Part of me wants Genesis 9:8-15, God’s Covenant with Noah, to be an Easter Vigil reading, when in fact it comes at the beginning of Lent in Year B. Nevertheless, it does speak of salvation, and water bringing Noah’s family to new life; it’s a little taste of Easter as Lent starts. The rainbow still tastes of Easter if we celebrate it in Easter week, with the curate of Selborne, Gilbert White. Our picture is of the rainbow seen over our friend Mrs O’s house on the day of her funeral. White was a pioneer of natural history, and here the scientist and theologian are one with the poet: ‘Lovely refraction!’ ‘Maker Omnipotent.’Happy Easter!
ON THE RAINBOW by Gilbert White of Selborne.
” Look upon the Rainbow, and praise him that made it: very beautiful is it in the brightness thereof.” Ecclesiastes, 18:11.
On morning or on evening cloud impress'd,
Bent in vast curve, the watery meteor shines
Delightfully, to th' levell'd sun opposed:
Lovely refraction ! while the vivid brede
In listed colours glows, th' unconscious swain,
With vacant eye, gazes on the divine
Phenomenon, gleaming o'er the illumined fields,
Or runs to catch the treasures which it sheds.
Not so the sage: inspired with pious awe,
He hails the federal arch ; and looking up,
Adores that God, whose fingers form'd this bow
Magnificent, compassing heaven about
With a resplendent verge, " Thou mad'st the cloud,
Maker omnipotent, and thou the bow
And by that covenant graciously hast sworn
Never to drown the world again: henceforth,
Till time shall be no more, in ceaseless round,
Season shall follow season: day to night,
Summer to winter, harvest to seed time,
Heat shall to cold in regular array
Succeed. — Heav'n taught, so sang the Hebrew bard."
(from “The Natural History of Selborne” by Gilbert White)
Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish.
‘That’s not a threat, it’s a promise!’ as one of my old teachers used to say, not necessarily to great effect. I wonder whether some of us are looking at our pre-lockdown lives and realising that a sense of self-importance has crept into our hearts our and veins. It’s encouraged by so many aspects of our life: the cult of celebrity and of riches — with the conspicuous spending that can go with it; competition and the riches that accompany elite sports players; the vastly higher pay given to people with clean hands.
At Pentecost time, let’s pray for wisdom as we come out of lockdown, and for a love of our planet that will provide a sustainable future for all creatures of our God and King.
When the first Christians claimed a new covenant, they were aware of how the word new had been interpreted in the prophetic writings. Later generations spoke of old and new covenants – with the presumption the old was past its sell-by date. This is mistaken, the facts of history contradict it. The Jews have been faithful to Covenant in large numbers, even to the point of martyrdom; and Scripture tells us that God does not desert those who are faithful.
Some believe the issue is simple. If the Jews had really been faithful they would have recognised Jesus as Messiah, and have been part of the new covenant. But since they do not recognise Jesus as Messiah, we can assume they are unfaithful to the covenant. For this reason history left them behind as forever lost.
Such a view leaves all kinds of questions unaddressed. Even if it was perfectly clear that Jesus is the Messiah, we must remember that the Jews of the dispersion had never had the gospel preached to them. For example, exactly when did the covenant go out of date? Was it at Pentecost or at the death of the last Apostle? Also, does the Jewish participation in the covenant not remain in date until the end of time?
The only contact many Jews through the centuries had with Christians and the Gospel was that of persecution and victimisation in various forms of anti-Semitism. And many were told to renounce Judaism in favour of Christianity – if you are persecuted on account of your Christian faith and told to recant, would you see this as an act of God? We must accept the possibility that Jews cannot accept Jesus as the expected Messiah because he is not yet Messiah. We who are the presence of Jesus have not yet produced the promised signs of the Messianic presence. We know what these signs are – the Prophets are full of them, and the Gospels have Jesus quoting them.
The signs of Messianic times are: peace among nations and all people; perfect fraternity; justice for the poor and the powerless; no more violence and enmity; and all coming together to praise the one God in their own ways in peace, without hindrance. When Paul writes of these signs he says there is no discrimination in Christ between Jew and Gentile, between cultured Greeks and primitive Barbarians, between men who had all kinds of rights and women who had none. Today we might add: no discrimination between white or black, gay or straight, rich nations and poor – no annexation of the poor by the powerful.
The Christian has to ask how to evaluate other religions. We are all engaged in the work of transforming the world alongside people who are striving for the same goal and contributing equally as much for its realisation. Yet many belong to another religion or faith community.
The question: do these people participate in the work and fruits of salvation in spite of their own religious commitment or because of it? Christianity has answered this variously through the ages, but with answers heavily influenced by cultural experiences and national belongings. It is not easy to disentangle Christian tradition from social and cultural theories.
Before reflecting on these, it must be remembered that the Christian understanding of Judaism must be discussed separately; the relationship between Judaism and Christianity is unique, and in fairly recent times the French Biblical scholar Paul Démann has undertaken this in various articles to do with the relationship between Judaism in Christianity. He makes many suggestions, but many questions remain unsolved and a full theology of Christian understanding of Judaism has yet to appear.
It is abundantly clear that there is salvation in Judaism and the coming of Jesus in history did not take this salvation away. Scripture asserts that God made an everlasting covenant with Israel – you shall be my people and I will be your God; and through them all nations on the earth will be blessed. God kept promising a new covenant – not that the old one would pass away to be replaced by another, rather would the old one become new again as each generation made it its own; and written, not on stone, but on hearts of flesh.
All these promises were verified again and again in Judaism. Although Christians have not always been aware of it, Jews have continued to live passionately in fidelity to the covenant. Under tough conditions – exile, dispersion, persecution and holocaust – they continued to make the covenant ever fresh and new in succeeding generations.
What is Christian morality? In terms of content there is no Christian morality distinct from human morality. The Ten Commandments of the Old Testament and the precepts of the New Testament are simply human demands. But there is something different about Christian morality – just as people in Old Testament and New Testament times saw these human demands in the context of covenant with God and solidarity with Christ, faith today obliges us to see the demands of being fully alive as a response to the call of God.
What difference does Faith make? It puts before us the attractiveness of Christ’s life – one that bears fruit in Resurrection, and promises the same Spirit, the same energy to anyone interested. Sensitivity to his values lifts lives above the minimum of good manners – turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, foregoing legitimate rights for wider benefit. Belonging to a community of faith also makes demands – sharing a Sacramental life, which is not the case for non-believers.
Important as these differences are, the basic moral demand is to become what we are potentially – fully human: “God is praised when we are fully alive…” – Irenaeus. And we don’t grow alone. Our roots are in the earth, and life and health and growth emerge from our relationships – we are what our relationships let us be. A moral life is to be in a right relationship to all of these. Our love for God is only known via the test of service – “unless you did it to these…”!
Sin turns self into God – and pride, lust, avarice, abuse and aggression are the certain fruits. Sin is not a problem, problems can be solved, sin is an ever present mysterious reality, in the world, the Church and individuals. It is a reality to be concerned about, but not to be afraid of: “Where sin abounds, grace abounds even more” – Romans 5.20. Jesus is the forgiveness of sin, but unless we are convinced of our sinfulness, how do we recognise our need for him, or rejoice in what he makes possible?
The second part of Sister Theodora Mercy Kavisa’s post, celebrating water.
Religious traditions have used the cycle of drought, flood, life-giving rain, and the rainbow to symbolize moving out of Separation from God to Redemption. God sent a great flood at the time of Noah because “the earth was filled with violence” (Genesis 6:11). God rewarded Noah’s faithfulness with dry land and a covenant “between you and me and every living creature” (Genesis 9:12-13).
One water ritual that draws all these elements of life, purification, protection, healing, separation and redemption together is the sacrament of Baptism in which Christians have water poured over them or immerse themselves in water to be cleansed of sin and admitted into the Christian community. The community prays,
“In Baptism we use the gift of water, which you have made a rich symbol of the grace you give us in this sacrament. At the very dawn of creation, your Spirit breathed on the waters, making them the wellspring of all holiness. The waters of the great flood you made a sign of the waters of Baptism that made an end of sin and a new beginning of goodness.”
And yet, too many members of the world’s religions neglect to respect water as a finite natural resource. Many people are in need of an inner, spiritual conversion to appreciate the value of water.
As Christians there are three ways to view the current situation: gratitude for creation, reconciliation with wounded creation, and action that heals creation. We need to confront our inner resistances and cast a grateful look on creation, letting our heart be touched by its wounded reality and making a strong personal and communal commitment to healing it. Remember this the next time you throw out plastic bags, empty cans, empty beer bottles, plastic containers etc. Are you healing or further inflicting wounds on an already bleeding creation?
“The Gospel of the Family: Joy for the World” is the theme chosen by Pope Francis for the 9th World Meeting of Families.
Families and others from all over the world will gather in Dublin from August 21 – 26, 2018 to celebrate their lives together, to share their experiences from different parts of the world, to reflect on the different challenges they face and to grow together in faith.
As we thank God for our families and pray that this week in Dublin will bring grace to many, here is an extract from the Little Flowers of Saint Francis telling about the Chapter of the Rush Mats, when many friars gathered for a big conference, and attracted many local people who wanted to join in. These pilgrims for World Youth Day in Krakow were not dampened in spirit, rather inspired by the great company they were among.
No-one was wearing hi-viz jackets to restrict numbers in Saint Francis’s day! Here’s the extract.
They either prayed, or said the office, and bewailed their sins or those of their benefactors, or discoursed concerning the salvation of souls. In the camp were roofs of willows and rush-mats set apart in groups according to the brothers of diverse provinces; and thereby was this chapter called the Chapter of the Rush-mats; their bed was the bare ground, and for such as had it a little straw, their pillows were stones or logs of wood, For the which cause so great devotion towards them was felt by whoso heard or saw, and so great was the fame of their sanctity, that there came many counts, barons, and knights, and other gentle folk, and many country folk, and cardinals and bishops and abbots with many other clergy, for to see this holy gathering, so great and so humble, such as the world had never seen before, of so many holy men together: and chiefest of all they came to see the head and most holy father of that holy band, the which had robbed the world of such fair prey, and gathered together so devout and fair a flock to follow in the foot-steps of the true Shepherd Jesu Christ.
The chapter general being then all assembled, the holy father of all and minister general, Saint Francis, in fervour of spirit set forth the word of God: and preached unto them in a loud voice as the Holy Spirit made him to speak; and as argument of his sermon he set forth unto them these words: “My little children, great things have we promised unto God, much greater far hath God promised unto us, if we observe what we have promised unto Him; and of a surety shall we behold what hath been promised unto us.
Short-lived is the joy of the world; the pain that follows it is everlasting; little are the pains
of this life, but the glory of the other life is infinite.”
And on these words he comforted the brothers and to command hearts into obedience and reverence for Mother Church, and unto brotherly love, to God for all men, and to have patience in adversities of the world, and temperance in purity, to observe modesty and angelic charity and to have peace and concord with God with men and with their own conscience, and love and practice of most holy poverty.
Frontispiece from the Little Flowers of Saint Francis; pilgrims to World Youth Meeting in Krakow, another big gathering.
When Jesus began his ministry he didn’t expect it to lead to this – it wasn’t the goal of his mission. What he challenged us with was totally radical – the way of non-violence, of not needing someone to blame. His death reveals both the compassion of God and the reality of sin. Faced with Jesus, his contemporaries, chosen as hearers of the Word – panicked. The Gospels don’t present the leaders as particularly evil; they used arguments we are still using ourselves – prudence, common sense, self-defence… This is why sin is so appalling, showing how our normal and accepted ways of living are so corrupt that they crucify the innocent – legally.
Some would argue for a proper distinction to be made between religion, politics and social living. Jesus didn’t invite people to be poor, but to be poor in spirit – detached enough from whatever possessions to notice the poor man at the door. There is no love for a hungry person which leaves the person still hungry – it is pointless to show how much is being spent here and there – when the poor remain unfed, unclothed and unhoused. The very point of the Eucharist is to free people from the oppression of such evil. It is naïve to think we help poor people simply by becoming poor ourselves. Our call is to simplicity – simple means uncomplicated, and is not synonymous with easy.
We come to the Eucharist to be involved in ways of everyday living that will bring change. We have the gift of the Sacraments to help us do this. It is easy to miss the point of the Sacrament of the Eucharist by seeing it as a very special ceremony celebrated in but distinct from everyday living. There can be no intimacy with God without seeking the well-being of others – we are told the Second Commandment is like the first; which cautions about eating and drinking unworthily – 1Corinthians 11.27.
Grace is not a commodity God has to give to those who do what they are told to do. In fact, it is not something – it is relationship. It is an invitation to intimacy along with the gift of courage to say yes. Grace cannot be seen but gracefulness can, in heightened sensitivity to the needs of others. We can love our own family to the exclusion of others, likewise for one’s country – but such is not love since love knows nothing of exclusions. Love means openness – no matter who no matter where. See this expressed in the way the local folk in Germany turned out to welcome the migrants. This is Eucharist beyond the table. We relate to God as community, because it is only in community [no matter how small] that relationships happen. We have little experience of covenant relationship with God when so many human hungers go unnoticed.
From a junction, yesterday, to the end of the line today! Kyle of Lochalsh station is out of sight to the right of the photograph.
I’m not necessarily in favour of fixed links where ferries used to ply, but they do make life easier. We have the Channel Tunnel between Kent and Calais while Skye has the Skye Bridge linking it to the Scottish mainland. Its echoing of the rainbow when we were there helped reconcile myself to it, as did the fact that the tolls were abolished some years ago. Our plan to walk across from Kyleakin on Skye to Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland were washed out. The rain was fierce, but there was a bus we were not too proud to catch.
The Isle of Skye’s website says that Kyleakin used to be choked with cars, lined up for the ferry; it’s quieter now but still the hotels do good business.
We were amazed by the quantities of baggage carried by the French coach tourists who shared our hotel, and the mistrustful refusal to accept assistance in getting the cases through the automatic lift door. What a burden for the mind! It is good to travel light whether to Skye or beyond the sky.
And I hope I won’t always need a rainbow to remind me of how beautiful the world is. Even those bits of it engineered and built by mere humans can reflect the beauty of God’s creation.
There is an aura of joy about today’s readings; in the first, the people are told to: “Shout for joy” and mourn no more, for salvation was coming. Isaiah was prophesying about a time when the people had repented and returned to God, and He had forgiven them, making a “Covenant of peace” with them which would never be shaken. His only requirement was that the people had faith in Him.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus commends John, who had been the “greatest of all the children born of women”, because he had known what God wanted and had not been afraid to preach it. He had been the person bridging the gap between the Old and New Testaments, showing people the first step of the new order: repentance and baptism. Yet, those coming after who accepted the teaching of Jesus would be in a greater position than John because they had faith, having learned the truths of the Gospel, and were to benefit from the Sacrifice of the Cross.
The reading ends with a warning to the Pharisees, who had been too proud and too convinced of their righteousness to receive baptism from John. They had not realised that this was how God was leading His people at this time; they were “Thwarting God’s plan”.
Let us pray that we will always be open to change our ideas to do whatever God asks of us.