Month: April 2017

One body

During the prayer for peace at today’s Mass, which I was attending whilst on holiday in a very Tory-voting part of the country, I found myself pondering the fact that I’d probably be actively campaigning against much that my fellow congregants hold dear in the run-up to June’s election. Isn’t there some kind of tension here? We pray for, express (at the sign of peace), and are given as sacramental gift (in the eucharist) the unity amongst us and yet struggle against each other when Mass is over. I’ve written about this before: I think there is a tension, but I think it is a tension that goes with living in the in between times – between the inauguration of God’s Kingdom in Jesus Christ and its fulfilment at the end of all things.

There is a type of politics, sadly current in Britain and affirmed frighteningly by today’s French presidential election result, which does seem to me as incompatible with Christian peace and unity in the here and now, however. This is opposition to migrants. When I receive the eucharist alongside people of different political allegiances, I take myself to be part of an ongoing human project with them, to be living alongside them, and to be part of a local church with them, in communion with our bishop, and with him with Rome and the church internationally. When an adherent of anti-migrant politics receives the eucharist alongside a migrant they simply cannot take this attitude consistently with their beliefs, which set them in opposition to what that sacrament both signifies and effects.

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Catholic churches in Britain are amongst the most diverse communities in the country. This is as it should be: we are a sign of the coming Kingdom, where people of all races and language worship before the Lamb. Sadly, I suspect, the very clear symbolism of our congregations doesn’t always have the impact it should on the ideas of some of their members. The question is: how do we change that?

People of the Empty Tomb

The connection between Easter and baptism isn’t as established in our minds as it should be. It was brought home to me when I attended an Easter Vigil at a university chaplaincy some years ago, during which numerous adults were baptised by total immersion. There, in the still dim light of the chapel, amplified by the newly lit paschal candle, there was a real sense that these people were entering the tomb with Christ in order to rise again with him.

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It is baptism which, in the usual course of things, makes Easter real for us. Through it we become members of the Church, the mystical Body of Christ, by which the Risen Christ continues to be present in the world, and through which his saving work is present. We are, as St Paul put it, dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

For through the sacramental life, lived out in the Church through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the celebrations of the past three days are not simply commemorations. We, as Catholic Christians, are not in the business of merely recalling past events (although we are at least recalling them: the messy drama of Holy Week being a unique feature of the liturgical year). In our participation in the sacraments we enter into those events, they become our events.

It is our job then as Christians, as people who have died to the old order of hatred and injustice through the waters of baptism, to make Christ present in a world that sorely needs to see that death is not the last word on human existence (I write as Donald Trump is sabre-rattling over the Middle East and North Korea). This is not a moralistic imperative, a call to staunch godly effort, but rather an invitation – only made possible by God’s loving action towards us – to be consistently what we are, people who have entered the tomb sacramentally with Christ in order to rise with him. We are living proof that the idea that the combination of fear and force is the only way to live alongside our fellow human beings. Fear and force brought Jesus to the Cross, and his Father answered with the Resurrection.

 

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To be what we are, an Easter people, is indeed – as the hymns have it – a joyful experience. But joy is not the same thing as fun. A world still in love with the old Adam will not welcome the good news that its work of destruction is frustrated, “he is not here he is risen”. The Jesus of John’s gospel tells us that if the world hated him, it will hate us too (the ‘world’, of couse, means here not the physical creation, nor the human race, but rather those structures that resist God’s offer of love through his Word). The celebrations of the past hours hint that even this hatred might be the occasion for joy. The priest places incense grains into the Paschal Candle, signifying the wounds of Christ; and the whole of which they are a part becomes the sign of Christ’s presence in our midst. We respond to our wounded, risen , saviour, the light of the world Deo Gratias – thanks be to God.

He descended into hell

Today has an in-between feel. After the liturgical busyness of the past two days our church buildings are quiet. The office continues to be said, as though it were the heart beat of the Church, but the sacraments are not celebrated. Tabernacles lie empty; there is no holy water in the stoups.

This silence reflects the nature of the what we recall today. Not only does it demand silence, but it would be difficult to know what to say about it if it did not: a corpse lies in the tomb, the corpse of God made human. Yet somehow we want to say that in this apparently senseless end of a life there rests freedom for people far beyond the immediate earthly touch of Christ. This instinct finds expression in the Church’s belief that Christ’s soul, united to his divine person, descended into hell, and in the tradition that he preached to and released the souls of the just who had died before his coming.

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The point is one about the universality of Christ’s mission. It is for all people; the events of Easter spread out like a ripple through human history. For, in the words of the homily read at the Office of Readings today, we were not created to be slaves in the underworld.

A good death

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God cannot die, whatever Nietzsche might have thought. Nor can God suffer. It is worth emphasising these points, since a well-intentioned trend of recent decades has it that God is susceptible to emotions and, in some sense, suffers alongside us. It is understandable enough why, faced with the carnage of contemporary human existence and the private tragedies that accompany the business of simply living, someone might want to rebel against an image of God as passive and uncaring. However, there is already a mistake here: to assume that if God does not suffer, God is passive, that if God does not have emotions, God is cold, is to assume that God occupies the same logical space as ourselves, that the options available to God – so to speak – are those laid out before us. Whereas the creator of all things lies beyond our capacity to grasp; God’s nature is hidden from us. So we speak of him conscious of the inadequacy of our words, in analogy and metaphor (including, of course, metaphors involving suffering and emotion).

And yet, what God cannot do as God, God does as a human being. The Word of God, incarnate as a human being, dies a human death in Christ and suffers human sufferings in Christ. Because of the events the Church celebrates today, our God, incarnate as human and risen and ascended into glory, can empathise with our pain. Because he has died a human death he has transformed death itself. In undergoing the worst that human beings do to one another and uttering words of forgiveness he has opened the way to breaking out of the deadly cycle of revenge.

For these reasons we dare to call today, the day on which we murdered the man who is God, Good.