Tag Archives: sign

May 18. What is Theology Saying? LV: Salvation outside the Church IV.

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We know that Christian missionary saints believed God would commit to the flames of hell those not baptised into the Church, even when living in good faith. They were saints – but they were austinmistaken. Christian missionaries forced converts to renounce all their previous ways of striving after God, making them adopt Western ways that had nothing to do with religion. Much cruelty was inflicted through the inability to distinguish between cultural and social customs, and religious convictions.

Modern Social Sciences make it easier for us to accept this as missionaries sought to try to understand the different cultures and ways of thought of non-Christian folk, and they began to understand non-Christian religious convictions from the way the people saw them. Like being less than impressed looking at stained glass windows from outside – so different when seen from inside.

The patristic scholar Jean Daniélou proposed seeing the great Eastern Religions as being pre-Christian but leading to Christ. Their followers are saved by their commitment, the hope that seeks a future fulfilment. The fact that these people live after Christ [today] is not important, because their experience is before Christ as long as they have not heard the Gospel in a form that makes sense to them. While there is one Hindu living the Hindu tradition in good faith and with conviction, we cannot speak of the Hindu religion as false.

It is not only through their sincerity in striving after God as best they know how, that God comes to meet them; it is also because their striving is true. Our religious language is symbolic in a special way. It describes realities we have hardly glimpsed, and cannot comprehend. In the Jewish tradition it was important not to make images of God – because all images are false, the only image of God is the human person. So they speak as though God is a human person – masculine gender, a father-figure, who can get angry and change his mind. These characteristics are not literally true of God – but are true in another sense – they are true of our experience of God.

Other faith communities also know that language about God cannot be literally true. They express their experience of God. Asian faiths tend to be more contemplative than those of the Western world; they leave symbols in their symbolic form rather than seek explanations. Hindus say when you have images you understand you are making only a remote comparison, but when you have explanations you might be misled into thinking you understand much more than you do. God cannot be understood.

AMcC

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May 16. What is Theology Saying? LIII: Salvation outside the Church II.

 

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austinWhen 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.

AMcC

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13 May. What is Theology Saying? L: Signs of the times open pathways for the Gospel

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austinThe signs of the times cannot simply be material events or objective happenings. Such things, of themselves, do not indicate anything. They prompt a suspicion that things are brewing, it does not take very much to be aware of that. Sadly that is where most people stop. Whereas the real signs are human actions, human responses to challenges posed by these events. Only people can create realities pointing somewhere, through their words, gestures and actions. The “signs of the times” are these gestures which allow the Lord to be present. There will always be a connection between events and signs. St. Paul’s journeys depended on the existence of sea-routes, and the communications system established by the Roman Empire. But a study of these phenomena would not suffice to help us understand what was going on. Only people can be signs. Anthony in the Desert, Benedict, Francis, Gandhi, Martin Luther King… were all signs who were intimately involved with what was going on in their own world. Their sign value lay in the pathways they opened up for the Gospel life to move through them, relevantly, into the world.

If we are simply looking for new ways to win people to the church, all we need do is take note of modern resources on offer. Make use of the variety of ideologies at our disposal. But our task is different. A new Church demands freedom from the accretions and accumulations of time. We need to sweep away whatever makes the Word inaccessible. Just as individuals need to be set free from their past, so too do Institutions which are made up of individuals. We will only realise the need for change when we discover people who are not being reached. Recognising the signs of the times means risking letting go of much of the past. If Jesus had taken all the Jewish traditions on board he would have made many more converts, but nothing would have changed and the truth would have remained “safely” locked up.

Mission is not something extraordinary, it does not require the presence of genius; simply ordinary folk prepared to do ordinary things, extraordinarily well. When we rely over much on system and method we end up transmitting ideology, religion or culture, rather than access to Jesus Christ

AMcC

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12 May. What is Theology Saying? XLIX: Church and World are not mutually exclusive.

 

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With our Lenten season we have set aside our long-running series from Traherne, the Little Flowers of Francis, and from Brother Austin. Let’s remedy that last one! There’s a challenge at the end: ‘I know that I can cope with the past because I am still here! So why risk the unknown?’

austinWe cannot contrast Church and World. They are not mutually exclusive. The Church is supposed to be the community that makes God’s promises already present. When we celebrate the sacraments this is a pledge to what we have committed ourselves as community. There is no work blueprint, we are called to be creative through the possibilities everyday life presents. The Church cannot hand-out a programme to us telling us exactly what to do, how to do it and where. The Bible has no such blueprint. We learn more about the future when we respond to what we already know and are presenting solutions accordingly.

The early Church, seen through Paul’s writing, took slavery for granted as a feature of society – while insisting that the slave-owner respect their human dignity. Centuries later we began to realise that we must abolish slavery itself, because slavery as such is opposed to human dignity. We are also coming to realise that what we often call works of charity can be more crushing than poverty itself, that we can eliminate poverty simply by providing jobs and incomes for all. In the same way war was seen as inevitable, and not only killing but torture was therefore justified. With the formation of the UN we are starting to glimpse that war is not inevitable – Paul VI said to the UN with powerful conviction no more war, war never again.

The truth is that the “signs of the times” are those offering the church ever new opportunities to go out and meet others. Individuals may well set out believing they are going to teach, but they will end up learning, as did Paul. The church is given endless opportunities to rediscover itself in ever new light, but they do not happen every day. At certain moments of privilege, the Spirit summons the church to risk: “During the night a vision came to Paul: a Macedonian stood there appealing to him: Cross over to Macedonia and help us”. Acts.16.9.

The “signs of the times” are the external evidence of this call to Discipleship of Christ. Reasoned observation and rational planning have a place. Reason is able to perceive certain things that suggest there are changes requiring further and new steps to be taken. Different moments of time have their own signs. Not everyone sees them. Jesus criticised the Pharisees because their wisdom in this regard was deficient: “It is a wicked and Godless generation that asks for a sign; and the only sign it will be given is the sign of Jonah” – Mt.12.39. There are insensitive people in every age, unable [unwilling] to see the call for something new. To them mission is no more than simply repeating what has already been achieved. This is the fear principle, prompted by the fact that I know that I can cope with the past because I am still here! So why risk the unknown?

Reading  the Word and the World, Zakopane, Poland.

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February 4. From the Franciscans of Zimbabwe V: The gift of Water, 2.

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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?

Shrewsbury Cathedral

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February 3. From the Franciscans of Zimbabwe IV: The gift of Water, 1.

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 This celebration of water, slightly abridged, is by Sister Theodora Mercy Kaviza OFS. It is far too easy, for those of us with clean, safe, running water to take it for granted. Sister Theodora Mercy reminds us that it is both gift and necessity. The second half follows tomorrow.

In our bodies, from the rebuilding of our muscles to blood circulation to boosting digestion, one main component is needed, and this is water. We use water to bathe, and for cleansing and purification, because it keeps sickness and bad moods at bay, and rejuvenates the body.

However when we look around and see how we have abused the water sources of the world it is easy to realize that we have totally forgotten how important water is to our very existence. From prehistoric times humans thought that the benefits of water were divine gifts or even that the water itself was a divinity: lakes, rivers, springs and glaciers became places of veneration.

Birds, reptiles and amphibians are born from eggs which are mainly full of water. Mammals too, before they are born, swim in their mother’s womb in a liquid composed principally of water. In the Canticle of the Sun, St. Francis of Assisi praises God for water: “Praised be Thou, O Lord, for sister water, who is very useful, humble, precious, and chaste”.

In Africa, a hot and mainly arid continent, the great rivers Nile, Congo, Niger, Zambezi and the Lakes Chad, Victoria and Rudolf, have always been life-giving. The ancient Egyptians believed their country was “a gift of the Nile” and they venerated the river as a deity.

In the creation story of the Jewish Torah and Christian Bible, God’s spirit first moved “over the face of the waters” and God said “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures” (Genesis 1:2, 20). In Islam, water is the origin of all life on Earth and the Qur’an says water is the substance from which God created the human being (25:54).

The Indians take the Ganges River to be both a symbol of life and a place where one can wash away spiritual impurities, thereby drawing closer to the sacred source of life. In a similar way, ancient Jewish tradition calls people on special occasions to cleanse their bodies spiritually by immersion in a ‘mikveh’ bath. For Muslims, ablution with water, is an obligatory preparation for daily prayer.

Image from St Aloysius’ Somers Town, London. MMB

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November 5, Jesus Beyond Dogma II: v – ‘the danger of reducing God-in-Jesus to our own image and likeness’.

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It is far from true to say that the majority of thoughtful young adults today have abandoned religion. My experience is that it is the denominational that is the issue. They want spiritual relevance and ethical responsibility, but cannot see it in any us-and-them ideology that has accompanied so much institutional religion. While formal religion seems to be on the wane, there is certainly a resurgence of interest in things spiritual.

For many, spiritual realities do not happen apart from some kind of formal belief; whereas human experience suggests otherwise. But how do we recognise these signs, and what are they telling us? Is it possible for a genuinely spiritual person to see institutional religion as irrelevant? We have inherited formal structures which seem to suggest they are a sine qua non – monogamous marriage, the nuclear family, formal work place and religious institutions with dogmatic boundaries. These boundaries translate as rules and regulations controlling personal behaviour. On the one hand, without these boundaries there would be anarchy; on the other hand, leaving such boundaries unquestioned is a prescription for disintegration.

Personal relationship with Jesus is regarded by spiritual guides as the ultimate criterion of genuine spirituality. I have experienced the closeness of God when walking in the countryside, or meandering along the coastline, or sitting quietly in chapel. I hesitate to use a human analogy to explain this experience, because it feels as if something greater, more profound is here. My hesitancy is the possible danger of reducing God-in-Jesus to our own image and likeness, and in some way alien to the freedom of the children of God.

Does this sound a little pagan, worshipping the elements as in primitive times? Such statements seem to carry an element of certitude and clarity of faith – we know what is right and this isn’t it. We are so much part of the system that we easily adopt its labels. Take the word pagan. It is used frequently to denote not just opposition to formal religion, but devoting one’s time and energy to worshipping what are seen as replacements for the real God. Jesus said: do not be like pagans, those who make their authority felt – Mark.10.42.

It alleges that ancient worship of sun, moon and stars is primitive when seen from our civilised times. True worship of God is only possible in a civilised world, and is monotheistic. The ability and freedom to see our past in a more favourable light is one of the spiritual challenges facing us. It is not exonerating the past, but widening our horizons and seeing the unity in creation in ever new light.

AMcC

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8 July: The Scandal of Disunity

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There are signs of hope. Here is Francis, Bishop of Rome, receiving a blessing from Justin, Archbishop of Canterbury. No charade, surely? The Pope would not bring about scandal by seeking a blessing from a heretic schismatic. When Bishop Nicholas Hudson joined Bishop Trevor Willmott in blessing the congregation at Canterbury Cathedral, what were we to make of the implied recognition of value in Anglican orders?

The scandal is not that these isolated events happen, but that we lack the courage of our convictions, so they remain isolated. Forty years ago I was assured that, juridically, Anglican orders were all valid since Old Catholic bishops had taken part in enough ordinations to ensure recognition of Anglican Apostolic Succession.

In another church, a good distance from Canterbury, a Catholic bishop was ordained recently, with his friend, co-worker and Anglican bishop, robed on the sanctuary. It was good to see him there, but he was not invited to join the Catholic bishops by laying hands on the ordinand.

And the announcement that day deterring non-Catholics from receiving the Eucharist? If a bishop being ordained is not one of those special occasions when Eucharistic hospitality is to be encouraged, I’m not clear when it may be grudgingly permitted. Put out into the deep!

WT.

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June 19: Shared Table II, the Dignity of the Child.

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Maria Montessori was one of the greatest Italians of modern times. Young Abel makes me think of this passage from The Child in The Family. Montessori tells how a baby wants to be at table with the family.

If we are at dinner and the child is in another room and he weeps because he is left out, we have withheld the respect we would have given to an adult. We ought to be pleased by his presence and keep him near us. Do not worry about food hurting him – ignoring him is an offence.                             p52.

We could also read this paragraph:

Those who do not care brutally shove the spoon into the child’s mouth – but observe and the child will try to help himself. One must simply sacrifice cleanliness to the justifiable impulse to act. The child will perfect the movements in time. When he has satisfied the need to help himself he will let the adult help.                  p124-5.

Young Abel was so keen to help himself on the occasion of this photo that he had spoon in one hand, fork in the other, and also a special spoon for the helpful adult. (Al fresco dining meant pickings for Robin and Mrs Tittlemouse, eager to clear up Abel’s mess.)

So why does the Church refuse to give the Eucharist to baptised babies? What message does that give them; and the rest of us? Are we not withholding respect? Abel’s mother as a baby used to extend her hand when carried up to the altar, and when I was little, one parent would often stay with the little ones in the bench and await the other’s return before  receiving the Sacrament themselves.

Beware of counter-signs; often they are so established that we never see them; disrespect of children runs deep in Church and Society.

MMB

 

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2 January: Mary, Queen, Mother of Mercy

Mary Queen of Africa at Bobo diolasso from MAfr W Africa

Picture from Missionaries of Africa, West Africa Province.

This statue of Mary is at Bobo Dioulasso in Burkina Faso, a modern, West African expression of the crowned statue of Our Lady of Africa in Algiers.

We pray, ‘hail, holy  Queen, mother of mercy.’ Here we see a queen crowned and wearing the gold collar-necklace associated with West African Kings. That crown would be impossibly heavy in real life, but she is erect, neck straight. The serene half-smile suggests that Shakespeare’s words ‘uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’ do not apply to this Lady, Our Lady.

And why is she a queen at all? True, she was of David’s line, but the crown, like the British crown, bears the Cross as its crest – not a serpent as in ancient Egypt, the only African country we know she lived in. She is under her Son’s protection but she knows suffering and it does not weigh her down.

Those open hands could be welcoming a child running home from the playground or school (a place that sometimes can feel like an exile from home). Her hands are open, a gesture of peace.

Mary’s eyes are looking down at whoever is approaching her, but her whole being is under the sign of the Cross. What does she tell us?

‘Do whatever He tells you.’

And if you do, signs of his Kingdom will be seen. (John 2).

Mary was the catalyst for a great sign at Cana; what will people discern when they listen to us and observe us this year? Will they see us, or will they see him, or perhaps, like the wedding planner at Cana, they will see something marvellous but not take it in. But we are children of Eve, not glorious unless by reflection: non nobis Domine!

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