Today is the Feast of the Presentation of baby Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem, and traditionally the last day of Christmas. It is also known as Candlemas, because candles are lit during the Scripture readings at Mass and sometimes there is a procession with the candles. Here is the Church of England collect for the day. ‘Substance of our flesh’: in other words Jesus was a real human being, not a pretend body inhabited by an angel. Like us in all things but sin.
Almighty and ever-living God,
clothed in majesty,
whose beloved Son was this day presented in the Temple,
in substance of our flesh:
grant that we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts,
by your Son Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever. AMEN
An insight into Francis’s experience of the Stigmata in this extract from the Little Flowers of Saint Francis..
Those most holy wounds, since they were imprinted by Christ, gave very great joy to Saint Francis’s heart; nevertheless to his flesh and to his corporal senses they gave intolerable pain. Wherefore, being compelled thereunto by necessity, he chose Friar Leo, as more simple and more pure than the others, and to him he revealed everything; permitting him to see and to touch those sacred wounds and to bind them with certain handkerchiefs, for the allaying of the pain, and to catch the blood which issued and flowed from the said wounds; the which bandages, in time of sickness, he permitted him to change frequently, and even daily, except from Thursday evening to Saturday morning, during which time our Saviour Jesus Christ was taken for our sakes and crucified, slain and buried; and therefore, during that time, Saint Francis would not suffer that the pain of the Passion of Christ, which he bore in his body, should be assuaged in anywise by any human remedy or medicine whatsoever.
Sometimes, as Friar Leo was changing the bandage of the wound in his side, St. Francis, for the pain which he felt when that blood-soaked bandage was plucked away, laid his hand upon the breast of Friar Leo; whereby, from the touch of those sacred hands, Friar Leo felt such sweetness of devotion in his heart, that he well-nigh fell swooning to the ground.
And finally, as touching this third consideration, St. Francis having finished the fast of St. Michael the Archangel, prepared himself, by Divine revelation, to return to Santa Maria degli Angeli. Wherefore he called unto him Friar Masseo and Friar Agnolo, and, after many words and holy admonishments, he commended unto them that holy mountain with all possible earnestness, telling them that it behoved him, together with Friar Leo, to return to Santa Maria degli Angeli. And when he had said this, he took leave of them and blessed them in the name of Jesus crucified; and, yielding to their entreaties, he gave them his most holy hands, adorned with those glorious and sacred stigmata, to see, to touch and to kiss; and so leaving them consoled, he departed from them and descended the holy mountain.
Continuing Saint Augustine’s sermon on 1John 4:4-12. The image of the ass running away from the safety offered by its rider bears further reflection.
May that virtue which ought never to depart from the heart, never depart from the tongue.
Jesus had no need to come except charity: and the charity we are commending is that which the Lord Himself commends in the Gospel: Greater love than this can no man have, that a man lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13. How was it possible for the Son of God to lay down His life for us without putting on flesh in which He might die? Whosoever therefore violates charity, let him say what he will with his tongue, his life denies that Christ has come in the flesh; and this is an antichrist, wherever he may be, wherever he have come in. But the Apostle says, you have overcome him. And whereby have they overcome? Because greater is He that is in you, than he that is in this world.
Every man now, at hearing this saying, You have overcome, lifts up the head, lifts up the neck, wishes himself to be praised. Do not extol yourself; see who it is that in you has overcome. Why have you overcome? Because greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world. Be humble, bear your Lord; be the beast for Him to sit on. Good is it for you that He should rule, and He guide. For if you have not Him to sit on you, you may lift up the neck, may strike out the heels: but woe to you without a ruler, for this liberty sends you among the wild beasts to be devoured!
For more reflections on a donkey, not directly relevant to this post, see here: and see tomorrow’s post.
Every aspect of life is monitored and controlled by systems and their norms which we know and try to observe. System is effective in how we think, act and comport ourselves. Hope emerges from within all this not as an escape from dead-end living, nor as the natural completion of what we are already doing but as an unexpected breakthrough, an open door where there seemed to be no way out – because it is not where we tend to look.
The common understanding of hell is the violent separation of the good from the bad – where we have lost the Good News. This is system – a story already told, and when based on the final redemption of all – through God’s mercy: a drama with a beginning and a happy ending. There is no need for hope! If the story is already known – there is no place for it. The Good News is that system is not essential, we can leave it and discover what hope really means.
Revelation shows us how hope was born for the women at the tomb – out of what made them run away in fear [how often do we hear Jesus say don’t be afraid?] Nothing could ever be the same again after Easter Day. There is no system that can show us how to experience life that survives death and actually includes death. Jesus did not die and then come back to life, he is at one and the same time dead and alive – which is why there is such emphasis on the five wounds. Death has been emptied of its power by love at its very best. This is how the women’s fear was transformed [not ignored] into hope. When Revelation concludes with Maranatha [come Lord Jesus] we are asking that the forgiving victim be present with us – do not be afraid, it’s only me and I love you.
Is not our deepest desire to be desired by another for who we are, just as we are? This may be true but there is much more. We grow into desiring in imitation of what he have seen in others. They have a nice car, I’d like something like that. We are recreated, not by someone desiring us, but by what that desiring brings about in us – the Resurrection urges us to love as we are being loved. It means having the freedom to accept God’s love. Love creates only lovely things, love created me so I can rejoice that I am lovely, lovable and able to love.
For this to happen I need to let go of all concerns about worthiness. How awkward this can be comes out when we reflect: if you give a friend a present and then you say thank-you, how much do I owe you? We would be taken aback – so why do we do it with God? He has given us to ourselves as gift – why do we ask what do we owe – keep the rules – go to Church? We need to become less concerned about our reputation to make room for being loved and wanting to love. This love will know nothing of revenge or needing to blame, and so embraces the persecutor as well as the persecuted [with God it is always all] no matter how late we turn up for work. No mortgage.
When we stand free of concern for reputation, and from the need to settle old scores through our minds now fixed on things above – then we are beginning to love our neighbour without discrimination [which is what things above means].
The central theme of Easter is that Jesus was present to them as forgiveness – and more, it is resurrection in the flesh not just a purely spiritual happening. Jesus walked with them entirely imbued by the ever present love between Abba and the Son – the Spirit. Such living is totally removed from any shadow of death – death has no place in this way of life [as is the case with the life we know now].
The only reason there is Christianity is Easter. The Resurrection was not a miracle happening within our understanding of God, but the way God makes it possible for us to respond to the presence of God. This is the Resurrection, Jesus enjoying this way of living including his death. This is why he told the Sadducees: You are very much mistaken. Every reality from within the death culture cannot speak adequately of God. God’s love is totally unaffected by death, also death was not a necessary separation – love carries on being mutual and complete even through death.
With the Resurrection we receive the grace [gift] to experience the presence of God, not just know about it. Access to God’s way of revealing is not ours by nature but by grace. This is revealed through the Resurrection, not because it never existed before, but we cannot understand with minds clouded by death. This man who is dead is alive. It is the total immanence of God – God totally involved with us – that is God’s transcendence.
This has something to say about sin. The Resurrection reveals there is no divine necessity for death; death is present as something that is – but now we see it does not have to be. Not only is our understanding of God very much mistaken, but contrary to the understanding God desires us to have. Death is a human reality; and as such is sinful. Putting Jesus to death shows how we are actively involved in death-dealing. The necessity of human death is a necessity born of sin. For us death is not just passive to be endured, but also what we actively deal out.
God did not raise Jesus simply to show his immunity from death, or to rescue him. Jesus is raised for us. The victim of our death-dealing ways is raised up as forgiveness: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him – John.3.16-17. Death is seen as a human reality infected with sin, but it is a human reality capable of being forgiven by exposure to love – greater love there is not than you die for another.
None of this happens for the benefit of God – it is all for us, when forgiveness enters into human death. Forgiveness, the fruit of the Resurrection is not about what we have done or failed to do, but what up until now we had believed what was natural for us. If death is something that can be forgiven, we are wrong, not just about God but also about ourselves.
If God can raise someone from the dead in human history what we thought as being inevitable [death as the end] is clearly not so. It is not just a biological reality but a cultural one – and so is capable of change. Sin as related to death need not be. God created us mortal – mortality means experiencing death – we need to ponder on how death would have been experienced if there had been no sin. This has implications for understanding Original Sin – what we are as human beings moving towards death – now seen as capable of forgiveness.
Jesus’ Ascension is described at the beginning of Acts of the Apostles, but people often suppose it was mostly a matter of returning to God to prepare for sending the Holy Spirit. These two windows together suggest exactly that. However, we can see from the letter to Timothy that it meant much more than that to the New Testament community in Corinth. That city had been a Greek achievement, a place of engineering sophistication, through which a great canal had been excavated, improving its trading capability. The Eastern Mediterranean was joined more easily to the West. The Greeks thought they appreciated and could imitate the harmony of the heavens, the spheres of planetary movement. But by Paul’s day, the Roman Empire had taken over and wrecked that notion of mechanical harmony with mechanical oppression.
The world then felt worse, claustrophobic. The spheres of the sky creaked around badly as if controlled by demons and destructive powers. But 1 Tim. 3:16 records for us the hymn, sung in Corinth, about Christ removing this stifling experience of life. Christ has ascended, breaking the obsolete spheres, overcoming the spirits of fear and threat.
“He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels,
preached among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.”
The message of hope contained here includes the gift of readiness to remove our neighbours’ fears. It is community guided by the Spirit which matters, not the trading opportunities and the economic advantages which favour a few over many others.