History is not just the logical narration of events, it is about human beings fashioning themselves within the places and cultures that surround them, making choices, relating, seeking to belong. There are two aspects to this: the one [Immanence] is literally living out things as we find them; the other [Transcendence] allows us to rise above what is – I can accept or reject what is the given situation, I can be open to a future that has never happened before.
These are not separate entities, but different dimensions of one life. We are beings already fashioned yet still in the making! To speak meaningfully of God can only happen from within such experience. “Experience” is a compound of two words: “ex” [from or out-of] and periri [try, attempt, risk…], it also is associated with the Latin word peritia [knowledge gained from experience]. Experience is risk, based on some form of justifying knowledge, the radical experiences of individuals attempting to face up to life. This is how St. John talks about his awareness of Jesus: “what I have seen, touched and held in my hands, this is what I preach”.
My spirit is not a reality alongside my body. My spirit is me, the whole me, my manner of being in so far as it is open to transcendence, a yearning for the infinite. I have a natural need for “God”. But if it is natural, why is there such talk about supernatural? God created me to be one with God, and my life gives evidence of this. This is gratuitousness, it does not have to be there, and it is put there, within me. The gratuity becomes apparent from the experience itself: I long for God who is freely given, it is from love, not command or force or coercion.
Is it possible to let Grace do the talking, instead of talking about Grace? Can I know from experience that God loves me? The fact is that we live within Grace, what we are about is to seek how to know this and how to be in touch with it. Some have said that Grace comes only through the Church. First, it is not the Church that contains Grace; rather does Grace contain the Church – among everything else; though authentic grace always has an ecclesial dimension – i.e. it tends to show itself in the shape of community.
God and Christ are freely within the world and manifest themselves variously. The Church is one such manifestation – an explicit, conscious and guaranteed presence – but not the only one. Because Grace is divine nothing escapes its influence, even sin succumbs to Grace as the Resurrection shows.
How do we image Grace? Is it the loving attitude of God? Is it the means by which God liberates and justifies us? Is it some reality which surpasses all our thinking? Notice, all these turn Grace into a “thing”. It is something different, it is something freely given, it is some “thing”.
The Catechism called it a supernatural gift – but what is “supernatural”? By definition supernatural is not on the same level as natural. The Supernatural is God, uncreated, mysterious. We use the terms Grace and Supernatural as symbols of experience, meant to translate that experience for us. What kind of experience fits what is meant by Grace? Grace is not an entity existing independently on its own. Grace is related to human beings, before ever it is spoken about [and language does tend to separate the two]. Grace is a lived reality.
Mary Mother from Hales Place Jesuit Chapel, Canterbury
Yet another discovery when I was looking for something else!
The web led me to an article by Peter Hebblethwaite in which he touches on Saint John XXIII Roncalli and today’s feast of the Assumption. The Assumption is not to do with a high and remote Madonna, but a flesh and blood woman who lived on this earth and died, as we all must. It is about hope.
Roncalli’s meditation on the Assumption was deeply Christological. Mary is clearly with us. She is the first of disciples and a leader in faith, and so she can be of some use to us. Roncalli concludes his meditation:
The mystery of the Assumption brings home the thought of death,
of our death,
and it diffuses within us a mood of peaceful abandonment;
it familiarizes us with and reconciles us to the idea
that the Lord will be present in our death agony,
to gather up into his hands our immortal soul.
~ John XXIII wrote that when he had only another eighteen months to live.
We know exactly what we mean when we say Jesus is man, and in our experience of this we have come to understand that he is divine. This understanding is not as though we grasp something beyond our experience, but it is what we meet in our experience. He is the sacrament of our meeting with God. We can’t meet God as God, because God is transcendent – which really means unmeetable! The Apostles told us that to meet Jesus was to be present to the invisible and untouchable God. In Jesus people were and are brought into contact with God – he is the encounter with God, he is divine.
Jesus knew himself as the Messiah, that in him God shares himself and communicates his presence, bringing pardon and peace to the world. But when God utters himself in a created reality it will necessarily be provisional, something finite. Any reality in the history of the world as God’s creature, is finite. If God wishes to say something definitive through reality, this reality will have to have such an association with God as to be the reality of God himself though not identical. God’s reality and Jesus’ creatureliness remain unconfused.
In Jesus we have a human being intimately one with God and at the same time in solidarity with humankind. In his death he surrenders completely to God while showing total and unswerving love for humankind. The victory of God’s forgiveness is complete and irreversible; and in God’s acceptance – the Resurrection – Jesus is confirmed as God’s self-communication to creation. But what does this mean? Any revelation revealing God through finite means thereby remains open to revision – nothing finite is necessary. Which means that if this is so, the creaturely reality [humanity of Jesus] must in some way be God’s own reality. A prophet can speak in God’s name, but remains finite and can be surpassed; only God’s Word in person can be definitive.
We can see in the Nicene Creed two kinds of information. Jesus born of Mary, executed by crucifixion and buried. This account comes from observation. But the facts are set within a different recital, which says: before the beginning of time Jesus was born as the only Son of God; at a point in time he became incarnate. It is only in recent times we have asked if religious statements were literally true – verifiable by observation. Our technology minded age is in danger of thinking that such verification is the only criterion of truth. As a result, new questions are being asked. One item in the Nicene Creed’s account of Jesus causes a special problem. It is not self-evident that and on the third day he rose again belongs to the first or second account. Saint Paul says if Christ is not risen then our hopes are in vain. We do not know whether Paul was thinking of the resurrection in the first or second recital.
We know that everywhere in Scripture, where we have testimonies of the risen Christ, mystery language is used – dazzling light, white garments, sudden appearances, ecstatic joy. No unbelievers had seen Jesus, and the guards told a different story. In effect, it doesn’t matter whether the resurrection belongs to the first or second recital, because the important issue is that it does hold the two recitals together. The apostles spoke from a faith experience, Jesus alive and present to them: something that changed everything for them. The evidence they gave was their own lives; alive in hope, joy and freedom – no longer cringing in that locked upper room – they were now living as a community of love and trust. Because they never asked was the Resurrection true as an observable fact, it never occurred to them to answer the question, and because they never asked or answered, we shall never know.
How could Jesus be truly human? Theology is never the study of God, but the study of man and his experience of God, because this is the only experience open to us. Focussing on Jesus is on a man in whose existence we have glimpsed the invisible God whose only image is man. In the experience of the man Jesus, especially in the way he met his death and his triumph over death, we have met the image of God who gives life and gives himself in a shocking and unique way, once and for all.
As I was editing Friar Austin’s posts on the Eucharist, my bedside book was The Revolving Door of Life, by Alexander McCall Smith.* The title suggests a degree of pessimism, but there is always hope in the characters’ lives.
Here Stuart, the father of two small boys, has been joined by his mother in the prolonged absence of his wife. His mother is in her room, unpacking; in the kitchen he is musing about love, for as Austin said in his last post, we cannot receive love in passive ways.
It is easy to revert to how it was before, to the time when you knew instinctively that your mother loved you and that her love was always there like the sun, constant, always available, never for a moment critical or conditional.
Love. He never thought of love. Did other people? Did other people go about their daily business thinking about love; about the people they loved and the people who loved them?
… Did he love anybody at all? Did he love his mother, as he knew she loved him? … Did he love his boys? … Did he love Irene, his wife?
Stuart is actively loving by thinking about love and his loved ones.
Lord, let me think and pray for my family and friends by thinking of them in your presence day by day. Amen.
Edinburgh, Polygon, 2015, pp95-96.
There is no equal to God. However kind, benign and compassionate the Creator is, we remain creature and Creator.
Scripture will have none of this – it is totally refuted by Jesus. One of the most significant comments Jesus made was the seemingly simple – the Father loves me – John.15.9. et al. Indeed his total identity as we hear at his baptism and the Transfiguration is that he is the beloved of Abba – Galatians 4.4. So, Abba can love! But God cannot love a creature as such: as we have seen, there is no equality; but there is a reality in Jesus which is beyond creaturehood. To say God loves me is to say he is divine.
Where does this leave us? In telling us that the Father loves him, Jesus – who is truly human – is telling us that the father loves everything about him – and especially the common humanity we share with him: to all who believe he gave power to know God as Abba – i.e. we are loved by God as Jesus is loved, as equals yet each one uniquely; which is why the Church always concludes worship and prayer with ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’.
Saint Paul writes that it is the re-shaping of community that allows us to see the presence of Christ. Eucharist fails in its purpose if it allows any form of discrimination for whatever reason: 1Corinthians.11; Romans.12; Galatians.2. The Eucharist asks us individually and collectively where we are as regards God’s unconditional hospitality.
Jesus told Nicodemus of our need to learn to live differently – to realise that we are gifted with ourselves in order to become gift for others – a way often called tough love; not counting the personal cost involved in being concerned primarily with mutual well-being and not just me alone. A child walks because adults wait for and expect this – often before it is physically possible! Love means not just self-giving, but expressing confidence that you will be all the better for it, and flourish accordingly. But to challenge like this presupposes trust – the trust of a child for its parents.
Our Eucharistic celebrations look very churchy and remote from everyday living – carefully choreographed rituals, strange attire worn by leaders sitting apart, scripts for designated readers only – all well-intentioned to enhance the beauty and centrality of the Eucharist – but does it? It certainly is central in our worship – but what about our everyday living? Does your Sunday Mass impact noticeably on your social, political, economic involvement?
We are celebrating the hospitality of God in a gathering in which we are invited to be co-hosts; and this happens in the real presence of Jesus. He told his disciples to continue celebrating the Last Supper, interpreting his death and Resurrection in the light of the Passover. The Exodus is central for Jewish faith – the setting free from oppression – since love depends on equality. But this not simply a one-off event of long ago – it is a permanent reminder of how God is with us, as equals.
Do we have a problem here? Equality is of the essence of love – but God cannot have any equal by definition; does this mean God cannot love? Revelation is clear about the gulf between us – no way can creature = Creator. So we seem destined for an infantile authority/obedience relationship with God through keeping the rules. There is no equal to God. However kind, benign and compassionate the Creator is, we remain creature and Creator.
Eucharist is how Jesus summed-up his life and death; something not nearly catered for by going to Mass! Let‘s be clear about Jesus’ life. The interpretations of the Gospel say nothing about his own experience of living in Palestine, nor indeed about the impact he made on the ordinary folk of his time. Freedom is of the essence of his presence. Unlike political liberators he didn’t have a goal to achieve. Part of the old devotions of the Way of the Cross – the Second Station – referred to him receiving the cross as the means whereby he would save the world. He didn’t come with a goal in mind – he came to live his life freely, and therefore differently – a new way of being human.
This new way – non-resistance to violence, no finger-pointing, not needing to blame – proved wonder to the few, but irksome to the many, especially the powerful, whose disenchantment turned to hate, and the compulsion to be rid of him. He didn’t come to die – nor did the Father send him to die – he came to live life and death in a new way. We tend to interpret his going to Jerusalem as seeing death as his destiny. Why are you going there, it’s full of enmity for you…? His answer makes no reference to a predestined fate – Jerusalem is where the prophets died – Luke 13.34. Prophecy is not foretelling the future but living life as it was meant to be lived.
We are invited to be present in the Eucharist as Christ is present to us – a person to be met and experienced. A Mozart Concerto can be analysed and dissected to illustrate its melodic and harmonious structure, but to be present to it as it is allows it to become an experience, a unique experience, and see how it satisfies a hunger within us; to be soothed with its harmony, surprised by its ongoing creativity.
It is not grasping the experience, but being grasped. This is what mystery means – a work of art, a unique person. Eucharist is mystery.
Picture from Missionaries of Africa
Wounded feet mark the garden,
wound dawn’s dew.
The white morning sky waits,
and for someone –
more than one. Weary and true,
they come, they run:
wide hearts with wide rays ablaze –
out-blaze sun’s rays,
await the earth’s incense.
Snowdrops bow, bearing the weight
[Painting by Eugene Burnand, 1850-1921
Musee d’Orsay, Paris]