My Column – The Resurrection – full text

My final column in the series was published last Frifay in the Scottish Catholic Observer. If you missed it the full text is here.

This is the end of the story of the way of the cross. It is not on the traditional service in most churches but is increasingly recognised. We miss the essential message of the Way if we skip the Resurrection.

Just what happened on that first Easter Sunday? I decided to read again the gospel accounts. They are not all the same. Matthew tells us of Mary Magdalene and other women going to the tomb to complete the preparation of the body. He tells us of an earthquake as the stone is rolled away by an angel. The angel sat on the stone. The guards were so frightened they were like dead men.
The angel tells the women that Jesus has risen from the dead and has gone. Mark, Luke and John tell us the stone had already been rolled away when the women arrived and the number of angels varies between one and two. Should these differences cause us to doubt the story? Modern experience of witness testimony of crimes and road accidents shows that accounts can vary when something dramatic happens. If the story was being invented the accounts would surely be identical. I think we see four different memories of what happened on that day; Jesus rose from the dead.

The first thing that strikes me is the account is the angels. We don’t talk much about angels nowadays. They are unfashionable. We are a bit embarrassed at any mention of angels. Yet, here, at the crucial event of Christianity, the angel is the major player. I must confess that angels have not played much of a role in my adult life. That was true until one day in Nigeria when I was being driven to a small school by a local priest. He drove on the right as is the law in Nigeria, unless he felt that the left hand side was a better surface. In fact he just moved from side to side for no apparent reason. As you can imagine we had a few rear misses. That was when I rediscovered my Guardian Angel. His work was cut out that day but I survived.

Angels are a manifestation of Divine intervention in normal life. This intervention is difficult to accept for those of us who have a scientific outlook; specifically an ill-informed scientific outlook. Quantum physics would have us believe that things can exist in two places at once. Science tells us to look beyond what we can see. Real scientists recognise the limits of our understanding. I suppose if we can believe in quarks we can believe in angels.

Our Christian belief is founded on the Resurrection. It is the proof of the supernatural aspect of our existence. We can believe that our earthly life is only a tiny part of our true being. We are destined to have an eternal existence. My understanding of what Heaven is like is unclear and can only be described as sketchy. At the end of a hard week I can collapse into a chair and wonder how long I can keep this up? How would I manage to keep going for eternity? It’s a scary thought.

Of course the heavenly existence we are promised will be very different from our limited life on earth. We will hopefully he resurrected without our imperfections. I wonder how I would be recognised without my imperfections. There might not be much left if they are all removed. The nature of the afterlife has been of interest to mankind even before the time of Christ. Ancient Egyptians built enormous pyramids to house dead pharaohs and other important people. The Romans believed that emperors would become gods after they died.

Archaeologists have explored the burial places of ancient people to find, not only bones but food for the journey, money, hunting dogs and weapons. Some expected to arrive in the afterlife with all the trappings of their earthly status. They reckoned without Howard Carter and his ilk. Their graves have been opened and their riches removed. In fact the archaeologists found that most of the graves had been robbed long ago.

Of course we are more sophisticated than that. We have learned from the archaeological work that you can’t take it with you when you go. Well, perhaps not. Recent reports show that about one percent of the people hold about half of the world’s wealth and their share is growing. What can they possibly do with all that money? They spend it of course! London is apparently one of the places that the super-rich like to spend their money. They buy millionaire residences with underground swimming pools, cinemas, lavish apartments and helicopter landing pads. They have luxury yachts in the Mediterranean and fancy homes all over the world.

The strange thing is that many of these things lie unused. London has more than its share of empty mansions, their value increasing day by day and nobody enjoying them. It would appear that not only can you not take it with you when you go, you can’t even enjoy it all while you are here. Death must be a terrible prospect for the super-rich. They will have to leave all their money behind.

So what message does the resurrection have for us? There is the promise that one day we will leave this very limited existence behind and join God in a new, unimaginable life. That’s a pretty wonderful promise. Nothing we can have here can compare with what is to come. There is more. If this is not our final home then we can ignore the lure of power and riches. We have one life here. How can we use that time best? How can we best make use of the resources we find around us?

Entry into heaven will not be automatic. You can’t buy your way in with gold and silver and you can’t get in on your own. You can only enjoy heaven as part of the mystical body of Christ. We can all be part of the body and that makes all of us one person. To get into heaven we need to start behaving like that now in our life on earth. It’s how we behave towards our fellow man that will determine what kind of afterlife we will have.

As real Christians we need to show an example to the world. We need to be Christ like in everything we do in great things and small things. We are living in a world where innocent, ordinary people are being killed and enslaved from the Black Sea through the Middle East and Africa. They are not distant strangers. They are part of the same body as us. They are part of us and we must recognise this.

The poor and underprivileged here are suffering in an economic situation where others are getting richer. Can we afford to just shrug our shoulders and say that there’s nothing we can do about that? I don’t think that’s the Christian way. It’s not the way of the resurrection; it’s not the way of the cross. If we are to be resurrected and attain heaven then we will do it together. When Jesus was dying on the cross it was the good thief who was promised resurrection. He was a confessed thief but he spoke out for the innocent Christ. Who will we speak out for?

Watch out for what’s to come next month.

Good News – The Wait is Over!

Yes, my January column is published this weekend in the Scottish Catholic Observer. I know it is February but we had a big splash on SCIAF last weekend ( hope you read that) and some things are worth waiting for.

I hope this one was worth waiting for. What’s strange about taking a body down from the cross? If you miss this week’s edition the full text will be here next Friday.

Jesus is Taken Down From the Cross – Nothing Strange There?

Christ on the cross

What’s so strange about removing a corpse?

I was worried that there was nothing much to say about a body being removed from the cross. How wrong I was. Extraordinary when you think about it.

Read my musings on the thirteenth station on the Way of the Cross in this week’s Scottish Catholic Observer. It’s out today and you can pick it up at your local parish.

The full text will be available here next week, but the paper has so much more.

My December Column – Jesus Dies on the Cross – Full Text

The crucifixion

Jesus Dies on the cross

The Way of the Cross 12 Jesus Dies on the Cross.

On the way of the cross we have been following the progress and suffering of Jesus as he made his way through Jerusalem to Calvary. We have been looking at each situation to discover what messages are contained there for us.

In this station we come to the death of Jesus. It is a scene of loss and sadness. It is also one of relief that his suffering has come to an end. His suffering has put our own pain into perspective. Is that what this station is about, relief that it is all over?

After all his suffering it comes as no surprise to us that Jesus dies. It did come as a surprise to Pontius Pilate. As we will see later, he thought the death would have come much later. It is worth looking at how the cross kills. Death on the cross was a slow process. The victim is suspended by his arms with his legs helping to support his weight. The effect of this was to restrict his breathing and as he tired more pressure on his breathing would eventually kill him. This was a slow tortuous process intended to inflict a great deal of suffering.

The crowd has gathered to watch the spectacle. Many laugh and jeer. We might find this hard to understand but it is worth remembering that public executions in this country only ended in the UK with the execution of Michael Barrett on the 26th of May 1868 outside Newgate prison. In the case of Jesus the crowd did not understand who he really was. When he cried out he was offered vinegar to drink, probably vinegar and water as a way of hydrating him and keeping him alive to extend the suffering.

How did Jesus behave in his suffering? He continued to teach us how to live. There were two thieves crucified beside him. To the thief who confessed his guilt and asked to be remembered he promised paradise. Before giving up his spirit he asked the Father to forgive his tormentors. There is a powerful message for us there. How easy is it to forgive those who we think have slighted us or hurt us? Yet here is Jesus forgiving not only criminals but the very people who have tortured and put him to death.

Pilate orders the victims’ legs to be broken to hasten their death as it was almost Passover. Breaking the legs of the victims meant they could not support their weight and the whole weight would act to restrict their breathing. The soldiers reported that Jesus had already died, much to the surprise of Pilate. Jesus was not to be ruled by death he was about to conquer death. At his death Jesus has now left his human condition, his work done. What was his final message to us?

Jesus had already taught his followers that the commandments could be summarised in two simple commandments.

 

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees they got together and to disconcert him, one of them put a question, ‘Master, which is the greatest commandment of the Law?’ Jesus said, ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second resembles it: You must love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang the whole Law, and the Prophets also.’

Matthew 34: 34, 40

 

Now in his crucifixion Jesus is revising that teaching. He goes much further. Jesus dies on the cross to save each of us. In doing so he demonstrates a love for us which is greater than love for himself. I think this is the most significant message Jesus gives us in his last act. The message is clear; Jesus’ sacrifice was to complete the Father’s plan for us. He demonstrated his love for the Father and his love for us. If we are to take up our cross as Jesus instructs us then we must love God and love our neighbour more than we love ourselves.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.’

Matthew 26: 24, 25

 

Does this mean we must all be martyrs if we are to be true Christians? That is too simplistic. It really means that our neighbour’s needs are not to be put aside until we have completely satisfied all our own needs. We can’t put off helping the hungry until we have had our lavish Christmas dinner. We might have to put off buying those nice shoes we saw in the shop window and spend the money on helping the victims of Ebola virus.

We can find lots of examples of people who put the needs of others before themselves. The medical staff who travelled to West Africa to treat Ebola victims, risking their own lives, come to mind immediately. Think of others whose lives are put at risk for the wellbeing of others. I recall watching a fire engine racing towards a block of flats and thinking, what kind of person will run into a burning building when everyone is running out? These are special people indeed.

We have example of priests and religious who give up a normal family life in the service of the rest of us. What does that mean for us? In marriage we must live not only with each other but for each other. Our lives are put at the service of our spouse and our children. Jesus dies on the cross. Our cross is to live for others, not too much to ask in comparison.

Now you might be thinking that this article is a bit serious for a Christmas edition of the paper. Surely we should be thinking of happier things at Christmas? Well, I think it is a fitting topic and I’ll tell you why.

At Christmas we are celebrating the birth of Jesus. A child’s birth is always a cause for great celebration. But, this birth is different. Jesus brings joy, not only to the family and those around but he brings joy for all mankind. This birth is more important than any other because it is the beginning of the process of our redemption. Jesus has come, not only to let mankind experience the presence of God among us but to teach us how to live with each other and to open Heaven for us.

The Nativity and the crucifixion are the beginning and end of Jesus’ time on earth. Without the Nativity there could be no salvation and without Calvary the Nativity would be insignificant. While we are enjoying our Christmas celebrations and visiting the child in the manger let us remember that this child came to change the world. His coming is a threat to many and a promise of salvation for all. He presents us with a choice; indulge yourself in the pleasures of this world or join with me in changing the world for ever.

It is tempting to just sing the carols, send the cards and wish each other ‘Happy Christmas’. It is surely a time for great joy and celebration. We will all be giving and receiving gifts but are we prepared to go further and take up Christ’s challenge and give up our lives?

Happy Christmas

Joseph McGrath

Jesus is Nailed to the Cross – Full Text

A crucifix

The large crucifix in Nigeria

The 11th Station Jesus is nailed to the cross

 

In this series of articles I’m taking the Way of the Cross and pondering on what each station is saying to us. I must stress that these are personal thoughts and if they seem a bit strange then that’s about me rather than the Church. The eleventh station recalls that Jesus was nailed to the cross. We are all familiar with this.

I grew up in a house with a crucifix on the wall. My rosaries have a small crucifix on the end. Jesus nailed to a cross has been the wallpaper of my life. Every church I visit has at least one crucifix. Some are small and some are large they are all works of art. I expect to see a crucifix on a church, a classroom wall, in a home. It is just a familiar item.

A few years ago I read an article by a woman who had gone into a church and was shocked by the sight of a man nailed to a cross – a crucifix. What sort of people are these who have horrible things like that in their churches? I was shocked at her reaction. Had she never seen a crucifix? Where was she coming from?

In my Missio life I was on a visit to Nigeria and stayed for a few days in a parish in Lafia. I wandered into the church where the ladies were preparing for the harvest festival mass. The crucifix on the wall behind the altar (see the picture) was the biggest I have ever seen. It dwarfed everything and everyone. I literally fell on my knees. Now it was my turn to be shocked. I’m not sure why, perhaps it was the sheer size of the crucifix, but the thought in my head was, “What have I done?”

Now I’m sure you learned the same thing as I did at school; Jesus died on the cross for my sins. That is disturbing but this giant crucifix brought home to me the enormity of what happened. No other crucifix I have seen has had this effect on me. How do I deal with this? As usual I’ve pushed it to the back of my mind to pretend it is not there; but it is there and will not go away.

Peter Howson is an artist I have admired for some time. He paints picture that do not flatter but point the finger. He completed his “Saint John Ogilvie” for the refurbished cathedral on Clyde street and there was an exhibition of some of his preparatory sketches and paintings in the adjacent offices. I went along, eager to see how he had come to his final work.

The whole exhibition was very moving. One sketch in particular caught me. It was the face of Christ, crowned with thorns and terrified! This was not the quiet suffering face of Christ I had seen in many works of art. This was the face of a man about to go through an extremely brutal experience. He was about to be nailed to the cross. This image made me stop in my tracks. It was the first picture I have seen that conveyed the true horror of what Jesus underwent; and he did it for me.

Suffering is not something we are unaware of. If you are clumsy like me then you you suffer lots of minor accidents. Have you ever hit your finger with a hammer? I’m not trying to promote this as a hobby. It is very painful and produces all sorts of words your children should never hear. I have done this many times; take it from me, it is not to be recommended. It is even worse to puncture yourself. Getting a cut in the kitchen or even pricking yourself with a needle cause pain but it passes and soon heals.

Have you ever stapled your finger? That’s altogether different. It hurts on the way in and it is really painful on the way out. That’s because, unlike the needle or the kitchen knife, the edge of the staple is ragged. When they nailed Jesus to the cross they didn’t have the smooth, regular, machine made nails we are familiar with. In those days nails were made by hand by a blacksmith wielding a hammer. The nails were bashed out of bars of iron. There was nothing delicate about these rough-hewn pegs.

Jesus was held down and the nails were bashed through him into the wood. Most of the old paintings show the nails piercing his hands but more recent commentators have decided that it is more likely that the nails pierced his wrists. I don’t know if it makes a difference which one it was. In both cases the nails must have shattered bone and muscle. It is really too horrible to contemplate.

A few years ago, in 2004 to be exact, Mel Gibson directed a film called ‘The Passion of the Christ’. It re-enacted the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life. The Passion of the Christ is the highest grossing R-rated film in United States history, and the highest grossing non-English-language film of all time. It caused outrage. Some critics called it obscene. It was shown on television a few years ago and I decided to watch. I gave up watching at the scourging at the pillar. It was obscenr because it was depicting that was too horrible to watch.

Some complained that it was blaming the Jews for killing Jesus. Some complained that the extreme violence obscured the message. I don’t agree with either complaint. The film made me feel that I have caused this horror because Jesus died for my sins. The violence is part of the message. We find it difficult to deal with the violence because it reflects on us.

This year and especially during the month of November we have been looking back to the First World War. Our televisions have shown us the slaughter that both sides inflicted on each other. We have paid tribute to those who died for their country. We have solemn parades and use the poppy as a symbol of the blood let on Flanders fields. Yet we fail to look at the real horror. This was a war where new weapons were devised to kill more man more quickly.

Soldiers were killed by poison gas; flamethrowers were introduced to exterminate whole trenches of men. Machine guns provided mechanised killing. Aircraft were used to bomb civilians for the first time and battleships shelled towns on the east coast. Things only got worse from then on. Today we have weapons that can exterminate continents. We use advances in technology to bring the horrors of war to any place on the world, to any people and we can do it without leaving the office.

What is the significance of Jesus being nailed to the cross? Is Jesus showing us how we use cruelty and violence to get our own way? It was a warning to us. He showed us that it is in our human nature to be cruel. Despite the gifts of intelligence and science we have been given we can usually find a way to misuse them.

Why do I prefer the small crucifix on my rosaries to the large on that church wall in Nigeria? Well I suppose I find it hard to face up to the fact that it was my fault.

 

Joseph McGrath

My November Column Jesus in Nailed to the Cross

Jesus is Nailed to the cross

The eleventh station on the Way of the Cross is the subject of my November column in the Scottish Catholic Observer. It’s out today. Hurry down to your local parish for your copy this weekend. If you are too late don’t worry because the full text will appear here next week. It’s much better to get the paper, though, because there are other writers of interest there.

Jesus is Stripped of his Garments – My October Column

My series of articles on the Way of the Cross continues this month with thoughts on the tenth station, Jesus is stripped of his garments. How significant is this event in the light of the horrors of crucifixion? Why is this included in the way of the cross?

In an age when people regularly fly off to sunny shores to strip themselves of their garments it might seem to be a strange thing to pray about. Perhaps it goes deeper than that. My column is published in this weeks Scottish Catholic Observer. Why not get down to your local parish and get a copy? You may find it interesting.

If you are too slow and the papers are all gone when you get there, don’t worry. The full text will appear here next week.

Jesus Falls the Third Time -Full Text

Way of the Cross 9

The Third Fall

The Third Fall

The ninth station; Jesus Falls the Third Time

In this month’s column I want to look at the third fall of Jesus. Just as with the earlier falls,I can’t find any reference to the fall in the gospels. The three falls are included for a reason. They carry a message for us and we have to figure out what it is. What is the significance of this third fall?

The number three has had a mysterious significance for people since ancient times. Mathematicians list a whole range of special features of the number three. For example, according to Pythagoras and the Pythagorean School, the number 3, which they called triad, is the noblest of all digits, as it is the only number to equal the sum of all the terms below it, and the only number whose sum with those below equals the product of them and itself. Three is regarded as a magic number.

Storytellers often used this in their tales. Think of children’s stories like the three little pigs. The story repeats with the big bad wolf attacking the pigs in turn. At the third pig’s house the wolf is defeated. This pattern is repeated in other stories, even some modern films. We might expect the third fall to be the end of the story on the way of the cross. After all Jesus is now exhausted. He has lost a lot of blood and has had a night of torture and no sleep.

When Jesus falls again he knows what awaits him. There is no place to go. Why does he get up? That is the mystery here. He could easily have lain down and died there without the humiliation of the cross. Why, then,did he get up and struggle on? Jesus knew that he had to die in humiliation. He died to conquer death and save mankind, but the manner of his death had to convey a message to those who chose to follow him.

In searching for the message I’m drawn to the image of a man suffering and on the verge of death pulling himself up and pressing on to face something even worse. That’s a message which strikes home today as we face calls to change the law to allow euthanasia. Why should someone suffer when they could die in dignity? Why should they not just give up? Jesus gives the answer to that question. His life had a purpose and he could not give it up before that purpose had been served.

Each of us enjoys the great gift of life. Our lives also serve a purpose and we must keep going till we have served that purpose. Some might ask what purpose can be served by someone dying a long, lingering death? I have not been there, yet. I do remember my great aunt who lay dying in hospital for what seemed like many months. I would drive my mother and grandmother to visit her every week. Each time she seemed to get smaller and smaller. I remember the last time I saw her before she died. She lay there, skeletal, praying her rosary for the souls in purgatory. She still had a purpose

His Holiness, Pope John Paul II also saw the need to make a point about the sanctity of life. As he aged his body deteriorated and he suffered debilitating illness. Many people both in the Church and outside thought he should retire and make way for a fitter man. He decided otherwise and carried on in his vocation.

I’m sure he would have made his decision after spending a great deal of time in prayer. He was reminding us of the message Jesus gave us in the manner of his dying. Everyone has value, the poor, the sick and the dying. John Paul may have been physically wrecked but mentally he was fit to carry on.

I believe Jesus’ message to us was to show us how we must value the gift of life and the reason we have it. That is not the only message he left us.Jesus showed us something about humiliation. Nobody wants to be humiliated. None of us want to be ridiculed in public. When Jesus allowed himself to be humiliated before the mob around the cross he was sending us a message. When people humiliate you they do it for a reason. The Jewish authorities had to humiliate Jesus in public to protect themselves. They wanted to put an end to his teaching that exposed the hollowness of their own teaching. By humiliating him they hoped discourage his followers and remove the threat to their authority.

How often do we see this today when someone can’t be overcome in a debate and their opponent makes personal attacks on them? How often are people howled down in Parliament when their opponents have no answer to their questions? The message of the ninth station is clearly that we should never be afraid of being attacked or abused for our faith. In fact we should be happy when we are abused for being a follower of Christ. The abuse is not only a conformation of the correctness of our cause but it is much more.

Suffering abuse for the faith allows us to share, in a very small way,the humiliation that Jesus suffered. It also gives us an opportunity to show others that we can face up to the abuse and not give up our faith. Recent events in the Middle East have given us the example of Christians who were faced with the choice of giving up the faith or being killed. Many fled before the Isis terrorists but some gave up their lives, some beheaded in front of their children.

We are more fortunate than those poor souls, but their sacrifice should be an example to us. Where we are expected to do much less than them, surely we should be ready to stand up and be counted for the faith.

This is the purpose that the Christian has in life. Our lives are a gift and we are asked to use that gift to work for the coming of the Kingdom of God. We may all have different roles in life but we are all expected to bear witness to the Father. We can do this every day. We can do this at home and at work. We must bear witness to everyone we encounter, every day.

We bear witness by behaving as Christ would in dealing with the joys and fears, pleasures and pains that life puts before us. We show the world a better way by our reaction to the problems of the world. How do we react to those who are suffering at the hands of Isis? What do we do about the refugees from the fighting in Syria? We can make a financial contribution but, is that it? Can we walk away safe in the knowledge that we have done our bit?

The Christian calling is not a simple matter. Trying to be like Christ is setting ourselves up to fail. We will never match him. It’s not about succeeding but about how we go about failing to match our Saviour.