Daily homilies by the Prior of Pluscarden at the Arundel and Brighton Clergy Retreat, 27-30 September 2016
Arundel & Brighton Clergy retreat: Homily for Friday 30 September 2016
Week 26, Year II; Memoria of St. Jerome: Job 38:1 – 40:5; Psalm 138:1-14
Hanging on the South wall of the Pluscarden Transepts is a modern tapestry - apparently worth a great deal of money - on which is written a text from Chapter 38 of the book of Job; the Chapter from which our second reading today is extracted. Where were you, it says, when I laid the foundations of the world? This question offers quite a challenge to the many tourists who come to visit our Church. I think generally it’s much appreciated by them. The purpose of the text is to make the readers pause, and realise for a moment their smallness and insignificance in the presence of God. That fits well with the design of our mediaeval Church, whose stone walls soar upwards to a very high ceiling. People of all faiths and none find it strangely consoling to be invited in this way to bow down before God’s transcendent majesty, to be silent, and to experience the peace of God’s presence.
We have come now towards the end of the book of Job, and today we heard Job receive his answer from God. In most beautiful poetry, marked throughout by Hebrew parallelism, God depicts for Job the wonders of Creation. In that way God highlights the ignorance, the limitations, the contingency of Job, and of all humanity, in comparison with his own creative knowledge, wisdom and power. For God knows all things; and he holds all things in his hands. As a matter of fact, also, God sees that all he has made is good, and he loves it all. At no point does God come anywhere near answering directly the anguished questions of Job. Yet also: he doesn’t crush or humiliate Job. On the contrary. The ancient Hebrew author makes God’s speech a long hymn of praise, to all of which Job willingly assents. Job then simply falls silent. He is a good man, both truthful and humble; he will not bandy words with God: so he bows down, in adoration and worship. The book of Job will end, as we know, with God praising and vindicating Job, rebuking his false comforters, and then restoring and even increasing all Job’s former fortunes.
Today’s responsorial Psalm carries on the thought of our first reading, though transposed now into a more subjective key. It’s a Psalm everyone loves, whose author dwells on God’s knowledge specifically of himself, of each one of us, and he praises God for his greatness in that.
We could well stay with this Old Testament wisdom simply as it is. Its message remains ever valid, ever good for us, ever relevant, ever worth repeating. But there is more, and a Eucharistic homily should lead explicitly towards that. The feast of St. Jerome reminds us that we Christians read the Old Testament Scriptures always in the light of Christ. As St. John remarks at the end of the Prologue to his Gospel: Christ is the true exegete of his Father. No one has ever seen God; but the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.
Please allow me to pick out now two ways in which our Psalm today has been read in the light of Christ. O Lord, you search me and you know me; you know my setting down, and my rising up – cognovisti sessionem meam, et resurrectionem meam. The Liturgy puts this text into the mouth of Christ on Easter Day. The entrance Antiphon, set so wonderfully in the Gregorian 4th mode, has Jesus, in the very moment of his resurrection, praising his Father for his loving, creative, all-powerful knowledge, for his Providence which included his most terrible death, but ended in salvation and victory.
A second way this Psalm is read in the light of Christ occurs in the 10th Chapter of Romans. There St. Paul, following the rather strange canons of Rabbinical exegesis, inserts Jesus into the questions posed by the Psalmist. Paul’s point is that in Jesus God is very very near to us; he is with us and in us, and in him we have salvation. So, Paul cries, Do not say in your heart, "Who will ascend into heaven?" (that is, to bring Christ down), or "Who will descend into the abyss?" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). No: If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (10:6-9).
The spirituality of Benedictine monks is very much shaped by the enormous commentary written by St. Gregory the Great on the whole of the book of Job. Job, for St. Gregory, is a figure not only of all innocent human suffering, but especially and specifically of the innocent suffering of Christ. Job has asked profound questions about the meaning of human life, and of what God has been up to in creating the world as we know it. St. Gregory was very much himself a man of suffering, but he was also a profound contemplative, a mystic, the man of yearning spiritual desire, a lover and disciple of Jesus Christ. So Gregory dwells on the figure of Jesus as God’s answer to mankind’s questions. By his very name, Emmanuel, Jesus proves to us, in a way the Old Testament on its own could not, that God is with us. He is with us not merely as our provident and beneficent Creator, but as identifying himself totally with us, even in our suffering and death. Above all by his saving death, Jesus demonstrates definitively, also in a way the Old Testament on its own could not, that God loves us, and that God is love.
Yes indeed: God’s greatness is exhibited in all the wonders of Creation. How much more, though, is God’s greatness revealed in his self humbling, in his victory over sin and death, in his abiding presence with his Church in the most holy Eucharist! Yes, God has most wonderfully made all things. But in Jesus, even more wonderfully, he has re-made all things! Yes, God in his omnipotence and eternity is transcendent mystery. Yet in Jesus, how much more wonderfully! He has revealed himself as Trinity. This is our faith, the Catholic Faith! In Jesus we know that God is three Persons in an eternal communion of love, and he invites each one of us, for all our sins and weaknesses, to enter into that communion, in joy, for ever!