Ampleforth Abbey

13 December 2017

Talk IV: Holy Saturday II

Lord Jesus, you have made me for yourself,
and my heart is restless until it rests in you:
Have mercy on me, and let your will be done.

Lord Jesus, you have brought me to this day,
to this place and to the service of those around me:
Have mercy on me, and let your will be done. 

Lord Jesus, you have spared yourself nothing for my good,
even the very life you have poured out for me:
Have mercy on me, and let your will be done.

When you look into the mirror each morning, when shaving, or doing your make-up, or brushing your hair, what do you see? Who is it that stares back at you? Of course, there is a very obvious answer to this question, but I suspect that you will have worked out by now, from the other conferences we have shared, that the answer “Myself” is not the one I’m looking for. It certainly is an answer, and even a correct answer, but I want to suggest that it is probably less than half the reality the initial question was designed to explore.

This may sound like another of Fr Oswald’s stupid mind-games, but I’m going to ask the question again, this time in a slightly different form. What does a Christian see when he or she looks at their reflection in a mirror? Who is the “self” that stares back at them? Who is really there, doing the staring? Who do we see?

When we face the question “Who am I?” we probably tend to give a variety of answers. I could say of myself that I am Paul Oswald McBride, born on the 16th July 1966, that I am a monk of Ampleforth Abbey, that I was housemaster of St Dunstan’s House, that I am now Vocations co-ordinator for the Community. I am Paul to my mother, and Oswald to my brethren – a fact that already hints at a sort of “schizophrenic” self – indeed this so confused my eldest nephew that when he was young, he seriously thought he had two uncles who were identical twins! But these things are things about me, they are not me. They are not unimportant, since they are markers of my personal history, signs of a history that has shaped me and changed me, signs of my uniqueness. Ultimately, however, they are descriptions and not definitions, “labels” not the reality, partial and incomplete answers that can only take me so far in exploring the real question set – “Who am I?”

I have probably toyed with you enough. I suggested in Friday’s conference that the Cross changes everything, that it reaches into the heart of Creation and radically alters everything, that it utterly re-shapes both the whole cosmos and the whole of history. If that is so, and I firmly believe that it is, then it also re-shapes me, it alters me, it changes not only what I see, but what I am and who I am. In short, and in some mysterious way, it means that when I look into the mirror each morning, I see something of Christ himself. Not the whole Christ, not the fullness of Christ, but some fleeting reflection of Jesus himself staring back at me. It might sound strange, or even insufferably arrogant, but I see the Christ who says: “This is my Body” – but now he means me.

This is obviously not a new idea. Again and again, St Paul speaks of the group of the early Christians as being, in some way, the “Body of Christ”, united with Jesus their head. In both 1 Corinthians and Romans, he uses the analogy of the body with its several members working together as an image of the Church, each member working co-operatively for the good of all, and sharing the Holy Spirit as their vitalising power and inner life. Again and again, Paul speaks about Christians as being “in Christ” – we are now part of him and he part of us, in an indissoluble union. Paul even goes so far as to say: “I have been crucified with Christ, and yet I am alive, but it is no longer I who live, but Christ living in me… I am living in faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

The Church never lost sight of this hugely important intuition, that it is the Body of Christ, but – like all institutions which live in history – its self-understanding has fluctuated, following different currents of theology and philosophy. This vision really came back to the fore, however, in 1943, when Pius XII published his encyclical “Mystici Corporis”, the first real theological exploration of this idea that the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ for centuries. Since then, it has become almost a commonplace of theology, of the self-understanding of the Church, of its reflection on its mission. It is a phrase we now all recognise, a phrase perhaps which seems to speak quite clearly. But I wonder a little whether we do actually understand what it really means for us, whether we have carefully reflected on its consequences. Like all “sound bite” phrases, it expresses much in a few words, and I wonder whether its very familiarity has lulled us into a false sense of understanding. I wonder even whether it has in some way been subverted as an idea – that for some, the idea that “We are Church” has become a mere political slogan, a way of squabbling about who has the power and the money, rather than a way of living the Gospel of Christ.

Let’s go back to basics then, and see if we can tease out some of the richness of the mystery that Jesus confronts us with when he looks directly at us and says to us: This is my Body.

We believe that God created us in his own image and likeness (Gen 1). In some mysterious way, God has granted us some share in himself, in his own being, from the first moment of our existence. Deep in our nature, and in the nature of every human being, we are, to use St Augustine’s phrase, capax Dei – in some way “capable” of God. That is, we have a space in us which is uniquely his, and which cannot be filled by anyone or anything else. There is a strong tradition in the writings of the early Church fathers which describes the Fall, that is our experience of sin, as having destroyed our likeness to God, but not having removed his image from our nature. In a sense, what that means for us is that, though damaged and distorted by our sinfulness, that image of God, that capacity for God is indelible within us, and that we retain the ability to be restored. It is Christ’s work, that work we celebrate each Easter, that does the restoration. Think back again to that ancient homily we heard this morning; Jesus says to Adam: “See the blows on my cheeks, which I accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own likeness. See the scourging of my back, which I accepted in order to disperse the load of your sins which was laid upon your back. See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hands to the tree for an evil one”. It is, as we have said before, Christ who refashions us through the Cross, Christ who re-creates us according to God’s plan, Christ who makes us “God’s work of art”.

But the Incarnation does not stop at the Resurrection, just as it did not stop at Jesus’ death on Calvary. It is not all over and done with when Jesus steps out of the tomb. That same evening, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit onto his apostles to become their breath, he shares his new and risen life with them, so that they may go out in his name and with his power to share that life with others. A few short days later the Holy Spirit is gifted to the whole church at Pentecost, exploding into the world to bring that new life “to all who would accept (it, giving) power to make them children of God, born not of human stock, nor human desire nor human will but from God himself” (Jn.1:13). It is in this, in what we call the Paschal Mystery, that we become “one body, one spirit in Christ”. It is this that we celebrate in each and every Eucharist, for as we share in the sacramental Body and Blood of Christ we “become what we already are” to use Augustine’s words again, that is, that God continues to transform us more closely into the image of his Son, whose Body we already are, in the same transforming power by which the simple human elements of bread and wine are changed. It is one continuous transformation, one long act of re-creation which Christ brings about in us, to make us his Body.

If we really take this seriously, really take this to heart, it has a number of important consequences. At the simplest level, perhaps, it means that everything we do, everything we say, everything we even think really matters. Our faith is not just a matter of our souls – it is just as much about our bodies, it is about everything, and should touch every part of our lives. If we were truly aware that every word we spoke was spoken in the power of Christ, we might be rather more careful about what we say. If we were truly aware that every action we perform was done with Christ’s hands, those same hands that were smashed by the hammer and the nails on Good Friday, we might be rather more cautious about how we act. It means that we cannot limit our faith to Sundays and Christmas and Easter, and then pretend it makes no difference for the rest of the week. If Christ is our life, then Christ is our life in every breath, in every moment, in every second. Equally, though looked at from a slightly different perspective, it means that everything about us matters to God our Father. When he looks upon us, he sees his Son in us, and he looks on us in love. When he sees us in failure, in distress, in anguish, when he sees us in joy, in fulfilment, ourselves in love, then he himself is with us and shares in some mysterious way in what we experience.

There is a second rather obvious consequence. If we as individuals are members of the Body of Christ, then we are never truly alone. As members of that one Body, we are also members one with another, sharing the hidden life of the Trinity which is the basis of all community. Our relationship is both “vertical”, a relationship with the Father through the Son in the power of the Spirit, but also “horizontal” – a life in Christ shared with the brothers and sisters who surround us, and make up our human family. It is no surprise, perhaps, that it is Christ himself who is the union of those vertical and horizontal relationships, that it is Christ’s cross which reconciles us both to God and to each other. Christ’s Cross which unites earth with heaven. It is no surprise either, perhaps, that when Jesus himself is asked to summarise the Law, he does so with the words: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength, and your neighbour as yourself”. Both these relationships are crucial to our being – take either one away and we become less than what we are, less than human, less than the Body of Christ.

The next obvious consequence of this is that we must take incredibly seriously those words we read in Mt 25, in Jesus’ parable about the last judgment. We will be judged, not on the quality of our theology, not on the donations we have made to the Church Roof fund, not even on our regular attendance at Mass, but on our willingness to recognise and serve Christ in our brothers and sisters. We must be absolutely clear, that when Jesus says: “Whenever you did or did not do these things for the least of those you saw hungry or thirsty or naked, or in prison, you did that to me”. He has to say that, for they are his Body, just as we are. Jesus isn’t asking us to cure world hunger by ourselves, or to solve the radical economic inequality of our world by ourselves. But he is asking us to open our eyes. He asks us to open our eyes to see the people around us we would rather not see, the homeless in the doorways of our streets, the beggars who approach us, the charity workers who ask for a little money or a little time, all the inconvenient people we run into (and away from) day after day. He asks to see them for once, and not to turn away. More, he asks us not to only to see them, but to see him there – Jesus, perhaps the most inconvenient man who ever lived.

St Benedict has the same intuition when he asks his monasteries to welcome all guests as Christ. I am certain that Benedict did not include that phrase as a marketing slogan, another clever soundbite which is a gift to monastic Hospitality departments. I am sure he understood that it is a phrase which makes real demands on us. It demands that we show others the reverence we would show to the Lord. It demands that we show them the same generous service that he has shown to us. It demands that we make sacrifices for them, whether of our goods or time or patience. But I suspect we have a tendency to stop there, and forget the last bit of what is hidden in that phrase. For it also demands that we come to our guests empty-handed, that we ourselves are ready to receive, just as we receive all we have from the hands of the Lord. It demands that we are humble enough to be taught by them, healed by them, even saved by them. And what is true for monks serving under Benedict’s wise Rule, is true for all Christians, all who are members of that one Body. Each of us has the duty to come to each other not only with open eyes, ready to recognise the Christ who dwells in them, ready to recognise the needy Christ, the poor Christ, the ignored Christ. We also need to come to each other ready to receive, open to the gifts which God can give us through each other, and humble enough to take those gifts gratefully when they are offered.

If that all doesn’t already sound hard enough, there is another fly in the ointment, as it were. There is, I think, a tendency in all of us to take Jesus’ words: “This is my Body which is for you” – and to distort them and fling them back in his face. There is a tendency for us to say: “No. This is MY body, which is for me”. It may sound absolutely scandalous to use these words in this way, and perhaps it is good that we are scandalised at what can seem like blasphemy – for it opens our eyes to see just what we are distorting when we think like this. For, in short, whenever we do think like this, we crucify Christ again. None of us is immune from the growing individualism of our society – we are all unconscious participants in it, and many of us – the lonely, the aged, those who feel unloved – are victims of it. I discussed briefly this morning our tendency to be greedy for life, our focus on our rights and not the responsibilities which flow from those, our desire for self fulfilment, self expression, for the absolute unlimited freedom to choose everything for our self. We are not immune from this culture. We are not immune from speaking about “my faith” or “my vocation” or even “my Mass”. We are not immune from the “pick and mix” approach to our Church and our Faith – happy to follow the bits we like, the bits that make us feel empowered, or happy or spiritually satisfied, and to leave out the bits which are uncomfortable, inconvenient – the Church’s moral and social teaching, our duty of service, our need to be a poor Church for the poor.

Whenever we take this individualistic path, when we see ourselves as centres of the universe, then we are rejecting and distorting Jesus’ words: “This is my Body, which is for you”. When we do that, we are taking ourselves right back to the beginning, right back to that first garden, when Adam reached out for the fruit that promised “self fulfilment” instead of waiting patiently on the Father’s will. If we are truly to be the “Body of Christ” which we are called, then we cannot take this road, for it leads nowhere, to an illusory freedom which is no freedom but slavery, to an illusory self which does not recognise the image and likeness of God at the centre of its being. Rather, we have to freely accept that “obedience” is both our ground-state and the gateway to our true freedom, the obedience we see in the life of Jesus, his obedience to the Father’s will, which won our freedom. It is this that we mean each time we pray the “Our Father” – “thy kingdom come”, not mine; “thy will be done”, not mine. It is one of the paradoxes of monastic life that our obedience is the source of our freedom, for we find, when we submit to the will of the Abbot and our brethren that – at least most of the time! – we are not submitting to the mindless enactment of the whims of an arbitrary tyrant. Instead, we find we are living – actually living and not just reading about in the pages of a theology book – under the watchful care of a father who loves us, who knows what is best for us, who may be able to see in us things we had not seen in ourselves. There are times when he may need to ask to make sacrifices, to give away things which are intensely precious to us for the sake of the good of the others. In short, he is asking us to live what we have been celebrating – the Passover of the Lord – in the real time of our lives, he is asking us to make those words of Jesus our own: “This is my body, which is for you”. And again, what is true of monks in their rather specialised form of life, is not just for us. This lesson of obedience is a lesson for the whole Church.

To conclude, let us return to that question with which we began: Who am I? There has been much talk in recent years about the “universal call to holiness”, and I suspect that when we hear that expression, many of us will wonder how we can live out that call. Do we need to pray more, go to Mass more, read more spiritual books? Undoubtedly, those things and many more like them will be important, will be crucial parts of the answer, but fundamentally, I think there is something deeper. I think that call is about answering that question: Who am I? but in a new way. I think it is about our search – both as individuals and as Christian communities – to discover God’s answer to that question we pose – that is, to search for who God, in Christ, has made us to be, to search for that purpose for which he has created us, and then to follow where that leads, even through the darkness. It is the search to discover our true life – that life which is hidden with Christ in God. This idea is beautifully summed up by the well-known prayer of Blessed John Henry, Cardinal Newman:

God has created me to do Him some definite service.
He has committed some work to mewhich He has not committed to another.I have my missionI may never know it in this life but I shall be told itin the next.I am a link in a chaina bond of connection between persons.He has not created me for naught;I shall do good - I shall do His work. 

That, I think, is at least the beginning of the answer as to what this “call to holiness” might be, in its different ways, for each one of us.

One last thought. If we are to find this true self that God is calling us to be, we cannot expect to find it just within ourselves. We cannot only gaze inwards, gaze into our own navels, in the hope that we shall become enlightened. The only way to “enlightenment” for us who are Christians is to turn to Christ, turn towards his light, just as we will together turn tonight in the Vigil. “For it was the God who said: ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ that has shone into our hearts to enlighten them with the knowledge of God’s glory, the glory on the face of Christ” (2 Cor.4:6). If we want to find ourselves, the selves we are meant to be, then we must turn to the Christ who is our brother, our Lord and our God, we must turn to him as our teacher, our friend and our redeemer. For now, perhaps, we may see him only dimly, as in a mirror, but if we are true to our search and to his gospel, there will be a day when we will see him face to face – and we shall become like him, for we shall him as he is. That is our promise of glory.

Almighty and eternal God,
you created all things in wonderful beauty and order.
Help us now to perceive how still more wonderful is the new creation
by which, in the fullness of time,
you redeemed your people
through the sacrifice of our Passover, Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God for ever and ever.