Tag Archives: Sister Johanna Caton

1 July: Power can be a danger, Even the Demons Submit II.

Photo from CD: After a bombing in Brussels.

Continuing Sister Johanna’s reflection from yesterday.

Yesterday, we left the seventy-two missionary disciples when they were feeling wonderful in the knowledge that they would be powerful in Jesus’ name. Jesus himself had just assured them of it (Luke 10:19). Which brings me to the next point in this reflection. It is a joy beyond all joys to work for the Lord and to be an instrument of his power and love. Jesus appreciates that the disciples are experiencing something they’ve never experienced before – and they can barely contain themselves. Perhaps they have even been slightly unbalanced by this experience. Who wouldn’t be? For, in addition to their joy, the entire experience – the journey, their success in preaching the Kingdom and in healing the sick, and, to cap all, their power over the demons – must have given this group of seventy-two men an enormous sense of power. And power can be a danger for those who wield it. No one was ever more astute than Jesus about the dangers of power. He wants the disciples to begin to understand this danger. He now has some sobering words for his missionaries.

The gospels are completely honest in recounting the instances when the disciples reveal that they are preoccupied by issues of power – their own power as a group against the Roman occupation, the apparent power of particular individuals within their group, Jesus’ power in relation to the religious establishment were just a few of the power-issues that distracted them. Jesus has repeatedly tried to lead them away from this preoccupation with power (cf. Luke 9:46-50). But now, here they go again. They have suddenly experienced a new kind of power – spiritual power. This is the most dangerous power of all. And they like it. They like it a lot.

Their words to Jesus when they arrive seem to indicate that they have seen that their spiritual power over the demons depends on their use of Jesus’ name. So that’s something. At least they have a vague notion that they are not the authors of the power they have exercised. Good, but not great, seems to be the judgement of Jesus about this. His words of warning come quickly: “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you.”

Now’s the time for the newly minted missionaries to feel like the novices they are, to shuffle their feet and look down at the ground. Jesus’ words make them see that they’ve been gloating rather a lot, and feeling a bit smug and self-congratulatory – precisely because the spirits submitted to them. Jesus wants it to be very clear to them that only by his election are they themselves safe from the demonic. They must keep their attention focused not on who or what has submitted to them, but on where they themselves need to be – and who they need to submit to in order to get there. In case they weren’t sure, Jesus tells them: “Rejoice instead that your names are written in heaven.”

Their names are written in heaven – that is their reason to rejoice. They must keep their focus on heaven – because their names might not have been written there. They, of themselves, are nothing special. They are safe, they are heading for heaven, because Jesus is leading and protecting them; they are strong over Satan because of Jesus’ strength working through them. They bear a power in their hands, but it is not intrinsic to them, and without Jesus, they have no power at all. Jesus is the one to be thinking about. His love is their reason to rejoice.

They began their missionary journey taking nothing with them, at Jesus’ instructions. In this way, through the extreme vulnerability that their physical poverty would have awakened, Jesus meant to wake them up to the fact that everything good that happened to them between the beginning and the end of their journey was due to his gift to them. Luke’s gospel leaves us there, ending the account of the missionaries’ return rather abruptly, and not elaborating further on the episode. We, the readers, suddenly find ourselves alone, and left to consider how this story challenges us. Where is our focus? Are we preoccupied by power-issues? Do we keep our eyes on Jesus? Does Jesus have something to say to us?

*The Bible translation used throughout this reflection is The New Jerusalem Bible.

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30 June: Even the Demons Submit, Part I.

The mediaeval masons tried to cut the demons down to size on churches like St Nicholas at Barfrestone, Kent. They knew the stories of how Jesus confronted them and sent them packing – and so did his disciples.

Today and tomorrow we are glad to share two posts from Sister Johanna that follow on nicely from Emily yesterday.

Lord, even the devils submit to us when we use your name (Luke 10:17). The disciples were elated. Seventy-two men had been appointed missionaries by the Lord and had been given their first assignment: to visit towns in the area where the Lord himself would soon be visiting (Luke 10:1f). They were meant to prepare the people for Jesus himself. Jesus gave them explicit instructions about what to wear for this, their first official engagement: normal clothes – nothing to distinguish them from anyone else, and what to pack: nothing. Indeed, they were to bring no food, no money, not even a change of clothing. No place had been arranged for them to stay when they arrived in a town: they would have to work that out when they got there. They were not to equip themselves ahead of time with anything that would allow them to feel self-reliant.

We know this story so well that we can forget how this must have sounded to the seventy-two when they listened to Jesus telling them what to do. Perhaps it seemed exciting – but I should think, too, that when they actually set out, without food supplies and with their pockets empty, they must have felt vulnerable in the extreme. It was their very first journey for Jesus, after all. They had no experience of past successes to give them confidence. They were only told by Jesus to heal the sick and say, “The kingdom of God is very near to you.” Some must have secretly worried that they’d become tongue-tied when they started to preach, or would fail miserably in their first attempt at healing. Maybe they’d even be laughed out of town.

But instead, the gospel tells us that their missionary journey was a smashing success. The actual stories of their successes are just a few of the many untold tales that lie hidden behind what is recounted in the gospels. The evangelist skips them all in this instance, and zeroes in on something else – something of greater depth and importance. Luke tells us what happens after their triumph, when they return to Jesus like conquering heroes. For, when they see him, the first thing out of their mouths seems to have been that “even the devils” submitted to them.

Now, this is truly success on a spectacular scale. Perhaps the hopes of the missionaries had been much more modest: maybe they felt that they’d be doing well if they could make the child with the tummy-ache feel better, and manage to interest a small audience in stories of Jesus’ healings and sayings. But to tangle with devils and come up trumps – would they even have imagined this ahead of time? They must have said to each other as they journeyed home, “Won’t the Lord be overjoyed when he hears! I can’t wait to see his face when we tell him!”

And Jesus is overjoyed, just as they had hoped. He affirms them. It seems that he already knew what had happened – this kind of sensational news must have spread from village to village like wildfire. He declares: ‘I watched Satan fall like lightning from heaven.’ Hearing these words of Jesus must have felt good, very good to the disciples. And Jesus is generous, not only with his praise, but with his promises. He has more to say here about what they will be able to do. “Look, I have given you power to tread down serpents and scorpions and the whole strength of the enemy; nothing shall ever hurt you.” I like to think of the disciples’ silence as they bask for a few minutes in Jesus’ assurances – their sense of wonder and gratitude must have been profound. They would be taken care of by the Lord whenever they were doing his work. They have just had their first experience of this. They would be powerful in his name. This was an important moment for the seventy-two. Let us leave them for twenty-four hours in this state of glowing wonder, and come back tomorrow to continue our reflections.

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8 May: The Jesus Problem, Part I.

Roman city gateway, Lincoln. The Romans came to Britain soon after Jesus’ time.

After Pope Francis’s prayer about money, let’s join Sister Johanna as she eavesdrops on a discussion on the subject that Jesus refuses to get drawn into needlessly, though his answer puts the question back in his questioners’ court.

The Pharisees went away to work out between them how to trap Jesus in what he said. They sent their disciples to Jesus, together with some Herodians, to say, ‘Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in all honesty, and that you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you. Give us your opinion, then. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ (see Mt. 22:15-16).

I read these lines from the Gospel of Matthew and it hits me: this spokesman for the Pharisees is really laying it on thick. This is an episode that occurs near the end of Jesus’ public ministry, when feeling against him among the Jewish leaders has reached the danger-point. Now, in their efforts to bring Jesus down, the Pharisees enlist the aid of their disciples – Pharisees-in-training, probably – to do some dirty work, which strikes me as being particularly cowardly. And also they have the help of the Herodians – because Herodians, as supporters of the Herodian dynasty, were the most suitable people to report Jesus, if he could be tricked into saying something against Rome. In which case Jesus would be arrested and conveniently removed from the scene. End of the Jesus Problem for the Pharisees. In this passage, the Pharisees’ disciples are attempting to present themselves as the loyal supporters of Rome – although in fact, none of the Jews were happy under the Roman occupation. But the facts are being manipulated now in order to stack the situation against Jesus. I re-read this passage from Matthew, and I feel anger on Jesus’ behalf as I consider the viciousness behind the overblown flattery of the words said to him. I see the speaker flicking conspiratorial glances at his peers while they all feign seriousness. Sickening.

I continue to ponder this scene, seeking a real encounter with the person of Jesus, through the Holy Spirit working in the sacred text. I try to imagine how I would react if I had been in Jesus’ place. Even at this remove, the main feeling continues to be anger – building up and up inside me. This, along with fear, would be overwhelming if I were really there; I see myself trying to suppress these emotions. I see myself acting – or trying to act – as though I don’t notice the group’s malice, while inwardly being so preoccupied by it, and the implied insult to my intelligence, and the threat to my very life, that I cannot actually answer their question with any show of competence. I see myself quickly trying to end the encounter and escape. The bottom line is that I would be way out of my depth if I were in Jesus’ place, and in the end, even if I managed somehow to preserve my dignity, I would be unable to come up with a response that addressed this complex situation or that impressed anyone – not even my best friend.

Jesus, however, is master of the whole situation. And his flatterers were right. Jesus is not afraid of them or of anyone. He will take them on, astute in every word and gesture. How does he handle things? First, he addresses their falsity. He exposes it. He wants their duplicity to be out in the open, obvious to all. ‘You hypocrites!’ he says. ‘Why are you putting me to the test?’ No one needs to explain why – and no one does. It’s perfectly obvious that they are hoping to trap Jesus, make him look like an enemy of The Establishment. In exposing this, Jesus he easily wrong-foots his questioners – and wins a small victory here. Now he has the advantage in the ensuing exchange.

Jesus clearly knows their game. Nonetheless Jesus has a ‘game’ of his own. He has come into the world as saviour. He will never turn away if there is even a remote possibility that someone present may be open to his person and message. He has been asked a question: ‘Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ Jesus sees that the question is a set-up. But he also sees something they don’t see – he sees that the question can be turned into one that touches the deepest spiritual level of the human being. There may be someone, perhaps only one person in that little group of Pharisees’ disciples, who is reachable. And so, Jesus gives them all a most beautiful answer to their question.

And here we are going to slow this reflection down. We know this story; we know the answer Jesus is going to give. But this is lectio divina. Lectio is about giving the text space to speak in a new way each time we read it, not pre-empting the Holy Spirit by rushing ahead to the end, then dusting off our mental hands, closing the book and dashing away unchanged. So, we’re going to pause this reflection here for today, and return to it tomorrow, perhaps with an even greater degree of openness to the message that Jesus, through his Spirit working in us, may wish to give.

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18 February: Reduced to Silence

A Lampedusa cross should reduce us to silence. This is in the British Museum, it was made from wrecked migrants’ boats.

They did not dare to ask Jesus any more questions (Luke 20:40). This sentence from the Gospel of St. Luke comes at the end of a passage that tells of an exchange between Jesus and some Sadducees. As usual, the Sadducees have an agenda. They were not keen on this upstart travelling rabbi, Jesus, and were looking for ways to up-end him. They decide that a theological debate might be a good way to do it. Therefore, they think up a rather implausible tale of a woman who outlives not only her first husband but her seven subsequent husbands (all brothers of her first husband, obliged under the Law to marry the widow and ‘raise up children for the brother’ if the previous union had been childless). Finally the widow dies. And the Saducees’s question for Jesus is: ‘At the resurrection, whose wife will she be?’

The Sadducees did not accept the notion of the resurrection from the dead. The hypothetical scenario they invented is meant to illustrate how ridiculous resurrection from the dead is. They seem pretty sure of themselves here, convinced that they have articulated an unsolvable problem. They expected to stump Jesus and to make him withdraw from the conversation, a disgraced loser.

As I reread and ponder this passage of Luke’s gospel, I can see the Sadducees gathered around, the speaker feigning seriousness, while secretly flicking supercilious glances at the others. They are subtly mocking Jesus. In typical adolescent fashion, they completely overestimate their own abilities and underestimate Jesus’; they are unprepared for his skill in theological debate, unprepared for a mind and personality like his.

I would love to have been there. St Luke shows that Jesus, with consummate courtesy and intelligence, not only pays the Sadducees the compliment of taking their question seriously, but answers it on such a deep level as to leave them amazed (Luke 20:34-38). When Jesus crafts his answer, his listeners were given the privilege of observing the workings of a truly beautiful mind. Anyone who has ever been in the class of a teacher who is a brilliant and deep thinker knows how exciting it can be to witness that teacher’s handling of difficult and subtle questions – off the cuff. There is always a moment after the question is posed when everyone wonders how the teacher will deal with the problem. Then, all the students share in the moments of unexpected enlightenment that break through as the teacher unravels easily and eloquently what, to everyone else, was a very tangled knot. It is an impressive event. Even those who are prejudiced against the teacher cannot avoid, if they are honest with themselves, being impressed . They may defend against it, as did the Sadducees here, but for the moment, even they must be quietly gob-smacked.

If you want to study Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees, I refer you to the text of Luke 20: 27-40. But the word-for-word answer is not actually what I want to linger over right now. What is amazing to me is that when Jesus finishes his answer to the Sadducees’s question, the whole pack of them ‘do not dare’ to ask him any other questions. This is a major achievement on Jesus’ part. The verbal cut and thrust of debate was what the professional religious thrived on, and practised daily. They were good at it and knew it. But Jesus was better. He could not be wrong-footed by them. They are, unusually, reduced to silence.

Most encounters that Jesus has in the gospels can tell us something about prayer. Can this one? At first this seems unlikely, but further reflection has made me change my mind.

There are some questions I think I need to answer honestly first. One, I wonder how prepared I am to experience a mind like Jesus’? Do I expect to be surprised by the depth of his penetration into my difficulties? Or do I want to reduce his mind to a smaller size – do I want, with at least a little part of myself, to outwit him? Two, do I realise that I am not always mature? Jesus will expose my immaturity – am I willing to accept what he may show me in that area? Three, on the other hand, I may be sincerely stumped, sincerely at the end of my endurance because of what life has thrown at me. I may ask for enlightenment, and Jesus may seem silent. In the event recounted by Luke, the Sadducees receive their answer immediately. I am, seemingly, not always so fortunate. But, what this story teaches me is that Jesus’ answer is probably going deeper than I expected. I may be right out of my depth, and that is why it seems that he has not answered. In reality, the answer is there, but I need to become deeper myself, to ‘grow into’ Jesus’ answer.

I seek, through prayer, a real encounter with Jesus, Lord and God. Like the Sadducees, I too may reach points when I do not dare to ask Jesus any more questions because of the depth of Jesus’ response to me. The Sadducees went away, however, only to continue to plot and scheme against Jesus. What do I do after I finish my prayer?

SJC

Lent is a time of prayer, a real encounter with Jesus. I’ve been saving this post from Sister Johanna till the right moment, and the beginning of Lent is a time of silence, as Our Lord experienced in the desert. It’s been something of a desert time for us all of late; let us use Lent to learn the depths of our love for those we are missing.

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27 September: Relics or souvenirs?

I shared these Welsh biscuits (Aberffraw biscuits) with my workmate after returning from Wales. They were traditionally baked in the shape of scallop shells as fare for pilgrims who would take ship at Aberffraw in Anglesey. A local bakery has revived the ancient recipe, adding lemon in this variety. (I did some research and found that St David could have tasted lemons as they had reached Rome in his time!)

There are many resonances to sharing a pilgrim’s biscuit. Both participate in a shared meal, a sort of bread broken between us. There is the journey and the return: like the twelve sent out by Jesus, I came home rejoicing, despite not having leant on him as they did (see Sister Johanna’s post on this topic in Luke’s gospel).

However, my family needed no second invitation when in Wales to obey one command of the Lord, and neither did my workmate in Canterbury:

And into what city soever you enter, and they receive you, eat such things as are set before you. Luke 10:8.

Including pilgrim’s biscuits, which did not last long enough to become relics!

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