Thursday, 26 June 2014

Jesus Has Left The Building(s)

When evening came, Jesus left the city.
(Mark 11:19 Christian Community Bible)

This verse is sandwiched between the two halves of the famous story of Jesus cursing a fig tree. The way that St Mark tells it; on the way into Jerusalem one morning our Lord, feeling hungry, sees a leafy fig tree and approaches it. Leaves are all it has however, it not being fig season, so Jesus cursed it saying 'may no one ever eat your fruit.' Then He goes into town and does some stuff. The next morning, the second half of the story, the Apostles and their Master find the tree withered to its roots.

Many people who read this story superficially find it quite disturbing. It seems entirely unreasonable to curse a plant for not producing fruit out of season. It makes Jesus seem like a proto-fast food junkie who can't wait to have things in due time. This would be to misread the episode however, our Lord's action is deeply symbolic and serves an eminently didactic purpose for those who have the key to interpreting it, as of course the first people to hear the Gospels did. It is not at all accidental that this incident occurs in the final week before the Crucifixion nor that He sees the fig tree while approaching Jerusalem.

The fig tree which has leaves but no fruit is an emblem of the religion of the Pharisees and the priests which promises so much but delivers so little, less than nothing indeed, to the people. Jesus approaches the Holy City home of the one Temple of God at the time of the holiest festival in the Jewish calendar hoping to find a nation ready to receive Him as Son of God and Messiah. This nation, and national religion, which God has cultivated lovingly since the time of Abraham will not only, in the person of its leadership elites, refuse to recognise Him but it will actively conspire against Him. This marks the end of that covenant based on the blood that runs through the veins of Abraham's children and its replacement by a covenant founded on the blood that spilled out of the veins of the Christ. The fig tree planted in Palestine will wither, the Cross planted on Calvary will flourish, no one seeking its fruits will be disappointed.

And amid all this symbolism we have the datum that Jesus left Jerusalem to its darkness. During Holy Week He seems to have spent His days in the Temple and, apart from the First Eucharist/Last Supper, his evenings outside of the city. We have no information to tell us why this might have been so. Clearly it did not make Him safe from capture, indeed, Jerusalem was full of Galilean pilgrims had He stayed where they were the authorities would not dared to have touched Him. I think that St Mark by placing the information where he does gives us a clue. Jerusalem has rejected Jesus so Jesus accepts their rejection and leaves them to endure without Him. There was no night worship in the Temple, no vigil services or Vespers, so when the Temple, the House of God, closes Jesus shakes the dust of Jerusalem from His sandals and departs until the House should once again re-open the next day.

Scriptures are not simply a record of history or a repository for symbolism, they speak to the particular condition of each person reading them. This verse tells us that Jesus leaves when darkness descends. This illustrates the doctrine that mortal sin drives Grace out of the soul. Jesus is the light of the world, by Grace He enters our souls and illumines them. But, if He is our guest we can have no other. If we invite into our city-soul greed or envy, anger or lust then darkness descends, evening comes and Jesus departs from the city. We are preparing to crucify Him anew and He accepts our rejection, He has granted us the power to expel Him. Unless we repent, confess and become penitent then our city will remain in the grip of the night, for our power is for our own darkness and our death, our submission is light and life.

It is not only true that Jesus departs when darkness comes to the city it is also true that darkness comes to the city when Jesus departs. The agony known as the Dark Night of the Soul is caused by this departing. Our Lord is a guest in our city-soul and all is light, we invite no others and yet somehow it seems that He has left. We endure emptiness and dryness, torment and temptation and it seems that we do so alone. This is a testing time in the life of a Christian. Our last state appears worse than our first. Then we did not know what we were missing and now we do. Then we were satisfied with shadows, taking them for substance, now we see that they are but empty shapes with no life in them. Our Lord chooses to make Himself present to us in the form of absence, His fullness consists of a void. We can but endure. He is uniting us to His Passion. We cannot fully put off our old humanity and be clothed with Christ until, with Him, we have learned to combine a perfect trust in The Father with the agonised cry of 'My God, My God why have you forsaken me?'

When Jesus comes to our city, or returns to it, there are no more evenings. "The city has no need of the light of the sun or the moon, since God’s glory is its light and the Lamb is its lamp" (Revelation 21:23) When the soul is the abode of our Lord then waking and sleeping, sleeping and waking our city is bathed in light and we are truly alive. Is such happiness possible for humans in this life or can we merely glimpse it from time to time and must we bide our souls in patience until, on entering eternity, we achieve this precious gift of divine union? "A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman, clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and a crown of twelve stars on her head." (Revelation 12:1) Never, nor for the merest instant, did Mary cast Jesus out of her city-soul, nor did He cast her out of His. Full of grace means full of light, full of Jesus, no evening covered Mary's city with its shadow. In this she is our pioneer, our role model, our sign of hope. What she achieved she achieved by the grace of  God and by her wholehearted cooperation with it. We can set our hearts to a like cooperation and pray in faith for like graces and by the power of God we too can escape now and forever the power of darkness.

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Monday, 23 June 2014

A Fond Embrace

And taking a child, he set him in the midst of them. Whom when he had embraced, he saith to them:
(Mark 9:35)

This episode is included in three Gospel accounts but only St Mark includes the detail that Jesus embraced the child. It is, indeed, one of the characteristic features of Mark that such little human touches are recorded. For example, in all the accounts of our Lord asleep in a storm tossed boat only this Evangelist tells us that Jesus was "sleeping upon a pillow." (Mark 4:38) Tradition tells us that St Mark was secretary to the Apostle Peter and that essentially his Gospel account is a retelling of the stories which Peter himself first told him. Such little details as this certainly bear the hallmarks of an eyewitness account and the breakneck speed at which Mark rushes through the story with its profusion of 'at once's' and 'immediately's' certainly fits in with the impetuous personality of St Peter that is so vividly described in all four of the canonical Gospels.

However that might be the fact before us is that Jesus embraced the child. We can say that this was a gratuitous act. Had it been necessary to the point He was making then all the Evangelists accounts would mention it. It was unnecessary from the illustrative point of view but, in a sense, necessary from the point of view of a Sacred Heart overflowing with love. That is to say Jesus could not help hugging the child because He who is love Himself cannot act contrary to His nature and Incarnated love embraces a child and does not just use her or him as an instrument for however exalted a purpose. Humans, or indeed any creature, can never be mere instruments in the hands of love and human children least of all. So when Jesus set the child before the Apostles His primary purpose was to teach them a lesson about humility but in thinking about the Apostles He did not forget the child.

The embracing of the child in and off itself is a lesson to us. It teaches us that love must express itself and, moreover, that it must express itself in deeds as well as or instead of words. There is no record of our Lord speaking to the child, though no doubt He did, but there is this description of the embrace. There is an important point too about incarnation. Between Spirit and Matter there is a constant tension. A continuous dwelling upon the weaknesses of the flesh and the superiority of the Spirit could lead us into imagining that all Matter and its needs and desires are nothing but evil, total depravity, and all things of the Spirit are good because partaking of Divinity. Such indeed was the perspective of the various Gnostic heresies, like Catharism, and the idea can be seen to appear at various times within most religious traditions. The Incarnation of the Son of God and Son of Mary, however, means that Matter too now partakes of Divinity, flesh is indissolubly linked to God for all eternity. And so the happiness that the child felt at being embraced and the Love that expressed Himself in embracing that child have no part of evil and constitute undiluted good.

The truths which are taught in the Gospels are timeless but each generation comes to read them through the eyes of their own time. For us, at least in the West, the image of a man hugging a child raises at least subliminally feelings of anxiety. The scandalous abuse of many children by some men, including  ordained pastors, had sent shock waves deep into our consciousness. Reason may tell us that such abusers are few in number and that tactile expressions of love by men towards children are overwhelmingly innocent in intent. But subconscious anxieties are seldom susceptible to reason alone. The horror which we rightly feel at such crimes stirs up an emotion which is linked to an established fact, some men behave in this fashion, and as long as the horror endures so too shall the subliminal anxiety. This is another incarnational fact, humans possess reason but are not purely rational creatures.

 The Church recognises that at times, on the wings of faith, we can rise above reason and soar into regions well beyond its limits. She recognises also that at times, weighed down by fear, we can fall below the level of reason. The response is not, or should not be, to chide and to scold. It is human to fear and to fear excessively is neither fully reasonable nor entirely unreasonable, it is simply human. If our mind accepts the image of Jesus embracing the child for what it is but our heart, in this generation, is troubled or subliminally uncomfortable about it then she proposes an alternative icon. The embrace of Mary is more than merely unproblematic to us it is an illustration of precisely the same point that Mary's Son was making. Overflowing love has and must have and is divinely ordered to have a physical expression. It is common to see images of our Lady embracing the child Jesus, I have one before me as I write this, but that is not the image I have in mind. At the foot of the Cross the Beloved Disciple was given into the care of Mary and he into hers. Who can doubt that they embraced, and which Christian is not a beloved disciple of Jesus? The lesson that Jesus and Mary teach cannot be defiled or befouled by criminal acts nor should we be afraid to proclaim it. Chaste love which does not express itself is incomplete at best and no love at all at worst.

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Sunday, 22 June 2014

Swan At The Window & Other Poems

Swan at the window
Glimpses mysterious realm
Stretches wings and flies

Cloudburst in April,
Soon passed, swiftly clearing sky.
The smell of wet grass.

Mild month of May, the
Slow smile of spring clearly seen.
Abundance of light

Cold winds bring a Spring
Pause, growth is slowed, leaves shiver.
But Light is untouched.

Copper coloured leaves
Flutter in a soft Spring wind.
Shadows on green turf.

Mist clings to the side
Of the mountains this morning.
Mournful looking pines.

Mountain path, towards
The rising sun. To reach the

Peak you need a guide.

                                             A Bar at the Folies Bergere by Manet

And then she saw. This,
Beneath the glitter and noise,
Heartless emptiness.

Vapour trails leaving
Pale traces across clean sky.
Polluted beauty

Darkness passed away
Morning sun glories briefly
Before it too fails

All things fade into
Shadow and darkness gathers.

Memories of light.

It lightens the load
If you discard things which you
Really don’t need.

The candle I lit
For you still burns bright And you
Know it always will.

Timid fawn explores
The forest, her bright new world.
Unaware of traps.

Forest path, winding
Through trees, dappled light and shade.
Early summer warmth.

Talons of a hawk
Salmon gasps and struggles, held
In an iron grip

Raven’s brood, dark and
Hungry, mouths ever open.
Cadaver stripped bare

Spiralling slowly
Downwards, drifting in the wind
Handful of petals.

Textures of silence
A quiet, shadowed cloister.
Stillness is prayer

Lattice patterns of
Light and shade lie underfoot.
In the cloister walk

In my heart a flame
Was kindled. From you it came,
To you it returns.

Obscured by mists, the
Farther shore is vaguely sensed.
Searching for a bridge.

Body and mind grow
Weary on the pilgrim way
Only hope strengthens.

If you consent to
Be guided I shall guide you
And you will find peace

Many sorrows, one
Great joy, a life lived for Love
Mother of Jesus

Wisdom and kindness 
Treasured in our Lady’s heart
Offered to the world

Most sweet Advocate
Wisest of all counsellors
Mary my Mother

Plenitude of grace
Freely received freely shared.
Sweet Mother Mary

You are my secret 
Place, my solace in trouble
The smile of my days

See more of my poetry collections at-
Spirit of Haiku
Storm and Spirit, High Tides and Haiku
Month of Mary and Other Poems
Torrent of Haiku
Heart of Mystery Haiku
Bouquet of Haiku

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Saturday, 21 June 2014

Light is Sown

11 Light is sown for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart.
Psalm 97 Geneva Bible

This verse tells us several things about God, the believer and the relationship between them. God gives light and joy to the believer in the form of a seed. He can do this because He is Light and He is Joy. He does this moreover in response to the believer's overtures to Him. The believer readies himself for these gifts by being righteous and upright in heart offering these things to the Lord as the prelude to God's generous giving. And because this is a relationship and not a static exchange of gifts each giving calls forth further giving. The more light and joy is sown the more righteousness and uprightness grows.

Because the words are familiar to us we readily assume that we understand what they mean in this context. This is not necessarily the case. When Christians think of righteous persons part of the image called up is that of the Pharisees or of the Puritans. A strait-laced, joyless and condemnatory kind of people. The idea of righteous slips very easily into the idea of self-righteous. I think that the clue to the psalmists meanings for 'righteous' and 'upright' are to be found in the addition of the words 'in heart.' This is the righteousness of those who recognise the meaning of the prophecy "For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings." (Hosea 6:6) The heart-knowledge of God, the God of mercy, is what constitutes righteousness and the deeds that flow from this knowledge are what constitute the right acts that prompt the sower of seeds to plant light and joy.

It is a persistent metaphor this use of the idea of 'light' and, again, there is some risk that we take it so much for granted that it becomes somewhat banal to us. I remember when I was being received into the Church the priest, Father John, who was preparing me was fond of illustrating lessons with examples from his Irish boyhood. One anecdote he repeated several times was the experience in rural Ireland in, I suppose, the 1940's leaving a house at night in a place without electricity or street lighting of any kind. The darkness was profound, the way was uncertain and rough and the sudden springing up of light from a torch had a life saving, landscape transforming impact to it that partook of the miraculous. The light of God has, if we allow it to have, such an impact upon our internal landscape.

Considering light in the form of a seed is rather more of a mixed metaphor. For Christians, though, it has a meaning which the psalmist would not have considered. "I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds." (John 12:24)  The seed of light which God sows in the heart of the believer is the Lamb that was slain and is now alive. He sows Himself, He is the Light and when He is sown He becomes our righteousness, our uprightness. This is the reciprocal arrangement, the more He grows within us the more light we become and the more seed is sown.

Beyond a certain point all multiplicity is resolved into unity and so light and joy become the same thing because they come from the same source. In this life here below though it is but seldom, if ever, that we experience this blessed union in God, through God because of God. So it is worth considering joy in its independent aspect as we can experience it here and now in the gift of it that the Father through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit gives us. Because it is a hidden gift it is a deep joy, a joy that forms a permanent underlayer to everything that we do and are waking and sleeping, unless, that is, we kill grace in our soul by committing acts of mortal sin. This kind of joy is about more than laughter and wine and good times though it certainly can include these things. It is a manifestation of the theological virtue of hope and a banishing of despair.

When my parents died I was possessed by grief, my sorrow was beyond the power of my words to describe. Yet throughout those times I was never dispossessed of joy. Because the seeds within remained within and did not cease to be tokens of the Divine Presence I never ceased to be in communion with Him. I may not have felt that communion, He may not have sent me tokens of His presence but He was present and that made a difference and that was the joy that did not depart even in the presence of suffering and loss.

Perhaps the most perfect illustration of this psalm verse can be found in the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the time of the Annunciation. Light and joy were sown in her by the words of the Archangel Gabriel and by her glad and free consent to them. And then Light Himself and Joyfulness Himself became literally the seed within her womb, a womb which contained Him whom heaven itself could not contain. And these things were sown in her because she above all other creatures of God was righteous and upright in heart. In her is our model, through her came our salvation, who can resist saying with the angel Hail Mary, full of grace?

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Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Is Spirituality Superior to Religion?

All the great Founders of religions have been possessed of clairvoyant sight. They are the spiritual Guides of mankind, and their precepts are precepts of the moral life based on astral and spiritual truths. This explains the similarities in all the religions
Rudolf Steiner- The Astral World

Jesus saith to him: I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No man cometh to the Father, but by me.
John 14:6

There are significant numbers of people who are happy to make the statement 'I'm spiritual but I'm not religious.' What they intend to convey by this is that spirituality is A Good Thing and religion is A Bad Thing or at least a deeply flawed one. This attitude rests, I think, on two pairs of assumptions. Firstly religion is an artificial man-made (with special emphasis on 'man') phenomenon whereas spirituality is an authentic, honest and individual response to and search for transcendent reality. Secondly religion is bound up with all sorts of rules and regulations which are at best irrelevant and at worst oppressive whereas spirituality is free from such restrictions and allows a spiritual seeker to follow where the spirit leads them without being chained by lists which begin with 'thou shalt not.' I would argue that each of these assumptions, at least so far as they compare and contrast with the Christian faith, is comprehensively wrong but that they all flow from an initial insight which is profoundly true. The insight in question is that there is an underlying spiritual source to all life and to the cosmos, this source can be encountered and responded to by each person and from that encounter strength can be gained and personal growth can ensue. I propose to say something about this truth and then proceed from there to demonstrate the weakness of the spiritual-but-not-religious response to it.

'There is nothing new under the sun' wrote the author of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes (1:9) and certainly those people who think they are being frightfully modern in adopting this kind of approach are mistaken. In the 20th Century, to go no further back, figures like Rudolf Steiner, Teilhard de Chardin, Paul Brunton and Abdu'l Baha advanced just such ideas. Most of the readers of this blog I would hazard have never heard of these once prominent figures; one of the weaknesses of the individual approach to spirituality is that it has no mechanism to transmit wisdom from one epoch to the next so that each generation not only has to reinvent the wheel but may find itself labouring to overcome the difficulties of having a square wheel since no one is around to point out the benefits of roundness. Be that as it may, what usually followed from the affirmation by such people that all truth was essentially one was the further assertion that they personally had synthesised all of that into a new form which was offered as being absolutely the best way to process this truth and integrate it into a persons life. That is, as soon as any attempt is made to summarise what the transcendent reality actually is and how we should approach it effectively a new religion is created. The only way to avoid this happening would be to refuse to use one's intellect when describing transcendence or seeking to understand it.

Perhaps the most successful attempt to evade this danger is to be found in The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley (mostly famous for his novel Brave New World and for dying on the same day as President John F. Kennedy.) In this work he posited that there was an underlying Ground of Being where the multiplicity of many things became One, everything came from the One and to the One would return. More significantly, perhaps, he sought to demonstrate that all of the worlds major religions and most of the minor ones, intuited this truth and traces of it could be found in writing from each of these traditions. In large part the book consists of a series of quotes from Christians (Catholic and Protestant), Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and others each essentially saying, or appearing to say, the same thing about a range of topics like suffering, faith and the self. The strength of this approach is that it does seem to demonstrate that the transcendent reality being described by, say, a medieval Christian is the same thing as that which a Mahayana Buddhist some thousands of miles away in distance, hundreds of years apart in time and with a completely different intellectual framework is describing. There are problems with this approach however. What Huxley is describing is the highest common denominator and the common in question is not the average believer in any tradition but only a highly mystically oriented subset of believers. In order to allow for the possibility of each person coming to encounter and know the truth about the Ground of Being Huxley had to accept a theory of reincarnation but introducing this as a necessary component of the Perennial Philosophy had the automatic effect of excluding most of those religions which he had been insisting were, in their higher manifestations, actually part of it.

What is interesting for our purposes is that while Huxley asserts that which is true, that there is only one underlying reality, and that which is probably true, that each significant religion apprehends that reality to a greater or lesser extent, what he does not do is suggest that individuals can attain a sustained perception of that reality as individual spiritual seekers apart from the religious traditions. Quite early on he notes it is a fact, confirmed and reconfirmed during two or three thousand years of religious history, that the ultimate Reality is not clearly and immediately apprehended, except by those who have made themselves loving, pure in heart and poor in spirit, essentially what he argues is that one cannot attain to the source of Self without minimising ones own personal self. The French philosopher Simone Weil put the idea in even starker terms talking about the de-creation of the self We possess nothing in the world—a mere chance can strip us of everything—except the power to say, “I.” That is what we have to give to God—in other words—to destroy. There is absolutely no other free act that is given us to accomplish—only the destruction of the “I. There is nothing within us that both belongs to us and is big enough to comprehend the Ground of Being, the Source, the Transcendent Reality, God, call it what you will. Only God can comprehend God and we can only participate in that comprehending if we eliminate those parts of ourself which we have created for ourselves precisely in order to keep God out and to give us the illusion that we are greater than we are.

It is probably true that those who are spiritual but not religious and those who are both religious and spiritual share a common belief in the existence of a real but veiled transcendent source of being. The fundamental fault line between them consists of radically different strategies about how to encounter, respond to and understand that reality. We cannot develop a strategy unless we know something about what it is we encounter and which part of ourselves it is that encounters it. Since all those involved are content to use the word spiritual to describe their activities it is agreed that the object encountered is itself Spirit that is it is not matter not is it a product of matter although matter may be a product of it. It gives life so it is itself Life. Personal and historical experience suggests that it is responsive to and creative of love which can be presumed to originate from it so it is itself Love. For us to fully encounter and understand as fully as possible Spirit, Life and Love we ourselves need to transform ourselves or be transformed into Spirit, Life and Love also. How is this possible? We need to consider our starting point. What are we like at the point at which we begin the encounter or the search? And our end point; what do we envisage ourselves being like at the point of most profound encounter or fulfillment? In order to get from where we are to where we want to be what to we have to do?

The choice we have to make at the start is between affirming what we already are and seeking more of the same or acknowledging our inadequacies and failures and seeking less of the same. Either we displace what is bad with what is good or we continually strengthen that which already is. The route which religion, prior to theological liberalism, has traditionally gone down is that outlined by Huxley and Weil, we need to de-create our ego-created selves in order to make space for God to fill us up so that we become a transmission station for love, life and spirit which can flow in and through us with as little impediment as possible. This approach can be dismissed by the spiritual-but-not-religious person as exaggerated self loathing or an  unhealthy obsession with sin. Any approach, however, which is not rooted in humility is rooted in pride. Self-affirmation is not a programme for growth, it is a statement of complacency and, moreover, it tends to shift the blame for frustrations and failures onto other people or adverse circumstances. Everything good is down to me, everything bad is down to someone or something outside of me. And so we have two radically different strategies. Which one is more likely to be right? Well, we are talking about relationship here, we are relating to the source of being and the source of being is relating to us, so we cannot develop a successful strategy without knowing something about the part of the relationship other than ourselves. In Part Two I will be looking at how we can know something about that part of the equation.        

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Sunday, 15 June 2014

The Bible & The Virgin Come To A Conclusion

Why Bible-believing Christians should honour Mary

In this series I have been looking at what the Gospels say about the mother of Jesus. I have argued that on the basis of these scriptures alone Christians of all traditions have an explicit warrant, if not a mandate, to give great honour and praise to Mary. In this conclusion to the series I propose to look at references to our Lady in other parts of the New Testament and to demonstrate the cumulative effect of the undisputed biblical references to the Virgin.

All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers
Acts 1:14 (NRSV)

The "all these" referred to are the Apostles. This passage is significant for many reasons. It tells us that Mary was a woman of prayer. It tells us that she formed part of the core group of believers gathered together in Jerusalem at the beginning of the life of the Christian Church. And once again, as I have highlighted in the previous parts of this series, it shows that the mere presence of Mary is something that the Holy Spirit wishes to draw out attention to. This verse is situated between the Ascension of Jesus and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The probability is that Mary was present at both occasions but we cannot be certain of this. However, so far as Pentecost goes St Luke writes When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place (Acts 2:1 NRSV) The "they" in this case referring to all the believers, about 120 in all, which certainly included Mary. Pentecost marks the birth of the Church as the body of Christ and the presence of the mother of the head of the body at this event clearly is no accident but a deliberate act of Divine Providence.

Throughout this series I have been pointing up the fact that the Virgin was present at a number of key moments in salvation history the time has now come to summarise these moments and allow their cumulative effects to speak for themselves. I will also look at what we learn about the personality of the Mother of Jesus from these references-

-The Archangel Gabriel tells Mary that she has "found favour with God"
-Mary is the first person in the world to hear about Jesus.
-Immediately she becomes the first person to have faith in Him, i.e. Mary is the first Christian.
-She gives her joyful consent to God's plan
-She is (necessarily) present at the Incarnation of the Son of God which takes place in her womb.
-The sound of the Virgin's voice is the agency which God uses to cause St John the Baptist (and St Elizabeth) to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
-The divinely inspired St Elizabeth declares our Lady to be Blessed among women.
- Mary was (necessarily) present at the birth of the Son of God
- The shepherds and the Magi found Jesus with Mary
-Mary treasures and ponders all these events in her heart.
-Mary was present when Jesus was offered, in accordance with the Law, as a symbolic sacrifice to the Father in the Temple.
-The Virgin was the subject of a prophecy by the inspired Simeon which specifically refers to her and to the closeness she will have to the sufferings of her Son.
-Jesus, Mary and Joseph become political refugees seeking asylum in Egypt in order to save the life of the Saviour.
-Mary's suffering for three days while Jesus is missing, hidden in the House of His Father, prefigures the events of the Passion.
-Jesus willingly subjects Himself to the authority of Mary and Joseph
-Mary displays a delicate and charitable sensibility by being distressed at the potential humiliation of the newlyweds at Cana.
-Prompted by this she prays to Jesus and by her prayers brings about the first public miracle of Jesus' mission.
-In giving her counsel to the servants 'do whatever He tells you' Mary anticipates the words of Jesus at the Last Supper 'if you love me you will keep my commandments'
-Mary accompanies Jesus from Cana to Capernaum where our Lord begins His public mission of preaching, teaching and healing.
-Mary accompanies Jesus to the Cross and stands steadfastly at its foot sharing in His agony.
-Jesus, in the final depths of that agony, takes thought for His mother and gives her into the care of His beloved disciple and gives the beloved disciple into her care. Until He had done this, St John suggests, His mission was incomplete.
-Having been present at the birth of her Son in the flesh at the first Christmas Mary was also present in the birth, as it were, of her Son in the Spirit as the the Body of Christ appears in the world at Pentecost.

Taking all of these things into consideration a Christian would have to be hard hearted indeed not to frequently offer up thanks to God for the gift He gave us in Mary. And if that is not enough one other consideration should be borne in mind, Jesus Himself undoubtedly loved His mother and what is good enough for Him is surely good enough for us.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law 
Galatians 4:4 (NRSV)

One of the title which Catholics give to Mary "Mother of God" often  causes Christians from the Reformation traditions (also called Protestants) to wince. They seem to think that it was a title invented with no other purpose than to elevate Mary into a position for which there is no scriptural warrant. This stems, I think, from a misunderstanding. The title was agreed at a council of the then undivided Christian Church at Ephesus in the 5th Century in order to defend against an heresy which attacked the divinity of Jesus. In its original Greek it is Theotokos which can also be translated as 'God bearer' or 'birth-giver of God.' The point about the title is that it primarily tells us something about Jesus, that from the moment of His conception we was both fully God and fully human, and only secondarily something about our Lady, that she was the mother of the Incarnated second Person of the Trinity. What it does not do is suggest that the second Person of the Trinity had no existence until He appeared within Mary's womb. I am always slightly puzzled by Protestant objections to the use of "Mother of God" since they are willing enough to acknowledge that St Elizabeth was perfectly correct to call her "the mother of my Lord" (Luke 1:43 NRSV) and that it is quite orthodox to refer to Mary as the mother of the Son of God. It is almost as if the idea of conceding anything to Mary is some sort of surrender to Rome.

And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars
Revelation 12:1 (KJV)
This text, sadly, does not come under the heading of undisputed references to Mary. While Catholics certainly accept it to be such most Protestants prefer to see in it a reference to Israel or the Church. It is not my purpose in this series to enter into such matters of controversy so I will not insist upon this interpretation but I will make a couple of points in regard to it. Firstly, it is in the nature of divinely inspired Scripture that it contains multiple levels of meaning not all of which are instantly understandable at first reading. This means that for some texts at least we are not faced with the choice 'either it means this or it means that' but can instead say that 'it means both this and that.' Catholics take the view that this is one such scriptural passage arguing that it certainly does refer to the Church/Israel as well as Mary the mother of God. Protestants do not have to accept this interpretation but I would argue that they should at least acknowledge that it is a plausible understanding of it. Which leads on to- Secondly, Reformation tradition Christians react with something akin to horror to the title of 'Queen of Heaven' being applied to Mary. Yet, if this scripture can reasonably be understood to refer to her then a woman in the heavens possessed of a crown can equally reasonable be understood to be a Queen and her realm clearly is heavenly.

As an aside, a further reason for such strong reactions to the title lies in the previous use of it in reference to a pagan deity Ishtar. It seems specious to me, however, to argue that because pagans used a title therefore it becomes forever barred for use by Christians. The pagan king Nebuchadnezzar, for example, is referred to in Daniel (2:37 KJV) as King of Kings yet this does not prevent the same title being applied to our Saviour Jesus. Similarly the pagan god (or gods) Baal are frequently referenced in the Bible but the word itself simply means 'Lord' and if we disallow pagan title in Christian usage then it would be a sin to say that Jesus is Lord which is manifest nonsense.

In conclusion I would simply say this, Christians of all traditions have in the Scriptures a common treasure and treasury. Part of that common heritage is Mary, the mother of Jesus. By honouring her we do not dishonour Him in any way but by ignoring her we do dishonour Scripture and the clear purpose of the Holy Spirit.

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Saturday, 14 June 2014

Christ Riding Into Jerusalem- A Poem

It was a triumph, of sorts.
A great rejoicing that bright day.
Under the sun that too soon set.

Beneath Him a colt, patient

And willing, itself a parable
For those, those few, who heed such things.

Pilgrims without pilgrim hearts

They thought that they had arrived
But pilgrimage never ceases.

City dwellers scorned these

Uncouth travellers, amused
And puzzled by their cries.

Son of David from Nazareth?

A small town Messiah for
Small town people.
Jerusalem knows better.

Palms in His path, tales and

Rumours of miracles in the air
And hopes of war and battle in
Minds of a conquered people.

His name was on every tongue

As He was on His colt
And the beast was wiser than the men.

In Bethany He had been anointed

For His death but who, in this mad crowd
Remembered that? Conquering
He would conquer. 

Victory Hosannas would soon be heard

So they supposed who saw their humble, 
Prophesied King.

In all that joyful throng, that joyful day,

Who could foresee that a victory cry
Would strangely resemble the weeping
Of a mother cradling her dear Son's corpse? 

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Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The Bible & The Virgin- Part 4

Why Bible-believing Christians should honour Mary

In this series I look at what the New Testament says about the Mother of Jesus, nothing more than that. There is an idea about which suggests that very little is said about Mary in the Bible and that therefore those Christian traditions which give her great honour, Catholic and Orthodox, are being unscriptural. We need to consider the questions of quality and quantity.

As far as quantity goes our Lady is far and away the most referred to woman in the New Testament. You don't have to be a feminist of course to think that that doesn't amount to very much but nonetheless it is the fact and worth considering. Also, you cannot construct a hierarchy of importance based on the frequency of Gospel references alone. For example all four Gospels give an account of Jesus being anointed with oil by a woman whereas only a couple refer to Him being born but you would not deduce from that that the anointing was the more important event of the two. As for quality I hope that I have shown and will yet show that if we unpack the references to the Virgin we will discover them to be much fuller of significance than you might suppose if you only read them casually.

Then Jesus' mother and brothers arrived. They stood outside the house and sent in a message, asking for him. A crowd was sitting around Jesus, and they said to him, “Look, your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, and they want you.”
 Jesus answered, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?”  He looked at the people sitting around him and said, “Look! Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does what God wants is my brother, my sister, my mother.”
Mark 3:31-35 (GNB)

Some Christians of the Reformation traditions (also known as Protestants) habitually use this passage to suggest that Jesus and Mary were at loggerheads during this part of His mission so that He rejected her in favour of His disciples. But this Gospel, and the parallel accounts in Matthew and Luke, say nothing of the kind. The inference that Jesus did not respond to the call to go and see His mother is not backed up by the texts. The account in Matthew 12 is followed by this verse That same day Jesus left the house and went to the lakeside (Matthew 13:1 GNB) and it is more than incredible to suppose that on leaving the house He did not speak to His mother, particularly since not doing so would have involved Him in breaking one of the Ten Commandments Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Exodus 20:12 NRSV)      

Jesus was a natural teacher and He took advantage of many everyday events turning them into occasions for teaching some important truth. Here, clearly, He used this message uttered in the hearing of all His audience to tell them that in the Kingdom of God all were born into a new kind of family, a new kind of relationship. This does not do away with existing ties of love but puts them on a new footing. Genuinely loving relationships cannot be an impediment to the God who is Love Himself, only those in which love is distorted and possessive or selfish need to be discarded or reformed in the light of the Gospel. There is no suggestion, no suggestion at all, from the texts that any such reformation was required in the relationship between Jesus and Mary. Our Lord is saying that His family is united primarily in and through the Holy Spirit, what He is not saying is that our Lady is excluded from that family or that she is one who does not do what God wants. How could He say that about one who proclaimed "behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word"? (Luke 1:38)

As He was saying these things, a woman from the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, “The womb that bore You and the one who nursed You are blessed!” He said, “Even more, those who hear the word of God and keep it are blessed!” 
Luke 11:27-28 (HCSB)

There is a school of biblical interpretation which suggests that the dialogue should be understood like this-
Woman- Blessed is the woman who bore you
Jesus- No she isn't.
But, once again, the text does not suggest the interpretation of it in this fashion. Jesus is as usual deploying His teaching skills. When the woman suggests that Mary is blessed she is repeating what St Elizabeth filled with the Holy Spirit said (Luke 1:42 and 45) and what the equally inspired Virgin herself said (Luke 1:48). Unless we assume that Jesus is in disagreement with the Holy Spirit, an assumption which is inadmissible for Christians, then He cannot be disputing the Gospel truth that Mary is Blessed.

What our Lord is correcting is the idea that the woman in the crowd has that mere blood kinship with Jesus is enough to warrant being Blessed. Remember at this time the dominant idea among the Jews was that the Messiah would be a descendant in the bloodline of King David who would establish a new kingdom in Israel which would drive out the Romans. One of the titles addressed to Him in His lifetime was Son of David because it was considered that this family relationship was the most important fact about Him. Now, Jesus really was related to David through Mary and He really was fulfilling prophecy but He was also inaugurating a new understanding of kingdom and kingship which was based not upon physical descent from Abraham or Jacob or David but upon faith and the Holy Spirit. In this dialogue then our Lord was saying essentially, 'yes it is true that my mother is blessed simply because she is my mother but more than that she is blessed with a blessing that you too can share if you, like her, hear the word of God and keep it.'

Standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother, His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.
John 19:25 (HCSB)

That Mary stood by the Cross of her Son shows us that she has an heroic love for Him. Heroic in at least two senses. Firstly, because Jesus was a condemned traitor in the eyes of both the Jewish and Roman authorities and standing openly by Him at this time was an act of defiance. Secondly, because to stand by and see your own Son die a slow and agonising death would torment any mother beyond the normal powers of endurance. We know that as crucifixions go the death of Jesus was a relatively swift one, a matter of some three hours or so, but Mary could not have known that. She was prepared to endure by His side all that He endured for the length that He endured it and nothing less and in that she was a hero. Some Protestants, however, argue that 'of course' she stood by His Cross, that is the kind of thing mothers do. I'm not sure about the 'of course', it is certainly the kind of thing some mothers do. The point though is that this mother did it and that she certainly deserves to be honoured by all Christians for having done so. And she did it because she loved Jesus with a love greater than anyone else could possibly have for Him and for that she should also be honoured.

There are some other points about this that we should also bear in mind. As I mentioned in the earlier parts of this series Mary was present at a number of crucial points in salvation history and the Holy Spirit, as it were, goes out of His way to inform us of the fact. He must have a reason for doing so, this is not the first occasion nor the last, and Christians would do well to consider what that reason may be. A further point is that in the figure of Mary at the foot of the Cross we see a fulfilment of the prophecy of Simeon a sword will pierce your own soul (Luke 2:35) If the agony of our Lady on Calvary was no more and no less than you would expect from any mother in such circumstances then why does the Gospel draw our attention to it in this twofold manner as prophecy and fulfilment? And if it is significant what is its significance?

When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple He loved standing there, He said to His mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then He said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.    
John 19:26-27 (HCSB)

This is one of those compact Gospel passages which pack masses of information into only a few words. It tells us, for example, that far from rejecting Mary as some have suggested from the earlier passages Jesus retained the deepest possible love for her. Consider the circumstances, He has been hanging upon the Cross in agony for hours, His death is near at hand, He is thirsty, His vision is clouded with the sweat and blood which roll down from His tortured, thorn crowned scalp. And yet He has the energy and the inclination to take thought for the needs of His mother and make provision for her.

It is the consensus among Christians of pretty much all traditions that the Apostle John is responsible for the content of the Gospel that bears his name. And from that Gospel we deduce that he is the 'beloved disciple' referred to in this text. Now, of all the four Evangelists (authors of the Gospel accounts) St John is perhaps the one who is most precise and careful in his choice of words and in the events he chooses to record. Every word, every event, fits into a structure which he, inspired by the Holy Spirit, considers necessary for him to write and us to read. There are places where he refers to himself by his own name but here he prefers the designation "the disciple He loved." Why might that be? Well, every Christian reading this is a disciple whom Jesus loves so if Mary is given as mother to one then perhaps St John intends us to realise that she is given as a mother to all. We also learn from this that the author of the Gospel (and of several Letters in the New Testament) was an adopted son of Mary. They were intimate companions for a time after the events recorded in the Gospels and, at least, the first part of the Acts of the Apostles. Of course they would have talked about Jesus. St John passes on to us what he has learned both from Jesus and from Mary. If his Scripture writings have, as they do have, a very well developed theological understanding of Christ as the Incarnate Son of God and all that flows from that in a way which is more complex and rich than that of the other three Gospel accounts (the Synoptics) then part of that reason surely results from the input of Mary.

As an aside it is worth mentioning that if Mary had had other children there would be no need for Jesus to make provision for her in this way. I have encountered some Protestants who argue that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were hostile to the Gospel so that it would not be appropriate to place our Lady with them. We know, however, that James "the Brother of the Lord" was accredited as an Apostle (Galatians 1:19). Now either Jesus didn't know that this was going to happen, in which case He wasn't God, or the expression "Brother of the Lord" has a meaning different from "Son of Mary."

After this, when Jesus knew that everything was now accomplished
John 19:28 (HCSB)

The "this" after which everything was accomplished was the giving over of mother and beloved disciple into each others care. This suggests, and remember St John uses words with great care, that this giving over was an essential part of the mission of Jesus. Until He had done this He could not surrender to death. Mary was in a sense His gift to His beloved disciples and His beloved disciples were a gift to Mary. If there is one thing about which we can be certain it is that God does not revoke His gifts. If Mary was given to an earlier generation of Christians then she is given to every generation of Christians. For which we should thank God from the bottom of our hearts.

End of Part 4

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