A few years ago I was visiting one of my favourite countries, Romania, and was with a friend in the city of Timisoara. The new Archbishop of Timisoara came to a service and turned out to be very nice, relaxed and humble and had none of that pompous self-importance that some Orthodox bishops have. But his way of teaching was a bit irritating. He would ask questions to which only he knew the answer. He knew it because he had made up a new answer to fit the point he wanted to make. So he questioned me in front of the crowd and every answer I gave was wrong. In the end, I learned to say ‘I don’t know’ right from the start!
Jesus in the Gospels often behaves like the Archbishop of Timisoara. Pharisees, Sadducees and even his own disciples learned to fear his questions and in the end found it safer to keep quiet, or say ‘I don’t know.’
So today he asks “What do you think of the Christ? Whose son is he?” He got the standard Jewish answer: David’s son. Why then, in Psalm 110 did David call his own son, Lord? The point Jesus wanted to make was that that the Christ was not simply a descendant of David; he was also God. The psalm doesn’t really say this, and the Pharisees certainly didn’t want to draw that conclusion. So they wisely decided not to ask him any more questions.
Why did Jesus do this? I think, myself, he recognised a problem we have today. People want information. The more information you have the better. So we have information technology. I.T. is not about relationships, but about sharing information. People believe you can be saved by information. They ask questions about Christianity, or morality, or economics, expecting to get a straight forward answer. Once they have the answer they are satisfied. That is the end of the matter. Last week the Pharisees and the Herodians asked Jesus “Should we pay taxes to Caesar?” It was a trick question designed to get him into trouble. Jesus cleverly avoided giving an answer they could use against him. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And although it seemed like an answer, it didn’t really answer the question. It left the Church with a series of questions: what does belong to Caesar, and what does belong to God? That question has led to a fascinating growth of political theology which is still very much alive. Jesus’ questions and answers do not provide neat bits of information. They start a process which upsets our comfortable ways of thinking and begins to give us answers that we realise will change our lives, if we go down that road. I expect most of you are here because you answered one of those questions.
So we find when we study theology – doctrines about the Trinity, the Incarnation, even creation can seem to be mind-bogglingly complicated. We struggle to understand them and even write essays about them, but they do not make us better Christians until we realise they are mysteries taking us deeper and deeper into the mystery of God. A mystery, for us Christians, is not simply something we don’t understand; it is something which has such depth, and height and breadth to it that we can go on understanding more and more and still know there is more. It is a journey of faith, walking with God, not just working the mind. Many years ago I did the Ignatian Exercises and was sent off to meditate on the story of Jesus being born in Bethlehem. It suddenly struck me that it was completely impossible. How could infinite godhead unite with mortal man? It simply can’t be done. Next day I told my director this, wondering what he would say. And he said, “Nicolas, it’s very important you realise just how impossible it is, because then you will get an idea of how wonderful God is to have done it.”
It is not only theological questions that need to be treated as mysteries. The last few years have produced plenty of issues that have devastated society. Newspapers, pundits, even CR Fathers offer simple answers to these questions. Is it right for the UK to leave Europe? Will our economy be better or worse? Is it right to help immigrants and give them a proper home? Doesn’t that just create bigger problems in the future? How do we stop climate change? How do we rescue the planet from human devastation? Is there even such a thing as human devastation? Many people say there isn’t.
Everyone wants simple answers to these questions, just as they want simple answers to theological questions. Someone once told me that fascism succeeds by pretending there are simple answers to complicated questions. People believe it and vote for them, and disaster ensues. Every one of the issues I have raised is not one issue, or one question but a host of issues and a host of answers. Each one is a journey we go on, finding answers as we go. That is not frustrating, or unsettling. It is actually rather exciting. Indeed, it is fascinating. When I read Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si, I found it quite thrilling to realise that God is entrusting us with so much; there is so much he wants to do with us. Finding the answers to the questions he raises will take decades, or centuries of exciting work. Indeed, God is to be found in each of the questions I have raised, of Brexit, and popularism and climate change, if we know where to look for Him.
So we go back to the beginning: what do you think of Christ? Whose son is he? The son of David of course, the descendant of Israel’s greatest king, great but flawed. Through David’s flesh Christ is related to all humankind and shares in their glory and their shame. He took to himself the flesh that has done evil so terrible we cannot bear to think of it, and yet is capable of good that shows it is made by God. Yet he is also he is the Son of God and through that he draws us into the being of God. There are complex theological problems there but a simple reality: God became human so that we humans could become God. That drawing into God does not happen in an instant but over a lifetime, and probably too over eternity. Yet the more we are drawn into God the more we shall be able to fulfil our Lord’s command to love. On our own we cannot love; our love is puny and weak, but with God’s love in us and us in Him we can begin to know what it is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength; and our neighbour, too, as ourself.
Fr Nicolas CR