Monday, 22 December 2014

When Jesus knocks on the door of our heart

As a Jesuit, of course, the heart is a central idea or theme in Pope Francis's teaching.  He is clearing drawing on the Ignatian spirituality of the heart, but he does in in a way which ensures that his message can be understood.  His theology is not at all academic, and is expressed in terms that we can  all understand.   This Advent he has made several observations about preparing our hearts for the birth of Christ. As we noted in the last blog, he called for us to give the Lord a repentant heart. in on Sunday the Pope gives another striking metaphor: a heart that is open and attentive to those times when Jesus knocks on the door of our heart.  Here is the report from Vatican Radio:

Pope Francis on Sunday invited the faithful to listen carefully when God knocks at their door. “Too often – he said – Jesus passes by in our lives, he sends an angel and we are so caught up in our thoughts and concerns we do not even notice”.

Speaking to the pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square for the Angelus Prayer, the Pope reflected on the liturgy of the last Sunday of Advent that tells of the  Annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel to Mary and on how she simply, and humbly – with an attitude of total faith in the Lord – said “yes”. She said “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1, 38). Mary – Pope Francis said - did not know what had been laid out for her in the future, she did not know what pains and what risks she would be called to face. But she was aware that the Lord had asked something of her and she trusted in him completely. This – he said – is the faith of Mary!
Another aspect to take note of – Francis continued – is this capacity of Mary to “recognize the time of God”. Thanks to her the Incarnation of the Son of God was possible.  Mary teaches us – the Pope said – to be aware of the favorable moment in which Jesus passes in our lives asking for a ready and generous answer.

And Jesus – he said – does pass in our lives. At Christmas he knocks at the heart of every Christian and each of us is called to respond, like Mary, with a sincere and personal “yes”, putting ourselves at the disposal of God and of his mercy. How often – the Pope pointed out – we so caught up in our own thoughts and concerns, perhaps in these very days in our preparations for Christmas, that we do not even notice that he is knocking at the doors of our hearts, asking for a welcome, asking for a “yes”.
And recalling the words of a Saint who used to say “I am afraid that the Lord will pass me by” the Pope explained that he was really afraid that he would not notice the Lord’s presence and would not be ready to respond. This attitude – Francis said – and this fear that we feel in our hearts “is really the Lord knocking” and it makes us want to be better, to be close to others and to God. 
“If this is what you feel, stop” - the Pope said – “the Lord is there! Pray, go to confession, do some cleaning up… this is good. But remember: if you feel this wish to be better, it is He who is knocking. Don’t let him pass you by!”
And Pope Francis concluded his reflection recalling the silent, prayerful figure of Joseph, as he is portrayed in every nativity scene. The example of Mary and Joseph – he said – is an invitation to all of us to welcome Jesus openly; he comes to bring the gift of peace: “peace on earth to those on whom his favor rests” ((Luke 2, 14).
Just as the angels said to the shepherds – Pope Francis said – the precious gift of Christmas is peace, and Christ is our true peace: “Christ is knocking at the doors of our hearts go give us His peace. Let us open those doors to Christ!
Read Here.

Holman-Hunt's painting at Keeble - alongside one of Ian's icons
So Christmas is a time when Jesus is knocking on our hearts and asking to be let let in.  The devotion to the Sacred Heart, it seems to me, is all about that idea: Jesus has opened the doors to his heart to us.  He waits with infinite patience and kindness for the time when we are ready to open our heart to him.  We do not have to rush around tidying the place up: cleaning the floors and clearing away the mess.  Mary did not say to the Angel: 'sorry, you can't come in, I am not ready.  It is not the best time to talk about this at the moment!'   Angels always seem to call on the wrong day, and at the wrong time.  If only, like Mary, we could live our lives so that we are always ready to open the door!

The Pope's words are a timely reminder of how powerful the idea of Christ knocking on the door of our hearts has been over the centuries. The Pope's words on Sunday brought to my  mind the famous painting by William Holman-Hunt of Christ knocking on the door.  It is a great painting and is worth looking at in detail.  In its day, of course, the painting ( or rather paintings) was one of the most famous and celebrated religious images - and you still find it everywhere.  And quite rightly so.  ( The original is in  Keble College, Oxford. )  In it the artist uses the text from Revelation: “Here I stand knocking at the door. If anyone hears me calling and opens the door, I will enter his house and have supper with him, and he with me.” – Revelation 3:20 -  to depict Christ- the light of the world - knocking on our heart.  Just one little point: when asked if he had made a mistake in not putting a doorknob on the outside, Holman-Hunt replied that as the door represents the human heart, there was only a doorknob on the inside.  Jesus cannot open the door from the outside, all he can do is knock.  It is a wonderful painting and a fitting image to use to reflect on the Pope's words.


Wednesday, 17 December 2014

What shall we bring him?

The heart is never too far away from Pope Francis's thoughts and as we journey to  Bethlehem this Advent we should pay heed to his words at Santa Marta yesterday.  The past few weeks, for me, as many others has been dominated by what to give people for Christmas.  And of course, the most important gift is what to give to the infant Jesus.  In the carol, 'In the bleak mid-winter',  the shepherd boy brings his heart, but this year Pope Francis suggests that we should bring a repentant heart.   God does not want a unrepentant heart, like the hearts of the chief priests and elders in Matthew (21) which was the Gospel reading on the 16th December.  As the report by Linda Bordoni notes, Francis stressed that:

Humility saves man in God’s eyes, while pride is a loser. The key lies in the heart. The heart of a humble person is open, it knows repentance, it accepts correction and trusts in God. The heart of the proud person is the exact opposite: it is arrogant, closed, knows no shame, it is impervious to God's voice. The reading from the Book of the prophet Zephaniah and from the Gospel of the day guide Pope Francis in a parallel reflection. Both texts, he notes, speak of a "judgment" upon which salvation and condemnation depend. The situation described by the prophet Zephaniah is that of a rebellious city in which, however, there is a group of people who repent of their sins: this group, the Pope said, is the "people of God" possesses the "three characteristics" of "humility, poverty, and trust in the Lord." But in the city there are also those, Francis says, who "do not accept correction, they do not trust in the Lord." 

"If your heart is not a repentant heart, if you do not listen to the Lord, if you don’t accept correction and you do not trust in Him, your heart is unrepentant. These hypocrites who were scandalized by what Jesus said about the tax collectors and the prostitutes, but then secretly approached them to vent their passion or to do business - but all in secrecy - were pure! The Lord does not want them. "

No matter how 'religious' you are, no matter how much good you do, God wants a heart that is utterly open.  You may feel that you have a pure heart, but  God wants us to have a humble heart.  We have to have the courage to open our heart: give the Lord a list of your sins, says Francis.  We have to be able to say :

 'Lord, these are my sins – they are not his or hers, they are mine… They are mine. Take them and I will be saved'

The three Kings brought their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And we, what must we bring to the stable?  Francis suggests a humble repentant heart which has three characteristics :  it is  humble, poor in spirit, and trusts in the Lord.  So as we go through our Christmas list, we should be sure that, come the 25th December, we have another list to give the Lord, saying : ' Here  Lord, these are my sins. They are mine, all mine. Take them and I will be saved.'

Read the report here.

From the Cosmic Christ to the Christ in a crib.

As my local parish priest recently reminded us, Advent is a game of two halves  In the first two weeks the focus is very much on the second coming of Christ.  One could say that the icon is very much an image which draws our attention to Christ in Glory returning to bring all things together in his love.  Here we see the Lord of Hosts: Jesus coming with power, subduing all things to him.  We see John the Baptist preparing a way for the Lord ( Isaiah, 40; Mark 1.).  We see the day of the Lord in which all creation is coming to an end and a new creation emerging( Peter, 2, 3). But in the second half of Advent we begin to shift from the cosmic level towards what will happen in a humble crib.  Advent comes to an end as we focus our gaze on the Blessed Virgin and (above her in the icon) the Angel Gabriel.  She implores us to gaze upon the Son of the Most High,  the very Word of God who was made flesh in her womb.  Christ, King of the Universe, became a small vulnerable baby.  This is the great mystery of Christmas: that the Almighty God has a heart, formed in the Virgin Mary,  which was wounded for us. It should make us 'tremble, tremble, tremble', and ask for mercy and His grace'!

We can, in this spirit, pray with Pope Francis who recently invited us to pray in this fashion:

“..ask the Lord for the grace that our hearts might be simple, luminous with the truth that He gives us, and thus we might be able to be lovable, forgiving, understanding of others, [to have] a large heart with the people, to be merciful. Never to condemn, never to condemn.

Let us ask the Lord for the grace that He might give us this interior light, that convinces us that the rock is Him alone, and not so many stories we make as if they were important things; and that He might tell us – that He might tell us! – the path, that He might accompany us on the path, that He might enlarge our hearts, so that they can enter into the problems of so many people, and that He might give us the grace that these people did not have: the grace to feel that we are sinners.”

Read here.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Advent and the humble heart.

Two things Pope Francis has said recently gives us food for thought.  The first was his comment about Raphael's famous fresco of the School of Athens.  In his impressive speech to the European Parliament  he made the observation that:

One of the most celebrated frescoes of Raphael is found in the Vatican and depicts the so-called “School of Athens”.  Plato and Aristotle are in the centre.  Plato’s finger is pointed upward, to the world of ideas, to the sky, to heaven as we might say.  Aristotle holds his hand out before him, towards the viewer, towards the world, concrete reality. 

He suggested to the Parliament that they might reflect upon this fresco in order to rejuvenate the European project ( Read Here ) .

It struck me that  whilst the philosophers - the lovers of wisdom - suggested we look to the heavens or the world for the truth and the way, Jesus points elsewhere.  He points to his heart!   As the Litany of the Sacred Heart expresses it:

Cor Iesu, in quo sunt omnes thesauri sapientiae et scientiae.

Yes, it is in the heart of Jesus, that is the Love of God, that we will find all the great treasures of  wisdom and knowledge.

Jesus tells us to learn from his humble and gentle heart.  That is our great school, his heart, not Athenian cleverness !

The other  related comment by the Pope was about the importance of humility.   Now humility was not exactly seen as a virtue by Plato and Aristotle. Quite the opposite - for Aristotle 'greatness of soul' (megalopsychia) was considered to be the ultimate virtue.  But Jesus placed humility at the very core of his teaching.  We have to learn from his humble heart.

During his homily ( on the 2nd December ) the Pope spoke about the Gospel of St Luke

"He makes us know the Father, introduces us to this inner life that He has. And to whom does the Father reveal this? To whom does he give this grace? 'I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little ones'. Only those whose hearts are like the young are capable of receiving this revelation, the humble of heart, the meek, who feel the need to pray, to open up to God, who feel poor; only he who goes forward with the first Beatitude: the poor in spirit. "

Therefore, poverty is a privileged gift that opens the door to the mystery of God. A gift that sometimes, noted Pope Francis, that may be lacking in those dedicated to a life of study.

"Many may know the science, theology well, so many! But if they do not practice this theology on their knees, humbly, like children, they will not understand anything. It will tell them many things, but they will not understand anything. Only with this poverty is one capable of receiving the revelation that the Father gives through Jesus, through Jesus. Jesus is, not like a captain, an army general, a powerful ruler, no, no. He is like a bud. Just like we heard in the First Reading: 'On that day, a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse'. He is a bud that is humble, mild, and came to the humble, and to the meek, to bring salvation to the sick, the poor, the oppressed.”

Read here.

If we wish to have knowledge of God - Theology- we must have a humble heart.  Why?  Because what we learn about God from the Word of God made flesh is that God is all powerful, but also humble. This is such a profound mystery that it is utterly bewildering.  Paradoxically, God, the Creator of all things, has a humble Heart.  And God - as a Trinity - is love.  Therefore God is humble. Indeed, humility is the  essence of God - the heart of God. The devotion to the heart of the Lamb of God is, in truth, all about a journey to humility.

Advent, it seems to me, is about a journey towards humility.  It is about a journey to the Word of God incarnate in a baby in a stable.  Adam and Mary Magdalene in the icon remind us that we have to practice our theology on our knees.  We can only move slowly towards Bethlehem by learning from the heart of the Saviour born of Mary. Without a humble and contrite heart we can never really know the truth, the way and the life.