Tuesday 18 October 2011

The Annunciation

Here is a little soliloquy that I wrote some years ago-

First Joyful Mystery

Most Holy Mary, dear and blessed Mother of our dear Lord. When first you heard that heralds voice were you deep in your prayers as tradition loves to portray you? Were you pondering in your heart the things of God? Were you, the young handmaid of the Lord, busying yourself with the hundred and one daily tasks and duties that our flesh is heir to? We know for certain that at that time you were betrothed to Blessed Joseph and that you lived such a life as to find favour with the Lord. Beyond that we can only speculate.

Of this we can be certain though, before the Annunciation of St Gabriel you loved God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your strength. You were such a one as responded to the Grace of God in a way that even before the Word took flesh in your virginal womb meant you could serve as a model and exemplar to those who love the Lord in all generations and seek to do His Most Holy Will. You, dear Mary, are a pioneer on the way of the Lord and our best and brightest guide towards Him in all ages and for all ages. There were things at this Annunciation that you did not fully understand, you were troubled, you pondered, you asked. To love Him and to serve Him it is not needful you showed us that we should fully understand Him, simply that we should wholly love Him and this you did then and still do today Mary Hope of Christians.

You showed us in this brief but world changing dialogue with the Archangel of the Most High that it is not great knowledge that is the key to great love and great service. No, it is humility that is the key and possessing that gift you alone of all the world had the highest Angel in the service of the Highest Power come down to you and salute you. You alone had Almighty God come down into your womb to take on flesh for your Divinely inspired creaturely humility proved a fitting home for the Divine humility that did not think equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied Himself taking human form with your flesh and your blood Most Dear Mary.

And what is humility? Is it the false modesty that so often masquerades under that honourable title? God forbid. No, humility is the height of acute self analysis. When, by the grace of God, we understand ourselves truly to be what we are in relation to our Creator and to our neighbour then we are necessarily humble. And the more perfectly we understand ourselves then the more perfectly humble we shall be. It is a sign of your great wisdom, dear Lady, that you were so perfectly humble and by your prayers may we be brought to similar self-knowledge. God knows we greatly stand in need of it

Was it, perhaps, because of your humility that you were troubled by the angels greeting? Did you consider yourself all unworthy to stand high in God's favour? Surely, though all these thoughts would have been swiftly driven from your heart and mind by that stunning promise made to you by Gabriel. A Son! And what a Son, one who would reign on the throne of David forever. And you, Mary, to be the Mother of the Messiah, the highest dream and hope of the maidens of God's chosen people for generations.

The painting is The Annunciation by Dieric Bouts

Monday 17 October 2011

Decidedly Dead at Dinner

A Reflection on the Book of Tobit (1:19-2:8)
19 But a certain citizen of Nineveh informed the king that it was I who buried the dead. When I found out that the king knew all about me and wanted to put me to death, I went into hiding; then in my fear I took to flight.
20 Afterward, all my property was confiscated; I was left with nothing. All that I had was taken to the king's palace, except for my wife Anna and my son Tobiah.
21 But less than forty days later the king was assassinated by two of his sons, who then escaped into the mountains of Ararat. His son Esarhaddon, who succeeded him as king, placed Ahiqar, my brother Anael's son, in charge of all the accounts of his kingdom, so that he took control over the entire administration.
22 Then Ahiqar interceded on my behalf, and I was able to return to Nineveh. For under Sennacherib, king of Assyria, Ahiqar had been chief cupbearer, keeper of the seal, administrator, and treasurer; and Esarhaddon reappointed him. He was a close relative-in fact, my nephew.
1 Thus under King Esarhaddon I returned to my home, and my wife Anna and my son Tobiah were restored to me. Then on our festival of Pentecost, the feast of Weeks, a fine dinner was prepared for me, and I reclined to eat.
2 The table was set for me, and when many different dishes were placed before me, I said to my son Tobiah: "My son, go out and try to find a poor man from among our kinsmen exiled here in Nineveh. If he is a sincere worshiper of God, bring him back with you, so that he can share this meal with me. Indeed, son, I shall wait for you to come back."
3 Tobiah went out to look for some poor kinsman of ours. When he returned he exclaimed, "Father!" I said to him, "What is it, son?" He answered, "Father, one of our people has been murdered! His body lies in the market place where he was just strangled!"
4 I sprang to my feet, leaving the dinner untouched; and I carried the dead man from the street and put him in one of the rooms, so that I might bury him after sunset.
5 Returning to my own quarters, I washed myself and ate my food in sorrow.
6 I was reminded of the oracle pronounced by the prophet Amos against Bethel: "Your festivals shall be turned into mourning, And all your songs into lamentation."
7 And I wept. Then at sunset I went out, dug a grave, and buried him.
8 The neighbors mocked me, saying to one another: "Will this man never learn! Once before he was hunted down for execution because of this very thing; yet now that he has escaped, here he is again burying the dead!"
Gazing upon Christ crucified Catholics may be tempted to believe that the righteousness of the Jewish Law is symbolised by three bloody nails and one heart-piercing lance. In that scenario one can imagine that Jesus represents a spiritual fulfilment of the Law and the Pharisees a literalistic one. The picture that scripture paints of Tobit however is the antidote to such a view. Righteousness cannot be achieved through the way of Moses but neither is that way a necessary barrier to it. If, famously, the letter kills but the Spirit gives life is there not a way in which the Spirit can give life even to the letter? It is said of the Blessed Virgin Mary that with her Yes! to Gabriel she effectively conceived our Lord in her heart before doing so in her womb, perhaps the righteous children of Israel who said Yes to Yahweh before saying Yes to the Law achieved the purpose of the Law. The sin of the Pharisees consisted in saying Yes to the Law before saying the same thing to the Lord.

The narrative background to this is conventionally recorded in the Books of the Kings. The Northern tribes of Israel fell into the sin of idolatry and all that that entails. As a consequence God permitted them to be conquered by the Assyrians and taken into captivity and exile. Tobit himself was an Israelite in whom, to coin a phrase, there was no guile, he was faithful to the Lord but nonetheless shared in the captivity of his nation. Following their defeat in Judea the Assyrians appeared to take out their fury on random Israelites in Nineveh the Assyrian capital, leaving their bodies to rot in the open. This leads to a sequence of events in which Tobit effectively recapitulates the history of Israel in his own person. Moved by charity and possessing no little courage Tobit buries the dead himself. This leads to anger, betrayal, exile, destruction of the tyrant and return to home. It is probably no coincidence that his nephew Ahiqar who facilitates his return hold the same position, cupbearer, as Joseph had held under Pharoah.

The Pentecost events described here represent something of a foreshadowing of the first Christian Pentecost described in Acts 2. There, after the Resurrection and Ascension of our Lord the Holy Spirit descends and moves the Apostles to invite the devout Israelites outside the Cenacle to join them in the prayers, the breaking of the bread and the teaching of the Apostles. Here moved, no doubt, by the same Spirit Tobit issues an invitation for even one Israelite who sincerely worships God to join him in the breaking of bread. Whereas the first Christian Pentecost produced a harvest of three thousand souls this bitter exilic one produced but a single corpse.

The fact that Tobit cannot find a person outside his family to share this feast with him echo's his earlier experience back in Israel. We see in Chapter 1-

5All my kindred and our ancestral house of Naphtali sacrificed to the calf that King Jeroboam of Israel had erected in Dan and on all the mountains of Galilee.6But I alone went often to Jerusalem for the festivals, as it is prescribed for all Israel by an everlasting decree. I would hurry off to Jerusalem with the first fruits of the crops and the firstlings of the flock, the tithes of the cattle, and the first shearings of the sheep.

  The motivation that Tobit has to bury the dead and give alms to the poor springs from the same source as that which leads him to worship the Lord God and obey the precepts of the Law. When Jesus recommends His followers to a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees (Matt 5:10) it is of people like Tobit that He is thinking as well as the Holy Family. Obedience is the key that sets Tobit free. He chooses to obey the Law, the Assyrians and his idolatrous kinsfolk are slaves to sin, he exercises choice and they do not hence he is freer than them. Since his obedience springs from his Yes to God it is prior to the Law and not dependent upon it, a fact which will become of crucial importance in the later Christian economy of salvation.

Upon hearing of the unburied Israelite our hero immediately sprang to his feet. This recalls that after the Annunciation our Lady "with great haste" went to her cousin St Elizabeth. This is another sign that the Holy Spirit was a key actor in this Pentecost event. It was the Holy Spirit that overshadowed Mary and if His first fruit was the conception of our Saviour the second was surely Mary's dash to the side of kinswoman in need. The root and source of all uncalculated, spontaneous acts of self forgetful love is always that same Spirit. We can also see in the untasted feast a type of Jesus who left the heavenly banquet in order to reclaim mankind murdered by sin. Tobit returns with the dead still dead, Jesus returns with death defeated in His train. Tobit eats his bread with tears Jesus resumes the heavenly meal with all the hosts of heaven and redeemed man rejoicing.

A significant added factor in the generosity of Tobits character is revealed when we consider that simply by touching a dead body he contracted a form of uncleaness under the Law(Numbers 19:11-13).  Which brings us straight to Jesus and His parable in Luke 10-

30Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.33But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, "Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.'
The Priest and the Levite considered the Law in relation to themselves. They would be unclean if they touched a dead man and unable to function in their positions until purified. They either thought that the man was dead or had a good chance of dying on their hands so they let them be not only because they were respecters of the Law but actually, as it were, employees of the Law. The Samaritan, who also valued the Books of Moses, considered the needs of the man prior to the legal implications for himself. Moses never, under God, prescribed regulations to prevent kindness to the distressed, selfishness is the sole author of any such decrees written or unwritten. Tobit was the good neighbour of whom Jesus might have said "go and do likewise".

When reading it is often easy to regard a sequence of events as just one single one but in the case of Tobits much delayed meal it is worthwhile to break it down into its component parts. Firstly he started to eat "in sorrow". Sorrow that one of his people had been murdered. Sorrow that there were none of his family at hand to openly take him home and do for him what a family should. Then he recalled the prophecy of Amos and that this was a great feast day to the Lord and that it was being celebrated in exile amidst an oppressor who placed no value on the lives of Jacobs descendants. And he wept. Surely he wept over the plight of his people and also over their continued estrangement from the God who could and would save them. Perhaps there was another reason. Jesus is recorded as weeping also and in this fashion, John 11

32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.34He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see."35Jesus began to weep.
Since he was about to turn their mourning into rejoicing why did our Lord shed tears? It was not the death of Lazarus that moved Him it was the sight of human distress occasioned by the fragility of life. All life is lived under the shadow of death. All joys pass. No festival is without its mourning no songs are wholly free from lamentation. Only love is stronger than death. We weep because their is a veil now between us and that unconquered, all conquering love. And until that veil is pierced by a divine heart piercing lance then we will always have cause to cry.

Tobit performs his self allotted task. His neighbours mock him. He gains nothing. He gets no thanks. Nonetheless he perseveres, in Medieval Catholic Europe Tobit became an icon for the virtue of patience. He teaches us, finally, that victory belongs not to those who can inflict the most but to those who can endure the most. Jesus and Mary came from a tradition which includes Tobit, like him they were Galileans, like him they were generous with a selfless love, like him they observed the Law. And like him they demonstrated that whatever the limitations of that Law might be the path the Pharisees trod was not its fulfilment and therefore the acme of Judaism but simply another way of misunderstanding God. We have discovered many others since, not the least of which is anti-Semitism.

Monday 10 October 2011

Death and Memory

This is the draught of an article I hope to submit to the Guardian. Open to comments on how it can be improved.

If religion did not speak to the deepest sighs and longings of the human heart then it would be as well not to speak at all. Of these sighs few are more profound than those offered up for the death of one we love. My father, William Hepburn, died earlier this year and since by tradition Catholics devote the month of November in particular to remembering our dead this November of 2011 becomes a special one for me . It is one of the examples in Catholic life where theological truths and natural human emotions combine in such a way as to produce the inner peace we all desire and the calm acceptance that what has happened has happened.

It is no coincidence that this time precedes Advent a liturgical season that prepares believers for light to appear in the midst of darkness. We move from the De Profundis of Psalm 129   "Out of the depths I have cried to thee, O Lord" to the anticipation of Isaiah 9  "The people that walked in darkness, have seen a great light: to them that dwelt in the region of the shadow of death, light is risen". Outside the Church we bereaved ones are insistently urged to move on, to reach closure, not to be morbid. Within our faith family we have this time of the year where parishes unite around prayer and remembrance for the dead. It is not considered gauche or uncool to bring to mind those whose passing made us weep. Death is placed in a context not only of eternity but of community. We pray for each of the dead not simply for our own ones. The theological truth we celebrate is the Communion of the Saints. The Church consists not merely of those now alive on earth but of those alive to God in heaven and in purgatory, something marked out by the twin feasts of All Saints and All Souls on 1 and 2 November. 

In particular the prayers we offer are for those souls still in purgatory. Whatever one may think of the theological basis for the doctrine of purgatory it offers a psychologically realistic parallel between those gone and those left behind. As we endure suffering after and because of their passing so to they suffer before reaching the goal of the beatific vision. We and they are in solidarity, a solidarity of both pain and hope. We have a promised land to reach but a desert to pass though before we arrive at it. And, again, it is a community event. We remember our dead together, we are on pilgrimage together and we shall rejoice together "They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. Going they went and wept, casting their seeds. But coming they shall come with joyfulness, carrying their sheaves." (Psalm 125  ).

We speak of those who have gone ahead as the "faithful departed". As a convert this raises an interesting not to say vital question. My dear father was not a Catholic. The customary alliance of hard line fundamentalists and militant new atheists will no doubt unite to suggest that the logical consequence of my belief system would thrust him into that third and much less popular destination of hell and so offering up prayers on his behalf represents either hypocrisy on my part or a lack of belief that any of this stuff is actually true. These are questions I faced and reflected deeply upon when my equally non-Catholic mother, Irena Hepburn, died in 1998. My instant response then was what it is now. My parents were always faithful to me and to virtue as they understood it. Selfless faithfulness is a product of love and, consciously or unconsciously, is therefore grounded upon God the faithful and loving. My prayers for them, and for any one else for whom I am asked to pray, are offered up in a perfect trust that love is never wasted and that He who is the fount of all love gladly receives back unto Himself each of His children who follow His model.