July 6 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Zechariah 9:9-12; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Theme: A bit of a challenge this week – an even race with no obvious favourites, we might say. But as I've been pondering these readings, looking for a common theme, the idea of "looking" or "seeing" keeps coming to me. On our spiritual journey what are we looking for? Why can't we see it? These are perhaps the sort of questions these readings throw at us this week. So perhaps a theme such as "Open our Eyes, Lord" might do it. Or given the presence of children in our gospel reading, perhaps "Hide and Seek" might be better. I'm leaning towards something more obscure, such as "Hidden In Plain Sight".
Introduction. We start with a bold and joyous proclamation from the prophet Zechariah: in a reading more often associated with Palm Sunday, he announces that the king is coming to his people, bringing peace and freedom for them all. It all sounds clear and transparent – beyond debate; but one little strange detail should alert us that it's not going to be quite as simple as that. How many conquering heroes arrive on a donkey? We follow that with this famous, psychologically astute passage from St Paul on the human phenomenon of seeming to be unable to do our own will, let alone God's. And we close with one of those "hamper packs", where the gospel writer (in this case, Matthew) seems to collect together a few tasty morsels and package them together without any obvious connecting thread.
Background. It's been a tough week or two on the world scene, perhaps dominated in our neck of the woods with the guilty verdicts against Rolf Harris. Even now, it seems, many who worked with Harris for decades in the entertainment industry are refusing to believe it, convinced that the jury got it wrong, even as more and more complaints against him are now arising. We are, of course, used to the idea that wrong-doers, particularly abusers of women and children, usually go to great lengths to hide their offending behind closed doors, so that when the truth comes out those who know them are astonished because they had never seen or heard anything that might raise suspicion. But one particularly shocking aspect of Harris' conduct (and even more so, of Saville's) is how much of it occurred in public, even on television. And yet nobody saw anything – or, if they did, they could not or would not believe what they saw.
We see what we expect to see, or want to see; we do not see what we don't expect or want to see. Perhaps that explains how millions of people, particularly in Italy, saw Uruguayan Luis Suarez bite an Italian opponent in the World Cup football match, but neither the President of Uruguay nor most of his compatriots saw anybody bite anybody else!
The great priest and prophet, Fr Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, often wondered how it was that so few people could see what he saw; in fact, his aim in writing his spiritual masterpiece, The Divine Milieu, was to help people to SEE. One who could see was his fellow Jesuit priest and poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins: Teilhard often quoted the famous first line from Hopkins' wonderful poem, God's Grandeur – "The world is charged with the grandeur of God". Teilhard could see that grandeur shining through wherever he looked, but most of us see it, if at all, in brief glimpses of exceptional beauty and/or power. The burning question is why? Are people like Teilhard and Hopkins deluded, seeing things that aren't really there? Are they gifted with abilities denied to the rest of us? Or is it the case that all human beings have the latent capacity to see the grandeur of God, if only we weren't blinded by other things, things interior and exterior?
Told to look out for a king coming to them "triumphant and victorious", would the people of Zechariah's time recognise such a king if he chose to appear among them "humble and riding on a donkey"? Told to look out for the Saviour of the World, who would recognise him hanging on a cross between two criminals? Assured that he is with us always even to the end of the age, how do we recognise him today?
I suspect that these sorts of musings might help us to find a common theme in this apparently motley collection of bits and pieces in Matthew's 11th chapter. The chapter opens with a summary of what Jesus has been doing (teaching his disciples) and what he now starts to do (teaching and proclaiming his message to the public); and then we go straight to the story about the imprisoned John the Baptist sending messengers to inquire of Jesus, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" But notice what Matthew has done in verse 2. Having told us in verse 1 what Jesus had been doing and was about to do, Matthew says John sent his messengers after hearing what "the Messiah was doing". In other words Matthew makes it clear to us that Jesus is the Messiah even as he introduces John's question that can only be understood as doubting that very thing. Even the great prophet and forerunner is having difficulty seeing that Jesus is "charged with the grandeur of God".
The theme of seeing the true identity of someone continues in the following verses. Who did the crowds go out to see in the wilderness (and who did they see)? Why did people reject John for eating and drinking very little, and Jesus for eating and drinking too much? In other words, they didn't recognise John as a prophet because he didn't fit their preconceived notion of what a prophet should look like, and they didn't recognise Jesus as the Messiah for much the same reason. And whole cities, Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum among them, failed to see who Jesus really was despite witnessing his miraculous deeds.
I find myself once again pondering the purpose of the traditional spiritual practices. Sometimes teachers of the past have suggested that they are ways of "pleasing" God, in return for which God will graciously grant us one or more "spiritual experiences" – God will, as it were, "put in an appearance", albeit tantalisingly brief. But these passages suggest that God's "default position" is not that of "Hidden – Find me if you can", but of "Here I am – click here to open your eyes." The spiritual exercises, like their physical counterparts, are designed to develop our abilities – in this case, to see the grandeur of God.
So what stops us? The short answer, based on the Beatitudes, would be a lack of purity of heart. I think what St Paul is wrestling with in this classic passage from Romans is another way of expressing the same truth. It's a lack of will. We don't truly want to see God because to see God is to die: to see God is to die, that is, to self. It is to lose all excuses – to lose all our hiding places. Isn't that really something close to truth? While we can believe that God hides from us, we can convince ourselves that we are hidden from God, which we prefer to be at all times other than dire emergencies.
Zechariah. This week an organisation we had barely heard of had the audacity to proclaim a new caliphate over large areas of what Western nations once proclaimed were separate countries called Syria and Iraq, and to call upon all Moslems worldwide to recognise a man whose name we cannot pronounce as the Caliph to whom they all owe allegiance. That news story provides an interesting back-drop to this short passage from one of the so-called minor prophets. How might this passage sound to people with whom Israel was at war? Who is this king of Israel who has the audacity to "command peace to the nations", and to claim "dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth"?
Taking It Personally.
· Who do you say he is?
· How can we proclaim Christ's universal reign in a world of other faiths without sounding like "Western imperialists"?
· What evidence do you have in support of your belief that Christ is with you at this time?
· Moses famously asked God to let him see God. Have you ever made such a request? Would you like to see God? Why or why not?
Romans. Anyone who has ever tried to commit to a new diet, or a new exercise regime, will know at some level what St Paul is on about in this passage! Everyone who has ever resolved to give up a bad habit, or turn over a new leaf, or be more patient, or less judgmental, or [fill in the blank for yourself], will likewise be nodding at this point. It is very much part of the mystery of being human, isn't it? Whether we like it or not, sometimes we do not seem able to execute our own will, not because of any outside restraints, but because our will suddenly countermands our own intentions. We may not feel comfortable with St Paul's choice of language here – we might not accept that we are slaves to sin – or like the Augustinian doctrine of original sin – but there sure is something pretty weird about our own failure to carry out our own fixed intentions. The point is, of course, that no amount of intellectual study or struggle, or psychological analysis or counselling, can free us from this condition. It is a spiritual problem, and only Christ can set us free from it.
Taking It Personally.
· Recall a few examples from you own experience of this phenomenon. Be specific. Can you see any common thread that links these instances?
· How do you feel about them? Frustrated? Annoyed or disappointed with yourself? Laid-back, understanding and forgiving?
· When you think about your own examples, do you feel more compassionate towards other people who have failed to follow through on commitments made to you?
· If Christ has set us free from this condition, why do you still suffer from it?
· Next time you form an intention to do something, pray for the grace to carry through with it no matter what and, when you have done it, give thanks for that grace.
· End with a period of chanting, "Lord, strengthen my will to do your will."
Matthew. The first little passage this week, featuring the children's game emphasises, the blindness of the people. Neither in times of joy (music, wedding dance, etc) nor in loss (wailing, funeral, dirge, mourning) are they aware of God's presence with them. As already noted, they do not recognise John as a prophet because of his extreme asceticism, and they do not recognise Jesus as the Messiah because of his openness to parties and celebrations. The second passage is interesting first of all because verses 25-27 seem out of place in this gospel. If someone had read them to me and asked me which gospel they were in I would have unhesitatingly chosen St John's gospel. (Wouldn't you?) That aside, they continue with an exploration of how the true identity of Jesus is to be recognised. Again, the answer is that there is no intellectual answer to that question: Jesus is only finally known through revelation – through our capacity to receive spiritual truth. We finish with a very interesting image from the agricultural world of Jesus' time. Apparently, when a new ox was "in training" it would be yoked to the most experienced ox of the team, and would learn it's duties from that senior. Yokes have a bad image for us, yet Jesus invites us to be yoked to him.
Taking It Personally.
· Should spiritual leaders follow some sort of ascetical discipline? How would you react if a bishop or priest had the reputation of being a bit of a part animal?
· Reflect on that image Jesus used about a yoke. Would you like to be yoked to Jesus? Are you yoked to him? Have you asked him to let you be yoked to him?
· Spend time slowly re-reading verses 29-30. When you are ready pray to Jesus about these verses. Tell him what you feel about the idea. Be completely honest with him. Why might you be hesitant to accept his yoke?