GSC 31st March 2019
I nearly saw a punch-up once during the Easter Vigil. I was at theological college where, like all these institutions, grown-ups end up playing around like children, only worse. The Easter Vigil is the Mass which happens on the Saturday evening before Easter Sunday. Amidst the candles and the solemnity and the expectation of the Resurrection of Christ, we were all exhausted, having been working hard and praying hard. One of the students was reading aloud one one the readings set for the day and started getting a lot of those complicated names wrong. Very unkindly, some of the students started giggling and nudging each other and smirking. Eventually the reader got so annoyed at these students sniggering that he interrupted the pious reading of Holy Scripture and said, “Come on then, do you want to have a go instead?” At which point, of course, the rest of us just looked on in amazement: did he really just say that?
It’s hard to know how to respond to critics and this is our theme for this evening. The temptation can be to lash out and defend ourselves such as the guy being criticised for his reading of those complicated words but the danger is that this ends up being retaliation and “an eye for an eye” mentality. Jesus, of course, comes with a different message: “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5:39). But, boy, is that hard! One of those wise ways handed down to us is to count to ten before responding, taking a deep breath, before lashing out.
In these circumstances, it is also good for us to remember what is truly important. When someone criticises us it will only annoy us if we are concerned about what other people think of us. But when did Jesus say that ought to concern us? No, indeed not we are only to be concerned about what God sees us do and think and speak - and He sees everything, of course. But it is only His opinion that matters. No one else is going to determine whether we go to Heaven or not, not your boss, your aunt, the grumpy person next door, whoever it might be.
In these final three weeks of Lent, as we delve deeper and deeper into the mystery that won for us our salvation, we see our Saviour being led to the Cross. The prophecy of Isaiah foretells this moment: “Like a sheep that is before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth,” (Isaiah 53:7-9). On Maundy Thursday, we will be with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane at the 8pm at St Mary’s. When the soldiers come to arrest Jesus on that evening, Jesus could have prevented His own suffering and the insults He was to bear: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 27:53). But this is not the way Jesus shows, His way is only to follow the Father’s Will.
A powerful challenge to normal behaviour comes from St Therese of Lisieux. Like many profoundly holy types in monastic communities, she faced some troubles with her fellow nuns. Once they accused her falsely of breaking a vase, which was lying on the floor next to her. She was told off for breaking this by a particularly fierce Mother Superior. God knew that St Therese had not smashed that vase and surely, that’s all that matters? St Therese didn’t correct anyone but simply accepted the criticism for something she didn’t do, hoping that she might then know the sufferings of Jesus better.
While we are not to be overly concerned about what people think about us, we are to have a concern about what others think and believe about God and their relationship with Him. The disciples are sent out to baptise and to preach (Matthew 28) and we no less so. St Paul reflects that if no one tells people about the faith then you can’t complain when they don’t know who Jesus is (Romans 10:14-17) St James similarly exhorts us to have a concern for the moral actions of others: “You should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s souls from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:20). Who can we be involved in bringing back into a better relationship with God and His Church?
Supremely the Mass is a chance for us to gather round one bread, one cup, to show the unity we all have in Christ, a unity with our enemies, a unity with out critics. Remember how the Psalmist look forward eagerly: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (Psalm 23:5). When we argue with someone within the congregation we’re not to spend last time with them or less time around the altar, no; we should if anything spend more time around the altar. The Mass for the first Christians was evidently a routine and taken-for-granted part of their life, hence there’s not that much mention of it directly in Scripture. But where there is mention of it, it is to foster unity and reconciliation. So, in Corinth, where there was clearly divisions within the church based around personalities (I Corinthians 3:4) Paul reminds them: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (I Corinthians 10:17). This is not an argument for using one loaf of Hovis on the altar like some groups do, that’s an awful practice. But it is a reminder that this is the sacrament of unity.
Such reconciliation that we are to know in the Mass is the hope of reconciliation of which we heard our second reading speak. God doesn’t want us sitting at home harbouring thoughts of ill-feeling or resentment or simply not particularly caring about our fellow Christians. Let’s turn to our Gospel: what would you do if you were the dad in the parable? How would you feel if the younger son had taken off with half the property? Would the elder son now be your favourite, unable to do wrong in your sight, because, at least, he’d stayed behind? At best, maybe, if you were the dad, you’d be there saying, “Well, it’s up to him to make the first move. He left after all!” Jesus is very clear in the parable that that sort of complacency is not what is to be praised about the dad because he spotted the young son “while he was still a long way off.” The dad was hoping beyond all hope that the son would return. And this is the heart we see in God.
The older son stands looking, jealous and critical of his dad. The person who is critical is actually the person who has been most loyal. This is the nature of relationships: that they are complicated, and never a case of black vs white, good vs bad. Dad might have foreseen the older son’s bitterness, but even so can do no other than to rehabilitate and restore the younger son. It’s a parable that Jesus tells in the presence of tax collectors and sinners. Let us then, knowing our sinfulness, gather round the altar, this place of reconciliation and know that here is also a place for those we don’t really get on with, indeed let us be instrumental in ensuring they too take part in this great supper of the Lamb!