The Watchtower

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Mary and Martha

It is nearly two years since I started this blog. Finding a title was something of a puzzle, but the one I chose, with its echoes of Isaiah and Bob Dylan has turned out to be more suitable than I could have imagined at the time, as it has ended up representing most shades of Christian opinion.

In Dylan’s song, the Princes kept their view from the Watchtower, whilst ‘women came and went. barefoot servants too’. I am happy to be numbered among the barefoot serving women. The quarrelsome matters with which the Princes concern themselves are too high for me, although I do my best when required.

Some express surprise that women can be content to be in a Church which they see as sexist, and often find it odd that I do not support the idea of female priests, as though that makes me a traitor to my gender, or oppressed into a state of false consciousness; ironically, this is, itself, sexist. But, perhaps lost in the hubris of supposing they occupy the moral high ground, too many advocates of women’s ordination deny those women who fail to support them even the elementary courtesy of supposing we may have our reasons. What are mine?

I shan’t go into arguments about ‘persona Christi’, they seem sound enough to my mind, but are not mine. Advocates of women being ordained point to Mary Magdalene and Our Blessed Lady as examples of the important role played by women in the earthly ministry of Our Lord; I agree with that. The two Marys, like the other Marys mentioned and like Martha,  show that Our Lord was not bounded by the gender roles common in the society into which He was born. But He did not make them Apostles, neither were they commissioned as the Apostles were.

That there are women who feel called to be successors to the Apostles is a fact of our time; but whether the Spirit which calls them is the one who descended at the first Pentecost, well, that only time will tell. The fact that the arguments are so congruent with those of the spirit of this age makes me wonder about the origin of the feelings which some have so strongly; I doubt not their genuineness or strength, but simply note that feelings held thus may, nonetheless, be wrong.

Our Lady and the other Marys were there, at the foot of the Cross; they took the spices to the tomb to anoint the broken body of the Lord. They did not strut and promise as Peter had, nor did they wish to be at the right hand of Jesus in paradise. Indeed, Our Lady did not even protest against the potential injustice which would have been done to her had the angel not told Joseph about the paternity of the child she carried. When the angel of Lord came to tell her the most momentous  news ever given to any woman, the Blessed Virgin’s response was that of obedience: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.’

There is something in that response many of us recognise. We are happy to do our part. But our obedience, like her own is not unthinking, for we are told she kept these things in her heart and pondered them. To depart from the fashion of the age is what it is – to have one’s own mind and to give a vote to one’s ancestors; if they were not always wiser than us, we do well to think that we are not always wider than them, either.

Judas: a reflection

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Judas – even the name has a bad ring to it. A ‘Judas-kiss’ is the turning of an act of love into one of betrayal. There has been much speculation as to what drove Judas in the direction he took which led to Gethsemane. Was he, as some have thought, a zealot, one who saw in Jesus the great liberator, and who wanted to push him into action? Did he hope that an attempt by the Romans to arrest him would bring on the violence which would herald the revolution he wanted? Or, as others have thought, was he disillusioned with Jesus? Was the episode with the expensive ointment the straw which broke the camel’s back? There were poor people who needed help, and Jesus was letting Mary anoint him with it; what was that about then? How did that fit with the coming of the kingdom of God? Or was it something more venial – he wanted money?

It is a puzzle, to be sure. After all, Jesus had chosen Judas as one of the Twelve. The Twelve are mentioned often enough in the Gospels for us to be sure they mattered, but we cannot quite grasp why, when they seem not to understand their master, and, after the Resurrection, they do not seem central to the Great Commission. Was Jesus wrong to choose Judas?

We might see Judas as a mirror-image of Peter. Both betray Jesus that night at Gethsemane. Judas hangs himself in shame (though the account in Acts is more dramatic), but Peter picks himself up; Judas lacks the courage and humility to do so; he also lacks belief in the Grace of God. What is it we need to access the Grace of repentance? A humble and a contrite heart, we are told, He will not despise. However contrite Judas was, he could not, it seems, humble himself; Peter could, and did. There is an example of an unusual type of leader; Peter, having received forgiveness, was able to show the other Apostles what it meant to lead as Christ had led – it meant self-sacrifice and submission to God’s will; ‘thy will, Lord’. This, Judas could not do.

But Judas has a key role in the story of our Salvation. By betraying the Son of Man, he precipitates the Crucifixion – and thus the Resurrection. Had Judas not been who he was and behaved how he did, then how would the Lord have been taken? Some have seen in this an excuse for Judas; he was foreordained to do as he did. But St John makes it clear he had a choice – but like so many of us, he yielded to the temptations of the Devil.

Judas poses a challenge to would-be universalists, because Jesus seems pretty clear about his fate:

The Son of man goeth as it is written of him: but woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! it had been good for that man if he had not been born.

Judas made a choice. We can never know quite what it was Satan tempted him with – except it was something Judas wanted, something which appealed to his pride and ego. Whether he meant to betray Jesus to death, or simply stir up a revolution, he acted as though he knew better than Jesus. How often do we do likewise?

Judas is the dark side in all of us. He followed Christ, but without understanding and, it seems, without faith. He was not content to walk with Jesus and to listen to him; he wanted something more, and he judged, as we all do, by the standards of this world. So, even when we turn from him with revulsion – we should not forget how often we are like him.

 

 

Spy Wednesday

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30 pieces

Satan put it into Judas’ heart to betray Jesus. There has been much speculation as to why Judas did it, and even those who have seen him as a necessary part of the story of the Crucifixion and Resurrection; he was, but that does not excuse him, and neither does the fact that Satan put it into his heart. Satan sifts us all constantly. Every day is a trial with him, and every day brings fresh opportunities to imitate Judas in our own way.

As we contemplate the annals of human ingratitude, myopia and pride, Judas takes a special place. Despite being with Jesus for the length of His earthly ministry, Judas appears to have learnt nothing, not only about who he was, but also about what Jesus was teaching. If, as is sometimes implied, it was the use of the expensive ointment which tipped the balance, then we see a not uncommon type in Judas. He knew best. His instinct went towards asceticism, and he had no time for fripperies; he would have been at the forefront of those who demand that the Church sells all the fine artwork which generations of devout souls have given it, in order to feed the poor. Their’s is a world in which man lives by bread alone, and where, once everything which might life the soul up has vanished, life is grim and the poor continue to suffer once all the fine art has gone. Men like this sound as though they mean well, but their actions seldom help those at whom they are aimed, and often do long term harm.

Jessica likes to think that Judas was trying to provoke a revolution, hoping that by arresting Jesus, the authorities would unwittingly light the fuse to a powder keg; if so, it was a pretty spectacular miscalculation.

Thirty pieces of silver was the price paid to Zechariah for his work in watching over a flock of sheep destined for the slaughter. This was the price of a slave according to Exodus. Zechariah took them and threw them to the ‘potter of the Lord’, just as the money Judas took was used to buy the Potter’s field; we have, in other words, a Messianic prophecy in Zechariah 11. Just as Zechariah withdrew his staffs of Favour and Unity from his flock, so too did the Lord from His.

The Son of Man was sold to His enemies for the price of a slave. Judas acted on his own wisdom, saw it had been folly, and then hanged himself. If he had wanted action, what he got did not satisfy him. He had acted by the standards of this world, and Satan had, as he will, found a way in through the chinks in the spiritual armour which are thus created.

Judas set in train the events which, by worldly standards, led to the humiliation of Jesus and his elimination as a threat to the Jewish authorities. By the ninth hour on the Friday afternoon it was, indeed, all over, as the world judges these things. But the world was, as it is on these matters, wrong, and yet it was about to be redeemed – although many of its inhabitants would be as blind as Judas, and continue to be so to this day.

 

Peter: a reflection

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I have to confess that I have a great love for St Peter – precisely because he is far from perfect. He is so much one of us that it makes me feel it is possible to follow him. I tend to be very cautious, but like many women who are, I appreciate a man who is not, who will stand forth and act – even if sometimes the thinking comes later; I work well with such men, as I can provide all the caveats anyone wants, but find it difficult to know what to do with the caveats once I have uttered them. St Peter clearly had a heart as big as a house. His impetuosity keeps getting him into trouble.

At Caesarea-Philippi, no sooner has he said that Jesus is the Messiah, than Jesus has to tell him off when Peter thinks he knows better. At the Last Supper he is equally sure of his own opinion; he won’t ever betray Jesus. Yet in the Garden he cannot keep his eyes open and watch a while. Later, he vehemently denies ever knowing Jesus – and is ashamed. How like all of us. So easy to say we will be there for Jesus and with Him; but easier to fall away. But Peter gets up every time. He goes to the tomb, though had he stopped to think, he might have been scared by the Roman soldiers who would be there; but again, he rushes on – a bit slower than John, but he gets there.

Jesus loved him too. He forgives him and he bids him feed his sheep. We see Peter doing just that, but it is still the same old Peter. He’s fine sharing table-fellowship with the Gentiles, until men from Jerusalem remind him that’s not what he’s supposed to do as a good Jew. Peter put being a good evangelist first. But then he hesitates, and Paul tells him off. Peter takes it in good part, and one begins to sense why he was the leader of the Apostles. With a heart like a lion, he was not an egotistical man. He loved the brethren and they loved him, and part of that was sometimes finding himself in hot water; but no one seems to have borne a grudge against him.

That big-hearted Galilean fisherman gave up everything to follow Jesus. On that night of Gethsemane he must have felt it had all ended in failure. But he did not go home to Galilee; he stayed with the others. We do not know what it was they intended to do, perhaps just lie low until the fuss had died down and leave Jerusalem, hidden in the crowds leaving after the Passover. Perhaps they would have looked for another leader. But that was not what God had in store for Peter.

As leaders go, Peter had huge flaws, and his judgment was not always of the best. But these things were outweighed by his courage in following Jesus and not despairing, even when it would have been easier to have done so. Judas hanged himself. Peter repented and set us an example of perseverance which we would do well to follow.

God is love

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One fairly frequent theme in the press is that our society is becoming more intolerant of orthodox Christianity; the irony of the professionally tolerant being intolerant of beliefs which were enshrined in the law until recently, and which are still widespread, needs no underlining. If the Chief Executive of a company can be hounded from office for a private donation he made years ago to a legal political cause, then the signs that we have reached the point where our society is tolerating a new form of intolerance are evident.

We might stop, in the midst of our indignation, to wonder how things came to such a pass? How is it that Christianity has so easily become demonised? Have we, as Christians, made it easy for those who wish to criticise us?

The dominance of the subjects of child abuse and same-sex relationships in media coverage of Christianity has certainly been a factor in the low esteem in which our Faith is held. But there is something in the witness of some Christians which helps our enemies. Some of my own friends tell me they dislike the way Christians are ‘judgemental’, and I have one who, in the right mood, will wax lyrical about the sadism of a God who condemns people who don’t believe in Him to eternal hell-fire. Sex-obsessed; prurient; narrow-minded and judgemental – that is an image which, once constructed in the public mind, is difficult to shake; all the more so when so few people go to Church or know Christians who provide another form of witness.

Where do we tell people about God’s love? I have (at least) one Christian friend who throws his hands up when I begin this line of thought: ‘Jess thinks God wants her for a sun-beam’ is one of his more printable dismissals. But this isn’t a cue to play ‘kumbaya’ on the guitar and indulge in group hugs: (as it happens, having indulged in both as a teenager, I’d rather have done that than sex, drugs and rock and roll).

We might want to reflect more on the God we find in the parable of the Prodigal Son, that God who, though we are sinners, came out to meet us, far off as we are. Herein is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. That, for me, is the mystery at the heart of my Faith. God knows me as I am – and He loves me. He loves me so much that Christ died for me, and rose again so that I should have life eternal; and not just me, but every sinner who turns again to Him.

That is why I am a Christian. It has nothing to do with fear or hell-fire. I have no doubt that if justice, as men understand it were done, I should be somewhere hot in the after-life, and that I should deserve it. But God’s justice is mercy. It is beyond any merit of mine; it is beyond anything I could demand; it is given me free – what amazing Grace! I am with St. John in loving God because He loved me first.

The alliance with the State, which brought the Church first safety and then power, has allowed our critics to say that Christianity is all about power. Those who say that know so little about Christ. He emptied Himself to assume the form of a slave for us. The road to redemption leads through Calvary. Comfortable though the chief  seats of the powerful are, it is not in them that we see Christ, but rather in each other, and in service. It is for this Grace I pray in this Holy Week.

Setting the Captives Free

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Second Adam

Eve, the wife of Adam, was taken from Adam’s rib or side. And from this ‘birth’ we see man and woman become one flesh; that the two shall be joined and become as one. Now from this beginning of our humanity and by our first parents’ rebellion from God we see a parallel with Christ. When Christ, the New Adam, died upon the Holy Cross, His side was pierced by a spear and the Church was born from the water and blood that issued forth from His wound. So the Church, as Eve, was taken from His side, and likewise became as one with Christ, His Bride; the two being joined to become as one. So we speak of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ and as Christ’s Bride. That Thomas had to plunge his hand into the side of Christ to quench his doubt might also be seen as a symbolic action of what we each must do in order to quell our doubts; go to the Church which sprang from the Savior’s side. Immerse yourself in Her teachings and listen to Her as a mother for we members are but the children that She has birthed and through the creative action of the Holy Spirit and Her Bridegroom. We are born again in the water of Baptism (which gives to us the Holy Spirit) and washed in the Blood of Christ (in the mystery of the Eucharist which allows the Risen Christ to abide in our Souls in a special way); for this is nothing less than the water and blood that was poured out from the Cross for our Salvation and for our ‘release’ from the captivity of sin.

Now we spoke recently of the Pasch or the Passover Meal in a recent post. It is interesting to note that it had become a tradition among the Jews to ‘release’ a criminal during Passover as the Passover was a Memorial of the ‘release’ of the captive Israel from the Egyptians so that they could go and worship their God. Now it is interesting that this scene is replayed in Christ and Pilate. Barabbas, who represents our sinfulness and murderous nature is stood before the people along with the innocent Lamb of God and the people are asked which should be released according to their tradition.

Barabbas means ‘son of the Father’ in Hebrew and therefore is a type for us: sinful children of our Father in Heaven. And Christ stands in opposition to us: the Lamb without blemish or spot, the innocent Son of the Father. We know who the people chose to let loose and it is Him Who paid the price; a price that was, by the law, reserved for Barabbas. Christ then paid that price and suffered the death of Barabbas and for all of us who are, in our own way, another rebellious Barabbas. By His suffering and death Christ took on the sins of all us sinful children of the Father for all time. Some seem to take it as a lucky break whereas we might need be thinking of what we would offer back to Him who took the stripes for us and suffered the painful death that we deserve.

Now Simon of Cyrene was a type of a reluctant follower of Christ who, pressed into service, nevertheless carries Christ’s Cross and finds some share in Christ’s suffering and death. We too must do the same; hopefully, willingly. And unlike Adam and Eve who brought death and suffering into the world, Christ has taken this well earned consequence for their sin and transformed their evil into our greatest good. And similarly, Christ extends to us the opportunity to offer up whatever small sufferings we have in this world to Him and thereby to experience a small share in this Grace and this miracle of transforming an objective evil into a good.

So too the Church, the Bride of Christ, is destined to carry Her Cross joyously with Her Bridegroom. We are the Church Militant because we must fight the temptations to lay down our crosses and to take the easy road in life. But Christ showed us that the Cross is meaningful and in fact necessary for our ‘release’ from sin and that every Passover (which we remember every year on Holy Thursday) we know that this action of ‘release’ is followed by Christ’s Death and ultimately by His victory over death; the Resurrection. Will not the Bride share in this same destiny? Are we willing to be actively involved in her walk to Calvary, or will we single-mindedly seek our own comfort during these quickly passing days of our lives? Or perhaps we will try to live our lives in an effort to ‘release’ ourselves and others from captivity to sin and thereby participate in the Glory of the Cross and Resurrection.

On being a Catholic

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lighting the candle

Converts come in many forms. Quite often they are more zealous than the life-long members of the church they are joining; the reasons are not far to seek. No one becomes a convert by accident or on a whim. There is much soul-searching, much prayer and discussion and much research; none of this is what one call normal. The vast majority of one’s fellows in the pews have not been through such a process, and, such has been the state of religious education, at least in the UK, most of them are there because they always have been; it is habitual, it is cultural, it is to do with heritage. This is not in any way to denigrate what is normal, it is to point out that the convert is always going to be an oddity. The lived experience of being a Catholic since childhood in a Catholic family in a Catholic neighbourhood is going to be very different from the lived experience of most converts.

In this respect I had the advantage, if such it was, of having been brought up in a part of north-west England where Irish immigration had brought many Catholics to live, and where there were Catholic schools and communities. Friends at school were Catholics, and their religion impinged only in two ways: they left assembly for their own classes when the rest of us listened to the headmaster’s pi-jaw; and they tended to be called Sean, Patrick or Michael and supported the local Catholic football team. Their religion was intimately bound up with their cultural identity, and 17 March was one of the great days for the local publicans. All of that I recognised in the church I joined when I crossed the Tiber. But it was as foreign to me now as it was then; it was not my culture, it was not my history.

One of the warnings I received from Orthodox friends was that if I crossed the Tiber I would find myself more or less where I had been as an Anglican, part of a Church where western mores had created a battleground between modernists/liberals, and traditionalists/conservatives, where all the old favourites – homosexuality, women priests, and the language of liturgy would be lurking to welcome me back from an Orthodox world largely free of them. That was clearly going to be the case, and so it has turned out. I pointed out at the time that there would be one difference, which is that where in the Anglican Church there was no authority to make a definitive verdict on such matters, there was in the Catholic Church, but that that whole line of reasoning was, in any case, flawed. I was not converting from something, I was no more pushed out of Orthodoxy than I had been from Anglicanism; it was a process of development for me.

I could, after all, no more be a cultural Catholic than I could be culturally Orthodox. Whether I liked it or not, my heritage was what a critic of Newman’s had once called ‘Anglican, Oxford and literary’. There was, it was true, a greater concentration of such people in the Anglican Church than elsewhere, but I was not joining the Catholic Church because I liked its culture. On the whole I didn’t. I am not a fan of either clericalism or athoritarianism, and the Novus Ordo Mass must be one of the more banal and uninspiring in the history of liturgies, whilst post-Vatican II interpretation of it, and of liturgical space could have been designed by someone whose brief was to divest the church of anything other-worldly. I can relate neither to the Bellocian heartiness (which surely must be feigned?) nor to the modernist banality, but what of it? If Christ is there at the Eucharist and this is the Church founded by Jesus, nothing else really matters.

Pilate’s wife: a reflection

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Pontius_Pilate's_wifeThe dream had disturbed my sleep, and on waking and finding Pilate already gone, I called for the slave to bring me writing materials; the man was innocent, he must not die, was the burden of my words; but it would have been better had my husband been there; but he was about his duty – as usual.

My father had approved the match. Since much of the family wealth had been lost by grandfather’s decision to back Mark Antony, we had, he told me, to make the best of things in Augustus’ world, and Pilate was the protegé of a Senator who was ‘in’ with those who had supported the Emperor from the start; it could do us no harm, and besides, he had the reputation of being a decent man. It had not turned out quite as papa would have wanted, but Pilate’s many weaknesses did not include cruelty to his wife. Like many promising young men, his promise lay in the past, and the governorship of Judea had been by way of a compensation prize from his patron; some prize; what compensation?

I suppose it was better than Gaul - at least the weather was good; my sister, whose husband was posted there told me it rained all the time. But at least the Gauls knew they were barbarians and were pathetically grateful to be civilized by us; but the Jews! The Jews were forever going on about Solomon and his Temple, and their one God, as though that made them something special. I didn’t like their leaders; they were as self-satisfied and smug as the supporters of Augustus back home. But Pilate, having finally made it to this version of ‘the top’ had no intention of failing; it was typical of his optimism that he couldn’t see this was the end of the line, as good as it was going to get. His method was to give the Jewish authorities what they wanted – within pretty broad limits – in return for them keeping their stiff-necked fellow Jews in line. He was for ever saying that if he did well here, it might not be too late for something better elsewhere; there would be no elsewhere, the smell of failure was on him even when he came here. He wanted his name to live in history; as if.

It had been Mariam, my hairdresser, who had told me about Jesus, and the centurion had confirmed her stories; this man was a healer. Our son, our only child, Pio, had been lame from birth, and nothing the medicine men and women at home had been able to do had helped; but Miriam had asked Jesus, and Pio’s foot had been cured. I had followed his career thereafter with interest I had even seen him from afar and been struck by something about him. That might have been why I had that dream; it as certainly why I wrote to Pilate. I did not expect to be able to help, even though he had helped us; but I had to try.

Pilate explained that it had been ‘tricky – which was his way of saying that he might have had to show something he had never possessed – moral courage. The Jews, he told me, were ready to riot. I had been scornful, saying if that had been the case, why had that dreadful man Caiaphas wanted Jesus arrested by night and the trial to be carried out at once? But Pilate told me I did not understand; of course I did- he was a dreadful coward and had taken the easy way out; he always would.

That afternoon the sky had grown dark at the ninth hour, and there had been a heavy thunderstorm; it was said that the dead had been raised from their tombs and many had seen them; there was always many who had seen that sort of thing among the Jews; it was some sort of compensation for having only one God, I suspected. But I had felt uneasy; this was not right. When that Jew came and asked Pilate for the body, I interceded and he gave his permission; it was the least he could so, so he did it.

That was all long ago. He was recalled, half in disgrace, although the revolt last year and the destruction of the Temple showed that my husband had not been as useless as his enemies had alleged. After his death, Pio and I retired to our estate on the south of Gaul, not far from the sea. It was quite the coincidence that he should have run into some Jews there a couple of years back. They were followers of Jesus. I had heard the stories of his rising from the dead, and I had believed them. I had done my best to persuade Pilate not to allow Caiaphas and his ilk to persecute the followers of Jesus, but it had not worked. It was typical of Pilate that he never asked why I had intervened.

If he had asked, he might have found the answer to something which did puzzle him, which was why I became less discontent with our lot. Miriam’s cousin, Cephas, told her all about Jesus rising, and I sought him out, and saw and believed; he laid his hands on my head and I received the Spirit; since then I have followed The Way. That was why Pio and I made Mary and the others welcome, and why we celebrate the memory of Jesus on the Sabbath, where we sing some songs, hear readings from the memoirs of the Apostles, and drink His Body and His Blood – until he comes again. Pio has sworn to help Mary and the followers, and there is a building they can have. The Shroud is kept safe there, and many have been healed by it. I have told Pio he must be careful – the spirit of this age will persecute the followers of the Way; but we shall prevail – He said as much.

Legend has it that Claudia Pilate did indeed convert to Christianity.

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