One night in England, some years ago, I was at a 12 step meeting – a group which helps people recover from alcohol and other addictions – when a young woman was led in by two companions. She was in a bad way: dishevelled, dirty and shaking with alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Often, when someone like that enters a room, people tend to move away, but what impressed me, that night, was that people moved closer to welcome her to the table around which we were sitting and one of them got her a cup of tea and then helped her drink it, as her hands were shaking so badly. I heard later, that she had come to the meeting looking in desperation, because earlier that day the local Council had taken her children into care, as she was incapable of looking after them – her husband having already left her because of her drinking.
Over the months that followed, I saw her several times at meetings and bit by bit she became easier in herself, cleaner and healthier. I watched her slowly graduate from being the one who needed help, to one who began to help others, arranging the chairs for the meetings, making the tea and welcoming newcomers, but then several years passed before I saw her again. It was at “Freshers’ Day”, that I saw her again, the first day of the academic year, at Reading University, where I was chaplain, when a smartly dressed young woman came up to me and smiling said, “Hello, Terry”; I looked and to my surprise I saw it was her. She told me that she had just enrolled for a degree course, that she had a job and had got her children back. I told her how pleased I was to see her doing so well and as she walked away, I thought to myself – what I am looking at is “Resurrection” – the new life of Easter.
Our Easter belief in “Resurrection” is not just that Jesus rose on the third day, nor is it the hope that we shall all rise again after our deaths, but “Resurrection” is a reality now – it is the new, risen life of Christ that all of us are being drawn into day by day and it is that same life I saw blossoming in that young woman – a life which began on that day of pain when her children were dragged away from her and in desperation she tottered out of the darkness into that 12 step meeting looking for hope.
We often miss seeing the many signs of “Resurrection” that surrounds us – because of a misunderstanding as to how it works. We are taught that Christ saved us by dying for us on the Cross but this can lead us to think that Christ’s “Salvation” is a gift we have already received and, in that way, is in the past. However, “Salvation” is happening to us now! It is the process of our being moulded into the full image and likeness of God – as St Irenaeus teaches – and takes the whole of our lives and even beyond to be brought to completion. This is why in the 3rd memorial acclamation at Mass, we call out: “Save us, Saviour of the world, because by your Cross and Resurrection you have set us free”.
“Redemption” and “Salvation” are often spoken of as if they were the same thing, but they are not! “Redemption” refers to being freed from the chains, which bind us, just as that young woman began to be freed from the chains of alcohol, which held her bound, through the terrible experience of having her children torn away from her, but she still had to journey through the long process of learning to live that new life of “Salvation” given her by God. The damage that had been wrought in her by the selfishness, which lies at the heart of all addiction and sin, had to be slowly undone and she made new.
We see process revealed in the story of the raising of Lazarus (Jn Ch. 11). Jesus stands at the tomb and calls, “Lazarus, come out!” and Lazarus totters out – “totters” because he is still bound by the bandages, the trappings of death, and so he cannot yet walk freely. This is why Jesus says to those near him, “Unbind him – let him go free!” Lazarus was called out of the tomb of death, just as that young woman was called out of the tomb of her addiction, and just as he needed those around him to help unbind him and let him go free – so also that young woman needed those around her to help unbind her from the damage done by her addiction and help her walk into life.
We can see this process of moving from redemption into salvation in the story of that young woman, but we must not imagine that it does not also apply equally to each one of us and all of us together. We are all in that process of being drawn into new life by the word of the Lord and the power of his Spirit. Our Catholic practice of confession is our being “called out of the tomb” but, as with Lazarus and that young women, the damage in our hearts that led us to sin, can only be removed slowly and with the help of others. In other words, we do not become sinners because we sin, but the other way round – we sin because we are sinners and our sinful actions are the fruit of our diseased and fragmented hearts, hearts which can only be healed by the medicine of the Holy Spirit, as he leads us into works of loving service to others.
Jesus himself taught us that – “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person. (Mt.15:11)
Through our confession, we begin to see where our sin comes from – from out of our hearts – and then the real work of “unbinding” begins. The layers of selfishness, which underlie all sin, need to be peeled back, but to do this we need each other. Our need of each other is far more than just someone to be at Mass with on a Sunday – we need our community to give us the courage to come out of the tomb, to start again when we fail, to try new ways of living and loving – and above all they help unbind us, when we reach out to them in mercy and compassion.
Our confession acknowledges the wrongs we have done, but our unbinding speaks far more eloquently of the type of person we want to become. This is not a choice to do or not do certain actions, but the choice to become a certain person – and, having made that choice, not even my failures can destroy it, for like Peter, my betrayals are used by the Lord to bring us ever closer together. This I know, because his eyes tell me that I am welcome and wanted – just as the eyes of those people around that young woman, so many years ago, assured her that she was welcome and wanted and through them she found the life, the salvation that Christ holds out to us all.
I am being knocked about by a virus, my doctor tells me. I ache in strange places – first here and then there, never the same. It makes me tired and sometimes I get up late in the morning – even though I wonder if I am just being lazy! I haven’t cut grass for over a week or so because of it – and with the rain and hot sun the grass is jumping up. But I am still smiling – and at the end of the day that is all that really matters.
Holy Week and Easter are almost upon us and with them my travels begun. I go to Sabah, next week, to the Montfort Youth Training Centre to celebrate Holy Week and Easter with them. Then, on my return to Kuching, there are end of term exams and after that I set off for my home leave, stopping for a few days in Kuala Lumpur to see some friends on the way. So Happy Easter to you all, wherever you may be – and remember Resurrection is something real – very real – and often it begins with just a cup of tea.