March/April 2019

Join the cast

Anthony Towey

Unusually, this year the entire season of Lent falls within the embrace of a single issue of the Pastoral Review. We can strangely think of it as a fallow time despite it signalling longer days and the dawn of spring in Northern climes. We can also think of it as a solitary time, since it commemorates and commences with the account of Jesus’ time in the desert. Yet even there the Lord has company – some welcome, some less so – a pattern that continues such that the liturgies of Lent profile some of the most vivid encounters in the biblical testimony which I’d like to ponder briefly with the help of a sibling poet.

The all-star cast includes Abraham (second Sunday) who is instructed to do some star-counting before – literally – cutting covenant with the Lord. The firebrand presence of the infinite Lord in the first reading is prelude to the blinding light of the Transfiguration which Peter, James and John struggle to compute and aspire to capture. Lent says we can’t do that to the Living God as Moses realises when he encounters the fire of I AM (third Sunday) which can be paired with the Samaritan woman’s encounter with Jesus. When a fugitive meets the living God in a desert place and a woman of dubious repute meets the Son in a place of refreshment, it seems pretty clear that while we may habitually conceive religion as a series of key performance indicators, Lent teaches that there are no preconditions to mercy. As this excerpt from The Well implies, access is for the awkward.

He wrong-footed me from the beginning.
I stumbled,
Nearly dropped the water jar,
When I saw him.
I’d been daydreaming -
as usual -
imagining a next time,
next man,
who would be
The one.
Really love me,
understand me,
not pretend,
so I wouldn’t have to pretend either.

We are reaching drama overdose with the characters that people Luke 15.11-32 on the fourth Sunday. I well recall introducing it as the Prodigal Son to a class of 13 year old reluctants in Rochdale who eagerly corrected me because their Bibles called it the Lost Son. Trying to buy time – there was an inspector in the room – I asked them why that might be. After a couple of responses citing journeys and so forth, Jade, at the back, right hand corner, raised a hesitant hand: ‘Sir. Is it because he was lost within himself?’ Thunderbolt insight. Lesson over. More recently working with student teachers on the same text, the majority of the class confessed to identifying with the elder brother – ‘I’d be raging’ said one. Good on her. Our tendency to try and resolve parables when they are meant to provoke us is a peculiar habit. Interestingly only three out of sixty identified with the father – they were all parents.

By the fifth Sunday we are invited either to meet the woman caught in adultery or Lazarus. It would be fascinating, of course, to hear these people whose stories scream across the ages despite their silence. Again

In the beginning,
I could not speak;
My throat full of sand and spices.
Since then
I choose not to.
How to live,
In this world
I left behind.
How to live
A new life,
In the old body,
In the old places.
Palm Sunday brings things to first a raucous and then harrowing conclusion. Crowds have their own fickle persona, but then, so do those motivated by money, by fear or too beholden to their institution. Judas’ silver leaves him poor, Peter’s boastfulness becomes betrayal, Pilate’s hand washing leaves his hands dirty. But let’s not be too hasty to judge – for how often does base pragmatism betray our better nature? And while the Triduum and the glories of Easter are for another day, we do well to remember that during Lent, the Church is inviting us to join the cast, encounter Christ, encounter ourselves.

When the only offering
Is the shambling tears
Of blemished motives and emotions,

Longing to be Abel,
But being really Cain.

Will not honesty
Make worthy,
What mercy
Smiles upon?

Excerpts printed here from The Well, Lazarus and Offering are © Tina Towey 2018, 2018 & 2006 respectively. Used with permission.

Preaching Matthew

Gerald O’Collins SJ

Coming to terms
(Matthew 5.25–26)
‘Come to terms with your opponent in good time, while you are still on the way to court with him’. Jesus brings up a good legal principle: settle out of court while there is still time to do so. Come to terms with your opponent before you face the magistrate or judge. Once court proceedings have started, things may start turning out badly for you.

Jesus wants us to take advantage of the time that has been given to us, the gift of time that we enjoy here and now. Using his own words and experience of what he knows can happen in court, Jesus anticipates what St Paul says. The apostle draws on the prophet Isaiah to say: ‘now is the acceptable hour; now is the day of salvation’ (2 Cor. 6.2). In that way, Paul also urges us to come to terms with God in good time.

In particular, we could sum up the challenge of Advent and Lent by taking over Paul’s language. Now is the acceptable hour for us; now is the day of our salvation. Or we could follow Jesus’ language and pray: ‘Lord, let me come to terms with you in that good time you have given me. Time is running out, but I still do have time to let you set things right in my life’.

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From Zechariah to Agabus: The Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts

Adrian Graffy

The Holy Spirit is referred to more frequently in Luke than any other gospel. The first of two articles examines what is said about the Holy Spirit in both the Gospel of Luke and in Luke’s second work, the Acts of the Apostles. How can these New Testament writings guide our understanding of the Spirit’s work, and our discernment for the future? As Pope Francis has said, the Church is a ‘protected space’ in which the Spirit can act. Adrian Graffy is parish priest of Gidea Park, and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

From its earliest chapters the Gospel of Luke points out ways in which the Holy Spirit drives the work of salvation. The Spirit empowers faithful individuals who stand at the threshold of the New Testament. Zechariah the priest is informed in the temple that the son his wife will soon bear him will be ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ even before his birth (Lk. 1.15), and Zechariah himself is described in the same way as he prepares to proclaim the psalm known as the Benedictus (Lk. 1.67-79). As John grows up, he will become ‘strong in spirit’ (Lk. 1.80).

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Preaching Luke

Gerald O’Collins SJ

Facing the truth
(Luke 4.16–30)
Sometimes people don’t like being reminded of the truth. That’s what Jesus does in today’s Gospel. He reminds the people of Nazareth of the truth, or rather of two truths. During a dreadful drought, Elijah had taken care of a foreigner, a widow in Sidon. Then his prophetic successor, Elisha, did not cure any lepers in Israel but he did cure a foreigner from Syria, Naaman.

The people of Nazareth did not like being reminded of these traditions found in their sacred Scriptures, traditions about two great prophets through whom God showed special care for a Gentile woman and the Syrian general Naaman.

The people of Jesus’ home town hated facing the truth about God’s love for outsiders. Their anger boiled up and they tried to murder Jesus.

It’s so real this story. We human beings can become pretty angry when reminded of the truth. Let’s pray to be ready to face the truth, whether it is Jesus himself who reminds us of the truth or someone else who does so. Let us pray that we may constantly be given the courage to hear the truth, face the truth, and act accordingly.

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Celebrating Palm Sunday with Matthew’s Passion Narrative

Thomas O’Loughlin

The voices we hear reading the Passion during Holy Week can enhance the liturgical occasion, but alongside the opportunities there are pitfalls to avoid, writes Thomas O’Loughlin, Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham.

Twice each year, on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, the reading of the gospel becomes visibly a liturgical event in its own right. On these occasions the dramatic reading with several voices may replace the solitary tone of the deacon/priest. Yet in most parishes this is not only a missed opportunity to do something which can enhance the whole celebration, but can become something counter-productive to good communication. At the very least it can become a shambles of voices coming in off-cue, lines-lost, or confused mumbling (‘Whose line is it?’ ‘Who’s that voice supposed to represent?’). At worst it can send hidden signals to the congregation about how we view the Passion, the Jews, and the ministry of proclamation.

The traditional format of using several voices to read the Passion has much to recommend it: the unusual style picks out this reading as special; and given that the Passion on Palm Sunday is the longest Sunday reading of the year, the variety of voices makes the story easier to follow and less monotonous. However, some points should be noted about reading it in this way. First, if people are ‘following it’ in booklets, then they are not listening but engaged in a kind of semi-reading / semi-listening that has the disadvantages of both activities, without the particular benefit of either.

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