‘Shall I ever,’ he asks on Easter Day, ‘receive the Sacrament with tranquility? Surely the time will come.’
from “Life of Johnson, Volume 2 1765-1776” by James Boswell
Doctor Johnson was staying with his friends the Thrales when he wrote this, well aware of his own sinfulness and the gulf that that could give rise to between himself and God, but also believing that salvation is ours: Christ has Passed-over through death to eternal life and so shall we. Believing does not mean being totally assured in my mind and heart that salvation is mine, and for the melancholic Johnson, all the theology in the world could not enkindle such certainty. Rather it is to accept the promise of salvation, even with a tiny part of myself, and forgive myself for my unbelief. Even a mustard seed faith can leaven the lump that I am; I can receive the Sacrament in fear and trembling, but at the same time, at a deeper level than my doubts, with tranquility.
Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1Corinthians 5:6-8)
On the eve of his death, Jesus prayed for the unity of those the Father gave him: “that they may all be one … so that the world may believe”. Joined to him, as a branch is to the vine, we share the same sap that circulates among us and vitalizes us.
Each tradition seeks to lead us to the heart of our faith: communion with God, through Christ, in the Spirit. The more we live this communion, the more we are connected to other Christians and to all of humanity. Paul warns us against an attitude that had already threatened the unity of the first Christians: absolutising one’s own tradition to the detriment of the unity of the body of Christ. Differences then become divisive instead of mutually enriching. Paul had a very broad vision: “All are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God” (1 Cor 3:22-23).
Christ’s will commits us to a path of unity and reconciliation. It also commits us to unite our prayer to his: “that they may all be one. . .so that the world may believe” (Jn 17:21).
“Never resign yourself to the scandal of the separation of Christians who so readily profess love for their neighbour, and yet remain divided. Make the unity of the body of Christ your passionate concern.”
[The Rule of Taizé in French and English (2012) p. 13]
vivifying fire and gentle breath,
come and abide in us.
Renew in us the passion for unity
so that we may live in awareness of the bond that unites us in you.
May all who have put on Christ at their Baptism unite
and bear witness together to the hope that sustains them.
Are you resigned to the scandal of separation of Christians?
What part of your tradition is vital and life giving and what can you learn from what is vital and life giving within other Christian traditions?
What could be the impact on the world of greater unity between the churches?
We have God totally alive, without violence or death; who has revealed himself as loving humanity so much as to give himself to us so that what is God’s life can be ours for the receiving – to live outside and beyond the culture of death – even now. But he reveals something else as well – God is Creator-God.
We have become accustomed to speak of creation and salvation as two separate realities: first there was creation which happened at the beginning; then the fall from grace in which we fell, needing someone to lift us out; God sent Jesus to save the situation. Looking at this model, it doesn’t look as though Jesus has made much difference; so we struggle and wait hoping finally that we’ll get the visa.
This model does nothing to encourage people to take seriously what they might do to improve things for themselves and others – other than treating symptoms by works of charity and overlooking the cause; seeing Christianity as promoting social progress. The problem with creation-fall-redemption-heaven model is not between redemption and heaven, but in the relationship between creation and heaven. There is a very big difference between a factory that makes cars and a garage that repairs them. If creation and redemption are two different realities it makes it difficult to see a relationship between Creator and Redeemer – in this scenario it’s not clear what God has to do with Jesus.
The Apostolic witness tells us there is a clear relationship, and that to say that God so loved the world that he sent is Son is not sufficient. This certainly reveals God as love but doesn’t show how that love has anything to do with creation. The hints we get from the apostolic group that there is something more are to be found in New Testament passages about the pre-existence of Christ, most notably –
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made – John.1.1-3.
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power – Hebrews 1.1-3.
Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live – 1Corinthians 8.6.
For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross – Colossians 1.13-20.
We must ask: what was it that enabled the apostolic group to see this, to link creation and salvation in such a way that they come to be seen as the same thing? They weren’t asking questions, they were affirming something they already knew, from the Jesus they knew, that he was in some way involved in creation.
It seems that the Resurrection not only changed their perception of God by removing any remnant of violence, allowing God to be understood as total love, but it also brought a change in perception of God Creator. Jesus didn’t just add salvation to the already existing Jewish understanding of God Creator. The human perception of God as Creator is not a simple concept. There are many accounts of gods creating and Genesis seems to suggest creation not from nothing but from a chaos needing to be ordered. This means that God is responsible not so much for creating everything out of nothing as for producing the order of the world. One of the things the Resurrection actually did was to separate God from any link with the order of this world, which has become a violent order based on death.
There is something ridiculous from a human point of view about the whole Christian story. It’s not as though we need Richard Dawkins to point that out to us. Saint Paul got there first and what he says about Christ crucified applies equally to Christ new-born:
We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews indeed a stumbling block, and unto the Gentiles foolishness:But unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
Over at the Vatican Observatory website, Fr James Kurzynski has been grappling with new research that suggests there are two trillion galaxies – galaxies, not stars – in the Universe. He concludes with these words:
According to the definition of the Sacred Name, God IS, God’s understanding of creation is not limited to the musing of the human person. Therefore, it very well might be that to God every microorganism is a universe and every universe is a microorganism. The God who Is, the God who is Being, can at the same time be present to the grandeur of the totality of all creation, both known and unknown, seen and unseen, while at the same time be present to the smallest singularity in which the potential of a two trillion galaxy universe resides. In short, God transcends our limited language of small and big, helping us understand that the God who brought all things into existence is also aware of the smallest of things in existence, even, to quote Scripture, the hairs on our head and the sparrows of the sky.
Reflection: How do you perceive your place in God’s creation? Does it fill you with awe and wonder or do you feel a bit deflated, feeling small and insignificant? In [this] season, let us remember that we believe in a God who both brought into existence an unthinkably big creation, but also entered into our smallness in the womb of Mary. And may we open our hearts to God [at] Christmas and allow God’s infinite love to enliven our soul through the intimacy of Christ’s love for us and the stirrings of the Holy Spirit.
Do find time over the next few days to read Fr Kurzynski’s essay in full HERE.
Paul tells us that the Body of Christ is made up of many parts, and indeed, the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. (1Corinthians 12.22). Let’s not get above ourselves, most of us are more like fingernails than brains or biceps. But we are needed from time to time.
Fingernails can be cracked, broken, ingrained with oil and dirt from hard work. Nurses, though, and chefs need spotless nails; my brother who is a chef will not consider offering a job to anyone, however charming, who comes for interview with dirty nails.
Other nails are pampered, decorated, miniature works of art. They seem to suggest that their hands never get dirty. Of course, some of these nails are in holiday mode, boosting the confidence of the rest of the body for the challenges of a night out, or maybe telling the rest of the body to slow down for a few days: my daughter’s Christmas nails were not practical when teaching 4-year-olds, but fun for a fortnight!
We may be no more than fingernails in the Body of Christ, but we need to take care of ourselves, scrub those nails so the rest of the body is not made ill when we feed it, maybe dress to impress occasionally, but above all, be ready to get dirty in honest hard work for others.
Pictures: Altar and Tabernacle at FISC, by CD – the Body of Christ in form of bread; Dairy at Petworth by MMB – clean fingernails would certainly have been expected.
At Damascus, Saul ended his desire to attack Christians, knocked from his horse by a light from above and a voice which asked “why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) This window recalling the moment is in the Franciscan church in Clevedon, Somerset. St. Bonaventure had compared St. Francis to St. Paul, both of them learning the power of faith directly from Christ himself. Most people do not experience a new beginning as one huge reversal in their lives. Conversion is generally gradual, shaky, in need of supportive friends and community. Even Paul and Francis realised that they had a great deal to learn during their lives, after the stunning breakthrough moment.
We see this in St. Paul’s first letter to Corinth, chapter 9. “If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord,” he wrote. The Corinthian Christians were the rough and ready mix of sailors and their girlfriends who understood how important the love of the risen Lord was to Paul. He tells them that the only meaningful reward for him is “that in my preaching I may make the gospel free of charge.” He wants them to experience the relationship with Jesus too, as a gift that liberates.
In Rom. 7:19 Paul was later to write, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want I do.” He repeatedly felt he let himself down, in conversion, and needed God’s grace anew.