When the Gospel writers wrote, rewrote, and reedited the gospels as we have them, they were writing for people who already knew the overall story of Jesus. People who knew what it was to live in the presence of the crucified and risen one. The writers were not writing in the way you tell a story to someone for the first time, but to people like you and me who are familiar with it in our liturgy, prayer and sharing together. So the way the writers reported particular narratives often carry references to the story as a whole, a sort of trailer to a film.
This is clearly so in Luke’s account, in Chapter 4, of Jesus’ return to his own people in Nazareth. His ‘own people’ here represent far more than his family and neighbours in Nazareth. You can hear the words of John: “He came to his own, but his own received him not.”
Spreading the Good News: from acclaim to rejection
Jesus goes to the place where his people meet God, in their synagogue on their holy day. He takes the prophet Isaiah to proclaim his own manifesto. Good news for the poor, release for captives… good news and healing for those who are outside and forgotten. And, all in the context of the year of God’s favour, that Jubilee theme which has come down through the prophets and which Jesus identifies with himself. Jesus then rolls up the scroll and sits down. There is a hushed anticipation as to what is next. And what is next is great acclaim and popularity. They are amazed at his graciousness. Until… until he spells out the real-life implications of what the ‘good news’ would mean. Acclaim turns to rejection.
They take him out of their town, up the hill outside, in order to do away with him, but Jesus passes through their midst and journeys on his way. You can hear the reference to the final climax of his life, when he taken out of the city up to hill of Calvary. But in fact Jesus, through death, passes on his way in his risen life.
Luke’s narrative, therefore, raises the big question – at least it does for me – why that initial buoyancy of the good news turns out to be such a threat. Why, during the ministry of Jesus, did that initial buoyancy of the Good News turn to be such a threat to people that either they must go along with Jesus or get rid of him? What is the dynamic during his life that brought this about?
Let me share one way of thinking of this that I find helpful and that may resonate with you.
Q 1. Why does Jesus’ ministry turn out to be such a threat to so many people?
The Holiness of God: increasingly present, increasingly hidden
When the intense holiness of God incarnates itself in human affairs by and large two things happen. One is that as God becomes increasingly present, he also becomes increasingly hidden. In many ways, God is more hidden in the presence of Jesus than he is the glory of creation.
There is something very enigmatic about the presence of Jesus. It is never self-evident that this is the holy one, our God in our midst. He is recognised through signs, and the gift of seeing beyond what is self-evident. He’s supremely hidden, of course, at the moment of crucifixion where there are no signs left that this is the salvific work of God. And in his risen presence, in those accounts of his ‘appearances’. After the Resurrection he’s actually disappeared rather than appeared – he comes as a gardener, or hitch-hiker, or breakfast-maker. It is never self-evident unless something is triggered in people so that they recognise him. And, finally, in the Eucharistic presence he is in one sense so intensely present that he is disappeared into Bread and Wine. The intense holiness of God has so identified with human affairs and the stuff of this world as to have disappeared into them – he becomes what he divinises – or is it the other way round?
Q2. How can we recognize the signs of Christ’s presence, when “God has so identified with human affairs… as to have disappeared into them”?
A light shines in the darkness: revelation and crisis
The second thing that happens when God’s holiness incarnates itself in human affairs is that it creates a crisis, which would not have happened if he had not come. On one such occasion Jesus seems to sigh, “Oh it would have been much easier if I’d never come”. This sense of the created crisis, already anticipated in Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy accounts, is very important if we are to try and understand the dynamic of his final three years.
Two things happen at the same time. On the one hand Jesus’ presence, his preaching and the way he relates to people and calls them forth, enormously heightens the dignity of the human person. It means that people are far more important than human society – and we – normally think. Jesus is generating the real possibility that people can live in different ways, can honour each other, can discover relationships, structures and ways in which, as society, we can honour the potential divinity of people, if I can put it as strongly as that. The creative imagination of the prophet is generating the real possibility, not just as an ideal, that people live in new ways in practice. That’s why it was and is so threatening.
While that’s happening on the one hand, on the other hand the incarnation of holiness reveals where true evil lies in society and in our world. It reveals the presence and the nature of evil. It also reveals the evil of structures and attitudes that work against people being treated with dignity.
It’s a bit like when you switch a light on in a room. It not only illuminates things but it also shows up and almost creates the dark shadows. Both happen at the same time. I sometimes think we should be extremely cautious about using phrases like “Jesus Christ the light of the world”. People have different ideas as to what that means, but one meaning certainly is that his presence shows up what’s really going on in our world, both the light and the dark in the same process. His very presence becomes conflictual. It becomes potentially divisive. As I mentioned earlier, this was already pointed to in Luke’s opening chapters when Simeon said to Mary: “His very presence is going to be a sign of contradiction and it’s going to reveal the hearts of many, one way or another.” Another example might be in Mary’s Magnificat when the Coming and Presence turns everything over (“He fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty”).
Q3. In what ways does Jesus’ ministry create a crisis and why?
Q 4. “The creative imagination of the prophet is generating the real possibility that people can live in new ways in practice.” What are or could be these ‘new ways’ and on what values are they founded?
Q 5. What are the structures and attitudes that work against people being treated with dignity?
Wealth, learning and power: blessing or blockages?
Jesus is more than a prophet because he personifies, literally, that which God is working among us. In so doing he discovered there were three areas where people had enormous blockages in appreciating what he was about – blockages that prevented them entering what he was generating. I think of these as the ‘bubble’ of wealth, the ‘bubble’ of learning, and the ‘bubble’ of power. All of us are trapped in forms of these bubbles, but they are much more obvious in the public forum of our day. These contained and defensive bubbles are self-justifying and become their own worlds.
It’s of great importance to realise that each of these three, wealth, learning and power, was to the Jewish mind, and in the best Christian thinking, essentially good. They are blessings from God. Wealth is the participating in part of God’s blessing for us, part of creation. And learning, a love of learning, is a beautiful gift from God. Likewise, the gift, the call, to exercise power, in authority, is a gift from God. The problem comes when these essentially good things are perverted.
We have to face the fact that real evil in our world comes from the perversion of what is good, the perversion of blessings and sacred trust. We cannot accept the Manichean idea that some things are totally evil and some things are simply good.
That sort of ‘evil empire’ type language is a way of refusing to accept the shadow side of your own empire, whatever sort of empire you’re in. it is our failure to appreciate that evil resides in the perversion of good that makes it so difficult for the churches to know how to critique a lot of what’s happening in our present world. We reduce so much of Christianity to a sort of moralism. What is good is good, what is bad is bad; if it isn’t sin (in the usual sense) then it’s OK. There are much deeper issues going on than that. So, let’s just have a brief look at wealth, learning and power.
When Jesus says “Blessed are you poor and woe to you rich” he is not dealing in any simplistic moral categories. He’s not saying the poor are innocent and the rich are guilty, the poor are saints and the rich are sinners. Nor is he doing simply a sociological analysis of different classes. He can’t be reduced in that way. In fact I don’t think he can be understood unless we hear him speaking out of his own experience of God, and what God was offering his people.
It was Jesus’ own experience that people who were caught up in a world of wealth could not understand what was going on in the new creation he was speaking about. If Jesus was alive today, he would say about the rich not “woe to you, you have your consolation”, but “woe to you rich, you have your comfort zone”. I’m sure he’d permit that translation. He’s saying that we live in a world in which wealth forms a bubble inside which we live. We generate so much self-justifying language that we see ourselves as a blessing to the rest of the world, but need no questioning of ourselves. We simply can’t see where the blessing is being offered. Whereas, “Blessed are you poor” is saying that you who are in the margins and you who haven’t been recognised are discovering what God is truly bringing about in our world – what is on offer. In a sense you’re in touch with the real story.
It’s so important to ponder these things in a prayerful and in a deep way. Not just in our lives, of course, but in the economic processes and structures of our times. Because within each of these ‘bubbles’ we become extremely defensive. ‘Bubble’ in a sense is the wrong analogy because if you prick a bubble it simply bursts, whereas in these cases if you prick the bubble (of learning, wealth or power) it may strengthen itself and become a steel shell.
Jesus was meeting people of exquisite knowledge of Torah and he would not have had any criticism of that. But he often found that such exquisite learning becomes its own ‘bubble’ of expertise and is then used as a weapon against people rather than as an instrument of God’s truth and mercy. The word of God should show people how the justice and mercy of God incarnates itself in society and open this way to them. But the word gets hijacked by exquisite learning and creates a virtuous ‘bubble’ which excludes those who can’t keep the law (in the same way that the poor, the lepers, the outsiders and so on were excluded in Jesus’ time). The excluded come to be deemed as living in a state of sin, like the blind man in the story in St John.
Subtly, we do that with a lot of people in our world, although we’re far too nice and well trained to admit it – the whole assumption that anyone who’s the victim is in some way the culprit. For us, this learning bubble raises many questions about how we use scripture. The same exquisite knowledge of the Bible can easily use Torah (the Law) as a weapon not a blessing. But in all areas of academic expertise the same applies. Is it a self-flattering, self-justifying bubble, or is it a blessing, a sacred trust? “I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth for hiding these things from the learned and clever and revealing them to the little ones… No one knows what the Son is about except the Father, just as no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to make him known.”
The third bubble, power, is the most obvious one. Power for Jesus was not a horrible thing; it was a sacred trust. But he discovered that people, instead of holding power and authority as a sacred trust in a people centred way, allow it to become an end unto itself. All sorts of defence mechanisms retain power and inside the power bubble it becomes impossible to see where alternatives and new things are happening. This defensive power ‘bubble’ can be seen unfolding in the Gospels all through the dynamic of Jesus’ life and particularly clearly in the story of the Magi and Herod in Matthew.
I’ll just say again those two basic things: for Jesus wealth, learning and power are good things, blessings from God, and that the root of evil lies in the abuse of these blessings. They each create their own virtuous ‘bubble’ from which we can be set free to know where the real action is happening, only by a profound conversion, a freedom from the demand of the ego and from those comfort zones of security.
Q6. In what ways are we personally blocked by the bubbles of wealth, learning and power?
Q 7. What is the “shadow side” of the empires we live in?
Q 8. In what ways do we tend to justify remaining within our own comfort zones?
Q 9. How do we approach the challenge of tackling the three “bubbles” of learning, wealth and power if, when they are attacked, they simply put up more defences?
Q 10. Do you agree that the Bible and knowledge of the Bible, has become a “weapon” to perpetuate exclusion? Why? Why not? What can be done?
Q 11. In what practical ways could power be “people centred”? (How does the story of the visitation of the Magi to Herod illustrate the issue of power discussed here?
The mystery of the Cross
One of the reasons why it seems important to understand how the dynamic of Jesus’ three years worked out and why these bubble worlds defended themselves against his presence, is that it gives us a deeper understanding of his last week and the supreme moment of Calvary. A lot of our churches suffer from taking the mystery of the Cross out of any historical context. For various historical reasons we did that in the Creed in which we jump from “born of the Virgin Mary” right through to the end story, as though nothing in between is of any significance.In our Eucharistic prayers we often, although not so much in our new ones, say that we call to mind the death and the Resurrection of Jesus. We give the impression, therefore, that the mystery of Christ’s death somehow makes sense in its own right. That somehow it’s the will of God that his Son should die. What does that really mean? There’s obviously one sense in which it’s true. But how did the compassionate, the Abba Father, the God who Jesus spent his life trying to persuade people to appreciate and to live in communion and conversation with, suddenly in the end story turn out to be the God who demands sacrifice and whose will it is that his Son should sacrifice himself? This has given rise to a whole understanding of the Cross, which really needs rethinking.The phrase “Jesus died for my sins” – what does that really mean? If we understand better that the incarnation of God’s holiness in human affairs creates a crisis and that crisis can only be resolved if those ‘bubbles’ which we live within are willing to hear what’s outside themselves, then we can understand much better the whole last week of Jesus’ life and how his final death was an act of love, of self-giving, a final non-violent statement of that which he lived for. It only makes sense, his self-gift, as the final statement of what he lived for. If we understand how his own presence creates the crisis, we see that Jesus incites the crisis-point of the last week. We see it the whole way he journeyed to Jerusalem, the way he chose the moments, the way he was in the Temple in those last days, slipping in and out. The idea that he’s simply an innocent at large fallen into the clutches of evil people won’t really do.
He is pressing home an issue in his time and, indeed, for every time, which is a crisis issue. It creates, therefore, a conflict. The resolution of both the crisis and the conflict is through an extraordinary non-violent journey, which is his dying. That’s our mysterious Christian faith, which to modern humanist ways of thinking is in accessible.
When Jesus finally comes to that last crisis point he confronts the powers in an obvious way, but never sets them up as beyond salvation. He would never do that. During his ministry, when the disciples in their conversion enthusiasm said: now we can go and sort out the tares from the wheat and get the goodies on one side and the baddies on the other, Jesus would never allow that to be done. Jesus confronts and then he submits to the powers. The whole story of the trials is this free man, this totally free man who is also the victim. And, it’s through that extraordinary journey he makes, that eventually he becomes the risen victim who is the dynamic in our lives.
Q 12. In what ways is Jesus’ crucifixion tied up with his relationship to power?
Who holds the key?
St Paul, looking back at all that and possible having been present during it all, has an amazed awareness that the risen one – having passed through the transcending victory of the moment of death itself – now leads all those powers in the procession of life. They come behind in the procession. It’s not that they have no place anymore but they’ve got a relative place. They are given a subsidiary role as contributors to life, and can no longer claim dominion.
This is worked out much more fully in the book of Revelation, that book which we know exists, but hardly ever look at, read or study. It’s only quite late in my journey that I’ve been introduced to it. Let me just say one or two brief things about it. The issue in the book is between the Lamb who is slain and living – the crucified one who lives – over against the Dragon and the two beasts.
The Dragon and the beast of worship and the beast of commerce, who serve the Dragon, is a sort of coded image for the power of Rome in that culture: the dominant power for the whole of the Mediterranean. There’s never a head-on conflict between the two. The question being worked out is: who holds the true story of our world, in and out of all the appalling suffering, who holds the key? The lamb is the only one who can unseal the scroll of meaning in our human history. Although to so many eyes he’s the vulnerable one and the one who holds none of the power in the world, he is in fact the one who holds the true meaning.
But the one who claims to hold everything, who claims to hold the true version is, of course, the Dragon. It’s of great importance that the Dragon is symbolised with the same sort of strange horns and symbols that the Lamb has; it is a sort of look-alike of the real thing. The claim of power, learning and wealth, used for themselves, is always going to look like the real thing, which is why it’s so persuasive. So we’re asking here, through this strange, mysterious, visionary book: where and how is God bringing about the new earth? The new heavens and the new earth – is it to be according to the logic and language of the Dragon who holds all the cards, or is it to be according to this alternative language of the living victim, which has so little apparently going on for it and yet holds the key to reality?
I say all this because I believe the work we’re doing in aid agencies is keying in to the real story of our world. It doesn’t need any self-justifying other than the way love slots into the real dynamic of what God is doing in our world amongst people.
Q 13. In what ways, if any, could the description of the Dragon, the Lamb and the two beasts in Revelation be seen as a metaphor or parable for today’s global (economic) structures?
Q 14. How does this part of the book of Revelation help us to understand our own relationship with today’s powers, systems and structures?
The final solution?
When this letter from John on his island of Patmos was read in Sardis or Laodicia you can be quite certain that some people sitting in the pews would have listened to this stuff and said: this man’s a complete nutter, he hasn’t got the faintest idea of what he’s talking about and anyhow he doesn’t know anything about trade or economics or politics. If he knew anything at all he’d know that the Pax Romana is preventing all sorts of local wars going on in different places all around the Mediterranean and securing trade routes, making possible the exports and imports on which our prosperity depends.
If somebody got on a mobile and said that to the visionary on his island of Patmos, I’m quite sure that John would have said: yes, of course, you’re right, I’m not denying any of that; it’s perfectly true. And if they then said: what about Romans 13 and everything Paul told us about being obedient to the powers and being good citizens, he would have said: yes, I agree with all of that too, but that’s not what I’m on about. What I’m on about is that the powers are claiming the divine allegiance of the people. They are claiming a language of eternal blessings for people. They are using the language of final solution, that what we now have in place is going to last forever. They are claiming that everybody benefits from what’s going on when all of us, if we’re honest, know that it’s at the expense of appalling injustice, slavery and so on.
Every strong ideology behind the various forms of empire building actually contains within itself its own demise. Empires by and large implode. They don’t get destroyed from outside. And they’re always claiming to be the final solution. You only have to look back to the language used by National Communism earlier in the last century, and then by National Socialism, with the Thousand Year Reich coming in. I hear the same assurance in the language of consumer capitalism – this is the final solution for the world’s happiness, and if only everybody else would come on board everyone would benefit.
Part of what the author of Revelation is seeing and saying is that this self-image of being the final solution, and the plausible language that sustains it, is a profound form of self-denial. The whole dominion of the Dragon is, in fact, going to pass away. It’s intrinsically vulnerable. There’s an awful scene in the book when people stand off at sea, watching the whole beautiful enterprise going up in smoke, because what claimed permanence was usurping the place that only God can claim. I think it’s that claim that the powers can provide what belongs to the crucified-living one that lies behind the words in the Gloria, a very ancient Christian prayer that we all pray today. You alone are the Holy One. You alone are the Lord. You alone are the Most High. Christians are saying no, no, no, nobody can claim those titles, only the crucified-living one can be that.
For us this has many implications because we need, as Christians, to be extremely sensitive to where language starts claiming the wrong story.
It means we’re going to be in things but never of them, in the way that other people can be of them. We can be engaged in the world, but we’re never going to sell ourselves out to any promise that economically, politically or ideologically we are on to the final solution. All of us know, do we not, that the sort of consumer ethos that we’re living in – the sort of trade relations that are built into our modern world – mean that the assumptions we have in the western world, and especially in the United States, simply cannot last. They cannot be a model for the whole world. Anything that lives off other people to the extent that we do cannot be a model for everybody, even if our beautiful planet could support it.
Q 15. Do you agree that today’s empires “contain within themselves their own demise”? what are the signs of this?
Q 16. Do you agree that “the consumer ethos we’re living in … cannot be a model for the whole world”? Why?
Q 17. How can we be engaged with the world but not of it?
Through the eyes of Jesus
We need, as Christians, to generate a much greater, freer, love of truth, willing to speak truth in season and out, to speak truth in love and not out of ego. This means learning what Jesus said often: beware of how you hear, how you see. It occurred to me, lying in bed this morning, pondering some of these things, how remarkable it was, at the beginning of those final days, when Jesus comes down from the Mount of Olives to make his entry, he is over-wrought by such an intense love of his own people that he bursts into tears. He says: if only, if only, they could have taken hold of the moment on offer, but because they have not, all will end in disaster. At the same time that he is reading the signs of the times that way, the powers are reading them in exactly the opposite way. In the voice of Caiaphas they are saying: if we allow this thing to go on, everything we have lived for, in God’s name, is finished. This is the same kairos moment seen through the eyes of the crucified-living one and seen through the eyes of the powers.
It is no easy journey to be free enough to see through the eyes of Jesus or to love truth as he did. Yet truth is the thing Jesus said he came to bear witness to.
Text and context
In our own lives, we lead an ongoing conversation between text and context. Text is the Word of God, the presence of Christ, that we have received in our Christian tradition, that we receive in Liturgy, where the mystery is carried until we are ready for it. This is text, which we receive, and is always open for rediscovery, for re-entry, for revealing new things to us. Context in a personal sense is the reality of who and where I am, but for our present concern is the realities of our modern world and the issues we are called to face. The conversation between text and context is very important to our own lives. Both our understanding of the Word of God we’re given and how we read the context we’re living in. Both text and context re-interpret each other, a conversation that is essential if we too are to bear witness to truth. As part of that conversation let us revisit those three things I mentioned earlier: wealth, learning and power.
Today the self-justifying language around the world of wealth is so extensive it’s almost impossible to know how to start. Market economists say that it’s extremely important to treat the market as a scientific reality of how things work. They say it’s nothing to do with morality and it’s nothing to do with responsibility. You simply have to be subject to the laws of the market for the whole world to work at all. But that is really a form of fatalism and idolatry. The context dismissing the text. That’s the language of the Beast.
Q 18. What would it mean, as Christians, to live in an ongoing conversation between text and context?
Trade: where’s the justice?
I think we need to live constantly with the question: why does market capitalism, and the consumerism attached to it, constantly draw wealth upwards? Why do the primary producers live on subsistence, while the people at the top of the companies, at the other end of the whole process, have so much money they really don’t know what to do with it? Why does the tin miner in Bolivia live on one dollar a day, if he can find work at all, when the head of a can-making company earns a fortune?
When considering trade justice, I think we should be including trade in finance. Two thirds of international trade is in finance and yet our mental picture of trade tends to focus on goods. So, in that case, as in many others, the context is constantly bringing up new agendas, and we need to keep that conversation between text and context very alive.
Let’s just remind ourselves that finance is part of God’s creation. It’s a sacred trust and we’re not saying to people involved, or even your own diocese’s financiers, that they’re dealing with filthy money. They’re dealing with sacred trust and the question facing us is: how do you handle this part of God’s creation in a way that’s true to his purposes and the Kingdom that Jesus and we speaking about? How we acquire wealth, how we hold wealth. They’re all crucial issues today, but not very widely discussed and debated.
Q 19. How could we handle wealth in a way that is true to God’s purposes?
The Bible, love and justice
I’ll touch on the learning “bubble” for just a moment. Let’s be extremely cautious and wise about how we use Scripture today, about how we use learning of the Bible. There are many places in which Christians are now using “The Bible” as a weapon against people. It needs a much more profound, deeper love of Scripture to know how to use it for justice and God’s mercy. But, elsewhere too there is such power today in learning and expertise. How are we going to handle that in wisdom because, as Fritz Schumacher used to say, human beings are far too clever to afford not to be wise. You only have to think of many areas of scientific expertise and research today, to know what that means.
Power a sacred trust
And finally, the “bubble” of power and authority. It’s just worth saying once again that, for instance, when Jesus washes the feet of his friends, he says, “You call me Lord and Master, and that I am.” He doesn’t say: “Well I’m not,” as if, in the light of the Gospel of the poor, all authority and power are out of the window. He says that’s what I am, and this is what it means to hold authority or to hold power. He’s giving us another understanding of all sorts of power. Power is a sacred trust and you’ve got to handle it as a sacred trust, not as a vehicle for your own ego or fear.
Q 20. What does it mean to hold power “as a sacred trust”? In what ways do we ourselves exercise power? What are our temptations when we do so?
Bearing witness to truth
In our own lives, this ability to live in an ongoing conversation is important. We need to know how to act and how to withdraw from action into a contemplative place in order that the conversation between the two can be truly creative. I don’t mean creative in the sense of being able to see things happening because of what we do. As Christians we’re called to bear witness, to give ourselves to what needs to be said and done and then leave the outcome to God in his mysterious ways. It may appear successful, it may appear unsuccessful, but we do need to give ourselves intelligently and wisely and generously to bear witness to truth and therefore to be a voice for the voiceless in our world.
That only evolves in our lives if we can keep these conversations between text and context, and between prayer and action, ongoing. Above all, let’s avoid the abiding Anglo-Saxon heresy, the only decent one our islands have ever produced – the Pelagian Heresy: that it’s very nice to have God around as a spectator, but basically we can do the work ourselves, and he’s lucky to have us around. It takes different forms, but today whenever I hear the words, “We must build the Kingdom” I become a little bit queasy. Jesus would never had used that phrase. The Kingdom is something that God is bringing about in our lives and in our world and we ask if we can be part of that reality. It’s a story that’s being told ahead of us and it calls us into it. It’s not something we build for a spectating God.
Q 21. In what ways could we bear witness to the truth today?
Q 22. Do we ever hold a creative conversation between contemplation and action? What are/ might be the results?
Q 23. What does it mean that, “The Kingdom is something that God is bringing about in our lives and in our world and we ask if we can be part of that reality.”? How can we be part of that reality, in what ways?
A greater reality
One of the questions I was asked to touch on is: what does it mean to engage on works of justice “as Christians”? We need to avoid a tendency among some of seeing justice as a specifically Christian virtue, rather than a human one common to all faiths and humanists. And we need to avoid the opposite, very widespread idea that it doesn’t matter what anyone believes as long as they’re sincere. So why “as Christians”? Perhaps we are being called to something much more radical about God as the author of the drama of our world, and what it is to be “in Christ” at the heart of this drama.
There is a parable which I find helpful and which goes something like this (though the opening lines in St Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and Galatians put it much better!):
Suppose in Northern Ireland or anywhere where there’s longstanding alienation or potential violence, and people are locked into memories of the past, which justify the present stand-off and violence…
Suppose that proper representatives of the different factions really met together and journeyed a long journey of reconciliation, of revisiting their past memories and bitterness, getting beyond their fear of each other, getting beyond all their extremely deep-seated and profoundly understandable potential for violence…
Suppose they got beyond that and came to the point of a central covenant which would be on behalf of all the people in Northern Ireland whether the people understood it or not, or agreed with it or not. It would open up a new position, a new situation and the possibility of a new future for every single person living in the province. Now in Village A they may not hear the news at all, that the central covenant has broken through that alienation, but in working for the same things in their locality, in seeking in their family life, in their own inner attitudes, in their own relations within the town, i.e. working to be reconciled in a deep way – they would, in fact, be keying into that central overriding covenant. They would be working for it without knowing they were.
In Village B they may hear the good news about the covenant and think: now it’s all been done isn’t that wonderful! We can celebrate, and every year we’ll have a special memorial – sort of whoopee, halleluia, it’s all over. But, of course, it isn’t, because they would be failing to take on board the need to realise the same thing that had been done centrally and definitively, to realise it in their own lives in their own context.
In Village C they may hear the good news about the covenant and take it quite seriously and know that in order to do justice and to live it they are going to have to realise the same things in their own lives, in their own families, in their own locality. This need to “realise” the definitive covenant in their own context is partly because particular people in their particular context thrashed out the covenant. Only those in Village C can do it in their village. And partly because the new order created by the definitive covenant does not operate as some sort of magic.
The big difference between Village A and Village C is that Village A were doing it off their own energy, their own efforts, and every time they failed they had to start again in a sort of desperate restarting. In Village C they know that the reality goes ahead of them. They’re living in a new reality and therefore every time they fail they can simply brush themselves down, smile and laugh and get on and have another go. They know they are not telling the essential story; they are part of a bigger story, which is in safer hands. And that gives enormous encouragement and hope in the authentic sense of placing our lives in that wider story and not just in our own expectations of what we can and can’t do.
It isn’t make-believe, this living into a greater reality, into that story which we’re part of but are not the story tellers. It comes back again to a theme I’ve mentioned once or twice and is so clear in the book of Revelation: Who is telling the true, real story of our lives and how are we going to give ourselves to be part of that wonderful reality?
Q 24. What difference does our Christian faith make to our action?
So I’d like to finish with a passage which has had a profound influence on me. It was written by Teilhard de Chardin, who had known first-hand the horrors of the First World War:
Lord, help my unbelief. Ah, you know it yourself, Lord, through having borne the anguish of it as a man: on certain days the world seems a terrifying thing: huge, blind and brutal. It buffets us about, drags us along, and kills with complete indifference. Heroically it may truly be said, man has contrived to create a more or less habitable zone of light and warmth in the midst of the great, cold, black waters – a zone where people have eyes to see, hands to help, and hearts to love. But how precarious that habitation is! At any moment the vast and horrible thing may break in through the cracks – the thing which we try hard to forget is always there, separated from us by a flimsy partition: fire, pestilence, storms, earthquakes, or the unleashing of dark moral forces – these callously sweep away in one moment what we had laboriously built up and beautified with all our intelligence and all our love.
Since my dignity as a man, O God, forbids me to close my eyes to this - like an animal or a child – that I may not succumb to the temptation to curse the universe and him who made it, teach me to adore it by seeing you concealed within it. O Lord, repeat to me the great liberating word, the words which at once reveal and operate: This is my body. In truth, the huge and dark thing, the phantom, the storm – if we want it to be so, is you! It is I; do not be afraid. The things in our life which terrify us, the things that threw you yourself into agony in the garden, are, ultimately, only the species or appearance, the matter of one and the same sacrament.
We have only to believe. And the more threatening and irreducible reality appears, the more firmly and desperately must we believe. Then, little by little we shall see the universal horror unbend, and then smile upon us, and then smile upon us, and then take us in its more than human arms.
No, it is not the rigid determinism of matter and of large numbers, but the subtle combinations of the spirit, that give the universe its consistency. The immense hazard and the immense blindness of the world are only an illusion to one who believes.” From The Divine Milieu, Teilhard de Chardin (Perennial 2001)
Let us make our own a prayer of Pope John XXIII:
Holy Spirit fulfil in us the work begun by Jesus.
Make fruitful and steadfast the prayer we make on behalf of the whole world.
Hasten the hour when each of us will achieve a deep interior life.
Invigorate our work.
May it reach all people, all those redeemed by the blood of Christ and all his inheritance.
Subdue in us our natural presumption and raise us to a holy humility,
a true fear of God and generous courage.
May no vain attachment hinder the work of our vocation.
May no personal interest cause us to shrink from the demands of justice.
May no personal scheming cause us to reduce love to our own petty dimensions.
May all be noble in us, the search for and the reverence for truth,
the readiness to sacrifice, even to the cross and death.
And may all be accomplished according to the last prayer of the Son to his heavenly Father and according to the grace which Father and Son give through you this Spirit of love, the grace you give to your Church and to her institutions, to each member and to all peoples.