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Then the other disciple (John) who had reached the tomb first also went in; he saw and he believed. John 20, 1-9
In recent years, surveys conducted in both the United Kingdom and the United States have revealed that a little more than 50% of respondents in both countries believe in an afterlife, without necessarily believing in God. Moreover, there has been a spate of books describing near-death, out-of-body experiences attesting to a life after death. In 2010, The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven was published, and sold millions of copies. It is the story of Alex Malarkey who was left a quadriplegic after a traffic accident, and describes the boy’s experiences of heaven, angels and hearing God’s voice while he was in emergency surgery. It was written by the boy’s father, Kevin who was in the accident with his son. Kevin later admitted that the story was a fabrication. Alex’s mother, Beth, subsequently told reporters that her son was not some kind of supernatural being and is still a quadriplegic. As a consequence of the writing and publication of the book and its subsequent withdrawal from sale, Alex’s parents are now separated. In stark contrast, Heaven Is For Real, also published in 2010, has sold more than 10 million copies. It recounts the out-of-body experience of Colton Burpo during emergency surgery to remove his burst appendix. It was co-written by Colton’s father, Todd Burpo and a family friend, Lynn Vincent and has been made into a film that has pulled in more than $101 million at the box office. It describes Colton’s experience of seeing Jesus and Mary in heaven. While I am not inclined to recommend either of these books to anyone, the volume of sales point to the urge in people to want to believe in heaven or an afterlife.
If that’s not enough, the popularity of the TV show, The Walking Dead, reinforces this acceptance in people of an afterlife. The programme is so popular in Australia that Foxtel tied up rights to it, preventing fans from buying weekly episodes from iTunes and Google (Sydney Morning Herald, October 2016). All of these contemporary productions get some of their inspiration (perhaps unconsciously) from very old creations like Dante’s Divine Comedy or Milton’s Paradise Lost. Despite the advent of rationalism and the cynicism of Post-Modernism, there seems to still exist a deep conscious or unconscious longing in much of humanity for the existence of an afterlife.
I suggest that this longing is somehow connected to humanity’s search to find meaning in the unanswerable questions that life’s struggles and disappointments throw up. Somehow, very ordinary people instinctively conclude that the efforts they make to live decent, honest lives really come to nothing if death is the ultimate winner. Whether we are of any religious faith or none, deep down we cling to an intuition that we are going to die into life (albeit different) rather than away from life. We have within us a sense that the intangible realities of love, faith, hope, kindness, compassion and beauty will never die. The very fact that so much of humanity experiences a longing for more is testimony that there really is something more. Our continuing living and longing work together to keep this “truth” alive. It’s not a factual truth to which we can point, but it is a “truth” we come to by deduction.
I am writing this reflection in New Rochelle N.Y. where I have been for about a week. Yesterday, I came upon a story recounted by Michael Shermer, a member of the Skeptics Society and founder of their magazine Skeptic. The story was published in the magazine and is an account of an incident that happened on the day he married Jennifer Graf, who had emigrated from Germany to the United States in 2014. They married a year or so later. In transit from Germany, a trunk carrying some of Jennifer’s possessions was damaged, together with a transistor radio she treasured because it belonged to her deceased grandfather who reared her after her own father had died. All efforts to repair the transistor radio proved fruitless. Following their wedding, and during the reception held in their home, Jennifer confided to Michael that, despite her happiness, she felt really sad that there was nobody from her German family at the wedding and that the person she missed most was her grandfather. Shortly after confiding this to Michael, they farewelled guests and went up to their bedroom, where they heard music coming from somewhere. Eventually they traced it to a drawer in one of the cupboards. The 1978 Phillips transistor radio had come to life, and with tears running down her face, Jennifer acknowledged that her grandfather was at the wedding after all. She and Michael fell asleep listening to the classical music coming from grandfather’s transistor. By next morning, the music had stopped, and the transistor did not work again.
One final story: People who knew Pope Francis when he was a bishop and cardinal in Buenos Aires, find it difficult to understand what they see as a marked change in his personality since his election. In Argentina, he had a reputation for being shy, even boring, with no spark in his interpersonal engagements. When he was asked to be Pope, he said he was reluctant but accepted because he saw it as God’s will for him. When an interviewer in 2015 asked him: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?”, he replied: “I am a sinner. That is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” However, he did confide to a good friend and fellow bishop from South America some time before the 2015 interview: "On the night of my election, I had an experience of the closeness of God that gave me a great sense of interior freedom and peace, and that sense has never left me."
Stories like the ones above give me reason to pause and ponder. They challenge me to ask myself exactly what it is to which I am committing myself when I recite the Creed at Mass on Sundays. Do I really look forward to “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”? These have been some of my thoughts and ruminations as I approach Easter.
Easter, the resurrection of Jesus, confronts all of us, the sisters and brothers of Jesus, with the prospect and hope of renewed life. It is resounding testimony to the power of love. It is not only God’s validation of the life and death of Jesus, but a profound affirmation that goodness, love, compassion, beauty and hope are enduring.
In the latter years of his life, the great impressionist painter Renoir suffered severely from arthritis. His arms and legs became stiffened and his hands twisted and distorted. Matisse, then one of his students, asked him one day as Renoir was working on a large canvas, barely able to stand: “Why do you keep on torturing yourself like this?” The master painter merely replied: “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.” Jesus came to teach us by example how to be authentically human, how to live with dignity and integrity through the disappointments and ordeals we encounter. His efforts brought him cruel execution from those who could or would not see or listen. But God raised him as proof positive that beauty, love and life will ultimately triumph. It’s for us, now, to reflect some of that life and love and beauty to others. The apostle John “saw and believed”. All the puzzling pieces he had heard previously from Jesus fell into place. He needed no further convincing. Do we?
Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion
The Criminal said: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 22,14 – 23, 56
The themes of today’s readings are love and human frailty and fickleness. The following poem is an introduction into the first of those themes.
Love's As Warm As Tears
Love's as warm as tears,
Love is tears:
Pressure within the brain,
Tension at the throat,
Deluge, weeks of rain,
Featureless seas between
Hedges, where once was green.
Love's as fierce as fire,
Love is fire:
All sorts--infernal heat
Clinkered with greed and pride,
Lyric desire, sharp-sweet,
Laughing, even when denied,
And that empyreal flame
Whence all loves came.
Love's as fresh as spring,
Love is spring:
Bird-song hung in the air,
Cool smells in a wood,
Whispering 'Dare! Dare!'
To sap, to blood,
Telling 'Ease, safety, rest,
Are good; not best.'
Love's as hard as nails,
Love is nails:
Blunt, thick, hammered through
The medial nerves of One
Who, having made us, knew
The thing He had done,
seeing (with all that is)
Our cross, and His.
C.S. Lewis, Poems, (1964)
The themes that run consistently and persistently through Luke’s Gospel are those of forgiveness, mercy and love. Luke, and the other Gospel writers, present Jesus as the complete and utter human personification of God’s love. In today’s gospel, the words we hear from Jesus on his way to Calvary and from the Cross are an expression of totally selfless love:
To the disciples, when one of them took a sword and cut of the ear of the high priest’s servant, he said: “Leave off! That will do!” He refused to fight violence with violence. To the women on the roadside watching him struggle to his place of execution, he said: “Don’t weep for me, weep for yourselves and for your children.” For those who crucified him, he prayed: “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.” And to the criminal who supported him: “I promise you today you will be with me in paradise.” And all those directives, advice and prayers are for our benefit, too.
The readings of today are held up to us like a mirror which reflects to us the fickleness of our feelings, attitudes and actions. We all have the potential to swing from one extreme to the other, from palm-waving enthusiasm and adulation to the peer-pressure fuelled vindictiveness of: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” We may well recoil from the prospect of the latter, but today’s readings assure us that, even if we slip to that extent, the forgiveness and understanding of a merciful God await us.
Reflection on our own life experience teaches us that we can delude ourselves into acting as though we are messiahs, acting as though we can save others from visiting disaster and destruction on themselves and others. Alternatively, we can put on others such heavy expectations that we elevate them to the status of messiah. Even if we don’t go that far, there are times when we catch ourselves wanting others to live up to our expectations. When they don’t measure up, we can dismiss them and go in search of others in whom we see greater potential for delivering what we want. There are also moments in our lives when we can be drawn into crucifixion. They occur when we launch into demolishing the reputations of those we perceive as threats to us, of those we regard as competitors, of those on whom we look with jealousy and envy. Whenever we engage in stifling the life in others or blocking the life-giving actions of others, we are pursuing the way of crucifixion. The liturgy and readings of today and the next few weeks are a powerful reminder to us that we have a God who knows the rhythm of what we call the paschal mystery. Our God is one whose love and mercy for us is so powerfully expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. As we try to walk in the footsteps of Jesus as his disciples, we, too, experience the pattern of death and new life as circumstances deprive us of our hopes and aspirations and lead us through the pain of loss to claim new life and new hope.
The Jesus whom Luke presents in today’s gospel reading is entirely consistent with the Jesus who presents story after story illustrating the compassion, forgiveness, mercy and love of God. One after the other, the three parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost, prodigal son reinforce the message that God does not give up on us, however lost and alienated we may be. It is this same Jesus who invites us to imitate the compassion and selflessness of the Prodigal’s father and of the Samaritan who rescued the beaten traveller, with no thought of ritual contamination to himself. The point of all this, of course, is that we are invited to express those attitudes to everyone who comes into our life. We have no control over how they relate to us, what they feel about us or what they think of us, but it is our choice as to how we relate and respond to them.
Today’s gospel reading is an invitation to us to reflect on the extent to which our story resonates with the story of Jesus. We will always experience people and situations that threaten our integrity or the values and principles on which we want to base our lives. The extent to which our lives reflect the love, compassion and forgiveness that Jesus expressed as he was humiliated, degraded, tortured and executed is the extent to which our story coincides with his. Neither God nor Jesus expects us to do any of those things perfectly. However, Luke’s account of the last day in the life of Jesus asks us if we are courageous enough to reflect even a little of the selfless love that characterized Jesus’ life to the bitter end.
In one part of his letter to the Romans, Paul concludes one of his exhortations with: “Don’t let yourselves be mastered by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12, 21). Luke’s account of the passion of Jesus is the story of the triumph of mercy and goodness over jealousy, injustice and evil. Today we are asked if we can imitate Jesus in at least some small way.
Fifth Sunday of Lent
“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she replied. “Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus, “go away, and don’t sin any more.” John 8, 1-11
Scripture scholars have pointed out that the story of the woman caught in adultery is not included in the earliest manuscripts of John’s Gospel. In fact, it was added in the early part of the Third Century, when Christians were involved in heated argument as to whether there could be forgiveness of sin after baptism. While Tertullian, the early Christian scholar and writer from Carthage in Tunisia, was adamant that there was no forgiveness of sin after baptism, other scholars began to ask the question: “What would Jesus do?” That’s a question that has persisted through the centuries, and is often heard nowadays from people struggling with modern moral dilemmas. In the Third Century that question was answered by including in John’s Gospel the story about Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, which had been part of oral tradition from the time of the Apostles. The debate was a clear illustration that even the earliest Christians found it difficult to trust in Go’s unconditional forgiveness.
Christianity has been plagued by those whose only solution to immorality has been drastic action designed to discourage anyone inclined to repeat the immorality. Advocates of capital punishment belong to that group. And the Spanish Inquisition pursued such remedies with a vengeance. Jesus, however, promoted mercy and conversion of heart as the only effective and lasting answer. The blueprint for his approach is to be found in today’s gospel story.
Notice that his integrity demands that he does not gloss over the woman’s behaviour. He names it for the sin that it is, but he does not condemn the sinner. He urges her not to become trapped in guilt but to let go of her past and live her life with her heart renewed. If we don’t remember past mistakes and personal failures, we run the risk of repeating them. At the same time, it’s soul destroying to allow ourselves to become trapped by our past. Memory is an integral part of Jewish culture. The great rabbi Abraham Heschel made much of this when he said: “Much of what the Bible demands of us can be summed up in a single word: remember!” (Moral Grandeur & Spiritual Audacity, 1997). Remember in the sense of calling to mind the past and re-member in the sense of putting back together the broken pieces. Decades earlier, Heschel had written: “There is a collective memory of God in the human spirit, and it is this memory that is the main source of our faith” (The Holy Dimension, 1943). In today’s second reading, Paul remembers how he was once engaged in bitterly persecuting the early Christians. Remembering tells us something of our life journey, including both the good things we have done and experienced and the not so good. But we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of living in the past or being controlled by our past. In the gospel reading, we learn how Jesus rescued the woman whom the Pharisees wanted to condemn to death by stoning. He rescued her from being imprisoned by her shameful past, encouraging her to put back together the pieces of her broken life. Instead of shaming her further, he encouraged her to let go of the past and look to a future full of hope, reflecting in his treatment of her that she, too, shared in the “collective memory of God”.
The risk for the woman in the story was that she had a lot to live down. While those in the group that brought her to Jesus were pressured by him to reflect on their private sinfulness, she had the reputation of being a public sinner. She would have to live with gossip and the way that these Pharisees would continue to stare leeringly at her. She would have doubts as to whether her husband would forgive her. It was one thing to be assured by Jesus that God had forgiven her, but what about all her friends and neighbours? She ran the risk of being trapped in guilt. And that’s the risk we all face. Perhaps there are times when we wonder if we have been really forgiven by God for our past failures and infidelities. And most of us have probably met people who are wracked by scruples, unable to trust that God has forgiven them. One wonders what kind of God they have. And that prompts us to ask ourselves what kind of God we have. Do we believe that God loves us endlessly and unconditionally, no matter how broken our past lives have been?
Yet this story Is as much about the challenge Jesus puts to the Pharisees as it is about the forgiveness of the woman. Jesus is as aware of the seaminess of adultery as are the woman’s accusers. He does not deny the degradation of adultery or try to minimize it. But he does press the point that, before any of us wants to set about demanding that others change their evil ways, we must first change our own hearts. To make the kingdom of God a reality in the here and now, we need to develop both a lived conviction that God really does forgive us and a way of relating to others that is built on generous heartedness, forgiveness, mercy and compassion. There is nothing to be gained by comparing ourselves with those we judge to be sinners in order to give ourselves a self-satisfying pat on the back.
Robert Cormier, in his book entitled Table Talk: Beginning a conversation on the Gospel of Luke, tells the story of an old priest who often wondered about the difference between heaven and hell. One night he had a dream in which he experienced God telling him what that difference really was.
God showed him hell first, and he was stunned to see that there were no flames and no horned and pointy-tailed devils prodding others with forks. But there was a crowd of very angry people, all holding 10-foot-long wooden spoons and jostling one another as they struggled to get their spoons into large wooden bowls that were placed in the centre of picnic tables and filled to overflowing with food. But, when any of them managed to fill their spoons, they were not able to turn the spoons around and get them into their mouths. The frustration, the arguing and the bitterness were sheer hell! Then God gave the priest a look at heaven. He saw the same wooden tables and bowls and people with the same 10-foot-long wooden spoons. But there was no jostling and pushing. There was an atmosphere of real peace and contentment. Here the people were happily engaged in feeding one another.
Today’s gospel reading makes it clear that, if we are to confront the evils of the world in which we live, we have to start by confronting the evils within ourselves. We just won’t be able to life up the broken and the alienated until we realise that we, too, are broken and we, too, alienate ourselves from God and from our brothers and sisters. It is futile to think we can credibly pass judgement on others until we assess our own lives and seek the healing that God offers us. We have the capacity to create both heaven and hell in our own time and place. When we find within ourselves the willingness to feed one another from the bounty of God’s gifts to us, we will get a glimpse of heaven. Hell is nothing but the abundance of selfishness and the endless presence of bitterness and spiteful competition.
Today we are invited to put down our stones of indignation, bitterness and superiority and to look within ourselves at the place where good and evil meet and wrestle with one another. Any of us without sin can lead the stone-throwing.
Fourth Sunday of Lent
The tax collectors and sinners were all seeking the company of Jesus to hear what he had to say, and the Pharisees and scribes complained. “This man”, they said, “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So, he spoke this parable to them. Luke 15, 1-3, 11-32
We all know today’s gospel parable of The Prodigal Son so well that we can repeat it by heart in all its detail. So, as we pause once again to reflect on its significance for our lives, let’s keep in mind a saying to which many storytellers subscribe: “The story begins only when the teller stops talking.” I am confident that Jesus would have shared their view. So, what will this story evoke from you and me?
I want to suggest that the context in which Jesus first told this story is of equal importance to the story itself. Luke tells us that Jesus is among tax collectors and sinners, all eager to hear what he had to say. Meanwhile, the Pharisees and scribes were looking on, tut-tutting at the fact that Jesus was associating and even eating with the dregs of society, those detested for their depravity and corruption. However, by the time we get to the end of the parable we are left in no doubt that nobody earns entrance into God’s kingdom. It is all gift. And there is an additional message for all those among us who see themselves as upright, religious people. A heavy investment in religious knowledge and practice, however impressive it might look, is no proof that we have a healthy relationship with God. What we display on the outside is not always a good indication of what is going on in our hearts. Impeccable religious observance may be doing more for our own ego than for those around us. It may also be doing little to nourish our relationship with God.
So, I am suggesting that this parable is especially directed at the good religious onlookers who would not even think of mixing with the group of sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors close to Jesus, let alone eat with them. Now, let’s look at some of the characters in the story and the significance of their actions. We’ve already mentioned the educated, religious leaders who were the standard bearers of morality, law and religious observance. They were the ones with status, power and control in the society of the day. Then there are any number of public sinners - those already mentioned, but also the two brothers, and the pig farmer, representing those despicable people who prey on the vulnerable and who use their cunning to seduce them from their culture, their principles and the values they learned from their childhood. And there’s the father who not only breaks all the conventions and expectations of how fathers were supposed to act, but who contributes to the dissention between his two sons. And these characters all have their modern-day equivalents.
We all know from bitter experience that none of us is above sin. We all fail, and fall from grace in one way or another. We also know that we can be quick to identify those whose sin is public while we do our utmost to keep our sinfulness away from the public gaze. But among us there are many so-called religious people who are intent on hiding their sin and their human frailty. We now know from bitter experience that even the administrators of some religious institutions colluded in keeping hidden the sins of their leaders.
While today’s gospel reading opens with Luke identifying the two groups (public sinners and religious leaders) listening to Jesus, the parable itself begins with the very direct statement: “A man had two sons” - just like the two groups listening to Jesus’ story. And the story is apparently directed at the public sinners, as the religious leaders smugly look on. But as the story unfolds we come to see that the younger son is a public sinner and the elder a private sinner. It is true that the younger son sank to the depths of depravity and infidelity. By demanding his share of the inheritance, he effectively told his father that he wished he were dead. Interested only in himself, he rejected his father, his family, his Jewishness and his religious practice. In so doing, he earned the hatred of his brother. Moreover, his reasons for deciding to return home are based on self-interest. He calculates that he can get a job on his father’s estate, be paid a wage and be given his meals. He returns on his own terms. And his father bends over backwards to welcome him back and restore him to his former status. His father asks no questions as to why he has returned. He is simply overjoyed that his wayward son has come back.
But while the younger son left in a way that humiliated his father, and went on to pursue a scandalous life-style, the older one was never really at home for his father. It is clear that he, too, was just waiting for his father to die. He adopted a martyr complex, regarding himself as a servant who spent his time slaving away on the estate, but was resentful, totally selfish, and full of anger and passive aggression. When his father left the party and went outside to coax him to come in and join the celebration, the elder son angrily pushed him away and blamed him for being forgiving and indulgent. All he wanted was a private party for himself and his friends. If we put the two brothers side by side, we see that they are not very different, except that the older one is a private sinner who not only can’t see that he has done wrong but even interprets his behaviour as virtuous. As the elder brother in a Jewish family, he had a responsibility for both his younger brother and his father. It was his job to go searching for his little brother and his job to protect his father from being humiliated in front of all his friends and neighbours. The younger son turned his father into a public laughing-stock, and the older son couldn’t care less. The younger of the two, despite his callousness, irresponsibility and utter selfishness, eventually came home. And we are left wondering if the older one relented, stopped pouting, let go of his anger and came into the party and back into the family.
When all is said and done, this parable invites us to look into the mirror to see for ourselves with which of the two we identify.
In sitting among the tax collectors and public sinners, Jesus adopts the role of a truly responsible brother, prepared to reach out to his brothers and sisters who have strayed, to celebrate their return and, thereby, to hold God’s family together. In that sense we can say that Jesus becomes the parable of God. And therein lies the challenge to those of us who like to pride ourselves on our fidelity and regular religious practice. Have we yet discovered who God is and do we ever reach out in welcome to and acceptance of those who have apparently gone astray? The parable invites us to reach out in mercy and forgiveness to others, and also to come in and celebrate whenever those we might be inclined to avoid accept the mercy, forgiveness and unconditional love of God which we sometimes take for granted.
Finally, there is something about this parable which is ageless. The younger son does not really want a father and the older one does not want a brother. Their attitudes are alive and well in our contemporary world. We meet any number of people who want no one to answer to, who shun the commitment of close relationships, who refuse to be accountable to anyone, who see themselves above and beyond the law. They want to be unrestrained to pursue a lifestyle that ultimately leads them to self-destruct. In addition, there are those around us who want neither sister nor brother. They don’t want anyone who might make a claim on them. They are intolerant of difference, and slip with ease into racism, discrimination and religious bigotry. Can we find it within us to reach out to these too?
Third Sunday of Lent
At that time some people were there who told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices to God…A person had a fig tree planted in his orchard: ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So, cut it down. Why should I exhaust the soil?’ The gardener replied: ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilise it; it may bear fruit in the future.’ Luke 13, 1-9
At first sight, this gospel reading looks to be made up of two separate and unrelated sections. The first section outlines a discussion between Jesus and some people who wanted to talk about disasters and their causes. The second is a parable about a non-productive fig tree. Both sections are challenges to us to stop and look at the concept of God on which we base our thinking, our religious belief, and our way of conducting our lives.
The people who questioned Jesus about the moral standing of those who were executed by Pilate when they were at prayer and those who died when the tower they were building collapsed seemed to hold the belief that accidents and disasters were God’s way of punishing the wicked. That was a popularly held belief in Judaism at the time of Jesus. There are several stories in the Gospels which illustrate how physical disability was attributed to the sinfulness of the person with the disability or to his/her parents.
Is having people executed the way God’s view of them is expressed? Is God’s opinion of people demonstrated in the accidents that happen to them? Most of us are quick to point out that questions like this, to say the least, are grotesque.
A modern version of the questions put to Jesus would look something like this: Were the 43 people who died in the bridge collapse in Genoa last August all living in sin? Were the 50 people who died in yesterday’s flash flooding in Sentani, Papua Province of Indonesia being punished by God for their immorality?
We wonder what it is that motivates people to ask questions like this? What is their image of God? Even allowing that the people who confronted Jesus might well have been hoping that Pilate would add another Galilean (Jesus himself) to his list of victims or that Jesus, too, might have a building collapse on him, we still scratch our heads in puzzlement at people who go on living their lives as though the vindictive God they seem to believe in is not going to obliterate them when they themselves are less than perfect. Perhaps we might just have to be satisfied with the conclusion that the people who ask this kind of question are revealing how they would go about righting the world if they were God. Another interpretation is that we have among us people who, with the best of intentions, use this distorted view of God as a way of motivating others to change their ways. There is at least a hint of this in today’s second reading where we hear Paul telling the community in Corinth about some of their ancestors: “Most of them failed to please God, and their corpses littered the desert. These things all happened as warnings for us, not to have the wicked lusts for forbidden things that they had. You must never complain: some of them did, and they were killed by the Angel of Death.” That kind of motivational talk might have gotten Paul a role in a Parish Mission Team of the 1950s, but it certainly would not get him a job on the religious education staff of a Catholic school in 2019.
From Paul all the way up this present day, people have slipped into making faulty presuppositions about God. And most of us have probably met people whose God is a cross between a nit-picking bean-counter and Sherlock Holmes. They’re the kind of people who give religion a bad name.
In the 1970s and 80s, George McCauley S.J. taught theology and Religious Education at Fordham University. In a delightful piece about people’s various images of God, he wrote: “We all have our pet peeves in this matter: A god who whispers in ears. A god of special confidences and secret winks. A competitive god whose pastime is to take on all comers at spiritual arm-wrestling. A god whose chief concern is picking spiritual lint off people, telling them, like your least favourite aunt: ‘Don’t cross your legs. Sit up straight. Don’t be gawking out the window. Where’s your watch? Who was that you were just talking to?’ A god, finally, who stares into your eyes a lot.”
Whatever our current image of God might be, we can be sure that it will change in time. Moreover, we hope it will grow and develop. But it will take more than one Lent or one year for that to happen. Even after a lifetime, we will not be satisfied that we have the “right” image of God. Still, today’s readings put before us two (or even three) aspects of God which we have to try to hold in tension. The first reading from Exodus presents us with a God who is interested in social justice: “I have seen how cruelly my people are being treated in Egypt; I have heard them cry out to be rescued from their slave drivers. I know all about their sufferings” (Exodus 3, 7). And the gospel offers us both a God of action and a God of mercy: “Look, for three years I have been coming here looking for figs on this fig tree, and I haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it go on using up the soil?” (Luke 13, 7). Now there’s action for you. But immediately, we hear the gardener bargaining for a stay of violence: “Sir, leave it one more year and give me time to dig round it and manure it: it may bear fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down” (Luke 13, 8-9).
One of the characteristics of Jesus’ parables is that they leave us with uncertainty, looking for satisfying resolution. Yet, that is part of their value. They raise questions for us to ponder. Did the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son eventually join the party? What happened when the Samaritan returned to pay the bill for the injured stranger? Did the Samaritan return at all? And in this parable, was the gardener successful in making the fig tree productive, or did he just delay the inevitable? And that last question is significant, because we know that the fig tree will eventually die. Jesus did not say that death would not touch us. But he, the prophets before him and saints and religious leaders after him have reminded us of our social responsibilities: feeding the starving, providing clean water for all, addressing homelessness, protecting the vulnerable and abused, caring for the earth, working to prevent people-trafficking. What is alien to Jesus and the Gospel is sterility and non-productiveness. In this parable of the barren fig tree, we are reminded that death will come to us all but that, in the meantime, we have a responsibility to be productive with the lives and talents with which we have been blessed. If we heed the call of Lent to change our hearts (not just our actions), to allow ourselves to be transformed by the hope that God offers us, we will not stave off the chaos of suffering and death but open ourselves to the one who can nurture us, to the gardener who wants to bring us to blossom. We are the fig tree of the parable, given yet another chance to realise our productive potential.
Let’s not forget that this parable is also built on metaphor. The owner and the gardener are two faces of God - the face of justice and the face of mercy. As the parable unfolds, we listen to justice and mercy in dialogue. And the vineyard is a scriptural image for the people of Israel, and, by extension, for the people of God, the Church. If the extraordinary measures proposed by the gardener (mercy) fail, then Mercy will agree to abide by the verdict of Justice (the owner). There is no place in God’s kingdom for those who are irredeemably non-productive and sterile. We, the people of God are struggling with the destructive consequences of abuse within our community: the abuse of power, the failure to give recognition and voice to women and men in the pews, sexual abuse. Being the kind of people Jesus invites us to be - people whose productiveness is demonstrated in social action, compassion, welcoming the stranger and the outcast, healing the wounds of abuse - is the fruit for which he is looking. That fruit will be produced only through the severe measures that will bring to all of us a change of heart and the life that issues from that change of heart. Only we, the fig tree, will provide the end to this parable waiting to be completed.
Second Sunday of Lent
Jesus took with him Peter and John and James and went up the mountain to pray. As he prayed, the aspect of his face was changed and his clothing became brilliant as lightning. Luke 9, 28-36
As we grow older and wiser, we come to realise that where we stand influences what we see, and what we see influences what we say and do. One of the great paradoxes that emerged from the interpersonal engagements Jesus had in the course of his ministry was that the religious leaders who had two good eyes were blind to what they saw him doing, while those who were physically blind were able to see very clearly. Mystics in the Christian tradition, and, to my knowledge, in the Jewish and Islamic traditions, have spoken and written about seeing with “the third eye” – a way of seeing from the depths of one’s being or with what some of them refer to as “seeing with the soul”. Such seeing grows out of investing time in quiet and deep reflection. Whether or not we are practiced in deep reflection, we do know one thing to which modern psychology has drawn our attention: what and how we see has a significant impact on how we behave.
Just on thirty years ago, the American adult educator and businessman, Steve Covey published a book entitled The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Essentially, the book is an exploration of how we impact on other people. In giving us insights about ourselves, Covey opens up for us possible changes that might improve the ways in which we relate to, and communicate with, others. One of his stories offers a powerful insight into how and what we see can influence our thinking and acting. It’s a story of an experience he had one Sunday morning on the New York subway:
People in the section I was in were sitting quietly reading their newspapers or just dozing. At one stop, a man and his children got into our car and in next to no time the peace was shattered, and replaced by something resembling mayhem. The kids were yelling at one another as they ran around the carriage. Then they started throwing things and grabbing at people’s newspapers. While all this was happening, their father sat quietly next to me and did nothing to quell the riot. It was as though he didn’t register what was going on. I couldn’t believe that he was prepared to let his kinds run wild and not even try to intervene. I could see the annoyance on the faces of all the people around me. Finally, with all the restraint I could muster I turned to the man and said: “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you could control them just a little bit.” The man lifted his head as though he was coming into awareness for the first time since he and the children had got on. Then he turned to me and said: “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”
Covey shared what happened inside him: “Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? Suddenly I saw things differently. Because I saw differently, I felt differently. I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behaviour. My heart was filled with this man’s pain. Feelings of compassion and sympathy flowed freely. ‘Your wife just died? Oh, I’m so sorry! Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?”
For Covey, that was an experience of transfiguration, a moment of insight that turned him upside down and carried him through a very difficult situation. Are we any different? We, too, are given revelations of God in the ordinary events of our daily lives. Probably not every day, but if we don’t learn to see differently those revelations will pass us by.
Luke’s story of the Transfiguration begins with the simple statement: “Jesus took Peter, John and James up to the mountain to pray.” Mark and Matthew tell of Jesus taking Peter, John and James to pray with him in the garden of Gethsemane just before his arrest. And the preface of this Sunday’s mass provides an explanatory link between Jesus’ transfiguration in the presence of these three disciples and his having them accompany him during his agony in the garden: “He revealed his glory to strengthen them for the scandal of the cross.”
In commenting on these two experiences shared by Jesus with Peter, John and James, scripture scholar Bill Bausch notes that while the memory of the transfiguration was meant to bolster the three disciples when the going got tough, do the rest of us have only stories on which to rely when things are grim and when our faith is tested? The Steve Covey story demonstrates that our transfiguration experiences come to us wrapped up in the very ordinary, but there are times when we miss them because we are preoccupied with other things, or with ourselves. At other times, we catch up with them in hindsight, when we make time to reflect, and see them with our “third eye”.
One of my favourite writers is Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007), a deeply committed Christian who is probably best known for her young adults’ novel A Wrinkle in Time (completed in 1960, it was rejected by more than thirty publishers before it was finally accepted for publication two years later). However, her writing covered a broad spectrum, from reflection on some of the very prominent characters in the Old Testament, to children’s books, poetry and memoirs of her own life experiences. She also had some talent for theatre and met and later married, actor, Hugh Franklin when they both had parts in Chekhov’s play, The Cherry Orchard. The fourth volume of her memoirs (The Crosswicks Journals) is about her marriage with Hugh and carries the title Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage. L’Engle had plenty of opportunity to reflect of the way her love for Hugh grew and developed, for she nursed him through his long and painful dying of cancer of the urinary tract. This is part of what she had to say: “I do not think that death can take away the fact that Hugh and I are ‘we’ and ‘us’, a new creature born at the time of our marriage vows, which has grown along with us as our marriage has grown. Even during the times, inevitable in all marriages, when I have felt angry, or alienated, the instinctive ‘we’ remains…Our love has been anything but perfect and anything but static. Inevitably there have been times when one of us has outrun the other and has had to wait patiently for the other to catch up. There have been times when we have misunderstood each other, demanded too much of each other, been insensitive to the other’s needs. I do not believe there is any marriage where this does not happen. The growth of love is not a straight line, but a series of hills and valleys. I suspect that in every good marriage there are times when love seems to be over. Sometimes these desert lines are simply the only way to the next oasis, which is far more lush and beautiful after the desert crossing than it could possibly have been without it.” (from an article “The Instinctive ‘We’” by Dan Wakefield, New York Times, December 18, 1988) This is not just about a particular marriage, it’s about the journey we call life. What L’Engle describes is what I would call the “second transfiguration”. On the mountain, the three apostles witnessed Jesus’ first transfiguration, with lots of drama and dazzling splendour. His second transfiguration was his resurrection, described in subdued terms, because nobody witnessed it. But let’s not miss the significance of the whispering between Moses and Elijah, mentioned in today’s reading. They were pointing to the transfiguration that comes after Jesus and we have negotiated the tough struggles of life - disillusionment, disappointment, betrayal, deep pain, desertion, cynicism, bitterness, alienation, disease, loss of loved ones. God is in there somewhere, but so often we are not conscious of God’s presence and support. Jesus had to go through all these things on the way to his second transfiguration into glory. Along that way, he felt abandoned by God. And so do we, when we’re really down and troubled and hurting.
Today’s gospel story is about much more than a “sound and light” show. From time to time, we get a glimpse of the glory to come, but along the way we have to learn to shed whatever it is that holds us back. We have to struggle through the hills, the valleys and the deserts that life puts in our way. We have to remember that we are not alone as we travel that journey. But we have the support and encouragement of one another, of the community we call parish and church, the inspiration of the people like Madeleine L’Engle and Steve Covey, and the friendship and support of Jesus who’s been there ahead of us.
First Sunday of Lent
“If you are God’s Son, order this stone to turn into bread.” Luke 4, 1-13
Last year, Pope Francis startled lots of Catholics when he suggested that there was need to change one of the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”. He stated that this is really a poor translation of the original, pointing out that a loving God does not lead people into temptation just to see how they will cope. In making his comments, he referred to the opening verses of chapter 4 of both Matthew and Luke. This coming Sunday, the first of Lent, the gospel reading we hear starts with: “Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit…was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted.” Matthew’s Gospel has something similar: “Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the desert to be put to the test by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, after which he was hungry.” I am encouraged by Pope Francis’ comments, because I find both of these translations troublesome. I just don’t believe that God puts temptation in anybody’s way. Pope Francis went on to say that he would prefer a translation like: “Do not allow us to be led into temptation.” Scripture scholars have joined the discussion with alternatives like: “Do not let us give into temptation when we are tested” and “When Satan leads us into temptation, please, God, give us a hand”.
So now, let’s look a little more closely at the context of today’s gospel reading. Jesus had just been baptized by John in the Jordan and, as preparation for what he saw was his unfolding mission, he decided to spend time in prayer and reflection in the solitude of the desert, to work out for himself how he was going to go about doing the preaching and teaching he felt inspired to do. Luke and Matthew present him as doing much the same as two other giants of the Jewish tradition had done. In their encounters with God, both Moses and Elijah went without food and water for forty days. Moses spent forty days in the presence of God when the Ten Commandments were inscribed on stone tablets on Mt Sinai (Exodus 34, 28). Elijah also fasted for forty days and nights before journeying to Mt Horeb (another name for Mt Sinai) where he encountered God in a cave in the form of a gentle breeze (1Kings 19). However, consolation for Jesus arrived only after he had battled his way for forty days and nights through temptations to take shortcuts to reach quick and easy ways to achieve his goals. He was tempted to dodge the kind of struggles that the rest of humanity also has to deal with as they set out to be true to themselves and to live with integrity.
Having taken on the human condition, Jesus was tempted to avoid having to do things the normal human way. Luke is really saying that, just beneath the surface, Jesus was being tempted to expect God to collude with such a plan. And if God wouldn’t agree to doing things by magic, then Jesus just wouldn’t cooperate and would refuse to accept the limitations of being fully human. That was the nature of his temptation. Underlying all three temptations is the question as to whether a way of living and acting built on faith in God is really worth spending a life on. Jesus realized that he had been invited to take on the role of being the Messiah for his people, and here he was being tempted to win people over with magic, razzle dazzle and impressive, superman tactics.
Yet, the temptations that Jesus faced were, in essence, the very same things that tempt us. There are times in our lives when we catch ourselves wanting to control God. Some of us want God to work it so that we get the winning lotto ticket, a perfect husband for our favourite niece or a top grade in our university exams, even though we don’t do the necessary work.
The first temptation Jesus experienced is presented in terms of bread. In contemporary English slang, bread is the equivalent of money or a stockpile of material and intellectual capital to be used as an insurance policy just in case the kingdom of God doesn’t work out. Jesus was struggling with the temptation to base his appeal to the people he encountered on what in the way of security and material well-being he could offer them. We, too, can get so involved in accumulating money, security and gadgets that we erode our ability to trust in God as one who is both competent and willing to care for us. There are times when we can even slip into giving God advice and directions: “Be a bit gentler here; be more sensitive there. Watch that trouble looming up in the distance. Do you think you’ll be able to negotiate the sharp turn coming up?” At other times we try bargaining.
As for Jesus, he did overcome the first temptation by deciding that he would himself be bread and nourishment for people instead of trying to base his public ministry on hand-outs. He proceeded to nourish people with his presence, his encouragement, his wisdom, his concern, his fidelity and the challenges he put to them. He came to know that we all grow through affirmation, encouragement and healthy challenge. He did not set out to win the support of people through promises of material goods or by offering them shortcuts to success. In order to proceed along the path he chose, he knew that he had to place his trust first, foremost and entirely in God. I ask myself if I will ever grow to the point of trusting God to that extent.
The next two temptations were further attempts at undermining the trust Jesus had grown to place in God. While they are presented as offers by the devil, they were more likely considerations by Jesus in his mind about the benefits that might flow from doing deals with the corrupt and the powerful of his day. After all, they would get things done more speedily and effectively than those who might respond to Jesus’ appeal to base their actions on love, kindness, compassion and justice.
I find the third temptation a little more difficult to grasp. Jesus was invited to test out whether God really cared for him or would let him die if he were to throw himself off the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus probably knew nothing about gravity. But he knew enough to appreciate that jumping from a great height onto stone would be fatal, and that God was not in the business of letting down gently anyone stupid enough to jump off the roof of the Temple. However, I want to suggest that Jesus struggled with something more subtle than that. Preaching about what he understood as the kingdom of God - about justice, mercy, forgiving one’s enemies - was not something that would easily win him friends and supporters, especially in a very conservative and narrow-minded religious community that was the Jewish world of his time. Jesus must have been tempted to doubt whether God would really support him when the going got tough, when religious leaders might think of having him removed. And we know from the description of his arrest, torture and execution that such doubts plagued him right up to the time of his death.
I want to suggest that these are the kinds of doubts and temptations with which Jesus struggled in the solitude of the wilderness and at other times in his life. Moreover, I am convinced that we would be wrong to conclude that Jesus easily brushed aside these temptations. They hung around in his consciousness for forty days and nights. Trusting God was not something that came to him spontaneously and automatically. If that were the case, he would not have been tempted in the first place. So, when we find ourselves struggling with our faith and trust in God, we might get some consolation and comfort from knowing that Jesus has been there before us. And when we are tempted to be less than our true selves, we might think of praying: “Please, God, give us a hand.”
Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“In a shaken sieve the rubbish is left behind, so too, the defects of a person appear in his/her talk…Never praise others until you hear them talk; that’s the real test.” Sirach 27, 4-7
“Each of us speaks from our heart’s abundance…” Luke 6, 39-45
My reflection on today’s readings led me to a conclusion which is very obvious and not particularly profound: The best homilies I have ever heard are people! If I want to experience a good homily, the best thing I can do is to go around with my eyes and ears wide open, attentive to the extraordinarily good things that very ordinary people say and do.
So, there’s very little about Jesus’ words in today’s gospel that has a churchy or religious ring about it. Very simply, what he says boils down to a very uncomplicated message: “If you want to be taken seriously, cut out being hypocritical; stop finding fault with others as you go about masking your own, and judging others is not only unfair, it helps you to delude yourself.” This is a very appropriate segue into Lent, which starts with Ash Wednesday later this coming week. We do that with a story from Pastor, Bill Bausch:
A small cruise ship, caught up in a very violent storm, lost power, drifted onto rocks and quickly sank. Only two men survived the disaster. They clung to floating debris and were washed up on a deserted island. By the time they had completed a quick survey of the island, they realized from the barrenness of the place that there was no running water. They sat down, discussed their situation and decided that the worst thing they could do would be to panic. So, they drew up a simple plan of action: First, they agreed that they would pray for God’s help. Then they decided that they would each take responsibility for a much closer survey of the island, and took half the island each. Moreover, they reasoned that such a tactic doubled their chances of seeing a passing ship searching for them. But they would have to live apart on opposite sides of the island. As they separated, they promised one another that they would keep up their prayers.
The first man prayed for food. The very next morning, he came across a tree laden with fruit, and ate to his satisfaction. He did not alert his companion to his good fortune, who stayed on his barren side of the island. Then the first man started to feel lonely, so the next night he prayed for a wife. A few days later there was another storm and an even smaller boat was wrecked. The next morning the sole survivor, a woman, struggled ashore on the first man’s side of the island. Still, the second man had had no luck with anything. He kept waiting patiently for a ship to come into sight. And he kept praying. He had spent his time building a huge pile of dried wood which he intended to burn to attract the attention of any ship that came into view. Meanwhile, the first man and his companion set about praying for more food and for clothes to protect them from the sun. A couple of days later, a crate was washed up on their side of the island, and it contained plenty of food and clothing. The second man still had nothing. Finally, the first man prayed really hard for rescue to arrive. Three days later he awoke to see a ship anchored close by. He woke his companion and they headed out to the ship. As he climbed on board, his thoughts turned to the other man. Then he told himself that there was no point is going back for him. After all, since none of his prayers had been answered, he was clearly not worthy of God’s blessings. But as the ship was about to leave, the first man heard a booming voice from the heavens: “What about your friend on the other side of the island? Why are you abandoning him?”
“My blessings are mine”, replied the first man, “since I’m the one who prayed for them. Besides, all his prayers were clearly unanswered. He doesn’t deserve anything!”
“You are very mistaken”, the voice rebuked, “his prayer was answered. Indeed, he had only one prayer, and it was that all your prayers would be answered.”
That story fits in neatly with the stories collected in today’s gospel. It’s the kind of story Jesus would tell, then look at his audience quizzically and walk away, leaving them to reflect on how they might have judged others, hastily and wrongly.
A few years ago, a prominent English newspaper conducted a survey of its readers on their concerns for the future of the United Kingdom. This was well before Brexit was even on their radar. While there were lots of comments about the faltering economy, shrinking employment opportunities, terrorist threats, race riots and the pressure on the public health system, there were lots of surprising comments on the decline of morality, the disappearance of common decency, the collapse of values and the moral bankruptcy of many in public office. There was lament on the shift of focus from the common good to self-interest, from “us” to “me”, as one respondent expressed it. I suspect that a quick look at many of the so-called “developed” counties of our world would reveal that honesty, integrity, owning responsibility for one’s actions, compassion for refugees, respect for others, and speaking truthfully are becoming casualties very rapidly. Still, there is a ray of hope here and there to catch us by surprise. Those rays of hope are the people who turn out to be the best homilies. They nourish us until the next pleasant surprise appears.
I read recently on a website called, Chicken Soup for the Soul the story of an eleven-year-old, Rosalie Elliot, who was participating in a national spelling-bee in Washington. Rosalie was a softly spoken competitor from Florida and was asked to spell the word “avowal”. The judges were unable to hear whether she had spelt the last vowel as an “a” or an “e”. The judges replayed the tape several times but could still not decide what Rosalie had said. Finally, the chief judge put the question to Rosalie herself: Was the letter an “a” or an “e”? Unhesitatingly, Rosalie answered that she had misspelled the word, as she had used an “e”. She walked from the stage to a standing ovation. Centuries before Sophocles had said: “Rather fail by honour than succeed by fraud.” Jesus echoed that in today’s gospel.
We reveal who we are by what we say and do consistently. We can all say and do the wrong thing occasionally. We don’t need anyone else to tell us that. It’s the consistency of our word and action that truly reveals our integrity or its lack. In today’s first reading, the writer of Book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) probably described us very accurately when he pointed out that what we say shows us to the world as confused, honest, devious or shallow. As George McCauley wrote in a book entitled The Unfinished Image (Sadlier, N.Y. 1983): “There is a thread that leads from our speech to our secret selves. There are many windings and detours along the way. But one iron law remains in effect: it’s easier to see into a person who has his mouth open. Sirach got it right centuries before Jesus, and so, too, did Jesus in today’s gospel: ‘The mouth speaks what the heart is full of…’” (Luke 6, 45).
We leave the last word to the letter of James (not one of today’s readings) where we are given yet another perspective: “You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it has never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women made in God’s image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!” (James 3, 7-10)
Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate…Give, and there will be gifts for you…because the amount you measure is the amount you will be given back.” Luke 6, 27-38
The parents and teachers among us will all know the experience of teaching children to share. They will remember times when there was only one apple pie or one cream bun for two children to share. Their technique was to ask one child use a knife to divide the pie or bun into two and to invite the other child to have first pick. On rare occasions, one child might have said to the other: “You can have it all!” When we teach children about sharing, we are really giving them lessons about equity and unselfishness. Yet, a close look at today’s gospel reveals that Jesus is teaching everyone who would be his disciples to be prepared to say to others, even enemies: “You can have it all!”
To find an entry point into this gospel reading, I invite you to do your best to put to one side all the things you’ve ever learned about Jesus and all the images you have of him and your beliefs about him. Then, see if you can imagine yourself in the group gathered around him. Luke calls them “disciples”. Jesus would be dressed like all the other men in the group sitting down in front of him. And he would have the swarthy, bearded look of the Arab or Palestinian males we see these days on the streets of Jordan or Jerusalem and in airport terminals in the Middle East. If you are a woman in the group, you would be wearing a long, loose-fitting gown and have a head-scarf or khimar to protect you from the sun. And each of the men among you would have a keffiyeh on his head and be wearing a long flowing garment like a kaftan, maybe with a rope belt around the waist. And then you hear Jesus say something that leaves you totally stunned. And when you dare to look around, you see others shaking their heads in disbelief. Perhaps you’re thinking to yourself something like: “He’s got to be joking!” And you hear a murmur of incomprehension spread through the gathering. Maybe someone voices an objection or a protest. Some people in the group drift away, shaking their heads. Jesus has just said something that seemingly shocks to the core everyone who heard it. And you, too, are wondering if he has lost the plot. “After all, he’s asking us to do the impossible. I can cope with reaching out to family, friends and neighbours. But, who does he think he is, asking us to love Samaritans, and that crook at the market who sold me a donkey that turned out to be lame in the fetlock?” When the restlessness dissipated and Jesus finished talking, a deathly silence fell over the group. They were stunned into silence.
Now, let’s fast forward to today. Have you ever been courageous enough, after reading something in the Gospels, to say to yourself or to your local priest: “I can’t accept that. It’s codswallop!” Yet that would probably be more honest than giving notional assent and then sanitizing Jesus’ demands to stop them from unsettling you. If we were asked to give ourselves a mark for our Christianity, we might give ourselves a distinction on all the “I believes” listed in the Creed we recite at Mass. But I wonder what grade we would give ourselves for the way in which we live the Gospel with meaning and purpose? Many of us, I suspect, would fare much better on right belief than we would on right living. We could not even imagine ourselves ever denying the theological concept of the Trinity, but please don’t ask us when was the last time we prayed for the tradesman who swindled us or the neighbour who screamed obscenities at us.
Now, please don’t get me wrong. Right belief is something to be pursued, but lots of rules and regulations in the Catholic Church have been promoted as truth whereas they have been little more than directions to ensure that we all conformed to what some authorities dictated. As a consequence, the measure of authentic discipleship sometimes slipped into belief in and adherence to promulgated Church doctrines. Comforted by our conviction that we were holding onto right belief, we continued to name those who were clearly enemies of our Church and, rather than pray for them or seek to be reconciled with them, we even prayed that they would be obliterated in one fell swoop. We found comfort in our own little enclaves, supported those who belonged to our Church, harboured prejudices about refugees and foreigners, gave atheists and agnostics a wide berth and labelled those we feared as fundamentalists, extremists and terrorists. Engaging with them as fellow human beings, forgiving them, and praying for them did not fit into our agenda. We can look back in horror at the period we now call the Inquisition when those identified by Church authorities as witches or heretics were hunted down and executed by burning or hanging. Right belief was the measure of belonging. Tolerance and forgiveness of unbelievers were non-existent, so why waste time praying for them? This kind of persecution of those who “did not belong” led Oscar Wilde to reflect:
"He who would be free," says a fine thinker, "must not conform." And authority, by bribing people to conform, produces a very gross kind of overfed barbarism amongst us. With authority, punishment will pass away. This will be a great gain - a gain, in fact, of incalculable value. As one reads history, not in the expurgated editions written for schoolboys and passmen, but in the original authorities of each time, one is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted; and a community is infinitely more brutalised by the habitual employment of punishment than it is by the occasional occurrence of crime. (Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1891)
If we are really serious about calling ourselves disciples of Jesus, then we might have to begin by measuring the way we live by what Jesus proclaimed rather than by what we recite in the Creed at Mass each weekend. Would I have the courage to proclaim:
I commit to:
Really loving those I know are my enemies and doing good to those who hate me;
Blessing those who curse me and praying for those who treat me badly;
Turning the other cheek to anyone who slaps me;
Offering my shirt, as well, to anyone who steals my coat;
Lending to those in need without expecting repayment;
Giving to every beggar who asks me for something;
Refusing to judge anyone, no matter what others say about him or her;
Being merciful and compassionate in imitation of the God who loves me unconditionally?
A well-regarded American writer and educationist, Kent Keith, put all this another way when he wrote:
People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centred. Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.
The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.
People favour underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for underdogs anyway.
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway.
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Blessed are you who are poor: Yours is the kingdom of God…Alas for you who are rich: you are having your consolation now.” Luke 6, 17, 20-26
Matthew’s Gospel has a parallel to what we hear proclaimed in this coming Sunday’s gospel. The account in Matthew is referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. In contrast, Luke has Jesus deliver a sermon on a plain in which only four beatitudes are listed, and they are paralleled with four woes, which well-off people throughout history have mistakenly used as measures of success in life.
In the gospel reading for the third Sunday of Ordinary Time, we heard Jesus proclaiming to the people of his home town of Nazareth that his mission was “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and new sight to the blind, to free the downtrodden and to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour”. The four “beatitudes” at the start of today’s gospel are a more poetic rendition of his mission statement, and directed pointedly to the strugglers in his audience. His intention was to offer them a message of hope and encouragement. Then he directed a sterner message to those in the crowd who were smug, self-satisfied and comfortable. Clearly, he had summed up the audience in front of him and deliberately set about comforting the disturbed among them and disturbing the comfortable.
We know from experience, that our lives take lots of different turns. We have all known tough and difficult times and we have all experienced times of satisfaction and comfort. Consequently, there are times when we need to hear Jesus’ words of comfort and other times when our comfort and complacency need to be challenged. Implicit in Jesus’ words about the “four woes” is a message that we all have a serious social responsibility to reach out to the poor, the neglected and the alienated, especially when we have the means to assist them.
Of course, there is an additional message here for us about the way we speak to all the different people with whom we engage in the course of our day. Do we measure our words to fit what we think that others want to hear from us or are we prepared to say what our own integrity demands of us? How we say it is just as important as the content of our message. Therefore, we would do well to reflect on our readiness to speak the truth in love, especially when we realise that the truth of what we want to say might threaten or upset the person/s to whom our words are directed.
I suggest that it is not coincidental that Luke has Jesus speak this message of beatitudes and woes on a plain. I believe that Luke wanted to demonstrate that Jesus was one with the rest of humanity on the same level. In proclaiming the beatitudes, he was giving assurance to the poor, the forgotten and the discarded that they were not disregarded by God; rather, that God had a preference for them. His words of warning to those who were comfortably placed were a correction of a prevalent belief that wealth and good fortune were indicators of God’s favour. Any who did not subscribe to that belief seemed to think that all they had acquired had come to them as a result of their own efforts, and their efforts alone. It did not seem to occur to them that all their abilities were God-given gifts in the first place. Yet Jesus was quick to disabuse his audience of their misconceptions, pointing out that wealth so preoccupied those who had it that it often insulated them from the poor and marginalized, and desensitized them to their plight, in which they barely eked out an existence.
By debunking the prevailing idea of what constituted strength and success and elevating the lowly, the needy, those psychologically and physically imprisoned and those whose lives had been upended by loss and grief, Jesus acted as the great leveller. In so doing, he became God’s beatitude - a blessing to all, but especially to the downtrodden, in a society that gave preference to the rich and the successful. His words are a reminder to us that, whatever our status and circumstance, we are not overlooked by God, even if God’s way of noticing us is to give us a wake-up call. Nor are we meant to live only in the company of those who enjoy a similar status. We’re meant to interact with everyone around us, rich and poor alike. The level ground we share with everyone else is that we are all equal in worth and dignity, all beloved of a God in whose image we are created. We are not alone in our experiences, our needs and our losses, and we have an obligation not to leave our fellow human beings alone in theirs. And that’s the kernel of today’s gospel.
If it hasn’t struck us yet, another look at this gospel reading might help us to see that the list Luke’s Jesus gives of beatitudes and woes echoes the sentiments spelled out Mary’s Magnificat:
“He (the Lord) has pulled down princes from their thrones and raised high the lowly.
He has filled the starving with good things, sent the rich away empty.” Luke 1, 46-55
Let’s conclude with a Middle Eastern parable about priorities:
Once upon a time in the depth of winter, an eagle was searching the frozen landscape for food. It spotted on an ice-floe the carcass of a deer that had been left behind by a party of hunters. The eagle swooped down and set about satisfying its hunger. It became so consumed by what it was consuming, that it became deaf to the thundering sound of a waterfall in the distance. Just before the ice-floe was about to go crashing over the edge, the eagle sensed the danger and flapped its wings to make its escape. However, its claws had become frozen into the icy remains of the deer. The eagle met the same fate as the deer on which it was feasting.
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
After he had finished speaking to the crowds from Simon’s boat, Jesus said to Simon: “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch…Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” Luke 5, 1-11
This coming Sunday’s readings focus on the topic of vocation. The word itself is derived from the Latin vocare, meaning to call. Yet not too many of us have heard a voice calling us to the vocation we are currently living. We all have a vocation in life, and we were all blessed with the ability to discern and choose the path in life which we believe is the best fit for us, which we are convinced is the most authentic way of expressing the love in our heart, of being our true self.
Pursuing one’s vocation in life involves a succession of choices. We Christians believe that, in making those choices, we have available to us the guidance of God’s Spirit, who is constantly present to us, acting through our thoughts and feelings, through other people and through the created world around us. But we have to be prepared to open ourselves to the promptings of God’s Spirit who works through the ordinary events of our lives. Ultimately, however, it is left to us to choose the path in life we believe is most appropriate for us, even though we seek the guidance of God’s Spirit in making our choice and living it out day after day as it unfolds, sometimes in surprising ways. Still, the metaphor of vocation as call, with its deep foundation in Scripture and tradition, persists in influencing the way we understand and talk about the life choices we make.
Closely associated with the reality of vocation is the phenomenon we call “a religious experience”. Simply put, a religious experience is a conscious encounter with the divine. Many ordinary and not-so-ordinary people tell of such encounters in their lives. Normally, those occasions are infrequent. Some of those encounters are recorded in the Bible, and are generally described in terms of verbal exchanges, hearing a voice of invitation or a call. Sometimes they are described as dreams. Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, had several such dreams. Additionally, such encounters are often followed immediately by protests of unworthiness or not being fit or ready for the job, offered by those who have just heard the “call”. Moses, Jeremiah and Jonah fit into that category.
This Sunday’s first reading, which describes the call of Isaiah, contains all these features. The context of Isaiah’s religious experience is worthy of note. He lived at a time when the affairs of Israel were guided by King Uzziah, a good, wise and benevolent ruler who had come to the throne at the age of six and grew up to lead his people for more than fifty years. He had the foresight to strengthen the fortifications of Jerusalem to protect his people from invading armies. He also promoted agriculture as a practical way of providing food for the people, and had the common good as his principal focus. Eventually, however, he was stricken with leprosy and died. Isaiah came from a wealthy and highly respected family, all of whom were well connected with King Uzziah and his court. At the news of the king’s death, Isaiah went to the Temple to join all the people in prayer, as they expressed their grief. And it was there that he had a religious experience, in which he heard God inviting him to leave his comfortable life-style and devote himself to being God’s messenger to the people of Israel. Instinctively, his response was: “I’m not good enough. I have a history of criticizing others, of speaking nastily about them.” But God did not back off. The storyteller uses the symbol of Isaiah’s critical lips being purified by an angel carrying a burning coal from the altar of incense, situated in the Temple. Then God said: “If not you, Isaiah, who will undertake this job for me?” Then, to his own amazement, Isaiah heard himself saying: “Here I am, Lord; send me!” Whatever exactly happened for Isaiah in the Temple that day was so overwhelming that he sensed that God was not only in the Temple but everywhere: “All the earth is filled with God’s glory” (Isaiah 6, 3).
In the gospel reading, we hear Peter respond in similar fashion. His experience of fishing had taught him that big catches are very rare in the heat of the day. He had not long finished doing what all professional fishermen do - trawl during the night hours. Reluctantly, he humoured Jesus by dropping his nets in the middle of the day. When the unexpected happened and he netted more fish than he could cope with, he realized that he was in the presence of holiness, and not worthy to be there. His response was: “Please, Jesus, have nothing to do with me. I’m weak, fragile and sinful.” Jesus ignored his plea, told him not to be afraid, and gave him the even more difficult task of “catching people”. He extended the same invitation to Simon Peter’s fishing partners, James and John. And almost incredibly, all three accepted the invitation on the spot.
In the second reading of this Sunday, Paul makes only a passing reference to how an encounter with Jesus turned his life upside down: “Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me. For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15, 7-9). There are full accounts in Acts, chapters 9 and 22. But whatever happened on that road to Damascus changed his heart.
There is something the same and something different about the accounts of the faith journeys of these three Biblical giants. Their stories serve to highlight how every person’s faith journey is unique. God’s Spirit touches us in the particular circumstances of our particular lives. We can all look at our lives in retrospect and point to events and people who made a very significant impact on us. Our encounters with them led us to reflect on how we wanted to live our lives. It was through them that God’s Spirit was at work. But we had to choose whether or not we would respond and what shape our response would take. Moreover, every day we continue to make decisions that confirm and nourish that very first risky, yet courageous, decision we made to embrace the way of life we believed would be an authentic expression of ourselves, our gifts and the love in our heart. There have also been times when we have made decisions that have been less than authentic and nourishing. But with God’s help we dust ourselves off and readjust our compass.
What’s more, we discover that these decisions about choosing our vocation in life are not in step with the calendar. Nor are they made in accord with some rigid, lock-step process. They are influenced by our personality, our insights, our skill (or lack of it) in discerning, our courage, determination and flexibility, and any number of other factors and circumstances. Our experience also tells us that we don’t all grow, flourish and find our true fit at the same rate. But there is one constant, and that is a recognition that life demands change. By definition, to grow is to change, and the prospect of change sometimes frightens us, even paralyses us temporarily. But failure or unwillingness to change leads to atrophy and death. And we have all met people who are dead but not yet buried. Let’s hope and pray that we don’t meet such people when we look into the mirror. And let’s never lose sight of the dream Jesus has for us: “I have come that they may have life and have it in abundance” (John 10, 10). Are we brave enough to choose life?
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Set your hearts, then, on the more important gifts. Best of all, however is the following way…If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong…Love is patient, love is kind…” 1 Corinthians 12, 31-13, 13
“I tell you solemnly”, Jesus said, “no prophet is ever accepted in his own country…And in the prophet Elisha’s time there were many lepers in Israel, but none of these were cured except the Syrian, Naaman.” Luke 4, 21-30
Today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a text that is frequently heard at wedding ceremonies. As I reflected on it, I started to ask myself if the kind of love Paul described is actually possible. I wondered whether Paul was carried away with enthusiasm or even caught up in a rhapsody when he wrote it. We’ve all experienced love, but could anyone ever love with the completeness and intensity that Paul describes? Was Paul actually in touch with the reality of ordinary people doing their best to love those around them or was he trying to whip up his audience to rise to greater heights in their loving and caring for others?
We’ve all glimpsed different facets of the composite picture of love which Paul paints. We’ve seen those facets in the patience parents demonstrate in dealing with their teenage children. We’ve witnessed extraordinary acts of kindness by complete strangers on our streets or in buses and trains. We’ve known prominent leaders who wear their position and status very lightly. We’ve seen friends and acquaintances, unjustly ridiculed and publicly humiliated, bounce back without carrying grudges, with no focus on revenge. But is it possible for any of us to integrate all these admirable facets of love into our lived reality?
No matter how hard we try, we discover that there is something elusive about love. We do reasonably well for a while, and then we slip backwards. But despite our lapses, we pick ourselves up and try again. Yet, even with the best of intentions, we find it difficult to remain fully committed to loving everyone we encounter. Moreover, there will always be people who have been so disappointed in their efforts at loving that they will want to tell us that our efforts will come to nothing. Still, while we know from our own experience that the way of love can be fairly steep, we keep returning to renew our efforts, probably because the experience of our past successes has been uplifting and personally rewarding. Deep down, we know that we are made for love - for giving love and receiving love.
When we look at the troubled lives of some of the people around us, and then further afield, at places like Syria, Venezuela, Yemen and South Sudan, we wonder if the supply of available love is sufficient to meet the demand. We even ask ourselves if we can keep at it into our own old age. Yet we have the inspiration of people who have been faithful in their loving commitments over fifty, sixty or seventy years. Then, we can find consolation and encouragement in Paul’s observation that “love is eternal” (1 Corinthians 13, 8).
One surprising aspect of Paul’s rhapsody of love is that he fails to point out that love has need sometimes to put on a hard face. Today’s first reading gives us a very clear picture of tough love. In launching Jeremiah on his vocation as a prophet, God assures him that he is to be “a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass” to stand against kings, princes, priests and people who will resist his message. And in today’s gospel Jesus expresses tough love as he confronts the people of his own town because of their pettiness, small-mindedness and prejudice. They set aside God’s invitation to live lovingly by turning their attention to questioning his pedigree, his qualifications and his courage in speaking the truth. Speaking the truth in love can be a considerable challenge to personal integrity. Yet we all know that there are times when love demands that of us. Genuine love can draw us into the discomfort of confrontation. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that genuine confrontation means inviting the other person (or persons) to stand beside us, so that together we can look at whatever it is that is challenging, dividing or discomforting us. Those are the times when it’s necessary for us not to lose sight of God’s love for all of us.
In quoting Isaiah to the people gathered in the Synagogue of Nazareth (last Sunday’s gospel), Jesus made it clear that his love and concern were to be directed especially to the poor and downtrodden, to prisoners, to those alienated because of physical disability, and to those confined by psychological illness. By implication, he was telling his audience that they, too, had to get their hands dirtied in caring for all those whom society had alienated or discarded. Initially, they “were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (Luke 4, 22). But their admiration and amazement quickly turned to hostility when he referred to the way in which God, through the prophets Elijah and Elisha, had expressed a preference for a widow and a leper who were Gentiles and from countries hostile towards Israel.
What blinkered the people of Nazareth from seeing what Jesus was saying to them were their sense of entitlement and their fixed expectations of how the long-awaited Messiah should act. They simply could not envision a Messiah who was from their town, who looked and spoke like them, and who favoured the outcasts. They dreamed of a Messiah who would rid them of their Roman oppressors, one who would restore to them every comfort, luxury and security to which they believed they were entitled.
And isn’t it a sense of entitlement that can block our vision and feed our prejudices? Haven’t there been times when we have felt that we deserved a better deal from God? Haven’t we felt that our fidelity to Sunday Mass, our monetary support of our Church and our integrity and honesty should have protected us from illness, accident and the untimely deaths of those close to us? Have there not been times when we have compared ourselves to others whom we have categorized as only half-baked Christians, and concluded that we’ll be given preferential treatment at the time of final accountability?
Jesus took the risk of telling his own townspeople a few home truths, and they resented it.
Are we able to apply to ourselves the underlying message of what he dared to point out to the people of Nazareth? Can we see God’s love reflected in our encounters with the other very ordinary people with whom we rub shoulders each day? Are we able to imagine that those we regard as “unchurched” might have something to teach us, something to soften our hardness and even melt away our prejudices?
Let’s conclude with a delightful story from the Middle East: “Abou Adam was wealthy according to every earthly measure. At the same time, he did his best to become spiritually enriched as well. One night, he was roused from sleep by frightful stomping on his roof. Startled, he sat bold upright in bed and shouted: ‘Who’s there?’ ‘A friend’, answered a voice from the roof, ‘I’ve lost my camel.’ Disturbed by such stupidity, Abou called back: ‘You idiot! Why the devil are you looking for a camel on my roof?’ ‘You’re the idiot!’ came the reply. “What are you doing looking for God, lying on a golden bed, dressed in silk pyjamas?’”
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jesus unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me…” Then he began to speak to them: “Today this text is being fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 1, 1-4; 4, 14-21
Garrison Keillor is an American writer, storyteller and comedian who was host of a radio programme in Minnesota for 42 years before his contract was terminated in controversial circumstances in 2016. He comes from a family that had strong connections with the Plymouth Brethren but now describes himself as a member of the Episcopalian Church. One of his stories is to be found in a collection called Listening for God: A Reader but most are in the many books he wrote about the people of Lake Wobegon, a fictional town he created. He once stated that he was on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Among the many quotes attributed to him are the following: “One reads books in order to gain the privilege of living more than one life. People who don’t read are trapped in a mine shaft, even if they think the sun is shining.” and “It’s a shallow life that doesn’t give a person a few scars.” and “Computers can never completely replace humans. They may become capable of artificial intelligence, but they will never master real stupidity.” and “Thank you, God, for this good life and forgive us if we don’t love it enough.”
In one of his “Lake Wobegon” volumes entitled Leaving Home, he tells of a character who went to visit his home town after many years away. The frontispiece of the book carries a poem which begins:
One more spring in Minnesota,
To come upon Lake Wobegon.
Old town, I smell your coffee.
If I could see you one more time —
I can’t stay, you know, I left so long ago,
I’m just a stranger with memories of people I knew here.
We stand around looking at the ground.
You’re the stories I’ve told for years and years.
That yard, the tree - you climbed it once with me,
And we talked of cities that we’d live in someday.
I left, old friend, and now I’m back again,
Please say you missed me since I went away.
Today’s gospel reading describes Jesus’ return for a visit to his home town of Nazareth, after a considerable absence. There were people there who remembered him as a boy growing up. There were many who knew Mary and Joseph. But Jesus’ reputation had gone ahead of him, and the crowd gathered in the local synagogue had come to see for themselves if the rumours of him were true. So, here he was in the synagogue he had known from his infancy, and, in keeping with the courtesy extended to any visiting rabbi, whoever was in charge handed him the scroll they had been reading. It was from Isaiah. Jesus opened it and read: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, release to prisoners, and to announce a year of favour from the Lord.” Having finished reading, he sat down, thereby giving his audience the traditional sign that he was about to give an important teaching. But it was a teaching with which he completely startled them: “Today, this passage is being fulfilled even as you listen.” The people gathered in the synagogue were so accustomed to hearing promises and predictions about what would happen in the future that they could not even hear that Jesus was telling them that, as they sat there in front of him, God was actually breaking into their lives. And it’s that very message that is put to us today. Not tomorrow, not next week, next month or next year. God is present to us in everyone we encounter today, in everything that happens to us today, in every aspect of the created world that impinges on our senses today. And God is still present even if today turns out to be not quite what we anticipated.
Just imagine how different our world might be if Mozart had said: “I don’t write music”, or if Van Gogh had said: “I don’t paint irises”, or if Michelangelo had said: “I don’t do ceilings” or “I’m not going to waste my time chipping away at marble” and if Ruth had said: “I don’t fancy my mother-in-law” and if Florence Nightingale had said: “I don’t touch sick people”! The world would be the poorer, as it would if we were to repeatedly pass by people we would rather ignore and refuse to go to places to which we are invited but to which we would rather not go.
Gerald Jampolsky is an internationally recognized medical doctor, psychiatrist and adult educator. He founded a self-help group called Attitudinal Healing. It has spread to almost thirty countries, including Italy, Kenya, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, India and Argentina. He, himself, has written well over twenty books. Among them are best-sellers like Forgiveness, the Greatest Healer, Love is Letting Go of Fear, Aging with Attitude and Advice to Doctors & Other Big People from Kids. In Love is Letting Go of Fear, he wrote: “Have you ever given yourself the opportunity of going through just one day concentrating on totally accepting everyone and making no judgements?…Everything we think or say or do reacts on us like a boomerang coming back. When we send out judgements in the form of criticism, fury or other attack-thoughts, they come back to us. When we send out only love, it, too, comes back to us.”
If we were to release our creative talents, set aside our fears or carry out Gerald Jampolsky’s advice, we, too, could say: “This scripture is being fulfilled in your hearing.” How would we be seen by those who know us if we had a succession of days without judgement, without complaint and not bound by fear?
Those gathered to hear Jesus in the synagogue of Nazareth had him judged and categorized before he even opened his mouth. He was much too ordinary looking. He didn’t live up to the people’s expectations of what a prophet should look like, much less a Messiah. And, when they caught on to the real meaning of what he was saying, their disappointment turned to hostility. And there lies an important message for us. The Spirit of the Lord has been given to you and to me. We, through Baptism, are all anointed by God’s Spirit as prophets to proclaim in word and action the coming of the kingdom of God. And like Jesus and so many other prophets, we look like the ordinary people we are. Yet God is reflected in us and in the other ordinary people and things of our world.
But let’s think for a moment about the pressure Jesus must have felt to satisfy his home-town crowd, to deliver on their hopes, desires and expectations. Instead, he preached the simple, unembellished truth which disappointed and angered his audience. He held fast to the courage of his convictions and told them not only that he was the Messiah but outlined for them the kind of Messiah he would be. He was not prepared to sacrifice truth simply to please them. This last week, we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr, a man of courage, who, in imitation of Jesus, found the courage to speak the truth, knowing there was a price to be paid. We, too, are called to speak the truth in support of strangers, refugees and those treated unjustly, to do so with credibility, love and generosity, but without compromise.
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
The mother of Jesus said to him: “They have no wine.” Jesus said in reply: Woman, why turn to me? My hour has not come yet.” His mother said to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you.” John 2, 1-11
John’s Gospel is markedly different from those of Mark, Matthew and Luke in that it is densely written, loaded with symbols and carries multiple levels of meaning. For example, today’s account of Jesus changing water into wine is a symbol of what can happen to people who open themselves to the Spirit. They are renewed and transformed. On another level, we can read today’s gospel as a story of how Jesus can bring true joy into our lives, defeating gloom and sadness. We can also come to appreciate how Jesus, himself is “the best wine kept till now”. So we have to be ready to paddle around in all the symbols and metaphors.
This gospel reading also gives us an insight into the emotional side of Jesus: While he speaks fairly dismissively to his mother, it is clear that he is no stranger to a wedding celebration. Later in John’s Gospel, we learn how he wept at the death of his friend, Lazarus and eventually faced his own execution with fear and trepidation. John presents us with a Jesus who was a flesh and blood human being, not a divine puppet. In Jesus, divinity became fully human, thus lifting humanity to the level of the divine.
But let’s look at the remark made to Jesus by his mother: “They have no more wine.” Jesus clearly heard it as more than an observation. Effectively, his mother was asking: “Can you do something to save the newly weds from being embarrassed?” And his response seems like a blunt: “Please don’t push me. Don’t put on me expectations that I can’t meet right now.” But John is also using Mary’s remark as a metaphor or symbol for his audience, inviting them to ask if the energy, the vigour or the meaning has disappeared from their lives. And we are not just observers watching from the sidelines. We’re meant to be participants in the gospel reading, asking ourselves if the life, meaning and purpose have ebbed out of us. And if so, what might we do to have them charged up again? Of course, the suggestion is that we may need Jesus to breathe life back into whatever is dead in us.
Last week I referred to the message President Bush sent his wife on the morning of their 70th wedding anniversary (I should have named him as George H.W. Bush instead of giving him his son’s name). This week I want to refer to a man by the name of Lee Atwater. He was the campaign manager for George H.W. Bush during his bid for the presidency. Atwater was a self-educated, street-wise man who had earned a reputation for being ruthless in dealing with rival politicians, and hard-as-nails in just about all his relationships. He knew well the tactics of political campaigning, so he set about brushing aside and pushing into oblivion anyone who stood in the way of the campaign of the man he supported. Atwater openly admitted that his main tactic was to identify an opponent’s weakness and attack it relentlessly, irrespective of whether the weakness he identified was based in reality or invented by Atwater himself. He was probably the single, most influential person in getting George H.W. Bush into the White House in 1988. He once said to Bush during the campaign: “Your kinder, gentler approach is very nice, but it won’t win votes.”
However, in March 1990 with George Bush well settled in Washington D.C., Atwater suffered a seizure at a fundraising breakfast in support of a US Senator. He was diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer. And that changed his life so dramatically that he wrote letters of apology to political opponents whose reputations he had demolished. He found religion and converted to Catholicism, guided by a priest whom he had met during his hospitalization. He even gave an interview to Life magazine in 1991 in which he said: “My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood. The 1980s were about acquiring – acquiring wealth, power, prestige. I know. I acquired more wealth, power, and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. What power wouldn't I trade for a little more time with my family? What price wouldn't I pay for an evening with friends? It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime. I don't know who will lead us through the '90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul.” He could have said those words about almost any country and government in the present, so called, “developed” world. In recent months and years, Pope Frances has repeatedly stated that our world “is in desperate need of brotherhood”. It was through life-threatening illness that Lee Atwater grew into being the kind of man that he had not known before. It was by listening to his sickness that he blossomed into the man that he previously had not recognized. As the Augustinian priest and writer, Thomas a Kempis wrote centuries ago: “Sickness does not so much contribute to our frailty, but rather shows us who we really are” (The Imitation of Christ, circa 1427). In his sickness, Atwater discovered who he really was.
Could it be that today’s gospel reading is inviting us to listen to what our own frailty, brokenness and lack of centredness are asking of us? And many of the mystics reminded themselves and us that another name for listening is prayer. In time, the prayer of listening might lead us to take the risk of saying to Jesus: “You know, your mother was right. The wine of my life has been draining away. And I need your help to do something to stem the flow.”
So, there it is. Today’s gospel confronts us with a woman who knew what she was about. She had come to realise that her son didn’t do things by halves. As the story unfolds, we learn that his generosity converted more than 200 litres of water into fine wine. But picking up the levels of symbolism in John’s story of this wedding celebration in Cana, we have to hear that his mother’s words to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you”, are also directed to us. Lee Atwater came to hear those words and set about the work of reconciliation, of mending broken relationships, of bringing heart and brotherhood to the ordinary encounters of each day. A clear message of today’s gospel is that Jesus is ready and willing to touch the very ordinary of our daily lives and to make it sparkle. But just as he was invited to join in a wedding celebration in Cana, so, too, he has to get an invitation from each of us to come as a guest into our lives. Are we ready with the invitation?
The Baptism of Jesus
“You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you.” Luke 3, 15-16, 21-22
Just a few weeks ago, leaders from around the world gathered in Washington D.C. for a funeral service to honour George W. Bush, former President of the United States who died on 30th November last year at the age of 94. What many of the mourners did not know was that, when George was hospitalized for a brief period in January 2015, he sent a message to his wife on the morning of their 70th wedding anniversary: “Seventy years ago this very day, Barbara Pierce of Rye, New York, made me the happiest and luckiest man on earth.”
George and Barbara pledged themselves to each other in a commitment that changed and enriched both their lives. Yet there were probably times when they struggled, when they wondered if their commitment would last, when they questioned the values and principles that underpinned that commitment.
Today’s gospel reading brings to us an invitation to ponder why it was that Jesus chose to be baptized by John and to reflect on the meaning of our own commitment as baptized Catholics/Christians. There was a time when Christians were struggling to establish themselves as a community, in the face of bitter opposition and persecution, when baptism was understood as a serious, courageous, life-changing commitment, undertaken only after a long “apprenticeship”. That was an era in which Christians really had to stand in opposition to the dominant culture; a time when to be a Christian meant alienation from main-stream society; a time when the general populace ridiculed those who believed that we are all made in the image of God; a time when professing Christianity meant losing one’s job, being help up to public ridicule and reduced to having barely enough to survive. It was a time when two-thirds of the population were slaves and treated as the dregs of society. To become a Christian often meant relegation to the ranks of slaves.
Moreover, the teachings of Jesus were not exactly popular in the society of first century Palestine. Loving one’s enemies and praying for those intent on persecution didn’t quite capture the imagination of the general populace. And almost nobody believed that there was anything wrong with exposing unwanted babies to the elements. Christianity did not fit comfortably into a society that had very different social norms and traditions. As a result, anyone considering baptism had to undergo long and rigorous preparation and scrutiny in order to qualify for acceptance into the Christian community. Baptism was a very serious rite of passage.
In the first quarter of the 4th century, Christianity flourished, with the blessing of the Emperor Constantine, and became the “official” religion of much of the Roman Empire. The result was that it became domesticated, giving Christians status in society rather than public entry into a faith community. In time it became a private affair in which belief in teaching and doctrine found was given priority status ahead of practical, compassionate action done in imitation of Jesus. Christians began to look at baptism as initiation into society rather than as a challenging event that was meant to be life-changing for all who presented themselves for this most important of all the sacraments. In time the baptism ritual was stripped of many of its meaningful symbols. For instance, as part of the baptism ritual, the priest would place some salt on the tongue of the candidate as a reminder that he or she was to be “the salt of the earth”. That no longer happens. The sacrament was once administered in front of the whole community, after the candidate was interrogated about his/her lifestyle and her/his motives for seeking admission to the Christian community. Now, with the introduction of infant baptism, most children are baptized quietly, on a Sunday afternoon, when most parish members have gone home. The only ones to attend are the priest, the child’s parents and close friends and family members, some of whom take the role of God-parents. In recent times, the Church has designed a year-long program called The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) in an attempt to reclaim some of the lost meaning of baptism. Still, in the minds of some parents, a Baptism Certificate is seen as merely a ticket for their child to gain admission to a Catholic school. And there are still some parents, priests and bishops who seem to put more emphasis on knowledge of the Catechism than on living the Gospel on a daily basis.
Michael Corleone, the Mafia boss in the film The Godfather, knew the Catechism, and pledged “to renounce Satan and all his pomps” as he stood in the church asking baptism for his son while his henchmen were elsewhere gunning down his enemies. The hypocrisy of it all can be viewed in a 90 second YouTube clip entitled The Baptism Murders.
Still, by living true to our baptism, we make a commitment to live the life of Christ each day of our lives - at work, at study, in our family lives and in all our other activities. So many of us have been so anaesthetized by our secular culture that our sense of Christian commitment has been dulled. Our own baptismal commitment has lost much of its significance and the baptism of children in our immediate and extended families looks much like an excuse for a party rather than a reminder to all of us of our promise to live the Gospel of Jesus to the best of our ability.
Today’s gospel account of the Baptism of Jesus serves as a reminder to us that we, too, have been baptized and thereby have committed ourselves to live as Jesus would want us to live. But let’s also look at the detail of Jesus’ baptism by John. What is described is God’s commissioning of Jesus. With a clear anointing by God’s Spirit, Jesus was commissioned to bring justice, life and love to the world. While the voice from heaven was an expression God’s confirmation of Jesus’ mission and affectionate congratulations to him for what he was taking on, we need to look closely of what Jesus was actually doing when he let himself be baptized by John in the river. It was here that Jesus demonstrated that he had the courage and resolution for the job he sensed was ahead of him. He did that by expressing his readiness to identify with sinful, struggling, fragile humanity. His presenting himself to John was a statement in action of his willingness to identify with humanity’s hopes, needs and mortality. With eyes wide open, he accepted all the implications of incarnation - of living with a human body and rubbing shoulders with people whose lives had been broken by personal limitations and the circumstances and events of human existence.
It’s all too easy to slip into thinking that he had the assistance of his divine connections in taking on his very challenging mission, or that he had been blessed with much more talent and wisdom than the people among whom he lived. But the courage, determination and persistence he showed as he went about expressing his own integrity came at a personal cost. We are misguided if we try to convince ourselves that it was all easy for him. The voice from heaven affirming: “You are my beloved, my Son in whom I am well pleased”, is not some announcement of a deal between God and Jesus worked out previously in private. It is an expression of God’s admiration for Jesus’ courageous decision to identify fully with broken humanity. Any of us who dare to apply for a job in what Jesus started is expected to respond to the same question he faced: “Are you ready and willing to embrace your humanity, with all its implications, with faith, trust and love?” We, too, are God’s “beloved”. Our baptism identified us with Jesus, named us as children of the light and commission us to step into the world as sons and daughters of God. How ready are we?
Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem. “Where is the infant king of the Jews?”, they asked. We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” Matthew 2, 1-12
My own exploration into children’s literature has taught me that all stories are true, and that some actually happened. We human beings love to hear and tell stories. In fact, much of our daily conversation is taken up with storytelling that is coloured with our own embellishments and perceptions. In today’s gospel, we hear the story of the “three wise men” who came in search of the new-born Jesus. It occurs only in Matthew’s Gospel, and whether or not it is based on an actual event, it’s a story that Matthew used to tell all his readers something about themselves. So, it’s a story about us.
Over centuries, Matthew’s three travellers from the east have been presented in exotic dress and have had unusual names attributed to them – Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior, simply because they caught the imagination of people from one generation to the next. They are unlike most of us in culture and origin. They are very much like us in their human experience. Dissatisfied with their horoscopes and whatever other apparatus they used, these three astrologers (“some men who studied the stars”, Matthew 2, 1) set out to follow a star to something or somebody they hoped would satisfy their searching. They discovered the Christ child after a long and difficult search.
Isn’t this a search which we all must take? In Luke’s Gospel we read how the shepherds, discards of society, went to Bethlehem in search of a child they were told by angels they would find in a manger. In Matthew, we read how the educated and wealthy, the Magi, set out on a long and arduous search not knowing what they would find. The implication is that we, too, need to go in search of the only one who will ever satisfy us.
To emphasise his point, Matthew presents us with another set of wisdom figures in the persons of “the chief priests and teachers of the Law” (Matthew 2, 4). The arrival in Jerusalem of distinguished strangers from the east was news that was significant enough to be brought to the attention of King Herod, who, in turn, sought the wisdom of the Jewish religious leaders, asking them: “Where will the Messiah be born?” (Matthew 2, 4). While they had the answer, for they quoted to Herod the prophet Micah 5, 2: “The Lord says: ‘Bethlehem, Ephrathah, you are one of the smallest towns in Judah, but out of you I will bring a ruler for Israel, whose family line goes back to ancient times’”, they were no more interested in looking for a Messiah in Bethlehem than they were in flying to the moon. There was no connection between their heads and their hearts. Moreover, they were so full of their own importance that they were not able to take the risk of lowering themselves to go to Bethlehem to confirm what one of the prophets in their own tradition had pointed to. Had they taken that risk, they would have had to ignore what they found or make changes to the way they lived and the message they proclaimed. In contrast, the Magi took the double risk of long and dangerous journeying and the possibility of having to accept the consequences of life-changing discovery that inquiry sometimes demands.
Therein lies the challenge of today’s gospel reading. It pushes us to choose between two kinds of wisdom figures - those who hold onto the safety and comfort of certainty and those who risk journeying into the unknown in search of truth that might unsettle.
To which set of wise men do I choose to listen?
There is still more about this story of the Magi to which we can give our attention. Their arrival in Jerusalem caused something of a stir. They were different because of the way they dressed. They attracted the attention of the local people because they were strangers and outsiders.
Matthew’s story invites us to reflect on the way we treat outsiders. Do we keep such people at a distance because we believe they have no right to trespass into our space, to look for acceptance in our land? Do we ever acknowledge that they might bring different and better ways of living that put us to shame? Many of the outsiders who turn up on the borders of our country have been forced to flee from war, violence, and threats to their right to live in peace and freedom. Yet we can reject them as though they are nothing more than human waste. We can treat them as objects of fear rather than take the risk of treating them as our sisters and brothers in need of welcome.
While the people of Bethlehem looked at the newly-arrived Magi with curiosity, suspicion or fear born of prejudice, King Herod in Jerusalem was threatened by the news they brought. The very thought of the birth of a child who might one day challenge his position and power was enough to send him into a bloodthirsty rage. The plan Herod proceeded to put into place only demonstrates how we can let fear cripple our ability to think straight. To be afraid of a helpless child merely highlights the depth of Herod’s irrationality. His actions give me cause to reflect on the extent I allow fear to push aside my faith and hope in God.
Finally, the Magi were searchers for truth and further wisdom. Some commentators on Matthew’s Gospel suggest they were Zoroastrians, members of a religious group that originated in Persia. Zoroaster was a prophet who lived about six hundred years before Christ. Zoroastrianism is still flourishing in India, especially around Mumbai. The world-renowned, classical music conductor, Zubin Mehta, is a Zoroastrian. He founded the Mumbai Symphony Orchestra, has been musical director of the Montreal Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic orchestras and has been sought after to conduct in the great opera houses of the world. He is currently conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Zoroastrians as known for their intellectual and artistic pursuits and their generous outreach to the poor and disadvantaged. They believe that all good people are born under a light in heaven to guide them and that light appears as a star. The brighter the star, the more important is the person born under it. Matthew’s Magi, on their arrival in Jerusalem state the reason for their coming and what it was that guided them: “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? We have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2, 2)
We can identify with the Magi because we, like them, are searchers. We don’t have all the answers. We have questions about our faith and about the big issues in life like sickness, war, natural disasters, recession and death. We are terrified by modern-day, power-hungry Herods. We wonder how a loving God can seemingly allow evil and hatred to flourish. Yet we can take comfort from the example of the Magi who did not search alone, but found support in one another. We too find support and encouragement in the people who join us in our churches and communities week in and week out. With them, we listen, pray and search, and from them we get encouragement and comfort. Like them, we have the light of Christ to guide us. Just as the Magi finally found the one for whom they were searching, so, too, will we.
The Holy Family
Three days later, they found him in the Temple, sitting among the doctors, listening to them, and asking them questions…His parents were overcome when they saw him, and his mother said to him: “My child, why have you done this to us? See how worried your father and I have been, looking for you?” “Why were you looking for me?”, he replied, “Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs? …His mother stored all these things in her heart. Luke 2, 41-52
As I sat down to write this reflection, I found myself wondering if Jesus actually said the words attributed to him or if Luke put them into the mouth of Jesus in order to teach his community something about discipleship. Imagine, for a moment, how modern-day parents might respond if their adolescent son, missing for three days, turned up and told them that there was no need to be worried sick because he was busy “doing God’s work”. We would not be surprised if they were ready to wring his neck.
Yet, we would not be wrong if we were to conclude that all the anguish could have been avoided had either set of parents been told by their son, in advance, what he intended doing for three days.
I’m inclined to think that Luke put this story into his Gospel to parallel it with the events surrounding Jesus’ death. Just before he was killed, Jesus made a journey to the Temple in Jerusalem at Passover time. There he engaged in conflict with religious leaders. And he was missing in the tomb for three days before his resurrection.
Even though the adolescent Jesus’ explanation to Mary and Joseph looks to be somewhat insolent, he is actually correct in saying that they should have known that he was engaged in his Father’s affairs. After all, isn’t it true to say that we all have a responsibility to be involved in God’s affairs by living and acting in ways that reflect God’s love, care and compassion to everyone we encounter. It is God’s business to reach out to all those who are lonely, forgotten, neglected and alienated form a society that needs to care for them.
Nonetheless, this must have been a stressful moment for both Mary and Joseph who had been searching frantically for their missing son. Perhaps Luke was merely intent on only giving the headlines to his audience. So, there’s not even a hint of an apology from Jesus. All we are told is that Mary took time to understand what her challenging son had said, and to ponder it in her heart. While Luke puts the focus on Mary, there is nothing to suggest that Joseph, too, did not puzzle over the significance of what Jesus had said to him and Mary.
There’s a story told of a holy hermit who had given consolation and encouragement to a wealthy man who had lost his way in life and slipped into all kinds of addictive behaviours. When the wealthy man was fully rehabilitated, he expressed his appreciation to the hermit by presenting him with a beautifully illustrated and valuable copy of the Bible. The hermit placed the Bible on a stand in his hermitage for everyone who visited him to see. Some months later, a very sick traveller came to the hermit looking for help. It took the holy man many months to nurse his visitor back to health. Then, one day when the hermit was out looking after poor people in the district, his guest took the precious Bible and fled.
It turned out, however, that the man was arrested in connection with another crime and thrown into prison. Those who arrested him realized that the Bible in his possession had been stolen from the hermit, and they returned it. The hermit, however, went to the prison where the man was being held, forgave his one-time guest, and presented him with the precious Bible. The man still had to see out his prison term. That gave him time to reflect on his own life. When he was finally released, the first thing he did was to go back to the hermit and return the Bible. “You can keep it, my friend”, said the hermit. “If you sell it, you will get enough to make a fresh beginning in life.” “I don’t want the book, and I don’t want the money”, the man said. “All I want is whatever it is inside you that made you want to give it to me when you visited me in prison.”
Both Mary and the Bible thief found time to ponder things that happened in their lives. As a consequence, they changed. Clearly, there’s a message that reflection on the events of our lives can change us, too.
Mary and Joseph must have experienced intense fear throughout their three-day search. That’s the experience that every parent goes through when a child goes missing. Moreover, we all know that intense fear leaves an indelible mark on us, despite the relief that comes when the cause of our fear evaporates. We still imagine what could have happened, and the memories of what could have been stay with us for a long time. In a book entitled Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies (Loyola Press, Chicago 2003), the spiritual writer Brian Doyle observes that we can all learn something from the fearful experiences that come our way. He concludes that the only effective way through fear is love and the only lasting light to guide us when fear grips us is compassion. Now that’s something worthy of reflection!
I am reminded of Marianne Williamson’s remarks about fear in her book A Return to Love (1992). Williamson is an American writer and social activist, who co-founded the Peace Alliance, a group dedicated to working for world peace. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, in 2014 Williamson stated that “Each of us has a unique part to play in the healing of the world.” In A Return to Love, she describes what she had learned from the fear she had experienced in her own life:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us most. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And, as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
I wonder if that’s what Jesus glimpsed in the course of his exchange with the doctors in the Temple. Even though he was still an adolescent, maybe he discovered in his interaction with the Temple elders some of his potential, and then started to ask himself where developing his own potential to the full might lead him. That would have been enough to frighten any precocious twelve-year-old!
I suspect that the prospect of getting involved in God’s business of peace-making, forgiving, advocating for justice frightens us all. But knowing that Jesus walked that way first helps us to take the risk.
Fourth Sunday of Advent & Christmas
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice, saying: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…” Luke 1, 39-45
Christmas is almost upon us and as the fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas are separated by just one day, I’m going to depart from two separate reflections and combine them into one. That’s also expedient, because I’m pressured for time.
It struck me just last week that the drama we now know as the first Christmas event involved a very long list of characters. Just for a moment or two, let’s examine the cast in the same way as we might go through the Dramatis Personae before launching into the study of a Shakespearean play. The following all had a role leading up to and following the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem: the Angel Gabriel, Mary, Joseph, Zachariah, Elizabeth, John (the Baptist), Jesus, Simeon, Anna, Herod, along with those who had minor roles: shepherds, soldiers, an innkeeper, the Magi, Pharisees and Jewish Elders. And then there were all those who made up crowd scenes: people involved in the census, a Roman occupying force, Pharisees, Sadducees, Jews and Palestinians, Gentiles. There we have more than enough characters to make a play of five acts and numerous scenes.
In the course of what unfolded, most of those with prominent parts had their lives so shaken up that they were confronted with the possibility of very significant direction changes. Some embraced change with hesitation while others set aside a choice of living with integrity and uncertainty and, instead, opted for the comfort and security of what they knew and could manipulate to suit themselves. This latter group included Herod, a man who was seemingly so afraid of being toppled from power that he was threatened by babies, and all those guardians of religious law and orthodoxy - Pharisees, Sadducees & scribes - who used religion as a weapon of control.
In stark contrast to all these stood Mary, a mere slip of a girl on the edge of adulthood, whose faith and courage led her to utter the “yes” that took her into an unknown future, a “yes” that, in time, changed the history of the world. As Luke tells the story, Gabriel offered Mary no time to consider the proposition he put to her and no opportunity to reflect on the consequences of being asked to be a mother at a time in her life when she was only promised in marriage. In the background was Joseph, who, while expecting to be Mary’s husband, had to contend with dreams: the first in which he encountered an angel who convinced him to take Mary into his home even though he was not the father of the child she carried; the second in which he was directed to flee from the threat of violence with his new-found family into Egypt as refugees. Nobody in this drama more than Joseph had to step into darkness and uncertainty. His faith and courage shone bright as he complied with all that was asked of him.
Woven into the main plot is the sub-plot that involved Zachariah, Elizabeth, Anna and Simeon, all very elderly and all pillars of the temple. Simeon and Anna, devout to the core of their being, had lived into old age, frequenting the temple on a daily basis in the hope that one day they would encounter the long-awaited Messiah. Their faith and hope were rewarded. As they, in turn, nursed the child, they were so certain that their dreams were being fulfilled that their emotions overflowed into prophecy. We are not told the sequel to their experience, but in all likelihood their excitement would have been labelled as the ravings of the senile who had lost their minds. Zachariah and Elizabeth had to deal with the challenges of parenthood at a time when they were more suited to being great-grandparents. Just imagine a couple of eighty-year-olds having to learn how to clean, bathe and feed a first child. Their lives had to change quickly and dramatically. As John grew, developed and turned out to be eccentric in the extreme, they must have wondered if their efforts had been in vain. They, too, had been pushed by circumstances to step out into the uncertain and the unknown.
And then there is Jesus, the central character of this great drama. He had bridged the divide between divinity and humanity and, in time, embraced all the limitations of being human - the utter dependence of infancy, the adventure of childhood, the stresses of adolescence, the trial and error of learning a trade, the fear and hesitation of launching into public preaching, the hurt and humiliation of public ridicule, the embarrassment of being branded as a heretic by the guardians of religious orthodoxy and the ultimate failure of being executed as a political criminal. Along the way he crossed over multiple social barriers: he engaged with outcasts like tax-collectors and prostitutes; he touched the lepers, the blind, the diseased and crippled; he welcomed Samaritans, Greeks and other foreigners.
In an earlier reflection this year, I referred to people in Jewish history who “had found favour with God”, and to the pain, confusion and upheaval that had come to them as a consequence of such “favour”. Remember, there were Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Job and the mythical Jonah, and now, Mary and all the other lead players in this Christmas drama.
One of the main messages of Advent and Christmas is that we, too, have found favour with God. Jesus’ becoming one with humanity - the incarnation, God’s becoming flesh and blood - in an invitation to us to identify with him and to step into the unknown and the uncertain, to climb over obstacles and to cross borders in order to grow into our full potential, and to witness to the selflessness, love, generosity and forgiveness that Jesus demonstrated. That’s how we grow into being fully human.
Characters like Herod and the Jewish religious leaders were unable to move from the comfort, power and control in which they found satisfaction. As we relive the events celebrated in these final days of Advent, in the drama of Christmas and during the first weeks of the new year, we are invited to reflect on our unwillingness to cross from our comfort and false security into the new life to be discovered beyond the borders that restrict us. Just think for a moment of the restrictions we put on ourselves through our attachment to things like I-phones, tablets and laptops which block us from engaging face-to-face with family and friends in conversations that are life-giving. Reflect, too, on the hours we invest in being glued to television sets or computers as we watch football, golf, cricket or Netflix. These are the things that keep us locked in the safety of the known and prevent us from engaging with people on the edge of our society and with those strangers and refugees who have had the courage to step across the borders of the places they once called home.
Quiet reflection on the drama of this Christmas season is the entrance into opening ourselves to hearing how our God is inviting us to step beyond whatever is holding us back. To live Christmas meaningfully we will have to risk crossing boundaries, especially the ones we create for ourselves. As the African-American theologian and poet, Howard Thurman writes:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
H. Thurman, The Work of Christmas Begins
Third Sunday in Advent
“Sing and shout for joy, people of Israel! Rejoice with all your heart, Jerusalem!” Zephaniah 3, 14
The crowds asked John the Baptist: “What should we do?” He said to them in reply: “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” Luke 3, 10-18
In today’s gospel reading, we hear people from three different classes of society come to John and ask a question we have all asked or heard at some time or other: “What should we do?” They have all heard John preach and, seemingly, have been impressed by his message. With no ifs or buts, John tells them that, in their different circumstances, repentance means living decently, honestly and generously. To the ordinary people John points out that, if they have more than they need, they have an obligation to share with those who are less fortunate. He tells the tax collectors to stop ripping people off. Those in the military are urged to lay aside their bullying and to cease controlling ordinary people with threats.
While we probably have little contact with the taxation department and rarely engage with the police or the military, we have all anguished over challenging, real-life situations. “What do you think I should do?” a man says to his wife. “The young man next door has been charged with driving under the influence, and he has asked me to write a reference for him to present to the court. I’m not sure what I can write, or whether I want to write anything at all.”
“We paid a fortune to give our son what we thought was a good Catholic education, and now he tells us that he wants to marry his gay partner! What’s more, he wants his mother and me to attend the so-called wedding! What do you think we should do?”
“Our seventeen-year-old daughter asked us if her boy friend could come with us when we go for our annual holidays. When we told her that there are only three rooms in the house we have rented - one for Carmel and me, one for the two younger boys and one for her, she told us that she and the boy friend could share the third room. “After all, I’m an adult now!” she told me. “I don’t want to alienate her, so what should Carmel and I do?”
“Christmas is just around the corner, and we don’t want to spend a fortune on presents for the kids. They really don’t need anything. Instead, we’re thinking of giving the money to the local St Vincent de Paul group. But the kids mightn’t appreciate that. I wonder what we should do?”
When questions like the ones above unsettle us, we find ourselves going to the tried and true principles and values we use to guide our lives. Occasionally, we modify these principles and values as get new insights into morality, what it means to be truly human and what is involved in walking faithfully in the footsteps of Jesus. The conscience that guided me when I was sixteen years old has developed and matured in the last six decades. Nevertheless, I still ask myself what I should do when new questions and dilemmas arise. The people who encountered John the Baptist were challenged to look at their lives in the light of the message they heard John preach. So, they asked the kinds of question we continue to ask when we reflect on what happens around us and within us. We then try to be true to ourselves, our principles and our conscience. Yet we still search out the wisdom of those around us. What matters most, however, is the motivation that underlies the actions we end up taking. Those who came to John the Baptist seeking advice as to what to do had responded to his invitation to repentance. Actions motivated by fear or obligation fall short of those done out of generosity and respect for those they are intended to benefit. Surely, Jesus reminded us that generosity to others in need is best based on the respect we have for them, and the recognition that they are equal in dignity to us. Similarly, refusing to take advantage of others, treating them with courtesy, refraining from bullying them surely have to be based on the belief that they, too, are human beings worthy of respect and dignity, that they, too, are created in the image of God and reflect to us an image of the divine.
A wise friend of mine often gives the reminder: “Don’t ‘should’ on yourself!” I’m not exactly sure what he would make of the question put to John by all those who came asking how to bring their lives into harmony with the change of heart they experienced when they were baptized. What John effectively told them was: “Learn to love everybody you encounter, irrespective of his or her social status. It’s as simple as that.” Notice that John did not use “should” in any of his answers. And his message to us is no different.
The renowned Italian religious educators Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi, after decades of teaching young children (aged 3-12), noted that what distinguished them was their “profound capacity to relate to God.” In her writing, Dr Cavalletti described the child as “one who moves with ease in the world of the transcendent and delights in contact with God” (The Religious Potential of the Child, Liturgy Training Publications, 1992). Cavalletti went on to say that the Catholic Church in many places has made the mistake of waiting for children to reach the age of moral reasoning before engaging seriously in the child’s religious formation. As a consequence, “the child’s meeting with God is confused with moral problems”. It is only a small step from there to turn God into an exacting judge to be feared. Many Catholics, whose school education took place before the Second Vatican Council, still carry the scars from having been given a vision of God based on a very rigid understanding of morality. Cavalletti was quick to point out that “it is only in love, and not in fear, that one may have a moral life worthy of the name” (The Religious Potential of the Child, 6 to 12 Years Old: A Description of an Experience, Liturgy Training Publications, 2002).
Gloomy and fearful approaches to God have been around for a long time. Many of us may have survived religious education classes convinced that God is a bit of a killjoy. Lest we start feeling sorry for ourselves, centuries before the Christian Era, Homer wrote the Iliad in which he described the gods of his culture enjoying private jokes among themselves while mere mortals had to slave away at trying to survive. Centuries after the crucifixion of Jesus, Shakespeare ascribed to the Duke of Gloucester in King Lear these words: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport” (King Lear, Act 4, Sc1).
But today’s readings from Zechariah and Philippians speak of a God who comes to bring joy into our lives. We all know what joy is because we have all experienced it. In reality we don’t dwell on it sufficiently. Nobody really has to point out to a tax collector that he would feel less like a louse if he stopped robbing people who already have heavy loads to carry. And no one has to tell police and soldiers that they would be more at peace with themselves if they stopped taunting the weak and vulnerable. And none of us needs to be told that we would feel better about ourselves if we turned our attention to feeding hungry people on our streets or giving the shirt off our back to someone more needy. All three of today’s readings remind us that deep and lasting joy is tied to a generous heart. If we could only grow into the conviction that God really does have a generous heart towards us, no matter how messy our past, then we, in our turn, make generosity our special care.
Second Sunday in Advent
“I am sure that God, who began this good work in you, will carry it on until it is finished.” Philippians 1, 4-6, 8-11
John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Luke 3, 1-6
In his book Table Talk, Jay Cormier tells a charming story of a rather unusual man who used to frequent a large shopping mall in the weeks leading up to Christmas. While he had a somewhat glassy stare, there was a kindness and sincerity about him that attracted people rather than turning them away. He would position himself in the central part of the mall, near a fountain and set about stopping the passing shoppers, asking them why they were spending so much money on presents and food, or enquiring why they were so obsessed about what he called “this tinselled holiday“. At times he would offer comments like: “We like our Christmas with a lot of sugar, don’t we?”, “Christmas is about hope and love, and that can be a struggle, don’t you think?”, “Ever think of seeking forgiveness and reconciliation from family and friends who have become distant?”, “Why not let the spirit of the Christ Child embrace every season of the year?” Most of those whom he stopped nodded in agreement with him, as they put a tighter grip on their bags. Some even turned and went home, while others went and bought a toy or an item of clothing for a Christmas charity. Some admitted that they dropped into a nearby church for a quiet prayer. Sometimes, the man made derogatory comments about the tasteless decorations or the insipid, canned music being piped through the mall. At other times, he would stop the resident Santa and embarrass him by asking pointed questions about the real Christmas story. When he was not to be seen in the shopping mall, he could be found rummaging through the large rubbish bins outside in search of food discarded by the fast-food outlets inside.
Though this man was viewed as an eccentric, he wasn’t really harming anyone. However, the mall management decided that he had to be excluded on the grounds that he was “disturbing the Christmas spirit of shoppers”. Security officers were directed to escort him from the premises.
That story prompted me to ask where John the Baptist, the focus of today’s gospel reading, would seek out an audience if he were to make a return. I suspect that he would head for the places that attract the crowds. So,he would most likely favour large shopping centres, stand outside sporting venues and concert halls, and set up his loud-speaker in the parks where people come to walk. His appearance and dress would disturb, and his words would surely unsettle anyone who stopped to listen. Moreover, his message would be unpopular, for who wants to hear a call to repentance? The baptism he offered was all about calling people to a change of heart, to a conversion of spirit, and a change in attitude to life and to other people. In a very real sense John proclaimed what is the central message of Christmas - God coming among humanity in the person of Jesus, God becoming one of us out of love for human kind.
Yet, all too often, because of our busyness and preoccupation with things of little importance, we fail to recognise God present among us. We fail to make room for Jesus present for people like the ones in the mall, for those who look different, for those who have been alienated by society or forced to flee their homelands.
The very same Word that came to John in the desert is offered to us in the emptiness of our hearts. If we can welcome the Word, we will begin to act in ways that will open the way for Christ to be reborn once again in the places where we live and work.
Caryll Houselander was a laywoman, poet and mystic who lived in the UK during the first half of the 20th century. Her reflection on the Advent season is appropriate for us as we ponder the significance of these few weeks leading up to Christmas:
“When a woman is carrying a child, she develops a certain instinct of self-defence. It is not selfishness; it is not egoism. It is an absorption into the life within, a folding of self like a little tent around the child’s frailty, a God-like instinct to cherish and some day to bring forth the life. A closing upon it like the petals of a flower closing upon the dew that shines in its heart. This is precisely the attitude we must have to Christ, the Life within us, in the Advent of our contemplation. We could scrub the floor for a tired friend, or dress a wound for a patient in a hospital, or lay the table and wash up for the family; but we shall not do it in martyr spirit or with the worst spirit of self-congratulation, of feeling that we are making ourselves more perfect, more unselfish, more positively kind.
We shall do it for just one thing, that our hands make Christ’s hands in our life, that our service may let Christ serve through us, that our patience may bring Christ’s patience back to the world. By his own will Christ was dependent on Mary during ‘Advent’: he was absolutely helpless; he could go nowhere but where she chose to take him; he could not speak; her breathing was his breath; his heart beat in the beating of her heart. Today Christ is dependent on us. This dependence of Christ lays a great trust upon us. During this tender time of Advent we must carry him in our hearts to wherever he wants to go, and there are many places to which he may never go unless we take him.” (Caryll Houselander, The Reed of God, first published 1944, republished in 2006 by Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, Indiana)
Perhaps we could reawaken in our lives the true meaning of Advent by:
• Making room for God’s Spirit by taking time for quiet reflection
• Making room for the poor and needy through our generosity
• Making room for those we are distant from us by reaching out in reconciliation
• Making room for strangers and refugees by engaging them in conversation
• Making room for tolerance by encountering those we’re wary of
God has already begun a good work in us. Are we willing to let God work on the finishing touches?
In 2018, in the sixth year of the Pontificate of Francis, the second year of the Presidency of Donald Trump, at a time when Prime Minister May was negotiating a satisfactory Brexit deal, the Word of the Lord was spoken to…to you and me.
Are we able to hear it?
First Sunday of Advent
“Watch for this: The time is coming”—GOD’s Decree—"when I will keep the promise I made to the families of Israel and Judah. When that time comes, I will make a fresh and true shoot sprout from the David-Tree. He will run this country honestly and fairly. He will set things right. That’s when Judah will be secure and Jerusalem live in safety. The motto for the city will be, ‘GOD Has Set Things Right for Us’.” Jeremiah 33, 14-16
“Watch yourselves, or your hearts will be coarsened…with the cares of life…Stay awake, praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen.” Luke 21, 25-28, 34-36
As I read today’s gospel, I found myself wondering whether Jesus actually said the words that Luke attributes to him. Are they Luke’s words or Jesus’ words? We do know that, when Luke wrote his Gospel, there was much speculation in the early Christian community that Jesus’ return was imminent. So maybe they are Luke’s words. If the comments do belong to Jesus, we have to remember that he was a man of his time and culture, with human limitations and no divine prompting or inside help for interpreting the signs of his times.
When we look at the events going on in our world and the decisions adopted by those elected to guide their respective nations through difficult times and circumstances, we can understand why many ordinary and thoughtful citizens are throwing their hands up in horror or resorting to cynicism as a way of venting their disillusionment. Many others are expressing their frustration and disapproval through demonstrations and protests.
While there are many different ways of interpreting the signs of the times and responding with positive, negative or neutral action or comment, the message of Jesus is not to fall into concluding that the terror we see around us is a prelude to more terror. He urges us to call on our resources of hope and to look to liberation. Those resources and the source of that liberation are to be found in God.
Advent urges us to be wide awake and alert to the signs of our times so as not to miss the opportunities each day presents us for encountering the divine in the people and events all around us. If we can only see, we will notice unmistakable signs of God’s presence in the ordinary happenings of our daily lives. The clear message of today’s gospel is to not let ourselves be paralysed by fear of the sky falling in, the threats of war-mongers or the unpredictability of self-serving politicians. Rather, we are encouraged by Jesus to see every day of our lives as a gift from God and to share that gift with others.
Today’s gospel reading has a twin focus on endings and patient waiting. Shooting stars, the sun dimming and the moon no longer giving light are signs of an impending end to life and the created world. But such endings are really a prelude for something new to be born. That implies waiting patiently for the new to arrive. People in the 21st century have been conditioned to expect instant responses to all their needs. Waiting patiently is not exactly our strong point. We don’t relish being asked to be patient.
Thirty years ago, the Dutch-born spiritual writer Henri Nouwen published a diary entitled The Road to Daybreak. In his entry for Tuesday May 13, he wrote about what he called the battle for spiritual survival. He had not long returned to the United States after two years working among poor people in Peru. Despite their abject poverty, these people impressed Nouwen through the simplicity of their lives and their infectious happiness. There was a stark contrast between them and the people he encountered on his return to North America. This is what he wrote:
“What strikes me about being back in the United States is the full force of restlessness and the loneliness and the tension that holds so many people. The conversations I had today were about spiritual survival. Many of my friends feel overwhelmed by the many demands made on them. Few feel the inner peace and joy they so much desire. To celebrate life together, to be together in community, to simply enjoy the beauty of creation, the love of people and the goodness of God - these seem such far-away ideals. There seems to be a mountain of obstacles preventing people from being where their heart wants them to be. So painful to watch and experience! The astonishing thing is that the battle for survival has become so normal that few people believe that there can be a difference. Oh, how important is discipline, community, prayer, silence, caring presence, simple listening, adoration, and deep, lasting, faithful friendship. We all want it so much, and still the powers suggesting that it is all fantasy are enormous. But we have to replace the battle for power with the battle to create space for the spirit.” (Henri Nouwen, The Road to Daybreak, Doubleday, New York, 1988) Nouwen could have said the same about every “developed” country.
In her book To Dance with God, Gertrud Mueller Nelson writes: “Brewing, baking, simmering, fermenting, ripening, germinating, gestating are the processes of becoming, and they are symbolic states of being that belong in a life of value, necessary for transformation.” (Gertrud Mueller Nelson, To Dance with God, Paulist Press, N.Y. 1986) It’s no wonder, then, that Advent puts the focus on Mary, who not only had to make a difficult decision (“Let it be done to me according to your word”, Luke 1, 38) but had to wait patiently, like every mother, for her child to develop within her body.
To all intents and purposes, the season of Advent is almost dead. It is sandwiched between “Black Friday” bargain sales, which have spread like a contagion across the world, and the pre-Christmas frenzy of shopping for presents, putting up decorations, attending a succession of “Christmas drinks”. Advent has been swallowed up by commercialism and partying. We Christians need to make a conscious effort to reclaim Advent and Christmas. I suspect we will be successful only if we make time for quiet reflection with some of those people for whom the month leading up to the birth of Jesus was a time of darkness, questioning, doubt and uncertainty. Mary of Nazareth was familiar with giants in her tradition who had been “favoured” by God. She knew how Moses had baulked at God’s invitation: “Why not ask Aaron? He’s more eloquent than I am!” She had learned how Isaiah tried to excuse himself: “Remember, I stutter and stammer.” She was familiar with the story of Jonah who was so scared that he ran off in the other direction. And she would have been terrified by the gossip doing the rounds, and asking herself what was going on in the minds of her parents, the neighbours and Joseph. Yet she still found the courage to say “Yes”. Mary is a model for those of us who realise that we are being nudged to live our lives more deeply, to change behaviours that are stopping us from growing healthily, who want the satisfaction of making the courageous decisions we know we are being called to make, but who don’t want to pay the price.
And what about Joseph? I wonder if he ever felt as though he had been sidelined. Do you think he might have caught himself saying: “What exactly is going on around here? Whatever it is, I’m sure I’ll be the last one to find out!” I find it extraordinary that none of the Gospel writers attributes even one word to him. Those of us who feel overlooked, left out or forever perplexed and questioning might find some satisfaction in reflecting on Joseph. Spending time with Mary or Joseph over the next few weeks might help us put some meaning into Advent, but better still into our own lives.
Christ the King
“So you are a king then?” said Pilate. “It is you who say it” answered Jesus. “Yes, I am a king. I was born for this, I came into the world for this: to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.” John 18, 33-37
The exchange between Jesus and Pilate recorded in today’s gospel reading earned Pilate the reputation in history for being the world’s master of compromise. Even though his conscience told him that Jesus was innocent, he realized that his own political career depended on his finding a compromise. Caving into the demands of those calling for blood, he washed his hands of the responsibility he carried and sent Jesus to his death. For more than two thousand years, Pilate washing his hands has been to the world a symbol of cowardice and compromise.
While today is known as the feast of Christ the King, it is a celebration of integrity rather than one of kingship, authority, power and personal prominence. To most of us, kings and queens belong to the world of fairy tales. The queens and kings of our day are little more than figureheads, people invited to add dignity and gravity to political and civil events where ordinary people like to see pomp and pageantry. Jesus had little interest in either of those. However, he did make it clear that personal integrity was the defining quality of authenticity in his life and in the lives of anyone who would make a claim to being one of his followers. We all stand tall, we are all queen or king in our own lives whenever we live with integrity and witness to the truth.
In his play, A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt gives us a powerful example of the value of integrity in an exchange between King Henry VIII and the Chancellor of his realm, Thomas More. Henry is desperate to gain the approval of More on his decision to divorce his wife, Catherine:
“Thomas, Thomas, does a man need a Pope to tell him when he’s sinned? It was a sin, Thomas, I admit it; I repent. And God has punished me; I have no son. Son after son she’s borne me, Thomas, all dead at birth, or dead within the month; I never saw the hand of God so clear in anything. I have a daughter, she’s a good child, a well-set child - But I have no son. It is my bounden duty to put away the Queen and all the Popes back to St Peter shall not come between me and my duty! How is it that you cannot see? Everyone else does.”
“Then why does Your Grace need my poor support?”
“Because you are honest. What’s more to the purpose, you are known to be honest. There are those like Norfolk who follow me because I wear the crown, and there are those like Master Cromwell who follow me because they are jackals with sharp teeth and I am their lion, and there is a mass that follows me because it follows anything that moves - and there is you.”
“I am sick to think how much I must displease Your Grace.”
“No, Thomas, I respect your sincerity. Respect? Oh, man, it’s like water in the desert.”
Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons, p. 34, Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 1960)
One of the characteristics of John’s Gospel is the author’s use of irony. Nicodemus, a teacher and leading Pharisee, comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness to learn something about the action of God’s Spirit (John 3, 1-21). The Samaritan woman comes with a bucket to draw water from the town well, but is still left feeling thirsty. Jesus comes with no bucket, looking for a drink, and reveals himself as the water that wells up to eternal life (John 4, 5-42). A royal official from the court of Herod makes a journey of more than 20 miles from Capernaum to Cana to ask Jesus to come and cure his very ill son. He takes on trust and without question the direction of Jesus: “Go home, your son will live.” Yet the Jewish religious leaders and even the disciples of Jesus demonstrate repeatedly their lack of faith (John 4, 46-54). The blind man cured by Jesus sees with the eyes of faith, while the fully sighted scribes and Pharisees are blind to the truth and lack moral integrity (John 9, 1 - 41). When Jesus identified himself to the heavily armed soldiers who had come to arrest him, those military men fell to the ground. The unarmed Jesus stood with quiet dignity and identified himself a second time (John 18, 1-9). John uses the very same kind of irony in today’s gospel reading where Jesus, the powerless prisoner quietly demonstrates his moral superiority over a weak Roman Prefect of Judea, appointed by the Emperor Tiberius (John 18, 33-37). Then there is the final irony when Jesus is crucified with a sign affixed to his cross proclaiming: “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews “(John 19, 17-22).
The “reign” of Jesus Christ was not built on political, tyrannical or economic power. Neither was it about restoring the fortunes of a nation that had lost its independence to the power of Rome. It was, rather, a culture of respect and acceptance for all, built on the values of equality, justice and compassion. It was founded on the vision that all people, created in the image of God, belong to the one great community of humankind. Despite our failure to live up to our full potential and to appreciate the love that God has for each of us, God became one of us in the person of Jesus to lift us up to be like him, living lives of love and loving those around us into living and loving true to themselves.
To be part of the reign or kingdom of God is to give witness to the truth that God’s love for us and for all humanity is boundless and unconditional.
Just last week, some of us based in Rome had the privilege of spending some time in a retreat and conference centre located in Karen, Nairobi and run by a group of religious sisters called the Little Daughters of St. Joseph. Karen takes its name from Karen Christenze Dinesen, a Danish writer who wrote the book Out of Africa under the pen-name of Isak Dinesen. One of Dinesen’s stories in that book led to the award-winning film Babette’s Feast. Another story she tells in Out of Africa is that of a young farm worker from the Kikuyu tribe, whom she employed on her property. After being with her for three months, the man announced that he was going to leave her employment to work for a Muslim farmer who lived in the vicinity. Surprised by what looked like a sudden decision, Dinesen asked him if she had done something to upset him or if he was unhappy to be working for her. The man replied that he was happy working for her but that he had made up his mind, long before, to work for a Christian for three months and then for three months with a Muslim. Doing that, he could study the ways of both Christians and Muslims in order to decide whether he would become a Christian or a Muslim.
If that young man had three months to observe you and me in our daily actions and interactions, I wonder if he would feel drawn to become a Christian. Would he see us reflecting more of Pilate or more of Thomas More? “I came into the world to bear witness to the truth”, said Jesus. Isn’t that also why we are here?
Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see things happening, know that the Son of Man is near…Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Mark 14, 24-32
Every generation has had its fair share of doom-sayers ready to predict the end of the world or to warn against one kind of evil or another. The city of Sydney has had any number of them. Last century, there were more than sixty of these notables walking Sydney’s streets. One was a poet, publisher and crusader by the name of Sandor Berger, whose large sandwich board proclaimed: “Psychiatry is an evil and must be stamped out”. Another was Arthur Stace, a reformed alcoholic who eventually found Christianity. Between the time of his conversion at the age of 42 and his death at the age of 85, he used chalk to inscribe more than half a million times on footpaths all around the city the word Eternity. In the very fist century of the Christian era, members of Mark’s community were convinced that Christ would return to judge the word in their lifetime. That’s why part of today’s gospel reading is written in apocalyptic language. Mark was urging his community to make sure they were ready for Christ’s second coming.
I suggest that the way into understanding today’s gospel reading is exactly the same way as for any other passage in the Gospels, and that is to avoid limiting it to one particular period of history. The Gospels are meant to speak to every generation. Today’s reading refers to the end times. End times belong to the lives of all of us. Our generation will come to an end, just as there will be an end to the life of each of us. Jesus is surely saying to his generation and to us in our generation that, rather than worrying about when the world will end, we would do better to focus on how to live healthily in it right now. We have only our own life time in which to grow and bear fruit. Looking at the fig tree can lead us to hope. Just as the fig tree bursts into bud and sprouts new leaves, so we too can witness to one another and to our world fresh life and hope by the way we live and act.
Today’s first reading from Daniel offers us a similar message on how to live productive, influential lives: “Those who are wise will shine as brightly as the expanse of the heavens, and those who have instructed many in uprightness, as bright as stars for all eternity” (Daniel 12, 3).
What is vital for us all as disciples of Jesus is that we live aware of and attentive to God’s word and be attuned to the world in which we live and to its people, despite the conflicts, wars and calamities taking place around us. All are in God’s care. We are urged to keep trusting in God no matter what comes tumbling down around us. All that comes our way carries with it opportunity for growth. Every encounter we experience with others is potentially an encounter with the divine, if only we have eyes to see.
One thing we do know is that we are all part of the ongoing life and death of the cosmos of which we are only a tiny, but precious, part. We have not earned our existence. We have all been loved freely into life, but we cannot do anything that will give us a gilt-edged guarantee of life. We know that we will die, and that generations unheard of will probably live for many, many years after our passing. The challenge then is to make the most of our limited time, reflecting to others the goodness and love of the God who loved us into life and to develop our relationship with that God who is the source of all life and love.
Perhaps the biggest single hurdle for all of us is change, something that is often difficult, fearful and even traumatic. Things around us sometimes crumble and decay. We know the anxiety that comes when our health falters. Yet Jesus assures us that the love and life of God will always be constant and there to support us. Possessions, fame, achievement and reputation will all eventually disappear. However, the love we share, the care and compassion we extend to others, the affirmation and encouragement we offer and the forgiveness we show will last forever.
Since we do not the day or the hour when our lives or our world will end, the best we can do is live each hour, each day to the full, spending ourselves loving and evoking love whether we are in the prime of life, working a full day, semi-retired or living in a nursing home. Learning to live the love in our hearts is the challenge of a life time.
Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the market-places, seats of honour in synagogues and places of honour at banquets. They devour the houses of widows, and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers…” Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents…Jesus said to his disciples: “This poor woman…from her poverty has contributed all she had. Mark 12, 38-44
Today’s gospel reading opens with Jesus condemning the scribes for their public pretension and grandstanding, which, he says, is their way of camouflaging their greed and their exploitation of defenceless widows. Then, sitting down opposite the temple treasury, he watched the crowd lining up to make donations for the support of the religious leaders and the upkeep of the temple. He commented that the rich gave plenty because they had plenty. But his attention was caught by a poor widow, who “from her poverty contributed all she had, her whole livelihood”.
I want to suggest that we need to tread warily in interpreting this story, because what is not said is every bit as important as what is said. Jesus does not praise the widow. He does not say that her action is worthy of imitation or that she is not far from the kingdom. And Mark does not say that Jesus looked on her and loved her. But the fact that Jesus said that she contributed her whole livelihood surely suggests that she is a victim of the scribes he had just condemned for devouring “the houses of widows”. This woman did not have a house. Two coins worth two cents were her whole livelihood.
Could we ever imagine that Jesus would approve of anyone giving his or her entire livelihood to religion? We know from our reading of all the Gospels that Jesus consistently pointed out that God’s law was given for the benefit of people. The Law was not for its own sake. According to Jesus, the best religious values are human values. That’s why he repeatedly healed on the Sabbath the crippled, the lame and those suffering from psychological disabilities. Jesus’ actions demonstrated that human need precedes strict religious observance. The parable of the Good Samaritan makes that very point. That story told how religious officials ignored the man who had been beaten and robbed rather than risk contamination by going to his aid and actually touching him.
Earlier in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 7, 10-13), we hear Jesus criticizing the Pharisees and scribes for twisting the Law to suit their own purposes: “And he said to them: ‘How ingeniously you get around the commandment of God in order to preserve your own tradition! For Moses said: Honour your father and your mother and Anyone who curses father or mother must be put to death. But you say: ‘If a man says to his father or mother: Anything that I might have used to help you is Korban (that is, dedicated to God), then he is forbidden from that moment to do anything for his father or mother. In this way you make God’s word ineffective for the sake of your tradition which you have handed down. And you do many other things like this.’”
The widow of today’s gospel had been conditioned by her religious leaders to believe that contributing to the temple treasury took priority over her own need to survive and the needs of any dependents she might have. In his comments about Korban in the passage cited above, Jesus was highlighting the stupidity and injustice of religious leaders who compelled people to contribute to the temple, even if it meant not taking proper care of themselves, needy parents or anyone else reliant on them. Having declared his outrage at such abuse carried out in the name of religion, he could hardly start commending the poor widow for throwing all she had into the collection box.
Rather than comparing the widow’s gift with the rapacious conduct of scribes who swindle poor widows out of their property, Jesus is expressing his dismay at the depths to which the organized religion he sees all around him has sunk. In Jesus’ view, it was a downright tragedy that the religion in which he had lived his own life had so lost its way that it was encouraging practices that abused the very people for whom it was meant to care. As he grew and matured, Jesus found the courage to name the decay and abuse, and to challenge the religious leaders who continued to promote and encourage abusive practices.
Like all literature, the books in the Bible are open to interpretation. To find the meaning of any of the readings presented to us each Sunday (or any other day) we have to look closely not only at the text itself, but at the context. The context of this story we call “The Widow’s Mite” is the opening tirade which Jesus aims at the scribes. He condemns their ostentatious behaviour, their desire for special treatment and the way they prey on widows. However, let’s not miss the significance of what follows immediately after Jesus has drawn his disciples’ attention to the significance of the widow’s donation. Regrettably this is not included in today’s gospel reading, but it’s part of the context of today’s reading.
As Jesus and his disciples were leaving the Temple, one of his disciples drew the group’s attention to the enormity of the stones that were part of the Temple structure and the impressiveness of the buildings. The response that Jesus gave contains one, last irony about the impact of the widow’s contribution. Predicting the destruction that awaits the Temple, the pride of Judaism, Jesus says: “You see these great buildings? Not a single stone will be left on another; everything will be pulled down.” The poor widow’s contribution, along with all the other contributions of the rich, the important and the strugglers and all the misguided efforts of their religious leaders will turn out to be a total waste. Is any other comment on the widow’s contribution needed or relevant?
Two other comments: I cannot read today’s gospel without reflecting on the fact that there are ways in which our own Church has lost its way. We have witnessed abuse and seen its terrible impact on people who have been betrayed rather than nourished and protected. It is all too easy to point the finger and condemn. I have to ask myself what I am doing to breathe life and hope into the Church community of which I am a part. Secondly, I respectfully suggest that the selectors of the readings for today missed the point by paralleling the first reading from the Book of Kings with the gospel reading from Mark. About the only thing they have in common is their focus on poor widows. The widow of Zarephath was encouraged by an extraordinarily good and holy man (Elijah) to share the last of her food. The widow of the gospel was compelled by meaningless practice to give all she had to a system that had lost its way.
And for all those who insist that “The Widow’s Mite” is a story about generosity and stewardship, here’s a parable: Once upon a time there was a man who had nothing. God noticed his distress and gave him ten apples. Three were for food, three were for trading, so he could find shelter, and three were to exchange for clothes to keep himself warm. But the tenth apple was included so that the man would have something to give back to God as a “thank you”. The man followed the instructions, feeding himself and trading to get shelter and clothes. Then he looked at the tenth apple and saw that it was better than the other nine. He knew in his heart that this was the apple that God was expecting in return, but then thought that God had all the other apples in the world. So, he ate the tenth apple and gave God the core.
Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You must love your neighbour as yourself.” Mark 12, 28-34
Human beings were created for love. We know we were loved into life by a woman and man whose love for one another mirrored something of the love of God for every human being. Moreover, we know deep within that we are most fully human when we express with authenticity the loved planted in our own human heart.
While the scribe, who asked Jesus to identify “the first of all the commandments”, was probably out to demonstrate his own astuteness at framing trick questions, it seems as though he was also trying to trap Jesus into saying something that would further alienate him from the Pharisees and other religious authorities. Jesus, however, was more than equal to the task, for he selected two commandments from the Torah and joined them into one. Twice each day, devout Jews still pray the shema, the prayer given to them by Moses and contained in today’s first reading from Deuteronomy: “Listen, Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength. Let these words I urge on you today be written on your heart.” Every Jew knows this prayer by heart, just as every Christian knows the Our Father. Jesus demonstrated the deftness of his skill by linking that commandment with an injunction found in Leviticus about the moral obligation placed on every Jew to care for one’s neighbour: “Don’t seek revenge or carry a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.” (Lev 19, 18)
Jesus makes it clear that love of God is inseparable from love of neighbour. In fact, the only way to measure the quality of one’s love for God is to look at the quality of the love one extends to one’s neighbour. Yet it’s worth noting that humanity hasn’t yet produced an instruction manual on how to love. It is something that emanates from within and it’s an experience for which we are equipped with in-built detectors. We know innately what it is to love another. And we also know when we are expressing love and when we are withholding it. We also know the pain associated with being deprived of love and the cost of loving another without conditions.
The Russian novelist, Dostoevsky understood what it means to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. In his novel The Brothers Karamazov, he writes: “Avoid being scornful both to others and to yourself. Avoid fear, too, though fear is only the consequence of every sort of falsehood. Never be frightened of your own faint-heartedness in attaining love. Don’t be frightened overmuch even of your evil actions. I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action… But active love is labour and fortitude.” (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Ch. 4)
Victor Hugo also had a profound insight into the mystery of love when he wrote towards the end of his novel, Les Miserables: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
It is a happy coincidence that we read this gospel just a few days after we celebrate the feast of All Saints - the celebration of all those people who have reflected to us something of the love God has for us. And, the truth is, we all know people who have learned to love whole-heartedly. Most of us don’t need to look beyond our parents, who put our needs ahead of their own. Their love was expressed day in and day out as they cared for us in very practical ways, looking after us when we were sick, keeping us well-nourished and clothed, making sure we had opportunity for the kind of education that was not available to them. In the process, they reflected to us, in very practical ways, the goodness and love of God.
Closer to our own time, the great German theologian, Karl Rahner (1904-1984) understood the human person as one who is created for the self-communication of God. He believed that the first way that we human beings experience God is simply through the mystery that each of us is. He spoke of a mysticism of everyday life, a recognition that we find God through the often boring and monotonous grind of everyday life. He went on to say that we reach our full human potential when we grow into a willingness to give ourselves away, as we reach out to others, expressing selflessly the love deep in our hearts. (See Mary Steinmetz, Thoughts on the Experience of God in the Theology of Karl Rahner, Lumen et Vita, Vol 2, 2012 and Karl Rahner, The Mystical Way in Everyday Life, trans. Annemarie Kidder, Maryknoll, NY Orbis Books, 2010, p.173)
Jesus clearly got it right when he equated love of God with love of neighbour, whether that neighbour is a family member, a co-worker, a refugee begging on our streets or the family next door. Some writers and theologians and many ordinary people down through the ages have understood what Jesus says about love in today’s gospel.
The bottom line of all this is that we have to grow into the realization that the best possible way of honouring the God who loved us into life is to honour, respect and reach out to all those around us who, like us, have been created in God’s image.
There are just two more challenges for us in this gospel. There’s a big hurdle for all of us in Jesus’ statement: “You must love your neighbour as yourself. It’s a long journey to get to the point of really loving ourselves. We only come to love ourselves when we are convinced that God loves us unconditionally, exactly as we are, with all our warts and imperfections, with all our past mistakes and failures. That also means coming to accept that God’s love is not something to be earned, not something purchased by good behaviour. When we come to that realization, we understand that God also loves everyone around us, with his/her personal history, her/his prejudices, his/her brokenness and her/his mistakes.
Finally, if we care to look, we will see that there have been “scribes” throughout history. There are even “scribes” all around us. They’re the people who are so wedded to causes, so taken up with criticizing government or Church authorities or priests who depart from what’s in the book or ranting about pre-marital sex or the ignorance of youth that they can’t hear the Jesus who in today’s gospel is asking them how they treat their family, how they welcome refugees, how they get along with the neighbours, how they reach out with compassion and forgiveness to those whom they criticise.
Today’s gospel offers us all a moment of truth that has the potential to change our lives. If we can find the courage to let go of our pet prejudices and vested interests, we, too, might be able to hear what Jesus said to the particular scribe who set out to trick him and ended by opening himself to the wisdom Jesus offered. His humility led Jesus to say to him: “You are not far from the reign of God.” Are there any words more encouraging than those?
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
So, throwing off his cloak, he (Bartimaeus) jumped up and went to Jesus. Then Jesus spoke: “What do you want me to do for you?” Mark 10, 46-52
It is no coincidence that chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel concludes with the story of Bartimaeus, today’s gospel reading. Bartimaeus stands in stark contrast to the Pharisees who tried to trap Jesus with their questions about divorce, to the rich young man who could not detach himself from his wealth and to James and John whose focus was on power, status and glory. All that Bartimaeus wants is for his sight to be restored. He doesn’t grasp onto anything, and he is not invited to be a disciple. However, when he was invited to stand before Jesus, he threw off his only possession and security - his cloak, and, immediately his blindness was cured, he followed Jesus voluntarily to Jerusalem.
There are many details in this story that are worthy of note. Notice that it opens with Jesus leaving Jericho with the disciples and a “great crowd”. Now Jericho was once of those towns that had a reputation for violence. It harboured dissenters and groups that prided themselves on being a thorn in the side of the Romans. Ironically Jesus and his companions were headed for Jerusalem where he would be treated with everything but justice, where he was reviled, tortured and executed in a parody of justice. The residents of Jericho were angels in comparison to the upholders of law and order in Jerusalem.
When Bartimaeus heard that Jesus was passing by, he was determined to attract Jesus’ attention. So, he started screaming out: “Son of David, Jesus, have pity on me.” Clearly, yelling out like that and making a scene was thought by those in the company of Jesus to be quite inappropriate. They were embarrassed by such coarse behaviour. We have to remember that the prevailing view was that any physical or mental disability was attributed to the sinful behaviour of the person with the disability or of one of his or her family. As the story unfolds, we hear that Bartimaeus asks to see again. Presumably he was once able to see. That, of course, suggests that his blindness was the consequence of his own sin.
However, Bartimaeus was not going to be put off. He ignored the rebukes he was given. His faith in Jesus led him to persist, and he succeeded in attracting Jesus’ attention. The crowd quickly changed its tune when Jesus stopped and asked for the man to be brought to him: “Courage”, they said, “get up; he’s calling you.” Then, without any small talk or introductions, Jesus put to Bartimaeus the very same question he had asked James and John: “What is it you want me to do for you?” And Bartimaeus, equally direct in his response, said: “Master, let me see again.” James and John had the gift of physical sight but were morally blind. Bartimaeus was physically blind, but morally alert and full of insight.
In calling out to Jesus for mercy, Bartimaeus called him “Son of David”, a title recognizing Jesus as the Messiah. Bartimaeus’ request was for mercy and compassion, based on his understanding that Jesus’ mission to the world was based on service to those in need of care, love and compassion. Though physically blind, Bartimaeus was able to “see” what Jesus’ mission was all about. James and John and, indeed, the other chosen disciples were still hoping for position, status and power. They were still blind to the real purpose behind Jesus’ teaching and preaching.
The point of all this for us is to stop and look at our own lives in order to identify our own blind spots. Jesus confronts us with the question he put to James, John and Bartimaeus: “What is it you want me to do for you?” In response, am I courageous enough to ask for the depth of faith and the level of moral insight that Bartimaeus displayed?
For instance, am I sufficiently open to enumerate all the ways in which my life has been blessed and to take time to express my gratitude for them? To what extent do prejudice and bitterness influence my attitudes to the people I encounter in the shops, on the street and on buses, planes and trains? How blind am I to the creativity, insights and suggestions of those with whom I live and work? Or am I threatened by what they have to offer? Does self-pity or self-importance so blind me that I fail to recognise God’s kindness and compassion expressed to me through other people?
The real irony in today’s gospel reading is that one of society’s blind discards was able to “see” God’s love and compassion alive in the person of Jesus and to understand their potential for healing his own brokenness. Others who had received privileged opportunities could not match the blind man’s insight. It may well be that our favourite preoccupations and the clutter and busyness of our lives blind us to the people and events that reflect to us the goodness, compassion and love of God. When that happens, we also lose sight of our own potential to bring meaning, encouragement, compassion and care into the lives of others. In order to restore the balance that is missing, we might well start with the prayer uttered by Bartimaeus: “Master, let me see again.”
In recent decades, the hymn “Amazing Grace” has regained its lost popularity. It was written by John Newton, a man who had a profound conversion experience and became an Anglican pastor. In the church of St Mary’s Woolnoth, in London, whose congregation Newton served for twenty-eight years, there is a memorial plaque bearing some of the pastor’s own words:
“John Newton, Clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy. Near sixteen years at Olney and twenty-eight years in this church.”
It was, therefore, with some credibility that he was able to write:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost and now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Our High Priest is not one who cannot feel sympathy for our weaknesses. On the contrary, we have a High Priest who was tempted in every way that we are, but did not sin.” Hebrews 4, 14-16
“You know that those who are recognised as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” Mark 10, 35-45
Just a few Sundays ago (25th Sunday in Ordinary Time), the gospel reading (Mark 9, 30-37) told of how Jesus deflated the ambitions of his apostles after he heard them debating among themselves about who was the most important. He stopped them in their tracks by stating: “If anyone wishes to be first, he must make himself last of all and the servant of all” (Mark 9, 35). In this Sunday’s gospel, we hear how at least two of the apostles were such slow learners that Jesus was forced to repeat and underline the same message. Having failed to grasp Jesus’ call to servant leadership, James and John approached Jesus with a request for positions of power when Jesus finally made it to the top. They had approached Jesus as they imagined one would approach rulers in the political world of power and status. It seems, too, that they were expecting a short-cut to prominence and power. Being good friends with the boss would surely bring some rewards! Having failed to comprehend the significance of the references that Jesus had made to how he would be condemned by his own religious leaders and handed over to foreigners for execution, they were unable to understand the real cost of discipleship. The prospect of blood, sweat, tears and persecution was simply not on their agenda. However, Jesus smartly disabused them, and called them, yet again, to servant leadership.
In this context, I am reminded of a story told by well-known writer and motivational speaker, “Zig” Zigler. He tells of a railway track maintenance crew engaged in laying new tracks in the early 1950’s: One morning, as the men were working away with sledge hammers and rivets, a train approached from down the track and pulled off on a side rail. At the back of the train was a beautiful, luxury carriage. A window opened on it and a man poked his head out and shouted: “Dave Anderson, is that you?”
Suddenly the men stopped, and one of the older workers shouted back “Yes Jim, it’s me!” Again came the voice from inside the carriage: “Come on up here and let’s chat for a while”
So, Dave put down his hammer, stopped what he’d been doing and joined Jim in his private rail car. After about an hour, Dave Anderson climbed down from the carriage, picked up his hammer again and the workers watched as the train pulled away. The men on the maintenance crew stared at Dave in disbelief, and one man exclaimed, “That was Jim Murphy, the president of the rail company.”
“Yes, it was.” said Anderson. “Jim and I both were hired on the same day 25 years ago. We’ve been friends ever since.” Stunned by his statement, another worker asked: “If you both started on the same day 25 years ago, how is it that he’s the president of the railway company and you’re still out here swinging hammers?” “Well, it’s quite simple”, Dave explained. “All those years ago I went to work for $1.75 an hour. Jim Murphy went to work for the rail company.”
Today’s gospel is not just a story about the ambitions of James and John. Its message is pointed directly at us. It asks us to examine our motives for daring to call ourselves Catholics or Christians. While we were initiated into the Christian community at baptism, when did we commit ourselves to walk in the footsteps of Jesus as his disciples? Are we, like the rich young man of last week’s gospel, motivated by self-interest: inheriting eternal life? What part does servant leadership play in our lives? To what extent are we actively involved in working with others in our church community to reach out to the poor and needy, to welcome refugees, to treat others with compassion, sensitivity and respect? Aren’t those activities part of building the kingdom of God?
So, we are being challenged today to reflect on our motivation for calling ourselves card-carrying Catholics or Christians. As the same “Zig” Zigler reminded an audience once, motivation is something that has to be renewed again and again: “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing - that’s why we recommend it daily.”
Today’s second reading from Hebrews carries a heart-warming reminder that, in the person of Jesus, we have a living expression of God’s solidarity with us: one who feels sympathy for us in our weaknesses, one who was tempted in every way that we are. One of the implications of Jesus’ being fully human is that he had to grow into understanding the value and wisdom of the very notion of leader-as-servant. Having reached that understanding, he then had to deal with the ambitions of close friends like James and John, with their desire for prestige and power.
For a second consecutive Sunday there is a progression in the way in which Mark shapes his text. We are first told that greatness consists in serving others. Then we are told that the summit of greatness belongs to the leader who serves the needs of all. It’s not overly difficult to set aside self interest in order to reach out to a select group of those with whom we are comfortable. But that’s a long way from assuming responsibility for everyone, especially when leaders know that they can’t please everyone all of the time. They know that in trying to work for the common good they will have to deal with the disgruntled, with all kinds of protestors and with all those who choose the way of non-co-operation. So, Jesus is clearly correct in pointing out to James and John that anyone who dares to take on the role of leadership that involves serving all is bound to attract criticism, opposition, threat and even physical and emotional pain. It’s no wonder that his words to James and John, in the hearing of the other apostles, were coloured by his third reference to how his own servant leadership would not only attract critics but would lead to his condemnation and death at the hands of religious and political leaders whose power base was threatened by his teaching. In one way or another, we all have a responsibility to lead. Today we are asked if we prepared to pay the cost?
Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“The word of God is alive and active, sharper than any double-edged sword. It cuts all the way through, to where the soul and spirit meet, to where joints and marrow come together. Nothing and no one are impervious to God’s word. We can’t get away from it—no matter what. Hebrews 4, 12-13
Jesus, looking at the rich young man, loved him and said to him: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.” Mark 10, 17-30
Anyone requiring confirmation of the surgical impact of the word of God, as described in today’s second reading from Hebrews, need not look beyond today’s gospel. In his encounter with the rich young man, Jesus makes it clear that being a disciple of his allows no room for compromise. As for the young man who approaches him, it would seem that his enthusiasm exceeds his ability to commit himself. While he seems to be a very decent, upright and good-living young man, Jesus’ challenge to him to sell up and give to the poor is much more than he bargained for. The cost of discipleship is above and beyond what he is prepared to pay. Moreover, Jesus makes no concessions. If the young man wants to be a disciple, he has to surrender his wealth and give to the poor. And that’s the one thing he refuses to do. The demand from Jesus really cuts close to the bone. That’s why the young man, whose observance to the Law is faultless, went away sad, and disappointed with himself.
Notice the progressive approach that Jesus uses to challenge him. He begins with a reaction to the label “good”, which the young man puts on him. Jesus knows that goodness is a relative term, and is dependent on the scale we use for measuring it. Needless to say, everyone’s way of measuring goodness will be different. Both Jesus and the young man know that absolute goodness can be attributed only to God.
Then Jesus moves immediately to what was known to every devout Jew: adherence to the Law was the surest way to inherit eternal life. He lists some of the commandments of the Decalogue (Exodus 20, 13-16) and introduces another from Deuteronomy about justice and exploitation: “Don’t exploit the lowly and the poor labourer, whether he’s one of your brothers or a foreigner whom you find in any of your cities.” (Deuteronomy 24,14) In response, without any hint of boasting, the young man states that he has been faithful to observing the commandments listed by Jesus ever since he was a child. Jesus was clearly impressed by the man’s honesty and integrity, for we are told that “Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him.”
I wonder how many of us could give an account of our lives similar to that of the young man? How many of us could honestly claim that we have not taken advantage of anyone, that we have not harboured secret desires of revenge, that we have always treated our parents with respect, that we have not distorted the truth, that we have not manipulated anyone for our own purposes? Yet despite our moral shortcomings, Jesus looks on us with the very same kind of loved as he looked on this rich young man. He doesn’t love him for his faultlessness, his decency or his integrity. He loves him for who he is: a fellow human being and a young man loved into life by God. The key point here is that we all have to come to the realisation that none of us earns God’s love or the approval of Jesus by what we do or don’t do. God loves us endlessly and without condition. Jesus looks on us, too, with love.
However, Jesus does speak the truth about discipleship to the young man and to us. To follow him calls us to let go of whatever it is that prevents us from giving fully of ourselves. And that is a message about detachment. What stopped the young man from following Jesus was his attachment to the wealth he had acquired. To be disciples of Jesus, Peter, James and John had to leave their jobs and their families, their boats and their nets. Matthew had to let go of his career and the money he made from tax-collecting. Today’s gospel pushes us to look honestly at our own lives for whatever it is that is an obstacle to committing ourselves fully to following Jesus. It might be the self-importance we attribute to ourselves because of the roles we have in the organisations of which we are members. It might be our achievements in the academic, artistic or musical world. It might be the career path on which we have embarked. It might be the clubs to which we belong. If we can overcome the particular obstacles we identify, and deny ourselves to the extent that we can begin to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, we become the child whom Jesus holds up to us for imitation; we learn to become dependent on God.
Paradoxically, one of the current obstacles that can distract us from walking in the footsteps of Jesus is the Church to which we belong. Some of the happenings, bickering and competition going on in our so-called Christian community make that community look more like a circus than the people of God intent on building the kingdom of God where justice, compassion and love are paramount. Moreover, we can all point to those who have voted with their feet and walked away. Some of them claim to have “met the Lord” in the privacy of their own hearts and homes. While we don’t judge them, they don’t have to deny themselves to face the two-edged swords that are wielded by the likes of inflexible pastors, authoritative parish councils or dictatorial Catholic school principals. They don’t have to endure interminable homilies and disengaging liturgies or embrace the challenge of growing into adult faith. Paradoxically, it’s the struggling church communities of which we are part that not only shake up our joints and disturb the marrow in our bones but lead us to see that God is the only one on whom we can really depend. It might be uncomfortable belonging to our Church, but perhaps, too, that’s part and parcel of denying ourselves in our following of Jesus.
Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
The man exclaimed: This at last is bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh! This is to be called woman, for this was taken from man.” That is why a man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife, and they become one body. Genesis 2, 18-24
“It was because you were so unteachable that Moses wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation God made them male and female. This is why a man must leave father and mother, and the two become one body…So what God has united man must not divide.” Mark 10, 2-16
In reflecting on today’s gospel reading, I come to the conclusion that, what looks to be a categorical statement about divorce and marriage, is as much about protecting women and children as it is about preserving the stability of marriage. As a devout Jew, Jesus gave much time and attention to learning about and reflecting on the meaning of the Jewish scriptures. In today’s reading he quotes directly from the second story of creation recorded in chapter 2 of Genesis. Scripture scholars tell us that this creation story predates the story in Chapter 1 of Genesis by approximately 400 years.
In the earlier creation story (today’s first reading), human sexuality is not primarily associated with propagation. It is described as a gift for humanity so that they might live in companionship and not be lonely. The basic elements of this story’s theology of sexuality are companionship and goodness. Sexuality is basically good in that it enables human beings to be more complete, more as God wants them to be, not alone and isolated but in companionship, a kind of companionship which the birds and the beasts do not provide. Sexuality is a gift from God.
Yet for hundreds of years, right up to the time of Jesus, wives and children were regarded as property belonging to the man who was head of the household. The Book of Deuteronomy (24,1) records that a man could divorce his wife for “impropriety”. Now that’s a word that is open to multiple interpretations, if ever there was one. It could be open to everything from marital infidelity to not getting the children bathed and put to bed early enough. In law, a woman was her husband’s property, with right neither to protection from physical violence nor to sue for a divorce herself.
So, Jesus’ unqualified statement about marriage in today’s gospel is as much about protecting vulnerable women and children as it is about criticising men who rid themselves of their wives and families on the basis of mere whim.
What Jesus says about marriage is his response to a trick question designed by the Pharisees who ask it to catch him out. He responds by quoting the Genesis account of the creation of man and woman, which stresses that husband and wife are equal partners in the marriage contract they make together: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife, and the two become one body (Genesis 2, 24). The relationship between a man and his wife is intended, in the mind of Jesus, to mirror the loving covenant that God has for the people of Israel. This was bound to upset and alienate the Pharisees who questioned Jesus because they were able to support their position in favour of divorce with a clear statement to that effect from Deuteronomy. They could then easily conclude that Jesus was acting as a self-appointed authority on the Law of Moses.
That does not mean that Jesus had no sympathy for those whose marriages end in divorce. While Christian marriage, which is clearly more than a civil contract, is meant to be a sign of God’s loving presence manifested in the love between husband and wife, and to demonstrate that true love is about giving rather than taking, freeing rather than stifling, liberating rather than controlling, it sometimes ends up becoming less than the partners intend it to be, because of their human frailty and inability to reach the ideal they set themselves. Sometimes partners drift so far apart that they can no longer stand being in one another’s presence. They become irreconcilable. That does not mean that as individual people they are no longer able to reflect to others the goodness, compassion and love of God. Sometimes, for reasons about which none of us has the right to judge, they remarry and continue to find a place in a parish community.
In November 1965, Pope Paul VI promulgated the Second Vatican Council Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity. It invited lay women and men to take a more active role in the life of the Church. In 1980, to commemorate the 15th anniversary of that Vatican II decree, the United States Bishops Conference published an extraordinary document entitled Called and Gifted: The American Catholic Laity. Among other things, this document states that lay people are called to adulthood, holiness, ministry and community. It then adds this remarkable statement: “Adulthood implies knowledge, experience and awareness, freedom and responsibility, and mutuality in relationships. It is true however, that the experience of lay persons ‘as Church members’ has not always reflected this understanding of adulthood.”
How different our Church might be if we all chose to exercise our adulthood as Catholics. We might even dare to read and interpret today’s gospel reading in light of our knowledge and experience of our human frailty and the frailty of others in our community, as we and they struggle with relationships. Life is rarely a matter of black and white. Human relations are complicated and coloured by all kinds of emotions and motives for acting. As we try to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, we have to keep reminding ourselves that we are adults in our Church, that we have an obligation to act responsibility, to exercise our freedom and to be aware of the mutuality of the relationships in which we engage.
As human beings, we make vowed commitments, with the best of intentions, to marriage and religious life. Commitment is an expression of intention not a prediction. We protect our commitments by living them with integrity, and consciously renewing them day after day. To achieve that, we have to know who we are and to live each day true to who we are. That does not give us the right to judge those who seemingly fail to be true to themselves. Neither does it allow us to conclude that we are better than those who fail to measure up to the standards we arbitrarily set for them or imagine that Jesus is setting for them. If we could bring ourselves to stand before our God as children, we might be able to recognise that, in so much of what he says, Jesus appeals to the child in each of us. But we have to be careful to listen to him with the ears of our heart. Holding in harmony within one’s self the mature wisdom of the adult and the open simplicity of the child does not come easily. Yet, it’s that delicate balance which Jesus welcomes.
Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
John said to Jesus: “Master, we saw a man who is not one of us casting out devils in your name; and because he was not one of us, we tried to stop him.” But Jesus said: “You must not stop him: no one who works a miracle in my name is likely to speak evil of me. Anyone who is not against us is for us.” Mark 9, 38-43, 45, 47-48
There is a very clear parallel between the opening section of today’s gospel reading and the first reading from the Book of Numbers. In the latter, we hear how Joshua, following a report from a young man complaining about Eldad and Medad prophesying without official approval, urges Moses to stop them. In the gospel, John complains to Jesus when he sees a man who does not belong to the “in group” of disciples casting out devils in the name of Jesus.
We can all admit to having felt jealous when some stranger has trespassed on what we regarded as “our territory”, especially if the stranger’s efforts were more successful than ours. So, we can understand how the desire expressed by Moses: “If only all the people were prophets! If only the Lord would lay his Spirit on them all!”, probably left Joshua feeling a little uncomfortable. After all, prophets are the kind of people we tend to avoid, because they disturb and unsettle us. We don’t like it when they question our integrity or name our hypocrisy. We’re more comfortable when they target those who make life difficult for us. So, we, like Joshua, don’t relish the prospect of a glut of prophets.
Today’s second reading gives us a good example of a prophet in action. James lambastes those in his community who have lined their own pockets by underpaying their employees. Yet, I doubt if any homilies in our churches this weekend will focus on those who get rich at the expense of the poor. I wonder, too, how many ordinary, strugglers will turn up to their churches to be reminded about how sinful they are.
Nonetheless, James still gives us all cause to stop and reflect on the place money and possessions has in our lives. Many of us live in countries whose wealth has come from people dispossessed of their land, or we belong to nations our forebears colonised and exploited. That wealth is now used to protect us from being called to be accountable. And an apology is not even on our radar. Still, we continue to live off the benefits of historical injustice.
If the reading from James causes us some discomfort, the words of Jesus in the gospel reading are likely to make us squirm even more. While we recognise that Jesus is deliberately exaggerating with his references to poking out eyes and cutting off hands in order to get to heaven, we take his point that some of the possessions and practices to which we cling distract us from living decent, healthy, moral lives. He is challenging us to examine and order our priorities, to set aside whatever it is that that gets in the way of our following him as true disciples.
His response to John’s complaint about the outsider who was casting out devils in his name is a challenge to us all about our priorities. Effectively, Jesus is asking his friends and us if we regard membership as more important than discipleship. Baptism might make us members of the Christian community, but it is meaningless if it does not lead us to live as authentic disciples of Jesus. Paid-up membership entitles us to entry into the most exclusive clubs and organisations, but it’s only commitment to, and practical application of, the message that Jesus proclaimed and lived that make us his genuine disciples.
The English painter, William Holman Hunt (1827-1910, and one of the founders of the School of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) is best known for his religious paintings. St Paul’s Cathedral in London houses what is probably his most famous painting. It’s known as “The Light of the World”, and takes its inspiration from words attributed to Jesus in the Book of Revelation: “Look at me. I’m standing at the door, knocking. If you hear me calling, and open the door, I’ll come right in and sit down to supper with you.” (Revelation 3, 20)
The door at which Jesus is standing in the painting has no knob and no handle. It is overgrown with vines and is partially blocked by weeds, giving the impression that it has not been opened for a long time. It can be opened only from the inside. The message, of course, is that, if Jesus is to come into our lives, we have to admit him. He is constantly knocking and seeking admission, but it is our decision to let him in. The morning star, just above Christ’s head, represents Holman Hunt’s belief that Christ is the dawn of a new day in the life of the world and in the life of everyone who welcomes him. This message was reinforced when the painting was taken for restoration some decades ago. On the bottom of the painting, hidden by the frame, the artist had written: “Forgive me, Lord Jesus, that I kept you waiting so long.”
If, like Joshua and the unnamed complainant of today’s first reading, we are reluctant to allow too many prophets to come into our lives, and if, like John in today’s gospel, we are threatened by good people who don’t belong to our Church, we might well be reluctant to let Jesus himself into our lives. After all, we might not be equal to the expectations he might put on us over a meal together. Today’s readings ask us if we’re prepared to take the risk of letting Jesus even get close to us.
I want to suggest that there is another twist in this gospel reading that deserves our attention. I found myself wondering if there is some logical sequence to the issues that Jesus raises. He moves from his answer to John’s complaint about the stranger driving out devils in his name to the reward that will come the way of anyone who offers his disciples as much as a cup of cold water. And from there to the punishment reserved for anyone who scandalises “one of these little ones who have faith”.
“These little ones who have faith” is not a reference to children. In the original Greek of the Gospel, the word used for “little ones” is mikros, meaning “ordinary, simple, insignificant people”. Such people would not have been able to offer the disciples anything more than a cup of cold water. The implication of the comment is that anyone who accepts Jesus and his message has no option but to accept his disciples and all his friends, especially the ordinary, simple, insignificant people for whom he has a special preference. None of us can claim to accept Jesus and his message unless we extend a similar welcome to those who so often are overlooked, seen as second-rate and disregarded because of their position at the bottom of the social ladder.
All three of today’s readings in one way or another can disturb our comfort. So, maybe we could start with the one that disturbs us least, and go from there.
Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
They had been discussing among themselves along the way as to who was the greatest. Then Jesus sat down and called the Twelve, and said to them: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” Mark 9, 30-37
Back in 1952, George Orwell published a book of essays entitled Such, Such Were the Joys. The book takes its title from the longest essay in the collection, which is an autobiographical account of his six years in a private boarding school. His mother enrolled him at the age of eight in a primary boarding school called St Cicely’s, to which he gave the name Crossgates in his long essay, which has some delightful insights into how children think and feel. What Orwell has to say about children offers some insights into next Sunday’s gospel reading.
He writes: “Towards people who were old - and remember that ‘old’ to a child means over thirty or even over twenty-five - I could feel reverence, respect, admiration or compunction, but I seemed cut off from them by a veil of fear and shyness mixed up with physical distaste. People are too ready to forget the child’s physical shrinking from the adult. The enormous size of grownups, their ungainly, rigid bodies, their coarse, wrinkled skins, their great relaxed eyelids, their yellow teeth, and the whiffs of musty clothes and beer and sweat and tobacco that disengage from them at every movement! Part of the reason for the ugliness of adults, in a child’s eyes, is that the child is usually looking upwards, and few faces are at their best when seen from below.”
Earlier, Orwell had written about the struggle he had with bed-wetting, and the way in which he had been punished: “I knew that bed-wetting was (a) wicked and (b) outside my control. The second fact I was personally aware of, and the first I did not question. It was possible, therefore, to commit a sin without knowing that you committed it, without wanting to commit it, and without being able to avoid it. Sin was not necessarily something that you did: It might be something that happened to you…But at any rate this was the great, abiding lesson of my boyhood: that I was in a world where it was not possible for me to be good.”
In his observations and reflections on his own childhood, Orwell underlines just how vulnerable children really are. In today’s gospel reading, we see Jesus inviting his disciples to focus their attention on a child, to welcome the child, and to welcome him as they would any such child. In making that statement, Jesus identifies with the child and makes the point that he is equally vulnerable. Let’s be quite clear that this is an adult statement that Jesus is making. It is not an invitation to be childlike. But it is a statement that those who accept the challenge that Jesus puts to the disciples will put themselves at risk, will be very vulnerable to the forces of evil.
To grasp the full significance of today’s gospel, we have to look at how Mark has constructed this section of his Gospel. We had Peter’s profession of faith that was followed immediately by a reprimand from Jesus when Peter could not accept that Jesus’ messiahship would involve rejection, persecution, suffering and death. Chapter 9 of Mark opens with an account of the transfiguration, followed immediately by a comment from Jesus that he, too, will be treated as roughly as the prophet Elijah was. Then there is the story of the cure by Jesus of an epileptic youngster, possessed by an evil spirit. The disciples were unable to effect a cure, and Jesus had to intervene. Then there is yet another reference by Jesus to the persecution, suffering and death that await him, followed immediately by an account of an argument among the disciples about power.
Jesus had to challenge them about the topic of their arguing. Mark not only discloses that the disciples could not bring themselves to admit that they were arguing about power and prestige, but that they could not even bring themselves even to ask Jesus questions. They could not imagine a Jesus, a Messiah who would be rendered powerless. Their conversation about their own power is really a reflection on Jesus. They cannot cope with the idea that Jesus will become a victim, will be totally powerless when his enemies get their hands on him in Jerusalem. It is their anxiety that impels them to fill a power vacuum that they are frightened of facing. As a way of demonstrating that they are facing an impossibility, Jesus presents them with a child, and that child represents Jesus himself.
I want to suggest that Jesus is inviting the disciples to reflect on how children live their lives. They are indeed vulnerable. Adults often puzzle them, disturb them, terrify them. Yet children also learn how to trust the adults who reach out to them with gentleness, love and care. A child’s life is lived between terror and trust. Could it be that Jesus is demonstrating that, when fear and terror invade our lives, we would be betraying the trust we have in a loving God by rushing to find security we imagine we have waiting for us in earthly power, position and influence? Jesus is surely suggesting that, in the face of unbridled, unjust power, he prefers the vulnerability of the child. As human beings, we will always be vulnerable to ruthless, unethically exercised power. To look for the intervention of magical powers or rescue by supermen is to betray the trust we place in a God who will walk with us through whatever others can inflict on us. But to walk that way is extremely difficult and painful.
If we are honest, we can admit that there have been times when we have imagined lots of possibilities for rescue when life has become burdensome - money, connections, cunning, violence, reinforcement from friends, appealing to protectors and bodyguards. Yet children would not even know how any of these things might work.
While there is something almost idyllic about Jesus’ way of trying to demonstrate to his disciples (and to us, their 21st century counterparts) that violence and power are not the answer, the brutality of real-life can challenge us to the core. If the violence being acted out right now in Syria leaves us numb and bewildered, we can look, with the protection of hindsight, at the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. New York Times journalist, Raymond Bonner reported an interview with the Rev Bernard Ndutiye, head of the Lutheran Church in Rwanda: “Everyone had to participate. To prove that you weren’t R.P.F. (Rwandan Patriotic Front), you had to walk around with a club. Being a pastor was not an excuse. They said you can have religion afterwards.” He went on the say: “There are times when you lose faith. Sometimes we think God has abandoned Rwanda and allowed the devil to enter the souls of our people.” (Raymond Bonner, “Rwandans in Death Squad Say Choice Was Kill or Die”, New York Times, Archive 1994) To welcome and make the child at home is harder than it looks. Are you and I courageous enough to try?
Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Along the way Jesus asked the disciples: “Who do you say I am?” Peter said to him in reply: “You are the Christ…” Mark 8, 27-35
Today’s first two readings from Isaiah (Is 50, 5-9) and the Letter of James (Jas 2, 14-18) prepare us for the full impact of the gospel reading, which invites us to depth what it really means to have faith in Jesus. The reading from Isaiah makes it clear that faith in God will not protect us from being dragged by others into legal proceedings or from being brutalised by people intent on using physical violence to get from us what they want. Then James follows up by stating, without any shadow of doubt, that faith in God is meaningless unless it involves kindness, compassion and practical outreach to others in need: “If one of the brothers or sisters is in need of clothes and hasn’t enough food to live on, and one of you says to them: ‘I wish you well; keep yourself warm and eat plenty’, without giving them the bare necessities of life, then what good is that? Faith is like that: If good works don’t go with it, it is quite dead.’” (James 2, 15-17) The, in the gospel, we hear Jesus ask his disciples not only what others are saying about him, but, also, what they, too, think of him.
In comparison with the other Gospels, Mark’s is very short, and chapter 8 marks the mid-way point of the story of Jesus’ ministry. As a way of trying to assess for himself just how his ministry is progressing, Jesus puts to his disciples two questions that challenge them and, at the same time, expose his own personal vulnerability: “What are people saying about me?” and “Who do you say I am?” The first of these questions is the easier to answer, and, while the responses are varied, there is a certain consistency about them. People generally think that Jesus is John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the other prophets, that he is interested in the things of God, cares about the poor, and is intent on working with love and compassion to promote justice and mercy for all.
Then, in an effort to nudge the disciples to come to know their own minds, to take responsibility for how they think and feel, and to put into words their own faith in him, Jesus directs this question to them: “And who do you say I am?”. The question is barely out of his mouth when Peter, answering for all of them, volunteers a response that looks to be right on target: “You are the Messiah, the Christ of God!” Now, “Messiah” was a term that denoted peace and justice for all and the presence of God in solidarity with people. It represented the fulfilment of humanity’s best hopes. However, it is important to note that, at the time of Jesus, there were conflicting views about what the Messiah would look like when he finally came. The general view was that he would be a restorationist - in the sense of restoring the Temple to its former magnificence and centrality in Jewish worship, and also in restoring Israel’s political and economic status along with its reputation as a powerful nation to be reckoned with and respected. Of course, that included ridding Israel of its Roman occupiers. Yet, even though Jesus had tried to ground them in lesser expectations, the disciples were not free of ambitions to personal fame, status and power. So, when he proceeded to make it clear to them that he anticipated a future marked by rejection, persecution and execution, Peter would have none of it. He even took Jesus aside to argue that such expectations were totally foreign to a proper understanding of messiahship. For his trouble, Peter was reprimanded by Jesus as a Satan, an obstacle on the path that Jesus would travel. The implication, of course, is that by maintaining such an attitude, Peter would end up stopping others from coming to know who Jesus really is - one who will measure the worth of humankind on what it does in practice to bring relief, compassion and justice to the poor.
Simone Weil, the noted 20th century French philosopher and mystic, observed how difficult it is to grow into knowing who Jesus really is. We sometimes find ourselves struggling to know who we are, let alone others. Even more difficult, then, it is to know Jesus. In 1950 Simone Weil published a book entitled Attente de Dieu. It was re-translated and published in English in 2012 as Awaiting God. In it she writes: “It is hard to sift through our lives to the actual truth of the person of Jesus.” Our experience confirms that. Yet, we know that Jesus reflects something of God, and that we, in our turn, reflect something of the goodness and love of Jesus. Yet, who exactly that Jesus is can be quite elusive.
Today’s gospel asks us if we are prepared to fall in behind Jesus. And if we say “yes” to that, then we really have to know the identity of the one we commit to following. We have to ask ourselves if we are following anyone other than ourselves, if we are following a Jesus we have modelled in our own likeness. The acid test is as simple as this: Does the faith we claim to profess reveal genuinely good news to the poor, the marginalised and the needy? If we care to think about the life of Jesus, we will discover that confrontation of injustice was no more popular in first-century Palestine than it is today in the so-called developed world. Jesus did not get into trouble because of the challenges he put to the people who came to sit at his feet. But he did rattle the cages of systems and institutions when he shook the foundations of well-established religious institutions and their customs and traditions. He did unsettle the authority and civil order put in place by Roman occupying forces and their puppets. He did threaten the rigid interpretation of the Law, offered by the religious authorities of his day.
To challenge any system or institution whose standards, protocols and practices are at odds with the Gospel is to court danger. Those who control wealth and power are not interested in having less so that the poor can have access to health, education, freedom and what is needed to sustain their lives and allow them to claim a place they can call “home”. Yet to advocate on their behalf is to risk the cross.
Back in 2006, the Jesuit magazine, America carried an article entitled “A Thief in the Night”. In it, Valerie Schultz described how her young, adult daughter had been held-up and robbed at gunpoint in a parking lot. At the time, Valerie and her husband were volunteers in a prison, doing what they could to reach out to prisoners. The incident caused Valerie and her husband to have second thoughts about returning to their prison ministry. On reflection, however, Valerie was able to write: “I believe that we have been called to visit the imprisoned…And it is not complicated, unless I make it that way. Jesus did not say: ‘When I was in prison you made excuses for me, you condoned my crimes, you sprang me by smuggling in a fake ID.’ What he did say was: ‘I was in prison and you visited me.’ To visit: that’s all he’s asking. But by treating inmates as fellow human beings, by focussing on rehabilitation and amends, by bringing Christ to the hearts and minds of those who are so often unloved and seemingly unreachable, of those who lack the freedom and privilege I take for granted, perhaps future crimes will be averted and future victims spared.”
“Who do you say I am?” How will you and I answer that now?
Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
“My brothers and sisters, don’t try to combine faith in Jesus with the making of distinctions between classes of people.” James 2, 1-5
Then looking up to heaven Jesus sighed; and he said to the deaf man: “Ephphatha”, that is “Be opened.” Mark 7, 31-37
Have you ever been on a bus or train and noticed someone clearly under the influence of alcohol struggling to get on, and then caught yourself hoping that he’s not going to sit on the vacant seat beside you? Or have you ever spotted someone in the supermarket who you know will talk at you for at least the next thirty minutes if you can’t find a quick escape route? If we’re honest with ourselves, we know we have to admit that there are some people we want to avoid at all costs because they’ll embarrass us in public or want to take too much of our precious time. Instead of engaging with them, we would much prefer to invent an excuse and hurray away. And then there’s the local identity who, despite his cleft palate, is always ready for a long chat. We nod and say sweet nothings because we can’t understand a word he’s saying. While we try to smile, our body language betrays us, proclaiming our longing to escape. In contrast to us in our discomfort, the Jesus of today’s gospel welcomes, accepts and spends time with those whose lives are difficult, with those who struggle, who find themselves on the outside, who are lonely and overlooked.
Today’s second reading from James makes it very clear that the place where we make decisions about which people we accept and which we reject is our heart. And he demonstrates that with a real-life example: A very rich man (The Greek word James uses is something like “Goldfinger”.) on entering the synagogue is welcomed extravagantly. There is much bowing and scraping, and then he is offered the best seat in the synagogue. By contrast, a shabbily dressed, poor man, who came in at the same time, is almost totally ignored. In fact, he’s told he can find his own place on the floor. The prejudice meted out to the poor man is effectively written up in lights. But James makes no comment on the obvious. Instead, he points to the attitudes and motives born in the welcomers’ hearts. Of course, James’ comment is directed at us, too. What so often propels us to act the way we do are the strong feelings and prejudices towards others, that are buried deep in our heart.
Such attitudes are filed away inside us, at the ready. Just reflect for a moment on what rises in your consciousness when you encounter a very heavy person in the seat next to you on a plane, or a beggar in the street, or a bishop or a refugee or a person whose skin colour or ethnicity is different from yours. We have attitudes tagged away in our hearts long before we have to deal with particular people, events or issues. Experience tells us that different realities have a way of flashing our prejudices into our consciousness. Just think for a moment about the attitudes and prejudices you hold towards your various friends and relations, about your boss or community leader or parish priest. I wonder if we ever stop to realise that our prejudices are often a source of comfort for us. In fact, we sometimes catch ourselves saying that the devil we know is better than the one we don't know. The devil we know with prejudice often seems better than the one we might meet in reality.
James confronts us with a truth we know from experience: poor people are very often the targets of our discrimination. We even know the litany of prejudices we can rattle off about them: “They’re dirty; they breed like rabbits; they are riddled with superstition; they’re lazy; they have no interest in getting a job; they are their own worst enemies.” If we can manage to get beyond our fantasies and prejudices and actually do a reality check, we might find that there is no real foundation for our prejudice. If we care to notice, we might discover that the Gospels are among the best reality checks we can find anywhere. They tell us that God has a preference for the poor, the weak and the broken. And today’s gospel reading teaches us that we could all do with a little of the vulnerability experienced by the deaf. If we can come to accept that God has a preference for the poor and afflicted, our prejudices might start to evaporate.
Now let’s turn our attention to today’s gospel. In doing so, let’s remember that any direction, question or comment attributed to Jesus in the Gospels is intended by the Gospel writers for us, too. While we may not be physically deaf, we have to admit that there are times when we can turn a deaf ear to God’s presence around us and to the voice of God’s Spirit in our hearts and in the words and actions of people we encounter. There have been times in my life when I have allowed fear, preoccupation with self, upset and loss to isolate me from the presence of God.
In praying for the deaf man’s ears to be opened and his tongue to be loosened, Jesus not only cures him of his physical disability, but opens the way for him to be fully accepted into the community from which fear and prejudice have excluded him. Can I allow the message and spirit of Jesus to open me sufficiently from my prejudices to recognise and feel God’s love alive in people for whom I have little time, alive in people I would rather avoid, alive in strangers and in people whose views and beliefs and practices are different from mine?
Maybe our prayer today might be that we ask God to help us to be opened from our fears, our self-certainty, our security and arrogance in thinking that we are right – all those attitudes that make us deaf to the voice of God in our midst, and speechless when it comes to supporting those with little or no voice in our society and responding to the cries of those calling for our help.
After all, reaching out to people who are struggling and in need is not simply something we do out of obligation. Nor is it an investment in a ticket to heaven. Surely, it is a response made in gratitude for the love and compassion extended by God to us in our need, fragility and disability.
Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
“You must do what the word tells you, and not just listen to it and deceive yourselves. Pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God, is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it…” James 1, 17-22, 27
“This people honours me only with lip-service…” Mark 7, 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Today’s gospel reading highlights the irony of keeping our hands ritually clean while being up to our elbows in corruption. The action starts following a brief outline of what was involved in Jewish purification rituals (probably given by Mark for the benefit of the Gentiles in his community). The question put by the scribes and Pharisees is anything but a search for information. It is actually an accusation. It succeeds only in provoking Jesus into an angry outburst, full of venom and sarcasm directed at his would-be inquisitors: “Isaiah must have had you in mind when he said: ‘This people honours me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me…’”
In reading today’s gospel, it’s important to distinguish between what Jesus has to say and the comments that Mark makes as the narrator. As one who does not seem to be particularly health conscious, Mark seems to criticise the Jews for being obsessed with cleaning: “There are also many other observances which have been handed down to them to keep, concerning the washing of cups, and pots and bronze dishes” (Mark 7, 4). Jesus, however, makes the point that obedience to God’s commandments takes priority over human traditions and rules: “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition” (Mark 7, 8).
However, if we dare to look closely at this story in Mark, we will see that it’s not really about watering down God’s commandment with human traditions and customs. Rather, it’s about the irony of resorting to moral posturing to sidestep the commandments completely. And that, in a word, is hypocrisy. It can be summed up in the person who gets a Distinction in the Ethics or Moral Theology exam and swindles his way through his life as a businessman. The rhetoric is impeccable but the practice is totally corrupt. So, what does it look like in our contemporary world? We see it in public life when so-called, committed, Christian politicians trade-in their wives and families for someone more attractive; when cruelty to boat people is carried out in the name of “national security”; when torture of suspect terrorists is labelled by officialdom as “lawful, skilful and entirely honourable”; when a head of state describes the criticism of reputable journalists as “recklessness cloaked in righteousness”. All that helps me to understand why Jesus flew into a rage.
The Dictionary of Etymology suggests that the very word “religion” is derived from the Latin word religare, to bind. Religion, then, is a human construct through which we are bound or linked to God. Today’s second reading from James and the responsorial psalm (Psalm 14) give us some insights into the meaning of religion and the message contained in the gospel. The psalmist poses a question as to what constitutes true religion, and then answers it:
O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
Those who walk blamelessly, and act with justice,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their brothers and sisters,
nor cast a slur on their neighbours.
James goes further and adds: “Nobody who fails to keep a right rein on the tongue can claim to be religious; this is mere self-deception; that person’s religion is worthless. Pure unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God, is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows in their hardships, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world" (James 1, 26-27)
Yet, slander, deception, lies, fake news and public accusations are the currency of our day. Public figures who profess to be Christians are expert at labelling, criticising and accusing, but almost incapable of listening to opponents or hearing how God works and speaks through others. Yet James reminds us that genuine religion is a God-given gift - a gift, not an obligation and not a measuring rod. Genuine religion is surely meant to reflect God’s love, goodness and light to us and our world. Yet, we have become mesmerised by the rhetoric of those who want to see anyone whose skin colour, ethnic origin, religion or sexual orientation is different as a threat and someone to scapegoat. Attacks on such vulnerable people are now commonplace. And the voices of many of us who call ourselves Christian are silent.
In the gospel, Jesus could not be clearer when he points out that who we are, what we believe and how we respond to everyday crises and challenges have their origin in our hearts, in the place deep within us where God dwells. Similarly, the meanness and hurts we inflict on others, the prejudices we act on and the silence and neglect we slip into in the face of injustice also have their origins in our hearts. Jesus challenges us to take time to look into the depths of our hearts where we will discover what we really believe, what we are passionate about, and how we might best use the gifts and talents with which God has blessed us.
If we are honest with ourselves, we will be able to point to times in our lives when we have been ruled by ritual, custom, legalism and nit-picking. There have been times when being church has been replaced by going to church out of obligation or fear. There have been times when “going to communion” has been a substitute for being eucharist for others, when “going to Mass” has had little to do with identifying with Jesus. Today’s gospel is an unambiguous invitation to break free of mindless religious practice and embrace the kind of compassion, care and acceptance that Jesus preached and lived.
The essence of today’s gospel might best be encapsulated in something that caught my attention some time ago. I have to admit that I have forgotten where exactly I read it: “If there have been times when you thought you were a Pharisee, then you were probably wrong. However, if you now believe you are not a Pharisee, then be wary!”
Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
Then Jesus said to the Twelve: “What about you, do you, too, want to go away?” Simon Peter answered: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe; we know that you are the Holy One of God.” John 6, 60-69
Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel is sometimes referred to as the “Bread of Life” chapter. It is the second longest chapter of any of the books in the New Testament (Chapter 1 of Luke’s Gospel is the longest). For five Sundays in succession the gospel reading has been taken from this sixth chapter of John. Repeatedly, using very graphic language of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, Jesus has challenged the crowds following him on their openness to identify with him. Of course, that same challenge is put to us, for we, too, are being asked if we are prepared to identify ourselves with Jesus by being bread broken and wine poured out for others. Jesus says to us, as he did to the Twelve: “Do you, too, want to go away?”
At some time or other, every generation of those claiming to walk in the footsteps of Jesus have had to answer for themselves that very question: “Will you, too, go away?”
I imagine that there are very few of us who do not know someone who has walked away from the Christian community to which we continue to belong. Some have departed, criticising the Church loudly and publicly for what they regard as hypocrisy. Others have drifted away silently. Some have had difficulty with what they regard as inflexible and narrow-minded leadership. Others have expected a community of saints, but have found only sinners. Some have been comfortable among fellow sinners but have been disillusioned by those whom they label as pious “God-botherers”. Some have found comfort and security in hard-and-fast rules, while others have found the same rules and regulations over-controlling, constrictive of their freedom, and dismissive of their conscience. In recent times, many have walked away, unable to fathom the devastation of child-abuse visited on innocent children and vulnerable adults by those from whom they were entitled to expect protection and personal integrity.
Yet, there are still many others who have found themselves able to respond to Jesus’ question as Peter did: “To whom shall we go; you have the message of eternal life?” We know the limitations and the frailty of the Church to which we belong, and we do our best from our place within that community to work for change that will promote healthy growth and renewal, change that will restore credibility as it mirrors to our world the attractive message of Jesus. That, then, nudges us to explain to ourselves and to others why we choose to stay. And while I personally cannot offer any indefensible, philosophical or theological argument for my choice to stay, I really believe it comes down to the encouragement and affirmation extended to me by those faith-filled, deeply committed men and women who, day-in and day-out, inspire me by their fidelity. They are the people who give of their time and energy visiting the sick and shut-ins, reaching out to the lonely, feeding the hungry who live on the streets, working as volunteers for the St Vincent de Paul society. They know in their hearts that God is the source of everything that is good in our world. Through the lens of their faith they are able to see God’s love at work in the world, even amid confusion and apparent hopelessness. And so, they inspire me! Very ordinary, generously committed women and men like this are a reason why I stay.
In recent weeks I have had the privilege of living with eight young men and their guides in a Christian Brothers’ novitiate in Zambia. Those young men are discerning whether they want to express the love in their hearts as Brothers in religious life. Their honesty, courage, generosity and palpable goodness are infectious and truly inspirational. They give me reason to stay.
And there are other truly extraordinary women and men in our tradition who continue to enrich the lives of anyone who cares to listen to them. The medieval mystic and Doctor of the Church, Catherine of Siena was once asked by one of her Dominican sisters: “How can I do something in return for all the goodness God has given me?” Catherine replied: “It won’t do you any good to do any more penance or to go and build another church. Nor will it achieve much if you spend more time in prayer. But I’ll tell you something you can do in return for all the compassion and love God has given you. Just find someone as unlovable as you are and give that person the kind of love God has given you.” It’s because of women like Catherine, a mystic whose humanity shone bright and whose two feet were firmly planted in reality, that I choose to stay.
And then, there’s Oscar Romero, whose integrity and passion for justice will be officially recognised by Pope Francis within the next two months. As he was shot through the heart with a single bullet while saying the words of consecration (“This is my body given for you, this is my blood shed for you.”) at Mass in his cathedral, he became Eucharist for his people – bread broken and wine poured out. It’s courageous men like him who inspire me to stay.
Today’s gospel reading begins with some of the crowd around Jesus saying: “How can we take these words seriously?” Perhaps that’s what we heard ourselves asking when we listened to Paul’s advice to married people in today’s second reading: “Wives should be submissive to their husbands…Husbands, give yourself up for your wives.” Submission and dominance are notions that don’t sit comfortably with most of us. They are words that have little currency in our everyday language. When I ask myself what Paul was getting at, I come to the realisation that genuine love for and commitment to anyone calls for putting myself second, letting go of ego and self-interest, putting first what is best for the one I say I love. The first casualty of genuine commitment to another must surely be our ego. Moreover, let’s not forget that God does not want anyone to live in slavery to another person, or to God. The love that God asks us to give has to be given freely. Eucharist is ultimately about giving our ourselves and our lives freely for others. That’s the kind of love into which today’s readings invite us to grow.
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jesus said to the crowd: “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.” John 6, 51-58
Food can be looked at in many different ways. There are some of us who are very particular about the ingredients of the food we buy in supermarkets. We can go along the rows of shelves and freezers reading the list of contents on the packets, making sure to buy products that are low in fat, sugar and substances like monosodium glutamate. Others of us are concerned only about taste, preferring things like hamburgers, deep fried potato chips and ice-cream. There are others of us who opt for tried and true comfort food such as roast chicken, beef steak, baked potatoes and green vegetables. For some, food is an enemy, especially when it expands our waistlines, preventing us from easily fitting into our favourite clothes. There are some among us who regard preparing a meal or baking biscuits as expressions of love. Professional chefs see food presentation as an art form, while there are some anxious people who prefer to waste away to skin and bone, even putting their lives at risk. Despite all those different views about food and the ways we respond to it, most of us appreciate that good food sustains and nourishes us. We accept it as an expression of genuine love when it is prepared by those who care for us. We appreciate it as a gift from God.
The readings of the last three Sundays have included many references to food. We have heard how Jesus called himself “the Bread of life” and how he shocked those who gathered to listen to him by inviting them to eat his flesh and drink his blood. To better understand what he was saying, we have to explore the Jewish understanding of the animal sacrifice that was practiced in the Temple in Jerusalem. When worshippers brought an animal for sacrifice on the temple altar, some of the meat was returned to them to be shared among family members at a ritual meal. Because the meat came from a temple offering, it was understood that God was somehow a participant in the meal as a silent, unseen guest. People believed that God was present in the meat of the sacrificed animal and that they went away from the ritual meal carrying God within them. Similarly, the belief held by devout Jews was that an animal’s or person’s blood carried the life of that person or animal. Blood was therefore considered to be sacred, belonging only to God. When the blood of a sacrificed animal was sprinkled on the people, it was taken as a sign of their being touched directly by God and filled with the life of God.
For John, then, it was a logical extension to consider the Eucharistic meal as feasting on Jesus, “the Bread of life”; as participating in the very life of God. Eating the Eucharist is being consumed by the Jesus we receive, being nourished and sustained by his compassion and love, by the love, mercy and kindness of God which he proclaimed and practiced in his life. The love of God, alive in Jesus, the Bread of life, is the life and love of God flowing through us to a world in need.
The ancient Greeks and Romans subscribed to the view that “Repetition is the mother of learning” (Latin: Repetitio mater studiorum est). Clearly, John’s belief in that approach to learning is demonstrated in his teaching on Eucharist. Those who put the Sunday readings together seem to have the same view. The final sentence of last Sunday’s gospel reading is the opening sentence of today’s: “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6, 51). Variations of this are repeated throughout the latter part of this chapter. John is surely trying to stress that Jesus wanted to leave no doubt in what he was saying.
The Greek word that John attributes to Jesus for eating is the equivalent of “feeding on, munching, crunching or gnawing on”. Little wonder, then, that the people listening to Jesus were puzzled and even angered at what they heard. John’s point is that Jesus’ teaching here can only be embraced by people who have faith in him. Next week we will hear that many who had followed him closely were to walk away from him in confusion and puzzlement. Their response nudges us to ask ourselves what exactly our response is.
In consuming the bread given to us when we participate in the Eucharist, we believe that we become the body of Christ with those gathered with us in our parish community, and the body of Christ for one another and for those we encounter each day. In drinking from the chalice, we drink in Jesus’ life of compassion, kindness, selflessness and love. As these flow through us, we become what we have received: a sacrament of unity, peace and reconciliation. As Jesus is the sacrament of God, we, in our turn, become the sacrament of Jesus for our world. It would be comforting to know that that’s how others see us.
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Lord”, Elijah said, “I’ve had enough. Take my life, I’m no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down and went to sleep. But an angel touched him and said: “Get up and eat.” He looked round, and there at his head was a scone baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. 1 Kings 19, 4-8
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever…” John 6, 41-51
Every now and then we see and hear TV interviews with artists and musicians. Several times I’ve heard these people tell how, as children, they were so captivated by a visit to a gallery or a musical performance that they developed on the spot a passion to paint or perform in imitation of the artist or musician whose skill they had experienced. They speak of being consumed by what they had consumed in the gallery or concert hall. We have all seen or met people in whom a passion for what they undertake is so strong that it becomes the focus of their lives.
In today’s gospel reading, we hear Jesus inviting us to let ourselves be consumed by “the bread of life” which he offers us to eat. That, in summary, is John’s theology of Eucharist: We are invited to be consumed by the Christ we receive in the Eucharistic bread, and be, in turn, the bread of compassion, mercy and kindness for everyone we encounter each day of our lives. John’s theology of Eucharist is unique - unique in its audacity and unique in its context of the account of the feeding of the five thousand. The other three Gospels present Eucharist in the context of the Last Supper.
Last Sunday’s story from Exodus of how the grumbling Israelites in the desert were fed with manna and this week’s story of a complaining Elijah being fed twice with scones foreshadow today’s graphic account of Jesus offering himself to the critical, complaining, disbelieving crowd as bread that will nourish them eternally. We know the story of the Israelites’ reluctance to eat the “crap” (manna) secreted by insects, nourishing though it was. Effectively, it saved their lives. The Elijah of today’s first reading was on the run. He was the target of Queen Jezebel’s anger and vengeance because he had destroyed her prophets of Baal. He feared for his life. Physically and emotionally exhausted from fleeing, he flopped down under a broom tree and asked God to end his life. God had other ideas and sent an angel to him with scones and water to nourish him for his long journey to the safety of Mt Horeb, the mountain of God.
This is a powerful story because of the way in which it demonstrates how God reaches out to those who are “down on their uppers”. Elijah was at the end of his tether, completely dispirited, deflated and defeated. God reached out to him “with bread”. These are two very significant words. The word for “with” in Latin is cum, and the word for “bread” is panis. Taken together (cum panis), they give us the English word “companion”. This story from the first book of Kings is the storyteller’s way of explaining how God’s action was effectively offering Elijah strength and companionship, rather than solutions to his problems, in his darkest hour. The message for us is clearly that when we let others know we are with them in their pain, loneliness, grief and depression, they are encouraged to keep on keeping on. God’s angel did not come to Elijah with news that Jezebel would be taken out, but with the promise that God would be his companion to walk beside him through whatever problems came his way.
And isn’t that the message of today’s gospel, where Jesus offers himself to companion us through the tough experiences of our lives, and challenges us to do likewise to all whom we encounter. We come to know Jesus in the breaking of bread at the Eucharist, and it’s in “the breaking of bread” around the tables of our homes that we come to know and support others. The greatest hospitality, intimacy and friendship we can extend to others is to invite them to share a meal in the place we call home.
If you can picture Elijah in the depths of depression, collapsed under a broom tree, you might even be able to imagine him, after he had been revived by two scones and two jars of water, praying something like:
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide;
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.
This hymn was written by Anglican pastor, Henry Lyte, in a bout of depression not long before he died. I suspect Lyte would have resonated with Elijah.
The Eucharist is Jesus’ clearest sign that God is always with us. Implicit in that sign is that we, too, are to be companions to one another, and to everyone with whom we engage, especially those most in need. For us, a further implication of that is to call to mind those who might be encouraged by some act of companionship as we step out from the community with whom we celebrate our Sunday Eucharist. There is surely some neighbour, colleague or friend whom we could boost with a simple phone call. There are others in hospital who might be cheered by a visit. There are beggars on our streets who would get as much lift from a brief conversation as from a donation. There may be others, even under the same roof as ours, who are angry, isolated and forgotten and can be lifted by a word of acknowledgement. There may be others we know to be struggling and for whom a casserole would be a wonderful and wordless message of recognition and hope.
If we have learned the real message of todays’ readings, we will realise that we have been taught not to rush in with solutions, but, rather, to be present to others in their need, being with them as companions on our journey together through life. That, of course, depends on our belief in Jesus when he says: “I am the bread of life…the bread I give is my flesh, for the life of the world.”
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The people said to Jesus: “What sign will you give to show us that we should believe in you? What work will you do? Our fathers had manna to eat in the desert; as scripture says: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus responded: “I swear to God, it was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven to eat; it is my Father who gives you real bread from heaven. I mean this: God’s bread comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” “Sir”, they said to him, “give us this bread every time.” Jesus explained to them: “I am the bread of life. Anyone who comes to me will never be hungry again, and anyone who believes in me will never again be thirsty.” John 6, 24-35
In the early 1960s when I and twenty-eight other young men received the religious habit, we were urged in a prayer formula “to put off the old man and put on the new one.” That prayer was a dated translation of part of today’s second reading from Ephesians, which is an exhortation not just to put on a new self-image, but to eradicate from our lives all traces of self-deception and pretending to be other than who we really are. That is all part of what is meant by following in the footsteps of Jesus.
At different times in our lives, many of us have tried to smarten up our self-image by changing our hair-style, buying a new suit, wearing expensive shoes, cutting holes in the knees of our jeans, or even changing to “trendy-looking” glasses. Today’s reading from Ephesians is a challenge to get beyond the superficial and to adopt a change of heart that involves living as Jesus invites us to live. And the truth is that we know when we are making genuine efforts to do just that, and when we are only “playing pretend”. I want to suggest that this reading is key to understanding how all three of today’s readings fit together.
In the gospel, Jesus is confronted by a crowd looking for a repeat of the feeding of the five-thousand-strong crowd just a few days before. To strengthen their case, they referred Jesus to the Exodus story of the manna that satisfied their ancestors when they were wandering in the wilderness. Jesus reminded them that it was God, not Moses, who provided the manna. The people badgering him were looking for more signs to satisfy themselves that Jesus was a prophet. They wanted him to produce bread on demand. Jesus, however, pushed them to reflect on what was the real source of both the manna in the desert and his feeding of the five thousand: the compassion and love of God. He went even further, challenging them to be God’s compassion and love for others. That is what is at the very foundation of John’s teaching on Eucharist. But let’s hasten slowly!
The whole of Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel is the writer’s detailed explanation of what the Eucharist is all about. John puts the words “I am the bread of life” in the mouth of Jesus to empathise that he has been sent by God into the world to be the only kind of food that will provide lasting nourishment to a world in need. John has Jesus say that the only true bread, the only food worth having “comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6, 33). That prepares the way for Jesus to identify himself as that true bread: “I am the bread of life” (John 6, 35).
There are serious scripture scholars who question whether Jesus, in real life, actually said these words. Rather, they argue that this whole chapter in John’s Gospel is the result of John’s reflection on who Jesus was and that he was sent by God into the world to give life, nourishment and hope to humanity. Believing that Jesus was sent by God to give us life by showing us how to live is foundational to our faith.
Throughout John’s Gospel there are at least seven graphic “I am…” statements attributed to Jesus. “I am the bread of life” is the first of them. In order we hear Jesus proclaim: “I am the light of the world” (8, 12), “I am the door” (10, 9), “I am the good shepherd” (10, 11 & 10, 14), “I am the resurrection and the life” (11, 25), “I am the way, the truth and the life” (14, 6) and “I am the vine and you are the branches” (15, 1 & 15 5). All of these statements are echoes of words uttered by prophets and leaders of the Old Testament, and can be traced to the books of Exodus, Kings, Daniel and to the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Moreover, they are all metaphorical statements. Jesus is not literally bread, light, a door, a shepherd, resurrection, a pathway, truth or a vine. Nonetheless, they are all statements laden with meaning about what Jesus came to do and about the impact he had on the world.
The whole point of today’s challenging and difficult gospel reading is that it is a vigorous shake-up for us to cease looking to Jesus (or to God) for instant gratification and quick solutions to all our problems. Rather, we are invited to see in Jesus the one who will sustain us on our journey through life, the one who shows us how love is shared, how reaching out in compassion and how living in gratitude for all we have will lead us to live with purpose and meaning. John reminds us that to participate in Eucharist is to open ourselves to take into our minds and hearts Jesus, the Word of God. In doing that, we are transformed into the one we receive. As we leave our churches at the end of our Eucharist, we are urged to live what we have celebrated: by lives of service, by reaching out in compassion and reconciliation, by being bread broken and wine poured out for others. If I can do that, those who think they know me might come to realise that I have had something more than a face-lift. Moreover, the “old man” I was urged to put off in 1961 might have finally been superseded.
There is one more lesson to be learned from today’s first reading: While God is gracious, nurturing and exceedingly generous, God is not one who is into spoon-feeding. The Israelites found themselves ankle deep in quail and puzzled by the manna surrounding them, but they still saw the need for cooperation. In order to eat their fill, they had to work together to gather provisions, and the manna required special care. Emerging freedom required accountability. They saw that they had to create a sustainable economy out in the middle of nowhere. They found themselves in the first stages of building a community, of learning what it takes to be community. This was how a nation grew: through hum-drum activities, through the tasks and to-do lists of everyday life. It was in the wilderness that they had to re-invent themselves, undergo the transformation from slaves responsible only to the Egyptian System into a people responsible to themselves, to each other, to their God. Is it any different for us?
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?”…Jesus took the bread, gave thanks to God, and distributed it to the people who were sitting there. John 6, 1-15
One of our recurring anxieties is that the world’s resources will peter out. Despite our awareness that the earth is being contaminated by the use of fossil fuels, we are nervous about the decreasing accessibility of coal, oil, timber, edible grain crops, clean air and water. When natural disasters and cataclysmic industrial accidents occur, our immediate instinct is to look after ourselves by stocking up on fuel and water.
We experience similar anxiety when our own personal resources come under threat. If our heartbeat becomes irregular, we seek medical attention. When the red and white cells in our bloodstream compete for supremacy, we experience a loss of energy and fear that this may be a signal that the end of our life is nearer than we had hoped. Loss of mobility, increasing moments of forgetfulness, loss of short-term memory and emotional apathy are all signs that we are getting closer to death. We begin to realise that there is no lasting medical help available to stop the physical and emotional depletion that is happening to us.
However, as Christians, we do have a sense of someone accompanying us as our depletion progresses. That sense is faith and that someone is God. That faith in God flies in the face of any prediction that our life is doomed to end in nothingness.
In today’s gospel, Jesus offers us a powerful message about resourcing, presented through a very ordinary example of the generosity of a boy who is prepared to contribute five barley loaves and a couple of fish towards feeding an estimated five thousand people. Whether we take literally the miracle that follows or whether we conclude that the generosity of a boy and the generous heartedness of Jesus inspire members of the crowd to dip into their bags and share the contents, the message is still the same. Jesus is totally convinced that his Father is a resourcing, generous God. If people can come to see God as resourcing, they might stop regarding their possessions and themselves are commodities that are under threat.
The message for us is that we, in our turn, might stop asking God to supply everything we want, to be the one who satisfies our desires for a win in the lottery or a new house or a top grade in our examinations. Instead, in our prayer, we might come to discover God’s boundless creativity at work in us and in those around us, for our benefit and the benefit of our world. The confidence we will gain from such a realisation will free us from the anxiety of worrying about our needs and our future, and free us to be generous to others, sharing with them whatever we are and have. Our faith as Christians is that God will surely make something of us. On that foundation, we will give generously of ourselves and our possessions, even when our own personal resources and possessions are clearly dwindling.
Even though that might be our faith and our approach to life, we have all experienced people who always want to be on the take. The crowd in today’s gospel seemingly failed to grasp the significance of what they had experienced when they saw their hunger and the hunger of those around them satisfied. They saw Jesus as an instant source of supply, and their response was to make him a king who would deliver all they wanted. They were prepared to live in a state of dependency, rather than use their God-given gifts and talents to create their own future and give generously of their resources to others in greater need. Jesus was not prepared to tolerate unhealthy dependency in anyone. He was fully prepared to give of himself, his time and his talents, reaching out to those in need. He was not prepared to respond on demand to a crowd whose acclaim was based on having their wants and desires satisfied. That’s why he eluded them and went off to the hills by himself.
One of the delightful aspects of this story is the insight it gives us into the contrast between the workings of the rational mind and the creative imagination. Somehow Jesus sensed that there would be enough and, indeed, more than enough to feed the whole crowd. The rational, practically-minded disciples were well able to count the five loaves and the two fish the boy had. It was patently obvious that so little would make no dent on the appetites of five thousand hungry people. Against all these voices of common sense stood Jesus and the generous youngster. The only thing in the disciples’ favour was that they knew that Jesus had been faithful and dependable in the past. So, they responded to Jesus’ direction to arrange the crowd into manageable groups.
Like the common-sense disciples, we can be so grounded in the quantifiable reality of the present that we are incapable of imagining a different future. We can imagine the future only in terms of what we already know. We often forget that, while we can make educated guesses about the future, the unpredictable sometimes creeps in to surprise us. Jesus had grown to appreciate that God is a God of surprises. If there is one thing that the disciples learned from what unfolded before their eyes, it was not to let themselves be paralysed by a lack of imagination. Maybe, just maybe, it’s a lack of imagination that prevents us and our Church community from taking the courageous and risky steps to respond creatively to our world in need.
One of the challenges that this story puts to me is this: Is my faith sufficiently strong to believe in a God of surprises? If not, I may as well retire right now, unfit for the role of walking in the footsteps of Jesus.
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.”…Jesus’ heart was moved with pity for the vast crowd, for they were like sheep without a shepherd. Mark 6, 30-34
Today’s first reading, responsorial psalm and gospel prompt me to ask myself who, in actual practice, do I see as the shepherds to guide me in my life’s journey. On whom and on what do I rely for guidance, especially when the going is tough.
From time to time, we’ve all probably observed pushy parents stepping in to pressurise their children in all kinds of activities. We’ve seen them on the sidelines at school and club sporting fixtures, urging their children to shine at hockey or football, at sprinting or gymnastics. And when the child does not measure up to expectations, he or she becomes the target of parental advice or, far worse, belittling criticism. There are even parents who lower themselves to blame the referee or umpire for their children’s failure to win. Pushy parents are also to be found exhorting their children to great academic heights, or success in musical and stage performance. It’s as though their child’s success or failure reflects on their success or failure as parents. Whether we are parents, coaches, personal trainers or tutors, we can all find ourselves trapped into searching for affirmation and approval arising from the success of those we have been asked to guide. It’s as though our credibility depends on their success.
We’ve all been around long enough to see that there are people whose lives are driven by a desire for commercial success. Their shepherd is to be found in the daily stock-market report. Their success is measured by the magnitude of their bank account. If the source of our guidance comes from the stock exchange or the approval of neighbours and acquaintances, we can be sure that we are numbered among those whom Jesus saw as shepherdless in today’s gospel reading. Still others are driven by the desire to climb the social ladder. The measure of their success is whether or not their picture found its way to the social pages of the local newspaper or whether they have made it to the bound volume of Who’s Who. They reveal their desire to be in the ranks of “Who wants to be who” by their obsession with name-dropping and recounting all their brushes with fame. Their shepherd is to be found among those who attribute popularity ratings.
From the pages of Mark’s Gospel, we can conclude that God invites us to see Jesus as the only shepherd who can guide us to true peace and contentment in our lives. If our lives are to be centred on the things of God, if we are to find true freedom, if we are to live free of the fear of failure, we will have to look to Jesus as our true guide and reliable shepherd.
Today’s gospel reading opens with an illustration of Jesus’ sensitivity to the needs of his disciples. Doctors who are required to engage in a period of internship before they are fully accredited, student teachers and nurses who are sent to try their hand at the practicalities of teaching and nursing, apprentices who are expected to learn a trade under the supervision of a qualified practitioner all know how much nervous energy is expended in their early days of supervised practice.
Today’s gospel tells of how the disciples have just returned from their first experience of practice teaching and preaching. Jesus, recognising that they must have been physically and mentally exhausted, suggests they take the opportunity for some R & R and debriefing: “Let’s go off by ourselves to some place where we’ll be alone and you can rest a while” (Mark 6, 31). But his best-laid plans come to nothing. The crowd, many of whom may not have been able to afford space for R and R, anticipate Jesus’ movements, and succeed to demonstrating to the disciples that need has no timetable and compassion has no schedule. People in need will make demands on our time and generosity at the most inconvenient times. Need, like compassion, has no schedule.
While we in this day and age may not be comfortable with the imagery of God or Jesus as shepherd, we need to remember that Jesus was shaped by his Jewish culture and tradition. He was familiar with the Jewish scriptures. It was not by accident that he described the crowd as “sheep without a shepherd”. He would have been familiar with Moses’ request to God to appoint a leader for the people “who will lead them out and bring them in,…so that they will not be like sheep without a shepherd” (Numbers, 27, 17). He would have known Isaiah’s reference to the people of Israel, exiled in Babylon, as: “Like a hunted gazelle, like sheep without a shepherd, each will return to his own people, each will flee to his native land” (Isaiah 13, 14), and the words of Micaiah recorded in the Book of Chronicles: “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd, and God said: ‘These people have no master. Let each one go home in peace’” (2 Chr. 18, 16).
In reaching out to the crowd that had successfully disrupted his plans, Jesus demonstrated what compassionate leadership looks like. In the process, he taught the disciples and us how to be sensitive to the needs of others, how to empathise with them in their struggles and how to reach out to them in their need.
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Amos said to Amaziah: “I was a shepherd and looked after sycamores: but it was the Lord who took me from herding the flock, and who said: “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” Amos 7, 12-15
Jesus summoned the twelve and began to send them out in pairs, giving them authority over unclean spirits. And he instructed them to take nothing for the journey except a staff… Mark 6, 7-13
The Book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) is loaded with snippets of wisdom. One such is a statement about friendship: “A loyal friend is a powerful defence: whoever finds one has indeed found a treasure. A loyal friend is something beyond price, there is no measuring his/her worth. A loyal friend is the elixir of life, and those who trust the Lord will find one (Sirach 6, 14-16). While this might be seen as an unusual introduction to a reflection on today’s gospel reading, it is something that Jesus may well have had in mind as he sent the twelve off to practise the ministry he had entrusted to them. Surely, he reasoned that, by going off in pairs, they would be a support to one another, especially whenever they were made to feel less than welcome. In the process, bonds of friendship were likely to grow. Jesus had already invited them to be his friends. By implication, all who accept friendship with Jesus commit themselves to be in a relationship of friendship, not only with those whom Jesus has invited to be in his circle of friends, but with everyone about whom he cares. Being a follower of Jesus is not about a cosy “Jesus and me” relationship. It is about engaging with respect, care and integrity with everyone we encounter.
True friendship involves mutual support, a readiness to encourage, an openness to be honest, a preparedness to challenge and a readiness to affirm and celebrate as appropriate. That is why Sirach describes a true friend as priceless.
Today’s readings highlight the difficulties that are encountered by those who are invited to proclaim to the world what is involved in calling people to live with integrity and to treat others with the respect, dignity and equality they deserve as people created in the image of God. The recent Sunday readings from Mark make the point that many people don’t want to hear anything about what is meant by living with integrity. Prophets of God and disciples of Jesus are often rejected not only because of the message they bring, but also because of their humble origins.
Amos, the subject of today’s first reading, was at a distinct disadvantage simply because he had worked as a shepherd and a tree-surgeon who scraped the worms from under the bark of sycamore trees. He was further disadvantaged by the fact that he had come to challenge the people of the economically rich Northern kingdom of Israel who had seceded from their southern neighbours. Amos’ message of social justice was anathema to the people of the north. His day-time job of ridding trees of their worms was a very appropriate metaphor for ridding the prosperous society of the northern kingdom of the injustice and corruption that had infected their way of life. So, he was told to go back home where he belonged. What provoked Amaziah to send Amos packing was the fact that his message had threatened the comfort of the people Amos had challenged: “You people hate anyone who challenges injustice and speaks the whole truth in court. You have oppressed the poor and robbed them of their grain. And so you will not live in the fine stone houses you build or drink wine from the beautiful vineyards you plant. I know how terrible your sins are and how many crimes you have committed. You persecute good men, take bribes, and prevent the poor from getting justice in the courts” (Amos 5, 10-12). There was little doubt that words like that would have sent the worms of corruption scurrying for cover. Amos went even further, criticising the people of the north for trying to mask their cheating with a façade of religious worship and practice. No wonder he was run out of town!
In the gospel of today, Jesus makes the point that, to be credible disciples of his, we have to unclutter our lives, get rid of attitudes, prejudices and practices that are obstacles to our witness to the message he invites us to proclaim. Our words and actions are meant to reflect the acceptance, forgiveness, encouragement, mercy and justice that God holds out to everyone. If we do not behave like that we will not be credible witnesses to anything, we will not be messengers of the Gospel.
In sending his disciples out in pairs, Jesus was acting on what he had learned through his own experience. He knew that they would sometimes be accepted and welcomed. He also knew that they would know rejection, but that their faith to be strengthened it would have to survive the criticism of those who would hear their words as alien, remote and unacceptable. That very experience would help them to clarify for themselves exactly what and in whom they placed their faith. Faith that survives testing and opposition eventually becomes more real for those to whom it is proclaimed.
But let’s not conclude that the Gospel of God’s love, acceptance and encouragement can be proclaimed equally effectively in both word and action. Sometimes actions speak more loudly than words. We don’t all have to become preachers and prophets in the style of Amos or by going door-knocking in pairs. Taking time to sit and listen to lonely people in nursing homes, volunteering at a soup kitchen that welcomes street people, providing music and singing to brighten the lives of the elderly, coaching children who struggle to get their homework completed are all effective ways of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus. They might not always be received with expressions of appreciation, but they recognise that all are welcome in God’s kingdom, that we are all sons and daughters of the God who loved us into life, and sisters and brothers to one another, as we heard in today’s second reading from Ephesians.
Being witnesses to the Gospel will rarely be plain sailing. But we can take comfort from the fact that we have companions on the journey, will be fortified by the friendships we make along the way, and have the assurance that God’s Spirit will be there to guide and encourage us.
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“I am most happy, then, to be proud of my weaknesses, in order to feel the protection of Christ’s power over me.” 2 Corinthians 12, 7-10
“Where did this man get all this? What kind of wisdom has been given to him? What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands? Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary…?” Jesus said to them: “A prophet is despised only in his own country, among his own relations and in his own house.” Mark 6, 1-6
In 2012, a children’s book called Wonder was published in New York. It was written by R.J. Palacio, pen-name for Raquel Jaramillo, mother of a young child. In six years, the book has sold more than 5 million copies. It’s the story of August (“Augie”) Pullman who was born with a severely disfigured face, the result of a genetic disorder known as mandibulofacial dysotosis or Treacher Collins Syndrome. What sparked Ms Jaramillo to write the story was a combination of her own child’s distress at seeing the face of another child with Treacher Collins Syndrome and her hearing a song called Wonder, written and sung by Natalie Merchant. (The song and the lyrics are readily available on You Tube.)
Augie Pullman is labelled is a “monster” by some of his fellow fifth-graders, rejected by many of them and bullied by others who regard themselves as superior. Yet through his personal courage and integrity and his insistence in speaking the truth, he eventually wins the support and respect of his peers. In those respects, he acts as a prophet, despite the fact that he is only a child in years.
Difference often triggers prejudice in others. Moreover, we all know from experience that “familiarity breeds contempt”. In today’s gospel reading, we see how Jesus is a victim of both prejudice and familiarity. Because of his personal integrity, he dares to be different and he is insulted by his own family members and by those among whom he grew up, because they had categorised him as nothing more than the local carpenter. They even resorted to attributing to him the ultimate insult in describing him as the “son of Mary”. Rarely, if ever, in Jewish society was a man referred to as the son of his mother, even if his mother had been widowed. Referring to Jesus as “the son of Mary” was a deep insult, a slur on his origins. Those who knew him from his childhood couldn’t cope with the fact that he had changed, so they reduced him to his former occupation and his family origins.
Today’s reading is the culmination of a theme that Mark has been weaving into his Gospel. Recall, for a moment, the start of the reading we had for the Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time. Members of Jesus’ family were so embarrassed by what Jesus had been saying and doing that they thought he had gone crazy. They turned up to apprehend him and take him away by force: “When his relatives heard of this, they set out to take him in hand, convinced that he was out of his mind” (Mark 3, 30). Clearly, Jesus resisted them and went on to say that membership of his family and community was not based on blood lines or kinship: “Whoever does the will of God is brother and sister and mother to me” (Mark 3, 35). Towards the end of Chapter 4 of Mark’s Gospel we read how Jesus calmed the storm when the disciples were terrified that their boat would sink. At the conclusion of that story, we are told that the disciples kept saying to one another: “Who can this be, that the wind and sea obey him?” (Mark 4, 41). So, we have two examples of family members and the people of Nazareth dismissing Jesus as a nobody or as someone who has gone crazy. In fact, they effectively say to one another: “Who does this carpenter, whom we have known since he was a kid, think he is? Whom is he trying to impress?” At the same time, his disciples are seriously trying to come to terms with who he really is. Meanwhile, Jesus is clearly saying that he’s someone on a mission to wake up the world to the mercy, compassion and kindness of God: “Whoever does the will of God is brother and sister and mother to me.”
While we ourselves have no desire to reduce Jesus to the level of someone out to make a name for himself or as the kid from down the street trying to make an impression, there are probably times when we are unable to see Jesus present in the ordinary and not-so-ordinary people we encounter every day of our lives. Do we ever think that Jesus is present in the people fleeing the terror of warfare and violence in South Sudan, Iraq, Syria or Palestine? Do we recognise Jesus present in the alcoholic who confronts us for the money for a cup of coffee and in the beggars from Ghana, Nigeria and Ethiopia standing outside our supermarkets? Do we assume that we have nothing to learn from the discards of modern society. The ordinary people of Nazareth and members of Jesus’ extended family were convinced that they understood who Jesus really was. They took offence at him because they concluded that he was full of his own importance. They failed to recognise that in the person they had seen grow up God was really present. Familiarity does indeed breed contempt, over-familiarity can blind us to the presence of God in our very midst.
While today’s gospel gives us an excellent example of how we can all unfairly read faults and limitations into others, today’s second reading from Corinthians is an invitation to look at our own limitations. In real life, we are constantly struggling with the call to confront our own faults and limitations and the inclination to magnify the limitations and faults we want to see in others. Paul admits to being afflicted with “a thorn in the flesh” to stop him from becoming uppity about his spiritual growth. The metaphor he uses suggests that he is prone to a recurring moral lapse. But he ends up boasting about his moral fragility. Initially, that left me wondering. I suggest that the key to understanding him lies in his disclosure that he took his weakness to his prayer and did not pretend to God that he was anything other than weak. In doing that, he came to appreciate that God loved him so much that he did not have to earn God’s approval by living and acting flawlessly. Paul came to realise that God loves us even when our behaviour is less than it could be, even when our integrity is somewhat off centre.
Paul reveals that the Lord’s response to his prayer was: “My grace is enough for you, for my power is at its best in weakness.” By implication, that same principle refers to Jesus, whose human limitations were no obstacle to the Father’s boundless love for him. All too easily, we gloss over the humanity of Jesus. Remember, he did get angry. When he was on the Cross he asked if God had abandoned him. When the people of his home town rejected him, he could not believe what he heard. There was no calm objectivity in his declaration that, like so many other prophets, he was not accepted where he anticipated a receptive audience. He found the locals so limited in their trust that he just dropped them and went elsewhere. Resignedly, he seems to be saying that their loss is not going to prevent him from expressing his own integrity. So, when others dismiss us, contradict us, undermine us, we can say with Paul: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” I suspect that Jesus would agree.
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“God did not invent death, and when living creatures die, it gives God no pleasure. God created everything so that it might continue to exist, and Everything God created is wholesome and good. There is no deadly poison in them. No, death does not rule this world, for God’s justice does not die.” Wisdom 1, 13-15
Jairus fell at Jesus’ feet and pleaded earnestly with him: “My daughter is at the point of death. Please come and lay your hands on her that she may get well and live.” Mark 5, 21-43
Try proclaiming the words above from the Book of Wisdom to families caught in the middle of bombardments released by warring factions in Syria. Or preaching them to people trapped in the degradation of slum life on the edges of Nairobi or Calcutta. The evidence of misery, injustice, destruction and death in such places is overwhelming, and often the first one to be accused is God.
The wisdom books of the Old Testament attempt to address the problem of evil in the world. In the Book of Job, for instance, the finger of blame is initially pointed at God. Before he comes to his senses, Job sees God as the source of all his troubles. So, all his arrows of recrimination are directed at God. The Book of Wisdom, from which today’s first reading comes, starts to explore how Israel brought a whole lot of misery on itself. Israel’s way of worship, its customs and laws contained much wisdom. When that wisdom was ignored, the nation was overwhelmed with the dark forces of irreligion, tyranny and exile. A close look at their history would reveal to the people of Israel that they themselves contributed to their own misfortune and suffering through their superstitions and lack of faith in God that they allowed to creep into their lives. The conclusion was that they were fools for wanting to blame God for anything. All that, of course, offers us a lens through which to look at the disasters, wars and misfortunes that beset our modern-day world.
Humankind, however, has always been expert at inventing loopholes through which to escape accepting responsibility. In today’s first reading, for instance, it is the devil, not us, to whom blame is attributed: “It was the Devil’s jealousy that brought death into the world” (Wisdom 2, 24). All humankind’s hot-headedness, all our culpable negligence, all our off-hand violence and all our planned and calculated corruption are attributed to a cosmic-sized, envious superbeing. Is it just too much for us to accept our own culpability or is it easier for us to project our own envy and human weakness outward onto some all-powerful force for evil? In the long-run, it doesn’t really matter, for the New Testament writers assure us that, in the person of Jesus, an equally cosmic-sized and even more powerful force for good has come into our lives. We no longer need to feel possessed by our weakness or controlled by our miserable vices. That is expressed clearly in today’s second reading from Corinthians: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; rich though he was, he made himself poor for our sake, in order to make us rich by his poverty” (2 Corinthians 8, 9). The action of God’s Son, Jesus, is so extraordinary in its impact that no power for evil can come near it. If that’s what God’s power has done, then there should be no more foolish talk about the inevitable power of evil, of the Devil or of anyone else. Still, there’s something paradoxical about the New Testament writers describing Jesus as one whose influence for good is such that it overcomes all evil. While we are assured that in the person of Jesus evil’s day is over, we also get the clear message that we have to be freed from evil on a daily basis.
Today’s two stories of the cure of the woman who was afflicted with chronic bleeding for twelve years and the restoration to life of Jairus’ daughter make it clear that Jesus did not dispel sickness and evil on a grand, spectacular scale. Rather, he went about it modestly, curing this one and then that one. He demonstrated wisdom by addressing one aspect of human suffering after another. Therein lies a message for us. We, too, as instruments of God’s providence, can bring life and hope to others through the care, attention and compassion we extend to them. In living and acting like that, we also find healing for our own brokenness.
Mark’s two stories illustrate how Jesus had no hesitation in launching into the messiness of people’s lives in order to bring relief and healing. He ignored the limitations of custom and taboo that his own society stipulated. By taking a dead girl by the hand and allowing a bleeding woman to touch him, he set himself up to be categorised as unclean and, therefore, excluded from entering the synagogue. For him, responding compassionately to the needs of others was more important than the “safety” provided by custom and tradition.
As a synagogue official, Jairus was a man of standing in the Jewish community. Yet, out of love for his daughter, he risked ridicule and rejection by his action of breaking ranks and approaching for help one who was labelled as an anti-establishment, itinerant rabbi. There is much we can learn from Jairus, for we, too, can be slow to reach out to the needy and neglected for fear of criticism from the sidelines. Mark, however, holds up to us both the haemorrhaging woman and the synagogue official as models of faith and courage. There is much about them worthy of imitation.
I conclude with a story: A mother of two teenage daughters got into the practice of driving them and their friends to all kinds of activities - to the shopping mall, volleyball and softball practice, to parish youth-group gatherings, the local hamburger shop, the beach and various school activities. She had decided that she do the driving or take the risk of their getting transported by someone’s sister’s boyfriend. If her daughters and their friends were in the back of her car, she was assured of knowing where they were. In time, she found the tripping around quite educational for herself. She even learned to be there, say nothing and end up being “invisible”. The girls would pile into the car and begin talking about the things girls just talk about - boys, teachers, other girls. She also discovered that she learned a lot by being invisible. Over the years, her car was used as a beauty parlour, a cafeteria, a change-room and even a confessional. She came to realise that, when the girls got in, God got in with them. “Did the girls ever realise that?”, she sometimes asked herself. “In a way, yes!”, she concluded. There were times when they talked about faith and even asked questions about Buddhism, seances and levitating. Not long ago, the mother of one of her daughters dropped by to thank her for what she had done for her daughter Kelly, who had recently died of cancer at the age of just 21. Kelly’s mother was expressing gratitude for much more than car service. Now that her own daughters are grown up, this woman says that she misses the driving. She says: “It was pretty ordinary, but incredibly holy.”
The Jairus of today’s gospel is a model of that kind of dedicated parenting and care.
Is there something we can all learn from him?
Birth of John the Baptist
Now, on the eighth day when they came to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father…His father asked for a writing tablet and wrote: “His name is John.” And they were all astonished. Luke 1, 57-66, 80
In order to get a clear understanding of today’s gospel reading, I suggest that we need to look at the early part of the story describing how Zechariah lost his speech. When the angel Gabriel suddenly appeared, Zechariah was preparing to offer incense in front of a large gathering in the temple. At the conclusion of the offering, he was scheduled to bless the crowd. Remember, Zechariah was an elderly priest and this was to be his big moment. He had been chosen by lot to lead the evening prayer, to go into the sanctuary, the holiest part of the temple where God dwelt. So, this was a moment he hoped would come before he died. First of all, he is delayed by the angel, and then left speechless. His big moment comes to almost nothing.
As I was reflecting on Zechariah’s disappointment, my imagination was triggered and I found myself thinking of a long-winded parish priest of my youth who gave never-ending sermons. I’m sure I, and many others sitting in the pews, would have cheered had that man been struck speechless on his way up to the pulpit.
Well, the worshippers in the temple saw Zechariah go into the sanctuary, and, when he was delayed in coming out, they may well have been wondering if he had had a fall or a stroke or a heart-attack. And when he eventually reappeared, speechless, he had no way of explaining that he’d had an encounter with an angel, even if he knew it was an angel. So the congregation was as bewildered as the priest.
One would have to be heartless not to feel for Zechariah. To begin with, he was an elderly man who had no experience of visits from angels. Naturally he is “disturbed…and overcome with fear” (Luke 1, 12). Then he is told that there’s no need to be afraid, because his prayers for a son have been answered. But Gabriel gives him no chance to respond and speaks to Zechariah at length: “Your wife Elizabeth is to bear you a son and you shall name him John. He will be your joy and delight and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord; he must drink no wine, no strong drink; even from his mother’s womb he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and he will bring back many of the Israelites to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah, he will go before him to reconcile fathers to their children and the disobedient to the good sense of the upright, preparing for the Lord a people fit for him.” Clearly, Zechariah can’t take all that in. It’s a program for a life-time. But he’s completely bowled over by the news that his wife Elizabeth, whom he delicately describes as “getting on in years”, is pregnant.
Stunned by that news, Zechariah goes into shock and, instead of saying to the angel “You’ve got to be joking”, he asks what any normal elderly man would: “How can I know this?” After all, it does beggar belief! Of course, there’s a humorous side to all this: God sends an angel to tell a senior, religious leader that he will be silenced, that he is to stop talking. Could you imagine that happening in our day and age?
In this context, I’m reminded of the story in Genesis of how Sarah laughed to herself when she overheard one of Abraham’s three guests telling him that his wife would become pregnant within twelve months: “So Sarah laughed to herself, thinking, ‘Now that I am past the age of childbearing, and my husband is an old man, is pleasure to come my way again?’” (Genesis 18, 12)
In our Church in which there is much pontificating by men about human sexuality, conception and pregnancy, it is important to remind ourselves that unexpected pregnancies are not always times of much rejoicing. I know of a mother of two girls in their late teens and of a boy now 18 months old who said to her parish priest after he had described Sarah as overjoyed at the news of her pregnancy: “Father, I hope you realise that pregnancy is not always happy. Yes, we love our little boy dearly, but at the time, it was no laughing matter.”
On the surface, it seems to me that Zechariah received unfair treatment from the angel Gabriel. After all, it was almost unheard of that any first-born son would be given any other name but his father’s. For Zechariah to be told by a complete stranger that he was to call the son he didn’t think he would ever have by a name that was not in the family was beyond belief. To question that was surely a natural response. For his trouble, Zechariah is struck dumb. And remember, it is Luke who tells us that Zechariah was visited by the angel Gabriel. That information is not volunteered by Zechariah himself. How was he to know that the messenger he encountered was a genuine messenger from God? Luke would have gotten that story through oral tradition passed on from one generation to the next. In hindsight people came to explain that what took place that afternoon in the sanctuary of the temple was a heavenly visitation.
What’s the point of all this as far as we are concerned? Perhaps Zechariah’s “sin” was not one of doubt or disbelief but one of inflexibility. Maybe he had become so set in his ways that he could not even imagine that God is a God of surprises. Ironically, he may well have been more barren than his wife Elizabeth because he could not even think of a bright and hope-filled future. So, this gospel reading invites me to ask myself if I am creative enough to imagine that the world of which I am part could be different. And in what specific ways might it be different? Moreover am I prepared to make the effort to ensure that my part of it is different? Or do I end up allowing myself to be sedated into accepting that my world will always be the one that is described to me every day in the morning papers and the TV news?
Maybe we, too, have settled into suspended animation, and, tired of waiting for change to happen by magic, we can’t cope with surprises. Consequently, we end up asking the same question as Zechariah did: “How will I know that this is so?” In his book, Expecting God’s Surprises, Robert Dunham writes: “Maybe it’s time for us to claim the angel’s gift of silence again - to stop talking so much, to stop trying to explain, to shut our mouths before the mystery of God and see what the quiet has to teach us. Kathleen Norris adds a thought about Zechariah that also speaks to our impatience and to our tendency to always want explanations: ‘I read Zechariah’s punishment as a grace, in that he could not say anything to further compound his initial arrogance when confronted with mystery. When he does speak again it is to praise God: he’s had nine months to think it over.’” (Robert Dunham, Expecting God’s Surprises: Devotions for the Advent Journey, Geneva Press, 2001) That’s something for us all to ponder. Was Zechariah inflexible and arrogant? Are you and I like that?
Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
“This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man throws seed on the land. Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing; how he does not know.” Mark 4, 26-34
Back in the days of Jesus, it would seem that farmers had little knowledge of agricultural science. They ploughed the land, scattered the seed by hand and hoped the rains would come to water the land. Since then, agricultural science has made great advances. However, modern-day farmers, like their counterparts of ancient times, still have to put their faith in weather patterns, trusting that the rains will arrive in due course. We talk about faith as a virtue. In fact, definitions and explanations of faith can be found in all kinds of theology books and dictionaries. In the context of today’s gospel reading, we could describe faith as the ability to see the potential in the smallest of things and the courage, patience and perseverance to allow or even to help that potential to emerge.
However, I want to suggest that this parable of the kingdom of God, with which today’s gospel reading opens, is a little more complex than appears on the surface. To begin with, this parable is to be found only in Mark’s Gospel. Secondly, there are one or two linguistic oddities. We normally use the expression “day and night”, but the expression here is “Night and day”. In the Jewish mind, a new day begins with sunset. In our thinking, it starts with sunrise. And verses 27 and 28 look as though they are saying the same thing twice. Verse 27 concludes with the statement that the sower of the seed, presumably the farmer, has no idea of how the seed sprouts and grows: “Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing; how, he does not know.” One would thing that any farmer would know how the seeds he plants come to grow. And then verse 28 draws our attention away from the sower’s sense of mystery to give us a statement that is central to the structure of the parable: “Of its own accord, the land produces first the shoot, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.” The clear message is that the God who created the earth and the plants and the seeds is the one who causes the growth of the seed, and the one who also brings about the growth and establishment of the kingdom. The growth of the seed, according to the parable, happens without any input from the sower.
So, the central message and meaning of this parable is that God’s kingdom, God’s rule of mercy, justice and compassion, is initiated by God, and will come into being, whether or not our efforts support its growth or oppose it. The parable gives no attention to the sower’s working the soil or nurturing the growing plants. It does the very opposite, pointing out that the sower sows and then waits. The process of growth goes on, with no effort on the part of the sower. God’s kingdom will come for sure and certain. It is up to all of us to wait in patience, but also in faith and hope, convinced that God’s purposes will come to fulfilment in God’s good time.
This resonates with the advice that James offers in his letter to the Christian community: “Meanwhile, friends, wait patiently for the coming of the Lord. Think of a farmer: how patiently he waits for the precious fruit of the ground until it has had the autumn rains and the spring rains! You, too, must be patient and not lose heart (James 5, 7-8).
How then do we make sense of the line in the Lord’s prayer, which we probably pray every single day: “Your kingdom come”? If we understand this parable, we have to conclude that God’s kingdom will come because that’s what God wants for us and our world. Even a brief look at our world would seem to suggest that God’s kingdom is a long way from being realised. However, our praying “your kingdom come” is a prayer that God’s kingdom will come to life in us. Coming to life in us is the first step of its coming to life in our world.
The second parable in today’s gospel is that of the mustard seed. Jesus uses the parable of the mustard seed to illustrate how God can bring forth greatness from even the tiniest of beginnings. Both parables are metaphors for how we live our lives. Whatever “seeds” of goodness, kindness and compassion we possess are meant to be sown with faith and confidence in our God, who will use them to sprout and flourish into a harvest of which we may not even have dreamed. The seeds we plant will contribute towards the establishment of the kingdom of God.
While Jesus used the parable of the mustard seed to teach how, in God’s providence, surprising results can come from very small beginnings, other lessons can be drawn from plants like mustard trees. In places like the State of California, both Sahara and Spanish mustard plants were introduced and have now reached pest proportions. The plants extract from the soil nutrients that are much needed for commercial crops. Legend has it that the seeds for Spanish mustard were scattered across California by the European Franciscan missionary, Junipero Serra. European missionaries have sometimes been responsible for bringing “mixed blessings” to some cultures into which they have supposedly brought the Gospel. There have been times when indigenous peoples have been forced or pressured to adopt Christianity. Disease and slavery have sometimes accompanied missionaries.
When we look at the history of our own cultures and the actions of so-called “civilised society”, we can see good and evil, light and darkness woven together. Even the very best of intentions can lead to unintended, damaging and destructive consequences. And we know that the same kind of ambivalence, ambiguity and paradox exists also in nature. Bushfires often destroy lives, homes and crops as they regenerate the land on which they burn.
Expanses of yellow-flowered mustard plants in bloom are beautiful to the eye. Yet the seed, carried on the wind, invades fields and crops, and grows with wild unpredictability. Still, it’s the metaphor of the mustard seed that Jesus chooses to describe the coming and growth of the kingdom of God. Perhaps Jesus is saying that God’s reality will, like the mustard seed, eventually burst unharnessed across the world. When we pray “Your kingdom come”, we had better be aware of what exactly it is for which we are praying.
All this invites me to reflect on how my life, my actions and my world have, at their very core, possibilities for good and evil, kindness and pettiness, beauty and repulsiveness. Our lives are closely connected to paradox. Maybe, at the very heart of God’s kingdom, of God’s rule is to be found the same kind of paradoxical tension. Is that, I find myself asking, why Jesus relied on puzzling parables to explain the kingdom of God? Having to live with contradictions in my own life is uncomfortable. Knowing that who I am and what I do have potential for good and evil, for light and dark, can be unsettling. However, it can also help me to live with humility.
Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
When his relatives heard of this, they set out to take him in hand, convinced that he was out of his mind. The scribes said: “He is possessed by Beelzebul. It is through the prince of devils that he casts devils out.” Mark 3, 20-35
Before you continue with your reading of this week’s reflection, I invite you to stop and ask yourself what attitude you hold towards religious sects.
Did you find, for instance, that the very word “sect” stirs up prejudices within you? Our English word “sect” is derived directly from Latin secta, meaning school of thought, and is generally used in reference to religion. Islam, for example, has two sects or schools of thought - the Shia school of thought and the Sunni one. At the time of Jesus, there existed a sect in Judaism known as the Essenes, a strongly ascetic group that practised voluntary celibacy and simplicity of life. In Christianity there are lots of different sects or denominations such as Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics, Presbyterians and Episcopalians. Now, we’ll put this topic on hold and move to a story that will lead us into today’s gospel and how it relates to sects.
You’ve probably heard of the youngster in junior secondary school who asked his father for help with his history assignment. “What’s the topic?” his father asked. “How do wars start?” the boy replied. “Well, son,” his father began “take World War I. That started when Germany invaded Belgium.
“Just a moment,” the boy’s mother interrupted. “It began when Francis Ferdinand, the Archduke of Austria, was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist.”
“Well, dear, that was the spark that ignited the fighting, but the political and economic factors leading to the war had been in place for some time.”
“Yes, I know, dear, but our son asked how the war began, and every history book will tell you that World War I began with the assassination of the Archduke of Austria.”
Drawing himself up with an air of superiority, the husband snapped: “Are you answering the question, or am I?”
His wife turned on her heels and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind her. When the plates stopped rattling, there was an uneasy silence. The youngster broke it: “Dad, you don’t have to tell me anything more about how wars start. I understand now.”
This anecdote gives us an insight into the influences that help to shape the opinions we offer, and the judgements and decisions we make every day of our lives. If we are honest with ourselves, we can probably trace the political views we hold back to the family in which we grew up. What we think of schools and education today may well be shaped by what we think of the school from which we graduated as teenagers. We know that we sometimes look at our schooldays through rose-coloured glasses, forgetting that more attention was given to making sure that we passed public examinations than went into educating us to think and act for ourselves. The two parents debating over what started World War I more than likely had different text books and different teachers, and so they interpreted their son’s question differently. On reflection, we realise that wars begin well before the first shot is fired, and that family disagreements start before someone storms out and slams the door.
The on-again, off-again North Korea Summit that has been international news in the last few weeks seems to have had its fair share of metaphorical door-slamming. Some commentators have referred to it as an impending clash between two leaders whose giant egos seem to matter more than the best interests of the people they lead. Something worthwhile might emerge if the common good could be given preference over individual, personal wants. Nothing much will come of the proposed summit until each of the major participants can come to see, understand and respect the perspectives of all who are part of the meeting. Inflexible views and self-interest will always help to fuel conflict and keep collaboration and unity at a distance. But remember, the views I have expressed in the last two paragraphs have been shaped by my experience, perspectives and biases. You are free to agree or disagree. But reflect first, because you, too, have your own experiences, perspectives and biases.
Today’s gospel reading puts the focus on the conflicts and tensions that had developed between Jesus and the official religious leaders, and between Jesus and the members of his extended family. As Mark tells the story, we can see two great ironies. It is ironical that, as Jesus address the crowd about the danger of division in families and communities, members of his own extended family are labelling him as crazy. The young man they saw grow up in a respectable family of their village is now a source of embarrassment. They interpret his outspokenness against religious authority as something of a brain-snap. In their minds he has gone and set up his own religious splinter-group. He and his disciples are very much like some kind of strange, religious sect. And yes, in the minds of those who saw him grow up, he has led astray those prepared to listen to him and incited them to look critically at the conduct of their religious leaders. He is talking about the dangers of division and his talk looks as though it is creating division. It’s difficult, isn’t it, to change our thinking and acting, even if they hold us oppressed and unfree, especially when such thinking and acting are promoted by the authorities, both religious and civil, we have come to trust?
The second irony, of course, is that Jesus, who has been seen by crowds casting out demons and freeing people controlled by evil spirits, is now labelled by the scribes as a man “possessed by the prince of demons, Beelzebul”. Of course, people who have a comfortable patch to protect often, out of fear, resort to name-calling those who try to unmask them. Any law, tradition or practice that keeps me safe in my comfort, position or reputation, I am, understandably, reluctant to change. So, the reaction of the Scribes comes as no surprise.
Jesus came on a mission to convince people that they were loved deeply by the God who had loved them into life. His message that love, reconciliation, mercy and kindness would eventually triumph over things like self-interest, competitiveness, prejudice and oppression looked and sounded like lunacy, especially to those who had built comfortable lives at the expense of the poor, the oppressed and those who could not bring themselves to question the integrity of their religious leaders. That message of Jesus may still sound like lunacy to the ears of those who cannot move beyond the narrow ambit of self-interest. It requires effort and humility to see the world from the perspective of someone we regard as a threat. Underneath today’s gospel can be found an invitation to us to listen to a world that is hurting and confused, to a world whose agenda calls for a response based on the “lunacy” of the Gospel, the “lunacy” of humility, forgiveness, compassion and acceptance of the other, however different we think that other is.
The Body and Blood of Christ
“Behold who you are, become what you receive!” St Augustine, recommending what ministers of the Eucharist might say to people as they receive the body and blood of Christ.
On April 25 each year, Australians and New Zealanders celebrate Anzac Day. On the last Monday in May, Americans celebrate Memorial Day, and on November 11, people from countries across Europe celebrate Armistice Day. These days of memorial commemorate all the men and women who have died for their country in the course of military service. Only a week ago, on May 22, thousands of people gathered at different venues across the city of Manchester to remember the 22 victims of a terrorist attack that took place at the Manchester Arena one year ago. When the Dean of the city called for one minute’s silence, the crowd rose as one. The silence was palpable, and the scene very moving, as many brushed silent tears from their cheeks.
Commemoration days and events such as these are eloquent testimony to the reality that, as human beings, we are conscious that we are connected to one another. The deaths of fellow human beings in war and acts of terrorism touch us deeply. We are, indeed, bound together as members of the same human family. Yet, we need days of commemoration to remind us of our close connection to one another, because there are some who would have us believe that we live independent lives, separated from those around us.
For us Christians, Eucharist is a ritual meal that celebrates our connection to Jesus Christ, and, through him, to one another. Eucharist reminds us that we belong to a unified community, invited, in our turn, to be bread broken and wine poured out for our world; to be what we receive when we participate fully in Eucharist.
Over the centuries, the significance of Eucharist has been diluted to the extent that many Christians see it as little more than a ritual to be endured or as a weekly event to be attended by obligation. In this context, allow me to share a parable told by William Bausch, a pastor of a Catholic Parish in New Jersey for more than 60 years:
“Once upon a time there was a very wealthy and gracious man who hosted a dinner party every month for his close friends. It happened one month that several of his regular guests were sick, and unable to attend the scheduled dinner. Wanting to give his sick friends a reminder of the dinner they had missed, their host took a bottle of his best wine from the table and placed it in an ornate box on the dining-room sideboard. He knew his friends would see it on their next visit, open it up and enjoy the wine, knowing that they had not been forgotten. The man gave instructions to his butler: ‘Pierre, take care of this box and make sure to treat it with respect because what’s in there will make them happy, and they will always think fondly of me.’
Pierre wasn’t quite sure of what his employer actually meant, and, being fairly fixed in his ways, took his master’s words literally. Whenever he passed the sideboard, he began to bow gently in the direction of the box. It so happened, however, that, a week or so later, his master died quite suddenly. However, long before, the master had instructed Pierre that, if he were to die, he wanted Pierre to continue the monthly meals. That would keep the dinner group together and keep alive his memory among them. So when they came together again after their friend’s funeral, Pierre told them of the special box on the sideboard. As they wondered what was in the box and chatted about it, they could not help but notice that Pierre bowed to the box every time he passed it as he went about his work of waiting on the table. As the months and dinners followed one another, the guests, too, began to bow in the direction of the box on the sideboard as they came to take their places at the table. For some strange reason none of them thought to ask what was in the beautiful box. As the months and years slipped by, the box sitting on the sideboard had a depressing effect on them. The dinners became quieter and more solemn, to the point where they ended up eating in silence, from time to time gazing respectfully at the box, without realising that it contained a bottle of their generous friend’s best wine, meant to be shared by them in his memory.”
That’s something like what has happened to the Eucharist over the centuries. For the early Christian community it was a shared meal, reminiscent of the intimacy of the last meal Jesus had with his disciples before his death. Some families even took home the left-overs to be used later in the week. And some took pieces of the sacred bread to those who were unable to participate. By the 13th century this practice had been well forgotten, and the Eucharistic bread was locked away in an ornate box called a tabernacle, which people approached with awe and trembling, and bowed to from a distance. It took more centuries for Church authorities to realise the impact of what had happened. Out of false reverence, people came to see themselves as unworthy to participate fully in the Eucharist. Church authorities tried to correct the situation by inserting a clause in Canon Law, requiring Catholics to “receive Communion” at least once a year. But we know that there is a difference between receiving communion and participating in Eucharist. Receiving communion is consuming and being nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ. Participating in Eucharist is to offer ourselves with Christ, is to be unified with him and with one another, to become what we receive so that we become Christ for one another and for those to whom we reach out in service, in imitation of Christ. We commit ourselves to be bread broken and wine poured out as we engage in fellowship with everyone we encounter.
By gathering with our parish community around the table of the Eucharist, we take the bread and wine as our way of remembering Jesus, the embodiment of God’s love among us. But we do more than just celebrate the presence of Jesus among us. We recommit ourselves to following in his footsteps and reaching out to our world with mercy, care, encouragement, compassion and forgiveness. In doing that we regularly reaffirm our identity as his disciples and our baptismal commitment to be his body and blood given for others.
Augustine (354-430 shared his insights into Eucharist probably in the latter years of his life (early 5th century). In time, those insights were lost. The feast of the Body and Blood of Christ originated in Liege, France in the middle of the 13th century. It was originally called Corpus Christi, and was renamed The Body and Blood of Christ at the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). History has shown that the meaning of actions we regularly repeat often becomes lost or eroded over time. It is our responsibility to keep Eucharist alive and relevant. We will do that only by living it, by consciously being bread broken and wine poured out for others each day of our lives, by becoming what we receive.
“Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.” Matthew 28, 16-20
We are often reminded that we are all made in the image of God. A close reading of the creation stories in Genesis will lead us to conclude that “made in God’s image” means that we are good (even though we sometimes struggle to believe it), we are free (and have a deep desire to grow into ever greater freedom) and that we have deeply seated capacities to love and be creative. Discovering our vocation in life is the slow process of coming to choose freely how best we can express our goodness, our creativity and the love in our hearts in ways that we know are true to ourselves. It does not take us long to discover that we can do that only in relationship with others.
If the focus of today’s celebration of the Trinity is on anything, it is on the revelation that God is relational; that God reaches out in love to all of humanity. The corollary of that is that we, in our turn, grow towards our full human potential only when we reach out to others in love, loving them in ways that reflect the love that God has for us.
None of us will ever grasp or even come close to understanding the mystery we call God. However, we know from reading the Bible, especially the Old Testament, that our ancestors in faith used stories to offer the people of their time and of ours, the insights they had into God. So, the best I can do to share my limited insights into the significance of God as Trinity, is through story. At the same time, I don’t want to give the impression that I believe that there is no point in thinking and talking about God as Trinity because it is a mystery. We all know that we encounter other mysteries around which we cannot get our brains. The Trinity is a mystery of faith, the universe is a mystery of physics and astronomy, death is a mystery of life. That we will never understand these things doesn’t stop us from exploring them. They will exhaust us before we exhaust them. But to dismiss thinking about and discussing the concept of God as Trinity is to do a disservice to ourselves and theologians as searching, faithful Christians. But what we do know is that Jesus is God in human flesh, that Jesus called God “Father”, and that Jesus promised to send the Spirit to keep alive his memory in and for our world. Still, I find story the most appealing way to reflect on God as Father, Son and Spirit, for no other reason than that I understand the Trinity as relational, that we human beings reach our full potential in loving relationship, and that we build relationships by engaging with one another in storytelling.
Dan Yashinsky is a distinguished, Canadian storyteller. In the preface of his book, Suddenly They Heard Footsteps: Storytelling for the Twenty-First Century (University Press of Mississippi, 2004) he shares this story of his encounter with a young girl, after he had told a ghost story to a group of children:
“When the lights came on, the children lined up to leave, talking excitedly about their shocking experience. I noticed one girl standing quietly, holding something around her neck. I asked if she liked the stories and she said, ‘Oh, yes. But when you told the last one I didn’t jump.’
‘I noticed,’ I said. ‘How come?’
‘Because when I knew it was going to be scary, I held the Blessed Virgin Mary.’ She showed me the medal she was still holding: ‘You should get one, too.’
‘I’m not sure I should,’ I answered. ‘I’m Jewish.’
‘That’s okay,’ she said sagely. ‘Get a Jewish one.’
Writing this book about storytelling as an art and a way of life, I have often remembered the girl’s good counsel. When you know something scary is coming you must find and hold on to your own source of reassurance and wisdom. My young friend had a medal. What I hold on to is the passionate belief that knowing good stories by heart and telling them to a circle of listeners makes a haven for the human spirit.”
When life gets stressful and challenging, you and I hold on to the assurance that God loves us, and that God’s love is reflected in the personal relationships on which we build our lives. The relationships of our lives are built and developed on the stories we tell one another. (In his book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Houghton, New York, 2012, Jonathan Gottschall presents a rationale of storytelling similar to that of Dan Yashinsky.)
Zorba the Greek is the story of a somewhat larger-than-life man who had a passion for living life to the full. On another level, it’s the story of the relationship between God and humanity, of the struggle we all have to find purpose and meaning in our lives. It offers some uplifting insights into the desire of every human heart to find love. In one episode, Zorba tells of an encounter he had with a man he describes as “an old Turk, a neighbour of mine”:
“Well, this Hussein Aghas I’m telling you about was a saintly person. One day he put me on his knees and placed his hand on my head as though giving me his blessing. “Alexis”, he said, “I’m going to confide something to you. You’re young and you won’t understand this, but you will understand it when you grow up. Listen, my child: The seven stories of both heaven and earth are too small to contain God, yet the human heart is big enough to do so. For this reason, take care, Alexis, if you want my blessing - take care never to wound the human heart.” (Zorba the Greek, p.308, Simon & Shuster, New York, 1946)
Surely, it is better to know the love of God as Trinity in the depths of our hearts, rather than understand the mystery. And so, I leave the final word to John Garvey, former Commonweal columnist of more than forty years:
“We do not now, and never can, possess or control what we are finally meant to become. Someone who loves us more than we could possibly love ourselves is in charge of that.” (Essay by Patrick Jordan, Constant in the Struggle: The Life and Writing of John Garvey, April 11, 2018)
Perhaps we come to know God as Trinity by developing to the best of our ability the image that we each are of the God who is the essence of love.
Those in the crowd were amazed and astonished… “How does it happen that each of us hears them in his own native language?” Acts 2, 1-11
Commentators on the liturgical calendar often refer to the event described in today’s gospel - Jesus anointing the disciples with the Holy Spirit - as the “birth day of the Church”. However, those who had locked themselves away in fear were such a rag-tag lot that the punters of their day, even if they knew about them, would hardly have placed substantial bets on their surviving as a “church”. True, there was a leader named Peter who had already failed dismally, a suspect tax-collector, a handful of ordinary housewives who certainly did not belong to the fashionable elite, a few fishermen and a couple of non-entities. The only thing they seemed to have in common was the fact that Jesus had sufficient confidence in them to believe that they had what was needed to spread his message to the world. So, they were the ones whom he anointed with God’s Spirit.
The Spirit transformed them into a cohesive group of women and men who were convinced of what Jesus had taught them: that God really did love them. Sure that God loved them, they came to appreciate that they could do great things. They grew to appreciate that, as they complemented and supported one another with their different gifts, they could make a difference, even though they were simple, ordinary down-to-earth people with the same human weaknesses as everyone else. That’s why Paul could eventually describe the fledgling Christian community in the words we read in today’s second reading from Corinthians: “Now, there is a variety of gifts, but always the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service to be done, but the same Lord; working in all sorts of ways in different people, it is the same God.”
The bottom line of all this is that the miracle of Pentecost, as described in today’s first reading from Acts, is that, in the first place, the disciples were able to get out and speak as they did. The miracle was that these very ordinary people who had been hiding away, full of fear were suddenly knit together as a community, and boldly proclaimed as God’s Spirit had prompted them. That was as miraculous as the fact that the people who made up the multi-ethnic crowd were able to understand the disciples.
Back in the days before the Berlin Wall came down, the Catholics in Leipzig (East Germany) were given permission to hold a church conference. They invited a communist magistrate to address the conference. In the course of his speech, he told the gathering how he had been imprisoned under Hitler because he was an avowed communist. He went on to speak about another prisoner who had been given some work in the prison and the title of “trustee”. This status entitled the man to some extra scraps of food and some old clothes. The man, who was a Christian, instead of keeping the extra food and clothes for himself, started to share them with other prisoners. From time to time, he would throw pieces of biscuit and tobacco into the cells of other inmates. Had he been caught, he would have been executed. Clearly, what he did to make the lives of others a little more bearable was done at great personal risk. The magistrate concluded this story by stating: “That was the first time I ever thought the church might be worthwhile.” What makes us church is the witness we give, in very practical ways, to the message that Jesus proclaimed and entrusted to us.
If someone were to ask you and me what the church of Darlinghurst, Elizabeth, Callan, Limulunga, Bo, Cochabamba or Shillong is like, how might we answer? We would be on the right track if we were able to say that it’s a warm, welcoming, caring and creative community, that supports its members and reaches out to others, especially the needy and those on the edge of society. They are the indicators of a church open to God’s Spirit.
Years ago, when I was studying the history and origins of language, I remember reading the story of Antonio de Nebrija, a linguist who wrote the first grammar of the Spanish language spoken by peasants, farmers and the ordinary people in the streets of Salamanca. In 1492, de Nebrija presented his book to Queen Isabella. The Queen’s reaction was one of puzzlement and confusion, until the local bishop interrupted and explained the significance of the new grammar: “After your Highness has subjected barbarous peoples and nations of various tongues, with conquest will come the need for them to accept the laws that the conqueror imposes, among them will be our language.” De Nebrija was clearly on the same page as the bishop, for, in the preface of his book, he had written about the connection between language and colonisation: “I have found one conclusion to be very true, that language always accompanies empire.” (This story has been reprinted in Henry Kamen’s more recent book Empire: How Spain Became A World Power, 1492-1763, Harper 2004.)
The story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis is often used as a metaphor for confusion, division and disruption that humanity brought upon itself by believing it could do without God. Yet Pentecost gives us the clearest of messages that as far as God is concerned, there is no imperial language. Instead, today’s reading from Acts affirms that God’s Spirit speaks through all languages. Every language reflects something of the goodness of God. Thus, Pentecost invites us to engage with difference - not just difference of language, but with all the ways in which we see ourselves as different from one another. This is not an invitation to uniformity, but to accept that God speaks through difference as well as through sameness. Pentecost reminds us that God’s Spirit affirms our differences, speaks in ways that each of us can understand, and draws us together in common unity (communion) around the same table.
More than ever, our world is in need of a new Pentecost or a fresh understanding of the true meaning of Pentecost. We can all look at our own countries and see how they are afflicted with different expressions of division, discord and pain. There are debates over immigration and threatened deportation of asylum seekers. In some countries walls are being erected to lock out peoples whose skin colour, ethnicity and religion are different. There are arguments over guns, policing and systems of justice. Even so-called Christian Churches bicker with one another. Our congresses and parliaments more closely resemble the original Babel than Pentecost. Politicians seem much more interested in personal position and power than in mutuality and collaboration to meet the needs of the people they are meant to serve. Pentecost challenges us to respect difference, to live with the vulnerability that comes from allowing ourselves to be temporarily disoriented, and to learn to speak a language of good news that can be heard by everyone. If we can do that, we might just be able to announce a new humanity to which all are welcome and can feel at home as members of the one human family.
He said to them, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature…So they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.” Mark 16, 15-20
A friend of mine who attended an Anglican boarding school told me a story of the school’s history master, who was to be seen smoking his pipe and looking up at the sky every morning as the students filed into the chapel for prayers. While the students noted and talked about this daily occurrence, nobody dared ask the master for an explanation of this daily routine. They simply concluded that the man was just a little eccentric. That is until my friend, nearing the end of his final year, found the courage to ask. “Young man”, the master replied, “I believe that all Christians should spend some time every day actively looking for the return of Jesus.”
Today is the Church’s commemoration of Jesus’ return to God, and the first reading from Acts offers a mildly humorous story of what followed upon Jesus’ final words to his disciples - a speech that reminds me of the kind of address now delivered at a university or school graduation. But more of that a little later.
We are told that, when Jesus’ address to his disciples had finished, he was lifted up into a cloud and taken away. Then two figures in white robes - usually referred to as angels - appeared and broke the spell that had apparently gripped the gathering. The two angels behaved like party poopers, asking the disciples why they were staring senselessly into the sky: “Keep moving! There’s no point standing around opened-mouthed and useless. The show’s over, so get on with the job you’ve been given.” As comical as this retelling may seem, the description of Jesus’ ascension poses a question for all of his followers: “Where do we really think Jesus is now?”
But first back to that “graduation” address, for it was Ascension day that marked the “graduation” of the disciples and the start of their ministry rather than the end of Jesus’ ministry. In today’s gospel reading, Mark gives what strikes me as the highlights of Jesus’ address to the new “graduates”. To disciples of 2018, the message would be much the same, but the language a little different. I suggest that Jesus would be saying to us something like this: “Get out there and listen to people, first with your ears and minds, and then respond freely and generously with your hearts. You won’t get very far these days trying to push your beliefs and opinions on people. Remember that I taught in parables, and that I observed those to whom I spoke, noting where their hearts were troubled or otherwise focussed, and then I used what I sensed to talk about God’s love in ways that immediately touched their hearts. Remember, too, that good news is not good news unless it is delivered in a way that touches people where they live. Whatever your expertise or profession, you are all agents of healing - Christians who identify with my spirit as it has been expressed in the lives of people like Mary MacKillop, Ignatius of Loyola, Nano Nagle and Edmund Rice. So be generous with your talents. I wish you all my peace, and not so much in the way of success in the future as I wish that you will all continue to grow in heart, mind and spirit, walking beside your sisters and brothers, encouraging and affirming them, and helping them to grow into their best selves.” The Ascension of Jesus marks the point at which Jesus took the calculated risk of entrusting his mission to those closest to him, judging that they would measure up to the task. And they, in turn, have entrusted that mission through the generations to us.
But Jesus’ ascension still leaves us with that question: “Where do we think he is now?” When we were young, we were taught to pray, sometimes with our eyes closed and at others, with our gaze lifted upwards. Both were appropriate postures to adopt. In fact, the psalms contain many references to “lifting our eyes to the Lord”. And during the celebration of the Eucharist, the priest invites us to lift up our hearts. And we reply with: “We lift them up to the Lord”. Moreover, in John’s gospel we read that Jesus “looked up to heaven and prayed”. Despite these expressions, I hope we actually realise that Jesus is not literally located somewhere up in the sky. And even if we know this, I suggest that, if we sometimes look up when we pray, it’s because we associate the physical act of looking up with the understanding that the mystery of the divine is far beyond our comprehension. Looking up into the unknown is probably the best symbol we can find of how to relate to the mystery we call God. And let’s not forget that symbols not only point to some deeper reality, but also help us to participate in the reality to which they point.
It is important to me, then, that I understand something of the symbolic significance of the story of Jesus’ ascension. If all it means to me is that Jesus was somehow lifted up into the sky, then I might conclude that he’s up there sitting peacefully in the stratosphere or bouncing around in the Milky Way. And that makes no sense at all. However, if I can grasp the sign and symbol of this ascension story, I can come to appreciate that the humanity that Jesus shares with us has been taken up with him to the heart of God. And I have to keep reminding myself of what that human condition actually looks like. It’s the degradation of people fleeing their war-torn countries on foot or in leaking boats; it’s the broken-heartedness of parents who have lost a child through cancer or the violence of a school shooting; it’s the confusion, frustration, anger and grief of families whose sons, daughters, sisters and brothers have been blown away by suicide bombers; it’s the shame felt by families when one of their number goes to prison; it’s the suffering of Rohinga people forced to flee ethnic cleansing. All of the tragedy, sorrow and brokenness of the human condition has been “taken up” to God by the one who came among us and took on all the limitations of our humanity, except our sinfulness. But Jesus has also taken up the fidelity, generosity, compassion, decency and creativity of ordinary people, living run-of-the-mill lives. All of these have found room in God’s abiding love for humanity.
That’s why the angels in the story directed the disciples’ attention from being fixed on that one cloud. The impact of Jesus’ ascension is not limited to one time and place. It is significant for all times and places. If we’re looking for Jesus, there’s nothing wrong with doing what the history master did, provided we don’t stop at that. We can get a glimpse of the mystery of God and God’s love in every aspect of the created universe, in every expression of the human condition. We can see God’s love reflected in the volunteers working in soup-kitchens and in in women and men who benefit from the generosity of those volunteers. We can see it reflected in the gratitude on the faces of the beggars on our streets, and in the workers who stack shelves in supermarkets; in those who share their stories over lunch with friends in schools and work places. We can glimpse the mystery of God’s love for us in all the circumstances of life, because Jesus took on our human condition, lived it fully, and gave it a place with God.
Sixth Sunday of Easter
This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. John 15, 9-17
Deep down, we all know that we are made for love - to give love and receive it. Nobody has to teach us that. It’s something we know in the depths of our hearts. As we engage in the processes of choosing whether we want to be married, single or opt for priesthood or religious life, we know that to be authentic, we need to make the choices that will lead us to express the love in our heart in ways that are true to ourselves. We did not need Jesus to tell us that we are made for love. However, there are times when we struggle to accept that Jesus loves us unconditionally and without limit. We find it difficult to receive love. Understandably, then, we hesitate at his direction to love others “as I love you.” We see that as a tall order, knowing full well that our frailty will prevent us from measuring up. While Mark Twain earned a reputation for his outspoken criticism of organised religion, his penetrating comment about being unsettled by some parts of the Bible is very appropriate for today’s words of Jesus about love: “It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.”
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” There’s no ambiguity about this statement from Jesus. We all know what it means but we find it difficult to practice it consistently. Yet Jesus went on to say that what distinguishes us as his disciples is our love for others. He’s not referring to some kind of “warm fuzzy” love, but a love that is characterised by effort, decisiveness and self-sacrifice. It’s much easier to love like that when those to whom we extend it are responsive and appreciative. We hesitate to keep on reaching out when our efforts are not even acknowledged by those to whom they are directed.
All too often we interpret Jesus’ reference to “laying down one’s life for one’s friends” as dying for them. Surely spending our time and energy reaching out to others day in and day out is every bit as demanding as actually dying for them. So maybe we might do better to ask ourselves what is worth spending a life-time on. And life, like every other gift, is truly effective only when it is shared. Am I prepared to share my life fully with others or do I deal it out carefully in small doses?
Historically, the Israelites believed that God’s presence was confined to a place to which they were able to point. In their journeying, God was present to them in a pillar of cloud, visible by day, and in a pillar of fire by night. Then they built an ark, in which God resided. Finally, God’s presence was enshrined permanently in the Temple in Jerusalem. Even the disciples who witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus wanted to contain God in a tent or tabernacle. Among the Jewish people, there existed a strong inclination to limit God to one place, one people, one creed. For generations there has been a human tendency to circumscribe and confine God, as though God were a possession. But by definition God cannot be limited. However, John came up with a startlingly new insight. He describes how Jesus, after eating with his disciples and giving them a model of servant leadership by washing and drying their feet, gives them a new commandment to love, adding: “Love one another and abide in my love.” The word for love in John’s Gospel is the Greek word agape. It occurs nowhere in Mark’s Gospel, and Matthew and Luke use it once each. Yet in John’s Gospel it is used seven times, and, in his First Letter, eighteen times. Agape is an intentional kind of love that expects nothing in return. Moreover, John stresses that followers of Jesus actually lodge, dwell or abide in God’s love. In his First Letter, John goes even further, stating that “God is love”. In that context, we are all familiar with the 10th Century hymn, whose first line is: “Where there is charity and love, there is God” (Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est). When anyone abides in God’s love, God is truly present.
Agape, then, is a conscious, intentional, selfless love, a sign of the indwelling God. It is “I in them and they in me.” It wells up from the undepleted love of God, changing us, changing life, changing the world. John’s First Letter clarifies just what this love entails: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3, 17).
This is the legacy Jesus left his disciples. He did not say it once, but repeatedly insisted on it. While it may be daunting, many who have gone before us have demonstrated what it looks like. In Staffordshire, England there is memorial to 306 British and commonwealth soldiers who were executed for desertion during World War I. It is called the Shot at Dawn Memorial. In a letter to his mother, military chaplain, Capt. Julian Bickersteth described the night he spent with a soldier who was to be shot at dawn the following day:
He sat down heavily on a chair…. I took a chair and sat next to him. 'I am going to stay with you and do anything I can for you. If you'd like to talk, we will, but if you would rather not, we'll sit quiet.'…Suddenly I hear great heaving sobs and the prisoner breaks down and cries. In a second, I lean over close to him, as he hides his face in his hands, and in a low voice I talk to him…. How can I reach his soul? I get out my Bible and read to him something from the Gospel. It leaves him unmoved. He is obviously uninterested and my attempt to talk a little about what I have read leaves him cold…. I get out an army prayer-book, which contains at the end about 130 hymns, and handing him the book, ask him to read through the part at the end, so that, if he can find a hymn he knows, I can read it to him. He hits on Rock of Ages and asks not if I will read it to him, but if we can sing it… and we sat there and sang hymns together for three hours or more… Oh! how we sang — hymn after hymn…. All night I sat by his side… At 3.00 a.m. I watched the first beginnings of dawn through the window. At 3.30 a.m. I heard the tramp tramp of the Firing Party marching down the road… While his breakfast was being brought up, we knelt together in prayer. I commended him to God and we said together the Lord's Prayer… 'Is it time to go?' he said. `Yes, it is time. I will stay close to you.'… I held the prisoner's arm tight for sympathy's sake. Reaching the house, the police immediately hand-cuffed the man and the Doctor blindfolded him… I said a short prayer and led him the 10 or 12 paces out into the yard, where he was at once bound to a stake. I whispered in his ear `Safe in the arms of Jesus', and he repeated quite clearly 'Safe in the arms of Jesus'… In three or four seconds the Firing Party had done their work. Poor lads — I was sorry for them. They felt it a good deal and I followed them out of the yard at once and spoke to them and handed them cigarettes… we took the body in a motor ambulance to the nearest cemetery, where I had a burial party waiting, and we gave his body Christian burial. (Taken from ‘The Bickersteth Diaries, 2014-18’)
Fourth Sunday of Easter
“I am the good shepherd: the good s hepherd is one who lays down hislife for his sheep.” John 10, 11-18
The English have always been good at coining new words and have a well developed ability to laugh at themselves. In recent years, the word “jobsworth” has crept into the language. It’s the word for a person in a minor position of authority who invokes the letter of the law so as to avoid taking initiative or doing something outside his or her job description. Jobsworths refuse to exert themselves, and do nothing to raise morale in the workplace. They can’t hear the message of today’s gospel reading or understand what John sets down in his first letter: “This is how we’ve come to understand and experience love: Christ sacrificed his life for us. That’s why we need to be concerned for others, and not just out for ourselves” (1 John 3, 16, - a continuation of today’s second reading).
Whatever our opinion of people who fit into the category of “jobsworth”, the word itself raises some fundamental questions: What is a job really worth? What makes any undertaking worth the effort? On what or for whom is it worth spending a lifetime? Are there even times when the demands on our personal integrity are such that we have to say: “That’s more than this particular task is worth”?
There is a “jobsworth” in today’s gospel reading. He’s referred to as a “hired hand”, who’s prepared only to do the minimum. When a situation arises that calls him to do something extra, he runs away. After describing himself as “the good shepherd”, Jesus goes no to dismiss the equivalent of the concept of “jobsworth”. He expresses no reservations about the role of shepherd, and even spells out the risks of caring for and defending the flock against predators. Moreover, he leaves no room for his role as shepherd and saviour to be interpreted as some pre-arranged, divine assignment. He identifies himself with God’s mission of boundless,shepherding love and outreach to humanity.
It’s little wonder, then, that many of us, in times of stress and struggle, find hope and consolation in a prayer that Jesus himself would have known and prayed - the prayer of King David that we know as the “Good Shepherd Psalm” (Psalm 23). Its consolation is that we have, in the person of Jesus the good shepherd one who can point us to ways through whatever valleys of darkness we have to traverse, because he has been that way himself and walked a path for us to follow. That is what lifts the hearts and spirits of people in hospitals, nursing homes, psychiatric wards and hospices for the dying.
It is the example of Jesus, the good shepherd that encourages us to commit ourselves to working in the flawed institutions and systems in which we find ourselves. The very fact that Jesus has invested himself fully in our living and working liberates us from being trapped into being mere “jobsworths”. It is that which gives us the freedom to commit ourselves to treating everyone we encounter with care, respect and dignity. It is that which enables us to be responsible stewards of creation, to challenge injustice in the workplace and in elected government, and to protest against whatever undermines the wellbeing of our brothers and sisters and the world in which we dwell.
What confronts us in our own work-a-day jobs and ministries is not so much the notion that our work is not worth the effort, but that, as far as Jesus is concerned, those jobs and ministries are worth much more that we can even imagine. Everything in which we engage and every relationship into which we enter provide us with opportunity to appreciate and celebrate creation, and to encourage ourselves and others to grow into our/their best selves. We also know that they can provide us with opportunity to destroy creation and to undermine the goodness, joy, faith and hope of those among and beside whom we work and minister.
But note that Jesus challenges us not to slip into the false and cosy belief that all this is for all who know and follow him. He is at pains to alert us to the existence of “other sheep that are not of this fold” and whom he has a responsibility to lead (John 10, 16). He is referring to his mission to the Gentile world. It is a reminder to us to avoid becoming insular in our thinking and acting. Those who have not yet heard of him or his Gospel are still able to hear fully his message: “They, too, will recognise my voice, and then there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10, 16). To be in tune with these people, we have to learn to walk sensitively in their cultures, not to be afraid of difference, and to be open to seeing and hearing Christ as they do.
The members of the Maryknoll Catholic Mission Movement have paved theway in showing us how to do this. Their publishing arm, Orbis Books, has printed all manner of books on being Gospel witnesses in other cultures and listening to God’s Spirit alive in those cultures. They have published much of the writing done by Andrew Walls, a British scholar and historian, who has written extensively about the spread of Christianity. In his book, The Cross Cultural Process in Christian History (Maryknoll, NY, Orbis Books, 2002),Walls makes the point that Christians have consistently reached out to people on the periphery. This has happened within and beyond the countries we call home. Local Church communities maintain their credibility and authenticity by engaging with and listening to people who are challengingly different. Isn’t it true that it is very often the case that people who don’t belong to “our fold” are the ones who are best able to hear the voice of Jesus in new and different ways, and then help us to understand it afresh? Through them, God’s Spirit continues to explode the notion of “jobsworth”. They lead us to modify and expand our role as Christians, and to discover that the new approaches we take are nearly always worth the effort. And, in that process, we, too, change and grow into better messengers of the Gospel.
Second Sunday of Easter
It was late that Sunday evening, and the disciples were gathered together behind locked doors, because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities. Then Jesus came and stood among them. “Peace be with you”, he said. John 20, 19-31
I read recently of a married couple who were on an organised tour of Spain. Their tour included visits to cathedrals and churches. Their guide had warned them to be on the alert for pick-pockets, many of whom practised their skills in places of worship. On one occasion, the tour group ventured into a cathedral when Mass was being celebrated. The visitors reverently found places in empty pews and were waiting till the Mass was over before inspecting the cathedral. The woman I mentioned was startled out of her reverie when another woman approached her, and with hand outstretched said something in Spanish. Conscious of the warnings about pick-pockets and thieves, the visitor moved back along the seat, clutching her handbag. Clearly puzzled, the Spanish woman moved back to her place. It was only afterwards that the visitor realised that the Spanish woman, with outstretched hand had been offering the visitor a Sign of Peace. “La paz de Dios”, she had said, the peace of God!
We all know the story from the second part of today’s gospel reading, of how Thomas was absent from the group, and refused to believe what the other disciples had told him. We know that he was with them a week later when the Risen Jesus returned, and came to believe when Jesus confronted him with his earlier expressions of doubt.
However, I found myself wondering why I easily pass over the first part of today’s reading and move quickly to the story about Thomas. In John’s story of Jesus’ Easter evening appearance, Jesus walks right into the room in which the disciples had locked themselves and his very first words are: “Peace be with you.” In extending his peace to those gathered, he is surely saying something more than: “Good evening.”
But, I wonder how those in the upper room responded. After all, their fear meant that, if anyone were to burst into the room, it would probably be someone with hostile intent, someone out to arrest them or do them harm. They were definitely not expecting a risen Jesus to walk in. They would have been something like the tourist in Spanish cathedral - expecting their visitor to be hostile. First they were afraid, then they grasped the reality of the situation. But what then? I suggest they felt embarrassed and ashamed. After all, when Jesus was arrested, they fled in fear, thinking they would be next. And then Peter, in three separate outbursts, denied that he even knew Jesus. In the face of expected persecution, they didn’t look particularly like heroes. And then, with rumours of resurrection floating around, they went into hiding. They seemed to have little expectation of good news, and even less of being forgiven for their cowardice and denial. Yet Jesus appeared in front of them and said: “Peace be with you.”
That prompts me to ask what kind of peace Jesus is actually offering his group of followers paralysed by fear. I suggest he is not offering a peace that amounts to freedom from disturbance - the kind of peace we get when we sit quietly with a book, hoping that nobody will call on the phone or knock at the door. Nor is it simply absence of conflict or peace of mind. I’m convinced it’s the kind of peace we experience when we are reconciled with someone after a break-down in relationship. I think Jesus was saying to them: what you did over the last few days to separate yourselves from me is behind us. As far as I’m concerned, we are no longer separated from one another. We can’t change the past and I am reaching out to you in forgiveness and reconciliation. That’s the peace Jesus is offering them.
This very first action of Jesus in engaging with those whom he had taught, and with whom he had lived and worked for three long years I suggest spells out what resurrection is all about. True, it signals victory over death and offers the promise that death is not the final solution for us either. I also think it’s essentially about offering us the only kind of peace worth having - a peace that crosses the boundaries that separate us from one another, a peace that dissolves whatever divides us, be it language, political views, prejudice, fear, distrust or suspicion. It is a peace that mends hearts and hurts, a peace that leads us to respect and accept everyone we encounter, whatever their race, colour, sexual orientation or religion.
Resurrection manifests itself in countless ways. However, we have to be alert to recognise them. There are signs of resurrection in the multicultural aspect of many of our schools - children and young people show us how to live with difference and to dismiss religion, language and skin colour as barriers that separate. More and more young people are spending time on immersion experiences that uncover for them the richness of other cultures and lead them to forge lasting friendships with people their own age living in circumstances of deprivation and unequal opportunity. They are extending the hand of peace, acceptance and friendship to young people they might otherwise have been inclined to avoid, to distrust or to fear.
All this invites me to stop and ask myself how I offer the sign of peace at Mass and how I reach out to the strangers who come into my life. Am I big enough to offer the peace that Jesus held out on that first Easter night to those locked away in fear?
Whether I say “Peace be with you”, “Pace e bene” or “La Paz de Dios” matters little. It’s what I intend that counts most. Maybe we can make them all mean: “Nothing separates us!”
Easter Vigil & Sunday of the Resurrection
“My love for you will never end; I will keep forever my promise of peace.” Isaiah 54, 5-14
On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them: “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him.” John 20, 1-9
It takes only a few moments of reflection to realise that we have to love something really deeply to bring it back from the dead. It strikes me that it is a combination of self-hatred and disregard for others that keeps our slums the way they are. On a grander scale, it is a lack of care on the part of some that locks whole communities and even nations into endless cycles of poverty, neglect, starvation, unemployment and hopelessness. If we loved sufficiently, our seas and waterways would be clean again, stars would reappear, trees would be healthy and green. Moreover, the strained and dead relationships in families, work-places, offices and schools, he boredom and edginess, the sullen distances between colleagues and family members need only a smile or a word of love and acceptance to be healed. Who can love enough to resurrect our world and all who dwell in it? Who can brighten the days of the sick and elderly who wait helplessly for death to overtake them? Who can infuse life and energy into those who struggle to walk, into those whose memory has so failed them that they can’t even contemplate what it means to die?
The only great love that can deal with all this is the focus of today’s Easter celebration. It is God’s immense love for Jesus, the Christ. God demonstrated boundless love and affection for Jesus in a resurrection. Jesus is swept up by God’s immense love and stands alive with a new kind of life, proclaiming peace and acceptance to all his friends, even to those who had denied and deserted him in his greatest need. What’s more is that Paul assures us that we share in Jesus’ new life, for we are numbered among Jesus’ friends. Jesus associates us with himself and elicits from God the same kind of creative love that God has for him.
In the second reading from Romans during the Mass of the Easter Vigil, we hear Paul explaining the meaning of Baptism, using the metaphor of Christ’s death and resurrection: “You have been taught that, when we were baptised in Christ Jesus, we were baptised in his death; in other words, when we were baptized we went into the tomb with him and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too might live a new life” (Romans 6, 3-4).
We can easily let this pass us by as a snippet of eloquent-sounding but almost meaningless, theological language. Moreover, it was probably included in the Easter Vigil Mass for the benefit of the men and women who were baptized in the presence of everyone gathered in the church. Their baptism was the culmination of the year-long program bearing the name of The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) - or, more simply, Preparation for Baptism. But what exactly is Paul saying in this reading from Romans, which is directed to all of us?
I suggest that he is explaining that all of us who have been baptized have been made members of the Christian community by the very process of baptism. He is stressing that baptism is much more than getting dipped or dunked in holy water, or being sprinkled with it. It means becoming part of a community that is trying to love and act as Jesus loved and acted, and getting crucified for its efforts. In a way, all decent human beings throughout the whole world are trying to do something like that, even if they have not even heard of Jesus. That’s what explains the notion of “baptism of desire” - a term invented by theologians ages ago, to indicate that everyone who does good is somehow caught up into God.
But we all bear the scars of our best endeavours, of the times when we have been hurt doing our best in the service of love, trying to imitate the way Jesus spoke and lived. Nobody has to make arrangements to be crucified. “Crucifixion” is the inevitable consequence of trying to actively battle things like injustice, prejudice, heartlessness, greed, violence, terrorism and neglect - all the “deaths” that plague humanity.
Easter tells us that even though we, too, have done our share of crucifying, Jesus still brings us to God’s attention as friends of his; he spruces us up, smooths our ruffled feathers and introduces us to God as long-time friends. Yet, all this is not exactly necessary, for the succession of readings we hear during the Easter Vigil service is a summary of the history of God’s boundless love for us and our world. There is a reference to our sinfulness here and there in these readings, but it’s little more than the kind of thing parents do when they urge their children to do better. All told, this is a pretty good Easter message for all of us Christians to bring to one another and to our world still very much in the grip of death.
Still, it is all too easy to get caught up by the negativity of our world, to get trapped into feeling sorry for ourselves, to let our problems batter and overwhelm us, to become stalled in a Good Friday world. But in raising Jesus from the dead, God vindicated everything that Jesus had lived and proclaimed. God put the stamp of approval on the message of Jesus that good eventually triumphs over evil, that love transforms bitterness and hatred, that hope dissipates fear, that light dispels darkness. It is truly Easter in our lives when love, generosity and compassion draw us out of our tombs of stagnation and hopelessness, when we know that the love, affirmation, acceptance and encouragement that we receive from others is nothing but the embrace of God. It is Easter whenever new life and hope are breathed by God’s Spirit into our hearts, our minds and our spirits.
Sunday of the Passion of Jesus: Palm Sunday
Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches they had cut from the fields. Those preceding him as well as those following kept crying out: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Mark 11, 1-10
A young man was following along. All he had on was a linen sheet. Some of the men grabbed him but he got away, running off naked, leaving them holding the sheet. Mark 14, 1 - 15, 47
We’ve heard today’s two Gospel readings so often that we run the risk of being complacent when we are asked to listen to them yet again. I have to remind myself that whenever the Word of God is proclaimed, I am being invited to become a participant rather than an observer. So, as I hear Mark’s account of the seemingly triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, I am challenged to ask myself where I stand and what are my expectations of Jesus and the kind of kingdom he has been proclaiming. At the time of Jesus, palm-waving was a political gesture made to welcome a conquering hero. The crowds welcoming Jesus with waving palms and cloaks spread on the ground were not so much saluting their long-awaited Messiah, as they were anticipating the arrival of one who would take up a defiant stance against the Romans who had occupied their nation. They were hoping for the restoration of Israel to a position of prosperity and power. Within a week their hopes would be dashed. Rather than symbols of triumph, the palms and cloaks were signs of human ambition and folly, for Jesus had come into the lives of his people to raise their minds and hearts beyond their desire for material wealth and personal and political status, and to get them to focus their attention on the values that would bind them closer together in the kind of community where respect for human dignity mattered and where kindness, forgiveness, compassion and justice were what really counted.
Mark’s account of the passion and death of Jesus is marked by its stark directness. It is as significant for what it doesn’t say as for what it actually says. Jesus has nothing to say to the Judas who betrays him. Nor does he say anything to Pilate during the procurator’s interrogation. By contrast, Matthew, Luke and John describe how Jesus replies to Pilate’s questions. In Mark, there is no indication of any effort by Pilate to save Jesus from his enemies. In Mark’s version, Jesus is totally alone, abandoned by those from whom he might have expected support. Jesus’ disciples fail miserably, and their failure is underlined by the lone disciple who runs naked into the dark of night. For Mark, that young disciple’s flight stands in marked contrast to all the disciples who had left everything several years before in order to follow Jesus. The naked man now leaves everything in order to get as far away as possible from Jesus. The other disciples have already disappeared. Totally abandoned, Jesus is left to walk alone to his inevitable death.
But let’s look at the succession of events that led to his condemnation. Pilate knew that Jesus had been sent before him on “trumped up” charges. Self-interest was more important to Pilate than was justice for Jesus. Political unrest was something the Romans could do without. So, a carpenter from an obscure village, a nonentity with unpopular religious views, was clearly expendable. Pilate lacked the intestinal fortitude to stand up for what he knew to be right and just.
The High Priest was the guardian of law and tradition. Anyone who threatened the religious status quo was guilty of blasphemy. Dogma and institution must be safeguarded against would-be reformers. The High Priest and the Sanhedrin have had their successors in every faith and religion down through the centuries. “Temple police” abound in our present day. Rubricists are on the lookout for priests who refuse to be bound by legalism; Bishops have been sacked for putting pastoral needs ahead of the letter of the law, and Pope Francis has been labelled a heretic by those who insist that institution and orthodoxy are more important than mercy and compassion. In recent years, we have been shocked by national leaders, high-ranking military officers and rank-and-file soldiers who have tried to justify ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and savagery in the name of “just doing our duty”. These are clones of the soldiers who “did their duty” as they tortured Jesus and nailed him to his cross. Finally, there were the onlookers who saw Jesus stumble and fall on his way to execution. Doubtless there were some who would have reflected on Jesus’ folly in taking on the establishment: “Anyone who takes on those who hold the power is bound to get hurt!” Perhaps the majority who saw or just heard about what was done to Jesus, found protection for themselves in distancing themselves from what was happening, in refusing to get involved in what they preferred to see as no business of theirs.
So the gospel we hear today is an account of how Jesus was crucified because of cowardice, religious bigotry, naked power, expedience, fear, and not wanting to get involved. We can choose to stay at a distance - or we can accept Mark’s challenge to immerse ourselves in the narrative. And there is a personal cost for daring to immerse ourselves. The human weaknesses that saw Jesus tortured and done to death are very much alive in our world today. If we dare to look in the mirror, we will see some of those weaknesses in ourselves. Which of us has been totally free of cowardice, self-interest, surety that we are right, indifference, fear, prejudice, religious bigotry or intolerance of difference? There is nothing violent or brutal about these vices. They are dressed in the camouflage of sophistication. Yet we seem them used everywhere to crucify the victims and refugees of war, injustice and political intrigue all over our world. Wherever people and our planet are treated with less than the dignity and respect to which they are entitled, the crucifixion of Christ continues.
Yet, Mark’s account of the passion and death of Jesus is not totally bleak. There are clear signs of hope and life. The tearing of the Temple curtain from top to bottom is a symbol to indicate that the old order has passed away and a new way of being and doing and relating is about to replace it. Surprisingly, a Roman centurion, a man who knew nothing of Judaism but who had witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus, proclaimed: “Surely this man was the Son of God!” To cap all this off, a Jewish elder and member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea finds the courage to ask Pilate for the release of Jesus’ body, which he buries with respect and dignity. Today’s gospel reading is, therefore a meditation on how we have contributed, actively or by omission, to the suffering and crucifixion of others, but also how we can look to bring the hope of resurrection to others by adopting the kind of compassion, kindness and encouragement which Jesus proclaimed and for which he lived and died.
Fifth Sunday of Lent
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified…unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” John 12, 20-33
If you find yourself scratching your head after hearing today’s gospel reading, be assured that you are not alone. For the second week in succession we have been challenged with a complex reading from John’s Gospel. For instance, the start of today’s gospel is rather like an episode of Wiley Miller’s comic strip Non Sequitur, which satirizes the illogical behaviour of important figures in public life.
Philip and Andrew, two of Jesus’ disciples with Greek names, have been approached by a couple of Greeks (Gentiles), who want to be introduced to Jesus. Clearly the Greeks have thought that, by connecting with someone of influence with a Greek background, they will have a better chance of getting an introduction to Jesus. So they approach Philip, who enlists Andrew, and together they take the Greeks’ request to Jesus. Whether the Greeks were successful in getting to speak with Jesus, we still don’t know two thousand years later. Jesus was apparently preoccupied with something else. As a result, the disciples’ request was seemingly ignored.
Now, see if you can recall asking a family member about how many visitors were expected for dinner and, in response, you were given a detailed description of an earthquake that had just occurred in Ethiopia. There was just no logical connection between your question and the answer you got. The person you asked was preoccupied with something totally unrelated to your question. That describes the Jesus of today’s gospel. His mind is on something he sees looming in his life.
Let’s now look at the context. The annual celebration of Passover is about to begin, and pilgrims have come from everywhere. Among them is a sprinkling of Greeks, and two of those want to meet Jesus, who is the focus of much gossip. In fact, he has been needling the Jewish, religious authorities so much that the conflict between them and him has escalated to explosion point. As a consequence, Jesus is on a steep slide towards condemnation and death. And there is nothing quite like the prospect of impending execution to focus his mind. That’s precisely what has captured his full attention. That explains his theological monologue about seeds dying and sprouting into new life. Philip and Andrew must have been bewildered by the response they received to their request to usher in a couple of Greeks.
The metaphor about the necessity for seeds to die in order to reproduce is so familiar to us that we barely stop to ponder its scientific inaccuracy. Our knowledge of botany and plant biology tells us that it’s a combination of soil, moisture, light and humidity that causes seeds to break open and get caught up in organic change. Still, the message is clear: only through death will Jesus’ work come to fruition. And, as we know, that’s the pattern of all life. It’s only by dying that we will come to the fullness of life - both physical and spiritual.
This incident in the life of Jesus marks a pivotal point in the structure of John’s Gospel. Apart from the preamble, everything up to this point in John is known as the Book of Signs - a series of extraordinary events designed to point to the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ of God. Today’s story of the grain of wheat and Jesus’ reference to the coming of his “hour” mark the transition to what is known as the Book of Glory - the account of the trial, passion death and resurrection of Jesus.
Even though we are not told whether or not Jesus actually met the two Greeks, it seems as though Jesus must have heard the disciples’ request. In John’s Gospel, up to this point there is no mention of any encounter between Jesus and a Gentile. The news of Gentiles wanting to meet with him is interpreted by Jesus as there being nothing more for him to do. His ministry is now complete for it has now embraced the Gentile world. The irony, of course, is that non-Jews are much more open to him and his message than his own people. What Jesus has come to realize is ratified by the voice from the heavens, heard by the crowd as thunder, but interpreted to them by Jesus as the voice of God. Even though he is afraid of what awaits him, and even though he wonders if he should ask God to rescue him, Jesus acknowledges that it will be only through death that his mission will be completed.
What Jesus heard is technically referred to in Hebrew as a bat kol or bat qol, which literally means “daughter of a voice”. We are familiar with the term Bar Mitzvah (son of the commandment) which is what a young Jewish man becomes when he reaches the age of “manhood”, a time when he is regarded as having all the rights and obligations of a Jewish adult, a time when he becomes accountable for his actions. Similarly, a girl becomes a Bat Mitzvah (a daughter of the commandment) when she is considered to be an adult, responsible for observing the commandments of the Torah. There is a theological institute in Jerusalem where students can study the Jewish Torah and how it illuminates the Christian understanding of so many of the books of the Bible. That institute is called Bat Kol - the daughter of a voice.
The point of today’s gospel reading for us is that to become the people Jesus invites us to be, we have to die to whatever it is that clutters our lives and stifles growth. We can recognise those obstacles and blocks in our prejudices, our fears, our reluctance to embrace change, our inflexibility, our ambition, our selfishness, our unwillingness to reach out to others in need. Jesus invites us to be open to transformation, acknowledging that such transformation and change will feel like death and will, therefore, be difficult to embrace. Perhaps this can all be summed up for us in what we have come to know as the Prayer of St Francis: Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope: where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Fourth Sunday of Lent
“Anyone who does evil things hates the light and will not come to the light because he/she does not want his/her evil deeds to be shown up.” John 3, 14-21
My limited knowledge of Art History tells me that Rembrandt used light and shade (chiaroscuro) to represent the emotional life of many of his subjects. He employed that technique in over thirty etchings and drawings of himself and in more than 40 self-portraits. These works reveal an extraordinary depth of self-analysis. Art historians suggest that, for Rembrandt, this was his way of coming to know his inner self before he could embark on exploring the emotional depths of others.
Today’s gospel reading from John is rather like an invitation to each of us to shine the light on ourselves as we embark on a journey of self-exploration. By means of a fairly heady theological exercise, John uses a word picture to identify personal conscience as the arena in which our desire to pretend and our urge to be truthful do battle with one another.
One of the fears from which many of us suffer is that other people will come to know our sinful past - the times when we have compromised ourselves, when our moral integrity has crumbled. Those around us know that they, too, are not exactly paragons of virtue. So, I suspect that most of our embarrassment about having our sins exposed comes from the fact that our attempts to be secretive about our failures, our efforts to cover up, have failed.
Today’s gospel adds another twist to this story, for John seems to be suggesting that our efforts at cover-up are less about preventing others from knowing the truth about us and more about putting obstacles in the way of having to admit the truth about ourselves.
John adds yet another twist when he points out that, while many have come to discover the real truth about Jesus, they cover it up - because they are embarrassed about being seen as followers of Jesus. And if we are really honest with ourselves, we may have to admit that there are times when we feel torn between belief and unbelief when it comes to trusting in Jesus and pinning our colours to his Gospel. Yet deep down we know and value what Jesus is all about. We know that he is light - something like the light that Rembrandt has succeeded in creating in his self-portraits - a light that helps us to see ourselves as we really are, and intensifies the pain that is part of self-searching and self-discovery. The light of Jesus and his teaching can make us cringe with shame and embarrassment when we know that something we have done has exceeded the boundaries of what we know to be right.
Having embarked on this somewhat sensitive topic, John is slow to let go of it. He drives home the point that we actually know the sources of discomfort with ourselves - our desire for power, our longing for wealth and comfort, our urge to manipulate and use others, our wanting to get even with those who have offended us, our reluctance to reach out to those whom our society has discarded, our tendency to rationalize when we err, our hidden jealousies of others when they succeed. We are reluctant to have light from anywhere shine on these aspects of our lives, for then we might have to acknowledge that what we see is really who we are.
All this is a prelude to John’s central message for this Fourth Sunday of Lent: Even though we are slightly wicked and hesitant to admit it to ourselves and others, even though our world is tainted by the moral squalor of violence, terrorism, corruption and war-mongering, we and our world are the object of God’s boundless love. That is John’s utter conviction.
Today’s gospel is essentially a lesson in practical theology, triggered by Nicodemus, a Pharisee who, intrigued by Jesus and his preaching, had arranged to meet with him by night. Nicodemus did not want the embarrassment of being seen in discussion with Jesus by other Pharisees. Nicodemus’ embarrassment parallels the embarrassment we would feel if our friends and colleagues were to see what we are really like in all our weakness, fragility and vulnerability. And perhaps there are also times when we are embarrassed about being seen in the company of Jesus. In his exchange with Nicodemus, Jesus revealed a much bigger God than Nicodemus and we could imagine. Jesus spoke of a God who is very different from the God of the Pharisees. The God of Jesus was not someone to be satisfied by strict observance of rules, regulations and laws. The God whom Jesus revealed to Nicodemus is a God of love and forgiveness, not a God of condemnation and retribution. Jesus’ God is a God of compassion, mercy, welcome and boundless love. And that’s why John can attribute to Jesus those memorable words: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that those who believe in him may not perish but have eternal life” (John 3, 16).
Jesus was the incarnation of God’s love in the world. As followers of Jesus, our role is to make God’s love tangible wherever we live and work. Perhaps we can learn something about how to do it from the great American novelist, Stephen King. In an interview with Alison Flood of the Guardian newspaper in 2014, King stated that, while he had doubts about organised religion, he had grown up as a Methodist and still chose to believe in God (The Guardian, Oct 30, 2014). In an earlier article for Family Circle magazine (Nov 1, 2001), King wrote:
“So I want you to consider making your life one long gift to others. And why not? All you have is on loan, anyway. All that lasts is what you pass on…Giving isn’t about the receiver or the gift but the giver. It’s for the giver. One doesn’t open one’s wallet to improve the world, although it’s nice when that happens; one does it to improve one’s self. I give because it’s the only concrete way I have of saying that I’m glad to be alive.”
Despite his doubts about organised religion, King has an appreciation of the values of God. He knows that God loves creation too much to write it off. He has learned to see others as God sees them, and is prepared to do his bit in order to share something of God’s hope and love for our world. Today’s gospel asks me if that’s how I live, too.
Third Sunday of Lent
While he was in Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover, many began to believe in him, as they saw the miracles he performed. But Jesus did not trust himself to them, because he knew them all. There was no need for anyone to tell him about them, because he himself knew what was in their hearts. John 2, 13-25
Do you ever read the billboards posted outside of some churches? A couple that stay in my mind are: “IMPERFECT PEOPLE WELCOME HERE. YOU’LL BE IN GOOD COMPANY” and “THE EXTRA MILE IS NEVER CROWDED”. However, I saw one a couple of years ago that is very relevant to today’s gospel reading: “IT’S TIME TO TURN THE TEMPLE OF YOUR LIFE INTO ‘MY FATHER’S HOUSE’”.
Today’s gospel presents us with a Jesus whose anger is white hot over the fact that pilgrims to the Temple in Jerusalem were being fleeced by the money- changers. A tax was levied on all visitors for the upkeep and maintenance of the Temple. Moreover any pilgrim wanting to purchase a bird or animal for sacrifice on the Temple altar was forced to pay inflated prices to ensure that whatever they purchased was certified as “clean”. But before they could make their purchases or pay the tax, they first had to go to the money-changers to get “clean” Temple currency. In ordinary domestic life, people had to pay for travel, food and lodging in Roman currency. But the currency used in the Temple had to be free of human images. The image of a Roman Emperor was especially taboo because the Romans saw their Emperors as gods. To bring an image of a pagan god stamped on a coin into the Temple was tantamount to sacrilege. All this explains the presence of money-changers and offering-sellers in the Temple precinct. Jesus could not tolerate their extortionate rates, extracted from pilgrims in the name of God, and expressed his anger by overturning the tables of everyone doing business there.
In John’s Gospel, this story serves as a metaphor for cleaning up corruption. It therefore confronted the early Christian community with the challenge to look at their lives and decide what was in need of being cleaned up. It likewise challenges us to rid our lives of whatever clutter is preventing us from living with integrity.
This episode also confronts us with the question of the place of anger in our own lives. There are some people who would tell us that anger is unhealthy or even bad. Anger is a feeling. Like all feelings it is neutral. There is nothing wrong with any feeling we have felt. But we all choose how we are going to express those feelings. Sometimes we express them in healthy ways, while, at other times, we express them unhealthily, and in morally wrong ways.
Today’s gospel reading presents Jesus angrily confronting hypocrisy and extortion. His action invites us to reflect on the injustices in our world that make us angry. Isn’t it true that we can sometimes allow injustice to go on without daring to name it and without doing anything to counter it? Today’s gospel reading invites me to ask myself when was the last time I was prepared to raise my voice in protest at the way in which elected governments treat refugees and asylum-seekers, or engage in arms trade with other governments involved in ethnic cleansing, or are unwilling to curtail the sale of guns. I am confronted to ask myself what has fallen off my moral radar screen. We can let our anger control us or we can allow it to bring out the best in us. Jerusalem is a city whose economy has been built on religion. Pilgrims have flocked there for thousands of years, before and after the time of Jesus. Places of pilgrimage have always attracted charlatans and profiteers, because they see devout pilgrims as sources of easy money. Jesus’ anger pushed him to take action against those who exploited vulnerable pilgrims. His other purpose was to restore the Temple to what it was meant to be: a place where everyone could pray in peace. Today’s gospel prompts us to reflect on what makes us angry enough to want to take action on whatever infringes against the rights and dignity of other people, and to stand up against those who insist on exploiting the weak and vulnerable.
There are other challenging and puzzling aspects to today’s gospel reading from John. Jesus cryptically refers to himself as “a temple” that will be raised up after three days. And we have the Temple built of stone that took decades to build. It could hardly be restored within three days. Having written his Gospel well after the death of Jesus and having reflected on Jesus’ ministry, John can credibly attribute to Jesus the words: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2, 20). This, of course, is metaphorical language referring to the temple that is his body - the dwelling place of God. Made in God’s image, we, like Jesus, are also the dwelling place of God. Likewise, every human person reflects, in some way, the presence of God. Jesus, born into the world as one of us, is the incarnation of God. We, too, reflect the presence of God. It follows then that to adequately honour and respect God, we must reverence every person we encounter. That must be the foundation of all true religion.
This gospel reading merits one last comment. We have to ask ourselves what we make of Jesus’ observation of the crowds that were following him. John states: “But Jesus did not trust himself to them, because he knew them all. There was no need for anyone to tell him about them, because he himself knew what was in their hearts” (John 2, 24-25). There’s a fine line between realism and cynicism. I find myself thinking that Jesus would not approve if that was my attitude towards everyone with whom I have dealings. I would not be able to trust anyone. I could have confidence in nobody. All this leads me to ask if there is an objective base line against which to measure realism. And, of course, we know that what is realistic for me might not be your view of what’s realistic. Could I suggest that Jesus’ measure of what is realistic has grown out of his deep relationship with God? He had made a personal space for God in his own life. That’s why he can say: “Tear down this temple, and in three days I will rebuild it.” I propose that all those who make their relationship with God the central focus of their lives would fit Jesus’ understanding of what it is to be a realist. So, “knowing what was in their hearts” might better be seen as an expression of sympathy on the part of Jesus for all those who had yet to find an enduring place for God in their lives. True, God does dwell with us, but we have to develop a relationship with that God. Surely, too, God is much better company than a lot of people we meet.
Second Sunday of Lent
Peter said to Jesus: “Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Mark 9, 2-10
All three readings set down for this Second Sunday of Lent are difficult. If we fail to grasp that the gospel account of Peter, James and John on the mountain with Jesus and the Genesis story of Abraham being asked by God to deliver up his son, Isaac, in a human sacrifice are made-up stories, we will end up with a very strange view of God. Both accounts are stories from very old Semitic cultures with references and images with which the Jews from before, during and after the time of Jesus would have been very familiar. Every Jew who turned up for worship in a synagogue would have known that bright lights, clouds, visions of prophets, and mountain-tops all suggested close encounters with God. The gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke all include this “transfiguration” story to highlight the specialness of Jesus and to emphasize that his mission was inspired by the depth of the relationship he had cultivated with God throughout his life.
Today’s gospel is a story designed to illustrate the quality of Jesus’ relationship with God, and the first reading from Genesis is another story to illustrate something of Abraham’s relationship with God. But let’s not forget that these are stories, similar in style and intention to The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan and Dives and Lazarus - all used by Jesus to teach.
The second reading from Romans also needs to be read carefully, for we could come away thinking that God had a part in planning the death of Jesus.
So, how do we make sense of today’s three readings, and what is their relevance to us and to our lives as we continue into the season of Lent?
It is not too difficult to see why the story of Abraham and Isaac is paired with the reading from Romans. The Genesis story tells how Abraham was willing to give up his only son (born in extraordinary circumstances to Sarah and Abraham in their old age), while Paul makes reference to God’s willingness to let go of Jesus, allowing him to be the victim of those who brutally murdered him. But let’s be clear about this: God did not plan the death of Jesus. Nor did God agree to Jesus’ murder by turning a blind eye to a sneaky plan cooked up by those who would stop at nothing to rid themselves of a man who threatened their comfort.
By being born into our world, Jesus took on the mystery and limitation of human freedom. He stood in solidarity with all of humanity. As a consequence, he was surrounded by all the risks, accidents, surprises, coincidences and chaos that touch the lives of every human being, that are part and parcel of life. So he was caught, like the rest of us, in the crossfire of other human beings expressing their freedom in the ways they chose. Therefore, we must keep reminding ourselves that Jesus didn’t simply die. He was savagely tortured and executed. What was done to him is not something to be celebrated with joy. His death, like the death of every other human being, remains the wrenching, grief-filled, crushing thing that all death is. We do him and God a disservice by trying to sugar-coat it, by wanting to dignify it as something planned by God.
I suggest we could get a better insight into the Father’s stance towards the life and death of Jesus by looking at what all parents go through as they let their daughters and sons go off to make their way through life; as they send them off to study in universities, to find their first job or to live in rented accommodation away from home. Parents know that their children, on the verge of adulthood, are vulnerable. They know they will see them making mistakes, yet they will hold back their urges to interfere. They will pray for their children and be always ready to support them whenever they are invited to assist. But those same parents are also courageous enough to respect the individuality and the wonder of the mystery of their children’s unfolding lives. Moreover, they are sensible enough not to take responsibility for the mistakes their children make and for the pain and hurt that they experience through their own fault or the treachery of others. Yet, we would not say that those parents planned their children’s misfortunes, even though they might have seen those misfortunes coming. But like Jesus’ Father, they stand in solidarity with their children through thick and thin. Their courage is demonstrated by their allowing their children to be exposed to all the ups and downs of the human condition.
Even though we might find ourselves shocked by the Genesis account of Abraham’s testing time, today’s first reading is asking us to reflect on what may be the “Isaacs” in our lives. What or whom do I need to let go of, who or what is preventing me from growing into the person I know I truly want to be? Lent is a time for us to reflect on things like that.
Let’s turn our attention to the gospel story of the “Transfiguration”. All the symbols which I have already mentioned tell us that Mark is describing an extraordinary, peak experience - an encounter with God - that Jesus had and which Peter, James and John witnessed. Peter was so dazzled by it all that his first response was to want to commemorate it with three shrines. Had it happened in modern times, he probably would have wanted to get photographs. Mark is telling us that the presence of God was so intense within Jesus that it shone through him. And the voice Jesus and the disciples heard was Mark’s way of telling us that this was God claiming Jesus as Son and proclaiming that he was the Messiah.
But the wind was quickly taken out of Peter’s sails - a situation matter-of-factly summed up by Mark: “Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them.” Moreover, to emphasize that, Jesus tells the three of them to keep their mouths shut, and then starts talking about death and resurrection. Perhaps this was as much a reality check for Jesus himself as for his companions. Had he dwelt on what had just occurred, he might have had second thoughts about continuing to pursue the mission he had mapped out for himself, for he knew that the pursuit of that mission would inevitably make enemies for him and that they would not be satisfied until he was exterminated.
The implication of Jesus rejecting the possibility of commemorative monuments leads me to conclude that this “transfiguration” event is also about Peter, James, John and us. God’s life, after all, was present in the three disciples and is likewise present in us. Moreover, being brought back to earth for the disciples and for us surely means that the life of God in us in intended to shine brightly in the way we live our lives in our messy, chaotic world, in the kindness, compassion, forgiveness and encouragement we extend to everyone with whom we live, work, recreate and engage. Lent is an insistent invitation to us allow our lives to be transfigured by the God who dwells within us, so that we, in our turn, can become agents of transfiguration in the lives of everyone we meet.
First Sunday of Lent
The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. Mark 1, 12-15
“The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert” is a very strong statement. However, we are mistaken if we equate “drove” with “forced”. After all, Jesus was a thirty-year-old man, steeped in his Jewish faith, with a deal of experience behind him. He was well able to listen to his own intuitions and the promptings of God’s Spirit, and then make his own decisions. He was fully human, making his decisions the way we make ours. To prepare himself for the mission he had decided to pursue, he saw the need for an extended period of solitude, reflection and prayer. In response to the promptings of God’s Spirit in his heart, he set off into the desert. In Mark’s account, this decision followed immediately after his baptism by John, during which he experienced a sense of approval and affirmation from God, described graphically as a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life” (Mark 1, 11). To come to appreciate the full significance of that would, of itself, require time for reflection.
Yet, like every other human being, Jesus had to work through the urges to look for short-cuts and to satisfy his desires for comfort, popularity and approval. Mark describes these metaphorically, depicting Jesus as being surrounded by wild beasts and being tempted by Satan. But they are no different from the urges and desires we all experience in the ebb and flow of our lives, when we want to replace kindness, forgiveness and personal inconvenience with self-serving, retribution and soft living. We know the values of God’s kingdom, but feel drawn to adopt attitudes and behaviours that prevent us from being our true selves. Jesus was on the verge of embarking on his mission to the world, of bringing a message of hope, healing and new life to people who were downtrodden and alienated. Yet he was tempted to have second thoughts, to question whether the dream he had for our world was worth the effort.
Lent basically means “spring”. The word is derived from Old English “lencten”, which, in turn evolved into Middle English “lenten”. The liturgical season of Lent began 4 days ago with Ash Wednesday and the smearing of ashes on our forehead - a reminder of the fragility of our lives and our eventual return to the earth from which we are made. The rest of Lent is an invitation to embark on “turning over” our lives, reflecting on and listening to how God’s Spirit is prompting us to spring-clean our living, to sow the seeds of something new. This fits with what is happening in the astronomical world, with the earth turning towards the sun and the agricultural world, as farmers and gardeners begin turning the soil in preparation for Spring planting. All this, of course, makes proper sense only in the northern hemisphere. In the popular mind in Ireland, the feast of St Brigid (February 1st) signals that Spring is approaching, while the Vernal (Spring) Equinox, when the sun shines directly over the equator and the lengths of day and night are approximately equal, will occur on March 20th, 32 days into Lent. And to cap it all off, we note that the Hebrew word for repentance basically means “turning”.
By venturing into the desert, Jesus turned aside from the euphoria of the affirmation associated with his baptism, and took time to consider his mission and the responsibilities he would have to take on in order to embrace it with integrity.
Lent provides an invitation and an opportunity for each of us to reflect on our mission as followers of Jesus, to decide on what we might need to embrace and from what to turn aside if we, too, are to live with integrity. This is not quite as simple as it sounds, for we don’t have to look too far to recognise that our lives are filled with all kinds of competing priorities. That does not mean that any or all of them are bad. But some of them can pull us in directions that are less than life-giving. You and I know who we are and who the Gospel calls us to be. Anything that drags us away from who we are and who we are called to be can be classified as temptation. In his wilderness experience, Jesus was tempted to move away from who he was and who God was calling him to be. Surely we can’t expect that our experience will be any different from his.
The bottom line of all this is conversion of heart. We all face the constant challenge of being true to the one we claim to follow and to his Gospel. Lent is an invitation to give serious and intensive attention to conversion of heart, to changing in our lives what we know needs to be changed. In this context, we may well ask ourselves what we make of the metaphor in today’s gospel where Jesus is depicted as being surrounded by “wild beasts”. As we launch into Lent, one of the occupational hazards for us is the nagging thought: “Why bother? The people with whom I live and work and recreate aren’t really interested in improving themselves. So why should I be the odd one out?” This, of course, is built on the low opinions we form about other people. We really don’t know what’s going on in their minds and hearts. Yet, we can convince ourselves that, like Jesus, we are surrounded by “wild beasts”. The world out there is a jungle, and if we’re not careful we can be bitten, pulled apart, infected or even devoured. And we certainly don’t notice too many angels looking after us. So, from the start, we can slip into thinking that there’s no point in improving ourselves if we’re going to be swallowed up in the long run.
I suggest there are two challenges for us if we find ourselves thinking like this. The first is to ask ourselves why we want to make our conversion of heart dependent upon what others are doing about improving themselves. Secondly, we might do something about changing our inclination to regard others as obstacles in the way of our own efforts at personal conversion. The temptation to compare ourselves with others might be an appropriate launching point for us as we begin this season of Lent. Today’s first and second readings make reference to the cleansing waters of the great flood of Noah’s time and the waters of baptism in the Christian era. Peter reminds us that baptism “is not the washing off of bodily dirt”. Rather, it initiates us into the life-long process of our relating with ourselves, with those around us and with God, in the person of Jesus. Lent is a time when we take practical steps to better those relationships.
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
A leper came to Jesus and pleaded on his knees: “If you want to”, he said, “you can cure me.” Feeling sorry for him, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. “Of course I want to!” he said. “Be cured!” And the leprosy left him at once and he was cured. Mark 1, 40-45
There was a wonderful woman in Wagga Wagga who cooked for the Brothers there for decades. Back in 1948, she cooked a leg of pork, and nearly everyone in the community became ill. She refused to cook pork ever again. Somewhere in their history, the Hebrews noticed that some of their number took ill after eating pork. That led them to formulate rules forbidding the eating of pork. Similar kosher rules were made forbidding the eating of eagles, vultures, buzzards, crows, ostriches, hawks, seagulls, pelicans, owls, storks and herons, and about “those disgusting little creatures that crawl or walk close to the ground”. Shellfish was also forbidden, but locusts, grasshoppers and crickets were allowed to be served up at mealtime. Chapter 11 of Leviticus has all the details. Similarly, there were all kinds of rules about skin diseases and about avoiding contact with anyone suffering from them. In the popular mind, complaints like skin rashes, scabies, ringworm, boils and pimples all came under the one heading of leprosy because they were seen to be contagious. That explains why we hear in today’s first reading: “If you have leprosy, you must tear your clothes, leave your hear uncombed, cover your upper lip, and go around shouting: ‘I’m unclean! I’m unclean!’ As long as you have the disease, you are unclean and must live alone outside the camp” (Leviticus 13, 45-46). The penalty for leprosy was exclusion, and anyone suffering from it had to wear the distinguishing marks of exclusion from the community.
This challenges us to reflect on who are the ones we exclude from our communities and countries. Moreover, what are the markers we put on them to indicate to us and to others that they are excluded? Among those indelible markers are skin colour, ethnicity or simply the fact that such outcasts have arrived at our borders on small boats or on foot.
The leper is one of the central characters in Mark’s Gospel. Blind Bartimaeus, the leper and the destitute woman who gave her last penny to the Temple collection are, for Mark, models of true faith in God. Moreover, Bartimaeus and the leper not only recognise Jesus for who he is, but they place their entire faith and trust in him. Their cries for help are effectively professions of their faith in Jesus, the Messiah of God.
The story of the cure of the leper gets much of its force from the details associated with the act of healing. Jesus broke all the rules spelled out in Leviticus about dealing with lepers. Not only did he invite the leper to come near, he actually touched him, making himself ritually unclean. But Jesus did not encounter a “case of leprosy”, he engaged with a fellow human being, a man in desperate need, a man who had been excluded from the community and from all social interaction.
But there are also several levels of irony in this story. Though Jesus had deliberately broken the rules about dealing with lepers, he still told the man whom he had cured to observe what the law required of him: “Go and show yourself to the priest, and make the offering for your healing prescribed by Moses, as evidence of your recovery.” This was Jesus’ way of trying to get the Religious Leaders to open their eyes to what was happening around them. Mark’s very clear message is that the Messiah had arrived on the scene and the Jewish establishment could not or would not recognise him. Ironically, a leper, ostracized from the community, recognized the Messiah while the established community leaders were blind to that reality.
While it is entirely understandable that the cured leper could not contain his happiness and excitement at readmitted to his village community, Jesus was the one who ended up being pushed aside: “He had to stay outside in places where nobody lived.” The great irony of today’s gospel is that the leper who had been excluded can now freely enter the village while the one who had cured him is forced to stay outside. Remember that Jesus was not interested in personal popularity or in gathering fans around him, who could not appreciate the real significance of the miracles he worked. Jesus was not going to let himself be distracted by those whose sole interest was in wonder-working. Of course he felt for those who suffered and were excluded, but he also knew that no amount of healing or holiness would remove sickness, pain and anguish from our world. He was really calling people to put their faith and trust in a God who loved them unceasingly in good times and in times of struggle, illness and pain. Jesus came not to make people’s problems and difficulties evaporate, but to assure them that they could cope with them by trusting in a God whose love for them is boundless.
This gospel is for all of us. If truth be told, we have all felt excluded at some time or another. Think of the times when we may have missed out on selection for sports teams or for committees for which we had been nominated. Some of us may have missed out in applying for promotions in schools or universities or been told that our services and expertise were no longer needed. Still others of us may not be able to disclose our failures or our personal weaknesses and vulnerabilities. All these situations cause us to experience loneliness, rejection or isolation. Today’s gospel is an invitation to anyone who has known isolation and rejection to come to Jesus as that leper did, asking for healing, consolation and acceptance. It is also a reminder to us that we, too, have the capacity to isolate and exclude others, as well as to welcome, accept, include and heal them. And, in some situations including and welcoming the “lepers” of our modern world may lead to our being excluded. That’s the risk and the price of taking today’s gospel to heart.
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
That evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were sick and those who were possessed by devils. The whole town came crowding round the door, and he healed many who were suffering from diseases of one kind or another; and he cast out many devils, but he would not allow them to speak, because they knew who he was. Mark 1, 29-39
We are now about to move into the last two weeks of Ordinary Time before the season of Lent begins. Over the years we may have come to conclude that Ordinary Time in the Church’s calendar is associated with the uninteresting and the boring or is something to fill up the spaces between the great celebrations of Christmas and Easter and Pentecost and Christ the King.
On the contrary, Ordinary Time is about heightening our awareness to God’s presence in the very ordinary events of everyday life. The ordinary is a revelation of the divine, and it’s through practices such as mindfulness that we grow in our attentiveness to the divine, present in ourselves, one another and in all that happens in the world around us.
Today’s gospel is a telling reminder to us of how Jesus was able to see the presence of God in every person and situation he encountered, of how he was able to reflect the presence of God to others as he engaged with them in the everyday events of life, and of how he touched the face of God in everything he experienced. Untold numbers of people down through history have looked at the person of Jesus and have learned from him how to recognise the presence of God in the ordinary and extraordinary events of their own lives.
John Gillespie Magee Jr was born in China in 1922. He was the first of four boys born to two Anglican missionaries working in China. Most of John’s schooling was completed in Britain. However, in 1939 he visited the United States and was prevented by the outbreak of World War II from returning to the Rugby School in England to complete the last year of his secondary education. He completed the final year of his schooling in Connecticut and was awarded a scholarship to Yale University. Instead of taking up the scholarship, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and, after qualifying as a pilot, was drafted to a Fighter Squadron in Wales, where he learned to fly spitfires. In training he had flown a spitfire to an altitude of 33,000 feet, and that was the inspiration of his poem High Flight, reproduced below. He saw combat action in November-December 1941, but was killed in a mid-air collision with another plane during training in December 1941. High Flight is the official poem of both the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Air Force, was taken by astronaut Michael Collins into space on the Gemini 10 flight, and quoted by President Reagan in his address to the nation in January1986, following the Challenger disaster.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, --and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of --Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air...
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew --
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Both today’s gospel and the poem High Flight are invitations to us to pause and reflect on the opportunities of touching the face of God that come to us every day of our lives, even though those days may be characterized by the same frenetic pace that Mark saw in Jesus’ life and which he describes in the first chapter of his Gospel. In what experiences in the last twenty-four hours of my life was I aware of touching the face of God? How might the quality of my life change if I were to take time at the end of each day to reflect on where I have encountered the divine?
There is a kind of urgency about the gospel readings of today and the last two Sundays. They are all from chapter 1 of Mark’s Gospel and describe the busyness of Jesus’ life as he launched into his ministry. However, Mark makes the point that Jesus would not have been able to get a grasp on what his role in life was all about without taking time for reflection and prayer: “Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place and prayed” (Mark 1, 35). Clear evidence of the depth of his reflection can be seen in his plea to those whom he healed and freed from the grasp of evil. He told them to keep quiet about what he had done for them. He was not looking for fans and popularity. Rather, he was intent on encouraging others to follow him in spirit, by living true to the message and values he proclaimed.
The incident in today’s gospel about the cure of Peter’s mother-in-law has sometimes prompted some to ask why the men sat back and let the woman who just been cured get a meal for them. I suggest that Mark’s message is quite different. While our modern translation says: “the fever left her and she waited on them”, the original Greek word was diekonei, meaning “served” rather than “waited on”. Mark is making the point that once someone is touched by Jesus, he or she automatically chooses to serve others. Jesus did what true compassion required. He did not bother about being ritually contaminated by touching a woman who was ill. Nor did he worry about catching her sickness. If we allow ourselves to be touched by Jesus, we too will put self second and do what we can to reach out in service to others in need. Jesus’ final act of ministry was one of service – he washed the feet of his disciples. He invites us to do likewise.
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Moses said to the people: “Your God will raise up for you a prophet like myself…to him you must listen.” Deuteronomy 18, 15-20
The people were so astonished that they started asking each other what it all meant. “Here is a teaching that is new”, they said, “and with authority behind it: he gives orders even to unclean spirits and they obey him.” Mark 1, 21-28
In today’s first reading, Moses tells the people that they have a choice: they can get God’s message directly or through a prophet designated and appointed by God. But Moses proceeds to warn them that they will know God’s word when they hear it and will be held responsible for how they respond to it. The people had not been slow to point out to Moses that they were afraid of dealing with God directly, saying: “Don’t let us hear the voice of the Lord, our God again, or look any longer on this great fire, or we shall die” (Deuteronomy 18, 16). This was a nation whose collective perception was that God was someone to be feared, to be held in reverence and awe. The people with whom Moses was dealing had little or no concept of a God of love. It was another 600 years before Hosea described God as guiding Israel “with leading strings of love…and being like someone lifting an infant to his cheek and bending down to feed him” (Hosea 11, 1-4).
Moses’ warning came from the insights into human behaviour that he had gathered from observation and experience. He had come to realise that, when we deal with intermediaries, priests, preachers and prophets, we can easily find excuses for missing and dismissing their message. We know that we can hear what we want to hear. We can filter and distort what we hear from the pulpit, simply because listening is never neutral. If we don’t like what the preacher says, we can resort to sheltering behind our own private revelations or connecting to our own direct line to God. Besides, the fact that a prophet is not heard in her or his own country, is no guarantee that she or he will be heard in another country.
That does not mean that we should not critique what we hear from our preachers. Yet, while Father is not always right, he is also not always wrong. That raises the issue of how we might profitably engage with the prophets and preachers of our day. Maybe there should be an agreement that we engage in a dialogical way with those who preach to us. I wonder if we could ever get to the point of interaction and discussion with those appointed to present out Sunday homilies. That way, we might learn from one another. I want to suggest that today’s second reading gives us an incident that contributed eventually to Paul’s education. Can you imagine for a moment how the Corinthians might have responded to Paul’s personal opinion about celibacy and marriage? He had the gall to say that, if the Christians of Corinth took the Lord seriously, they would give up getting married. After being told that “An unmarried man concerns himself with the Lord’s work, because he is trying to please the Lord. But a married man concerns himself with worldly matters, because he wants to please his wife” (1 Corinthians 7, 32-33), the people of Corinth could be forgiven for wanting to lynch Paul. Fortunately, by the time Paul wrote to the Ephesians, he spoke of marriage as being intimately connected with God’s plans for humanity. It would seem that he had learned something from those to whom he preached and wrote. And let’s not forget that preachers and prophets don’t have a monopoly on the truth. God still continues to speak to all of us in the depth of our hearts. We all have insights into truth; God’s Spirit continues to inspire us and lead us to wisdom. So prophets and preachers, in their turn, would do well to be open to feedback and suggestion from the people who sit in the pews.
In reading today’s gospel, we might get the impression that Jesus was totally successful as a preacher and, so, didn’t need feedback from his listeners: “His teaching made a deep impression on the people because, unlike the scribes, he taught them with authority” (Mark 1, 22). However, this was only early in his career. In time, critics from among the ranks of recognized teachers began to analyse his words and find fault with them. We also know that he took the risk of asking for feedback. We read in Mark 8, 27-30 how he asked his disciples what the people were saying about him and who they thought he was. That’s a very risky question for any teacher to ask, for it opens him or her up to have their weaknesses and vulnerabilities exposed. Moreover, as one who took on the human condition fully, Jesus exposed himself to all the potential criticism, praise and dissatisfaction that are part of the dynamic that develops between preachers and their audiences. It would be a cause for admiration if everyone who engaged in teaching did the same.
Finally, I believe that Mark’s comment about the authority of Jesus’ teaching is worthy of further comment. When we reflect on our years of growing and developing towards maturity, many of us can point to somebody who was able to call us to achieve above and beyond what we thought possible. We can identify a teacher, a coach, a boss or a friend who called out of us abilities and skills that we didn’t realise we had. We still remember with gratitude such people for the profound influence they had on our lives. Their encouragement, their affirmation or their belief in us served to inspire us. And in the process, they modelled for us how we, in our turn, can help others to grow into their best selves. They demonstrated the kind of “authority” that Mark, in today’s gospel, describes Jesus as having. His authority emanated not from his power to enforce anything on anybody, but rather from his ability to inspire others and bring out the best in them. It came from his compassion and from his ability to empathise with the people with whom he engaged.
We are further told of how Jesus drove away an “unclean spirit” that controlled the life of one of the people he encountered. Mark’s term “unclean spirit” is a metaphor or symbol for the tendency to evil that we can all sometimes allow to control our actions. The desire to get even, believing that we are better than others, allowing our anger to control us, giving in to jealousy, being afraid to speak out in the face of manifest injustice, allowing selfishness to contaminate our decision-making are all manifestations of “unclean spirits” at work in our lives. By teaching as he did, by releasing others from whatever controlled and troubled them, Jesus made real the love, compassion and mercy of God to a people who had come to experience little other than oppression and injustice. The invitation is for us to do likewise.
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
As he was walking along by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net in the lake - for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them: “Follow me and I will make you into fishers of men.” And at once they left their nets and followed him. Mark 1, 14-20
Back in 1653, the political magazine Mercurius Politicus carried the following advertisement:
“There is newly extant a book of 18d (That’s 18 pence, for those who know only decimal currency), called The Compleat Angler or the Contemplative Man’s Recreation, being a discourse of fish and fishing not unworthy the perusal of most anglers.” Though Izaak Walton gets most of the credit for this extraordinary treatise on the art and recreation of fishing, it was jointly written by him and Charles Cotton, and sold from a bookshop in London. Since then it has gone through countless editions, and can still be bought in paperback for about $10.
I was prompted to make reference to this book by today’s second reading from Corinthians and the gospel story of Jesus calling Simon, Andrew, James and John to leave their nets behind and join him as “fishers of men”. Both readings are about faith - something we all experience, but often find difficult to put into words.
Faith and trust are almost interchangeable in our spoken language and in our day-to-day experience. Just look for a few moments at some of the things we say and do as we go about relating to the people who come into and go out of our lives. For instance, have you ever heard yourself say to someone: “I trust you implicitly”, when it might have been more accurate to have said: “I trust you explicitly”? Or have you ever found yourself wondering if you really trust so-and-so fully or just trust the image you have projected onto that person, hoping that he or she will deliver in accord with the image you have created of him or her? And I’m sure there have been times when you've placed your faith and trust in someone, and then found yourself beginning to doubt because some of that person’s behaviour doesn’t square with the expectations you have created in your imagination.
Is the faith and trust we say we have in God any different? While we might claim that it is based on certainty, if we’re honest, we have to admit that we sometimes have doubts and even find that our faith in God is a bit blurred around the edges. Yet, if we have never had doubts about our faith in God, we are not fully human. Even Jesus dying on the Cross struggled with his faith in God and wondered if God had abandoned him.
In today’s second reading, Paul offers some advice to the Christian community in Corinth on some of the practical matters that impacted on their everyday lives. The context in which Paul offers his advice is important. He and his fellow Christians were convinced that Jesus’ second coming was just around the corner. So he offers his listeners a technique for looking at some of the practical matters of their lives in the light of their faith. He really invites them to downplay the importance of some very practical aspects of their lives: “From now onwards, married men should live as though they were not married (Even then, it seems that women had no voice, and wives were not consulted); those who weep, as though they were not sad; those who laugh, as though they were not happy; those who buy, as though they did not own what they bought; those who deal in material goods, as though they were not fully occupied with them. For this world, as it is now, will not last much longer” (1 Corinthians 7, 29-31). Things like marriage, crying, celebrating, buying and selling and generally running our own lives are substantial, tangible experiences. By contrast, faith seems to be an experience that we find difficult to get hold of; it’s intangible and elusive. So Paul suggests to his audience, that they might do well to play down the things that preoccupy them and give more attention to their religious faith and trust. I wonder if this was Paul’s way of saying that satisfaction of the three most powerful human urges - for possessions, sex and the desire to be in charge of our lives - can distract us from putting our faith and trust in God. I leave that to you to decide. But, at the very least, he is offering a technique to help his listeners to stop and reflect on the quality and shape of their faith in God. And that prompts me to ask myself what my faith in God is like.
But the normal, everyday, concrete experiences of life don’t have to be a threat to faith. Sometimes faith is an extension of those experiences. Today’s gospel gives us a very real example of that. Note that Jesus doesn’t belittle or criticise what those first disciples were doing with their lives. Rather, he capitalises on the fact that they were fishermen, telling them that he will build on the skills they already have, as he teaches them to be fishers of men. They already have the flexibility required to be patient as they go about their trade, waiting for the right conditions to play out their nets, experimenting with different kinds of gear and lures, resigning themselves to the fact that a good catch won’t come every day. These are skills and attitudes that are transferable to working with people. When it comes to inviting others to change their attitudes and behaviours, one has to be patient and able to judge when the circumstances are right for them to be able to hear the message. Jesus knew that the journey ahead would not be without its challenges. He therefore chose helpers who would know how to rough it, who would have a capacity to endure resistance, who would be able to adapt to different circumstances. Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler was still 1600 years away, but those first disciples had an affinity with nature, with seas and waterways; they knew tides and currents; they knew the experience of having to wait patiently for the right conditions for catching fish. Jesus seems to think that experiences from their daily work would stand them in good stead when it came to dealing with people.
John Henry Cardinal Newman once said: “Belief engenders belief,” suggesting that, in our day-to-day lives, we have a far greater experience of faith than we actually realize - faith in other people and in what they say and do. And all this, before we even begin to consider our faith in God! In the long run, if our faith in God isn’t a bit fuzzy or uncertain, it probably isn’t faith at all. But it grows out of the ordinary experiences of our living, working and relating.
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Eli then understood that it was the Lord who was calling the boy, and he said to Samuel: “Go and lie down, and if someone calls say: ‘Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.’” 1 Samuel 3, 3-10, 19
Jesus turned, saw them following him, and asked: “What are you looking for?” John 1, 34-42
Marked declines in things like church attendance and voter turn-out in national elections all around the world suggest that there is an increasing lack of confidence on the part of ordinary people in government, Church and institutional leadership. The publication this week of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury is symptomatic of ordinary people’s loss of faith in leadership, and their search for satisfaction and meaning beyond the institutions that have repeatedly failed them.
More and more people are simply fed up with the hypocrisy, the lies, the bickering and the betrayal by leaders and institutions of whom they had every right to expect better. They have embarked on their own searching to find meaning elsewhere.
Today’s gospel reading presents some of those who would eventually become Jesus’ earliest disciples as people searching for something they have not yet been able to properly articulate. Yet, they had high expectations: they wanted a messiah. They were blessed in finding Jesus. Not all who follow someone attractive have the good fortune to have their attention captured in the way that Jesus captured theirs.
Of significance in the first reading from the Book of Samuel and the Gospel reading is the fact that they give attention to three people who were instrumental in helping others in their search for meaning in their lives. Eli directed a very young Samuel to be attentive to the voice of God, John the Baptist directed two of his own disciples - Andrew and one who is not named - to make contact with Jesus, and Andrew, in his turn, invited his brother Simon to meet with Jesus, whom Andrew had already recognized as the Messiah. The same Andrew was later to bring to Jesus the youngster with the five loaves and two dried fish and to introduce to Jesus the group of Greeks who had come to him asking: “Sir, we would like to meet Jesus” (John 12, 22). All three of these characters leave me asking myself if I have ever been instrumental in helping anyone in his or her searching for God, the only real answer to everyone’s search for meaning.
It is worth taking a few minutes to reflect on Eli’s life. He is described as a father who knew bitter disappointment in his own life. Despite his holding the very significant position of high priest, Eli was unsuccessful in his efforts to raise his two sons in the faith and traditions of Judaism. They are described as having “no regard for the Lord”. Eli would have had to endure the gossip and criticism of a congregation wondering about his capacity as a religious leader when he couldn’t get his own sons to darken the doors of the Temple or a local synagogue. Eli is a sign of hope for all disappointed parents and grandparents. While he could not open the minds and hearts of his own sons, he taught one of the great future prophets of Israel to listen to the voice of God. Eli is a sign of hope for all of us. However fragile we are, we all can be wounded healers for others, perhaps even without knowing it. By living authentically our vocation as disciples of Jesus, we can all be teachers of life and integrity to others.
In the gospel reading of today, we hear the Baptist selflessly directing two of his own disciples not just to notice Jesus but to “behold” him - to take hold of Jesus, to grasp the significance of who he really is. That same invitation is directed to us. We, too, are invited to open ourselves to the presence of Jesus in our midst; to encounter Jesus present in everyone with whom we engage each day. We have just celebrated the birth of Jesus as one of us, as one in whom God has taken on our humanity in all its messiness, failure and disappointment. But in Jesus we can also learn how to manage our lives with compassion, graciousness, generosity and love.
We also know that we do not always measure up as encouragers to those around us who are searching. And it’s not out of malice that we fail. All too often we are slow to reveal to others our deeper, richer selves, simply because we are reluctant to acknowledge our own goodness and worth. We sell ourselves short because we don’t appreciate ourselves as known to and loved by Jesus. It is important for us to accept that we, like Andrew, have a mission to proclaim Jesus by the way we live and act. Today’s gospel reading makes it clear that it was only through Andrew that Simon came to encounter Jesus, and that it was only through the Baptist that Andrew himself found his way to Jesus. Our role is to be Andrew and the Baptist for others.
Finally, let’s not forget that, in our Christian tradition, searching is a two-way-street. However intense may be our personal searching for truth, for meaning, for God, let’s remember that God is always searching to find a way into our lives. God persisted with young Samuel. We can we sure that God will be equally persistent with us, too. Eloquent testimony to that can be found in Francis Thompson’s poem The Hound of Heaven. (It’s readily available in full on “Professor Google”.)
“Nations will be drawn to your light, and kings to the dawning of your new day.” Isaiah 60, 1-6
Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying: “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We have seen his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” Matthew 2, 1-12
In his book Table Talk: Beginning the Conversation on the Gospel of Matthew (New City Press, N.Y. 2009), Jay Cormier describes the response of the members of a parish community after their church was destroyed by fire. He writes:
“As soon as the fire marshal gave the all-clear, the devastated pastor and parishioners combed the rubble to salvage the few things they could. Then interesting things began to happen. A nearby church - a congregation that the displaced congregation had little to do with before - offered them the use of their religious education building for services and meetings for as long as they needed it. Churches from nearby towns offered hymnals and other supplies; several churches took up a special collection for the congregation.
At the first service following the fire, the members of the congregation, who were used to sitting in their “own” places at a comfortable distance from one another, found themselves sitting side-by-side on folding chairs. After the service, teams started to form to deal with insurance, organize temporary arrangements for parish programs and religious education, and sketch out preliminary plans for a new church…Parishioners who knew one another only by name, who, until then, had exchanged only pleasant but perfunctory hellos on Sundays, were now working together to rebuild not just their beautiful building but the community they had taken for granted. And in the grief and loss they felt that Sunday morning they prayed and sang in a way few had ever experienced before. In the new journey they had begun as a church, they had rediscovered the God within them.”
The members of that small community had experienced an “epiphany” - the manifestation or appearance of the holy within and among them.
Today’s gospel presents the story of how a group of sages or astrologers from the east embarked on a long and risky journey in search of an unknown, newborn king, with the light of a mysterious star to guide them. Matthew is the only Gospel-writer to include this story, and it’s a story that has attracted many additions since Matthew’s time. Note that he doesn’t call the visitors “kings”, he does not record how many there were and he doesn’t give them names. By telling the story the way he does, Matthew offers his audience a preview of what is to come in his Gospel: Different people will have different reactions to the birth of Jesus. Those reactions parallel the later reactions to Jesus and what he taught in the course of his ministry.
The sages from the east did not arrive unnoticed. They were clearly a topic of conversation. Matthew tells us that when they announced the reason for their coming, “Herod was perturbed, and so was the whole of Jerusalem.” Herod’s reaction was to call in the chief priests and scribes for more information. Their response was what one might expect from totally disinterested bystanders. Without the slightest show of emotion, they identified Bethlehem as the place where the Messiah was to be born, and quoted from the prophet Micah to substantiate what they said. Yet, despite their pretended indifference, these religious leaders must have been taken aback by a group of exotic magicians, carrying horoscopes and gifts of aromatic spices.
Herod, on the other hand, called in these sages for close interrogation, specifying the questions to which he wanted answers. Warned in a dream to steer clear of Herod, they took a different road out of town. Herod’s feigned interest in wanting to worship this infant king heralded by the magi quickly evaporated. The credibility of the magi triggered his insecurity, which, in turn, fuelled his fury, which led to the irrationality of mass infanticide. Herod is testimony to the fact that even tyrants who behave like fools can be frighteningly dangerous.
In marked contrast to Herod and the Jewish religious leaders, the magi, who would have been seen as non-believers in the eyes of every true Israelite, came with open hearts and minds, ready to welcome whatever would be revealed to them. Theirs was a journey of faith, a search for the things of God. In that respect, their searching mirrors our life-long journeying to find and embrace the justice, peace, generosity and compassion that Jesus ushered into our world. Epiphany is an invitation to all of us to welcome into our lives Emmanuel, God-with-us, whose light helps us to see the presence of God in our midst, to recognise the God who is ever present, but not always apparent.
I offer a final comment on this wonderful magi story from that great scripture scholar, Raymond Brown. He notes how Christians, over the years, have set their imaginations to work on Matthew’s original story. Even now, children shape it in their own way to make it meaningful. One small boy from England recently volunteered: “The three wise men brought Jesus some gold stuff, but Legos would have been better.” In his book, The Birth of the Messiah, Brown comments that Matthew would have been thrilled with the way we Christians have coloured his magi story with the crayons of our imagination. The exotic details which Matthew provided invite us to imagine the unimaginable: that God has turned the face of welcome and mercy to every people and nation on earth; that magi from the East, hippies from San Francisco and mountain dwellers from Bolivia can all find their way to God. This story of the magi opens for us all the story of Jesus, Emmanuel, coming to live as one of us, assuring us that there is a place for all of us in his circle, whether we come from near or far, from a recognized faith or no faith at all. It was no wonder that Herod and all of Jerusalem were set on edge when the magi turned up from nowhere asking for the king of the Jews. Yet, despite his ambitions, Herod had no control over who would get access to the king the magi had come to find. Just a week ago, children across the globe dressed up in bathrobes and cardboard crowns, and made their way down church aisles, imagining that they had an integral role in the great event of Christmas. They were surely onto something that many of us still have to learn.
The Holy Family
“This child is chosen by God for the destruction and the salvation of many in Israel. He will be a sign from God which many people will speak against… ‘Did you not know I must be about my Father’s business?’” Luke 2, 22-52
(Please note that in some places today’s gospel reading is Luke 2, 22-40)
Bringing up a child presents all parents with a succession of challenges. We know from our observations that most children adopt their parents’ values and attitudes, at least until they reach adolescence. They often pick up their parents’ mannerisms and style of relating and communicating. They even mirror their parents’ prejudices, ambitions and political views. In their infancy, children learn to trust, to love and to depend, through being touched, held in warm embrace and fed and bathed regularly.
Adolescence is often a time characterized by rebellion, petulance and emotional unpredictability. It can also be a time when young people, in their quest for independence, take risks, branch out on their own and express their initiative in creative and healthy ways.
Today’s gospel tells us something about the way in which Jesus grew and developed in a small family that belonged to a tightly ordered society. We are told, too, that his religiously observant parents took him as a child to the temple in Jerusalem, where they fulfilled “all that was required by the Law of the Lord.” They might well have had second thoughts had they known in advance the reception they would get from Simeon and Anna - two energetically devout, elderly people, symbols of those ever-faithful women and men who are the pillars of our churches today. Mary and Joseph could not have imagined that their son, whom they were consecrating to God, would one day return and, in a fit of anger, overturn the tables of the money-changers and the precincts of that same temple. Surely they would have been embarrassed to think that he would have heated debates with their religious leaders, would disrespect their laws and even encourage his disciples to do likewise. Yet it was at things like this that Simeon was hinting when he foretold that the child Jesus would create division and was “destined to be a sign that is rejected”.
There is no evidence in scripture to allow us to conclude that the seeds of Jesus’ thinking, feeling and acting in his adult life were sown by Joseph and Mary. However, the values of prayerfulness, honesty and integrity that he grew to espouse are values that every parent works to instill in their children. As children mature, we come to learn that many of them are full of surprises. They take new directions and make life choices that go beyond everything their parents ever dreamed of. Jesus was clearly in that category. But he surely learned from his parents that centring one’s life on God is indispensible. He learned their values, yet found his own way of giving practical expressioin to those values.
The incident of Jesus, in his early adolescence, confounding the teachers in the temple, identifies him as being something of a child prodigy. That’s a theme that has been part of stories and legends across generations. Stories in which children outsmart learned and powerful adults appeal to the child in most of us. In our childhood, we all enjoyed the repetition of the English fairy-tale, Jack and the Beanstalk, in which Jack gets the better of the giant, claims the giant’s treasure, and saves his widowed mother from destitution. Hansel and Gretel trick the wicked witch, Red Riding Hood finally outsmarts the wolf, and, in the Book of Samuel, we learn how David, in his youth, prevailed over the might of the Philistines by bringing down Goliath with a stone and a slingshot.
Today’s gospel reading describes how Jesus, a youngster from an obscure village, with no formal education, confounds the elite teachers in the temple. It is a story to assure us that no matter how humble our origins, how insignificant our resources, how low our social status, we all have human dignity and the assurance that God is with us. As a consequence, we are encouraged to settle for nothing less. All too often, we can slip into being hesitant, insecure and fearful because we convince ourselves that our gifts might make us stand out from the crowd, if we express them fully. In her book A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles, Marianne Williamson comments on that tendency, to which we are all prone:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” (Published by HarperOne, 1996)
Do we ever stop to think that Jesus got it right when he said to his parents: “Didn’t you realise that I must be about my Father’s business?” As an adolescent, he had already come to appreciate that God’s business is about reaching out to the needy, promoting peace and justice, forgiving those who have offended us, treating with respect and dignity everyone we encounter in our day-to-day lives. St Irenaeus reminded us that: “The glory of God is men and women fully alive.” Are we courageous enough to shine the glory of God on our world?
So, today’s stories of Simeon’s understanding of how Jesus’ life could unfold and of Jesus startling the most learned scholars of the Jewish Law are invitations to us to remind ourselves of what it means to live as sons and daughters of God. They are invitations to let our light shine at its best and brightest.
Christmas: The Birth of Jesus
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home, for it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” Luke 2, 15-20
“For today in the city of David a saviour has been born to you, who is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2, 1-14
“Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” Luke 2, 15-20
“And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us…” John 1, 1-18
We are all well aware of how every culture creates stories to explain very important events and to commemorate very significant people. All the Gospel writers did that very thing to tell the story of Jesus and the extraordinary circumstances of his conception and birth. Matthew introduced his story by giving us the genealogy or family tree of Jesus. While there is considerable doubt about its historical accuracy, Jesus’ genealogy is Matthew’s way of saying that Jesus’ birth was always in the mind of the God who created a world that would come to know true justice and peace. Matthew proceeded to give his version of how Jesus came to be born. Joseph has a central role in Matthew’s telling of the story.
Luke’s version of the same story puts the spotlight on Mary. He places Jesus’ birth squarely in the reign of the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, who was described in many Greek inscriptions as a god and saviour. Luke is at pains to point out that, during the reign of Augustus - an era often referred to as the pax romana, a time when peace prevailed throughout the entire Roman Empire, Jesus, the Messiah and Christ of God, the true Saviour of the world was born. Luke also notes that the announcement of Jesus’ birth was made first to shepherds, who were regarded as the dregs of Jewish society. This introduces a theme that runs throughout Luke’s Gospel: that God’s preference is for the poor and marginalized, and it was they who were the first to heed the message of Jesus and walk in his footsteps. Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus herald’s the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah, the Prince of Peace and Saviour of the world. Matthew announces that Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled - a prophecy that a virgin will conceive and give birth to a son who is a descendant of David. Moreover that child is Emmanuel, God-with-us.
Matthew and Luke provide the gospel passages that are proclaimed at the vigil, midnight and dawn Masses of Christmas. The gospel proclaimed on Christmas Day itself is taken from John, who announces that Jesus is the Word of God who ushers in a new creation, is the light that shines in the darkness, is God’s love personified and dwelling among us in human flesh. John’s language is not the concrete language of narrative and story-telling. It is the philosophical and theological language of concept and logical explanation.
Matthew and Luke give us stories peopled with shepherds, angels, magi and unwelcoming inn-keepers. John gives us abstract, theological explanation. And ever since then, almost every known culture has added its own stories and legends to illustrate how the birth of Jesus has impacted on our world and its peoples, and how love is the key to unlocking everything that prevents them from being their true selves. The Russian story of Babushka is one example:
Grandmother Babushka was about to retire for the night when there was a knock at her door. It was the Magi, who told her excitedly about the King born in Bethlehem. They urged her to go with them to honour him. She peeped out of her door at the fierce wind and snow, looked back at her warm bed, hesitated and said: “I will visit the Christ Child - tomorrow.” No sooner was she in bed than there was another knock at her door. This time it was the shepherds urging her to join them, but if not, at least to give them a basket of sweets to take to the Christ Child. Once again, she looked at the weather, back again at her bed, hesitated, and finally replied: “I’ll bring them myself - tomorrow.” The next day, Babushka was as good as her word. She packed some food and headed for Bethlehem. When she got there the stable was empty. Crestfallen, but determined, she started searching. And she searched for the rest of her life. On her endless journey, she encountered children everywhere she went. She came across many a manger and many a cradle, and found many mothers nursing their babies. She left gifts for every baby she met, hoping that one of them was the Christ Child. Eventually, she could go on no longer, and, near death, lay down to die. As she was dying, the Christ Child appeared to her, wearing the face of every child she had ever visited. And so, she died happily, knowing that, despite her first hesitation, she had encountered the Christ Child, not in the manger where she had expected him, but in every one of the poor children she had visited.
The Christ Child does not come to us alone. He has strange friends and hangers-on. He even has causes to embrace and things to be done. Despite all his love for us, he is uneasy if we fail to embrace all his friends and projects. When he grew up, he took a lot of people to heart, and suffered because of his love for them. He took them to heart in their pettiness, their brokenness and their isolation. Sometimes his heart looked more like a hospital emergency room than a treasure house. Without a doubt, his mother had taught him a thing or two along the way.
Christmas is a time for treasuring. Sometimes we get it back the front. We give gifts, not always as a sign that we treasure those to whom we give them, but as an alternative to letting them into our lives. If we dare to look around us, we will see others who reach out in welcome to street people and shut-ins, to the lonely and isolated, to sick children and to elderly people who are forgotten. Christmas is a time when these generous people shine, when they succeed where the stingy inn-keepers of our world are found wanting. Somehow, they have caught the spirit of God’s kindness and love. Unlike Santa, God does not ask if we have been good boys and girls. The true spirit of Christmas takes the risk of love - just as Mary did. When we come to realize this, we may well feel humbled. We may even doubt our capacity for generosity, for making a treasure room out of our barren stables. The answer for us is born today.