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An Apprenticeship in Love

crucifix-thornsIt is a good thing for us that God’s ways are not man’s ways. God understands our weaknesses and still loves us. This is evidenced by the way Jesus takes Peter under his wing, promising to build His Church on Peter’s confession of faith. Such a turn of events might not have been possible according to ‘man’s ways’. That a lowly fisherman should be given the opportunity to become a fisher of men, that beautiful task, reflects God’s wisdom. However, like any beginner in his new trade, Peter has to learn and grow into it.

‘This must not happen to you’ Peter exclaims, remonstrating with Jesus about His determination to go to Jerusalem (Matthew 16:22). The apprentice seemingly knows a better way than the Master craftsman. He does not understand Jesus’ method and so needs to be taught. After the resurrection however, he becomes a tireless defender of the reality of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. For example, remonstrating with his fellow Christians after the resurrection he writes ‘the price of your ransom from the futile way of life handed down from your ancestors was paid, not in anything perishable like silver or gold, but in precious blood as of a blameless and spotless lamb, Christ’ (1 Peter 1:18-19).

Yet this transformation took time. Peter’s skill was honed, often painfully, during his time of apprenticeship. It is a story of ups and downs. He is Rock, yet in today’s Gospel Jesus refers to him as Satan. Peter witnesses Jesus’ glory on the mount of the transfiguration yet he fled the crucifixion. He drew the sword in the garden but again his action was mis-placed; it simply was not that kind of battle.

Our spiritual life is an apprenticeship in love and resembles Peter’s in many ways. It is a story of highs and lows. There are times when we enjoy great consolation, feeling so close to our Lord. Then there are other times when we feel we are a million miles away. Loving God can be difficult. We are told we will have ‘to take up our cross’ (Matthew 16:24). In today’s first reading the Prophet Jeremiah speaks of the trials bearing witness to God has brought him. Similarly, Christians in Iraq today are suffering terribly because of their love for Christ. Like Peter, they confess Jesus as the Son of the living God and they are giving their lives because they refuse to relinquish the rock upon which their very being is founded.

Only the conviction of a deep prayer life, rooted in the reality of the living God can sustain us in our trials. Indeed, God’s ways are not man’s. That is why it is only in the light of Christ’s suffering that human suffering can have any meaning. It is in this school of self-giving love that we are shown how to renounce ourselves for God and neighbour, even unto death.

Gospel Reflection for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A (Matthew 16:21-27)

 

He was crushed for our iniquities

crossA Reading from the Prophet Isaiah:

A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; One from whom men hide their face
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Yet ours were the grief He bore, our sorrows He carried; He was crushed for our iniquities; All of us like sheep have gone astray; But The Righteous One My Servant will justify the many and bear their iniquities.

 

Some of the most dramatic images we have of Mother Teresa reveal a saint who reached out to those truly on society’s fringes in Calcutta – the suffering and destitute. Here was a woman who brought Christ’s love and mercy into the lives of those the world seemed to abandon, transforming lives marred by fear and anguish through disease and extreme poverty.

In seeking to understand the awesome and life-giving reality that is Good Friday – this group of people I have been describing are a very good place to start. For no distant God of ideas or mere rules could speak meaningfully of life, hope and love to those who suffer. Only a God who himself tasted the bitter word and stigma of public shame and rejection could hope to touch the minds and hearts of those who have themsevles suffered so. This is where we begin to glimpse the essence of what Good Friday is – A day when Christ himself entered into the extremes of suffering and death. A day, when God assured us that His love and mercy knows no limits, no boundaries, but rather, seeks to reach out and save a suffering humanity even amidst the very depths of pain or sin.

The great Swiss theologian Von Balthasar wonderfully saw in the Cross, an act of love so great, it is beyond anything humanity could ever have imagined. This was the work of a God who – out of love – had already sent his only Son, at the Incarnation, all the way into the depths of our humanity. Jesus’s own earthly life speaks to us of a divine love which sought always to reach out into the depths of human existence, most especially towards those on the fringes. For Jesus searched out the God-forsaken.

A Friend of Tax-collectors and sinners, Jesus’ response to the pride and righteousness of the Pharisees in Luke’s Gospel, gives us a vivid insight into His mission of love and redemption – for he tells us that he comes “for those in need of a physician – sinners in need of repentance.” The lost, the sick, the suffering – it is such people that Jesus found, healed and restored.

So why did Jesus, God-made-man, seek out the fringes, and those in the extremes of sin and suffering? Our lives show us that both sin and suffering are inevitable human realities – for the atheist as much as for the saint. We can surely recognise the meaningfulness of a suffering God for those who themselves physically suffer. In reality, however, it is sin which makes us suffer most – it is sin alone which possesses the power to push any of us to the true fringes of existence.

For in wilfully turning away from our true good – that is, following Christ and His example, we ourselves bear a stigma that burdens the heart and mind. It is sin which darkens our own horizons, diminishing us far more than any poverty or physical disease ever could. Our goal, our earthly journey towards Truth, Goodness, Beauty and love itself, is blocked and ends in death, only through sin. The great mystery of God’s redemption, however, is that, it is the utter tragedy of such sin, man’s felix culpa, which drew down, our divine physician.

This is what brings us back to that First Good-Friday. For on that day, we saw most clearly, upon the Cross, and in that passion evoked so eloquently by the Prophet Isaiah, the unimaginable depths that God’s love will descend to in order to reach the sinner. In the extremities of evil, sin and death which Christ embraced and conquered on that day, we truly witness the value even the lowliest sinner possesses in God’s eyes. For it is the immensity of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness for each and every one of us, that drew Christ to the Cross that fateful day.

The most awesome reality this Good Friday, and indeed every day, is that such love and forgiveness -the full power of Christ Himself is still flowing, through that Church He instigated. The forgiveness and promise of paradise, offered to the repentant thief, in those final moments upon the Cross, is ours now- active with no less force- in the boundless mercy of Confession.

That divine Body – love, truth and goodness itself – given freely upon the Cross, is still offered each day for us- upon the Eucharistic altar. So we see that passion, that divine love displayed so vividly on that First Good Friday endures for each of us to this day. That is why Good Friday remains forever so, very, very Good.