At Friday’s Requiem Mass for the late Mary Burke – a longstanding and devoted member of this parish – her family chose a reading from Scripture (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8) that is popular for funeral services. Its author says that there’s a season for everything, and he gives a list of seven pairs of opposing things, saying that each has its time. So there’s a “time to kill, a time to heal,” and “a time to love, a time to hate.” Every pair he gives is like this—a positive combined with a negative. (If you are old enough, you may recall that The Byrds in the 1960s used this text for their song ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’.
I wasn’t the only person in the church on Friday who would have been forcefully struck by the last line of the reading: “a time for war and a time for peace”. In all my 46 years of conducting funerals, when I have heard that reading, I have thought of war in far off continents, like Afghanistan or Iraq. Never did I imagine that an all-out war would break out so close to home as is now being waged in a European country less than 1600 miles away.
This is the background to our gathering for Mass this weekend. What is one to do? Pray that Putin will see sense? Ask for wisdom for our Western leaders? This far removed from the conflict, we can only hope and pray that the “time to kill” will give way for the “time to heal” and that the “time for war” will rapidly give way for a “time for peace”.
In the first reading today (Ecclesiasticus 27:5-8) we have some wise sayings from a sage in Jerusalem known as Ben Sirach. In the short reading he presents us with four images of testing someone by their speech. For him, their speech is an indication of their true character and soul.
So what is one to make of President Putin’s speech and actions in recent days? What does it tell us about his character and state of mind? Has he gone mad (or ‘full tonto’), as some Western leaders have been hinting? An excellent editorial in this weekend’s TABLET opens with this question about Putin’s state of mind but then goes on to explain the religious roots of the Ukraine crisis and how Putin appears to have the backing of the Russian Orthodox Church. I have posted the editorial on the Blog page of our website and I commend it to you.
That Old Testament text by Ben Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) is chosen to introduce the sayings of Jesus in the Gospel (Luke 6:39-45) on knowing or discerning people by their fruits. For Sirach one’s speech was all important. For Jesus, not just one’s speech but your actions as well. For him, action speak louder than words.
Our Lord’s sayings fall into three parts and present a picture of what he requires in a trained disciple – don’t be the blind leading the blind; sort yourself out before you criticise others; and make sure you are a source of goodness for others.
This teaching requires more than just being a fan or follower of Jesus. A better word to convey his meaning is that we must be his ‘apprentice’. An apprentice spends time with a master, learning a trade until one becomes fully trained. If you are my disciple, Jesus teaches, you must watch out for self-deception and double standards, be free of hypocrisy and do good for others.
On Wednesday we begin the 40-day penitential season of Lent. Each year this season provides us with a sustained opportunity to be a better person and rebuild our relationship with God. We do this through three ancient practices which have stood the test of time and are observed by most world religions. These are prayer, fasting and almsgiving – spending time with the Master, undergoing self-denial and doing good works for those in need.
Perhaps, there in Our Lord’s teaching is a practical way to respond to what is happening in Eastern Europe – to live fully what we profess, trying to be a good person and supporting others in need, particularly the refugees fleeing Ukraine and seeking shelter in Poland.
It may be somewhat naïve, but, nevertheless, it is true: if everyone did as Jesus asks, there would not be a war in Ukraine. As G K Chesterton once said, the problem with Christianity is not that it has failed but that it has not been tried. This coming Lent gives us an opportunity to become a better Christian, not least by cleansing in ourselves the very double standards more evident in Vladimir Putin.
Holy Name, Jesmond
27 February 2022
PS There will be a collection next weekend for the Ukraine refugees which we will pass on to the Church’s worldwide Caritas charity for distribution in Poland.