SAME OLD SONG?

FAITH IN FOCUS: SAME OLD SONG?

 For many years, on the Thursday of Ascension, it was customary for one of the BBC radio stations to begin its morning broadcast by playing a well know hymn to celebrate the feast: “Hail the day that sees him rise.” This is quite surprising, since in an increasingly secularised society most people are unaware of the significance of the Ascension. But this great hymn tune is a great start to the feast.

People often wonder why Jesus waited around on earth 40 days after his resurrection, but that period is no accident. Jesus had endured the Devil’s temptation for 40 days in the wilderness at the beginning of his public ministry, but now the tables were turned.

In the post-resurrection period Jesus triumphantly paraded his victory over the Devil and all his works. During this time, the conqueror of death displayed his supremacy before his faithful followers so that they might share in the joy of his victory. But there was another reason. Those 40 days of his appearing after the resurrection were of immense value to the believers for they established the reality of his lordship. A single sighting of the risen Christ may have been open to question, but his many encounters with them would remove the doubts of the most sceptical among them and assure them that he was risen indeed.

The Ascension is not about Christ leaving us, but about his going before us. Those of us who gather to celebrate this feast are far from being orphans abandoned to our own religious devices. Our Ascension Day liturgical assembly gathers to celebrate the virtue of hope, conscious that our prayers are to the God whose Son has now passed from our sight, but our songs vibrate with the faith-filled conviction that where Christ has gone we will surely follow.

So Ascension is very much an Easter feast even though we are tempted to think of it as a separate event. In fact, we speak about the “Easter Mysteries” which include the passion of Christ, his resurrection, his ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit. Every time we take part in worship we are recalling some aspect or other of these four elements in the Easter story. That’s why Easter is not a one-day but a fifty-day feast of music and prayer.

Like the other three Easter events, Ascension is about hope. Christ who has risen above death and evil ascends on high, not to leave us desolate and alone, but to send us the ever-present help of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. Christ has finished his mission on earth as he ascends to the Father. He returns to claim a share in God’s life for each one of us. Where he has gone we hope to follow.

 

NOT ALONE

FAITH IN FOCUS:
NOT ALONE

Someone once said that the Holy Spirit is the forgotten person of the Trinity. We pray to the Father and we are aware of wanting to imitate Jesus in his life of holiness, but we tend to relegate the Holy Spirit to third place. Of course, all three persons are equal.

We used to call him the Holy Ghost but now Holy Spirit is more common. The very word “spirit” gives us a clue as to what the Holy Spirit does. It is connected with breath. Think of respiration, inspiration. The spirit is the breath of God that courses through us when we allow it to inspire and direct our actions. Living life in the Spirit means that we are not alone. If it were left up to us to make ourselves holy then we would be in fine state. It would be more perspiration than inspiration!

Today’s gospel reminds us of Jesus’ promise to send an Advocate. This too is the Holy Spirit. We use advocate to describe people who take up a cause and fight to see that justice is done. An advocate is also another word for a lawyer, someone who undertakes the legal work to defend us in court. We don’t stand alone before the prosecution and the judge.

A more precise English word for the Holy Spirit is Paraclete. Like an advocate, Paraclete means someone you call to stand by your side, to accompany you through your ups and downs. The traditional hymn “Come Holy Ghost Creator, come” expresses this aspect of the Holy Spirit. There is someone with us.

In a world where everyone is told that they have to stand on their own two feet perhaps we have lost sight of the fact that we are not alone when it comes to living out our Christianity. To live in the Spirit means that we have a constant companion to whom we can pray, ask direction, and from whom we can seek help and inspiration. Jesus has not left us orphans.

He has promised us the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Paraclete. It would be a pity not to call upon him (…her?).

PASTA SAUCE?

FAITH IN FOCUS: PASTA SAUCE?

We like to think that we live in more tolerant times. We claim that social prejudice is a thing of the past and that we come from a civilised people and a world in which all cultures and religions can be embraced for what they have to offer us as a whole. In cultural terms this has the obvious effect of our sharing in each other’s food, music, literature etc. In religious terms, however, the consequences are much more complex.

There are some people who think that all religions are equally valid, that they are just different routes taking people to the same God. So it doesn’t matter, they say, whether you’re a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Sikh, a Buddhist, a Hindu etc..

This would be true if we all believed the same thing. But, for example, Christians believe in the resurrection of Jesus as the bedrock principle that guarantees they too will rise to eternal life. Such a belief is not shared by Buddhists who believe that after death there is nothingness.

While Christians acclaim Jesus as the Messiah of God, Jews are still awaiting the coming of the Messiah. The plurality of Hindu gods is something that Christians find perplexing, and despite the many shared ideals between Muslims and Christians there are tenets of Muslim belief that are difficult to square with Christianity.

Religious tolerance is a good thing. But we can fall into the trap of saying that religion is nothing more than spaghetti that’s simply topped with different flavoured sauces. A closer look would reveal that they are different types of pasta.

Jesus throws a spanner into the works in today’s gospel. He says that no one can come to the Father except through him. This can’t mean that only Christians will achieve eternal life in heaven. So what does it mean? Presumably it means that his life death and resurrection have an overarching significance in any religious experience, whether conscious or unconscious. Can there be such people as anonymous Christians? Then why not anonymous atheists? It’s a tough question.

What Christians can take from today’s gospel is that Jesus claims to be THE Way, THE Truth and THE Life.

And if he’s telling the truth then that seems to knock the pasta sauce theory on its head!

 

KEEP ON THE GRASS

FAITH IN FOCUS: KEEP ON THE GRASS

Peter was not known for being a shrinking violet. Time and time again we see him jumping in with both feet, saying the wrong thing or reacting without thinking things through. He doesn’t seem to have changed much after Christ’s death, for today we catch a glimpse of him in action preaching to the crowd. And he comes out with all guns firing. You backed a loser, he says, by killing Jesus of Nazareth. You killed him but God raised him up and made him Lord of all things. So now you’re at odds with God. Naturally, the crowd were cut to the quick and wanted to know how to make amends. Peter tells them to repent and turn their lives over to Jesus.

In many parishes throughout the world there are people who have only been Christians for the last three weeks. They were baptised or received into the Church at Easter. During this fifty-day period until Pentecost we look each Sunday at some of the consequences of being a Christian.

 We tease out just some of implications of turning our lives over to Jesus and we try to enter the mystery of our faith more deeply.

 And so we reflect that Jesus is the gate of the sheepfold and the shepherd of the flock. Those who are new Christians can be very good teachers of those who have been around for a while. This is because they teach us about enthusiasm for faith. They can rekindle in us the old fire that we once had but which may have dimmed a little over the years.

New Christians are in no doubt that if you want to find your way into the sheepfold (if you want to be in place where life makes sense), then Jesus is the way in. To seek God with all our hearts, to live according to his teaching, to follow the shepherd to springs of water and fresh pasture…this is why people become Christians. Easter is a time for remembering old truths, and we’re left in no doubt why people take the plunge of baptism for Christ’s sake.

 It’s because the grass is always greener on God’s side.