Monday, March 25, 2019

Pope Benedict on the Annunciation

Annunciation - Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890)

In his Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict gives us this reflection on the Annunciation. Particularly moving is the fourth paragraph in which he speaks of Mary's journey through the "dark moments" ahead, "returning inwardly to the hour when God's angel had spoken to her."

 . . . in reaction to the angel’s greeting Mary is troubled and pensive . . . but what follows is not fear but an interior reflection on the angel’s greeting. She ponders (dialogues within herself) over what the greeting of God’s messenger could mean. So one salient feature of the image of the mother of Jesus is already present here, and we will encounter it again in two similar situations in the Gospel: her inner engagement with the word (cf. Lk 2:19, 51). She does not remain locked in her initial troubled state at the proximity of God in his angel, but she seeks to understand. So Mary appears as a fearless woman, one who remains composed even in the presence of something utterly unprecedented. At the same time she stands before us as a woman of great interiority, who holds heart and mind in harmony and seeks to understand the context, the overall significance of God’s message. In this way, she becomes an image of the Church as she considers the word of God, tries to understand it in its entirety and guards in her memory the things that have been given to her. 

Mary’s second reaction . . . After the thoughtful reflection with which she had received his initial greeting, the angel informs her that she has been chosen to be the mother of the Messiah. Mary replies with a short, incisive question: “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” . . . The angel confirms that her motherhood will not come about in the normal way after she has been taken home by Joseph, but through “overshadowing, by the power of the Most High,” by the coming of the Holy Spirit, and he notes emphatically: “For with God nothing will be impossible” (Lk 1:37).

Next comes the third reaction, Mary’s actual answer: her straightforward yes. She declares herself to be the handmaid of the Lord. “Let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). 

. . . I consider it important to focus also on the final sentence of Luke’s annunciation narrative: “And the angel departed from her” (Lk 1:38). The great hour of Mary’s encounter with God’s messenger—in which her whole life is changed—comes to an end, and she remains there alone, with the task that truly surpasses all human capacity. There are no angels standing round her. She must continue along the path that leads through many dark moments—from Joseph’s dismay at her pregnancy to the moment when Jesus is said to be out of his mind (cf. Mk 3:21; Jn 10:20), right up to the night of the Cross. How often in these situations must Mary have returned inwardly to the hour when God’s angel had spoken to her, pondering afresh the greeting: “Rejoice, full of grace!” and the consoling words: “Do not be afraid!” The angel departs; her mission remains, and with it matures her inner closeness to God, a closeness that in her heart she is able to see and touch.

Pope Benedict XVI. Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (pp. 37-38). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition, pp 33-38.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The healing time of the year

In our tradition, we are taught to see Lent as the special “healing time” of the Church’s year - a time for us to look carefully at our lives and work out where we really are in our relationship with God. It is a time for admitting that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt . . .” (Jeremiah 17:9) - that our capacity for self-deception, even in (perhaps especially in) the spiritual life, is limitless. That’s why the Church in her loving wisdom brings us into this period of facing up to reality. She knows that honest reflection and diagnosis are the necessary prelude to a new healing encounter with Jesus.

I know, of course, that we can be psychologically, emotionally and spiritually worn out by the sheer pressure of the battle against evil (within ourselves and within our communities, as well as our warfare with the cosmic powers of wickedness) in which we were enlisted in our baptism. I still believe in the reality of that struggle! We might need to use this Lent largely as a time of clearing some of the clutter of our lives and "wait on the Lord" so as to "renew our strength" (Isaiah 40:31). After all, Jesus still bids us to “come apart and rest awhile” (Mark 6:31). 

I am also aware of those mysterious stretches of spiritual dryness, seemingly unconnected to any particular fault or sin on our part, when memories of of the springtime of our faith torment us, and we bang on heaven’s door, desperate to re-live the “good old days.” God seems a million miles away. This might not help much, but sometimes the best we can say is that all the saints down through the ages struggled during times of spiritual dryness just to hang on to God in naked faith, trusting his promises. Some of the saints - like Mother Teresa of Calcutta - endured decades of spiritual dryness. If we are going through this right now, we must persevere, supported by the love of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and strengthened by the grace of God that comes to us in  the sacraments. The main thing is not to give up.  Remember the saying, “When the train goes into the tunnel, the best thing to do is to stay on the train!” Maybe for you this Lent will be a time of receiving afresh the wonderful promises God gives us in the Scriptures. 

But having recognised that it is possible for us just to be “worn out” or to be going through a patch of that spiritual dryness, we must be honest enough to admit that most of the time our spiritual, emotional and psychological problems are a direct result of our personal relationship with God becoming dysfunctional.

In our other relationships, the causes of dysfunctionality are complex, and, as a rule, both parties are at fault. Hence the need for clever counsellors and psychologists to help us work out why things are as they are. However, one thing we can be certain about when looking at dysfunctionality in our relationship with God is that God is never at fault. He has loved us with an everlasting love. He sacrificed everything to redeem us in Christ. He made us his people and sent the Holy Spirit to dwell within us. He speaks to us through the Scriptures, and he comes to us in the miracle of Holy Communion.

He has given himself so completely to us. WE must accept the responsibility for any dysfunctionality in our relationship with him.

There are at least two ways in which our relationship with God becomes dysfunctional: 

The first is when we deliberately ignore what God says in the Scriptures and try to run our own lives. Now, each one of us - without exception! - has a huge struggle to bring the various aspects of our lives into conformity with the will of God, even with the blessing of the Holy Spirit within. The point is, though, that we cannot deliberately shut God out of this or that area of our life and expect our overall relationship with him to survive - any more than we could do that in our relationships with other people. And we do shut him out when we ignore his will as we find it in Scripture. The end result is that instead of the “life in all its fulness” he longs for us to have (John 10:10), we struggle to live in a loveless hell of our own making.

The second way our relationship with God becomes dysfunctional also reflects what can happen in ordinary relationships. It’s when we become so self-absorbed, so preoccupied with what we are doing, so busy fulfilling our ambitions and goals, that we just drift from God without meaning to. This seems fairly innocuous, but the end result is the same.

In the Eastern Churches, the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Lent is the account of Jesus healing the paralysed man (Mark 2:1-12). In that story the paralysed man’s friends got him to Jesus by pulling the roof apart and lowering him, sleeping mat and all, into the house.

The man’s physical paralysis is used in the liturgy as a picture of our spiritual paralysis, the end result of allowing our relationship with God to remain dysfunctional. It is also used to convey two other truths: First, that the paralysis caused by sin can only be healed by Jesus. So, it is to him we return this Lent, in order to know his forgiveness, his love and his healing power. Second, that those wonderful friends who helped the paralysed man show us that we need to help each other as brothers and sisters in our local Church community get to Jesus in spite of the obstacles that might be in the way. 

LENT takes us right back to the basic question of our priorities in life. In Philippians 3:8-12 the apostle Paul tells us  what mattered most of all to him in these words:

“I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. 

“For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” 

Notice here that while “faith” for St Paul includes “assent” to articles of belief, it is so much greater than that. It is to RELY ON or TRUST IN what God has done for us in Christ. It is to abandon ourselves to God’s will and to the action of his love in our lives.

Let’s use this Lent as a time for drawing closer to Jesus. After all, the self denial and penitence that the Church encourages us to practise are not ends in themselves. Rather, they are meant to help us see areas in which we have gone astray and then to re-focus our lives. Let’s allow the suffering love of Jesus to impact upon our hearts and minds; let's open ourselves afresh to the Holy Spirit so as to experience the mending of our relationship with God, and the enlarging of our capacity to love one another.

All Saints', Benhilton, Sutton, Surrey SM1 3DA
Just 500 yards from Sutton Common Station