked with nonchalance on their coming downfall. Just look at the present Pope, whose articulation of this theme has won him some vocal enemies from the White House to the college of cardinals (to avoid the blog equivalent of vaguebooking: the neo-Protestant Cardinal Mueller, who is presently placing his own conservative understanding of the faith over his communio in life and teaching with Peter’s successor is a prime example).

No abiding city

Theresa May once remarked that a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere. Unlike those liberal commentators who reacted to this with outrage, I think that she was right. I cannot be committed to the kind of living together as a shared project which a philosopher like Aristotle would have had in mind when he talked about citizenship of a polis along with every human being on the face of the planet if I also owe my loyalty to a modern nation-state. The loyalty demanded by modern nation-states is ultimately absolute, it is loyalty-unto-death in war, which makes nationalism seem very much like a form of religion. Be that as it may, Theresa May is right. It’s just that I’d take the other fork of the dilemma: if I cannot serve both Britain and humankind, so much the worse for Britain. I don’t think that I have any choice in this matter as a Catholic. I belong, by my baptism, to a worldwide communion which anticipates sacramentally the coming Kingdom, the new Heaven and new Earth, in which people called ‘out of every nation’ live and worship in peace.

Something like this lay behind my astonished anger as I walked towards Westminster Cathedral this morning,

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A Catholic cathedral flying the Union Flag! One of the great gifts of English Catholicism in recent centuries has been the un-English feel of the whole business. Pushed to the margins, perpetually under suspicion of being somehow foreign or disreputable, the English Church has been better placed to emulate the Galilean itinerant preacher than it would have been were it more acceptable in polite society. Invitations to society events and civic chaplaincies could be left to the Anglicans.

Not everybody is happy with this state of affairs. Whether rooted in romantic fantasies about the conversion of England (don’t get me wrong, I think the conversion of English people is an excellent thing, but countries cannot be converted, and when people talk as though this is otherwise, they are invariably talking about converting the ruling class of any given country – which evangelistic mission invariably turns out to involve dining with them) or in a nationalism absorbed from the wider culture, there have always been people who wanted to make the Church more English, more accessible, less alien. Two thousand years ago you can imagine a similar refrain, “do we really need to always bring along the tax collectors and prostitutes, there are lots of good people in the synagogue who agree with us in principle”. The life of the Church should be alien in a homely way for all of us, since the Church is the place where we journey in (international) communion towards that which we see “as through a glass darkly”. One of the worst ideas floating around Vatican II was inculturation, the idea that the gospel ought to find particular cultural expression. If by this is meant the banal observation that we always speak of divine things in, historically conditioned, socially located, human words, then that is OK (but hardly needs saying). If it is meant that there are different ways of being the Church for different national and ethnic groups then that is, however well-intentioned, ecclesially sanctioned racism, and flies in the face of catholicity. In our buildings, our liturgy, our traditions we show what the Church is. And the Church is universal.

The Church, it seems to me, understands something of this when it insists, in the Order of Christian Funerals, that national flags be removed from coffins before they are brought into churches. We belong, ultimately to God and his Kingdom, not to nation-states. And our churches, above all our cathedrals, are signs of that Kingdom. They are not, cannot be, British in anything other than a geographical sense.

There are specific features of the Union Flag, of course, which make flying it from Catholic churches in Britain questionable from a pastoral perspective. It is the flag which flew across an Empire which killed, enslaved, and wounded the ancestors of a good proportion of the people who attend those churches. In its present form it issues from a union between Britain and Ireland whose effect on Irish Catholics is too recent and devastating to need repeating here.

But I don’t want to dwell on that aspect of the flag. Because whatever the national flag, it doesn’t belong on or in our churches. The idolatrous attempt to ally Catholicism to national projects has a sinister past, the proper response to which is repentance: Franco’s Spain represents its gruesome extreme. Similar tendencies are apparent in Poland and, in a different way, in the United States. In the face of all of these, there needs to be a clear reassertion of the universality of the Church. From what I saw today, that work needs to begin at home.

Happy Christmas!

“Moved by love and wishing to reconcile the human race to yourself, you gave us your only-begotten Son. He became our mediator and our justice by taking on all our injustice and sin out of obedience to your will, eternal Father, just as you willed that he take on our human nature. What an immeasurably profound love! Your Son went down from the heights of his divinity to the depths of our humanity. Can anyone’s heart remain closed and hardened after this?

We image your divinity, but you image our humanity in that union of the two which you have worked in a man. You have veiled the Godhead in a cloud, in the clay of our humanity. Only your love could so dignify the flesh of Adam. And so by reason of this immeasurable love I beg, with all the strength of my soul, that you freely extend your mercy to all your lowly creatures.”

St Catherine of Siena, Dialogue (4,13)

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The scandal of universality

There’s a picture circulating on social media at the moment which I love. Entitled ‘Jose y Maria’ by comic book artist Everett Patterson it relates the journey of Jesus’ parents to contemporary American poverty:

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If the particularity of Jesus, the arbitrariness of the Word’s becoming incarnate in a certain time and place have caused problems for some, there are more subtle difficulties getting to grips with Jesus’ universality, the fact that his birth is of decisive importance for each and every person. Jose y Maria makes that clear, the story of Jesus is part of the same same story as contemporary Mexican refugees (and not only because he himself was a refugee, although certainly for that reason). Because of the Incarnation every human being has something in common with God, namely humanity. We also have in common with Jesus the life of God, since by virtue of him coming as a human being, divine grace is poured out on us. He is our brother, in a real and intimate sense, no matter who ‘we’ are. In this light of this we ought to read the challenge of Matthew’s gospel, that our failure of the poor is a failure of Jesus, as having real, and more than metaphorical, force.

Because of this universality, because there is no part of the human story which doesn’t concern God’s saving plan in Christ, we cannot allow Jesus, his work and his teaching, to be relegated to a special ‘religious’ bit of life, leaving the rest untouched. Insisting on this has been a hallmark of Pope Francis’ teaching, and it has been the area in which he has met most opposition. I think when you really probe the motivations of this opposition very often what people are objecting to is the doctrine of the Incarnation itself. They’d prefer a cleaner Jesus, who didn’t sully himself with the dirt of the stable floor, who perhaps appeared human, but didn’t engage in bodily functions beneath his dignity. He certainly didn’t really have anything in common with the likes of us, let alone mix with prostitutes and bandits.

But tonight the Church kneels as the Catholic faith is proclaimed: et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine, et homo factus est

The scandal of particularity

There’s a nice custom of beginning Christmas midnight mass with the announcement of the birth of Christ. Taken from the Roman Martyrology, this goes as follows:

Today, The twenty-fifth day of December, unknown ages from the time when God
created the heavens and the earth and then formed man and woman in his own
image. Several thousand years after the
flood, when God made the rainbow shine
forth as a sign of the covenant.
Twenty-one centuries from the time of Abraham and Sarah;
thirteen centuries after Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt.
Eleven hundred years from the time of Ruth and the judges;
one thousand years from the anointing of David as king;
in the sixty-fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel.
In the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
the seven hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome;
the forty second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus;
the whole world being at peace,
Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,
desiring to sanctify the world
by his most merciful coming,
being conceived by the Holy Spirit,
and nine months having passed since his conception,
was born in Bethlehem of
Judea of the Virgin Mary.
Today is the nativity of our Lord
Jesus Christ according to the flesh.

It would be entirely missing the point of this to complain that the historical details are dubious (some worry along these lines, I think, makes the use of the text uncommon). This is a proclamation of an event, the coming of God’s Christ, not the assertion of facts about that event. The tin-eared way those of us who live in modern Western societies tend to approach language other than the plain, fact-stating, sort makes it difficult for us to get a handle on this distinction, but that makes it all the more important that we try.

Still, if the proclamation is not supposed to be a distilled episode of a History Channel programme about Jesus, the contents are not unimportant. First the gift of Jesus is situated within the context of the convenants God formed with humankind; this baby is the living sign of God’s faithfulness. Then, crucially, he is situated within the story of Israel, the religious life of the people to which he himself belongs, and in terms of whose relationship to God he is to be understood. Finally, he is situated within world history: his birth is a world-historical significance; he fulfils the genuine aspirations of every human being, and, in an important sense, is the culmination of history, even for those of us who come after him. Then again, in order to be genuine human, as the Catholic faith insists that Jesus is, he has to be born at a definite time in human history.

That is the key to our belief in Jesus, the Incarnate Word. There is a constant temptation to make Christian faith rest on something more universal, something we could reason our way towards, not so limited, no so dependent on the vicissitudes of history, than one particular baby, born in obscurity. The 19th century scholar Lessing complained about an ‘ugly wide ditch’ between Jesus and modern humanity. Others have talked about the scandal of particularity. I sense the same desire to make the Christmas message seem less arbitrary, less of a Palestinian Jew in the actions of those well-meaning clergy who replace scripture readings (those confusing texts from ancient Jewish poems) with Christmas poems and the like. Scriptural revelation, however, is particular in exactly the same way Jesus is. (The Episcopalian Bishop Spong went the whole hog some years back and complained that the use of the Old Testament at Christian services encouraged people to think of Jesus as fulfilling prophecies!)

We cannot make Jesus in our own likeness, we cannot make him our contemporary. We cannot know every detail of his life. If God is to make humanity divine by becoming human then God has to take up a particular human life, in a particular place, distant from some, far from others. He will be puzzling to many of us, obscure, and frustrating to our attempts to understand him. It could not be otherwise, or else we would not be saved.

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Death and life

Religious people, Catholics included, can talk too readily, or too glibly about death. The afterlife has bee dangled before the faithful as a compensation for the injustices of this life in a way that hinders the here-and-now fight against those injustices. Thus the great Joe Hill:

You will eat, by and by

In that glorious land in the sky.

Work and pray, live on hay.

You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

Life shouldn’t be focused as directed towards death in a way that devalues the present world, the world of which God saw that it was good. Still, there is a way of living towards death that is profoundly healthy. Because we die, we are finite, bounded creatures. And because of that it makes sense to talk of the story of our lives, a story which can be told, and in the light of which those lives are meaningful. (In this month of November, it might not be too misleading to think of Purgatory as the process by which our individual stories are edited and fully integrated into the collective story of humankind, loved and redeemed in Christ). I think that reflection on the fact that our story will have an end, can motivate us – under God’s grace – to make the best use of what time we have, for the sake of others. Because a good death is, in the normal course of things, the culmination of a good life.

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All to be saints

The saints remind us of our call to holiness, and accompany us as we live out that call. It is to holiness that we are called, not the anaemic pursed-lipped look-alike that goes by the name of piety. But we are called to be holy, to be fully human, flourishing and exalted by a share in the divine life. There is nothing we can do about this, it is our vocation in virtue of our birth and our baptism.

Synaxis_of_all_saints_(icon)

 

This is worth remarking on because this central Catholic claim, that we are transformed by God’s sanctifying grace, that what Christ does for us is so much more than a matter of being let off our sins, sits uncomfortably in the modern world, speaking as it does of total demand and total transformation, and is in danger of being played down as a consequence. We all have multiple belongings these days, and create our own portmanteau view of what good living looks like, drawing on multiple influences. The Church can fit into this, to be sure, perhaps as a source of moral teaching, or as providing somewhere to attend for a spiritual uplift, or even as a source of identity. But that the whole Catholicism thing could change us, radically, in ways we can’t anticipate or control (other than by refusing), that is something quite alien to how we tend to think. It all seems too much.

And, yet the demand is there. And it’s not a demand to retreat into a ghetto. Once we recognise that our context makes living out our call difficult, or counter-cultural, we then need to realise that the call is to be transformed within that context, for the good of the world. As were the saints before us.