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  • Profession of Br. John Paul Oluoch

    On 7th December, Br John Paul Oluoch made his perpetual profession at St Michael Parish Read More
  • Fifth Orientation Programme

    Now that the fourth Orientation Programme is finished in Nairobi, Kenya,Brothers are being advised about Read More
  • Mission Frère in North America

    The Congregation’s path to renewal and transformation, Our Way into the Future, challenges us to Read More
  • First Thirty Years in East Africa

    The members of the East Africa District spent the Easter Triduum in their annual assembly, Read More
  • Zambia Novitiate 2018

    The 23rd of February, 2018 saw the initiation ritual of eight fine young men who Read More
  • Postulants in Arusha, Tanzania

    The six new Postulants in Arusha, Tanzania, send the following brief information about themselves: Isaac Read More
  • First Profession in Lusaka, Zambia

    On Saturday, November 25th, seven young men from Kenya and Zambia made their First Profession Read More
  • EREBB Leadership Certificate

    The EREBB Leadership Certificate is an international online course developed by Edmund Rice Education Beyond Read More
  • Update from the Cluster in Zambia

    A fresh influx of new members has just joined the Cluster in Western Province Zambia Read More
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Profession of Br. John Paul Oluoch

On 7th December, Br John Paul Oluoch made his perpetual profession at St Michael Parish in Langata, Nairobi, in a beautiful and well attended ceremony.

In attendance were the Brothers of the District, the parents and relatives of Br John Paul, the parishioners of St Michael Parish who included our Edmund Rice Karibu Youth, and a number of religious men and women.

From Tanzania there were representatives of our friends and co-workers who came to celebrate the occasion and showed their support and encouragement to John Paul.

Br Michael De Klerk, the Africa Province Leader received the vows in the name of the Congregation.

After the liturgy of the profession at St Michael’s Parish, all those who attended the ceremony were invited to Mary Rice Centre where the reception took place. There was much joy and jubilation as family, brothers and friends celebrated the occasion and congratulated John Paul.

A number of our youth showcased their talents through dance and singing. When all was done at the Mary Rice Centre, a celebration moved to the Otiende community where the open gates of the Brothers house brought in many guests than was earlier anticipated.

Even though we run out of ugali due to its high demand, there was still plenty of meat and drinks to share and all had a great day.

HOMILY FOR THE PERPETUAL PROFESSION OF BR JOHN PAUL OLUOCH by Br. George Massay

JEREMIAH 1:4-10; PHILIPPIANS 3:7-14; LUKE 5: 1-11

The readings we have just heard have a common theme: A call, a vocation. The reading from the Prophet Jeremiah speaks of God’s choice of Jeremiah, even before he was born. The text speaks of God’s intimate knowledge of Jeremiah. Did you hear the beautiful dialogue that happens between Jeremiah and God –we hear of God’s plan for Jeremiah and Jeremiah’s self-doubt and even fear to respond to that call. But then, after that beautiful dialogue, God gifts Jeremiah with the words he is to speak and sends him off as a prophet. It seems to me that what happened to Jeremiah can be summed in these words: Called, Gifted, and Sent.

I am sure Christian Brothers who are listening can recognize those words. They are well spelt out in our Constitutions. (Constitutions 1,3 & 5) We are all called, gifted, and sent. First and foremost through our baptism and then through our particular, unique, individual vocation. Our deepest and most fundamental call is accomplishing God’s purpose of creating us. This is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us: God who created man out of love also calls him to love – the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being. For man is created in the image and likeness of God who is himself love. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1604)

In other words, God creates us for no other reason than that God loves us and seeks our good. At the same time, because we are created in God’s image, we are programmed, wired, and designed for the purpose of loving as God loves. This means that our task in this life is to seek the face of the beloved so that we can love and be loved.

This vocation of love takes us beyond ourselves. In each one of us there is a longing to be united by something that or someone who is more than us. In some spiritual or theological terms that “more” word is often referred to as the Transcendent. The transcendent vocation of every person.

Recently canonized Saint Oscar Romero once wrote that “no one of us is able to define our nature or our relation with our Creator, not even the atheist who claims not to believe in God. Even if people protest against God, they are always transcendently related to God. Even unbelievers must always in the end repeat the words of Saint Augustine, that great humanist who also walked along paths of unbelief but could not be happy until he exclaimed, ‘You made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.’ Only God can be the center of gravity in whom we find rest, as when a stone has fallen into the abyss, as when Christ has ascended toward God.”

The readings we have just heard speak to us, because of the love that is stirring in us to re-connect with something beyond ourselves. I dare say, too, that Brother John Paul is making his final vows today because there is something that is stirring within him that leads him to make this lifetime commitment of himself; a choice that might not make a great deal of sense to many. It is absurd in today’s world where all we are told is that you are better when you have this and are able to attain that or when you are identified with a well-known so-and-so of this world. That one might choose - and Brother John Paul does today - to commit one’s whole life to the gospel values of poverty, chastity, and obedience only make sense if our eyes gaze beyond what we are witnessing here in this world to a love beyond us, to a love that
cannot be satisfied until it is satisfied in God.

John Paul, making these vows today is your response to this divine invitation to love. You are choosing to commit your life to a wholehearted, no-holds-barred, loving relationship with God. By making vows you are saying to us that God is sufficient for you. During Kenya election periods we always hear, this one tosha, or that one tosha, but you are saying: Mungu tosha. Yesu tosha.

Servant of God Father Pedro Arrupe, a former Jesuit Superior General, once reflected:

"Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”

So - if you are in love with God, whom do you know? What gets you out of bed in the morning? What breaks your heart? What amazes you? The Catholic English writer G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) wrote a letter to his future wife, Frances Blogg, in which he set forth his proposal of marriage. In the course of this letter he expressed many things leading up to the actual proposal. At the very end of the letter he proposed - which I summarize as follows:

All my prior loves have been a preparation for loving you. Now my former life comes to an end because it has led me to you. Take my life for my search for love has brought me to you. Are these thoughts or resolutions, in John Paul’s mind when he chose the second reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians? Saint Paul who, up until his encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus, had an illustrious past as a Hebrew, a Pharisee, a zealous follower of the law.

After his encounter with Jesus everything changes. He gets a new focus, a new love, a desire for a new knowledge which he says far outweighs anything he ever was and ever wanted to be. By professing his final vows today, Brother John Paul is responding to God’s invitation by entering into a covenant of love for the rest of his life, just as Chesterton proclaims to his bride “take my life for my search for love has brought me to you.”

John Paul, by making these vows, you are not, as it were, ontologically changed. You are not receiving a new rank. You are choosing, rather, to be a brother for the rest of your life. You are committing yourself to a lifestyle, to a style of relating that Christ intended for his followers. Jesus said “As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’. You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.” (Mathew 23:8) Brotherhood — and sisterhood - is a stance in life that gives life to others especially those who are poor and neglected. Simply put, it is about the quality of relationship.

If you have not been a brother before you made your first vows, or through your vowed life, you won't be one tomorrow. Through perpetual profession you are consecrated to God to live a life worthy of your vocation. You are set aside for God's purpose. Recently a bishop preaching during the perpetual profession of a group of sisters reminded them that they are made holy for God. They are like altars upon which the sacrifice is offered. Through consecration, John Paul, you are allowing yourself to become Eucharist, broken and shared for others. This might sound like a lofty idea, not something close to the ground, but if you look at our Congregation’s logo, that is actually what it symbolizes. The wheat symbolizes the Eucharistic life we are called to live.

In today’s gospel, Jesus encounters Simon, who was carrying on his regular activity of fishing. After that encounter Simon’s focus in life is changed. Despite a successful catch of fish, Simon is not going to the market to sell them, but instead “left everything and followed him.” (Verse 11)

John Paul has a particular affinity with water. I remember visiting his family home, I think in the year 2006. The family home is very close to Lake Victoria. His love and familiarity with life around the lake moved him to choose this gospel reading from Luke.

It is worth noting here that the gospel reading proclaimed today was used when Brother John Paul was received as a postulant in the year 2007. It is 11 years from that day. Quite a reasonable amount of time for John Paul to know what it is that he is committing himself to. I was a formation team member back in 2007 and I recall that before the arrival of the postulants, we placed on their room doors images of a boat inviting them to sail into the deep, to take a risk.

Eleven years ago Brother John Paul took that risk, and he continues to risk everything for the sake of the Gospel and in expressing today his lifelong commitment as a Christian Brother. I think John Paul has reached a mature decision to say “YES” for the rest of his life. This “YES,” even though final, will require daily commitments, and regular renewal, remembering that first attraction and invitation from the God who has called you from your youth.

Chapter - Lima 2020

Lima, Peru, has been chosen as the location for the month-long Congregation Chapter to be held in March 2020.

Further information will be appear here as it becomes available.

31.10.2018 Generative Conversations

In a letter to all Brothers on October 31st, 2018 the CLT wrote:

"It is the CLG’s belief that the flame of our brotherhood will be reignited only if we engage more with one another in intimate, honest conversations around questions and issues significant to our lives. 

From our experience, we believe that, as Brothers, we must make time and opportunity to sit down and talk with one another from the heart.  If we are going to co-create a future, the CLG considers it is vital that we engage with one another in a process that is called “Generative Conversations".

... The choice of a Generative Conversations approach was made at the CLG meeting when we saw anew that any sharing not from our hearts would not bring about the transformation we desire.  We sense a strong call from the Spirit to speak deeply to each other in this period of our Congregation history.

... Generative conversations are probably not as simple as they sound. We on the CLT have been working at them ourselves, and have found it helpful to have the assistance of a facilitator. That is something for your consideration.

... In addition, you will receive from your local Leadership Team guidelines to assist in understanding and engaging in generative conversations with one another in community and in clusters, wherever practicable. This has already happened in some Provinces. This conversation could include the involvement of women and men who are associates and supporters of the Brothers in various parts of the Congregation.

... Essential to the success of generative conversations is a readiness to speak the truth in love to one another, mindful that what we each see as truth might be different, based on our personality, perception and life experience.

... Similarly, it is important to create safe spaces, in which participants know that what they say will be listened to, respected and treated with confidentiality. The sharing of what is personal is often risky, because it exposes our vulnerabilities. It is likewise important to give full attention to each speaker in a group, mindful that feelings are often communicated with non-verbal gestures and reactions.  These, too, need our attention and response."

Stories of Change in the Western Province of Zambia

This is an occasional series of brief articles that hope to answer the questions: What are you doing out there? and Is it working?

To the average stranger, met in a crushed minibus-taxi or in a queue in the bank, who asks, ‘And what are you doing here?’ an answer such as: "Oh, we’re reducing vulnerabilities and improving livelihoods" may produce, at the best, a glassy stare, even allowing for confusions of language and accent.

It’s the sort of question that ignites a wide range of self-questions: Are we missionaries? No. Are we a foreign NGO? No. Are we church workers? Yes and no.

Thankfully, we have had a year’s preparation for such questions, and can answer: "We’re a community of Christian Brothers, living in Limulunga, hoping to engage the local community on issues such as poverty, human rights, and environmental damage." That may not capture all the nuances of the original Proposition (of 26 principles) that launched this venture for the Brothers, nor the Vision and Mission statements each community reviews and revises each year, but it’s a basis for further conversation.

Within this context of community engagement, we are not the only people to answer the question posed by our average stranger. We Brothers are in an ongoing process of dialogue with many groups within our respective regions (Limulunga, Luampa, Mongu, and Senanga) and it is they, the local people, who ultimately decide what we do and whether it is working.

The stories that follow come from the Brothers, and our colleagues, on what we call our local project teams. But the stories belong to a much wider group, as they are stories of change. Whether it is of climate change, or structural change, or cultural change, or personal change, many others are involved. In the jargon of community engagement, they are all called ‘stakeholders’.

Others are free to make judgements of success or failure. Our job is to offer the stories.

Note on Privacy
Real names of participants in the stories are only used when permission has been given by the individual concerned. Otherwise, typical local names are used, but we try to avoid using a name from another participant in a project. We apologise if this leads to confusion with someone else having the name we have used.

Some of the stories have conflated details from two or more incidents, or two or more participants, partly to describe more of the local reality, and partly to avoid too ready identification of the participants concerned.


Where Chickens Can Help

In the great sweep of history, a family moving from a small rural village out on the broad flood plain of the Zambezi River to the town of Senanga on a main road, linked to the rest of Zambia, is a small event. But historians see the pattern – the move replaces the poverty of distance with the poverty of no income. Sam’s family made this move when Sam was ten. For Sam, the greatest learning was that his family was suddenly poor, in the midst of the wealth on exhibition in Senanga.

The Christian Brothers arrived in Senanga about the same time as Sam did. Trained in social analysis and community engagement, thanks to the generous funding of donors in Ireland, through Misean Cara, and Australia, through Edmund Rice Foundation Australia, the Brothers saw the pattern before Sam did. Senanga had thousands of families who were making the same move, from self-sufficient small farms that were too isolated from services, to living in shacks, close to services, but unable to pay for them. One form of poverty had been traded for another.

Sam left school too early, as his family was unable to pay the fees. But there was nothing to do, that didn’t involve trouble, and no work. Sam took a while to adjust to this, but he was watching his older brother, Godson. Godson had joined a programme the Brothers were running, and seemed a lot happier about life than Sam was feeling.
Based on funding from the donors, the Brothers were offering 65 young people they saw as ‘vulnerable’ in Senanga a chance to generate some income through growing vegetables and producing chickens. It takes place in two stages. As they learn the basic farming techniques and the necessary nutrition information to help their households, the young farmers grow food. But the surplus generated by their hard work can be sold, and the proceeds used to buy inputs for their own individual projects – either vegetables or broiler chickens. This is the second stage Godson is now involved in, and Sam is learning firsthand the work involved – and its rewards.

For Sam, it means his family are eating better food – and enjoying more frequent meals. He can still remember the early days in Senanga when they only ate once a day. He is slowly seeing how the chickens Godson has him attending are changing things. With each batch sold, his parents are feeling a bit more secure, and Godson is planning bigger things.

One of them concerns Sam. Godson thinks there will be enough money for school fees next year. Life has now changed complexion for Sam. As he cleans the feeders and drinkers for the chickens each day, he’s beginning to feel grateful for the role the chickens are playing in his future.


Alice, at 77

Alice, at 77, lives on her own, in a village that’s part of the sprawling town of Senanga, on the banks of the Zambezi River. Despite the beauty of the town, where the open woodlands of the sandy ridges meet the sweeping Barotse Plain, and the great Zambezi curves close to its eastern bank, Alice rarely sees it. She has been bed-ridden for the last twenty years.

Alice, is elderly, in poor health, and in pain. Under normal circumstances, a family would be around her, caring for her. Failing that, you would hope good neighbours would help her, or, failing that, a local religious group. As a last resort, there are government departments, including the offer of free health care, able to provide for people such as Alice. But some people slip through these support structures. If Alice can’t move, can’t leave her hut, can’t make contact with people, she may well be neglected.

There is a grandchild, Memory, who is still at school. Memory sleeps in a small hut near Alice and cares for her as best she can, when she is free to do so. But a child can only do so much. Other members of Alice’s family, who have mostly moved away from Senanga, are quarrelling over who should do the rest, with no clear programme of support emerging, and no money being spent on Alice.

Enter Josephine, a community-based home carer. Josephine, who comes from another village, 30 minutes walk away through the soft sand, volunteered for such work at the invitation of the Christian Brothers and their project team. The Brothers are funded to address local poverty in Senanga by generous donors in Ireland, through Misean Cara, and in Australia, through the Edmund Rice Foundation, Australia.

When Josephine entered Alice’s darkened hut, with its dry reed walls, badly needing repairs, and thatched roof, also beginning to disintegrate, she was shocked. The bed sores alone were vivid proof of Alice’s suffering. Josephine had been trained by the Brothers’ programme, along with 149 other home carers, and she knew what to look for and how to find out from Alice, gently, what the basic needs were. The next day, she had delivered her report to the project team, and they were making decisions about care for Alice.

Transport to the local health clinic and physical support for Alice, to help her through this visit, came first, after some initial cleaning and washing. There were medicines prescribed and a routine of further visits arranged. Memory, the grand-daughter, became part of this, of course. Josephine worked through how to get fresh water and basic foodstuffs into the house, some basic shopping and ongoing cleaning done.

Josephine and Alice both know that talking is important, and the comfort of a caring presence. Home carers have been given basic counselling skills by the programme to help them be better listeners and supportive facilitators, rather than moving too quickly to solving problems. Alice needs time to appreciate what changes Josephine and Memory are bringing into her life, and time for many wounds to heal. The move from solitude to regular contacts with caring people awakes many other issues for her.
The Community-based Home Care Programme, to give it its proper title, trains and supports Josephine in this critical work. The funding is essential to collect such a large group of volunteers and run three sets of training courses for them, in three needy areas in Senanga, and equip them to move out into homes such as Alice’s. They focus on widows and orphans, the sick and the elderly, and those living with disabilities. There is plenty of work for them all!

Even better, the Brothers have liaised successfully with the local health services and the home carers are now integrated into the government network of health care. This means they have professional supervision, ongoing training, and easier access for their clients to the health services they need. The government services, of course, also benefit. They have gained 150 willing volunteers who can extend health care into homes they simply don’t know about, can’t find, or have no time to visit.
Alice, at 77, probably will stay in her bed for the rest of her life. The difference is that her life is now immeasurably richer. Through Josephine’s first visit, as a home carer, Alice is receiving medical help, and the human contact that spells care and concern.

Lubasi Breaks the Downward Spiral

Lubasi turned up at the house of the Christian Brothers in Luampa, a small dusty village 18 kilometres of the main road linking Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, to Mongu, the capital of its poorest province. It was October, the peak of the dry season in the Western Province, and Lubasi had stayed sober all day, forcing himself to apply for a training programme the Brothers were said to be running for local youth.

Lubasi had left school before the Grade Nine exams, and had not found any permanent work since. He lived with his grandmother, as both his parents had died when he was in Grade Eight. She was impatient with him, for any money he made from piece work (clearing land, weeding, carrying goods) he wasted on drink, and he contributed very little to the household.

The Brothers, aided by a generous grant from Misean Cara, Ireland, and Edmund Rice Foundation Australia, were tackling poverty in Luampa by training local youth in income-generating skills, especially farming, and then helping to set them up as young farmers. For Lubasi, despite the damage of the intervening years, there was a faint hope he could join this scheme. He could remember helping his father to farm vegetables, before his father became too sick.

Thanks to his grandmother’s poverty, more than his own merits, Lubasi was accepted into the scheme. He joined another 34 youths who assembled three times a week at a block of land covered with rough scrub, on the banks of the Luampa River. Slowly, they cleared it and began the hard, hot work of building five fish ponds, four chicken sheds, and flat stretches for vegetable gardens. The funders provided the equipment, the Brothers the encouragement, and Lubasi the dedication, despite the taunts of some of his former drinking companions.

There were workshops too, on nutrition and farming skills, but in Bunda, his home language, not the dreaded English that had made his school lessons so hard to follow. Lubasi began to regain some confidence in his own abilities, and to see a different future – a way of making regular money. When the time came for decisions, he opted for growing vegetables – his father’s example now clearer in his mind.

Finally, months later, came the day the Brothers called ‘the distribution’. The funders ensured that Lubasi received the start of new life – fertiliser, gardening implements, pesticide, sprayer and watering can, and the all-important seeds. His grandmother gladly let him use some of the land she lived on.

Lubasi felt far stronger than on that day he had to force himself to stay sober to apply for the project. The drinking now seemed to him the waste of time it was. He sensed he had pulled out of some dangerous downward spiral, and that now he could contribute to the household, and plan for his own life as well.


Why Walk for Two Hours ?

Liswaniso often asked herself this question, as she trudged from her home in the village of Katondo to the secondary school in Luampa. Whatever answers she came up with, she kept trudging, through the long seven months of hot dry season, the brief two months of cold dry season, and the three months of hot rainy season.

Her friends who started with her, as young teenagers, dropped out, or got married, or became farmers. Liswaniso kept walking to school. But, as Year Twelve approached, her final year at school, she began to have serious doubts. Her family were still paying the school fees, but she knew her primary schooling in the village had left her with gaps in her learning – her written English came back scribbled over with corrections, and Maths still held troubling mysteries for her. The final exams confirmed her fears – her marks were poor, and all that walking seemed to have been an expensive waste of her life.

Could she repeat or ‘re-write’ as they say in Zambia? Her father said there was no money left for school fees. She knew even bright students were getting extra coaching, in Luampa, but she had no chance of paying for that. So, the day she saw a small poster, offering free tuition for senior students, changed everything for her.
The Christian Brothers had set up a community in Luampa, in 2016. Supported by Edmund Rice Foundation Australia and Misean Cara, based in Ireland, the Brothers were running projects to improve the livelihoods and opportunities for youth in Luampa and its surrounding villages. It was the Brothers who put up the poster that galvanised Liswaniso into action.

She enrolled in the tuition classes, and found a Brother who could assess what she’d missed out in her primary schooling and slowly begin to ‘fill the gaps’ in her learning. He took up the Science and Biology syllabus, using the topics there to develop her English expression, and every chance he could find to get her Mathematics right as well. For this, Liswaniso gladly walked the two hours in and two hours out, back to Katondo, for many more months.

A year later, she was in Luampa, walking through the school gates, in an emotional tangle. Around the notice board, where the Year Twelve exam results were displayed, she struggled through the noisy excited crowd to find out how she’d done. There it was: ‘Credit 5’ – in all three subjects, Biology, Science and Mathematics. With that pass, she could apply to Teacher’s College. And she did.

This year, Liswaniso is in Teacher’s College, in Mongu, some three hours drive away from Luampa. She’s studying to be a primary school teacher. And if some future student ever complains and asks her why they have to walk all the way to school, she’s more than happy to tell them why.


Namasiku’s Journey

Namasiku is used to walking through thick, soft sand. For the six years of her secondary schooling, she walked, with a few friends and her brother, two and half hours to the secondary school in Limulunga. Every afternoon, she walked home again, for two and half hours.

She was lucky she was on the morning shift, at school, which finishes at 1.30 pm. Otherwise, she’d be walking home in the dark, most nights. Her home has no electricity. She lives in Moombo, in rural western Zambia. Only 3.8% of rural Zambian households have electricity. No-one in Moombo is connected to the rare wobbling lines of poles carrying electricity that venture out from the town of Limulunga into the vast flood plains of the Zambezi River, lying to the west of the town.

Despite this, and the annual floods in March and April that drown the shortest routes to Limulunga, Namasiku graduated from Year Twelve last year. Her parents have grudgingly let her stay with a friend’s family in Limulunga this year, as she tries to find enough piece work to earn the precious money she needs for the fees at the teacher’s college, where she hopes to start training as a pre-school teacher next year.

She has joined a drama group, called Kozo (‘peace’ in the local Lozi language), through contacts with school friends. They sometimes get work, earning 80 Kwacha (about 7 Euros) a performance. This year, they were invited by the Limulunga Christian Brothers Project Team to stage some ‘street theatre’ in the local Health Clinic, which most people in Limulunga simply call ‘the hospital’. The Kozo group staged a dramatic performance outside the clinic, on a gently sloping patch of sand, for the benefit of the women and their babies who were in the usual queue on Fridays for the ‘Under Five Clinic’.

After drumming and dancing to summon a crowd and attract attention, the group of eight young women swiftly spin a tale of tragedy and violence. A twelve-year old girl, rejoicing that she has just passed her exams, is told by her father she is to leave school and get married, as they can’t afford any more school fees. Her mother protests and is attacked. Relatives and neighbours rush in and a noisy debate breaks out. The local primary school teacher is summoned … the play abruptly stops. Namasiku confidently walks out onto the sand and asks the watching crowd, by now some forty or fifty strong, how this play should end.

There are plenty of suggestions, as onlookers call out comments and throw in remarks. Namasiku fields them all, cleverly turning comments into further questions, to stimulate and spark responses. Not only the young mothers and their babies are involved, but people from other queues (the outpatients, the AIDS clinic, the Family Planning office) and staff members have wandered over and joined in. The issues are real – everyone has younger sisters or nieces or grand-daughters.

After ten or fifteen minutes of animated discussion, Namasiku steps aside and two local women, also working with the Christian Brothers Limulunga Project Team and sponsored by Misean Cara, an Irish faith-based funding body, take over. They have been trained in facilitating such discussions. They urge the crowd to consider the impact of Child Marriage, why it is so common in Limulunga, where nearly 50% of first-born babies are born to women under eighteen, and what can be done to reduce it.
Part of Namasiku’s journey to date has been overshadowed by plans and pressure to have her marry. There is no money at home for school fees or further education. She was lucky enough to have been selected for a bursary, by the local Department of Social Welfare, though both her parents needed convincing this wasn’t a waste of time and money. Many of her school friends, especially those who barely finished their primary schooling, are already married and looking after babies. They put a lot of pressure on her to do the same. What else is there to do in Moombo? No money, no training, no jobs. A few have already been abandoned by their partners, and are back with their parents, adding to the strain of households grappling with hardship on a daily basis.

After the event, over refreshments, Namasiku is invited by the project team to join a few other young women, confident and articulate, to take a further step on her journey. Would she like to take the suggestions that came forward this morning to the District Commissioner? Namasiku has only a vague idea of who the District Commissioner is and what he or she does. She gathers he is an important person who might make decisions that could make things easier for her younger sister, now ten, to avoid the pressures to marry too early. Namasiku says yes, she’ll join the group. Now, the project team, says, what do you want to say to the District Commissioner?

Three School Friends

Precious, Mwansa and Christine have been friends from their earliest school days. They grew up close to each other, in a cluster of mud huts with thatched roofs, on the vast sand bank across which the village of Limulunga sprawls. They trudged to primary school together through the thick soft sand that forms the paths and roads in Limulunga. In time, they were all at secondary school together, moving towards their Grade Nine exams.

Then things became more complicated. Between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, all three became pregnant and left school, to care for their babies. They still lived close to each other, in their family homes, and shared the changes that had come on them, as they took up the roles of mothers and adult family members. Money was always scarce, and they had to juggle whatever cash-producing work they found with childcare and family work.

They joined the Health and Wellbeing Project, jointly funded by Edmund Rice Foundation Australia (ERFA) and Misean Cara (Ireland) in 2017. By October they had finished the training on health, hygiene, nutrition, and vegetable-growing for better nutrition – as had their babies, who went with them everywhere, carried on their backs. Then, along with the other 107 participants in the project (mostly young women, like them), they were all issued with seeds, watering cans, a sprayer, and two types of fertiliser.

Christine, whose family had experience with farming vegetables, asked for seven packets of seeds – cabbage, Chinese cabbage, rape (kale), impwa (a type of eggplant), eggplant, tomato and carrot. Precious and Mwansa, with less experience, were less self-confident. Precious opted for Chinese cabbage, rape, impwa, eggplant and carrot, and Mwansa for cabbage, Chinese cabbage (just called ‘Chinese’ by locals), rape, spinach and tomato. All of them chose rape as it one of the most popular local crops, but not always for sale at the market –and sometimes too expensive, depending on the season. ‘Chinese’ on the other hand, though very popular, is not so readily available.

The good news was that all these vegetables were guaranteed to be ‘nutrient–dense’ (high in minerals and vitamins), in the language of the trainers, so the young women were hoping their families would enjoy a healthier diet – if the crops came up. The bad news was that October is the peak of the dry season in the Western Province of Zambia, with no real rain since the previous April, and maybe two more months before the rains would fall again (late November or December).

The other bad news was that their homes were on the sands of Limulunga, not down on the plains (the floodplain of the Zambezi River) just to west of Limulunga. Many of the local families had land down on the plains, where the soil is a rich loam and there is plentiful water, even in the dry season. The sands are dry, acidic, and very low in soil nutrients. So, Precious, Mwansa and Christine faced a few challenges even before they began building the nurseries for their seedlings.

But build they did, as they had been trained. Rickety structures, sourced from local materials (mostly household junk), with old mosquito netting or plastic sheets strung on wooden posts, with some form of roofing. Into these went the precious seeds (or some of them. All three had the foresight to save some!) and the routine of watering and weeding began, on top of the other household chores, and any work away from home they could find. Their babies, on their backs, were part of everything.

What happened? When the project team had finished their monitoring visits, two of the young women (Mwansa and Christine) had successfully raised the vegetables of their choice. Precious had had to start all over again, when the local village chickens broke through her defences and ravaged her first beds of seedlings. Then she lost the second set of seedlings to ‘the water problem’ – which was really a poverty problem. The local man who sold the water (from the tap on his block) wanted to charge her more for the extra water (another 20-litre jerry can) for her vegetables. And she had no more cash, for that extra expense.

But Precious still has four kinds of seeds left over. She is determined, once the rainy season is over, to start again and, this time, try improving the soil with the composting methods she had been shown on the course. Mwansa’s family had their own borehole, so they got to eat an improved diet, thanks to that water source. She also has kept some seeds for future planting, so that promises the vegetable farm may become sustainable.

Christine went one better. The family ate healthier foods, and she was able to sell surplus vegetables (mainly tomatoes) at the market, to bring home some much needed cash (which, amongst other things, means she can buy more seeds). Right across the Western Province, tomatoes are the basis of the sauce (busonso) that is served with the staple maize flour (cooked as buhobe). Christine was also able to enrich her sandy soil with compost, as she had learnt at the training, and that helped produce such a fine crop of tomatoes.

A final note: Mwansa is now back at school, studying in Year Eleven. That may not be directly due to a nutrient-dense diet, but it does reveal the resilience and drive in a young person to achieve her goals.

Lines from Limulunga by Moy Hitchen

September 28, 2018
DSCN0090Marking a field in the sand – use rice husks!
Greetings from the thick hot sands of Limulunga. The equinox reminds us the year is turning, though the rains still seem a distant promise – perhaps in December? But change is part of our definition here in the western province, and we held a braai (barbeque) for the next six Brothers leaving us, by December 2018, on a balmy equinoctial night (September 22). In fact, two came back from their studies (in Kabwe, Zambia) to be officially farewelled!

John Holden, at the Hub, ran a beautiful ritual, and each of the six spoke of what his life in the ‘western cluster’ had meant to him. The most frequent word heard? ‘Thanks’ or ‘grateful’. This was the generation thrown in at the deep end, when the promise of twenty or more older Brothers volunteering for Journeying Together evaporated. They came straight from novitiate, most of them, and took up a new spirituality, a new way of being community, and a new way of doing ministry – in their stride! It is an extraordinary accomplishment.

The new ‘braai area’ at the Hub is a wonderful place for such gatherings. Michael Godfrey’s artistic landscaping, the waxing moon overhead, the Hub community’s culinary skills, the welcoming cluster of seats, all make for a warm hospitable night.

It also served as a backdrop for a second gathering that week. The religious men of the diocese (all 11 communities – Capuchins, Christian Brothers, Oblates, and Missionaries of Africa) have re-formed themselves into an association. We met to socialise first, around the braai, and then spent a morning dreaming, scheming and planning what we would like to achieve as a group. Stay tuned!

September 27, 2018
DSCN0220Some of our Project Team in their new T-shirts – (bk) Mwenda, Victor, Ngela, Edward; (fr) Grace, Kelvin, Dominic.
Greetings from Limulunga, where some trees have dropped their leaves, for the dry season, and others are putting out new growth, anticipating the rains – still two months away. September has seen us visiting the 70 households tackling hardships – mainly poverty, but including age, disability and being female-headed, as well.

We’ve seen their vegetable crops – those on the sand are struggling, in the heat, but those on the plains are thriving on the well-watered blacksoil. Several households are already eating their own produce (kale and Chinese cabbage are the quickest to grow), and some entrepreneurs are selling their surplus at the local markets. This means they can pay school fees for their grandchildren, buy needed supplies – and more seeds!

They are also building chicken houses for the ten or more chickens our funders (Edmund Rice Foundation Australia) will provide for those opting for ‘village chicken’ production. (A ‘village chicken’ is what others would call free range – very free, in some cases.) The tricky bit is how we will distribute the 680 month-old chickens. Probably, we’ll do this in batches, as their chicken houses get built.

With Dom Mwania leaving us so early, for holidays and then studies in Kenya, we held our Discernment Day for evaluation of our living our Brotherhood on September 17, at the Hub. All of us were assessed, annual or final vows notwithstanding! It was a day of honesty, sharing, affirming and challenging – and a long way from the old ‘scrutiny’ process.

September 26, 2018
DSCN0232Volleyball – on the sand (Limulunga Primary School)
Greetings from Limulunga, on the eastern edge of the great Zambezi flood plain, where the dry season is in full force, with daily temperatures in the mid to high 30s. This morning at 4.30 am, we farewelled Dom Mwania, as he heads back to Kenya for his long-awaited home leave (after three years in Limulunga) and then studies in Sustainable Development.

Dom is one of the pioneering group who left novitiate and founded a new way of being Brother, here in the hot sands of the western province of Zambia. Our current community engagement is based on their early years of contacting and building relationships with the local people. The farewells to Dom showed how much he had touched their hearts and inspired them. Edward, our last ‘pioneer’ will leave us, for studies in Nairobi, in December.

As one of this last duties, Dom chaired the Grand Final and Prize-giving for our third and last sports tournament, on September 16. The District Commissioner was our guest speaker, and he spoke well of the Brothers’ efforts to change the negative behaviours of some local youth.

But the team that stole the show were called Katondo. They won the ‘most disciplined team’ award (a full set of jerseys, thanks to our funder, Misean Cara, Ireland). They were the only team who had not picked up a yellow or red card! It was widely known they consisted of young men who had been hanging around the bars and pool tables at the noisy end of town. Yet, they had opted to play, trained seriously, and impressed all with their determination. They were a very popular choice for the award. For us, they symbolised the sort of behaviour change we have been hoping for.

August 5, 2018
DSCN0226Football on the sand – shoes optional

Greetings from Limulunga, where we seem to have skipped Spring and are facing our four hottest driest months (August – November), with the rains, we hope, to arrive in December. The mango and cashew trees that shade our Royal Village are in flower, and are literally humming with bees and flies, so that’s a promise of fruit in December too.

Last Tuesday saw us load our 70 brave householders (elderly, disabled and female-headed) with 10 kg of fertilisers, a watering can, a sprayer - and 3 packets of precious seeds. And off they went, trudging through the sand in little caravans, the women carrying the sacks on their head, with a child on their back, and their free hand clutching a watering can or an older child.

It all depends on the seeds – and a decent water supply. We’ll be visiting them soon to see how they are going. And then it will be time to distribute the chickens – maybe 600 of them? This will be fun.

Meanwhile, we’ve met with captains and coaches of sports teams interested in our third sports tournament. This one is funded by Misean Cara (based in Dublin), and we can thank them for the prizes and the refereeing gear. We expect to run six competitions (men and women’s football, men and women’s handball, netball and volley ball) – all on the thick bare sand, of course. The locals are very fit – they race around on sand for 90 minutes, if need be. The World Cup teams have it easy!

July 30, 2018

Greetings from Limulunga, where the cold dry season is yielding to the hot dry season. Almost all the rain falls in the four months between December and April, then we dry out – first, with cold winds from the south-east, then the heat returns.

We’ve now run three workshops for our 70 participants in the Households Tackling Hardships project, on vegetable farming, village chicken production, and fish farming. Tomorrow, the 60 who’ve opted for vegetable farming will receive their ‘inputs’ (seeds, fertiliser, watering can, sprayer). Our job will then be regular visits to see how they are going, and to deal with specific problems – whether red mites on the tomatoes or the price of fetching water.
We’ve welcomed a visit from the African Province Leadership Team, in the persons of Clement Sindazi and Tony Shanahan, and they joined us for lunch with our 70 participants. A small but feisty group of young women met with the District Commissioner, to follow up our drama performance and public sensitisation on the risks of Child Marriage.

And we have plunged into the organisation of our third sports tournament for over 300 local youth. We’ll be offering football (men and women), handball (men and women), netball and volleyball – all played on thick soft sand! If you play in the tournament, you are also expected to attend the talks we arrange – on making healthy choices about drinking, drugs, sexual activity, teenage pregnancy, and HIV infection.

July 16, 2018

We have been shocked and deeply saddened by Joe Mosely’s death. For Edward and Dom, he was their novice-master; for all of us, he was a welcoming presence in Lusaka and, in April, the genial facilitator of our District Assembly. Edward and Dom have been at his memorial Mass in Lusaka this weekend. Coming so soon after Peter Cole’s death, it has been a sad loss of another major formative figure in our lives.

On the sunny side, we were cheered bv the visit of our eight novices, with Daniel and Patrick. They wanted to see our ‘ministry sites’ so we took them, through the soft sand, into the heart of the Limulunga Royal Village, where we live, and over the hills into the bush. One of them said, “To study the vow of poverty, we should come and live here for a month.” That was encouraging.

This week saw the first training workshop for our ‘Households Tackling Hardships’ group of 70 participants – some older persons, some with disabilities, and women heading households. They learnt about growing nutrient–rich vegetables for their families and small-scale rice farming.

We also ran a ‘sensitisation’ at the local Health Clinic on advocating against Child Marriage. (Nearly half the first born babies in Limulunga are born to young women under 18). We finished the week with the monthly visit from our Hub, giving us good pastoral care – one-to-one interviews, shared reflections, and a gentle facilitation on our community’s progress. Thanks to Sammy Munyua and Mark Cody for that caring work.

July 7, 2018

The big event of the previous week was the launch of our new project, for 70 vulnerable households in Limulunga. At the moment we are calling it ‘ERFA 2018’, because that’s the name of our generous funder (Edmund Rice Foundation Australia), but we’re looking for something catchier. Your suggestions are welcome!

The next phase consists of three workshops at which we and they will learn something of the skills needed to grow vegetables, rice, chickens, and fish (in fish farms). Then, thanks to ERFA, we will provide some ‘inputs’ (seeds, fertilisers, chickens, fingerlings, and feed) to get them started on a more nutritious diet and, we hope, a source of cash for their families. Their job is to decide which of those farming activities they can undertake, given their health, abilities, soils, and sources of water.

This week has also seen four of us return from the Annually Professed Brothers Workshop in Kabwe (at least eleven hours away by bus, via Lusaka). This was an enjoyable and challenging time, with a dialogue with the District Leadership team part of it, and a football match with the locals. (Alas, the Brothers lost. The World Cup must wait.)

July 2, 2018

The Limulunga Community is a multicultural and international community of five Brothers journeying together in western Zambia. Three of us are from Kenya (Edward Masinde, our Community Leader, Dominic Mwania, our Project Manager, and Kelvin Otieno), one from Zambia itself (Malama Peter) and one from Australia (Moy Hitchen). We live in a large village of several thousand people, sprawling along a high bank of sand that forms the eastern edge of the Barotse Plain, which is itself the broad flood plain of the Zambezi River.

Of the three ‘spoke’ communities, Limulunga is the closest to the Hub community, which is in Mongu, the capital of the Western Province. We are about 20 minutes due north of Mongu, when the potholes are filled, and 40 minutes when they are left gaping, which is the normal state of the ‘sealed’ road. That sealed road runs through the middle of Limulunga, then switches to sand and runs down into the plains. All other roads and paths are of thick soft sand. Great for exercise!

We hope to make this brief bulletin a weekly event, to keep you informed of our life and work here in the far west of Zambia. At the beginning of July you catch us launching a new project, involving about 70 households living in poverty. We have spent the last three weeks trudging through the sands, visiting them and inviting them to join the project. ‘We’ in this case means the Limulunga Project Team, which consists of four local people and we five Brothers. The official launch of the project will be on Friday, July 6, and we invite you to join us in prayer for that day, when we all meet and explain what is involved.

Mission Frère in North America

The Congregation’s path to renewal and transformation, Our Way into the Future, challenges us to “find new ways of being Brother for the world” while allowing “the agenda of the world to be our agenda.” In North America, the Brothers have attempted to do this by what is called the Mission Frère initiatives.

The Mission Frère Initiatives focus on providing ministerial and educational opportunities assisting the poor, the marginalized and youth. They are not bound by geography, nor are they created with bricks and mortar. Rather, they offer opportunities for new ways of being Brother that are fluid and life-giving and that evolve as the needs of those being served evolve. At present, there are 5 initiatives in operation.

Mission Frère Harlem
Directed by Brothers John Casey and Ben McDonough, this operates out of the Christian Brothers Community residence in East Harlem, NY. It provides hospitality to those ministering in both Central and East Harlem. The Brothers involved do volunteer work in these areas, in already existing programs. A goal is to eventually use the residence for short-term immersion experiences in NYC and for longer-term volunteer opportunities for young adults.

Mission Frère-Harlem serves those in need and those who minister to them. It strives to be aware of the Spirit in the lives of those involved through prayer and contemplation. The Brothers are especially committed to hospitality and collaboration, to support and mentoring and to awareness and affirmation of our sisters and brothers, both those who serve and are served. Mission Frère-Harlem serves the poor through direct service, volunteer ministry, mentoring and advocacy. It facilitates retreats to Catholic schools and extends hospitality to co-workers, other Religious and lay persons. It offers opportunities for vocational discernment, volunteer service and immersion, especially to young adults.

Mission Frère Advocacy
Directed by Mr. Sean D’Alfonso, this is a direct response to the Chapter Call “to engage in advocacy with the voiceless, the marginalized and all that are oppressed.” The mission of the Edmund Rice Christian Brothers Mission Frère-Advocacy program is to create an awareness of and to advocate for the needs of those most marginalized in our society.

Its goal is to create a more just, peaceful and equitable world by being faithful to the Gospel message of Jesus Christ and the spirit of Blessed Edmund Rice. It fosters presence, compassion and liberation in collaboration with the Edmund Rice Christian Brothers North America Province, the members of the Consortium of Edmund Rice Schools and all who are inspired by the charism of Blessed Edmund Rice in the North American Edmund Rice Network. A quarterly publication – NorAm – helps to spread the message.

Our advocacy efforts include:

  • Work at the United Nations and with Edmund Rice International
  • Province Mission Education and Immersion program in collaboration with our North American schools and our Latin American Region
  • Action Alerts on topics such as immigration, Catholic school education, the Right to Life for all, the Dream Act, etc.
  • A quarterly newsletter – NorAm – that attempts to share the good news of the service and advocacy works taking place around the Province.

Mission Frère Haiti
Directed by Brother Kevin Griffith and Mr. Sean D’Alfonso, this is an outgrowth of MF-Advocacy. Haiti is the poorest country in our hemisphere. It is adversely affected by hurricanes, earthquakes, government mismanagement, and sometimes US policies that stand in the way of progress.

Mission Frère-Haiti seeks to be a presence to the people of Haiti and to advocate on behalf of the needs of the poor in Haiti. The Mission Frère-Haiti initiative has raised monies through the sale of Haitian art, created by local Haitian artisans, to support the ministries(school, orphanage and mobile clinic) of the Sisters of Jesus and Mary in Jean Rabel, Haiti. It works in collaboration with Iona Prep (New Rochelle, NY) and Archbishop McCarthy H. S. (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) to provide immersion experiences for students from these schools in Le Borgne, Haiti. The immersions focus on service while in Haiti and advocacy once home.

Mission Frère Edmund Rice Young Adult Ministry
Directed by Brother Tim Smyth, the Mission Frère-Edmund Rice Young Adult Ministry focuses on providing leadership development programs for young adults.

It has been embraced by the Province Office of Educational Services, and it is intended to facilitate the continuity of student participation in engagements such as: The ACTION Student Leadership Workshop, mission immersions, volunteer services, vocation discernment and faith development. It provides opportunities for peer interaction, community engagement, advocacy, shared ministry and prayer for young adults who have heard the call of the Gospel in their Edmund Rice Christian Brother Education.

This ministry encompasses:

  • follow-up contact with students who attend ACTION and/or school immersion/mission trips
  • volunteer opportunities
  • vocation discernment/promoting vocations to our Brotherhood
  • college contacts with graduates of Christian Brother high schools

Mission Frère-Miami
Directed by the Christian Brothers Community in Miami, this has been recently established as an outreach to the Haitian and other immigrant communities in Miami, FL.

Our Brothers in Miami minister at the St. Mary’s School and Parish in Little Haiti, as well as at Catholic Legal Services of Miami. They teach ESL; they coordinate a school resource center; they assist with a food bank; and they provide services to immigrants.

First Thirty Years in East Africa

The members of the East Africa District spent the Easter Triduum in their annual assembly, reflecting on 30 years of Christian Brother presence in East Africa. Reading chapters of the history written by Br Frank Chappell provided the basis for lively exploration of a story which many of us knew only in fragments. Frank’s history details the journey from the first Christian Brother to work in East Africa (in Tanzania in 1984-85), through to our first official community being founded in 1988 up to 1995.

From 1995 to the present we were able to fill in the story from our own experience and knowledge. We marveled at the ways in which God was able to “write straight with crooked lines”, to bring good out of the confusion, mistakes and stumbling that were part of the journey. There have been many graces and providential gifts. Among the many twists and turns, there was also pain and sorrow. Our Good Friday Stations of the Cross celebrated the way in which the story echoed and expressed the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus.

EAD 30yrs artIt is a human story of birthing something new. We recalled with deep gratitude the many Brothers who have been part of the story. The first ones came from what was St Patrick’s Province in Australia, but many others joined them from Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and North America.

It is a story that continues to be written as our brotherhood grows and puts down roots in our African culture. We are standing on the shoulders of many brothers who were courageous and generous in taking the risk to plant the seed. As our founder said, "Have courage! The good seed will grow up in the children’s hearts later on".

This exploration of our history was well facilitated by Brothers Tom Kearney, Frank O’Shea and Mick Podbury. Tom and Frank are the longest-serving Brothers in East Africa, while Mick Podbury was part of the first community of brothers in Chanjale, Tanzania, in 1988.

We were grateful for the presence of our Province Leader, Michael de Klerk, and also for the chance to celebrate together the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, and a vibrant Easter Vigil. We came away with the sense of our identity as Christian Brothers greatly strengthened.

During the annual Assembly East Africa District commemorated the 30th anniversary of its foundation by reflecting on the story written by Br Frank Chappell. Christopher, the artist-in-residence at Ruben Centre took par t in listening to the story and then went away to create the artwork which captures themes and main points from ourreflections about our history. On Saturday 22 April the artwork was unveiled and Brothers reacted to the work. The artwork will be kept as a symbol and reminder of that assembly and our 30th anniversary in East Africa.

Zambia Novitiate 2018

The 23rd of February, 2018 saw the initiation ritual of eight fine young men who have decided to continue their discernment process to become Christian Brothers in the service to both humanity and the whole of God’s creation. These enthusiastic men are from four nationalities namely; Liberia, Kenya, The Gambia and Sierra Leone.

During their two-year novitiate experience, they will be accompanied by the ISC formation team. After a month orientation program, both the team and the novices are poised for the full swing of the novitiate program and started classes on 26th February 2018.

John Holden from the Hub community led a host of brothers for the acceptance of the young men into the novitiate program. Chris Nhete from the District Leadership team gave a word of welcome and encouraged them to feel at home in ISC and to contribute meaningfully to their new community. He also invited them to use the diversity in the group to their advantage and to be aware of their steps as they step into a holy ground of the novitiate and the local people of the area. Chris in his final statement urged them to seize the novitiate as an opportunity to learn and discover a lot more about the place of God in their lives and what is it to be a Christian Brother.

Daniel Lyimo, Novice Master poured out libation to the biological ancestors of the young men as well as the ancestors of the Congregation to acknowledge that this event does so by “standing on their shoulders”.

In response the young men sang and danced. They each presented their symbols of new life and read their personal statement of commitment to the novitiate program. A response from the formation team thanked the novices and in return, presented to each novice, a bible, the Constitution and a book of daily readings. The program continued outside with chatting and refreshments.

By Br. Patrick Nuanah

Philemon SesayPhilemon Sesay is my name. I come from Port Loko, Sierra Leone.
I came to learn of the Christian Brothers in 2008 through my uncle who was sort of their link for vocation promotion in Port Loko. My passion to join the Brothers reached its climax years later. I am very happy to be in the novitiate and hope to benefit all that the program has for me in my vocation journey.

Frederick Odhiambo AderoMy name is Frederick Odhiambo Adero. I come from Homa Bay in Kenya.
I came to know about the brothers in 2014, while I was in college through Br. Sammy Munyua during a vocation promotion. Later I shared correspondences with Br. Peter Cole until I decided to join. I hope to enjoy the transformation that this novitiate program would offer as I grow into the charism of the Christian Brothers.

Boniface SambouI am Boniface Sambou from Bwiam, The Gambia. I heard of the Christian Brothers through a friend, Johnathan Kamara, and later communicated to Br. Walter Vaz on Facebook, who then linked me to the Brothers in Sierra Leone. I kept contact through social media with passed vocation directors like, Br. Paul Mendy, Br. Joseph Turay and Br. Pascal Gibba until my postulancy program in 2017.  I hope to enjoy the novitiate program and to be transformed for the world as I discern my vocation as a Christian Brother.

Edwin AlphaMy name is Edwin Alpha from Boajibu in Sierra Leone. 
I first encountered the Christian brothers in Blama, in 2012. Br. Pascal Gibba was the contact person. My hope in the Novitiate is to be open to the process as I respond to the call as a Christian Brother.

 

Josephat Mutua MuthokaMy name is Josephat Mutua Muthoka from Emali- Makueni County Kenya.
I came into contact with the Christian Brothers in 2013 through a cousin of mine who is with the de la Salle Brothers. Later I met the vocation director Br. Peter Cole who then invited me for a come and see program.
During this time of novitiate, I hope to strengthen my faith, and work towards the building of a gospel community.

 

Gabou BaldehGabou Baldeh is my name, from Banjul, The Gambia.
My contact with the Brothers was 2015 with Br. Pascal Gibba who was on holidays in The Gambia. After hearing a lot about the brothers and the work they do I was moved to start my postulancy. I hope to succeed in the novitiate program through openness for a transformation that deepens my spirituality in becoming a Christian Brother.

 

Dominic Youconjah GarduahI am Dominic Youconjah Garduah, a Liberian by nationality, from Grand Bassa County.
I got in contact with the Christian brothers while  studying at the Marist international university college in Nairobi, in 2014. I hope to integrate myself well into the novitiate program as I discern to be a Christian Brother.

 

Koech Victor KiprutohMy name is Koech Victor Kiprutoh. I am from the western part of Kenya, a town called Kapsabet
In 2013, a friend mentioned about religious life which did not bother me until the visit of Br. Sammy Munyua and Br. Daniel Kyalo for vocation promotion. I wish to deepen my understanding of the mystery called God as I discern my vocation as a Christian Brother.

 

 

ISC Team 
                         ISC Team: L-R Patrick Nuanah, Henry McGann, Daniel Lyimo, Cornel Mwiru and Senan D’Souza (in absentia)

Postulants in Arusha, Tanzania

The six new Postulants in Arusha, Tanzania, send the following brief information about themselves:

Isaac OdongoIsaac Odongo is a Kenyan, from Kisumu county, Bolo parish. There are nine in the family, father and mother included - four boys and three girls. He is the fourth born in the family. His father died in 2002, and also the second born boy died in 2012.

 

Jared NyamweyaJared Kaburi Nyamweya is Kenyan, from Kisii. He is 2nd born of six children, being the 1st born boy. They are two boys and 4 girls. His mum and dad are farmers, both are Christians and they love going to church.

 

 

Peter Sika ThomasPeter Sika Thomas is South Sudanese, from Western Equatorial State, Yambio. He is the third born in a family nine children. There are two boys and seven girls. He has been living with his mother since the passing on of his father in 2012.  

 

Fredrick ClintonFredrick Clinton is a Kenyan by nationality, born and raised up in a suburb village in Western part of Kenya. He is third born in the family of five, three boys and two girls. He speaks the Maragoli dialect, one of the sub-tribe of the Luhya community. He is a very charismatic and devoted Catholic and loves working with the youth ministry in the church.

 

Raphael MwauraRaphael Mwaura is 23 years old. He was born in a family of seven, 5 boys and 2 girls. He is the 5th born. He is a Kenyan from Nakuru county, kikuyu by tribe. He is a teacher by profession, having done a Diploma in Education (PTE) from Kenyatta University.

 

Peter NyarikiPeter Nyariki is from Kenya, Nyamira County. He is from a family of 9 kids and he is the last born. He is a trained teacher from Eregi TTC with working experience of two years.

First Profession in Lusaka, Zambia

On Saturday, November 25th, seven young men from Kenya and Zambia made their First Profession at the International Spirituality Centre in Lusaka.

ISC Profession 2017From left to right: Alphonce Sokia (Kenya), Alphas Odoyo (Kenya), Smart Machachi (Zambia), Dennis Nyabota (Kenya), Clive Hanjalika (Zambia), Bruce Hakalembe (Zambia), Ismael Juma (Kenya).  

The Eucharist was celebrated by Fr David, from the Jesuits. It was a joyful occasion for the Brothers, their families, and friends.  Over 200 local religious and laity were present.
Kamanga choir

 

The choir from Kamanga sang beautifully.

Chris and Clement

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Br Chris Nhete was the MC, Br Clement Sindazi received the vows, and Br John Holden gave the reflection.

Novices and Joe

 

 

 

 

 

The Congregation is grateful to Br Joe Mosely who finished four years as Novice Director at ISC.

 

 

Kenyan OP4Among those present were four Kenyan Brothers who had attended the Orientation Programme in India and have been waiting for their Employment Permits to be approved by the Immigration Department in Zambia.  They arrived in the early hours of Saturday morning.  

Yesterday they took the 620km bus trip to Mongu in the Western Province where they will be starting their Lozi language lessons today.  From left to right: Kelvin Otieno Ouma, Allan Mwashi Shunza, Melkizedeck Musamia Buteyo, and Edwin Saka Wekullo.
Meanwhile the novices are on their way home to their families.

EREBB Leadership Certificate

The EREBB Leadership Certificate is an international online course developed by Edmund Rice Education Beyond Borders (EREBB), Edmund Rice Schools Trust (ERST) in Ireland, and Marino Institute of Education (MIE).

EREBB certificate 2

The EREBB Leadership Certificate has been developed to support teachers, educators, leaders, and those aspiring to leadership in Edmund Rice schools and educational communities to become advocates and proponents of inclusive and liberating education practices.

EREBB priority areas

This interactive 20-hour course consists of four modules of self-directed learning, which participants can complete in their own time and at their own pace. The course is moderated by MIE staff in Dublin, Ireland. Course participants will receive an EREBB Leadership Certificate.

EREBB on completion

You can read more about the Certificate programme on hte website of MIE below.

MIE logo

Fifth Orientation Programme

Now that the fourth Orientation Programme is finished in Nairobi, Kenya,Brothers are being advised about the 5th and 6th O.P.s which will be run during 2019.

The following gives some information on the 4th O.P. in which 21 Brothers took part.

The Missioning Cermony:

The ceremony of missioning at the Little Daughters of St. Joseph Spirituality Centre comes at the conclusion of three months in the Orientation Programme or OP.  For the last twelve weeks, twenty-one Christian Brothers have engaged in an experience of renewal and transformation.  Now, they were leaving to return to their home Province or District.

The opening hymn in Kiswahili (Hii ndiyo siku) which translated said, ‘This is the day which God has made.  Let’s sing for joy to praise God – a fitting beginning to a moment where Brothers express their gratitude for the three-month experience of the OP.

Read More

The Opening Cermony:

On September 9th the Christian Brothers’ 4th Orientation Programme was officially launched at St. Joseph’s Retreat Centre, Nairobi.  Over a hundred people joined the Brothers to mark this important moment in the life of the Congregation.  As people gathered the choir from Br Beausang School sang I Have no Hands but Yours a song attributed to St Teresa of Avila.

Br Sunil Britto briefly introduced the ceremony outlining the various elements of the programme. He welcomed Br Tony Shanahan, Leader of the East Africa District The opening song Enda Nasi, translated into English means ‘Go with us’ inviting all the people to support the Brothers as they were about to undertake this three-month programme of formation.

Br Tony welcomed the people and thanks the Transition Support Team for their work in preparing the Orientation Programme and wishe the participants every success for the programme.

Br Simon Kiswahili read a passage on the Exodus experience, and Br Jerry Ekka shared a reflection on what it means to be a pilgrim. The people then began to process to the main hall accompanies by the choir as they sing Companions on the Journey.

Br David Gibson, a member of the Transition Support Team (the TST) offered an explanation of Our Way into the Future, highlighting the three elements of the process:  the spiritual search, the formation of vibrant and cohesive communities and outreach to those who have been made poor. He explained that from this vision, the Transition Support Team created the project Journeying Together whose aim is to establish clusters of Christian Brother communities in Zambia and India. Members of the TST then call the participants forward as then enter into the circle for those beginning the programme. They inquire, ‘Are you ready?’ and invite the Brothers to respond.  When they respond, each Brother in presented with a candle and shawl to symbolise the Kenyan culture into which the Brothers will insert themselves.  Local drummers accompany the journey of the Brothers into the circle.

Br Sunil invited the congregation to applaud the Brothers who have generously left their Districts and Provinces to join this new venture.

Br John Casey, a member of the Congregation Leadership Team from Rome offered words of encouragement to the Brothers who have volunteered to join this fourth Orientation Programme.

Br Amandi Mboya, a member of the East Africa Leadership Team led the blessing prayer and as the congregation responded to the blessing, those Brothers who are attending the ceremony and the resource people for the programme circled around the participants as an act of solidarity to those who are on this new journey.

Br Sunil invited some of the invitees to take a small candle with the name of one of the participants on it, and to bring it home and occasionally light it and pray for the intention of that Brother.

Br Donal Kirk, a member of the TST and one of the presenters of the programme offered a vote of thanks and the choir broke into song with the final hymn: I Say Yes, Lord.

Everyone then was invited to partake of light refreshments and to mingle.

 

If you wish to follow the progress of the group, please connect with their website:

Journeying Together web

Praying during the Week

Each week Br. Michael Burke prepares some resources to help us remember and celebrate the feast or anniversary.

Sunday 23 December
4th SUNDAY OF ADVENT and
O-ANTIPHONS LAST DAY

Here are five places where you can find commentaries on this Sunday’s readings:
•    Under RESOURCES at the bottom of our home page: find Sunday Reflections by Julian McDonald and Richard Walsh.
•    www.silk.net/RelEd - click Mass Readings
•    www.goodnews.ie – click Gospel Commentary
•    www.liturgy.slu.edu (Also in Spanish)
•    www.salvationhistory.com – click Sun. Bible Reflections under Daily Bread. (Also in Spanish)

In their preparation for Christmas, the ancient O-antiphons climax with a focus on ‘Emmanuel’, God-with-us:

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
The hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

The first letters of each of the O-Antiphons’ seven titles, taken in reverse, makes up the Latin words ‘ero cras’ (Tomorrow, I will come).

“If we cannot be clever, we can always be kind.”  (Alfred Fripow)

Saturday 22 December
MOTHER FRANCES CABRINI

Born in Italy in the mid-19th Century, Francesca founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart and in her late 30s was sent to New York City to minister to Italian immigrants. Within her 67 years she founded that same number of missionary institutions in service of the sick and the poor. She was the first American citizen to be canonized.

“Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have.”  (Emile Chartier)

Friday 21 December
APPROACHING THE SOLSTICE and
HOMELESSNESS

Tomorrow is the longest day of the year in the southern hemisphere and the shortest in the northern hemisphere – the middle of summer or of winter. The USA creatively makes this solstice its ‘End Homelessness Day’ because it brings their longest night of the year – look it up on www.betterworldcalendar.com for an outline of the problem of homelessness which affects some 100 million people round the world.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”  (Socrates)

Thursday 20 December
INTERNATIONAL HUMAN SOLIDARITY DAY

Established by the UN eleven years ago as “an initiative in the fight against poverty”, Human Solidarity Day is a reminder of the oneness of humanity globally, and a call to give practical expression to our oneness with the sorrows, struggles, and sufferings – as well as the joys, achievements, and celebrations – of other people sharing our world with us.

“Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, or worn. It is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace and gratitude.”  (Denis Waitley)

Wednesday 19 December
DAY FOR SOUTH-SOUTH CO-OPERATION

Today is set aside by the UN to focus attention on South-South Co-operation, as a complement to North-South co-operation, and as another instrument helping to achieve internationally agreed development goals.

“The true test of character is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don't know what to do.”  (John Holt)

Tuesday 18 December
INTERNATIONAL MIGRANTS’ DAY

International Migrants’ Day is a reminder of those millions of people across the globe who have found it necessary to cross international borders in search of a better life – safety, jobs, food, freedom – and who often experience increased vulnerability away from their homeland.

“The harder you fall, the higher you bounce.”  (Doug Horton)

Monday 17 December 2018
O-ANTIPHONS COMMENCE

Another example of preparation for Christmas is the ancient monastic tradition of the seven O-Antiphons, each focusing on an attribute of Christ taken from Scripture. The first is Sapientia, Wisdom:

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
Reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

Look up ‘O antiphon’ (sic) in Wikipedia for an interesting outline.

“Let him that would move the world, first move himself.”  (Socrates)

Sunday 16 December
3rd SUNDAY OF ADVENT and
START OF ‘SHELTER-SEEKING’ NOVENA

Shelter-seeking is a tradition in Mexico which has spread to parts of Latin America. The nine days before Christmas are observed as a remembrance of Joseph and Mary’s long search for lodgings (‘Las Posadas’). The novena was adopted and adapted in the Philippines where it is known as ‘Simbang Gabi’ (Dawn Mass), referring to the custom of Churches opening their doors very early, before harvest-work began, to allow the faithful to participate in Mass in the lead-up to Christmas. The message of this novena is about spiritual preparation for Christmas in the midst of the secular seasonal flurry.

“You will never stub your toe standing still. The faster you go, the more chance there is of stubbing your toe, but the more chance you have of getting somewhere.”  (Charles F. Kettering)

Saturday 15 December
ZAMENHOF DAY

Named after the founder of Esperanto, an attempt at creating an international language, Zamenhof Day might remind us of the importance of communication in our lives and the need to make efforts at improving the effectiveness of how we hear others and get across to them - efforts such as learning other people’s language or developing our listening skills.

“When you're finished changing, you're finished.”  (Benjamin Franklin)

Friday 14 December
ST JOHN OF THE CROSS

A 16th Century Spanish mystic and a partner of Teresa of Avila in the work of Carmelite reform, John of the  Cross was experienced as a threat and became imprisoned by his Order. Before escaping, he wrote one of his few major works that distinguish him as one of the foremost poets in the Spanish language. He remains one of the great guides to mystical prayer, and his feastday is a reminder of the call to a deep and committed prayer-life.

“Nothing strengthens the judgment and quickens the conscience like individual responsibility.”  (Elizabeth Cady Stanton)

Thursday 13 December
ST LUCY

One of the few women named in the Canon of the Mass, Lucy (or Lucia) suffered the loss of her eyes and then her life for her Christian faith in the early 4th Century, becoming the patron saint of blind people. A day, perhaps, to celebrate the role women play in planting and strengthening faith.

“Diamonds are nothing more than chunks of coal that stuck to their jobs.”  (Malcolm Forbes)

Wednesday 12 December
KENYA’S INDEPENDENCE DAY

Though Nairobi was the gateway through which the Christian Brothers brought the heart of Edmund Rice to East Africa, the first community in Kenya began three years later, in 1991. There are now seven communities of Christian Brothers in that country, two of them being international houses of study for the African Province, and the Brothers minister in a number of centres. Kenya today celebrates the 55th anniversary of becoming independent in 1963.

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”  (Cicero)

Tuesday 11 December
INTERNATIONAL MOUNTAIN DAY

International Mountain Day originated in a North Eastern American students’ custom of mass bunking of classes to head for the mountains and enjoy the colourful leaves of Fall/Autumn. The day has become dignified by the UN “to highlight the importance of sustainable mountain development”.

“Champions do not become champions when they win the event, but in the hours, weeks, months and years they spend preparing for it. The victorious performance itself is merely the demonstration of their championship character.”  (T. Alan Armstrong)

Monday 10 December 2018
HUMAN RIGHTS DAY

This year marks the 51st anniversary of the two international covenants of human rights: that of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and that of Civil and Political Rights – see www.awarenessdays.com for information. Also see the website of our own advocacy arm www.edmundriceinternational.org which maintains a special focus on human rights.

“Life begets life. Energy creates energy. It is by spending oneself that one becomes rich.”  (Sarah Bernhardt)

Sunday 9 December
2nd SUNDAY OF ADVENT and
ANTI-CORRUPTION DAY and
TANZANIA’S INDEPENDENCE DAY

International Anti-Corruption Day is a UN initiative to promote “integrity, accountability, and proper management of public affairs and public property”. Let us pray today for the conditions necessary for the cultivation of such values, conditions such as the spread of healthy kinds of religious faith in the hearts of humankind.

Tanzania came on to the Edmund Rice map in 1988 when the first community of Christian Brothers settled in this land. There are now two communities of Brothers in Arusha, as well as the Edmund Rice Sinon Secondary School (see www.edmundricesinon.com for more), and a growing community of Edmund Rice people in Tanzania.

“The real person you are is revealed in the moments when you’re certain no other person is watching.  When no one is watching, you are driven by what you expect of yourself.”  (Ralph S. Marston, Jr)

Saturday 8 December
THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION OF MARY

Coming nine months before the traditional birthday of Mary, 8 September, today’s feast celebrates that point in human evolution where such a person as Mary became possible, someone of Mary’s extraordinary openness to God. The Immaculate Conception is not about how Jesus was conceived – a common misunderstanding grounded in a distorted view of sex as something stained (or ‘maculate’) – but marks that moment in the human race’s maturation when a Mary could come into existence, could be conceivable.

“Winners build on mistakes. Losers dwell on them.”  (A. Mori)

Friday 7 December
INTERNATIONAL CIVIL AVIATION DAY

Civil Aviation Day is a UN-sponsored observance to strengthen worldwide awareness of the importance of civil aviation for development and to promote safety and efficiency in international air transport.

“The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.”  (Theodore Rubin)

Thursday 6 December
ST NICHOLAS

The multiplication of legends around this Greek saint of the 3rd/4th Centuries is testimony to the impact that one person’s life can have on others. Arising from these legends, Nicholas has been adopted as the patron saint of a startling variety of groups, including children, sailors, fishermen, merchants, students, broadcasters, pharmacists, pawnbrokers, the falsely accused, the city of New York, prostitutes, and even thieves – repentant ones. He is specially associated with secret gift-giving, and the Dutch Santa Claus tradition has been secularized into Father Christmas.

“Every problem has in it the seeds of its own solution. If you don't have any problems, you don't get any seeds...”  (Norman Vincent Peale)

Wednesday 5 December
INTERNATIONAL VOLUNTEER DAY

The International Volunteeer Day for Economic and Social Development celebrates the global asset of volunteerism and the way “it can bring positive social change by fostering respect for diversity, equality and the participation of all” (Ban Ki-moon). It is a day for honouring all our Volunteers within the Edmund Rice Network and the way God shines through their loving service.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”  (Albert Einstein)

Tuesday 4 December
ST JOHN OF DAMASCUS

John of Damascus, a monk who lived in the 7th/8th Centuries, is remembered as a scholar and theologian, a reminder of the Church’s deep tradition of scholarship and of those engaged in this ministry in our own time.

“All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous, unpremeditated act without benefit of experience.”  (Henry Miller)

Monday 3 December 2018
ST FRANCIS XAVIER and
INTERNATIONAL DAY OF PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES

Francis Xavier was one of the original Jesuits, in the 16th Century. He is remembered as a missionary on the grand scale, ministering in Goa, South East Asia, and Japan. His life is a reminder that Christianity is never a closed club, and that Christ and his vision are for sharing.

About 10% of the world population, or 650 million people, live with the challenge of disabilities. This UN day asks us to become involved in promoting their dignity, rights, and well-being. Wikipedia’s page on ‘Disability’ provides a window on a very broad subject.

“Discovery of a solution consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else and thinking something different.”  (Albert Szent-Gyorgyi)

Sunday 2 December
1st SUNDAY OF ADVENT and
END SLAVERY DAY and
WORLD COMPUTER LITERACY DAY

The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery is a reminder of the UN’s 1949 Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation of Others. These things are still happening, particularly to women, and out-of-sight can remain out-of-mind unless deliberately brought to mind and to prayer.

Computer Literacy has become in our time a significant part of empowerment, essential across a broad range of the job market, yet inaccessible to vast numbers of our world’s poor. It poses a challenge to a community of people inspired by Edmund Rice who, in his context of two centuries ago, faced an equivalent challenge.

“To solve any problem, there are three questions to ask yourself: First, what could I do? Second, what could I read? And third, whom could I ask?”  (Jim Rohn)

Saturday 1 December
WORLD AIDS DAY

The Wikipedia page on World AIDS Day gives a good introduction to the day and the disease, plus a listing of other relevant sites. We are invited to keep in our prayers throughout the AIDS month of December all those who are either infected or affected by HIV/AIDS with its stigma and many burdens, as well as all those in danger of becoming infected through various forms of vulnerability, including ignorance and inequality.

“When faced with senseless drama, spiteful criticisms, and misguided opinions, walking away is the best way to stand up for yourself. To respond with anger is an endorsement of their attitude.”  (Dodinsky)

Friday 30 November
ST ANDREW and
CITIES FOR LIFE DAY

Andrew, brother of Peter, is well known in the story of Jesus as one of The Twelve. It was in the faith of these Apostles that ‘the Church’ in all its complexity was grounded. The story of Andrew’s call can be found in John 1:35-44.

A growing number of cities around the world identify themselves as Cities for Life and today affirm their commitment to life and their opposition to the death penalty. See the website www.nodeathpenalty.santegidio.org

“Beliefs have the power to create and the power to destroy. Human beings have the awesome ability to take any experience of their lives and create a meaning that disempowers them or one that can literally save their lives.”  (Tony Robbins)

Thursday 29 November
ST BRENDAN OF BIRR, IRELAND and
INTERNATIONAL DAY OF SOLIDARITY WITH THE PALESTINIAN PEOPLE

Brendan, one of the earliest Irish Saints and among what people call ‘the twelve apostles of Ireland’, studied at a hugely influential monastic school and went on to found a monastery in central Ireland in the 6th Century. His life is an illustration of how God raises up the right people in every age of history to respond to the needs of their time and place.

The UN’s Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people is a reminder of the lower-profile side of the complex and painful struggle to realise conflicting aspirations in the volatile part of the world where Jesus lived his short life and died a violent death.

“You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing that we call 'failure' is not the falling down, but the staying down.”  (Mary Pickford)

Wednesday 28 November
ST CATHERINE LABOURÉ

Catherine, a 19th century Sister, ministered as a nurse in France. Anonymously, she was the messenger who was instrumental in introducing the much-loved “Miraculous Medal” into Catholic piety. The essential message of this token of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the availability of God’s Grace for the asking.

“As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world… as in being able to remake ourselves.”  (Mahatma Gandhi)

Tuesday 27 November
ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE MONTH

November has been chosen as Alzheimer’s Disease Month to raise awareness of this degenerative terminal senile dementia, first diagnosed at the start of the 20th Century. The signs, symptoms, and stages are well decribed in a Wikipedia entry on the subject. Our prayer today might embrace all those who suffer from, or because of, Alzheimer’s Disease.

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched - they must be felt with the heart.”  (Helen Keller)

Monday 26 November 2018
ST JOHN BERCHMANS

A Belgian Jesuit who died of a fever at the age of 22, John Berchmans is the patron saint of altar boys. His life is a reminder that the call to whole-iness via the path of discipleship is addressed as much to the young as to the mature.

“Keep in mind that you are always saying 'no' to something. If it isn't to the apparent, urgent things in your life, it is probably to the most fundamental, highly important things. Even when the urgent is good, the good can keep you from your best, keep you from your unique contribution, if you let it.”  (Stephen Covey)

Sunday 25 November
CHRIST THE KING SUNDAY and
INTERNATIONAL DAY OF ELIMINATION OF VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN

The Day of Elimination of Violence against Women is a United Nations observance. It is briefly introduced on the website www.timeanddate.com

“Every action - or inaction - involves a choice between what is more important and what is less important.”  (Brian Tracy)

Saturday 24 November
EVOLUTION DAY and
BUY NOTHING DAY

Evolution Day marks the anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s breakthrough text The Origin of Species 156 years ago. It can be taken as a day for celebrating the common bond between all of Creation.

Buy-Nothing Day, observed immediately following the USA’s Thanksgiving Day, is described as “a global holiday from consumerism”. It invites us to reflect on over-consumerism and to review our own excesses.

“Learn how to separate the majors and the minors. A lot of people don't do well simply because they major in minor things.”  (Jim Rohn)

Friday 23 November
ST CLEMENT and
BAHAI FEAST OF QAWL (SPEECH)

Clement, one of the earliest successors of St Peter, is usually depicted in art with an anchor, symbolising perhaps his role in affirming orderly procedures in regard to authority in the Church.

Qawl celebrates the gift of speech. The Bahai faith holds that all God’s messengers brought the same message embodied in different languages and cultures – for example, ‘the Golden Rule’.

“Back of every creation, supporting it like an arch, is faith. Enthusiasm is nothing: It comes and goes. But if one believes, then miracles occur.”  (Henry Miller)

Thursday 22 November
ST CECELIA and
THANKSGIVING DAY IN USA

St Cecilia is traditionally the patroness of music, which has been called the language of God. Perhaps our prayer today might involve listening and responding to this transcendent language.

Thanksgiving is celebrated in the USA on the fourth Thursday of November – and by a number of other countries on different days. The North American celebrations took their lead from traditional harvest festivals in Europe. Even if we have our own national days, we might turn our thoughts and prayers to gratitude today in a spirit of solidarity.

“The art of mothering is to teach the art of living to children.”  (Elain Heffner)

Wednesday 21 November
PRESENTATION DAY and
WORLD TELEVISION DAY

From the feast of the Presentation of Mary in the Temple, two Congregations take their name:
•    Nano Nagle’s Presentation Sisters – see their website www.presentationsistersunion.org
•    Edmund Rice’s Presentation Brothers – their website is www.presentationbrothers.org

Television, though it is only one among many media, and not one of those most accessible to the world’s poorer people, is nevertheless a gift to celebrate and a powerful influence to acknowledge.

“Our self image and our habits tend to go together. Change one and you will automatically change the other.”  (Maxwell Maltz)

Tuesday 20 November
UNIVERSAL CHILDREN’S DAY and
AFRICA INDUSTRIALISATION DAY

Universal Children’s Day is a celebration of childhood held in dozens of countries around the globe. Children have always had a central place in the Edmund Rice world, and the uncovering of the ugly phenomenon of child abuse in a less-aware past has led to the strengthening of our contribution to honouring children’s rights and protecting the innocence and vulnerability of childhood.

Africa Industrialisation Day is a UN effort to “mobilize the commitment of the international community to the industrialization of Africa. It also reminds that more than 30 of the world's 48 least developed countries are part of Africa continent.”

“Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort.”  (John Ruskin)

Monday 19 November 2018
INTERNATIONAL MEN’S DAY

Celebrated in over a dozen countries, Men’s Day celebrates their contributions to society, highlights male health issues, and stresses the need for good male role models especially for the sake of young people.

“Have patience with all things, but chiefly have patience with yourself.”  (St Francis de Sales)

Sunday 18th November
33rd SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME and
NOVEMBER: MONTH OF ‘THE HOLY SOULS’

A mid-month reminder that, since the sixteenth century, the Church has observed November as a month to specially pray for those who have died and are still growing in their capacity to experience God’s presence. The traditional term ‘holy souls’ suggests that they are on their way to sainthood, and perhaps their state of need of our prayers is captured by the image in Jn 9:4 (‘the night when no one can work’).

“An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises.”  (Mae West)

Saturday 17th November
INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS’ DAY

Originating in a 1939 uprising of students in Prague against Nazi pervery, this Students’ Day continues to be observed mainly as a day of students standing up against oppression in its many guises. The day brings a reminder that the young are often clear-sighted about those evils to which their elders have become accustomed and insensitive.

“Long-range goals keep you from being frustrated by short-term failures.”  (J.C. Penney)

Friday 16th November
TOLERANCE DAY

Though mere tolerance may seem rather ungenerous and patronizing, it is certainly a starting-point in the perennial struggle to rise above racism, discrimination, xenophobia, and other manifestations of crude intolerance. And our prayer and accompanying action for justice do not need to stop at tolerance, but can embrace more positive values like respect and inclusion and affirmation.

“If you are irritated by every rub, how will you be polished?”  (Rumi)

Thursday 15th November
RECYCLING DAY

Recycling Day is an initiative from the USA, a country that has doubled its recycling efforts in the past decade to achieve a rate of almost one-third of all its ‘trash’. We are encouraged to get involved practically both by making the effort to recycle our own waste and by buying recycled goods.

“Start by doing what's necessary, then what's possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”  (St Francis)

Wednesday 14th November
WORLD DIABETES DAY

World Diabetes Day is a UN day that draws attention to the need for education, prevention, and management in regard to a disease that affects 285 million people currently and appears to be alarmingly on the increase. Becoming aware of the risk factors (like lack of exercise and unhealthy diet) and of the warning signs (like excessive thirst, hunger, or tiredness) is a starting-point. For more, visit the very informative site www.worlddiabetesday.org

“When we walk to the edge of all the light we have, and take the step into the darkness of the unknown, we must believe that one of two things will happen. There will be something solid for us to stand on... or we will be taught to fly.”  (Frank Outlaw)

Tuesday 13th November
KINDNESS DAY

Kindness Day, described as “a day that encourages individuals to overlook boundaries, race, and religion”, is an initiative from the east that resonates strongly with Edmund Rice spirituality. Look up the website www.worldkindness.org.sg

“If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.”  (Colin Powell)

Monday 12th November 2018
SAINT JOSAPHAT

Josaphat, a monk who was ordained Archbishop and died a martyr, is remembered for leading the regeneration of Church life among the Ruthenians – Belarusians and Ukrainians. He is greatly venerated by Eastern Europeans and people of Polish origins.

“Inspirations never go in for long engagements; they demand immediate marriage to action.”  (Brendan Francis)

Sunday 11 November
32nd SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME and
COMMEMORATING THE END OF WORLD WAR ONE

Known variously as Remembrance Day, Armistice Day, Poppy Day, and (as broadened in USA) Veterans’ Day, this was the day in 1918 when ‘The Great War’ was signed to a close at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. One of the oldest rituals marking this event is the observance of a Two Minute Silence at this hour. About 9 million combatants lost their lives in WWI, 7 million were permanently disabled, and 15 million were seriously injured; countless others died of war-time starvation and of the famines and diseases that flowed from the war.

“An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.”  (Mohandas Ghandi)

Saturday 10 November
ST LEO THE GREAT

A 5th Century Italian Pope, Leo is remembered as the one who decisively established the primacy of the Bishop of Rome among his fellow-Bishops. Centralised authority has developed into a highly nuanced practice in the Church over the years. While strong centralization has its weaknesses, to downplay the value of its checks-and-balances would be to overlook its worth to the ultimate fidelity of the community of Jesus.

“You were born rich with 18 billion bountiful, beautiful, totally available and in all probability under-used brain cells awaiting your desire, decision and directional compass to take you onward, upward, goodward and Godward.”  (Mark Victor Hansen)

Friday 9 November
ANNIVERSARY OF THE FALL OF THE BERLIN WALL

The USA is among the several countries that celebrate a national freedom day, but also celebrates today as World Freedom Day to mark the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall 28 years ago. It could serve as an occasion to treasure one of those gifts that is most sharply appreciated where it is absent: freedom.

“The greatest good you can do for another is not just share your riches, but reveal to them their own.”  (Benjamin Disraeli)

Thursday 8 November
WORLD URBANISM DAY

Celebrated in 30 countries on four continents, World Urbanism Day is intended to raise awareness of the environmental impact of the development of cities, and “to recognize and promote the role of planning in creating livable communities”.

“You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.”  (Naguib Mahfouz)

Wednesday 7 November
Anticipating INVENTORS’ DAY (on Friday)

Several countries celebrate an Inventors’ Day to remember, honour, and appreciate the contribution of inventors to our everyday lives and to the progress of our world. We may like to join the three German-speaking countries – Germany, Austria, and Switzerland – in doing so today. There’s a saying that reminds us: “It is true that ordinary people keep the wheels turning; but never forget that it took an extraordinary person to invent the wheel.”

“Self-respect is the fruit of discipline; and the sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself.”  (Abraham Joshua Heschel)

Tuesday 6 November
ALL SAINTS OF AFRICA

Around the time of the feast of All Saints, Africa celebrates today its own array of saints, sometimes known as ‘our ancestors in the faith’. Reverence for ancestors is a strong element in many African cultures, resonating with the Christian tradition of celebrating those on whose spiritual shoulders we stand.

“Thank you, God, for this good life and forgive us if we do not love it enough.”  (Garrison Keillor)

Monday 5 November 2018
MONTH OF THE HOLY SOULS

November is, in Catholic tradition, the month highlighting prayer for the dead, an ancient Biblically-based practice. One way of seeing ‘the Holy Souls’ is as those whose vision is still in the process of being clarified to enable them to see ‘the face of God’. Another is to see them as those still in need of prayer for reconciliation with God. The tradition is a reminder of the power of prayer and also of the invitation to participate in God’s loving nurturing of all.

“There are no short cuts to any place worth going.”  (Beverly Sills)

Sunday 4 November
31st SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME &
ST CHARLES BORROMEO

Charles Borromeo was a leading 16th Century church reformer. Believing that ignorance and poor education were the source of many of the Church’s problems, he put emphasis on learning, including adequate preparation of future priests. He became Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, dying at age 46.

“Nothing else can quite substitute for a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words of praise. They're absolutely free -- and worth a fortune.”  (Sam Walton)

Saturday 3 November
ST MARTIN DE PORRES and
DOMINICA’S INDEPENDENCE DAY

Martin lived four centuries ago but the authenticity of his life’s message about combining prayer and service to the poor and the powerless - as Edmund Rice did - continues to ensure the popularity of this Dominican mulatto saint right up to the present.

Dominica was the first Caribbean island where the Christian Brothers established a community (in 1956, followed by Antigua in 1958 – see above). The community continues to serve at St Mary’s Academy in the capital Roseau. A second community served for some years in Portsmouth.

“The most important thing in communication is to hear  what isn't being said.”  (Peter Drucker)

Friday 2 November
ALL SOULS’ DAY

All Souls Day is an occasion for commemorating all those who have died and who may still be in need of our prayers in their personal progress towards readiness and capacity for God’s presence. Some of the rusty practices associated with this day in the past – like celebrants circling altars as they ended one Mass to begin another, and then another – may be liturgically insensitive and humanly unimaginative, yet the day’s call to pray for ‘the faithful departed’ remains perennially valid and valuable.

“I have learned to live each day as it comes, and not to borrow trouble by dreading tomorrow.”  (Dorothy Dix)

Thursday 1 November
ALL SAINTS’ DAY and
WORLD VEGAN DAY and
ANTIGUA’S NATIONAL DAY

All Saints Day celebrates all who have died and entered lasting union with God, not just canonized saints. So it is the feast-day of those not-officially-acknowledged saints we have known and lived with. It is celebrated as a holiday in over two dozen countries; in some other countries, it is transferred to the following Sunday.

Veganism is a philosophy of avoiding all exploitation of animals, leading to the avoidance of all animal-derived products whether for food (e.g. meat, eggs, seafood) or clothing (e.g. fur, leather, wool) or other purposes (e.g. candlewax, lanolin). Because the emphasis is on principle, not rules, some practices remain open to debate (e.g. the consumption of honey).

Antigua has been on the Edmund Rice map since the start of 1958 when the Christian Brothers established a pioneer community of four in St John’s, to teach at St Joseph’s Academy. In 1971, the American Province passed responsibility to the Canadian Province. The school developed into the premier grammar school in Antigua. Shortage of manpower caused the Brothers to withdraw from the school’s administration in 2001, when the first Lay Head took over. The Brothers left the island in 2003. Two years later, the Western American and Canadian and Eastern American Provinces merged into a single Province called Edmund Rice Christian Brothers of North America. (Source: Brother Raph Bellows.)

“As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world ... as in being able to remake ourselves.”  (Mahatma Gandhi)

Wednesday 31 October
HALLOWEEN and
REFORMATION DAY

Halloween – the eve of All Hallows Day (All Saints) – has become tied to ancient beliefs about the presence of spirits at summer’s end in the northern hemisphere, as the light part of the year gives way to the dark. A southern equivalent, as the darker part of the year gives way to the light, has yet to be defined: perhaps it is a good time to lay-to-rest old ghosts and burdensome memories.

Reformation Day commemorates the most prominent watershed in the Church’s story and highlights the challenges with which division faces us today. An encouraging scholarly ‘take’ on the differences between today’s mainstream Christian denominations, though, is that they are much less significant than the differences between ‘the churches’ in the century following the lifetime of Jesus.

“A smile is the most powerful social tool you have at your disposal.”  (Zig Ziglar)

Tuesday 30 October
anticipating LATIN-AMERICAN MONTH (November)

The Edmund Rice Network is represented in five countries of Latin America: Paraguay, Argentina, Bolivia, Perú, and Uruguay. This includes over thirty Christian Brothers. To find out more about them, see their website www.familiaedmundorice.org

“History has noted that the most notable winners usually encounter heartbreaking obstacles before they triumphed. They won because they refused to become discouraged by their defeats.”  (B.C. Forbes)

Monday 29 October 2018
WORLD PSORIASIS DAY

The skin-disorder of Psoriasis has become a world health challenge, affecting 3% of people. Though it is not contagious, it often involves stigma in addition to the discomfort of the disease itself. As yet there is no cure – see www.worldpsoriasisday.org

“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness.”  (Seneca)

Sunday 28 October
30th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME and
BREAST-CANCER AWARENESS MONTH

After skin-cancers, breast cancer is the most common kind of cancer afflicting women. October has become the month that highlights this, prompting early detection and calling to mind those affected.

“Self-esteem is like a difficult-to-cultivate flower. It requires frequent nurturing that occurs when you keep your word and follow through on your promises.”  (Derrick Bell)

Saturday 27 October
DISABILITY AWARENESS MONTH and
MAKE-A-DIFFERENCE DAY

Another American initiative pinned to the month of October is a call to reaffirm commitment to equal opportunities. In particular this involves taking account of the employment needs – and acknowledging the contributions – of people living with all kinds of disabilities.

Make-a-Difference Day is celebrated on the 4th Saturday of October. Today is the 27th anniversary of this USA tradition of having a rallying day for community service. Though it is not an international observance, it will surely resonate with Edmund Rice people throughout the thirty-or-so countries where his spirit is making its mark.

“There’s only one direction you can coast.”  (Brian Tracy)

Friday 26 October
FAMILY HISTORY MONTH

The North American practice of highlighting family history in the month of October, like the honouring of ancestors in many ancient cultures, reminds us of the shoulders on which we stand and of the mystery of our interconnectedness.

“The first step toward success is taken when you refuse to be a captive of the environment in which you first find yourself.”  (Mark Caine)

Thursday 25 October
DISARMAMENT WEEK

The week of 24-30 October is Disarmament Week, a UN reminder of the need to reverse the dangerous arms race. On top of the threat posed by the very existence of nuclear weapons, an average of 2000 people die each day as a result of armed conflict, while landmines continue to maim people and to make huge areas unsafe and unusable.

“As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world… as in being able to remake ourselves.”  (Mahatma Gandhi)

Wednesday 24 October
UNITED NATIONS DAY and
WORLD DEVELOPMENT INFORMATION DAY and
ZAMBIA’s INDEPENDENCE DAY

United Nations Day helps to make known the UN’s aims and achievements and to attract broad-based ‘buy-in’ to caring about ‘the bigger picture’ and the voiceless in our world.

World Development Information Day coincides with United Nations Day to draw attention to the need for international co-operation in addressing the world’s development problems.

Zambia, celebrating its independence today, is a significant country in the Edmund Rice world. Christian Brothers from the USA and then from Ireland pioneered making the influence of Edmund felt in scattered and remote parts of this sparsely populated country. Some years ago their number was overtaken by Zambian-born Christian Brothers, and today the country has a growing network of Edmund Rice people. Western Zambia was chosen as the site for the Christian Brothers’ first new cluster of communities at the spearhead of a Congregation-wide plan called “Our Way into the Future”.

“The ideal attitude is to be physically loose and mentally tight.”  (Arthur Ashe)

Tuesday 23 October
DIVERSITY AWARENESS MONTH

Diversity embraces all aspects of human life, from ethnicity and culture, to faith and sexuality, to gifts and needs, to style and taste. The month of October reminds us of our need for respectful appreciation and handling of differences, for the simultaneous acknowledgement of common ground, and for the spiritual movement to include rather than exclude.

“Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs.”  (Pearl Strachan)

Monday 22 October 2018
STUTTERING AWARENESS DAY and
BLESSED JOHN PAUL II

International Stuttering Awareness Day turns our attention to the challenges faced by the 60 million people who stutter – prejudice, discrimination, and even isolation. See www.isastutter.org

John Paul II, the Polish-born Pope who played the role of global Catholic bridge-builder (‘Pontiff’) for over 26 years, was beatified on 1 May 2010, so this is only the eighth time his feast day occurs. Like Edmund Rice, his life’s witness now awaits the official confirmation of canonization as a Saint.

“Refuse to criticize, condemn, or complain. Instead, think and talk only about the things you really want.”  (Brian Tracy)

Sunday 21 October
29th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME and
ST URSULA

Though historical details about St Ursula are vague – various traditions place her in four different centuries! – yet multiple legends and ways of honouring her demonstrate her lasting impact. In our prayer today we might remember Angela Merici’s Ursuline Sisters and their work in the education of girls.

“Wisdom is the lesson learned, applied.”  (Rick Beneteau)

Saturday 20 October
BIRTH OF THE BÁB (BAHAI TRADITION) and
OSTEOPOROSIS DAY

The Báb, the teacher and law-giver honoured as one of the forerunners of the Bahai faith, was executed at the age of thirty in 1850. His story, a classic tale of prophetic boldness and institutional reaction, can be read on Wikipedia.

Osteoporosis can be the underlying cause of a fracture, and often remains undiagnosed. See the website www.worldosteoporosisday.org

“Once we realize that imperfect understanding is the human condition, there is no shame in being wrong, only in failing to correct our mistakes.”  (George Soros)

Friday 19 October
THE NORTH AMERICAN MARTYRS

Eight Jesuit missionaries, killed in the mid-17th Century in Canada and upstate New York, often named as ‘Isaac Jogues and his Companions’, have become the patron saints of Canada, where their feast day is celebrated a week later than generally. This day is a reminder of the sacrifices that so many have made to share the light of Christ with people of other cultures.

“It is better to be prepared for an opportunity and not have one than to have an opportunity and not be prepared.”  (Whitney Young, Jr)

Thursday 18 October
ST LUKE and
CONFLICT RESOLUTION DAY

Luke the Evangelist, apparently a medical man, is credited with writing not only one of the four Gospels but also the Acts of the Apostles. One feature of his Gospel is its feminine emphasis – its special interest in the female characters in the story of Jesus and the ‘feminine side’ of Jesus himself. Recalling this is also a reminder of the strong feminine influences in the life of Edmund Rice – his mother Margaret, his wife Mary, his daughter Mary, Nano Nagle, St Teresa of Avila, and of course Mary the mother of Jesus. It may also be a day to celebrate the distinctive contribution of women to the whole ministry tradition that has grown out of Edmund’s spirituality – from extraordinary teachers working in schools founded by Christian Brothers and Presentation Brothers, to women of all ages involved in the spectrum of the Edmund Rice world today.

Conflict Resolution Day, celebrated on the 3rd Thursday of October, promotes the use of peaceful means of resolving conflict in all spheres, from families to schools to governments. The website www.crnet.org/crday offers information and resources including a poster (i.a. in English y español).

“The forgiving state of mind is a magnetic power for attracting good.”  (Catherine Ponder)

Wednesday 17 October
SAINT MARY MacKILLOP

Mary MacKillop was formally recognized six years ago today as Australia’s first Saint. Her fascinating story includes a crippling experience of excommunication (later lifted), the real ‘reason’ for which is becoming clearer – and more revealing – in our time. She founded the Sisters of St Joseph, or Josephites, who focused upon the education of the children of the poor, whom they followed to remote locations. Explore the story on the excellent website www.marymackillop.org.au

“Strive for perfection in everything. Take the best that exists and make it better. If it doesn't exist, create it. Accept nothing nearly right or good enough.”  (Henry Royce)

Tuesday 16 October
anticipating tomorrow’s END POVERTY DAY

The International Day for the Eradication of Poverty is intended as a strategy to make the voice of the poor heard. See www.overcomingpoverty.org for a variety of resources.

“The imagination equips us to perceive reality before it’s fully materialized.”  (Mark Victor Hansen)

Monday 15 October 2018
ST TERESA OF AVILA and
GLOBAL HANDWASHING DAY

St Teresa was a 16th Century Spanish Carmelite who is remembered as a mystic and a reformer. It is significant that this saint had a special attraction for Edmund Rice… the contemplative dimension of Edmund Rice spirituality continues to challenge his followers to this day.

Handwashing with soap, so taken for granted in the developed world, remains a challenge in developing lands; yet it is a simple and effective strategy for preventing the spread of many dangerous and ‘killer’ diseases. Whichever part of the globe we find ourselves in, remembering that it is the same globe, we can take part in today’s campaign either by prayer or direct action.

“Ability is what you're capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it.”  (Lou Holtz)

Sunday 14 October
28th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME and
WORLD STANDARDS DAY

The purpose of World Standards Day is to raise awareness of the importance of standardization to the global economy. The focus in 2018 is “International Standards and the Fourth Industrial Revolution” – see the website www.iso.org

“You can’t always change your situation, but you can always change your attitude.”  (Larry Hargraves)

Saturday 13 October
OUR LADY OF FATIMA

101 years have passed since the famous appearances of Mary on the 13th day of several months in Portugal. Look up ‘Our Lady of Fátima’ on Wikipedia for a detailed account.

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all.”  (Helen Keller)

Friday 12 October
COLUMBUS & THE AMERICAS

Today is the day when, 526 years ago, Christopher Columbus’ expedition party first came upon an island of the Americas, somewhere in the Bahamas. The term ‘discovery of America’ is controversial because its Eurocentric perspective can be interpreted as arrogant, yet 1492 remains a significant breakthrough in human history because it spanned a huge ocean and irreversibly linked continents.

“Adventure isn't hanging on a rope off the side of a mountain. Adventure is an attitude that we must apply to the day to day obstacles of life – facing new challenges, seizing new opportunities, testing our resources against the unknown and in the process, discovering our own unique potential.”  (John Amatt)

Thursday 11 October
POPE JOHN XXIII and
DISASTER REDUCTION DAY

Beatified 18 years ago, John XXIII was the first Pope in 100 years to make pastoral visits in his Diocese of Rome. Though his appointment as Pope was seen as just a stop-gap, he had the vision to summon the Second Vatican Council, which has had such far-reaching consequences. His writings include these words which we might use in our prayer today: “Consult not your fears but your hopes and dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what is still possible for you to do.”

The International Day for Reduction of Natural Disasters, celebrated on the second Wednesday of October, turns the world’s eyes to the need for proactive efforts to prevent disasters, or at least reduce the risk of disaster, and to become alert and ready to respond when natural disasters happen. People who are poor are particularly vulnerable to such disasters – for example, it is estimated that each year up to 175 million children are affected by disasters. See the website www.unisdr.org

“Conviction is worthless unless it is converted into conduct.”  (Thomas Carlysle)

Wednesday 10 October
WORLD MENTAL HEALTH DAY

In addition to its official purpose as “a day for global mental health education, awareness and advocacy”, today serves as a reminder of the importance of ‘mental hygiene’ – of all practices that promote good mental health: spiritual practices such as stillness and meditation, physical practices such as exercise and getting fresh air, and all those practices that sustain and enhance emotional well-being and stimulation of intellect and imagination…

“Where there is an open mind, there will always be a frontier.”  (Charles F. Kettering)

Tuesday 9 October
WORLD POST DAY and
JOHN HENRY NEWMAN

World Post Day is an occasion to appreciate the gift of connectedness – the way the postal system evolved in response to this human need, and the way that telephones, e-mail, and internet-calls have enhanced our ability to be in touch with one another.

Cardinal Newman stands as a major figure in 19th Century Christianity, who like Edmund Rice now awaits canonization. When we sing “Lead kindly light” and “Praise to the holiest in the height”, we are singing his words.

“Vocabulary enables us to interpret and to express. If you have a limited vocabulary, you will also have a limited vision and a limited future.”  (Jim Rohn)

Monday 8 October 2018
CANADA’s THANKSGIVING DAY

Celebrated on the second Monday of October, Canada’s Thanksgiving Day was timed to give thanks to God at the close of the harvest season. We remember the Edmund Rice Network in Canada on this special day in their calendar.

“When work, commitment, and pleasure all become one and you reach that deep well where passion lives, nothing is impossible.”  (Nancy Coey)

Sunday 7 October
27th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME and
OUR LADY OF THE ROSARY

The repetitive rhythm of the Rosary is echoed in other forms of prayer in other traditions. Perhaps this suggests a naturalness to this form of prayer – a support for concentration and for focusing. Certainly many have found repetitive prayer invaluable in times of illness, pain, and other forms of stress and distress. The late John Paul II developed an additional set of ‘Mysteries of Light’ to complement the Rosary’s traditional 3 sets of 5 mysteries, and further creativity with the form is always possible.

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”  (Howard Thurman)

Saturday 6 October
anticipating the 55th ANNIVERSARY OF THE START OF VATICAN II (on 11 October)

The significance of the Second Vatican Council continues to unfold half a century later. It is the boldest illustration within living memory of the fact that the Church is a work in progress, a learning community whose understanding of itself and of God’s wisdom needs to keep growing.

“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.”  (Bertrand Russell)

Friday 5 October
WORLD TEACHERS’ DAY

A day to remember with gratitude those Teachers who meant most to us and all true Teachers whose invaluable contribution to the world is largely made in humble obscurity. For those of us who are Teachers ourselves, perhaps today is also a reminder to pray for all those we have taught.

“Find a place inside where there's joy, and the joy will burn out the pain.”  (Joseph Campbell)

Thursday 4 October
ST FRANCIS OF ASSISI and
WORLD ANIMALS DAY

The story of how Francis gradually came to understand his call to “repair my house which is falling into ruins” resonates for all who are responsive to signs of the Church straying from the way of Jesus. Francis is the patron saint of animals and of the natural environment. In addition to founding the Franciscans, his spirituality has inspired a large number of other congregations and groups – as has been happening with the spirituality of Edmund Rice in our time.

World Animals Day obviously arises from the feast of St Francis – a day for celebrating what Francis might have called “our little brothers and sisters” and perhaps specially for appreciating the unconditional love, forgiveness, and ‘bounce-back’ that our domestic dogs and cats model for us.

“For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness; and for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone.”  (Audrey Hepburn)

Wednesday 3 October
anticipating WORLD SPACE WEEK

Starting tomorrow, the UN’s World Space Week – 4-10 October – is observed “to celebrate each year at the international level the contributions of space science and technology to the betterment of the human condition”. See the website www.worldspaceweek.org

“A pound of pluck is worth a ton of luck.”  (James Garfield)

Tuesday 2 October
INTERNATIONAL DAY OF NON-VIOLENCE and
GUARDIAN ANGELS

The International Day of Non-Violence commemorates Gandhi’s birthday (“Gandhi Jayanti”). The day serves to renew the challenge of finding constructive alternatives to violence, not just on the macro-scale, but in little everyday ways in our lives.

Though Guardian Angels may seem to belong to the faith of childhood, many of us have stories to tell in which we use this term to identify a pivotal presence or character that we have experienced. Perhaps we might acknowledge this day by getting in touch with all that is childlike in our faith, and hearing anew the affirmation that Jesus had for this.

“The ability to discipline yourself to delay gratification in the short term in order to enjoy greater rewards in the long term is the indispensable prerequisite for success.”  (Brian Tracy)

Monday 1 October 2018
ST THÉRÈSE OF LISIEUX and
WORLD SENIOR CITIZENS DAY and
WORLD HABITAT DAY and
VEGETARIAN DAY

Thérèse of the Child Jesus, a 19th Century Carmelite nun who died aged only 24, has inspired and encouraged many Christians with her way of simple trust in God. She is honoured as co-patron of Missions (along with St Francis Xavier) as an affirmation of the contribution that prayer can make to the work of spreading and sharing God’s Word.

The UN’s International Day of Older Persons is a reminder firstly to treasure our elderly and to honour the contribution they have made, and secondly to be aware of issues affecting them, such as the trial of failing faculties and the horror of elder-abuse.

World Habitat Day, celebrated on the first Monday of October, is a UN invitation “to reflect on the state of our towns and cities, and the basic right of all to adequate shelter. It is also intended to remind the world of its collective responsibility for the future of the human habitat.” See the website www.unhabitat.org

Vegetarian Day is an annual invitation to consider embracing the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle. The day celebrates “the joy, compassion, and life-enhancing possibilities of vegetarianism”. See the website www.worldvegetarianday.org

“If you do not feel yourself growing in your work and your life broadening and deepening, if your task is not a perpetual tonic to you, you have not found your place.”  (Orison Swett Marden)

Sunday 30 September
26th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME and
ST JEROME and
INTERNATIONAL TRANSLATION DAY

St Jerome’s special role in the development of the Church was his translation of the Bible into Latin. “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ”, he said, and he spent his best years making the Scriptures more accessible to Christians of his day. A fitting memorial might be to affirm the role of Scripture in our lives by reviewing how it features in our spiritual practice.

International Translation Day marks the significance of a growing profession. It also symbolizes the way globalization has multiplied links across old barriers and called upon all of us to think and interact globally. The day is of course linked to St Jerome’s groundbreaking work.

“One man practicing sportsmanship is far better than a hundred teaching it.”  (Knute Rockne)

Saturday 29 September
THE ARCHANGELS

Today is the traditional feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, known in some parts of the world as Michaelmas, a name sometimes given to the first term of the academic year which starts around this time in those places. As Scripture portrays angels as messengers of God, today might be a good day for remembering those who have been God’s messengers in our lives.

“Great opportunities to help others seldom come, but small ones surround us every day.”  (Sally Koch)

Friday 28 September
WORLD RABIES DAY and
GREEN CONSUMER DAY

Every ten minutes someone in the world dies from the preventable disease of Rabies, usually as a result of a dog-bite; and nearly half of these deaths are children under the age of 15. World Rabies Day is a global initiative to raise awareness of this, and to move towards making the disease history through control, prevention, and education.

Green Consumer Day is an invitation to re-think what we buy and the impact this has on our environment. Though our individual choices may make only a negligible difference by themselves, together with others they can become a global shift in a healthier direction for our world.

“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.”  (Robert Louis Stevenson)

Thursday 27 September
ST VINCENT DE PAUL and
WORLD TOURISM DAY

Vincent de Paul was a French priest of humble origins whose life of dedication to the poor continues to highlight this key aspect of the mission of Christ and of his Body in the world today. There is a special resonance between the charisms of Vincent and Edmund.

The purpose of the United Nations World Tourism Day is “to raise awareness on the role of tourism within the international community and to demonstrate how it affects social, cultural, political and economic values worldwide”. The theme this year is Protecting Culture and Heritage.

“Thought is creative. You create your entire life with your thoughts, hour by hour and minute by minute.”  (Brian Tracy)

Wednesday 26 September
REFLECTING ON PROGRESS

On this day in 1973 the Concorde made its first non-stop crossing of the Atlantic in record-breaking time. Progress is typically marked in this kind of bigger/higher/wider/further/faster way, but it may set us pondering whether more is always an enhancement. The frequency with which we invoke the saying “Less is more” suggests that there is another way of evaluating things. And that is the kind of paradox to which Jesus so often pointed, in regard to the different way God sees things.

“The life you are leading is simply a reflection of your thinking.”  (Doug Firebaugh)

Tuesday 25 September
ST FINBARR

Finbarr was an Irish monk who lived in an island hermitage before founding a monastic settlement and centre of learning that eventually grew into the city of Cork. He is the patron saint of this city with its strong connections to both the Presentation Brothers and Christian Brothers.

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”  (Aristotle)

Monday 24 September 2018
OUR LADY OF MERCY

The story behind the title ‘Our Lady of Mercy’ (also known as Our Lady of Ransom) goes back to the ransoming of slaves in the Middle Ages, an act of mercy with which Mary became associated. We might pray today for release from all forms of slavery which we encounter both in our own lives and in others – from addictions and unhealthy dependencies to abduction and trafficking.

“If everyone is thinking alike, then someone isn’t thinking.”  (Denis Waitley)

Sunday 23rd September
25th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME and
PADRE PIO

Padre Pio was an Italian Capuchin Priest who died in 1968 and whose practical spirituality continues to hold great appeal. He became famous – and controversial – because of his stigmata experience.

“Where there is an open mind there will always be a frontier.”  (Charles F. Kettering)

Saturday 22nd September
THE EQUINOX and
ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE

On this pivot day of Spring in the southern hemisphere and of Autumn in the northern hemisphere, the equinox, our prayer might embrace the connectedness of the globe and all the opposites and contrasts that it holds together.

Yesterday was also World Alzheimer’s Disease Day so let us keep in our prayers all those affected by this disease and its distressing effects. For information about the disease, see www.alz.co.uk

“Ordinary people believe only in the possible. Extraordinary people visualize not what is possible or probable, but rather what is impossible. And by visualizing the impossible, they begin to see it as possible.”  (Cherie Carter-Scott)

Friday 21st September
ST MATTHEW and
INTERNATIONAL DAY OF PEACE

Matthew, to whom one of the written gospel traditions is attributed, was a tax collector. In calling him to be a disciple, Jesus broke through a strong social taboo and simply waived aside religious prejudices about who was acceptable to God. One meaningful way to mark Matthew’s feastday might be to identify who is burdened by similar prejudices within us today.

The International Day of Peace invites us to creative acts of peace, and to strengthening the ideal of peace across the globe. See the websites  www.internationaldayofpeace.org and  www.peacebeginswithme.eu

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”  (Helen Keller)

Thursday 20th September
THE KOREAN MARTYRS

Over 8000 Koreans died in 19th century persecutions, and over 100 were canonized together in the 1980s. We might pray today for all who are restricted in any of the freedoms we take for granted.

“Dependent people need others to get what they want. Independent people can get what they want through their own efforts. Interdependent people combine their own efforts with the efforts of others to achieve their greatest success.”  (Stephen Covey)

Wednesday 19th September
TALK-LIKE-A-PIRATE DAY

This (frivolous) international observance, born of a pirate-like gutterance in reaction to a sports injury, might serve to focus our gratitude on the lighthearted side of life – on the gift of fun, on the leaven of parody and playfulness.

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope or confidence.”  (Helen Keller)

Tuesday 18th September
WORLD WATER MONITORING DAY

Water Monitoring Day aims at involving and empowering citizens all over the world in the vital responsibility of monitoring the quality of our water. This is done by means of a simple test-kit that checks on a number of water-quality parameters. A recent aim was to extend participation to a million people in 100 countries.

“Emotions will either serve or master, depending on who is in charge.”  (Jim Rohn)

Monday 17th September 2018
HILDEGARD OF BINGEN

A visionary mystic and artist, Hildegard, a German Benedictine Abbess, was a creative interpreter of theology. Among other forms, she wrote poetry and letters, composed music and songs, and devised the first surviving morality play. She is commonly, though not formally, regarded as a saint.

“Civilization is the intelligent management of human emotions.”  (Jim Rohn)

Sunday 9 September
23rd SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME and
ST PETER CLAVER

A Spanish-born Jesuit, Peter Claver spent forty years ministering to slaves in a port where they arrived after being transported across the Atlantic in horrifying conditions that killed a third of them and left many ill and terrified. We might pray for all those who died in this hard-to-imagine chapter of human history, and for those who suffer comparable dehumanization to this day.

“If you think a certain thought long enough and hard enough, it becomes a fixed belief and you will find yourself behaving on the outside in a manner consistent with it.”  (Brian Tracy)

Saturday 8 September
TRADITIONAL BIRTHDAY OF THE MOTHER OF JESUS and
INTERNATIONAL LITERACY DAY

Coming nine months after the feast of her Immaculate Conception, this feast of Mary’s birthday has been celebrated since the 5th century. Maybe we can say that it is one of countless traditional ways of acknowledging the level of spiritual evolvement that Mary represents for the human race, and how that played its role in the loving design of God.

International Literacy Day reminds us to treasure the gift – and power – of being able to read, while drawing our attention to the millions who do not have this as a result of poverty and prejudice. One in five adults is effectively illiterate, two-thirds of these being women, and over 70 million children are not in school. The worst literacy levels are in South & West Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Arab States. This year the day focuses upon the theme of Literacies for the 21st Century. See www.unesco.org/en/literacy for more information.

“The most important thing about a man is what he believes in the depth of his being. This is the thing that makes him what he is, the thing that organizes him and feeds him; the thing that keeps him going in the face of untoward circumstances; the thing that gives him resistance and drive.”  (Hugh Stevenson Tigner)

Friday 7 September
THREATENED SPECIES DAY

Observed in Australia since 1996, Threatened Species Day reminds us of the vulnerability of creation, particularly to rash human practices. The growing international ‘red list’ of threatened species includes about 20% of all amphibians, about 10% of all mammals, and over 5% of all birds. Taking a lead from Australia, we might bring to our prayer today a concern for raised awareness and sensitivity.

“Getting outside of the box can not only be fun, it is sometimes necessary for our survival. It disrupts our inner programming, the mentality of going through life on ‘auto-pilot’ so that we can readily see bright new possibilities heading our way.”  (Gail Pursell Elliott)

Thursday 6 September
STILLBIRTH REMEMBRANCE DAY

Officially marked in much of North America, this day honours the thousands of babies who are stillborn, and is sometimes broadened to include other better-understood forms of pregnancy-loss and infancy-loss. In many cultures the days of “just not talking about it” have gone, and most people have some close experience of death during pregnancy or birth. In our prayer today we might join in this remembrance of children whose childhood was cut off before it began, and of the lasting grief of their mothers and those around them.

“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”  (Alexander Graham Bell)

Wednesday 5 September
TERESA OF CALCUTTA

Mother Teresa died 20 years ago at the age of 87, leaving a legacy of several groups devoted to hands-on service of the world’s poorest: her Sisters (the Missionaries of Charity, and their contemplative branch), a congregation of Brothers, three Lay groups, and a movement for Priests. Her style drew its share of criticism, but the authenticity of her wholeheartedness is unquestioned.

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.”  (Albert Einstein)

Tuesday 4 September
CLEAR DAY (IN SCIENTOLOGY)

Scientology speaks of ‘Clear’ as that state of mind attained when a person has overcome the influence of unwanted emotions and is in control of mental energy. One of many models of human development, it might serve as a reminder to appreciate and welcome the progressive stages of growth we can see in ourselves and those around us. The birthstone of September happens to be the sapphire, standing for clear thinking.

“Life is not the way it’s suppose to be; it’s the way it is. The way you cope with it is what makes the difference.”  (Virginia Satir)

Monday 3 September 2018
ST GREGORY THE GREAT

Gregory is remembered for his particularly vigorous thirteen-or-so years as Pope, during which he seems to have left very few thoughts unpublished. Born in Rome and coming to the papacy from a monastic background, he is seen as standing on the border between East and West, and between the ancient and medieval worlds. He is a reminder for us of the awesome growth the Body of Christ through the ages has undergone.

“If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I’ll bet they’d live a lot differently.”  (Bill Watterson)

Sunday 2 September
22nd SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME and
A NEW ACADEMIC YEAR APPROACHES

One of the starts associated with September is the new academic year in many parts of the world. As this approaches, we might pray for increasingly holistic values in our world’s education systems.

“Our greatest enemies, the ones we must fight most often, are within.”  (Thomas Paine)

Saturday 1 September
START OF SOUTHERN SPRING & NORTHERN AUTUMN and
START OF THE NEW LITURGICAL YEAR IN EASTERN ORTHODOX CHURCH

The start of the ‘in-between seasons’, Spring and Autumn, in the different hemispheres, is pinned to 1 September. These seasons of change and adaptation might call us to review what changes are befalling or calling us and to respond with openness, energy, and grace.

As the last third of the year begins, bringing signs of seasonal change, Christians of the Eastern Orthodox Church begin a new liturgical year – earlier than the tradition that takes Advent as the cycle’s new start. Today might prompt us to pray for the millions of Christians who have been brought up in this distinctive tradition.

“It is not the employer who pays wages -- he only handles the money. It is the product that pays wages.”  (Henry Ford)

Friday 31 August
TRINIDAD & TOBAGO – INDEPENDENCE DAY

We remember today the people of the Caribbean nation, Trinidad and Tobago, on the Edmund Rice map since 1948, as they celebrate their independence from Britain in 1962.

“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.”  (Pablo Picasso)

Thursday 30 August
INTERNATIONAL DAY OF THE DISAPPEARED

This is a day to bring to mind people who have disappeared, imprisoned in undisclosed places and conditions – and their loved ones who are left in suspension and pain. In addition to secret imprisonment, estimated to be practiced in some 30 countries including the Philippines and Latin American nations, there are those who have disappeared and are presumed dead, whose families have never had the chance to bury them or reach closure.

“The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary.”  (Vidal Sassoon)

Wednesday 29 August
EDMUND RICE’S ANNIVERSARY OF DEATH and
THE BEHEADING OF JOHN THE BAPTIST

Edmund Rice died on this day in 1844. In our prayer today, we might thank God for his life – a life that extends to this day through the countless groups and individuals who resonate to his spirit.

The story of the beheading of John is told in Matthew 14:1-12 and Mark 6:14-29, and this feastday is one of the earliest in Christian tradition. The fate of John illustrates the violence prompted by the fear that attends vested interests when confronted by courageous voices. We might pray today for all such courageous voices and for the gift of that same courage.

“It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not to worship what is known, but to question it.”  (Jacob Chanowski)

Tuesday 28 August
ST AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO

Augustine, famous as much for his conversion from a life of ‘debauchery’ as for his huge influence on Christian thought and theology, became a Bishop in the Roman Africa of the 4th/5th Centuries. His teachings are seen as landmarks in the history of the Church’s theology. Perhaps today we might pray for all who lead the intellectual vitality of our faith communities and for the energy to participate personally in this dimension of our faith.

“Life is too short to spend your precious time trying to convince a person who wants to live in gloom and doom otherwise. Give lifting that person your best shot, but don't hang around long enough for his or her bad attitude to pull you down. Instead, surround yourself with optimistic people.”  (Zig Ziglar)

Monday 27 August 2018
ST MONICA

St Monica was the mother of St Augustine, whose feast day follows tomorrow. Born in what is now called Algeria, her character and her prayer were instrumental in the Christian transformation of both her husband and her son. Her story continues to be a light in the life of many distressed mothers, and perhaps today invites us to join them in their prayers for their children.

“The most splendid achievement of all is in the constant striving to surpass yourself and to be worthy of your own approval.”  (Denis Waitley)

Sunday 26 August
21st SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME and
ST DAVID LEWIS

David Lewis was an Englishman martyred for practicing his priesthood in 17th Century England where fear of ‘a Popish plot’ was the bogeyman of the day. His feast might remind us to pray for all those who in our time are threatened and intimidated because of the practice of their religious faith.

“I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.”  (Helen Keller)

Saturday 25 August
ST JOSEPH CALASANCTIUS and
URUGUAY’S INDEPENDENCE DAY

José de Calasanz, as he is called in Spanish, lived in C16-17th, spending the latter two-thirds of his 90 years in Rome. He is seen as the founder of free public education in Europe, at a time when education was inaccessible to most people, and started a religious order for this ministry. His schools were notable for their inclusiveness, welcoming Jewish and Protestant children alongside Catholics. The curriculum was broad, holistic, and practical. In regard to discipline, Joseph pioneered the preventive approach, later developed by Don Bosco. Tragically the enterprise was ruined by child sexual abuse committed by a member of the Order, who used his family’s influence and ecclesiastical power to perpetrate his crimes with impunity, frustrating Joseph’s efforts to deal with the damage and blackmailing him with the threat of suppression of his Order. This is in fact what happened near the end of Joseph’s life; he died in disgrace and it was only eight years later that the name of his Order was cleared.

The Edmund Rice Network has a presence in Uruguay: Montevideo’s Colegio Stella Maris. This is the day Uruguay celebrates its independence from Brazil, which came as far back as 1825.

“It’s good to have money and the things money can buy, but it’s good, too, to check up once in a while and make sure that you haven’t lost the things money can’t buy.”  (George Horace Lormier)

Friday 24 August
ST BARTHOLOMEW

Bartholomew, one of the twelve Apostles of Jesus, is often identified with Nathanael (of John’s Gospel). Tradition holds that his mission took him to India and that he died a martyr.

“Some things you have to do every day. Eating seven apples on Saturday night instead of one a day just isn’t going to get the job done.”  (Jim Rohn)

Thursday 23 August
INTERNATIONAL DAY FOR THE REMEMBRANCE OF THE SLAVE TRADE & ITS ABOLITION
and ST ROSE OF LIMA

A day designated by UNESCO to memorialize the transatlantic slave trade. The horror of this chapter in human history may have been blunted by the passing of time, but its millions of abused souls can still enter our prayer today, as can the consequences that are playing out even now.

Rose of Lima became the first canonized saint of the Americas. Remembered for her combination of prayer and love for the poor, she only lived 31 years, spending the second half of her life as a Dominican. Her country, Perú, has an Edmund Rice Network including four Christian Brothers communities, two of these in Lima itself.

“Be prepared to ride the cycles and trends of life; success is never permanent, and failure is never final.”  (Brian Tracy)

Wednesday 22 August
THE QUEENSHIP OF MARY

This title for the mother of Jesus attempts to acknowledge her unique role in God’s plan. Though Queenship may not speak to a modern world, it remains strongly based in Catholic tradition, occurring in classic prayers and hymns like Salve Regina, Ave Regina Coelorum, and Regina Coeli. Perhaps in our time we can find new freshness in the metaphor by focusing on its unfolding meaning rather than its dated reference.

“You’re never as good as everyone tells you when you win, and you’re never as bad as they say when you lose.”  (Lou Holtz)

Tuesday 21 August
ST PIUS X

Pius X was a Pope who shared with Edmund a heart for the poor and compassion for the plight of poor people. This is the day he died, after eleven years in office.

“I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness for it shows me the stars.”  (Og Mandino)

Monday 20 August 2018
ST BERNARD

Bernard of Clairvaux, a leading figure in the history of monasticism, spent forty years as a monk. It was from this relatively peaceful state of life that he was called in to help settle controversy and strife in the Church. He became the first saint of the Cistercian Order. We could pray today for all who embrace the monastic life.

“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you help them to become what they are capable of being.”  (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

Sunday 19 August
SUNDAY and
WORLD HUMANITARIAN DAY

Being marked this year only for the tenth time, the UN-sponsored World Humanitarian Day commemorates the sacrifice of all who have spent or lost their lives responding to humanitarian crises. We are invited to bring to prayer the whole range of those who could be described as humanitarians, past and present, known and unknown to us, especially those who have made ‘the supreme sacrifice’ of their lives.

“Encourage one another. Many times a word of praise or thanks or appreciation or cheer has kept people on their feet.”  (Charles Swindoll)

Saturday 18 August
ST ALBERTO HURTADO

Chile’s second saint, Alberto Hurtado, was a Jesuit who lived in the first half of the 20th century. His energetic ministry to the poor of Chile focused especially on the needs of youth and on bringing the social teachings of the Church to oppressed workers. The questions and challenges he posed earned him labels from ruffled fellow Catholics. His practical sense of justice and his love for young people both have a clear resonance with Edmund Rice and his followers.

“Do it now. It is not safe to leave a generous feeling to the cooling influences of the world.”  (Thomas Guthrie)

Friday 17 August
MARCUS GARVEY

Commemorated on his birthday, Jamaican Marcus Garvey rose to prominence as a leader within the African diaspora. His vision was of a solidarity and unity that transcended boundaries and dispersion. Perhaps our prayer today might embrace that ideal, in our own ways and contexts.

“Find a place inside where there’s joy, and the joy will burn out the pain.”  (Joseph Campbell)

Thursday 16 August
GOZAN NO OKURIBI (DAIMONJI)

The culmination of the festival of Gozan No Okuribi in Kyoto, Japan, involves the synchronized lighting of five giant mountainside bonfires to mark the departure of visiting ancestral spirits. Perhaps, in solidarity with this particular honouring of ancestors’ role in our lives, we might remember and reverence our own ancestors on this day.

“There are two primary choices in life: to accept conditions as they exist, or accept the responsibility for changing them.”  (Denis Waitley)

Wednesday 15 August
FEAST OF THE ASSUMPTION OF MARY and
INDIA’S INDEPENDENCE DAY

The Assumption is the Jesus community’s understanding of what became of the very first Christian: that she was taken up into Christ’s state of fullness of life, as God’s promise of our destiny. It was on the feast of the Assumption that Edmund and his first Brothers made their first vowed commitment in 1808, and their permanent commitment the following year.

India today celebrates its independence as a nation, established in 1947. The Edmund Rice Network is very strongly represented in India – there are over two dozen communities of Christian Brothers around the country and a growing network of colleagues and associates and groups also taking their founding inspiration from Edmund Rice. Let us hold them all in our prayers on this day.

“The wise does at once what the fool does at last.”  (Baltasar Gracian)

Tuesday 14 August
ST MAXIMILIAN KOLBE

In the week after Edith Stein is remembered, comes the feast day of another Polish-born victim of Nazi madness: Maximilian died at Auschwitz just a year before her. A Franciscan priest, who had sheltered 2000 Jews at his friary as the Nazi persecution gathered force, he volunteered to take the place of a family man chosen to starve to death in the camp authorities’ petulant pouting about the apparent escape of a prisoner. He continued to celebrate the Eucharist in the death cell, and to maintain his inner peace, and finally died by injection, aged 47.

“Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.”  (Paul Boese)

Monday 13 August 2018
INTERNATIONAL LEFT-HANDERS’ DAY

Lefthanders live in a predominantly right-handed world. Today is intended to raise awareness of this particular minority experience, one among many such.

“You cannot control what happens to you, but you can control your attitude toward what happens to you, and in that, you will be mastering change rather than allowing it to master you.”  (Brian Tracy)

Sunday 12 August
19th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME and
INTERNATIONAL YOUTH DAY

This UN sponsored Youth Day has as its theme this year “Safe spaces for youth”. The Edmund Rice Network has over two centuries of experience of young people and dedicated involvement in the needs and strivings of youth. Though young people are always in our prayer, today’s international observance invites solidarity with youth globally.

“Take pride in what you do. The kind of pride I’m talking about is not the arrogant puffed-up kind; it’s just the whole idea of caring - fiercely caring.”  (Red Aurbach)

Saturday 11 August
ST CLARE OF ASSISI

St Clare’s story is intertwined with that of St Francis whose spirituality and ideals she embraced. It seems she was the first woman to write a Rule of Life for a congregation, a Rule whose radical demands she had to defend continually against the homogenizing pressures of Rome! Let us pray for her followers, known today as the Poor Clares.

“There are three hungers that people are trying to feed throughout their lives. The first is to connect deeply with the creative spirit of life. The second is to know and express your gifts and talents. The third is to know that our lives matter. Fulfillment comes from feeding these three hungers.”  (Richard Leider)

Friday 10 August
ST LAWRENCE

Lawrence of Rome was a 3rd century deacon whom Pope Sixtus II placed in charge of the administration of the Church’s goods and care for the poor, a very telling combination of responsibilities and a reminder of a thread of best practice running through the Church’s history. He followed Sixtus to martyrdom at age 33.

“Interruptions are divine assignments.”  (Regina Brett)

Thursday 9 August
INDIGENOUS DAY and
EDITH STEIN

Indigenous people, according to Wikipedia, “have historically formed and still currently form the minority/non-dominant sectors within majority-culture societies. The UN’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous People is an invitation to reflect on their aspirations and struggles.

Edith Stein, a philosopher, was born into a Jewish family, but became an atheist. She found Christianity through the autobiography of Teresa of Avila, and became a Carmelite. Moved by her Order to the Netherlands to escape the perveries of Hitler, she was nevertheless arrested as a Jewish convert and gassed at Auschwitz at the age of 50, a victim as much of the Holocaust as of the Christian opposition to the Nazis.

“Without a compelling cause, our employees are just putting in time. Their minds might be engaged, but their hearts are not. Meaning precedes motivation.”  (Lee J. Colan)

Wednesday 8 August
ST DOMINIC and
ST MARY MacKILLOP and
WORLD HAPPINESS DAY

Today Dominicans around the globe celebrate the feastday of their founder Dominic de Guzman, a great champion of truth and authenticity. His Order of Preachers took as its motto the words “to praise, to bless, to preach”. Today invites us to pray for all Dominican men and women, especially those to whom we have special reason to be grateful.

Mary MacKillop was formally recognized in October 2010 as Australia’s first Saint. Her fascinating story includes a crippling experience of excommunication (later lifted), the real ‘reason’ for which is becoming clearer – and more revealing – in our time. She founded the Sisters of St Joseph, or Josephites, who focused upon the education of the children of the poor, whom they followed to remote locations. Explore the story on the excellent website www.marymackillop.org.au

World Happiness Day is noted in www.betterworldcalendar.com as a day to celebrate happiness globally. Incidentally this site was founded to honour a young woman who was murdered seven years ago.

“Divide each difficulty into as many parts as is feasible and necessary to resolve it.”  (Rene Descardes)

Tuesday 7 August
FORGIVENESS DAY

Forgiveness Day is described as “a day to forgive and be forgiven … a chance to set things right”, to “put aside old differences, move beyond grievances and hurts and start afresh”. An interesting website on this theme is www.forgivenessalliance.org

“It’s not about time, it’s about choices. How are you spending your choices?”  (Beverly Adamo)

Monday 6 August 2018
NO-NUKES DAY (HIROSHIMA DAY) and
BOLIVIA’s NATIONAL DAY

Hiroshima was atom-bombed 71 years ago today. In a past message for this day on the website www.wagingpeace.org the President of the Nuclear Age Foundation, David Krieger, points out that “The world currently spends more than $1,5 trillion annually on weapons, war and the preparation for war, while spending only a small portion of this on efforts to meet human needs and achieve social justice” – a cameo negatively illustrating what Jesus meant by “the Kingdom of God”.

Bolivia is one of the Latin-American countries in which the Edmund Rice Network has a presence. See the Latin American Region’s website www.familiaedmundorice.org which frequently features the Christian Brothers community in Cochabamba.

“Our greatest fear should not be of failure but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.”  (Francis Chan)

Sunday 5 August
18th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME and
INTERNATIONAL BEER DAY

International Beer Day, only ten years old, comes as a reminder of the importance of relaxation and fun.

“People rarely succeed unless they have fun in what they are doing.”  (Dale Carnegie)

Saturday 4 August
ST JOHN VIANNEY and
COOK ISLANDS: CONSTITUTION DAY

More correctly named Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney, this humble French parish-priest has become the much-loved patron of all priests. It is well known that he was a struggler academically, but he proved to have a particular gift for helping penitents open up in the confessional. His feast-day may prompt us to pray for all the priests in our lives.

The Cook Islands came on to the Christian Brothers’ map in 1976, eleven years after the establishment of self-government. Let us hold the islanders in our prayer as they honour their Constitution today.

“We must use time as a tool, not as a couch.”  (John F. Kennedy)

Friday 3 August
REMEMBERING NICODEMUS

John’s Gospel mentions Nicodemus in chapters 3, 7, and 19. He was a Pharisee who broke out of the straitjacket of complacent religious righteousness. What does his story have to say to those of us who have lived all our lives in a neat religious framework?

“Victory is much more meaningful when it comes not just from one person, but from the joint achievements of many.”  (Howard Schultz)

Thursday 2 August
Remembering SWISS NATIONAL DAY (yesterday)

Switzerland is on the Edmund Rice Network map because of the presence of our advocacy NGO, Edmund Rice International, in Geneva. See their website www.edmundriceinternational.org

“You are never a loser until you quit trying.”  (Mike Ditka)

Wednesday 1 August
ST ALPHONSUS LIGUORI

Alphonsus was an 18th Century Italian Priest (later made Bishop) with a special zeal for marginalized youth. In addition to this resonance with the Edmund Rice tradition, we had a Christian Brother from the same family – the late Dominic Liguori of South Africa. Let us keep in our prayer today the Congregation founded by Alphonsus, the Redemptorists.

“There are two primary choices in life: to accept conditions as they exist, or accept the responsibility for changing them.”  (Denis Waitley)

Tuesday 31 July
ST IGNATIUS OF LOYOLA

Ignatius, the name of the Spanish founder of the Society of Jesus, was chosen by Edmund Rice as a symbol of his vowed consecration to God as a Brother in 1808. We pray today in thanksgiving for the continued fruitfulness of that consecration, and we include in our prayers the Jesuits and other Ignatian groups around the world.

“Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake.  Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”  (Dr Martin Luther King)

Monday 30 July 2018
ST PETER CHRYSOLOGUS

Peter was a 5th Century Bishop known for brief inspired talks – hence the description ‘chrysologus’, golden-speech. Legend holds that his brevity came from a fear of boring his audience, a form of respect that many of us would appreciate, and a reminder that less is often more.

“Small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises.”  (Demosthenes)

Sunday 29 July
17th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME and
ST MARTHA

The two best known Gospel stories in which Martha appears are in Luke 10 and John 11. Christian spirituality has tended to caricature her as an over-busy workaholic whom Jesus had to chide. But closer examination of Luke’s story might find a more three-dimensional person: someone Jesus loved and appreciated and whom he invited to move beyond her comfort-zone into a fuller life. John’s story portrays a woman of strong faith, forthright and on close terms with Jesus – and it seems significant that on this occasion both Martha and Mary greet him with the same statement.

“Parents can only give good advice .but the final forming of a person's character lies in their own hands.”  (Ann Frank)

Saturday 28 July
PERÚ’S INDEPENDENCE DAY and
WORLD HEPATITIS DAY

The Edmund Rice Network was planted in Perú by the arrival of the Christian Brothers in 1967. There are about twenty Brothers there today, living in four communities: one in Chimbote, one in Moyabamba, and two in Lima (Canto Grande and Las Flores). Let us pray today for the members and ministry of the ERN in Perú.

Hepatitis Day aims to raise awareness of Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C, and encourage prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. These diseases affect 1 in 12 people. Left untreated, they can lead to serious and fatal diseases of the liver.

“Inspirations never go in for long engagements; they demand immediate marriage to action.”  (Brendan Francis)

Friday 27 July
STRESSDOWN DAY and
JULIUS CAESAR

From LifeLine Australia comes an invitation to consciously take note of the stress in our lives and to do something about it – even a token action like “wear your slippers, dress up or dress down”. See the dedicated website www.stressdown.org.au

The month of July was named in honour of Julius Caesar, whose birth-month it was. In Christian tradition Caesar has come to symbolize the claims of the state (“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar…”), July might prompt us to pray for the legitimate needs and strivings of the states where we live or have our origins.

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently.”  (Warren Buffett)

Thursday 26 July
ST JOACHIM & ST ANNE and
LIBERIA’s INDEPENDENCE DAY

Nothing reliable is documented about the parents of Mary, mother of Jesus – even their names come to us only via legend. But however obscure they are, they were the couple who formed in Mary that receptive simplicity: “Be it done to me as you are saying”. So whatever their names were, let us join in the tradition of honouring them in our prayer today.

Liberia is on the Edmund Rice map because of the renewed presence of the Christian Brothers, who first came to that country in 1969. Uniquely founded and colonized by freed American slaves, Liberia became independent in the mid-19th Century. It has recently emerged from long years of political instability, with the forceful influence of a women’s peace movement. The country now boasts Africa’s first female head-of-state. Today let us support in our prayers the Brothers in Gbarnga and the growth of a new branch of the Edmund Rice Network around their presence. In a country where 85% of the population live on little more than a (US) dollar a day, the spirit of Edmund Rice must surely be needed.

“We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.”  (Dr Martin Luther King Jr)

Wednesday 25 July
ST JAMES

St James and his younger brother John, the sons of Zebedee, were among the first disciples to join Jesus, and were known as “sons of thunder”, possibly a reference to volatile temper or maybe just to energy. They were two of the three that Jesus chose to be with him on the occasion of what we now call ‘the Transfiguration’ and in the Garden of Gethsemane.

“I would rather attempt to do something great and fail than to attempt to do nothing and succeed.”  (Robert H. Schuller)

Tuesday 24 July
anticipating St CHRISTOPHER’S DAY tomorrow

Long popular as the traditional patron saint of safe travel, Christopher was – according to legend – particularly tall and strong, and took up a hermit’s challenge to serve Christ by transporting people safely across a river. Though he no longer features in our liturgical calendar, his story teaches us to use our personal abilities for the good of others knowing that whatever is done to our neighbour is as good as done to Christ.

“The future is not a result of choices among alternative paths offered by the present, but a place that is created - created first in the mind and will, created next in activity.  The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating.   The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity of making them, changes both the maker and the destination.”  (Deborah James)

Monday 23 July 2018
ALL EARTH DAY

All Earth Day invites us to celebrate our connection with the earth by planting and gardening, or by symbolic ritual.

“The quality of a person's life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavour.”  (Vince Lombardi)

Sunday 22 July
16th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME

“The distance isn’t important; it is only the first step that is difficult.”  (Marie de Vichy-Chamrond)

Saturday 21 July
Anticipating ST MARY MAGDALENE (tomorrow)

Contemporary scholarship has subverted the popular notion of Mary Magdalene as a ‘great sinner’, telling us that the ‘casting out of seven demons’ was a reference to the curing of sickness. There is extravagant speculation about her role in the life of Jesus, but what seems clear is that she was part of his inner circle. She is even described in some early Christian writings as ‘the apostle to the apostles’, suggesting that her faith and insight strengthened that of other Christians. Significantly, all four Gospels identify her as the first disciple to encounter the risen Christ. Her place in the Scriptural accounts certainly poses a challenge to our notion of an all-male leadership of the earliest Church community! Her feastday might invite us to pray about the role of women in the Church today.

“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”  (Maya Angelou)

Friday 20 July
FRIEND’S DAY (DÍA DEL AMIGO)

Friend’s Day, an initiative from Latin America, is an invitation to celebrate friendship today and to make contact with both close and neglected friends.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation … we are challenged to change ourselves.”  (Victor Frankel)

Thursday 19 July
HOTTEST/COLDEST MONTH

July is the hottest month of the year in the northern hemisphere and the coldest in the southern hemisphere – a reminder of balance and complementarity, of natural tensions and contrasts, and of opposites held together in interdependence.

“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over again the kind of thought we wish to dominate our lives.”  (Henry David Thoreau)

Wednesday 18 July
MANDELA DAY

Officially recognized by the United Nations, this international day is an invitation to spend 67 minutes (or more) doing something good for others in honour of Nelson Mandela’s 67 years of service to humanity. Today would have been his 100th birthday. This global mobilization of local energy is something that will certainly resonate with members of the Edmund Rice community. See www.mandeladay.com or www.nelsonmandela.org/mandeladay for ideas and inspiration.

“No matter how dark things seem to be or actually are, raise your sights and see possibilities.  Always see them, for they are always there.”  (Norman Vincent Peale)

Tuesday 17 July
INTERNATIONAL JUSTICE DAY

International Justice Day honours the fact that in our time a long-needed International Criminal Court has come into being to address crimes against humanity, such as genocide and war crimes. Today focuses our support for this emerging contribution to a more just world. For information, look up this day on www.betterworldcalendar.com or google it for leads to short videos marking the event.

“If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror of your Soul be polished?”  (Rumi)

Monday 16 July 2018
OUR LADY OF MOUNT CARMEL

‘Our Lady of Mount Carmel’ is a title given to the mother of Jesus by the earliest Carmelites, who lived on Mount Carmel and saw her as ‘the lady of the place’. A day to pray for the Carmelites, especially those with whom we collaborate. Also a day to review the contemplative dimension of our lives in the light of Mary’s example.

“I believe in hard work. It keeps the wrinkles out of the mind and spirit.”  (Helena Rubinstein)

Sunday 15 July
15th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME and
ST BONAVENTURE

A Franciscan saint, Bonaventure was born in present-day Italy and became famed as a medieval scholastic theologian. His death - he was probably poisoned by power-mongering politicos at a Church Council – is a sobering reminder that the Church is full of you-know-what simply because human beings are. So perhaps this is a day to pray about the imperfections within our structures.

“Almost always the creative, dedicated minority has made the world better.”  (Martin Luther King Jr)

Saturday 14 July
BASTILLE DAY

A significant day in world history because the storming of the Bastille has become a reference point for symbolic acts of rebellion against oppression. We could pray today for all peoples caught in situations of oppression, striving to make their voices heard. And we could examine our own domestic and work situations in case there may be any unnoticed forms of oppression there.

“Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For, indeed, they are the only ones who ever have.”  (Margaret Mead)

Friday 13 July
BAHAI FEAST OF KALIMAT (WORDS)

The feast of Kalimat, and the month it starts in the Bahai calendar, celebrates the creative power of God’s Word and invites us to water the seeds of this Word in our hearts.

“Change the changeable, accept the unchangeable, and remove yourself from the unacceptable.”  (Denis Waitley)

Thursday 12 July
SIMPLICITY DAY and
‘THE TWELFTH’ (NORTHERN IRELAND)

Simplicity Day is tied to the birthday of Henry David Thoreau, an early advocate of simplifying life: “As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler”. Voluntary simplicity encourages us to live with “ecological awareness, frugal consumption, and personal growth” – cf www.betterworldcalendar.com

‘The Twelfth’ is a sensitive day in Northern Ireland. Recalling the 1690 Battle of the Boyne fought near Drogheda, it became a day layered with confrontation and accompanying emotions. A day to pray for the deepening of healing of Ireland’s painful memories.

“Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.”  (Henry Ford)

Wednesday 11 July
ST BENEDICT and
WORLD POPULATION DAY

St Benedict of Nursia is known as the founder of western Christian monasticism. He founded a number of monasteries, but the Order that takes its name from him is actually a confederation of autonomous foundations sharing a common way of life. St Benedict’s ‘Rule’ is distinguished for its balance and reasonableness.

World Population Day is an initiative of the UN Development Programme. The ever-growing population of the world is now on the brink or reaching 7 billion people. UNFPA’s target is to “ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, every young person is free of HIV, and every girl and woman is treated with dignity and respect”.

“You are the fruit of the thoughts you have planted and nourished. If you want a better harvest, you must plant better thoughts.”  (Robert Allen)

Tuesday 10 July
INTERNATIONAL HAPPINESS DAY and
SILENCE DAY

International Happiness Day is still in the process of being officially established – see www.happinessday.org – but it comes as a reminder of the challenge to courageously embrace happiness in our lives instead of passively waiting for better days and envying greener grass. As William Feather puts it: “Plenty of people miss their share of happiness, not because they never found it, but because they didn’t stop to enjoy it.”

Silence Day is a little-known tradition of the followers of the late Indian mystic Meher Baba. The details can easily be googled by anyone interested to know more, but the mere simple reminder is likely to have wider appeal. Silence is a little-cherished experience in today’s world – modern lifestyles almost seemed designed to shun it. Yet it remains an essential element for spiritual growth. Today might serve as an occasion to ask ourselves whether we give ourselves as much silence as we need to enable us to live with space for reflection, study, and prayer.

“What we focus on expands. If we focus on the problems in our lives, they tend to increase. If we focus on the good things we already have, they too, have a tendency to grow.”  (Michael Angier)

Monday 9 July 2018
OUR LADY OF PEACE and
ARGENTINA’S NATIONAL DAY

Our Lady of Peace, a less-celebrated title given to the mother of Jesus, is a reminder of our earth’s crying need for peace as some thirty serious conflicts rage around us.

On Argentina’s National Day, let us remember in our prayer all in the Edmund Rice Network in that country.

“If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.”  (Colin Powell)

Sunday 8 July
14th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME and
HIDDEN HEROISM

Do you remember the name Lisa Potts? Picking up on the abovementioned theme of unhyped heroism, today is also the 11th anniversary of that incident at a primary school in Wolverhampton, England, in which a disturbed individual wielding a machete wounded a number of children and adults. Lisa Potts was the injured teacher who put herself in further danger to protect her pupils. Not all heroism involves the drama of blood, but it is inspiring to notice its manifestations around us, not least within the Edmund Rice Network where – though we tend to play things low-key – there is no shortage of inspiring stories.

“You can do what you think you can do and you cannot do what you think you cannot do.”  (Ben Stein)

Saturday 7 July
EXTINCTION ALERT

Today is eleven years since the Western Black Rhinoceros was declared extinct due to poaching – another reminder of the need for conservation of the earth’s rich range of life species. Over the past century, the near-extinction of the African white rhino was successfully reversed by conservation efforts, but in the past few years there has been an alarming rise in poaching. In South Africa, where the great majority of white rhinos are found, the figures have risen from 13 killed in 2007, to 83 in 2008, to 122 in 2009, to 333 in 2010, and so on. Increasingly these killings are hi-tech international operations, and typically they involve the brutal hacking off of the animal’s horns (Spot the brute…) See the website www.SaveTheRhino.org

“Humor is an affirmation of dignity, a declaration of man's superiority to all that befalls him.”  (Romain Gary)

Friday 6 July
SAINT MARIA GORETTI and
BIRTHDAY OF THE CURRENT DALAI LAMA

Just over 100 years ago, eleven-year-old Maria Goretti was stabbed to death for resisting a rape attempt. The story of this obscure Italian peasant girl was highlighted when the Church canonized her as a martyr. But there are countless others whose heroic faithfulness to values goes unacknowledged; many of us have met such people. I once had the privilege of hearing a gang-rape survivor tell her story, which included (like Maria) a liberating decision to forgive. Today let us pray for all those whose hidden heroism – and wounds – we have come across or heard about, and for the gifts needed by those who are subject to any kind of abuse and intimidation.

The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Now semi-retired, the current (14th) Dalai Lama continues to be a voice of wisdom treasured by a world thirsting for spirituality.

“The amount you laugh in your relationships with others is the true measure of the health of your personality.”  (Brian Tracy)

Thursday 5 July
HELLO, DOLLY!

Today is the 21st anniversary of the cloning of Dolly, the world’s most famous sheep, cloned from an adult somatic cell. The occasion might call us to bring to prayer our hopes and concerns relating to the burgeoning of science and technology in our times.

“The world is moving so fast these days that the man who says it can't be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it.”  (Harry Emerson Fosdick)

Wednesday 4 July
USA’S INDEPENDENCE DAY

USA’s Fourth of July Independence Day tradition dates back to 1776. Let us include in our prayers today all who make up the Edmund Rice Network in the US – Christian Brothers, Presentation Brothers, and all the other Edmund Rice groups and communities that have grown up around them and the institutions that they founded.

“Freedom requires that we learn and put into practice the three R's - Respect, Responsibility and Restraint.”  (Fr Brian Cavanaugh TOR)

Tuesday 3 July
St THOMAS

The Apostle Thomas seems best remembered for the story of his doubts, told in John 20:24-29, which is usually read as the Gospel at Mass all around the globe on his feastday. Perhaps this is because doubt is part and parcel of thinking, so it is an experience with which all can identify. A wise saying (with a gospel template and tinge) encourages us: “You have been told not to doubt. But I tell you this: doubt, because it is doubt that will get you your education” (source forgotten). In our prayer today, perhaps we can bring our doubts into God’s presence, and express gratitude for the gift of doubt.

“Talent is what you possess; genius is what possesses you.”  (Malcolm Cowley)

Monday 2 July 2018
WORLD SPORTS JOURNALISTS DAY

Many of us derive great pleasure from faraway sporting events mediated to us by specialist journalists. Today is an occasion to give thanks for their work and to pray that good and life-giving values will be cultivated by sports and by the way they are covered in the media.

“If you look at what you have in life, you'll always have more. If you look at what you don't have in life, you'll never have enough.”  (Oprah Winfrey)

Sunday 1 July
13th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME and
CANADA DAY

On Canada’s national day, the Edmund Rice Network is invited to turn its thoughts and prayers to our colleagues living across – or coming from – the breadth of Canada, from Vancouver in the west to Newfoundland in the east.

“The value of a thing lies in the cost of attaining it.”  (David DeFord)

Saturday 30 June
HALF-WAY THROUGH THE YEAR

The year 2018 is already half over! A wake-up call for any slowness to real-ize plans and resolutions for the year, and a good moment to evaluate and to give thanks to the God of all time.

“Comfort and prosperity have never enriched the world as much as adversity.”  (Billy Graham)

Friday 29 June
SAINTS PETER & PAUL

Today commemorates two foundational leaders in the early Church’s story – the one a trusted companion of Jesus, the other a fiery turn-around case. Peter seems to have been a man of few words, while Paul gushed the full range from high poetry to hubris. Both were openly flawed human beings who depended on Christ to transcend their shortcomings. Their joint feastday invites today’s Christians to do the same.

“We are continually faced with great opportunities brilliantly  disguised as unsolvable problems.”  (Lee Lacocca)

Thursday 28 June
SAINT IRENAEUS

A disciple of a disciple of John the Evangelist, Irenaeus lived in the 2nd Century, only two generations apart from Jesus. His championing of orderly authority in the early Church reminds us of the need for caution amidst an ever-present babble of claims to speak for God.

“It is a gift to be able to paint a particular picture or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look. To affect the quality of the day - that is the highest of the arts.”  (Henry David Thoreau)

Wednesday 27 June
FEASTDAY OF OUR LADY OF PERPETUAL HELP

This particular form of devotion to the mother of Jesus has its focus in a Byzantine icon associated with the Redemptorists, and traditionally found in Christian Brothers’ houses all around the world as an expression of gratitude. More info on www.newadvent.org or Wikipedia.

“You will find as you look back upon your life that the moments when you have truly lived are the moments when you have done things in the spirit of love.”  (Henry Drummond)

Tuesday 26 June
END TORTURE DAY

The International Day in Support of Victims of Torture also falls today. It is described by Kofi Annan as “a day on which we pay our respects to those who have endured the unimaginable” and “an occasion for the world to speak up against the unspeakable”. One website that highlights the continuing reality of torture in our times is www.torturecare.org.uk

 “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”  (Wayne Dyer)

Monday 25 June 2018
Anticipating END DRUG-ABUSE DAY (tomorrow)

It is estimated that about 200 million people use illicit drugs. Movies and the media keep telling us of the human destruction involved, including the associated violence and intimidation. The International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking invites us to bring this global problem into our prayer.

“Fear fades when facts are faced.”  (Frank Tyger)

Sunday 24 June
BIRTH OF JOHN THE BAPTIST

John the Baptist remains a great model of authenticity: he consistently pointed to Christ and avoided the trap of using his drawing-power to build a cult of his own. In our prayer today, we might deepen our alertness to the perennial tendency for ministry to become an end in itself, for institutions to become self-serving, and for founding purposes to become hijacked by other agendas.

“You can't shake hands with a clenched fist.”  (Indira Gandhi)

Saturday 23 June
UNITED NATIONS PUBLIC SERVICE DAY and
SACRED HEART OF JESUS

Recognising “that democracy and successful governance are built on the foundation of a competent civil service”, the UN set up this day “to commend and to encourage exemplary public service”. The associated awards underline “the values of teamwork, innovation, and responsiveness to the public”. A day to pray for all those who work in the public service.

June is traditionally the special month associated with the enduring devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Though some of its expressions can by quite syrupy, even these are a code for faith in a God who is warmly loving, as experienced in the humanity of Jesus. June happens also to be the month of the rose, popular culture’s symbol of love.

“Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him, and to let him know that you trust him.”  (Booker T. Washington)

Friday 22 June
INTERFAITH DAY and
ST THOMAS MORE & ST JOHN FISHER

Interfaith Day turns our attention to the richness of humanity’s spiritual traditions. There has been an observable movement from yesteryear’s ‘tolerance’ to our time’s growing spirit of mutual appreciation and respect for diversity. For the Edmund Rice Network, this reflects an openness to ‘a bigger God’ and a determined effort to avoid fashioning God in our own image.

St John Fisher and Thomas More, canonized together, were two 15th/16th Century Englishmen – the first a lawyer and statesman, the second a Bishop – who stood up for the truth without compromise, at the cost of their lives. Their stories are well covered on the web’s Wikipedia.

“You will never find time for anything. If you want time you must make it.”  (Charles Buxton)

Thursday 21 June
WORLD MUSIC DAY and
ABORIGINAL DAY IN CANADA and
LONGEST/SHORTEST DAY OF THE YEAR

World Music Day celebrates the international language of music, sometimes called “the language of God”. Our prayer today might make a point of using music as a window into the divine that pervades our lives and our world.

Canada’s Aboriginal Day acknowledges the cultures and the contributions of this country’s First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people.

The Solstice brings us to the longest day of the Northern summer (Midsummer’s Day) and the shortest day of the Southern winter (Midwinter’s Day), and serves as a reminder of the oneness of our world with all its vast diversity.

“We cannot waste time. We can only waste ourselves.”  (George Matthew Adams)

Wednesday 20 June
WORLD REFUGEE DAY

Today draws our attention to the plight of the world’s 40 million uprooted people – see the website www.unhcr.org

“Holding on to anger, resentment and hurt only gives you tense muscles, a headache and a sore jaw from clenching your teeth. Forgiveness gives you back the laughter and the lightness in your life.”  (Joan Lunden)

Tuesday 19 June
NEVER-AGAIN DAY

Uruguay celebrates ‘Never Again’ Day, cueing the rest of humanity to identify what to put in the ‘never again’ category.

“All achievements, all earned riches, have their beginning in an idea.”  (Napoleon Hill)

Monday 18 June 2018
AUTISTIC PRIDE DAY and
WORLD PICNIC DAY

Autistic Pride Day is described as “a celebration of the neurodiversity of people in the autism spectrum”. It represents a shifting view of autism from disease to difference, and of autistic people as unique individuals rather than cases for treatment. For information you can look up the day in Wikipedia or see www.autistics.org

Picnic Day, one of the lighter World Days, reminds us to put some energy into upping the fun quotient in our lives, including our spiritual lives.

“The bad news is time flies. The good news is you're the pilot.”  (Michael Altshuler)

Sunday 17th June
11th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME and
WORLD DAY TO COMBAT DESERTIFICATION AND DROUGHT

Desertification and drought mean deterioration of land and water-sources, threatening the livelihood and security of people. This UN-sponsored day calls for the support of our awareness, prayer, and advocacy.

 “When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it - but all that had gone before.”  (Jacob Riis)

Saturday 16th June
INTERNATIONAL DAY OF THE AFRICAN CHILD

This Day of the African Child is pinned to the anniversary of the 1976 uprising of thousands of schoolchildren in Soweto, South Africa, in protest against the poor quality of the apartheid education offered them. The day, initiated by the OAU (Organisation of African Unity), calls attention to the many deprivations still suffered by African children, notably the dearth of opportunities for good education, a key ministry in which the Edmund Rice Network is involved in 8 African countries. The theme for 2018 is: “Conflict and crisis in Africa: protecting all Children’s Rights.”

“Nothing splendid has ever been achieved except by those who dared believe that something inside them was superior to circumstance.”  (Bruce Barton)

Friday 15th June
GLOBAL WIND DAY and
WORLD ELDER ABUSE AWARENESS DAY

Wind is an alternative and renewable energy source. Today encourages the world community to participate in exploring and advancing the harnessing of this potential. For info about wind turbines, see www.globalwindday.org

Elder Abuse and neglect is a growing evil in a world of increasing longevity and fraying family fabric. Today invites us to solidarity & awareness in our prayer. See www.inpea.net/weaad.html

“The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.”  (Daniel J. Boorstin)

Thursday 14th June
WORLD BLOOD DONOR DAY

World Blood Donor Day is an occasion for acknowledging the generosity of those who donate blood without reward in order to save lives. The theme this year is “Blood connects us all.” See www.who.int under Events.

“If you don't make mistakes, you're not working on hard enough problems. And that's a big mistake.”  (Frank Wilczek)

Wednesday 13th June
ST ANTHONY OF PADUA

This Portuguese-born Franciscan became famous for his gift of simple and convincing preaching. His canonization within a year of his death at age 36, remains a record. Today he is best known as the saint people turn to for help in recovering lost items – the story behind this practice may be read on www.americancatholic.org/features/anthony/0-86716-202-3_np.asp

“You are the fruit of the thoughts you have planted and nourished.  If you want a better harvest, you must plant better thoughts.”  (Robert Allen)

Tuesday 12th June
THE PHILIPPINES INDEPENDENCE DAY

The Philippines became part of the ERN map fairly recently. Today is an invitation to pray for the people of this nation and for a blessing on the ERN presence among them. See the website www.christianbrothers.com.au/erpm

 “What we focus on expands.  If we focus on the problems in our lives, they tend to increase.  If we focus on the good things we already have, they too, have a tendency to grow.”  (Michael Angier)

Monday 11th June 2018
St BARNABAS THE APOSTLE

Barnabas was one of the earliest Christians, travelling and working with St Paul. His feast-day reminds us of the inspirational power that the person of Jesus has exercised on generations of people who have been touched by his story.

“Divide each difficulty into as many parts as is feasible and necessary to resolve it.”  (Rene Descartes)

Sunday 10 June
10th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME and
83rd BIRTHDAY OF ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS

The birthday of AA is an occasion to celebrate this great expression of the human spirit and its special contribution to the world’s spiritual heritage: the Twelve Steps. It’s a day to pray not only for alcoholics but for the expanding global understanding of addiction and all the healing-power flowing from this insight.

 “Common sense is genius dressed up in work clothes.”  (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Saturday 9 June
ST COLUMBA OF IONA and
INTERNATIONAL ARCHIVES DAY

St Columba is one of Ireland’s three patron saints (along with Patrick and Brigid), so Irish missionaries have carried his name around the globe. A day for giving thanks for all the spiritual richness that the Edmund Rice Network has inherited from its Irish origins, and for praying for the Irish people and for all who work under the banner of the names Columba and Iona.

Archives play a largely-hidden and only-occasionally-appreciated role in preserving the memory of humankind’s range of cultures. This day raises our awareness of that valuable role.

“You must master your time rather than becoming a slave to the constant flow of events and demands on your time. And you must organize your life to achieve balance, harmony, and inner peace.”  (Brian Tracy)

Friday 8 June
WORLD OCEANS DAY and
SOLEMNITY OF THE SACRED HEART OF JESUS

World Oceans Day is a UN day celebrating the world’s oceans. The focus for 2018 is to prevent plastic pollution and encourage solutions for a healthy ocean. Look it up on Wikipedia or on www.worldoceansday.org

The Sacred Heart of Jesus is a way of speaking about the warmth of God’s love, as expressed in the loving humanity of Jesus. The message of this traditional Catholic ‘devotion’ remains a challenge to our images of God, so often tainted by harsh and negative experiences of authority-figures.

“Discipline is just choosing between what you want now and what you want most.”  (author unknown)

Thursday 7 June
TRADITIONAL MONTH OF THE SACRED HEART

Some of the artwork depicting the Sacred Heart may be seen as dated and crudely literal. But the traditional ‘devotion’ to the Sacred Heart offers a reminder that is as pertinent today as it was in its heyday: it portrays the warmth of God’s love and the humanness with which God comes across to us in the person of Jesus. Perhaps you may like to focus on these qualities in your prayer today and during this month.

“The very best thing you can do for the whole world is to make the most of yourself.”  (Wallace Wattles)

Wednesday 6 June
ST MARCELLIN CHAMPAGNAT

The founder of the Marist Brothers, is celebrated around this date. So let’s hold up in our prayer the world’s 4 500+ Marist Brothers and their 40 000+ associates together with the 700 000+ young people they currently serve in Marist schools and projects. The Marist website is www.champagnat.org – and for a focus on the Marist vocation see www.maristbr.com

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  (Albert Einstein)

Tuesday 5 June
WORLD ENVIRONMENT DAY

World Environment Day is an annual day to raise global awareness of the need to take positive and proactive steps to protect and respect our global environment. The theme this year is: “Beat plastic pollution” with the accompanying slogan: “If you can’t reuse it, refuse it”. See the website www.worldenvironmentday.global

"I hear: I forget. I see: I remember. I do: I understand."  (Chinese Proverb)

Monday 4 June 2018
TONGA’s NATIONAL DAY and
DAY OF CHILD VICTIMS OF AGGRESSION

An archipelago of about 150 islands, fewer than a third of them inhabited, Tonga is the Pacific’s only monarchy. This Polynesian nation – which can be looked up on www.state.gov – came on to the ERN map in 1983.

The UN’s International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression invites us to turn our eyes to children endangered by wars, notably in the Middle East and Africa, and to hold them in our prayer.

“If you are lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it.”  (John Irving)

Sunday 3rd June
CORPUS CHRISTI SUNDAY and
ST CHARLES LWANGA & COMPANIONS

Charles was a Catechist in present-day Uganda. He and a number of boys and men he had baptized were murdered for adhering to their Christian faith and refusing to co-operate with the lust and political paranoia of their king.

“Happiness is a choice that I can make no matter how grim circumstances might seem.  The joy of being alive is always attainable at some level.”  (Patti Pansa)

Saturday 2nd June
ITALY’S FESTIVAL OF THE REPUBLIC

A day to keep in prayer the people of Italy and the presence of the Edmund Rice Network in Rome in the form of the community and team at Via Marcantonio Colonna. Next week, the Christian Brothers’ leaders from all around the world will be gathering in Rome for a meeting – the support of your prayers would be appreciated.

“Set higher standards for you own performance than anyone around you, and it won’t matter whether you have a tough boss or an easy one. It won’t matter whether the competition is pushing you hard, because you'll be competing with yourself.”  (Rick Pitino)

Friday 1st June
EDMUND RICE’s BIRTHDAY and
INTERNATIONAL CHILDREN’S DAY

On this day 256 years ago, Edmund Rice was born. The life that came into the world on that day is still with us, in the hearts of thousands of his followers today, including his Presentation and Christian Brothers. His story and other resources related to the man can be found under the Edmund Rice button, top right on our home page.

Though children have various days devoted to them, nationally and internationally, this date has been honoured in many countries for the past 94 years. Maybe it can serve as an invitation to link up with our own Child Rights advocacy unit in Geneva – www.edmundriceinternational.org – and become part of our corporate force for positive change. Children have always been a central focus of ministries associated with Edmund Rice, so the fact that today is also his birthday seems poetic. Today’s occasion might invite us to bring into our prayer those child-needs closest to our hearts.

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the staircase.”  (Martin Luther King, Jr)

Thursday 31st May
FEAST OF THE VISITATION and
WORLD NO-TOBACCO DAY

The story of Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth while both were pregnant, is told in Luke 1:39-56, and includes the beautiful prayer that has come to be known as The Magnificat. No surprise that Luke tells this story because his gospel is particularly aware of the women in the life of Jesus and is also careful to note the counter-cultural attitude with which Jesus approached women.

World No-Tobacco Day, promoted by the World Health Organisation, is concerned not just about the health-hazards of tobacco but about its calculated promotion among the most vulnerable sectors of society. See the website www.who.int/tobacco

“Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new.”  (Brian Tracy)

Wednesday 30th May
ST JOAN OF ARC

The story of Jeanne d’Arc is well-known. Not so well-known is the fact that she was only 19 when she was burnt at the stake by a Church court. 25 years later, the Pope recognised her innocence and named her a martyr. Who are today’s Joans whose worth will only emerge clearly years after they are crushed by the agendas of today’s establishment?

“Power is the faculty or capacity to act, the strength and potency to accomplish something. It is the vital energy to make choices and decisions. It also includes the capacity to overcome deeply embedded habits and to cultivate higher, more effective ones.”  (Stephen Covey)

Tuesday 29th May
FEAST OF BLESSED JOSEPH GERARD and
INTERNATIONAL DAY OF UN PEACEKEEPERS and
WORLD M.S. DAY

Blessed Joseph Gerard is specially remembered in the tiny mountain-kingdom of Lesotho where he helped to plant Christian faith in people’s hearts. French born, he came to southern Africa at the age of 22 as an ‘OMI’ (member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate). In his 60 years of ministry, his gift for languages was a great asset. He is one of the better known missionaries, but the history of the Edmund Rice Network is full of people of comparable generosity and faith: Christian Brothers and Presentation Brothers who left all to be and share something of the Good News of Jesus with distant cultures, with all the risks involved. And today the ERN extends this spirit with its many forms of volunteerism.

International Day of UN Peacekeepers is described by the UN as “a day to pay tribute to all the men and women who have served and continue to serve in United Nations peacekeeping operations for their high level of professionalism, dedication, and courage and to honor the memory of those who have lost their lives in the cause of peace”.

Multiple Sclerosis Day calls our attention to the two million people in the world who suffer from this disease. See the website www.worldmsday.org

“First we form habits, then they form us. Conquer your bad habits or they will conquer you.”  (Rob Gilbert)

Monday 28th May 2018
INTERNATIONAL DAY OF ACTION FOR WOMEN’S HEALTH

The annual International Day for Women’s Health is a reminder of how many women remain marginalized, neglected, and abused – and a call to ‘be the change’ that we desire and be part of bringing it about. See the site www.usaid.gov for info.

“In essence, if we want to direct our lives, we must take control of our consistent actions. It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives, but what we do consistently.”  (Anthony Robbins)

Sunday 27 May
TRINITY SUNDAY and
ST AUGUSTINE OF CANTERBURY and
NOTHING-TO-FEAR DAY

St Augustine of Canterbury, a Benedictine, is credited as playing a foundational role in the English Church. His feast-day invites us to pray for all English Christians today and to remember those active in the Edmund Rice Network in that country.

Nothing-to-Fear Day - featured in www.betterworldcalendar.com – comes from the famous Roosevelt speech made on this day. Words to the effect of “Do not fear” appear (someone has counted) 365 times in the Bible: clearly this is something God wants us to build into our spirituality.

“Where many people go wrong in trying to reach their goals is in constantly looking for the big hit, the home run, the magic answer that suddenly transforms their dreams into reality. The problem is that the big hit never comes without a great deal of little hits first. Success in most things comes not from some gigantic stroke of fate, but from simple, incremental progress.”  (Andrew Wood)

Saturday 26 May
FEAST OF ST PHILIP NERI and
SORRY DAY

St Philip Neri is remembered for his commonsense and cheerfulness: “A joyful heart”, he said, “is more easily made perfect than a downcast one”. Living in Italy in the 16th Century, he sensed that what was needed to influence society in his day was something different from the monastic model, so he founded the Oratorians, to whom we send greetings on his feastday.

Sorry Day is an Australian initiative “to express regret over the historical mistreatment of Aboriginal peoples”. Many nations could take a cue from this gesture. And, on an interpersonal level, ‘sorry’ may well be one of the most important words needed in our vocabulary.

“Every day do something that will inch you closer to a better tomorrow.”  (Doug Firebaugh)

Friday 25 May
AFRICA DAY and
start of a WEEK OF SOLIDARITY and
INTERNATIONAL MISSING CHILDREN’S DAY

Africa Day is a reminder of all there is to celebrate about Africa. Though Africa’s very real problems receive much exposure, it also has a wealth of beauty that the average tourist only skim-reads. The Edmund Rice Network around Africa is privileged to experience this beauty in powerful ways, and to share it with visitors from other parts of the network who come for immersion experiences or as volunteers. Let us pray today for the African ERN and the circles of people around them. For background to Africa Day, see the website www.africaday.info

The Week of Solidarity with the Peoples of non-Self-Governing Territories lasts till 31 May. It is an invitation to join the United Nations in “renewing the world’s commitment to supporting people aspiring towards independence while still living under colonialisation”.

Missing Children’s Day reminds us of children separated from their families, vulnerable and in danger. A good website for raising awareness is www.icmec.org

“You can tell a man is clever by his answers. You can tell a man is wise by his questions.”  (Naguib Mahfouz)

Thursday 24 May
MARY HELP OF CHRISTIANS

The feastday of Mary Help of Christians, a simple way of appreciating Mary, was formalized nearly two centuries ago, and has been popularized by Don Bosco and his Salesian followers around the world. The feast comes as a reminder that the month of May is traditionally devoted to the mother of Jesus.

“Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.”  (Carl Sandburg)

Wednesday 23 May
WORLD TURTLE DAY

A day intended to increase our respect for turtles and tortoises and encourage action to help the world’s oldest creature to survive. “These gentle creatures have been around for about 200 million years, yet they are now rapidly disappearing”, comments one website. Their situation dramatizes the interconnection of all things and the vital importance of ecological awareness as a facet of healthy human spirituality.

“Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies within us while we live.”  (Norman Cousins)

Tuesday 22 May
INTERNATIONAL DAY FOR BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY

The theme for this year’s UN Day for Biological Diversity is “Celebrating 25 Years of Action for Biodiversity” – referring to the time since an international Convention came into force.

“Constant dripping hollows out a stone.”  (Lucretius)

Monday 21 May 2018
WORLD DAY FOR CULTURAL DIVERSITY FOR DIALOGUE & DEVELOPMENT

The long and unwieldy name of this Unesco-sponsored day, declared in the wake of 9/11, could be captured in the words ‘living together in harmony’. It is based on an appreciation of the world’s cultural richness as part of “the common heritage of humanity”, a diversity as necessary as bio-diversity. The declaration - which can be read on the site www.unesco.org – contains good material for reflection and prayer.

“Everything that happens to us leaves some trace behind; everything contributes imperceptibly to make us what we are.”  (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

Sunday 20 May
PENTECOST SUNDAY and
EAST TIMOR’S INDEPENDENCE DAY

Sometimes called Independence Restoration Day, because having declared itself independent of Portugal in 1975, Timor L’Este was quickly occupied by Indonesia, until 2002. The country, 400 miles north-west of Darwin, Australia, is linked into Oceania’s Edmund Rice Network, and features from time to time on our Oceania website www.edmundrice.org

“Do not think of your faults, still less of other's faults; look for what is good and strong and try to imitate it. Your faults will drop off, like dead leaves, when their time comes.”  (John Ruskin)

Saturday 19 May
SMILE MONTH

May is Smile Month in the UK. This simple form of non-verbal communications, enabling a heart-to-heart connection between people, even strangers, has a spiritual depth that is indeed worthy of celebration.

“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”  (Albert Einstein)

Friday 18 May
INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM DAY

This day celebrates the way museums honour cultural diversity and bio-diversity as “the common heritage of humanity”. This year’s theme: “Hyperconnected museums: new approaches, new publics”. See the site www.icom.museum

“We are all inventors, each sailing out on a voyage of discovery, guided each by a private chart, of which there is no duplicate. The world is all gates, all opportunities.”  (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Thursday 17 May
WORLD TELECOMMUNICATION & INFORMATION SOCIETY DAY and
WORLD HYPERTENSION DAY

Telecommunications Day highlights the wonderful possibilities of digital communication, and points to the digital divide as a structural disadvantage needing to be addressed.

Hypertension Day draws attention to ‘the silent killer’, high blood pressure, which causes 7 million deaths a year among its 1,5 billion sufferers. See the site www.worldhypertensionleague.org for simple and well-presented information about the disease.

“Have the nerve to go into unexplored territory. Be brave enough to live life creatively.”  (Alan Alda)

Wednesday 16 May
NATIONAL DAY OF SOUTHERN SUDAN

Africa’s newest nation, landlocked South Sudan, celebrates today as a national day.

“The rung of a ladder was never meant to rest upon, but only to hold a man's foot long enough to enable him to put the other somewhat higher.”  (Thomas Henry Huxley)

Tuesday 15 May
INTERNATIONAL DAY OF FAMILIES and
PARAGUAY’S INDEPENDENCE DAY

Families are such a big part of our reality and ministry that it is easy to build prayer around them. This year the particular theme of this UN-sponsored day is “Families and inclusive societies”.

Paraguay is on the Edmund Rice map because of the Christian Brothers’ community, associates, and ministries in the capital, Asunción. We pray today for the people of Paraguay and in thanksgiving for all who minister there in the spirit of Edmund Rice.

“Being honest may not get you a lot of friends but it’ll always get you the right ones.” (John Lennon)

Monday 14 May 2018
ST MATTHIAS THE APOSTLE and
LIBERIA’S NATIONAL UNIFICATION DAY

Matthias was the one chosen to replace Judas. The process involved an illuminating prayer: “Lord, you can read everyone’s heart; show us therefore which of these you have chosen to take over this ministry”. Let us pray that we approach all selection for ministry from this angle.

Liberia, Africa’s first republic, is on the Edmund Rice map because of the renewed presence of the Christian Brothers and the plans to extend projects there.

“Anyone can find the dirt in someone. Be the one that finds the gold.”  (Proverbs 11:27)

Sunday 13 May
7th SUNDAY OF EASTER and
OUR LADY OF FATIMA

Fatima was the site of a celebrated series of apparitions of Mary in 1917, the central message of which was penance. These appearances occurred on the 13th day of six consecutive months, commencing on 13 May.

“The pessimist borrows trouble; the optimists lend encouragement.”  (William Arthur Ward)

Saturday 12 May
INTERNATIONAL NURSES DAY

Pinned to the birthday of Florence Nightingale, Nurses Day honours all those in the nursing profession, and to remember with gratitude the key role they play, often in the shadows of their higher-profile partners in the medical profession.

“Too many people overvalue what they are not and undervalue what they are.”  (Malcolm Forbes)

Friday 11 May
TECHNOLOGY DAY

Taking a cue from India which celebrates today as Technology Day, we might hold in our prayers today all the blessings of the technology upon which we depend in so many ways, and those responsible for developing it.

“Take pride in how far you’ve come. Have faith in how far you can go. But don’t forget to enjoy the journey.”  (Michael Josephson)

Thursday 10 May
ST DAMIEN OF MOLOKAI

19th century Belgian missionary Father Damien devoted himself to an island colony of lepers in Hawaii and died of the disease himself. As the patron of outcasts, he has a special connection to the Edmund Rice Network’s focus on marginalized people.

“Miracles never cease to amaze me. I expect them, but their consistent arrival is always delightful to experience.”  (Mark Victor Hansen)

Wednesday 9 May
anticipating WORLD LUPUS DAY (tomorrow)

Lupus is an auto-immune disease that affects over five million people worldwide. Each year there are over 100 000 new diagnoses among young people. To call for greater awareness and research-funding for this relatively neglected disease, a world day was instituted in 2004. See the website www.worldlupusday.org

“Embrace and love your body. It’s the most amazing thing you will ever own.”  (source unknown)

Tuesday 8 May
Julian of Norwich

Little is known about the life of Julian of Norwich, the English mystic, but her writings are being newly celebrated in our time. She believed in a compassionate motherly God with no trace of wrath and with an understanding of sin as the naïve mistakes we make as we learn.

“He who would learn to fly one day, must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying.”  (Nietzsche)

Monday 7 May 2018
WORLD AIDS ORPHANS DAY

The website www.worldaidsorphans.org tells us that over 15 million children have been orphaned by AIDS and that fewer than 10% of these receive any external support. The shocking reality of child-headed households is something that members of the Edmund Rice Network come across in disadvantaged countries across the globe. Today is an awareness-raiser for us all.

“You can become an even more excellent person by constantly setting higher and higher standards for yourself and then by doing everything possible to live up to those standards.”  (Brian Tracy)

Sunday 6 May
6th SUNDAY OF EASTER SEASON and
ST DOMINIC SAVIO

14-years-old when he died of an illness, Dominic Savio is the youngest non-martyr to be named a Saint. He was a student of Don Bosco, who wrote his life story.

“The strength of any weakness within us is the degree to which it is feared.”  (Guy Finley)

Saturday 5 May
EDMUND RICE DAY and
WORLD ASTHMA DAY

This website offers a rich collection of resources useful in preparing prayer for this day. Click EDMUND RICE in the list of buttons at the top of the page and explore.

World Asthma Day is an occasion to pray for those who carry the burden of this condition, especially those who have inadequate access to treatment. For information see the website www.thecochrainelibrary.com and click World Asthma Day on the Home Page.

“Almost always the creative, dedicated minority has made the world better.”  (Martin Luther King Jr)

Friday 4 May
INTERNATIONAL FIREFIGHTERS DAY and
BUDDHA DAY

The dangerous profession of firefighting is honoured on the feastday of their traditional patron saint, St Florian, and symbolized by the popular emblem of a red and blue ribbon.

The annual celebration of the birthday, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha over 2500 years ago, is a good occasion to pray for and in appreciation of all our Buddhist sisters and brothers.

“It is our choices... that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”  (J. K. Rowling)

Thursday 3 May
SAINTS PHILIP & JAMES and
WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY

One way of marking the feastday of the Apostles Philip & James would be to ponder Scriptures specifically related to them:
•    the words of Jesus to Philip: “To have seen me is to have seen the Father… I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (from today’s Gospel, Jn 14 : 6-14)
•    something from the letter of James, such as his words about talk in Chapter 3.

World Press Freedom Day is a reminder of a blessing taken for granted where it is well-established, but still yearned for in other countries where the lack of press freedom remains a huge obstacle to transparency and justice. For a recent world review, google WAN/Press Freedom Review, and for other awareness-raising information see the website www.wan.ifra.org and scroll down to Press Freedom.

“If you have an ability that goes beyond just providing for your own needs, you must use that ability to reach down and lift up those who do not have that ability.  Because if you don’t do that, then the day will come when they’re going to reach up and pull you down by sheer weight of numbers.”  (Coach Joby Harris)

Wednesday 2 May
LAST DAY OF RIDVÁN

Ridván is the chief festival of the Bahá’í faith. The word means paradise. The final day is one of those that is specially observed in this twelve-day festival.

“There is nothing which persevering effort and unceasing and diligent care cannot overcome.”  (Seneca)

Tuesday 1 May
INTERNATIONAL WORKERS’ DAY and ST JOSEPH THE WORKER

May Day has long been a focus point for awareness of the vulnerability of workers across the globe. It has become a public holiday in many countries, and been baptized as ‘St Joseph the Worker’. It prompts us to pay attention to the conditions of workers within our sphere and beyond.

“Vision is the art of seeing the invisible.”  (Jonathan Swift)

Monday 30 April 2018
WORLD VETERINARY DAY

Today is the 257th anniversary of the Veterinary profession and of Veterinary education. Many of us have reason to be grateful to Veterinary professionals for their skills and compassion.

“Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.”  (John Quincy Adams)

Sunday 29 April
5th SUNDAY OF EASTER SEASON and
ST CATHERINE OF SIENA

Catherine of Siena, the extraordinarily famous Dominican saint, lived only 33 years. It is difficult to get a clear impression of her as one has to wade through the excesses of hagiography, but she comes across as a saint for our times because of her forthright and fearless call for reform of what had gone wrong in the Church. Today’s feast prompts us to pray for the courage and listening needed to respond to the crises the Church is experiencing in our time.

“You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically, to say ‘no’ to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside. The enemy of the ‘best’ is often the ‘good’.”  (Stephen Covey)

Saturday 28 April
WORLD DAY FOR SAFETY & HEALTH AT WORK

Every year two million people die of work-related causes – one-sixth of these involve accidents at work, and the rest involve illnesses arising from work. The conviction that these deaths are preventable stands behind this day of awareness, prayer, and action. See the website www.ilo.org and click 28 April on the calendar.

“A lot of what we ascribe to luck is not luck at all. It's seizing the day and accepting responsibility for your future.”  (Howard Schultz)

Friday 27 April
SIERRA LEONE: REPUBLIC DAY  and  SOUTH AFRICA: FREEDOM DAY

A day to pray for the Edmund Rice Network in Sierra Leone and South Africa. The Christian Brothers have eight communities in Sierra Leone (with another three in other West African countries), and five in South Africa (with a sixth in neighbouring Zimbabwe) and also one ERN community in Cape Town. Growing up around these is a collection of active groups – of young people particularly – who take their inspiration from Edmund Rice.

“There are risks and costs to a plan of action. But they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction.”  (John F. Kennedy)

Thursday 26 April
WORLD INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY DAY

World Intellectual Property Day exists to reinforce awareness of justice in an area where looseness is commonplace. See the website www.wipo.int > click World IP Day.

“In the middle of every difficulty comes opportunity.”  (Albert Einstein)

Wednesday 25 April
ANZAC DAY in Australia and New Zealand

Anzac Day is the occasion for remembering the sacrifices of those Australians and New Zealanders who died in war. It falls on the anniversary of Gallipoli, the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces during World War I.

“The happiness of most people we know is not ruined by great catastrophes or fatal errors, but by the repetition of slowly destructive little things.”  (Ernest Dimnet)

Tuesday 24 April
anticipating WORLD MALARIA DAY tomorrow

World Malaria Day, being observed only for the eighth time, focuses co-operative effort to control a disease that kills a million people every year, mostly in Africa. See the websites www.worldmalariaday.org and www.rollbackmalaria/worldmalariaday

“Being negative is easy. There will always be a downside to everything good, a hurdle to everything desirable, a con to every pro. The real courage is in finding the good in what you have, the opportunities in every hurdle, the pros in every con.”  (Carolyn Hax)

Monday 23 April 2018
ST GEORGE’S DAY and
WORLD BOOK & COPYRIGHT DAY

St George is famed for slaying a dragon that barred people’s access to water except at the cost of daily human sacrifices. The classic symbolism of this story invites us to identify the dragons, water, and violence inherent in our contemporary situations. St George is England’s patron saint: on this unofficial English national day, let us hold up the Edmund Rice Network in England.

World Book and Copyright Day is a special occasion for appreciating books, their authors, the need to honour copyright, and the blessing of being able to read. The day was chosen because it marks the death or birth of a host of great writers including Cervantes and Shakespeare. See the website www.worldbookday.com

“Be careful the environment you choose for it will shape you; be careful the friends you choose for you will become like them.”  (W. Clement Stone)

Sunday 22 April
4th SUNDAY OF EASTER SEASON and
INTERNATIONAL MOTHER EARTH DAY

Mother Earth Day urges the building of a healthy energy economy, and invites personal and group commitments to sustainability. A day galvanizing the solidarity of over a billion people in nearly 200 countries. See the website www.un.org/en/events/motherearthday for engaging information.

“Prosperity is a way of living and thinking, and not just money or things. Poverty is a way of living and thinking, and not just a lack of money or things.”  (Eric Butterworth)

Saturday 21 April
ROME’s BIRTHDAY

Rome’s birthday is a good occasion to remember with gratitude the Christian Brothers community in ‘the eternal city’, including the itinerant Congregation Leadership Team.

“Don’t worry when you are not recognized, but strive to be worthy of recognition.”  (Abraham Lincoln)

Friday 20 April
RIDVÁN begins

Before sunset this evening, there begins the twelve days of Bahai’s greatest festival, Ridván. The name means ‘paradise’ and it arose from a garden experience. As we in the Edmund Rice Network strive to open ourselves to ‘a bigger God’, during these days let us join those of the Bahai faith in celebrating the festival’s awareness that ‘all the names of God are fully manifest in all things’.

“Life is an escalator: You can move forward or backward; you cannot remain still.”  (Patricia Russell-McCloud)

Thursday 19 April
ANNIVERSARY OF HISTORIC ANTI-VIETNAM-WAR PROTEST

On 19 April 1971 the Dewey Canyon week of peaceful protest against the war in Vietnam began. Organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, whose membership reached nearly 25 000 at the height of the war, it involved commemorating those who had died, publicly unmasking what was going on, and roundly rejecting the war in powerfully symbolic ways. A vivid example of advocacy – of people standing up courageously against propaganda and party-lines, whitewash and ‘spin’, and engaging what Ernest Hemingway termed our “built-in, indestructible crap-detectors”.

“Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.”  (Henry Ford)

Wednesday 18 April
ZIMBABWE’S INDEPENDENCE DAY

Zimbabwe celebrates today its 38th anniversary of independence. The Christian Brothers’ connection consists firstly of three Zimbabwean Brothers, secondly a boys’ high school (CBC Bulawayo) founded in 1954, thirdly a pair of attached communities serving in a variety of outreach initiatives, and lastly three decades of involvement (till 2010) in the Diocese’s deep-rural Embakwe Secondary School. Through the past half-century, the country has bumped through a succession of troubles, from which the Brothers and these schools have been far from exempt. We pray today for the suffering people of Zimbabwe, for our Zimbabwean-born Christian Brothers, and for the Brothers and others in the Edmund Rice Network ministering in Bulawayo.

“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.”  (Martin Luther King Jr)

Tuesday 17 April
WORLD HAEMOPHILIA DAY

One in a thousand people suffer from a bleeding disorder, but three-quarters of those affected receive little or no treatment. This awareness day calls upon the world to “close the gap” in terms of availability of treatments.

“If you focus on results, you will never change. If you focus on change, you will get results.”  (Jack Dixon)

Monday 16 April 2018
ST BERNADETTE OF LOURDES and
WORLD VOICE DAY

Bernadette was a young teenager at the time she experienced the 19th century apparitions of Mary in a grotto near an obscure French village. Today Lourdes is a major pilgrimage site, attracting some five million pilgrims a year, and second only to France’s capital Paris in its number of hotels. The message of the Lourdes tradition affirms authentic Christian faith by underlining the value of holistic healing.

World Voice Day, started in 2002, celebrates the human voice, a gift easily taken for granted.

“It’s not what you say out of your mouth that determines your life, it’s what you whisper to yourself that has the most power!”  (Robert T. Kiyosaki)

Sunday 15 April
3rd SUNDAY OF EASTER SEASON

“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”  (Marcus Aurelius)

Saturday 14 April
ANIMALS

April is known in some parts of the world as Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Month, and in other parts as Pets are Wonderful Month. Those of us who have experienced animals as little sacraments of God understand what St Francis meant when he called them our little brothers and sisters. We might mark this month by praying in gratitude for the presence of animals in our lives, and by praying that animals will be treated with respect in all human decisions that affect them.

“Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask.  Act! Action will delineate and define you.”  (Thomas Jefferson)

Friday 13 April
ST MARTIN I

Martin was a 7th century Pope who was imprisoned and horrifyingly abused, and eventually martyred, for standing up to the Emperor on a key matter of Christian faith. Remembering Martin might challenge us to examine where we need to stand up for what we believe and treasure.

“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”  (Lou Holtz)

Thursday 12 April
INTERNATIONAL DAY OF HUMAN SPACE FLIGHT

Today is the 56th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s becoming the first human to be launched into space, and is now a relatively new UN Day (preceded by the less-formal Yuri’s Night). In marking the crossing of this frontier, the world acknowledges the way space exploration has opened up not just our scientific knowledge but our whole worldview.

“Small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises.”  (Demosthenes)

Wednesday 11 April
WORLD PARKINSON’S DAY

This day is intended to boost awareness of Parkinson’s Disease and “to spur new research and treatment innovations”. At this stage, it is difficult to diagnose accurately and there is no known cure. Wearing a red tulip is the customary symbol of support for those affected by the disease.

“When written in Chinese, the word 'crisis' is composed of two characters - one represents danger and the other represents opportunity.”  (John F. Kennedy)

Tuesday 10 April
TITANIC ANNIVERSARY

106 years ago today, the RMS Titanic left the port of Southampton for its first and only journey. It sank two and a half hours after hitting an iceberg in the early hours of 15 April, drowning over 1500 people in the icy North Atlantic. The story of how this icon of human prestige and technology was humiliated by human error, continues to capture the imagination and cause us to ponder. Today’s anniversary might remind us that we live in the midst of events/people/efforts whose significance will only come to be recognized afterwards - prayer is a time for sensing the significance of all that surrounds us in the present.

“Everyone makes mistakes. That’s why there is an eraser on every pencil.”  (Japanese proverb)

Monday 9 April 2018
anticipating WORLD CREATIVITY & INNOVATION WEEK

Sunday 15th April is the birthday of Leonardo da Vinci, and it is the start of a week described as “a celebration of our ability to get new ideas, use imagination, and make new decisions to make the world a better place and to make your place in the world better too”. Since it began in 2001, a great number of schools and communities have adopted it. See the website www.creativityday.org

“Doing the best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment.”  (Oprah Winfrey)

Sunday 8 April
SUNDAY OF DIVINE MERCY and
INTERNATIONAL DAY OF THE ROMA

The call to treat Romanies with respect and compassion has come from many world leaders, including the late Pope John Paul II. An alternative culture and lifestyle is a challenge to our thinking, and today’s honouring of the Romani people asks mainstreamers to stop and think further.

“The difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure.”  (Dr John Maxwell)

Saturday 7 April
ST JEAN-BAPTISTE DE LA SALLE

Honoured as the patron saint of teachers, De La Salle is regarded as the founder of the Catholic school. He founded the Brothers of the Christian Schools, sometimes called the De La Salle Brothers, and pioneered lay-teacher-formation. Undoubtedly he was a source of inspiration to Edmund Rice, but as Denis McLaughlin points out in his book THE PRICE OF FREEDOM, Edmund’s Christian Brothers were not an Irish branch of De La Salle’s Brothers (as certain agendas tried to distort things in the early history of the Christian Brothers). De La Salle’s innovative and wholistic educational thinking continues to provide inspiration – see www.lasalle.org – and we salute his Brothers and co-workers this week.

“Your living is determined not so much by what life brings you as by the attitude you bring to life; not so much by what happens to you as by the way your mind looks at what happens.”  (Lewis L Dunnington)

Friday 6 April
anticipating WORLD HEALTH DAY tomorrow

The theme of this year’s World Health Day is “Universal health coverage: everyone, everywhere”. The World Health Organisation’s website – www.who.int/campaigns - calls for greater understanding of this very real disease, to lessen the stigma and encourage the seeking of help.

“Leaders are visionaries with a poorly developed sense of fear and no concept of the odds against them. They make the impossible happen.”  (Dr Robert Jarvik)

Thursday 5 April
ST VINCENT FERRER

Born in Fourteenth Century Spain, Vincent became a Dominican missionary who struggled with schism in the Church. Because of his efforts to build up the Church, he has become the patron saint of builders and is regarded as the natural patron of reconciliation. Spain also takes him as the patron saint of orphans.

“A new idea is delicate. It can be killed by a sneer or a yawn; it can be stabbed to death by a quip and worried to death by a frown on the right man's brow.”  (Charles Browner)

Wednesday 4 April
INTERNATIONAL DAY FOR LANDMINE AWARENESS & ASSISTANCE

When this observance began thirteen years ago, there were 84 countries plagued by unexploded landmines, which were killing or maiming 15 000 to 20 000 people annually. The keeping of an annual day is an effort in the direction of ridding the earth of the filth of these perverted inventions, and undoing the paralysis they bring to development in affected territories. It is also a reminder of those who live with the fall-out that has resulted and continues to come from this disgrace to humanity.

“Be selective about your external influences. Your multi-dimensional brain is influenced by everything you see, hear, read, smell, touch, feel or say.”  (Brian Tracy)

Tuesday 3 April
AIR TRAVEL

This month marks an important date in air travel history because the first Boeing 737 made its maiden flight just over half a century ago on 9 April, and the first British-built Concorde 002 made its maiden flight on the same day two years later. We might use the occasion to express thanks for the blessings brought by plane travel, and to pray for the safety of all who take to the airways.

“Constantly ask yourself these questions: Who am I around? What are they doing to me? What have they got me reading? What have they got me saying? Where do they have me going? What do they have me thinking? And most important, what do they have me becoming? Then ask yourself the big question: Is that okay?”  (Jim Rohn)

Monday 2 April 2018
WORLD AUTISM DAY and
INTERNATIONAL CHILDREN’S BOOK DAY

Autism Day is a UN-sponsored occasion for raising awareness of a disorder that affects tens of millions and is too often left undiagnosed and misunderstood. See the website www.worldautismawarenessday.org

Children’s Book Day falls on the birthday of Hans Christian Andersen, the great writer of children’s stories. Reading, a window to a lifetime of joy and enlightenment and growth, begins most naturally in childhood. Which is why children’s books are so important, and why those who write, publish, and promote them have such a key role to play. Our prayer today might embrace appreciation as well as awareness-raising of our own potential contribution.

“When your heart speaks, take good notes.”  (Michael Angier)

Sunday 1 April
EASTER SUNDAY
and APRIL FOOLS DAY

Each year the surprise pranks of April Fools Day nudge us to stop taking life so over-seriously and to get in touch with our fun side and appreciate the leaven of humour, one of God’s least-sung gifts.

“The height of your accomplishments will equal the depth of your convictions.”  (William F. Scolavino)

Saturday 31 March
HOLY SATURDAY

Holy Saturday is the 40th day of Lent. The starkness is even more pronounced: the church is stripped, and until the celebration of Easter (sometimes anticipated by a few hours) there is no Mass. This blank and empty day, once known as ‘Black Saturday’, focuses on the blunt fact that Jesus was really dead, not just waiting in the wings to make a surprise reappearance. Perhaps it also points to the hollowness of death’s seeming power when experienced in the context of a God whose love knows no limits. This is where the night’s Easter Vigil Liturgy invites us, as its long series of readings spells out how Jesus’ Easter experience was “in accordance with the Scriptures”…

“Count the cost first. Don’t pay too big a price for pursuing minor values.”  (Jim Rohn)

Friday 30 March
GOOD FRIDAY
and DOCTORS DAY

There are many people who make their sole annual visit to a church on Good Friday. It is the only day of the year when there is no Mass celebrated at any time. The Liturgy is stark, and the fact that it includes Communion, separated from the celebration of Eucharist, seems an anomaly or perhaps a compromise. The starkness reminds us, with all the power of symbolism, that Jesus actually faced the reality of death with all its daunting loss of control and certainty. All that he could hold on to as he died was a gut-trust that even death could not bring an end to his experience of God’s love. He entered even this ultimate part of human experience so as to lead us into transcending death. We say in the Creed that he ‘descended into hell’: by joining those who had died before him, he began the process of freeing all of us from being held (‘helled’) by death.

The USA celebrates Doctors today, often using the symbol of a red carnation. Though India has its own Doctors’ Day on 1 July, most countries do not, so we might take the tip to pray for and express appreciation of our Doctors on this day.

“No true victory requires the sacrifice of our values.”  (David DeFord)

Thursday 29 March
HOLY THURSDAY

What came to be known as ‘the last supper’ implies that there were many such suppers. Given the background role assigned to women by the times and the culture, one can quite reasonably wonder now whether women were present – just as one can wonder whether lamb was served (and by whom) though the texts don’t mention it. One can wonder too why the beautiful symbolism of washing feet only ‘made it’ into the Liturgy once in the year. Though the evening’s Liturgy focuses on the supper, the same night holds another story: Gethsemane. The shadow that fell over the supper’s intimacy deepens into the darkness of a lonely Jesus agonizing over imminent death, enduring betrayal and arrest, and finding himself abandoned. In our prayer today, we might hold all these experiences together, as Jesus had to do on that night. And there is the richness of John’s extensive account of the night: he devotes all of five ‘chapters’ to the supper and another half chapter to the rest of the night.

“Neglect starts out as an infection then becomes a disease.”  (Jim Rohn)

Wednesday 28 March
NEW BEGINNINGS

March used to be the first month of the calendar year because in the northern hemisphere it brought Spring, the start of a new cycle. The floral emblem of March is the daffodil, herald of Spring. Before we leave this month behind, we might take up in our prayer the theme of new beginnings: the nurturing of whatever may be starting, about to be born, struggling into life…

“You can't solve a problem on the same level that it was created. You have to rise above it to the next level.”  (Albert Einstein)

Tuesday 27 March
WORLD THEATRE DAY

World Theatre Day celebrates the role and power of theatre in human society. It has a website – www.worldtheatreday.co – and a blog – www.worldtheatreday.org

“Don't wish it was easier, wish you were better. Don't wish for less problems, wish for more skills. Don't wish for less challenges, wish for more wisdom.”  (Jim Rohn)

Monday 26 March 2018
COURAGE

Courage, symbolized by the birthstones of March, Aquamarine and Bloodstone, might provide a theme for our prayer today. Against the forces of conformity and peer pressure, and the harshness of unjust structures and systems, courage is the key to the coming of God’s ‘kindom’ (as the non-sexist language has creatively translated the dream of Jesus).

“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you will help them become what they are capable of becoming.”  (Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe)

START OF HOLY WEEK

If you Google ‘Free Lenten Reflections’, you’ll find a wealth of other resources to enrich your observance of Holy Week. Here are a few selected samples:
•    www.creighton.edu – click on Ministry > Daily Reflections, or Weekly Guide for Prayer.
•    www.thereflection.vividas.com – click on ‘lenten booklet’ for a Lectio Divina resource.
•    www.franciscanradio.org – offering 90-second reflections both in audio and transcript form.

Sunday 25 March
PALM SUNDAY and
THE ANNUNCIATION

There is an old Christmas hymn that runs:

“The Virgin’s womb that burden gained,
its virgin honour still unstained.
The banners there of virtue glow;
God in his temple dwells below.”

The “below” idea is a lumpy metaphor, but one can swallow that. It is the notions about human sexuality that are appalling – the prissy ‘religious’ hang-ups about the body. The Incarnation was surely a celebration, not a denial, of human sexuality. And the traditional mystery of Virgin Birth is a pointer to the identity of Jesus; it is not about God viewing virginity as synonymous with “virtue” and human procreation as “stained” (or ‘maculate’). Here is a clue as to why so many people mistakenly link the Annunciation to the Immaculate Conception, which is meant to celebrate the beginning of Mary’s own life not the beginning of her motherhood. Today’s feast of the Annunciation invites our prayer to celebrate God’s gifts, notably God’s closeness to us in Christ.

“We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.”  (May Sarton)

Saturday 24 March
ANNIVERSARY OF THE DEATH OF ARCHBISHOP ROMERO and
WORLD TUBERCULOSIS DAY

Archbishop Romero was assassinated on 24 March 1980, after denouncing violations of the human rights of the most vulnerable populations and defending the principles of protecting lives, promoting human dignity and opposition to all forms of violence.

Today is also a day raising awareness of the disease of Tuberculosis which is such a killer in parts of the developing world, and of efforts to eliminate it. See www.worldtbday.org

“Being challenged in life is inevitable, being defeated is optional.”  (Roger Crawford)

Friday 23 March
WORLD METEOROLOGICAL DAY

A day celebrating the World Meteorological Organisation’s 60+ years of service for our safety and well-being. Let’s remember with gratitude the scientists whose faithful monitoring of weather and climate gives us forewarning to brace for short-term extremes and to adjust behaviour-patterns affecting the long-term well-being of the earth community.

“Striving for perfection is the greatest stopper there is… It’s your excuse to yourself for not doing anything. Instead, strive for excellence, doing your best.”  (Sir Laurence Olivier)

Thursday 22 March
WORLD WATER DAY

The theme this year is ‘Nature for water’, prompting reflection on ‘how we can use nature to overcome the water challenges of the 21st century’. See www.worldwaterday.org

“Practice the body language of self-confidence. Stand tall and straight with your chin high and walk briskly. You will feel better and act better.”  (Brian Tracy)

Wednesday 21 March
WORLD DOWN SYNDROME DAY and
WORLD POETRY DAY and
INTERNATIONAL DAY FOR THE ELIMINATION OF RACIAL DISCRIMINATION

World Down Syndrome Day is a day to pray for all families who include someone with Down Syndrome. See www.worlddownsyndromeday.org

World Poetry Day is a UNESCO initiative to promote the reading, writing, publishing, and teaching of poetry. Perhaps we could incorporate some poetry into our prayer today.

The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, commemorating the infamous apartheid massacre in Sharpeville, South Africa, on 21 March 1960. The day challenges us to examine our racial stereotypes and prejudices, and invites us to celebrate racial diversity.

“Always know in your heart that you are far bigger than anything that can happen to you.”  (Dan Zadra)

Tuesday 20 March
St JOSEPH’S DAY and
anticipating WORLD FORESTRY DAY

Scripture portrays Joseph as a man who trusted the God of his dreams implicitly and deeply, taking on the role of foster-father to the child Jesus. Many in the ERN have found they relate to Joseph - a few because they are foster-parents themselves, but many more because they have in effect filled something of this role for children and teenagers. St Joseph and St Patrick are the traditional patrons of Christian Brothers Novitiates, and in this month of their feastdays, we pray for all Edmund Rice Novitiates around the globe.

World Forestry Day reminds us of the beauty and value of the world’s forests, so easily threatened and sacrificed for short-term gain. If there is a forest within range of you, this special day might invite you to visit it for a time of prayer – even as a community or group. Forests have been described as ‘God’s Cathedrals’ because of the spiritual resonance their multi-sense appeal invokes in us.

“He who reigns within himself and rules his passions, desires, and fears is more than a king.”  (John Milton)

Monday 19 March 2018
THE EQUINOX (19th/20th)

The equinox is a day when the season cycles of the two hemispheres intersect, and a reminder of the broader patterns and pictures which context and unite us, not just across the globe but in the infinite sphere of an all-embracing God who holds all in being.

“Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.”  (Hyman Rickover)

Sunday 11 March
4th SUNDAY OF LENT

“The highest reward for a man's toil is not what he gets for it, but what he becomes by it.”  (John Ruskin)

Saturday 10 March
MONTH OF MARCH and
COURAGE

This month is named after Mars, the god of war, perhaps because northern Spring was traditionally the time for military campaigns to begin. That armed conflicts and armed ‘forces’ have survived their 19th century sell-by date, is an embarrassing disgrace to contemporary humanity. That obese military budgets and the sale of arms for use against our world’s most vulnerable peoples should be a cog in our world’s economic machine, is one of the foul sins of our times. But that spiritual warfare has become even more a necessity in a time of such pervery, is self-evident and provides constant matter for our prayer.

The birthstones of the month of March, Aquamarine and Bloodstone, denote courage – once described as “fear that has said its prayers”. Our prayer at this time might turn to those matters in our lives, and in the area of contemporary spiritual warfare, that call for courage.

“I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”  (Helen Keller)

Friday 9 March
ST FRANCES OF ROME

Though Frances died as a Religious, she spent most of her years as a wife and mother whose trials and sufferings led her deeper and deeper into service, both in her home setting and beyond. In her later years she founded a lay order of women mainly living in ordinary family circumstances. Her life stands as a testament to the ordinary path of learning the wholeness that is known as holiness, hallowedness, sainthood.

“Do not stop thinking of life as an adventure. You have no security unless you live bravely, excitingly, imaginatively.”  (Eleanor Roosevelt)

Thursday 8 March
WORLD KIDNEY DAY and
WORLD WOMEN’S DAY and
ST JOHN OF GOD

The second Thursday of March is World Kidney Day, an occasion designed to enhance global health awareness. Our prayer today could focus on appreciation of good health, so easily taken for granted, and on those marginalized by chronic and intense dis-ease. A website to look up: www.worldkidneyday.org

International Women’s Day is being marked today for the 107th time. It’s a day for celebrating the achievements of women, but also for expressing solidarity with women who continue to experience discrimination in many cultures and situations – in the work-world, in law, in the church - in terms of opportunities, resources, and power. Look up the site: www.internationalwomensday.com

St John of God became transformed through his own traumatic experiences. Most notably, he was exposed to the rawness of a 16th century ‘madhouse’ when others misinterpreted the disorientation that accompanied his conversion. The outcome was a deep compassion for those on the margins of society. He expressed this through nursing the destitute and providing them with hospital facilities, leaving behind a congregation now popularly known as the John of God Brothers.

“One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of shore for a very long time.”  (Andre Gide)

Wednesday 7 March
ST PERPETUA & ST FELICITY

These two nursing mothers were martyred at the start of the 3rd century in what is now Tunisia. They are now among the few women mentioned in the Canon of the Mass. Perpetua was 22 and Felicitas, her slave, had given birth just two days before they were turned over to wild animals and then put to the sword. Their willingness to die in testifying to their faith is a reminder of a profound gift not-to-be-taken-for-granted.

“Growth is not steady, forward, upward progression.  It is instead a switchback trail; three steps forward, two back, one around the bushes, and a few simply standing, before another forward leap.”  (Dorothy Corkville Briggs)

Tuesday 6 March
GHANA’S INDEPENDENCE DAY

In 1957 Ghana was the first ‘black’ African country to become independent of a colonial power, becoming the forerunner in a movement that spread right across the continent of Africa. Today the ERN is represented in Ghana by several communities of Presentation Brothers and Christian Brothers, including two Novitiates.

“Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”  (Will Rogers)

Monday 5 March 2018
THE APPROACH OF NORTHERN SPRING AND SOUTHERN AUTUMN

By this time of the year, most of the world (except places close to the equator or the poles) are picking up little signs of the coming of a change of season – our regular reminder that “all things are passing; only God is unchanging”. Perhaps reflecting on the current signs may help us get in touch prayerfully with the subtler changes we are undergoing at this time in our lives.

“Picture yourself vividly as winning and that alone will contribute immeasurably to success. Great living starts with a picture, held in your imagination, of what you would like to do or be.”  (Harry Emerson Fosdick)

Sunday 4 March
3rd SUNDAY OF LENT and
WORLD DAY OF THE FIGHT AGAINST SEXUAL EXPLOITATION

This World Day of the Fight against Sexual Exploitation is a little-established occasion with which the ERN can identify and whose concern we can bring to prayer, in solidarity with all who suffer from this evil. UNICEF estimates that over 3 million children are involved in prostitution around the world.

“Whenever we do what we can, we immediately can do more.”  (James Freeman Clarke)

Saturday 3 March
ST KATHARINE DREXEL

St Katharine Drexel, who lived from the mid-19th till the mid-20th century, became the second-ever American-born canonized saint. She dedicated her life and her family fortune to the needs of oppressed racial minorities in the USA – Native Americans and African-Americans – concentrating on the provision of education. She founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, over 60 missions and schools, and the only historically-Black University in the US, Xavier University of Louisiana.

“Growth is not steady, forward, upward progression.  It is instead a switchback trail; three steps forward, two back, one around the bushes, and a few simply standing, before another forward leap.”  (Dorothy Corkville Briggs)

Friday 2 March
ST JOSEPH’S MONTH and
WORLD DAY OF PRAYER

Traditionally March has been associated with Saint Joseph. Scripture portrays him as a man who trusted the God of his dreams implicitly and deeply, taking on the role of foster-father to the child Jesus. Many in the ERN have found they relate to Joseph - a few because they are foster-parents themselves, but many more because they have in effect filled something of this role for children and teenagers.

The first Friday of March has become established by Christian women across the globe as special day of prayer affirming “that prayer and action are inseparable and that both have immeasurable influence in the world” – a notion which the ERN will readily own. An internet reference is www.worlddayofprayer.net

“You are never given a wish without also being given the power to make it come true.”  (Richard Bach)

Thursday 1 March
INTERNATIONAL DEATH PENALTY ABOLITION DAY

More than two-thirds of the world’s countries have abolished the death penalty, but a chilling chart on www.amnesty.org/en/death-penalty shows how the practice persists around the globe, including a few countries where the Edmund Rice Network has a presence. Information about this world movement can be found by looking up www.hrea.org > Learning Centre > International Death Penalty Abolition Day.

“To believe in something not yet proved and to underwrite it with our lives: it is the only way we can leave the future open.”  (Lillian Smith)

Wednesday 28 February
RARE DISEASE DAY

Rare Disease Day, usually on the last day of February, is an awareness-raising occasion of interest to the ERN because it extends our concern to another part of the margins of society. The website www.rarediseaseday.org explains: “The rare disease patient is the orphan of health systems, often without diagnosis, without treatment, without research, therefore without reason to hope.”

“Everyone has the power for greatness, not for fame but for greatness, because greatness is determined by service.”  (Martin Luther King, Jr)

Tuesday 27 February
ST GABRIEL

Not the Archangel, but the mortal man. In fact mortality struck very early for this Italian Passionist seminarian – he died at 23 - and Gabriel has become a patron of all students, youth, and seminarians. His life is a reminder that sanctity is not always linked to venerable old age.

“You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”  (Woodrow Wilson)

Monday 26 February 2018
First day of BAHÁ’Í FESTIVAL of AYYÁM-I-HÁ

The origin of this festival is complicated, but it has become known as the “Bahá’í Christmas” because it is a time of gift-giving, generosity, and goodwill, celebrating the oneness of God through the showing of love, fellowship, and unity.

“Greatness after all, in spite of its name, appears to be not so much a certain size as a certain quality in human lives. It may be present in lives whose range is very small.”  (Phillips Brooks)

Sunday 25 February
2nd SUNDAY OF LENT and
ST WALPURGA

St Walpurga was an 8th Century English nun who together with her uncle and two brothers became a missionary to the people of the Frankish Empire. She is believed to be the first female author in the history of both England and Germany. A day, perhaps, to celebrate with gratitude the initiatives of anyone whose drive has had a positive impact on our lives.

“The highest reward for a man's toil is not what he gets for it, but what he becomes by it.”  (John Ruskin)

Saturday 24 February
NATIONAL ARTIST DAY IN THAILAND

Thailand’s practice of having a special day to honour its distinguished artists is a reminder of the contribution of all artists to our society: through their insight, they share through different media such gifts as enlightenment, upliftment, vision, celebration, provocation, and challenge. This day could prompt us to pray for all artists who, without even meeting us, have affected and enriched us.

“Everybody can be great… because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”  (Martin Luther King, Jr)

Friday 23 February
WORLD ISLAM DAY

Timed to celebrate the completion of the Islamic faith, this day was recently proposed for adoption and was marked for the first time 9 years ago. It provides an opportunity to pray in gratitude for the ways in which Islam has enriched the human community with its insights and with values such as justice and peace. And it is a reminder to pray for our Muslim colleagues, friends, and neighbours. See www.worldislamday.org

“Man's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”  (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr)

Thursday 22 February
ST LUCIA’S INDEPENDENCE DAY
and WORLD THINKING DAY

St Lucia is on the Edmund Rice map because of the presence of the Presentation Brothers. It also has a less-tangible connection with the African ERN through the enslaved Africans who became part of this mountainous island’s population and history. St Lucia, one of the windward islands in the eastern Caribbean on the edge of the Atlantic, celebrates today its 39th anniversary of independence from British rule. We pray today for the people of St Lucia and especially those who live and spread the values and vision of Edmund Rice.

Thinking Day is a product of the international Girl Guiding and Girl Scouting movement. Its theme this year is “Impact: - understanding the power you have to bring positive change. In our prayer today we are invited to align our hearts with this aim. See www.worldthinkingday.org

“One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar.”  (Helen Keller)

Wednesday 21 February
WORLD LANGUAGE DAY

Today we celebrate the gift of human language and of the cultural diversity that language represents. It’s also an alert to the danger that 40% of our world’s 6000-odd languages may disappear in the course of this century – that’s an average of two languages vanishing every month. “Every time we lose a language”, says language authority David Crystal, “we lose one vision of the world.” Most of the languages-at-risk have no literature, so they would disappear without trace, taking with them the wisdom and values of their culture, and leaving our world poorer for their passing. Today is a day for reinforcing our appreciation of diversity and dialogue.

“No matter how dark things seem to be or actually are, raise your sights and see the possibilities - always see them, for they’re always there.”  (Norman Vincent Peale)

Tuesday 20 February
WORLD DAY OF SOCIAL JUSTICE

This day has special importance to the worldwide Edmund Rice community because it focuses on solidarity with all who are marginalized: people who are poor and hungry and unemployed, people who are excluded and powerless and without opportunities, people who are treated unfairly and are prevented from getting a fair share within the human community. For a succinct outline of the day’s focus, look it up on www.timeanddate.com – and for a range of applications, explore the EDMUND RICE INTERNATIONAL website.

“The pessimist borrows trouble; the optimists lend encouragement.”  (William Arthur Ward)

Monday 19 February 2018
ETHNIC EQUALITY DAY

Expanding the Black History Month, Ethnic Equality Day sees the month of February as “a time to honour all peoples and their positive traditions, a time to meditate on the equality of all peoples, on the respect due to them”, and on the Divine Presence dwelling in all of them.

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”  (G.K. Chesterton)

Sunday 18 February
FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT and
THE GAMBIA: INDEPENDENCE DAY

Although the Christian Brothers interrupted their presence in The Gambia some years ago, and a visit to explore re-establishing ties appeared to meet an unfriendly response from church authority, the West African District – which includes Gambian-born brothers – would like to return. In colonial days, The Gambia was marked out as roughly a canon-ball’s range on both sides of the River Gambia. This day celebrates independence from Britain, attained half a century ago. Let us pray today for the people of this tiniest nation on the African continent, and especially for those who have been drawn into the Edmund Rice community.

“Definiteness of purpose is the starting point of all achievement.”  (W. Clement Stone)

Saturday 17 February
2006 MUDSLIDE IN THE PHILIPPINES

The twelfth anniversary of the massive mudslide that killed upwards of 1100 people in the Philippines may be an occasion for praying for all who have lost their lives in natural disasters during our lifetime, and for all whose lives are forever scarred by the losses they sustained in such events.

“Every mistake that I made - and we all make mistakes - came because I didn't take the time to get the facts.”  (Charles Knight)

Friday 16 February
ST ELIAS & COMPANIONS and ST JULIANA

Elias and Juliana are among the lesser-known saints martyred for their Christian faith in the early 4th Century. The term ‘martyrdom’ conjures up images of physical violence and cruelty. We might reflect today on who is undergoing martyrdom in our own time. Today’s forms of martyrdom tend to be subtler and less easily recognized; yet, though the violence and cruelty are less likely to be physical, they are just as brutal and destructive.

“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.”  (Leo Tolstoy)

Thursday 15 February
NIRVANA DAY and
INTERNATIONAL CHILDHOOD CANCER DAY

Also called ‘Parinirvana’, and sometimes observed a week earlier, this Mahayana Buddhist holiday is widely honoured. Celebrating the death of the Buddha as an achievement of total freedom and transcendence, it underlines the Buddhist vision of the impermanence of physical life, an idea with resonances in many different faith-views.

International Childhood Cancer Day raises our awareness of children with cancer. With early detection and proper treatment, 70% of childhood cancers can be cured (see www.icccpo.org). Today let us join in praying with the parents and communities of children suffering from cancer, and for access to the necessary medical attention.

“Treasure the love you receive above all. It will survive long after your gold and good health have vanished.”  (Og Mandino)

Wednesday 14 February
ASH WEDNESDAY, the start of LENT, and
ST VALENTINE’S DAY

‘Lent’ means Spring, and though it only partly overlaps with the early part of northern Spring, and falls in the early southern Autumn, Lent is very much a spiritual Springtime. It’s a time for new shoots, renewed growth, fresh flowering. It’s an occasion for ‘spring-cleaning’, for clearing the clutter of our lives, for ‘servicing’ and taking stock of our total humanity. Externals like the ashes and fasting and abstinence are, as the Lenten Biblical readings bluntly remind us, only meaningful if they express an internal movement of the heart, the about-turn that Jesus termed ‘metanoia’. If you Google ‘Free Lenten Reflections’, you’ll find a wealth of other resources to enrich your Lent. Here are a few selected samples:
•    www.creighton.edu – click on Ministry > Daily Reflections.
•    www.thereflection.vividas.com – click on ‘lenten booklet’ for a Lectio Divina resource.
•    www.franciscanmedia.org – offering 90-second audio reflections.

Just who St Valentine may have been is lost in a blur of multiple martyrs of Rome by that name. The origin of the day may relate to these legends, or to the start of the mating season among birds, or to the baptizing of a pagan festival involving a primitive kind of pairing/dating agency. Though no longer on the Catholic calendar, the irrepressible popularity of St Valentine’s Day as a celebration of love and intimacy suggests a need for feastdays that are relevant to our lived experience. Realistically, how much enthusiasm is generated for the Way of Jesus by creaky churchiferous observances such as the ‘Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica’? Already the Church has baptized or endorsed certain World Days, and started a new generation of ‘feastdays’ such as its World Day of Peace (1 January). Imagine the Church replacing some its dustier Doctors and pallid Pastors and vapid Virgins with feastdays to honour childhood and old age, justice and inclusion, parenting and service, artists and creativity, faithfulness and friendship, courtesy and kindness, masculinity and femininity. Imagine how it might ground and re-energise our gatherings for liturgy.

“If you wish to be more influential, spend more time being interested in others than you do trying to be interesting.”  (Josh Hinds)

Tuesday 13 February
WORLD RADIO DAY

Radio, because it is inexpensive and widely accessible, has a special role in communication and access to information. It reaches the poor, the vulnerable, and the remote. Today we celebrate this gift and ponder how we might better use this medium in service of the marginalized. See www.worldradioday.org

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”  (Theodore Roosevelt)

Monday 12 February 2018
DARWIN DAY and
RED HAND DAY

Charles Darwin was born on this day just over 200 years ago. The day celebrates all the ways in which science has enriched our lives, and Darwin’s contribution in particular, notably the opening up of awareness of the wonders of evolution.

Red Hand Day is a United Nations day drawing attention to the fate of child soldiers. The utterly perverted practice of forcing children to ‘serve’ as soldiers in armed conflicts is still widespread, and the aftermath in their lives is devastating, efforts at rehabilitation varying “from inadequate to non-existent”.

“There's a great beauty to having problems. That's one of the ways we learn.”  (Herbie Hancock)

Sunday 11 February
6th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME and

OUR LADY OF LOURDES and WORLD DAY OF THE SICK

The fascinating story of Lourdes goes back a century and a half, 11 February being the date of the first appearance of “the lady” to 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous. Whether regarded with faith or skepticism or ridicule, the Lourdes story cannot be ignored. And its message urging prayer and penance “for the conversion of sinners” is clearly in harmony with the message of Jesus, which is why it is among the very few apparitions to have been given official recognition by the Church. The compelling cures associated with Lourdes, since Bernadette was led to uncover a spring of water, have led to the naming of this day as the World Day of the Sick.

“If people knew how hard I worked to gain my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful.” (Michelangelo)

Saturday 10 February
ST SCHOLASTICA

Not much is known about Scholastica, the twin sister of St Benedict, who headed a monastery of nuns a few miles from Monte Cassino, except the legends of her faith and devotion to God. Her feast day reminds us to pray for the Benedictine family around the world.

“If you lose the power to laugh, you lose the power to think.” (Clarence Darrow)

Friday 9 February
ST MAROUN

A 4th-5th Century mystic monk, Maroun spent his days on a mountain in Syria. His enthusiasm for Christ attracted many in Syria and Lebanon to discipleship and gave rise to the Maronite movement within the Catholic Church.

“There are no problems we cannot solve together, and very few we can solve by ourselves.” (Lyndon B. Johnson,)

Thursday 8 February
SAINT JOSEPHINE BAKHITA, PATRON OF THE SUDAN and
INTERNATIONAL DAY OF PRAYER & AWARENESS AGAINST HUMAN TRAFFICKING

Born in the Darfur region of Sudan, and kidnapped into illegal and brutal slavery at the age of 9, Bakhita ended up in Italy. When her ‘owners’ came to fetch her and their daughter from the care of the Canossian Sisters, the newly baptized Josephine refused to leave the Convent. Her rights were upheld by Italian law, and she joined the Sisters, remaining in Italy with them till her death 50 years later in the mid-20th Century. Her memoirs have been published. She is the first African to be canonized (in 2000) for many centuries. Her feast day gives us a special occasion to pray for the victims of the widespread trafficking of women and children in our own times, and for the people of newly created South Sudan and the Yambio community of Christian Brothers who represent the ERN among them.

A Catholic initiative tied to St Bakhita’s day, this annual day of prayer and awareness against trafficking began only recently, in 2015. Trafficking, described on the website www.zenit.org as “one of the worst examples of slavery in the XXI Century”, is reported to affect some 21 million people, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, in a variety of forms: “sexual exploitation, forced labour and begging, illegal organ removal, domestic servitude and forced marriages, illegal adoption and other forms of exploitation”. We are invited to join in a worldwide counter-force of prayer and care.

“Were there none who were discontented with what they have, the world would never reach for anything better.” (Florence Nightingale)

Wednesday 7 February
GRENADA’S INDEPENDENCE DAY

Grenada is on the ERN map because of the presence of the Presentation Brothers (see www.presentationbrothers.com and type ‘Grenada’ in the Search slot). This Eastern Caribbean nation, consisting of three islands, the Grenadines (the largest being the mountainous Grenada with its forests and mangrove and coral reef, the second the hilly Carriacou, and the smallest Petit Martinique), grows the world’s highest concentration of spices including a third of all our nutmeg. On this 42nd anniversary of their independence from Britain, let us remember in prayer the circles of Grenadians around the Presentation Brothers.

“One day you will wake up and there won’t be any more time to do the things you’ve always wanted.  Do it now.”  (Paulo Coelho)

Tuesday 6 February
NEW ZEALAND’S WAITANGI DAY and
INTERNATIONAL DAY OF ZERO TOLERANCE TO FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION

Waitangi Day, commemorating the signing of a now-controversial treaty 170+ years ago in New Zealand, remains a focus of the pain and ambivalence of a colonial past. The solemnity of the day’s celebration in New Zealand is in amusing contrast with the more flamboyant tradition of a Kiwi pubcrawl via the London Underground. But this day serves as an occasion to hold in prayer all the people of New Zealand, and in particular the country’s remarkable Edmund Rice Network.

International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation is an annual UN-sponsored day to promote the eradication of this practice. The slogan originated in Nigeria over a decade ago and spread to an international awareness.

“Energy is the essence of life. Every day you decide how you’re going to use it by knowing what you want and what it takes to reach that goal, and by maintaining focus.” (Oprah Winfrey)

Monday 5 February 2018
ST AGATHA

The core of St Agatha’s story is the consecration of her virginity to Christ. The strength of her faith enabled her to endure sustained sexual assault and humiliation, and finally martyrdom. Instead of getting lost in pious peripherals (like St Agatha loaves – based, apparently, on a mistaken interpretation of what her portrait shows her carrying on a platter), our prayer today could focus on all who are vulnerable to sexual abuse and all who are being treated as sexual objects or slaves, especially those who have no one to turn to except God.

“You make the world a better place by making yourself a better person.” (Scott Sorrell)

Sunday 4 February
5th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME and
WORLD CANCER DAY

World Cancer Day focuses our attention on a disease that currently kills more people than AIDS, Malaria, and TB combined. The energy is around knowledge – to minimize the risk, enable early detection, and help manage the disease – and also around advocacy, to make treatment available. Over 40% of cancers are potentially preventable – by attention to diet and exercise, by avoidance of smoke and of excessive exposure to sun and alcohol. Of special interest to the ERN is the fact that the world’s poorest countries are the ones hardest hit by cancer: two-thirds of cancer deaths occur in countries where cancer-control resources are scarcest. Among various symbols used in consciousness-raising is the daffodil, a token of hope looking towards a day when cancer is no longer life-threatening. Let us not only pray for that day but for all who are threatened by the disease in our time, especially those who lack protective knowledge and resources.

“Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.”  (C. S. Lewis)

Saturday 3 February
ST BLAISE’S DAY and
“WIND OF CHANGE”

St Blaise was a Bishop in the early Church, and also a physician, who was brutally martyred for his Christian faith. He became famous for healing problems of the throat, and is still invoked for throat diseases – a traditional practice on his feastday (coming the day after Candlemas) is the blessing of throats with crossed candles.

On this day in 1960, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan used the now-famous phrase “wind of change” as a prelude to the era of decolonization that was about to unfold across the continent of Africa. His speech in Cape Town, a more-publicised repeat of that given in Accra the previous month, also sent out a clear challenge to South Africa’s apartheid policies of the time. As we thank God for all the good that the “wind of change” has blown, let us also be open to the changes needed at this time.

“You choose the life you live. If you don't like it, it's on you to change it because no one else is going to do it for you.”  (Kim Kiyosaki)

Friday 2 February
PRESENTATION OF THE BOY JESUS IN THE TEMPLE and
WORLD DAY FOR CONSECRATED LIFE and
WORLD WETLANDS DAY

The Presentation in the Temple is also known as ‘The Purification of Mary’ – 40 days after the birth of Jesus, Jewish Law had Mary attend a ritual purification and then present her first-born son in the Jerusalem Temple. The feast is also known as ‘Candlemas’ – the day on which candles are traditionally brought to be blessed in Church and taken home, reminding us that we need to allow the light of Jesus to penetrate our minds and hearts and take that light ‘home’, into our everyday lives. Incidentally, this is not the day from which the Presentation Sisters and Brothers take their name – the Presentation of Mary (‘Presentation Day’) is celebrated in November.

World Day for Consecrated Life is a day to celebrate and pray for those who have consecrated themselves to God by the vows traditionally known as Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. Within the Edmund Rice Network we have two such groups, the Presentation Brothers and the Christian Brothers; and many of us have ties with several other congregations of men and women: let us keep them all in our prayer today.

World Wetlands Day is intended to raise our awareness of the value and importance of wetlands – see the website www.ramsar.org

“The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of childhood into maturity.”  (Thomas Henry Huxley)

Thursday 1 February
ST BRIGID, BISHOP and
BLACK HISTORY MONTH

St Brigid of Kildare is one of Ireland’s patron saints. Today she comes to us wrapped in many layers of legend, but the general drift is that she was a woman of extraordinary power in 5th/6th Century Ireland, founder and leader of monasteries which were nodes of learning and of Christian faith and influence. A persistent legend holds that she was a Bishop, an intriguing thought in the context of the current Church debate (and non-debate) about the ordination of women.

Black History Month is observed in North America during the month of February; in the USA it is called African American History Month. In the UK it is observed in October. It celebrates the story of the world’s African diaspora – all that has been endured and achieved by people of African origin who have become scattered around the globe both by force and by choice.

“Genius is there in all of us, just waiting for us to tap into it.”  (Robert R. Toth)

Wednesday 31 January
ST JOHN BOSCO

Don Bosco, a 19th Century Italian Priest, had a special gift for attracting disadvantaged youth to a healthy and holistic lifestyle. He saw education as “a matter of the heart” and the three watchwords of his ‘preventive system’ were reason, religion, and kindness. Founder of today’s Salesians and co-founder of their sister-congregation, the Salesian Sisters, he also started a lay movement of Salesian Cooperators, way ahead of most similar developments in other charism-based families. There is a striking resonance between the vision of John Bosco and that of Edmund Rice, which serves as a reminder of the gospel roots of our mission.

“Do your little bit of good where you are; its those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”  (Desmond Tutu)

Tuesday 30 January
MARY WARD, FOUNDER OF THE LORETO SISTERS

Mary Ward was declared ‘Venerable’ just over eight years ago, at the time of the 400th anniversary of the Congregation she founded, the Loreto Sisters (IBVMs). Her Institute was suppressed in 1631, and it was only in 1877 that it was recognized by the Church. Mary Ward could not be called ‘Foundress’ until 1909, some two and a half centuries after her death. Her ‘sin’ was that she dared to found a congregation of non-enclosed, apostolic women. Now she is being praised by the Church for her ‘heroic virtue’. Something comparable happened to other visionary women founders, such as Catherine McAuley (who founded the Sisters of Mercy in 19th Century Ireland) and Mary MacKillop (the Josephite Sisters’ Australian founder, excommunicated by the 19th Century Church, and canonized in 2010). Indeed our own Edmund Rice was subject to vicious vilification and rejection in his time. The lesson may be to look at who is being rejected in our time.

“When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don't adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.”  (Confucius)

Monday 29 January 2018
ST JUNIPER’S DAY and
WORLD LEPROSY DAY

A contemporary and follower of St Francis of Assisi, Brother Juniper had extraordinary patience, simplicity, and generosity. Known as ‘the jester of the Lord’ for his playfulness, he seems to have been quite a character. Francis said of him: “Would that I had a whole forest of such Junipers”.

Leprosy, though still a significant disease in many countries, may well become eradicated through medical advances. Air-borne rather than caught by skin-contact as was previously believed, it isolated sufferers. As Mother Teresa pointed out, today’s more common equivalent might be “the feeling of being unwanted”. On this awareness-raising day we might keep in mind all who suffer any kind of isolation, as well as those scientists who are working towards eliminating diseases that isolate people.

“Knowing others is wisdom; knowing the self is enlightenment.”  (Tao Te Ching)

Sunday 28 January
4th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME and
DATA PRIVACY DAY

Data Privacy Day is described as “a celebration of the dignity of the individual expressed through personal information”. With all their blessings, today’s communication technologies also put personal privacy at risk, which calls for vigilance. See the website www.dataprivacyday.org

“What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself.”  (Abraham H. Maslow)

Saturday 27 January
INTERNATIONAL HOLOCAUST REMEMBRANCE

This UN day stands as a bastion not only against genocide and persecution, but also against all forms of racism - and against anti-Semitism in particular. As we remember the Holocaust and the millions who perished in this unthinkable yet undeniable low in humanity’s history, we could pray for the healing of this and all other breaches of world wholeness, starting with our own pet prejudices. (A wonderful and widely-available piece of music capturing the unspeakable sadness of the Holocaust is the theme composed by John Williams for the movie SCHINDLER’S LIST.)

“Beginning today, treat everyone you meet as if they were going to be dead by midnight.  Extend to them all the care, kindness and understanding you can muster, and do it with no thought of any reward.  Your life will never be the same again.”  (Og Mandino)

Friday 26 January
AUSTRALIA DAY  and  INDIA’S REPUBLIC DAY

This year India marks the 67th anniversary of the adoption of its Constitution. On the same day, Australia holds its biggest annual celebration. We pray with and for the people of these two nations - hugely-populous India with its sparkling diversity and painful contrasts, and vast Australia with its awesome wide-open spaces and bustling urbanised edges - struggling with the legacy of the past and the challenges of the future. Very specially we pray in gratitude for the exciting vitality of the Edmund Rice Network in these two countries, and for a blessing on its members and all whom their life touches.

“You will become as small as your controlling desire; as great as your dominant aspiration.”  (James Allen)

Thursday 25 January
FEAST OF THE CONVERSION OF ST PAUL and
end of THE WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY

The story of the intolerant persecutor Saul, and how he was zapped by a God so much bigger than his blind religiocioushood could imagine, is told in Acts 9. It is the same uncontainability of God that strikes Saul’s companions dumb and his hearers with amazement, and that shakes him into asking “Who are you, Lord?” – a question that opens Part 2 of his life, under his new name Paul. It is a question we can usefully ask again and again. This feastday was specially selected as one of the bookends of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, reminding us that God bursts unstoppably out of all our boxing-in, and desires that we burst out of our own confining boxes too.

“I believe that true identity is found in creative activity springing from within. It is found when one loses oneself.”  (Anne Morrow Lindbergh)

Wednesday 24 January
ST FRANCIS DE SALES

Francis de Sales was a 16-17th Century Bishop noted for his simplicity, with a great talent for communicating and for gently and thoroughly encouraging reform in the ways of Christ’s disciples. His life and teaching remind us to focus on God’s love as the heart of the Christian message.

“No matter how dark things seem to be or actually are, raise your sights and see the possibilities - always see them, for they’re always there.”  (Norman Vincent Peale)

Tuesday 23 January
ST MARIANNE OF MOLOKA’I

Marianne Cope, born in Germany and raised in the USA, gave her life as a Franciscan Sister serving those living with leprosy on the island of Moloka’i, Hawai’i, for half a century. She died aged 80 just as World War II was coming to an end, having been amazingly preserved from the disease with which she had so much contact. In October 2012, she was officially named a Saint.

“Your imagination is your preview of life’s coming attractions.”  (Albert Einstein)

Monday 22 January 2018
Anticipating the feast of ST THOMAS AQUINAS (normally 28 January)

Thomas of Aquino was a hugely influential 13th Century Dominican philosopher and theologian. A mystical experience towards the end of his 49 years caused him to view all his learned writings as “straw”. In his lifetime, his work became subjected to Church condemnation, but in due course it became building-blocks of mainstream Church teaching – a lesson worth remembering!

“The great acts of love are done by those who are habitually performing small acts of kindness.”  (Victor Hugo)

Sunday 21 January
3rd SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME and
ST AGNES, TEENAGER

Agnes, born near the end of the 3rd Century, was martyred as a young teenager for resisting a forced marriage. Her death was part of a purge to get rid of Christian resistance to the conformity demanded by Rome. (Yes, even then!)  She is regarded as a patron saint of girls, virgins, those who suffer rape, engaged couples, chastity, and gardeners. She is one of the 7 women named in the Roman Canon of the Mass. Google her story, and if you x-ray through all the flowery legends you will meet a teenager of immense strength of character rooted in an unshakeable faith.

“Many people die at 25 and aren’t buried until they are 75.”  [Benjamin Franklin]

Saturday 20 January
FORMAL ESTABLISHMENT OF THE CHRISTIAN BROTHERS

On the feast of the Holy Name, 20 January 1822, the Christian Brothers accepted the Vatican 1820 Brief offering pontifical status. It was a controversial decision, and it marked a parting of the ways with the Cork-based group who became the Presentation Brothers, but it enabled a freedom to think and move internationally – an advantage that the Presentation Brothers also claimed later.

“Only when we learn that our mistakes are masked as discoveries; our conflicts are cloaked as opportunities; and our failure are fuel for progress; can we move massively forward.”  [Rick Beneteau]

Friday 19 January
WAXING & WANING OF THE MOON

The monthly cycle of the moon, so important to cultures prizing the connection between human life and the universe of which we are part, happens virtually unnoticed by many of us. Yet even those who relegate the moon to clichés and corny lyrics sometimes have moments of being mesmerized by its serene presence. Last week’s full moon, climax of the moon’s monthly cycle, might invite us to take a moment to pay attention each evening for the next month. Doing so has the power to connect and to context us, to put us in touch with the less-overt rhythms of our own lives, and to remind us of simple but profound truths that are part of our human heritage.

“I am who I am today because of the choices I made yesterday.”  [Eleanor Roosevelt]

Thursday 18 January
START OF WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY

This started over 100 years old and used to be called Church Unity Octave because it actually lasts eight days. If you Google it, you’ll find lots of resources for prayer, once you scroll past screeds of background info – look out for references starting with www.vatican.va and www.oikoumene.org because the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches have made this their joint project.

“The heart that gives, gathers.”  [Tao Te Ching]

Wednesday 17 January
ST ANTHONY THE ABBOT

St Anthony of Egypt is known as ‘the Father of All Monks’: though he was not the first monk, he is remembered as taking monasticism into the desert, an instinct that found widespread resonance.

“Talk to yourself like you would to someone you love.”  [Brené Brown]

Tuesday 16 January
COLDEST/HOTTEST MONTH OF THE YEAR

As January is Northern hemisphere’s coldest month and the Southern hemisphere’s hottest month, it could serve as a reminder of the role of rhythms and cycles in our lives, with their lessons of balance, decay-and-renewal, change, and constancy – the latter quality being associated with January’s birthstone, the garnet.

“By choosing your thoughts, and by selecting which emotional currents you will release and which you will reinforce, you determine the quality of your Light.  You determine the effects that you will have upon others, and the nature of the experiences of your life.”  [Gary Zukav]

Monday 15 January 2018
ANNIVERSARY OF HUDSON RIVER EMERGENCY LANDING

Nine years ago, a flight that had just taken off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport made an emergency landing in the Hudson River, and all aboard survived. One of the most internationally celebrated good-news stories in recent memory, celebrated in a movie called SULLY, it might turn our eyes to the unsung good news in our own experience and context.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with you one wild and precious life?”  [Mary Oliver]

Sunday 14 January
2nd SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME and
FEAST OF THE ASS

The Feast of the Ass, a Medieval observance pinned to the donkey in the nativity story, involved having a donkey stand beside the altar during the sermon and the congregation ‘hee-hawing’ their responses to the celebrant. Suppressed since the 15th Century, it remains a reminder of just how far religion can wander from its centre. We might reflect today on how some religious practices of our own time stray from the focus of Jesus.

“Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.”  (Oprah Winfrey)

Saturday 13 January
ST HILARY OF POITIERS

The feast-day of a 4th Century married Bishop, Hilary of Poitiers, is a reminder that not all-that-is always was that way or will always remain that way! It might prompt us to reflect on our own resistance to change and to pray for openness to Spirit-driven change.

“It is good to have money and the things that money can buy, but it’s good too, to check up once in a while and make sure you haven’t lost the things money can’t buy.”  (George Lorimer)

Friday 12 January
INDIA’S YOUTH DAY

Youth have always had a very special place in the heart of followers of Edmund Rice. India’s National Youth Day invites us to hold in prayer the young people of a country where the Christian Brothers have served youth for over 170 years.

“Great opportunities to help others seldom come, but small ones surround us every day.”  (Sally Koch)

Thursday 11 January
ANNIVERSARY OF RED-FLAGGING OF SMOKING

On this day in 1964, a landmark report was published by the US Surgeon-General warning that smoking may be a health-hazard. The ensuing half-century has seen a growing sensitizing to the impact of lifestyle on health. In our prayer today, we could focus on the sacredness of our bodies and the responsibility of self-care.

“There is no royal road to anything. One thing at a time, all things in succession. That which grows fast, withers as rapidly. That which grows slowly, endures.”  (Josiah Gilbert Holland)

Wednesday 10 January
ANNIVERSARY OF WORLD’S OLDEST UNDERGROUND RAILWAY

In 1863, a little over a century and a half ago, the London Underground opened, the first of its kind: the first stretch connected London Paddington Station and Farringdon Station. Perhaps this anniversary might prompt us to reflect with wonder on our world’s vast communications networks – the human values embodied and all that is made possible… right down to reading these lines.

“The grass is greener where you water it.”  (Neil Barringham)

Tuesday 9 January
THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD

Protestant scholar William Barclay in his commentary on the story of Jesus’ baptism by John sees Jesus as drawn into identifying with a Godward movement of people. Mark and Luke tell the story as a turning-point in the life of Jesus, a moment of personal insight into God’s direction for his life, a watershed moment for him. If we take the Incarnation seriously, that Jesus was not God-dressed-up-in-a-human-body, then we accept that he had to discover his path and depend on God’s breaking through to him in special moments, just as we do. We’ve all had our own watershed moments – some use religious language like ‘vocation’ and ‘revelation’, others speak in metaphors of guidance or insight or recognition, others are wary of naming the experience but just ‘know’ that it was real. Today’s feast invites us to identify with Jesus in honouring these moments as touchstones of our personal authenticity.

“Leadership is a matter of having people look at you and gain confidence, seeing how you react. If you’re in control, they’re in control.”  (Tom Landry)

Monday 8 January 2018
OUR LADY OF PROMPT SUCCOUR

The story behind the quaint title ‘Our Lady of Prompt Succour’ comes from early 19th Century New Orleans, but its message is for all times and places: that the Mother of Jesus cares deeply about the affairs of the community gathered around the vision and values of her son, and is a reliable ally in all that serves the reign of God.

“If you wish others to believe in you, you must first convince them that you believe in them.”  (Harvey Mackay)

Sunday 7 January
EPIPHANY SUNDAY and
SAN RAIMUNDO DE PEÑAFORT

Raimundo was a Spanish Dominican remembered for his 13th Century codifying of Church law, which served for the seven centuries preceding the present Code of Canon Law. Saint Raymond is a reminder of the Church’s tradition of scholarship and of the contribution of this hidden ministry to human progress.

“A leader is a person you will follow to a place you wouldn’t go by yourself.”  [Joel Arthur Barker]

Saturday 6 January
THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD   (celebrated on the following Sunday in some countries)

Major manifestations of God’s glory are landmarks. Landmarks help us to see where we are and where we are going without being confused by all the fast-changing details of our experience. Special moments where God is revealed, both in Scripture and in our own stories, are intended to develop eyes that can see God’s presence in the everyday and the ordinary. The Christmas name ‘Emmanuel’ means God with us, God in our midst, God immersed in the messiness of our lives. The feast is known in Eastern Christianity as ‘Theophany’ and in Ireland as ‘Little Christmas’, and it marks the start of the Carnival season which continues until Lent.

“If you're going through hell, keep going.”  [Winston Churchill]

Friday 5 January
TWELFTH NIGHT

Twelfth Night, ending the celebration of Christmas, is a celebration coincided with an even older time of Roman revels. Though only vestiges of this tradition have survived – like the taking down of Christmas decorations – it can serve us as a reminder of the importance of celebration in human life. Nietsche once observed that “the problem is not how to celebrate but having something to celebrate”. The key is noticing what we have that is worth celebrating – from the simplest personal things to the most sweeping movements of God’s energy – for these things are our spiritual core, and they call out to be expressed – whether in established rituals or in spontaneous ways, but always engaging our creativity. It’s often lamented that so much preparation goes into a wedding and so little into preparation of the couple for lifelong bonding. Yet sometimes we do the same with Eucharist: the energy goes into choosing songs and designing visuals, and little is done to prepare the consciousness with which we enter liturgy. And sometimes we ‘use’ Mass quite uncritically as the channel for every occasion of celebration, missing the opportunity of entering the occasion more actively by creating something more ‘custom-built’. So let Twelfth Night invite us to notice what in our lives calls out to be celebrated during this coming year.

“It is love alone that leads to right action. What brings order in the world is to love and let love do what it will.”  [Krishnamurti]

Thursday 4 January
ST ELIZABETH ANN SETON

Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first native-born American to be canonized. There are several interesting parallels between her life and that of Edmund Rice. She was married, became a parent, was widowed, and started an apostolic congregation dedicated to faith-integrated education. Unlike Edmund, she was a convert to the Catholic faith and died relatively young, at 46.

“What most people need to learn in life is how to love people and use things, instead of using people and loving things.”  [author unknown]

Wednesday 3 January
BACK TO WORK in many parts of the world

In many parts of the globe, this week is a time of returning, or preparing to return, to our routine activities. Let those of us who have work or studies to return to, in a world heavy with unemployment and thin in educational opportunities, hold our graced situation in gratitude.

“When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”  [Helen Keller]

Tuesday 2 January
NINTH DAY OF CHRISTMAS

Most of you reading this live in situations where the globe slows down in acknowledgement of what Christmas means to Christians. In countries where Christians are the minority, this is not so, and the occasion can only be celebrated in the heart as the world goes about its everyday business. Imagining this can help us Christians understand how our Muslim and Jewish and Hindu sisters and brothers may feel when their holy days pass unnoticed in a Christian-orientated world – a sad irony in the lives of followers of the Jesus who was at pains to include the stranger, the outsider, the foreigner, “those who are not against us”, and all “those who do the will of the Father”. Let us take a few moments to mark these holy days of other faiths in our 2018 diaries so we can be aware.

“With the gift of listening comes the gift of healing.”  [Catherine de Hueck]

Monday 1 January 2O18
FEAST OF MARY, MOTHER OF GOD and
NEW YEAR’S DAY and
WORLD DAY OF PEACE

The very first day of the calendar year is traditionally dedicated to Mary as Mother of God (‘Mater Dei’). The first of a monthly thread of Marian days, this one highlights her role of willing and active participation in bringing God’s dream to birth. This is something all of us are called to do in our own place and time and circumstances. Notice that the person God calls to this blueprint-of-all-calls is a member of an oppressed race (under Roman occupation), a woman (in a man-centred society), and an obscure young teenager of undistinguished education and achievements. Clearly this is not a God made in our own image and likeness – and the God who comes to birth is notably subversive of what is called (in old-fashioned English) “man’s way, not God’s way”.

New Year is traditionally a day for setting personal resolutions. Stephen Covey’s book 7 HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE PEOPLE suggests a lifegiving direction: scheduling time to honour the really-important-yet-not-urgent things in our life which so easily get crowded out by the demands of urgent-yet-actually-less-important activities. Think: prayer and reflection, quality-time for relationships and family, physical exercise and its mental equivalent of reading, exposure to art and beauty and ideas…

Today is also World Day of Peace. The theme this year is “Migrants and Refugees: men and women in search of peace”. Look for it via the Search facility at the top of www.justpax.it

“Good friendships are fragile things and require as much care as any other fragile and precious thing.”  [Randolph S. Bourne]

Sunday 31 December
HOLY FAMILY SUNDAY and
WORLD SPIRITUALITY DAY

The feast of the Holy Family is a reminder of the human community’s affirmation of the key role of family in nurturing personal potential and life-giving values, but also of God’s presence in the ordinariness of everyday domestic rhythms and routines. And an inclusive gesture to families that are not textbook-typical! The founder of the Holy Family Association, Pierre Noailles, wrote: “The Son of God came that the Holy Family might be formed” – not just in microcosm.

World Spirituality Day is described as “an opportunity for all who value spirituality in their lives to connect and unite in our wish for a more peaceful, just and sustainable world based on values grounded in our deeper spiritual connection to each other and the world around us”. It is strategically timed to coincide with the natural energy of renewal and refocusing that comes with the transition to a new year. Look it up on www.integrativespirituality.org

“Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.”  [Plato]

Saturday 30 December
END OF THE YEAR

The last couple of days of the year is an invitation to look back with gratitude and appreciation for all the goodness, truth, and beauty with which we were blessed in 2017.

“Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”  [Berthold Auerbach]

Friday 29 December
ST THOMAS BECKET

Thomas was a 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury who stood up to the power-greed of English King Henry II, and after a long struggle to defend the Church’s traditional privileges ended up being murdered in his Cathedral. With St Paul he is London’s co-patron saint. His life is a reminder of the cost so many pay as a result of standing up for principle against tyranny.

“You’re never as good as everyone tells you when you win, and you’re never as bad as they say when you lose.”  [Lou Holtz]

Thursday 28 December
THE HOLY INNOCENTS

An African proverb observes that “When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled”. The baby boys massacred by Herod’s attempt to kill the baby Jesus, remind us of the vulnerability of the powerless when the powerful act out of paranoia or personal interests. Today’s commemoration challenges us to question how sensitive we are to the effects of any power we wield, or of any power with which we are aligned or associated. The same Jesus who narrowly escaped the fate of other Bethlehem babies was later to point out: “Whatever you do to the least powerful, keep in mind that you are doing it to me”.

“Improve relationships with others by assuming that they can hear everything you say about them.”  [Stephen R. Covey]

Wednesday 27 December
ST JOHN THE APOSTLE

Traditionally thought of as the friend who was closest to Jesus and as the youngest of the Apostles, John was the only one of the Twelve who stood by Jesus through his crucifixion and death – along with the women. And he was the one to whom Jesus entrusted his mother before he died. The version of the story of Jesus that comes to us in John’s name is a deeply reflective one. Reading a part of it would be a fine way to honour John’s feastday.

“Never mistake knowledge for wisdom. One helps you make a living, the other helps you make a life.”  [Sandra Carey]

Tuesday 26 December
ST STEPHEN’S DAY

The traditional day on which many still celebrate the memory of the first Christian to be martyred for his faith in Jesus. Stephen’s story is found in Chapters 6 and 7 of The Acts of the Apostles.

“People are like sticks of dynamite. The power is on the inside, but nothing happens until the fuse gets lit.”  [Mac Anderson]

Monday 25 December 2017
CHRISTMAS DAY

Not just the traditional birthday of Jesus, but a vivid reminder of the vulnerability of the God of surprises, a celebration of God’s stunning trust in human nature, and a landmark in the maturation of the human race. A part of the Christmas tradition that strongly connects to Edmund Rice spirituality today is welcoming the stranger.

“This is the way of peace: Overcome evil with good, and falsehood with truth, and hatred with love.”  [Peace Pilgrim]

Sunday 24 December
4th SUNDAY OF ADVENT and
THE DAY BEFORE CHRISTMAS

Poet Rainer Maria Rilke, writing in German, expressed these thoughts just before Christmas 1903:

“Why don’t you think of Him as the one who is coming, who has been approaching from all eternity, the one who will some day arrive, the ultimate tree whose leaves we are. What keeps you from projecting His birth into the ages that are coming into existence, and living your life as a painful and lovely day in the history of a great pregnancy? Don’t you see that everything that happens is again and again a beginning and couldn’t it be His beginning, since in itself, starting is always so beautiful? If He is the most perfect one, must not what is less perfect precede Him, so that he can choose Himself out of fullness and superabundance? Must not he be the last one so that He can include everything in Himself, and what meaning would we have if He whom we are longing for has already existed?

As bees gather honey, so we collect what is sweetest out of all things and build Him. Even with the trivial, with the insignificant (as long as it is done out of love) we begin, with work and with the repose that comes afterward, with a silence and with a small solitary joy, with everything that we do alone, without anyone to join or help us, we start Him who we will not live to see, just as our ancestors could not live to see us. And yet they, who passed away long ago, still exist in us, as predisposition, as burden upon our fate, as murmuring blood, and as a gesture that rises up from the depths of time.

Is there anything that can deprive you of the hope that in this way you will someday exist in Him, who is the farthest, the outermost limit?

Be patient…and realise that the least we can do is to make coming into existence no more difficult for Him than the earth does for Spring when it wants to come.”

Saturday 23 December
O-ANTIPHONS LAST DAY

In their preparation for Christmas, the ancient O-antiphons climax with a focus on ‘Emmanuel’, God-with-us:

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
The hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

The first letters of each of the O-Antiphons’ seven titles, taken in reverse, makes up the Latin words ‘ero cras’ (Tomorrow, I will come).

“Life is not a problem to be solved, nor a question to be answered. Life is a mystery to be experienced.”  [Alan Watts]

Friday 22 December
MOTHER FRANCES CABRINI

Born in Italy in the mid-19th Century, Francesca founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart and in her late 30s was sent to New York City to minister to Italian immigrants. Within her 67 years she founded that same number of missionary institutions in service of the sick and the poor. She was the first American citizen to be canonized.

“Confidence on the outside begins by living with integrity on the inside.”  [Brian Tracy]

Thursday 21 December
APPROACHING THE SOLSTICE and
HOMELESSNESS

Tomorrow is the longest day of the year in the southern hemisphere and the shortest in the northern hemisphere – the middle of summer or of winter. The USA creatively makes this solstice its ‘End Homelessness Day’ because it brings their longest night of the year – look it up on www.betterworldcalendar.com for an outline of the problem of homelessness which affects some 100 million people round the world.

“Experience is not what happens to you - it's how you interpret what happens to you.”  [Aldous Huxley]

Wednesday 20 December
INTERNATIONAL HUMAN SOLIDARITY DAY

Established by the UN ten years ago as “an initiative in the fight against poverty”, Human Solidarity Day is a reminder of the oneness of humanity globally, and a call to give practical expression to our oneness with the sorrows, struggles, and sufferings – as well as the joys, achievements, and celebrations – of other people sharing our world with us.

“Transformation occurs when existing solutions, assumed truths and past decisions are exposed as unrealistic and self-defeating.”  [Peter Shepherd]

Tuesday 19 December
DAY FOR SOUTH-SOUTH CO-OPERATION

Today is set aside by the UN to focus attention on South-South Co-operation, as a complement to North-South co-operation, and as another instrument helping to achieve internationally agreed development goals.

“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we would find in each man's life a sorrow and a suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”  [Henry Longfellow]

Monday 18 December 2017
INTERNATIONAL MIGRANTS’ DAY

International Migrants’ Day is a reminder of those millions of people across the globe who have found it necessary to cross international borders in search of a better life – safety, jobs, food, freedom – and who often experience increased vulnerability away from their homeland.

“Those who enter the gates of heaven are not beings who have no passions or who have curbed the passions, but those who have cultivated an understanding of them.”  [William Blake]

Sunday 17 December
3rd SUNDAY OF ADVENT and
O-ANTIPHONS COMMENCE

Another example of preparation for Christmas is the ancient monastic tradition of the seven O-Antiphons, each focusing on an attribute of Christ taken from Scripture. The first is Sapientia, Wisdom:

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
Reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

Look up ‘O antiphon’ (sic) in Wikipedia for an interesting outline.

“When solving problems, dig at the roots instead of just hacking at the leaves.”  (Anthony J. D'Angelo)

Saturday 16 December
START OF ‘SHELTER-SEEKING’ NOVENA

Shelter-seeking is a tradition in Mexico which has spread to parts of Latin America. The nine days before Christmas are observed as a remembrance of Joseph and Mary’s long search for lodgings (‘Las Posadas’). The novena was adopted and adapted in the Philippines where it is known as ‘Simbang Gabi’ (Dawn Mass), referring to the custom of Churches opening their doors very early, before harvest-work began, to allow the faithful to participate in Mass in the lead-up to Christmas. The message of this novena is about spiritual preparation for Christmas in the midst of the secular seasonal flurry.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”  (Viktor Frankl)

Friday 15 December
ZAMENHOF DAY

Named after the founder of Esperanto, an attempt at creating an international language, Zamenhof Day might remind us of the importance of communication in our lives and the need to make efforts at improving the effectiveness of how we hear others and get across to them - efforts such as learning other people’s language or developing our listening skills.

“Building a better you is the first step to building a better World.”  (Zig Ziglar)

Thursday 14 December
ST JOHN OF THE CROSS

A 16th Century Spanish mystic and a partner of Teresa of Avila in the work of Carmelite reform, John of the  Cross was experienced as a threat and became imprisoned by his Order. Before escaping, he wrote one of his few major works that distinguish him as one of the foremost poets in the Spanish language. He remains one of the great guides to mystical prayer, and his feastday is a reminder of the call to a deep and committed prayer-life.

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”  (Leo Buscaglia)

Wednesday 13 December
ST LUCY

One of the few women named in the Canon of the Mass, Lucy (or Lucia) suffered the loss of her eyes and then her life for her Christian faith in the early 4th Century, becoming the patron saint of blind people. A day, perhaps, to celebrate the role women play in planting and strengthening faith.

“Character is the real foundation of all worthwhile success.”  (John Hays Hammond)

Tuesday 12 December
KENYA’S INDEPENDENCE DAY

Though Nairobi was the gateway through which the Christian Brothers brought the heart of Edmund Rice to East Africa, the first community in Kenya began three years later, in 1991. There are now seven communities of Christian Brothers in that country, two of them being international houses of study for the African Province, and the Brothers minister in a number of centres. Kenya today celebrates the 54th anniversary of becoming independent in 1963.

“You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself.”  (Alan Alda)

Monday 11 December 2017
INTERNATIONAL MOUNTAIN DAY

International Mountain Day originated in a North Eastern American students’ custom of mass bunking of classes to head for the mountains and enjoy the colourful leaves of Fall/Autumn. The day has become dignified by the UN “to highlight the importance of sustainable mountain development”.

“I think a hero is an ordinary individual who finds strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”  (Christopher Reeve)

Sunday 10 December
2nd SUNDAY OF ADVENT and
HUMAN RIGHTS DAY

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the two international covenants of human rights: that of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and that of Civil and Political Rights – see www.awarenessdays.com for information. Also see the website of our own advocacy arm www.edmundriceinternational.org which maintains a special focus on human rights.

“You will either step forward into growth or step backward into safety.”  (Abraham Maslow)

Saturday 9 December
ANTI-CORRUPTION DAY and
TANZANIA’S INDEPENDENCE DAY

International Anti-Corruption Day is a UN initiative to promote “integrity, accountability, and proper management of public affairs and public property”. Let us pray today for the conditions necessary for the cultivation of such values, conditions such as the spread of healthy kinds of religious faith in the hearts of humankind.

Tanzania came on to the Edmund Rice map in 1988 when the first community of Christian Brothers settled in this land. There are now two communities of Brothers in Arusha, as well as the Edmund Rice Sinon Secondary School (see www.edmundricesinon.com for more), and a growing community of Edmund Rice people in Tanzania.

“The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem.”  (Captain Jack Sparrow)

Friday 8 December
THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION OF MARY

Coming nine months before the traditional birthday of Mary, 8 September, today’s feast celebrates that point in human evolution where such a person as Mary became possible, someone of Mary’s extraordinary openness to God. The Immaculate Conception is not about how Jesus was conceived – a common misunderstanding grounded in a distorted view of sex as something stained (or ‘maculate’) – but marks that moment in the human race’s maturation when a Mary could come into existence, could be conceivable.

“Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that a son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farm workers can become the president of a nation.”  (Nelson Mandela)

Thursday 7 December
INTERNATIONAL CIVIL AVIATION DAY

Civil Aviation Day is a UN-sponsored observance to strengthen worldwide awareness of the importance of civil aviation for development and to promote safety and efficiency in international air transport.

“We need a variety of input and influence and voices. You cannot get all the answers to life and business from one person or from one source.”  (Jim Rohn)

Wednesday 6 December
ST NICHOLAS

The multiplication of legends around this Greek saint of the 3rd/4th Centuries is testimony to the impact that one person’s life can have on others. Arising from these legends, Nicholas has been adopted as the patron saint of a startling variety of groups, including children, sailors, fishermen, merchants, students, broadcasters, pharmacists, pawnbrokers, the falsely accused, the city of New York, prostitutes, and even thieves – repentant ones. He is specially associated with secret gift-giving, and the Dutch Santa Claus tradition has been secularized into Father Christmas.

“Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”  (Thomas Edison)

Tuesday 5 December
INTERNATIONAL VOLUNTEER DAY

The International Volunteeer Day for Economic and Social Development celebrates the global asset of volunteerism and the way “it can bring positive social change by fostering respect for diversity, equality and the participation of all” (Ban Ki-moon). It is a day for honouring all our Volunteers within the Edmund Rice Network and the way God shines through their loving service.

“Time is limited, so I better wake up every morning fresh and know that I have just one chance to live this particular day right, and to string my days together into a life of action, and purpose.”  (Lance Armstrong)

Monday 4 December 2017
ST JOHN OF DAMASCUS

John of Damascus, a monk who lived in the 7th/8th Centuries, is remembered as a scholar and theologian, a reminder of the Church’s deep tradition of scholarship and of those engaged in this ministry in our own time.

“Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries.”  (James Michener)

Sunday 3 December
1st SUNDAY OF ADVENT and
ST FRANCIS XAVIER and
INTERNATIONAL DAY OF PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES

Francis Xavier was one of the original Jesuits, in the 16th Century. He is remembered as a missionary on the grand scale, ministering in Goa, South East Asia, and Japan. His life is a reminder that Christianity is never a closed club, and that Christ and his vision are for sharing.

About 10% of the world population, or 650 million people, live with the challenge of disabilities. This UN day asks us to become involved in promoting their dignity, rights, and well-being. Wikipedia’s page on ‘Disability’ provides a window on a very broad subject.

“The great thing in the world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving.”  (Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr)

Saturday 2 December
END SLAVERY DAY and
WORLD COMPUTER LITERACY DAY

The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery is a reminder of the UN’s 1949 Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation of Others. These things are still happening, particularly to women, and out-of-sight can remain out-of-mind unless deliberately brought to mind and to prayer.

Computer Literacy has become in our time a significant part of empowerment, essential across a broad range of the job market, yet inaccessible to vast numbers of our world’s poor. It poses a challenge to a community of people inspired by Edmund Rice who, in his context of two centuries ago, faced an equivalent challenge.

“Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now.”  (Alan Lakein)

Friday 1 December
WORLD AIDS DAY

The Wikipedia page on World AIDS Day gives a good introduction to the day and the disease, plus a listing of other relevant sites. We are invited to keep in our prayers throughout the AIDS month of December all those who are either infected or affected by HIV/AIDS with its stigma and many burdens, as well as all those in danger of becoming infected through various forms of vulnerability, including ignorance and inequality.

“Most of us are just about as happy as we make up our minds to be.”  (Abraham Lincoln)

Thursday 30 November
ST ANDREW and
CITIES FOR LIFE DAY

Andrew, brother of Peter, is well known in the story of Jesus as one of The Twelve. It was in the faith of these Apostles that ‘the Church’ in all its complexity was grounded. The story of Andrew’s call can be found in John 1:35-44.

A growing number of cities around the world identify themselves as Cities for Life and today affirm their commitment to life and their opposition to the death penalty. See the website www.nodeathpenalty.santegidio.org

“You gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face. You must do that which we think we cannot.”  (Eleanor Roosevelt)

Wednesday 29 November
ST BRENDAN OF BIRR, IRELAND and
INTERNATIONAL DAY OF SOLIDARITY WITH THE PALESTINIAN PEOPLE

Brendan, one of the earliest Irish Saints and among what people call ‘the twelve apostles of Ireland’, studied at a hugely influential monastic school and went on to found a monastery in central Ireland in the 6th Century. His life is an illustration of how God raises up the right people in every age of history to respond to the needs of their time and place.

The UN’s Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people is a reminder of the lower-profile side of the complex and painful struggle to realise conflicting aspirations in the volatile part of the world where Jesus lived his short life and died a violent death.

“Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel.  If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.”  (Sam Walton)

Tuesday 28 November
ST CATHERINE LABOURÉ

Catherine, a 19th century Sister, ministered as a nurse in France. Anonymously, she was the messenger who was instrumental in introducing the much-loved “Miraculous Medal” into Catholic piety. The essential message of this token of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the availability of God’s Grace for the asking.

“Character may be manifested in the great moments, but it is made in the small ones.”  (Phillips Brooks)

Monday 27 November 2017
ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE MONTH

November has been chosen as Alzheimer’s Disease Month to raise awareness of this degenerative terminal senile dementia, first diagnosed at the start of the 20th Century. The signs, symptoms, and stages are well decribed in a Wikipedia entry on the subject. Our prayer today might embrace all those who suffer from, or because of, Alzheimer’s Disease.

“The potential of the average person is like a huge ocean unsailed, a new continent unexplored, a world of possibilities waiting to be released and channeled toward some great good.”  (Brian Tracy)

Sunday 26 November
CHRIST THE KING SUNDAY and
ST JOHN BERCHMANS and
ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE MONTH

“The world is full of abundance and opportunity, but far too many people come to the fountain of life with a sieve instead of a tank car, a teaspoon instead of a steam shovel. They expect little and as a result they get little.”  (Ben Sweetland)

Saturday 25 November
INTERNATIONAL DAY OF ELIMINATION OF VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN

The Day of Elimination of Violence against Women is a United Nations observance. It is briefly introduced on the website www.timeanddate.com

“One half of life is luck; the other half is discipline - and that's the important half, for without discipline you wouldn't know what to do with luck.”  (Carl Zuckmeyer)

Friday 24 November
EVOLUTION DAY and
BUY NOTHING DAY

Evolution Day marks the anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s breakthrough text The Origin of Species 155 years ago. It can be taken as a day for celebrating the common bond between all of Creation.

Buy-Nothing Day, observed immediately following the USA’s Thanksgiving Day, is described as “a global holiday from consumerism”. It invites us to reflect on over-consumerism and to review our own excesses.

“Our ultimate freedom is the right and power to decide how anybody or anything outside ourselves will affect us.”  (Stephen R. Covey)

Thursday 23 November
ST CLEMENT and
BAHAI FEAST OF QAWL (SPEECH) and
THANKSGIVING DAY IN USA

Clement, one of the earliest successors of St Peter, is usually depicted in art with an anchor, symbolising perhaps his role in affirming orderly procedures in regard to authority in the Church.

Qawl celebrates the gift of speech. The Bahai faith holds that all God’s messengers brought the same message embodied in different languages and cultures – for example, ‘the Golden Rule’.

Thanksgiving is celebrated in the USA on the fourth Thursday of November – and by a number of other countries on different days. The North American celebrations took their lead from traditional harvest festivals in Europe. Even if we have our own national days, we might turn our thoughts and prayers to gratitude today in a spirit of solidarity.

“The moment you commit and quit holding back, all sorts of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, will rise up to help you. The simple act of commitment is a powerful magnet for help.”  (Napoleon Hill)

Wednesday 22 November
ST CECELIA

St Cecilia is traditionally the patroness of music, which has been called the language of God. Perhaps our prayer today might involve listening and responding to this transcendent language.

“Freedom is actually a bigger game than power. Power is about what you can control. Freedom is about what you can unleash.”  (Harriet Rubin)

Tuesday 21 November
PRESENTATION DAY and
WORLD TELEVISION DAY

From the feast of the Presentation of Mary in the Temple, two Congregations take their name:
•    Nano Nagle’s Presentation Sisters – see their website www.presentationsistersunion.org
•    Edmund Rice’s Presentation Brothers – their website is www.presentationbrothers.org

Television, though it is only one among many media, and not one of those most accessible to the world’s poorer people, is nevertheless a gift to celebrate and a powerful influence to acknowledge.

“Some see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.”  (George Bernard Shaw)

Monday 20 November 2017
UNIVERSAL CHILDREN’S DAY and
AFRICA INDUSTRIALISATION DAY

Universal Children’s Day is a celebration of childhood held in dozens of countries around the globe. Children have always had a central place in the Edmund Rice world, and the uncovering of the ugly phenomenon of child abuse in a less-aware past has led to the strengthening of our contribution to honouring children’s rights and protecting the innocence and vulnerability of childhood.

Africa Industrialisation Day is a UN effort to “mobilize the commitment of the international community to the industrialization of Africa. It also reminds that more than 30 of the world's 48 least developed countries are part of Africa continent.”

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”  (Albert Einstein)

Sunday 19 November
33rd SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME and
INTERNATIONAL MEN’S DAY

Celebrated in over a dozen countries, Men’s Day celebrates their contributions to society, highlights male health issues, and stresses the need for good male role models especially for the sake of young people.

“Gratitude is the open door to abundance.”  (Yogi Bhajan)

Saturday 18 November
NOVEMBER: MONTH OF ‘THE HOLY SOULS’

A mid-month reminder that, since the sixteenth century, the Church has observed November as a month to specially pray for those who have died and are still growing in their capacity to experience God’s presence. The traditional term ‘holy souls’ suggests that they are on their way to sainthood, and perhaps their state of need of our prayers is captured by the image in Jn 9:4 (‘the night when no one can work’).

“We are what we repeatedly do.”  (Aristotle)

Friday 17 November
INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS’ DAY

Originating in a 1939 uprising of students in Prague against Nazi pervery, this Students’ Day continues to be observed mainly as a day of students standing up against oppression in its many guises. The day brings a reminder that the young are often clear-sighted about those evils to which their elders have become accustomed and insensitive.

“The difference between extraordinary people and ordinary people is a simple as the difference between the two words.  Extraordinary people are committed to doing the extra things that ordinary people won’t.”  (Christine Kinney)

Thursday 16 November
TOLERANCE DAY

Though mere tolerance may seem rather ungenerous and patronizing, it is certainly a starting-point in the perennial struggle to rise above racism, discrimination, xenophobia, and other manifestations of crude intolerance. And our prayer and accompanying action for justice do not need to stop at tolerance, but can embrace more positive values like respect and inclusion and affirmation.

“The most critical thing I think business leaders and future business leaders need to understand is to stay focused on the things that you can control and influence, and then execute, execute, execute.”  (John Chambers)

Wednesday 15 November
RECYCLING DAY

Recycling Day is an initiative from the USA, a country that has doubled its recycling efforts in the past decade to achieve a rate of almost one-third of all its ‘trash’. We are encouraged to get involved practically both by making the effort to recycle our own waste and by buying recycled goods.

“Our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts.”  (Soren Kierkegaard)

Tuesday 14 November
WORLD DIABETES DAY

World Diabetes Day is a UN day that draws attention to the need for education, prevention, and management in regard to a disease that affects 285 million people currently and appears to be alarmingly on the increase. Becoming aware of the risk factors (like lack of exercise and unhealthy diet) and of the warning signs (like excessive thirst, hunger, or tiredness) is a starting-point. For more, visit the very informative site www.worlddiabetesday.org

“Profound commitment to a dream does not confine or constrain: it liberates. Even a difficult, winding path can lead to your goal if you follow it to the end.”  (Paulo Coelho)

Monday 13 November 2017
KINDNESS DAY

Kindness Day, described as “a day that encourages individuals to overlook boundaries, race, and religion”, is an initiative from the east that resonates strongly with Edmund Rice spirituality. Look up the website www.worldkindness.org.sg

“All progress begins with a brave decision.”  (Marie Forleo)

Sunday 12 November
32nd SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME and
SAINT JOSAPHAT

Josaphat, a monk who was ordained Archbishop and died a martyr, is remembered for leading the regeneration of Church life among the Ruthenians – Belarusians and Ukrainians. He is greatly venerated by Eastern Europeans and people of Polish origins.

“The capacity to learn is a gift;  
 the ability to learn is a skill;
 the willingness to learn is a choice.”  (Brian Herbert)

Saturday 11 November
COMMEMORATING THE END OF WORLD WAR ONE

Known variously as Remembrance Day, Armistice Day, Poppy Day, and (as broadened in USA) Veterans’ Day, this was the day in 1918 when ‘The Great War’ was signed to a close at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. One of the oldest rituals marking this event is the observance of a Two Minute Silence at this hour. About 9 million combatants lost their lives in WWI, 7 million were permanently disabled, and 15 million were seriously injured; countless others died of war-time starvation and of the famines and diseases that flowed from the war.

“One of the sanest, surest, and most generous joys of life comes from being happy over the good fortune of others.”  (Archibald Rutledge)

Friday 10 November
ST LEO THE GREAT

A 5th Century Italian Pope, Leo is remembered as the one who decisively established the primacy of the Bishop of Rome among his fellow-Bishops. Centralised authority has developed into a highly nuanced practice in the Church over the years. While strong centralization has its weaknesses, to downplay the value of its checks-and-balances would be to overlook its worth to the ultimate fidelity of the community of Jesus.

“Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody's going to know whether you did it or not.”  (Oprah Winfrey)

Thursday 9 November
ANNIVERSARY OF THE FALL OF THE BERLIN WALL and
INVENTORS’ DAY

The USA is among the several countries that celebrate a national freedom day, but also celebrates today as World Freedom Day to mark the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall 27 years ago. It could serve as an occasion to treasure one of those gifts that is most sharply appreciated where it is absent: freedom.

Several countries celebrate an Inventors’ Day to remember, honour, and appreciate the contribution of inventors to our everyday lives and to the progress of our world. We may like to join the three German-speaking countries – Germany, Austria, and Switzerland – in doing so today. There’s a saying that reminds us: “It is true that ordinary people keep the wheels turning; but never forget that it took an extraordinary person to invent the wheel.”

“Good habits are as addictive as bad habits, and a lot more rewarding.”  (Harvey Mackay)

Wednesday 8 November
WORLD URBANISM DAY

Celebrated in 30 countries on four continents, World Urbanism Day is intended to raise awareness of the environmental impact of the development of cities, and “to recognize and promote the role of planning in creating livable communities”.

“The great thing in this world is not so much where you stand, as in what direction you are moving.”  (Oliver Wendell Holmes)

Tuesday 7 November
MONTH OF THE HOLY SOULS

November is, in Catholic tradition, the month highlighting prayer for the dead, an ancient Biblically-based practice. One way of seeing ‘the Holy Souls’ is as those whose vision is still in the process of being clarified to enable them to see ‘the face of God’. Another is to see them as those still in need of prayer for reconciliation with God. The tradition is a reminder of the power of prayer and also of the invitation to participate in God’s loving nurturing of all.

“There is a calmness to a life lived in gratitude, a quiet joy.”  (Ralph H. Blum)

Monday 6 November 2017
ALL SAINTS OF AFRICA

Around the time of the feast of All Saints, Africa celebrates today its own array of saints, sometimes known as ‘our ancestors in the faith’. Reverence for ancestors is a strong element in many African cultures, resonating with the Christian tradition of celebrating those on whose spiritual shoulders we stand.

“Always do your best.  What you plant now, you will harvest later.”  (Og Mandino)

Sunday 5 November
31st SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME

“If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?”  (T.S. Eliot)

Saturday 4 November
ST CHARLES BORROMEO

Charles Borromeo was a leading 16th Century church reformer. Believing that ignorance and poor education were the source of many of the Church’s problems, he put emphasis on learning, including adequate preparation of future priests. He became Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, dying at age 46.

“Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle and the life of the candle will not be shortened.  Happiness never decreases from being shared.”  (Buddha)

Friday 3 November
ST MARTIN DE PORRES and
DOMINICA’S INDEPENDENCE DAY

Martin lived four centuries ago but the authenticity of his life’s message about combining prayer and service to the poor and the powerless - as Edmund Rice did - continues to ensure the popularity of this Dominican mulatto saint right up to the present.

Dominica was the first Caribbean island where the Christian Brothers established a community (in 1956, followed by Antigua in 1958 – see above). The community continues to serve at St Mary’s Academy in the capital Roseau. A second community served for some years in Portsmouth.

“It’s not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?”  (Henry David Thoreau)

Thursday 2 November
ALL SOULS’ DAY

All Souls Day is an occasion for commemorating all those who have died and who may still be in need of our prayers in their personal progress towards readiness and capacity for God’s presence. Some of the rusty practices associated with this day in the past – like celebrants circling altars as they ended one Mass to begin another, and then another – may be liturgically insensitive and humanly unimaginative, yet the day’s call to pray for ‘the faithful departed’ remains perennially valid and valuable.

“What’s the good of dragging up sufferings which are over, of being unhappy now just because you were then.”  (Seneca)

Wednesday 1 November
ALL SAINTS’ DAY and
WORLD VEGAN DAY and
ANTIGUA’S NATIONAL DAY

All Saints Day celebrates all who have died and entered lasting union with God, not just canonized saints. So it is the feast-day of those not-officially-acknowledged saints we have known and lived with. It is celebrated as a holiday in over two dozen countries; in some other countries, it is transferred to the following Sunday.

Veganism is a philosophy of avoiding all exploitation of animals, leading to the avoidance of all animal-derived products whether for food (e.g. meat, eggs, seafood) or clothing (e.g. fur, leather, wool) or other purposes (e.g. candlewax, lanolin). Because the emphasis is on principle, not rules, some practices remain open to debate (e.g. the consumption of honey).

Antigua has been on the Edmund Rice map since the start of 1958 when the Christian Brothers established a pioneer community of four in St John’s, to teach at St Joseph’s Academy. In 1971, the American Province passed responsibility to the Canadian Province. The school developed into the premier grammar school in Antigua. Shortage of manpower caused the Brothers to withdraw from the school’s administration in 2001, when the first Lay Head took over. The Brothers left the island in 2003. Two years later, the Western American and Canadian and Eastern American Provinces merged into a single Province called Edmund Rice Christian Brothers of North America. (Source: Brother Raph Bellows.)

“I never could have done what I have done without the habits of punctuality, order, and diligence, without the determination to concentrate myself on one subject at a time.”  (Charles Dickens)

Resources for Understanding and Living the New Story

Since the Munnar Chapter of 2008, the Congregation has been aware of the need to promote an understanding of the new story of the Universe that is emerging in the past century. There is a scientific dimension to this learning. For us there is also the very significant dimension which is living out of this new story, putting our learnings into practice in the values and attitudes that shape our lives.

These resources ar meant to introduce you to some of the science and also some of the reflections of spiritual guides in our time. It is in no way a complete or balanced set of resources but will hopefully become a starting point for further reading and reflection.

VIDEO The New Story - Brian Swimme

VIDEO Where Are We - Brian Swimme

VIDEO Birth To Earth - Brian Swimme

VIDEO Earth To Life - Brian Swimme

VIDEO Life To Human - Brian Swimme

VIDEO The Twelve Principles - Thomas Berry (1984)

Thomasberry.org - Resources by Thomas Berry

Epic of Evolution on Wikipedia

Big History on Wikipedia

The Great Story - Resources from Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd

The History of our World in 18 Minutes - David Christian

Center for the Story of the Universe - Brian Swimme

Evolutionary Christianity - Michael Dowd

View From the Center of the Universe - Nancy Abrams & Joel Primack

The New Universe and the Human Future - Nancy Abrams & Joel Primack

International Big History Association

Big History Project

Grasping the Scale of the Universe

Templeton Prize Winners

VIDEO The Origins of Life, Dr. Robert Hazen

VIDEO God In Big History, Michael Dowd

VIDEO The Fabric of the Cosmos, Dr. Brian Greene

VIDEO The Fire Inside

VIDEO The Story of Life in Photographs, Frans Lanting

The Scale of the Universe - Cary & Michael Huang

Duane Elgin

Principles of the New Paradigm

The Cross and the Cosmos blog

Process Philosophy for Everyone

VIDEO God and the Evolutionary Mind: The God Who Beckons - Sister Joan Chittister

VIDEO Creation: Is God's charity broad enough for bears? - Elizabeth Johnson

VIDEO 21st Century Spirituality - Matthew Fox

Thomas Berry Forum for Ecological Dialogue at Iona College

How Can I Become a Partner in the Mission?

How can I become a Partner in this mission?

You can become a partner with us and play your part in reaching out to people who have fewer opportunities than you.

In Europe – EDMUND RICE DEVELOPMENT
Check out the Edmund Rice Development website

In Oceania – EDMUND RICE FOUNDATION AUSTRALIA
Check out the Edmund Rice Foundation website

In North America - EDMUND RICE CHRISTIAN BROTHERS FOUNDATION
Check out the Edmund Rice Christian Brothers Foundation website
Contact Colleen Noonan This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

Education and Schools

Since 1802, when the first school began in Waterford, Ireland, Edmund Rice education has grown in over 20 countries.

Across the world, over 170,000 students are educated to build a better world.

Edmund Rice Education Beyond Borders (EREBB) is an International network of Catholic schools educating young people from many different faiths and cultures.

In over 20 countries we endeavor to promote global solidarity and offer a transformational education for justice and liberation.

We are inspired by the teachings of Jesus, Gospel values and the spirit of Edmund Rice. Click below to visit the website

EREBB logo

Sunday Reflections from Julian McDonald

 

Julian McDonald

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.      

Trinity Sunday

“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.

Pentecost
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.             

Ascension
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’)

Fifth-Sunday-of-Easter-2018.pdf

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”.)

The Epiphany
“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.    

Fourth Sunday of Advent
“God sent the angel Gabriel to a town in Galilee called Nazareth.  The angel had a message for a girl promised in marriage to a man named Joseph, who was a descendant of King David.  The girl’s name was Mary…The angel said to her: ‘Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God’s favour.’” Luke 1, 26-38

As a way of substantiating points they wanted to make, many of the writers of the books we find in the New Testament echoed events recorded in the Old Testament.  For members of the early Christian community such references added credibility to what was being presented to them.  In today’s gospel reading, Luke records that the angel Gabriel encouraged Mary by telling her that she had “won God’s favour” (Luke 1, 31).  However, every Old Testament figure who had found favour with God ended up having to take on a very daunting commission, sometimes involving suffering, pain and humiliation.

In Genesis, for instance, we read that “Noah had found favour with God” (Genesis 6, 8).  And we know the ordeal that Noah had to endure, and the isolation and loneliness that were his, as well as the domestic challenges he faced.  Moses clearly appreciated the challeges he would have to face as a consequence of having been favoured by God, and asked God for clarification.  He wasn’t fully satisfied with God’s assurance: “I know you by name, and you have won my favour”, so he persisted in asking for more clarity (see Genesis 33, 12-17).  Gideon, equally concerned that God might be asking of him more than he could manage, responded:  “If I have found favour in your sight, give me a sign that it is you who speak to me” (Judges 6, 17).  Samuel, a miracle child, placed at an early age in the care of the priest Eli, became the prophet who anointed Saul as the first king of Israel.  When Saul proved to be unequal to that task, Samuel had the difficult job of identifying and anointing the shepherd David as Saul’s successor.  Before he was launched on that path, Samuel’s development was outlined:  “Meanwhile, the boy Samuel went on growing in stature and in favour both with God and with men” (1 Samuel 2, 26).  Clearly, he was being groomed for a big challenge.  When we come to the New Testament, not only do we read how Mary was “favoured by God”, but we learn that “Jesus increased in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and men” (Luke 2, 52).  We know only too well the price Jesus paid for  “being favoured, and proceeding to challenge the political and religious establishment and by siding with the poor and oppressed.

While the focus of this fourth Sunday of Advent is on Mary, there is a marked contrast drawn between David in the first reading and Mary in the gospel reading from Luke.  With his nation at peace, David had turned his attention to the building of a grand temple to serve as a permanent house for the Ark of the Covenant  -  a dwelling place for God.  We need to bear in mind that the Ark had been located in a tent, carried by the Israelites for the duration of their forty years wandering in the desert between Egypt and Canaan.

Surely, it was not coincidental that Luke, in highlighting the significance of the incarnation (God taking flesh in the person of Jesus inside the womb of Mary), described that momentous event using the Greek word eskenoson, whose literal meaning is “pitched his tent”.  Luke’s point is that God’s preference was (and still is) to find a home in the very ordinary  -   in Mary’s case, in the human flesh of an ordinary, unknown woman from a very obscure village in Galilee.

While there is a place for churches and shrines where we can gather as communities to recognise the role of God in our lives, the extraordinary message of the incarnation is that the divine dwelt within Mary and, even now,  dwells within each of us, walking the world within our skin.  That reality is recognized every time Religious communities of women and men assemble, facing one another, to pray in choir the hours of the Prayer of the Church.  By facing one another, they acknowledge the presence of the divine in each other.  Jesus is no more present in the tabernacle than he is in each of us.

What we now call the Annunciation has been a favourite subject for artists down through the centuries.  However, I suggest that some of them have done us a disservice by sentimentalizing a happening which must have shaken Mary to the core.

In a sketch that he did not develop into a painting, Rembrandt captured the truth of Mary’s personal upheaval by depicting her as fainting with shock, and being prevented by the angel from falling to the floor. Megan Marlatt, a contemporary American artist, has painted a fresco of the Annunciation in the chapel of Rutgers University.  It captures Mary’s turmoil by depicting the angel Gabriel appearing upside down, and speaking the word “blessed” backwards  -  a graphic way of stating that Mary’s life was, at that moment, turned upside down.  Hearing that she “had found favour with God” seized her with fear.  Yet she was still able to summon the courage and faith to consent to what was asked of her.  It would not have taken her long to realize that she would become the centre of gossip among the people of her village, where everyone would have known everybody else’s business.  While she was already “legally” married to Joseph, they were not yet living together.  Though probably not well-educated, all those village people were still able to count to nine!

Yet, Mary still made a home in her body for the holy one of God.  A similar invitation is extended to us.  We, too, are invited to make space in our lives for Jesus, the Christ of God, even amidst confusion, doubt and fear.  We, too, are assured by God that we can be instruments of blessing to one another and to our world, even though we are not sure as to how that will happen.  We, too, are graced and favoured by God, and that is not always comfortable.  The poet W. H. Auden reminded us of that when he wrote about the Christmas event:

Today the Unknown seeks the known;
What I am willed to ask, your own
Will has to answer; child, it lies
Within your power of choosing to
Conceive the Child who chooses you.

If we dare to make that choice, we and those we encounter will be blessed.

Third Sunday of Advent

“I exult for joy because God has clothed me in the garments of salvation and has wrapped me in the cloak of integrity.” Isaiah 61, 1-2, 10-11

“Why are you baptizing if you are not the Christ, and not Elijah, and not the prophet?”  John replied:  “I baptize with water; but there is one among you who you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, and I am not fit to undo his sandal-strap.” John 1, 6-8, 19-28

Today’s second reading from Thessalonians urges us to be full of joy:  “Be joyful always, pray at all times, be thankful in all circumstances.  This is what God wants from you in your life in union with Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5, 17-18).  However, my experience tells me that I generally don’t bounce through the day full of joy.  Moreover, if I tried to do that, those with whom I live and work might start to become concerned about my emotional stability.  And if I were dance into my local parish church for Mass, full of joy and exuding geniality, others in the congregation would start to wonder what had struck me.  On the other hand, if I were to go about my day dispensing nothing but doom and gloom, fearful and depressed about all the tragedies and disasters going on in our world, those who know me would have equal cause to be concerned.

So, what exactly is Paul getting at when he urges us to be joyful at all times?  He is not blind to the fact that there is plenty in the world around us and in our own lives to trouble and depress us.  We also know that there are people we meet who promote a God who is intent on recording all our failures and designing appropriate punishment for them.  That kind of religious practice would have us living on the edge of mental illness.  And that’s far from Paul’s message.  I want to suggest that the key to what he is saying comes a couple of lines after his exhortation to us to be joyful, when he advises:  “Test everything, and keep what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5, 21).  And there’s certainly nothing good about crippling fear, oppressive religion and psychological depression.

But what about the “be joyful” piece?  I suggest it has something to do with a personal readiness to let go of our smoldering angers and our pet whinges; to give up deploring what we dislike in other people; to put a firm check on our inclination for self-pity when our hopes are dashed or our best-laid plans come crashing down; to shrug off wallowing in miserableness.  More constructively, it means itemizing all the reasons we have to be grateful and satisfied.  That might look a bit artificial at first, but there really are many things in our lives that can cause us to fill up with gratitude and joy.  And we don’t have to look far to find them.

We are uplifted when a new baby is born into our families, we are delighted at both the penetrating and naïve questions that children ask us, at the sane way in which they cope with the ogres and monsters of fairy-tales, in the questions they ask about God, in the prayers they make to God:  “Dear God, please make my mum not allergic to cats.  I really want a cat, and I don’t want my mum to have to move out.”

We rejoice when we see ordinary people triumph over the intricate regulations of bureaucrats, when the injustices of governments are overturned, when asylum seekers are made welcome and treated with dignity, when the prophets of our world persist in calling for justice when their own popularity is declining.  We are filled with joy and gratitude when a friend or family member kicks an addiction, when a broken relationship is mended, when someone close to us comes through a long ordeal of chemotherapy.

If we dare to take time to reflect, we will also discover that there are things about God and our religious faith that can fill us with joy and gratitude.  It is freeing to come to the realization that God really does love us, has loved us into life through the love of our parents, identifies us with Jesus, our brother, and cannot stop loving us.

Sadly, too many of us are threatened by the image of God with which we have gown up, fearful of how we will be judged when our lives are over.  The readings of recent Sundays have made frequent reference to Jesus’ second coming.  To conceive of it as an act of destruction is a total contradiction to the notion of God as loving creator.  To equate the second coming of Jesus with a nuclear disaster triggered by world leaders competing for power and threatening one another is a denial of a loving God.  Any judgement by God will be an act of love, with nothing to do with a struggle for power or a vindication of hatred.  Moreover, the second coming of Jesus will focus on the redemption of the entire cosmos, not merely planet earth.

Christmas is just over a week away.  It is about the passing on of God’s love to us and our world in the person of Jesus.  That was John the Baptist’s insight, and he was prepared to step aside so that others would come to see who Jesus was and experience the love he would offer.

Advent is a time of preparation for us to reflect on how we will open ourselves, yet again, to welcome that love into our hearts and lives, and what we will do to pass it on.  Surely that’s plenty to rejoice over. 

Second Sunday of Advent
“Get the road ready for the Lord; make a straight path for him to travel!” Mark 1, 1-8

One of the big challenges for us as we read and reflect on scripture is to allow ourselves to become participants rather than mere spectators.  Though divinely inspired, the Bible is literature, and, like a lot of good literature, many of its stories, while far from factual, offer us invitations to become involved.  So, we are able to join the two disciples in their encounter with the stranger on their way to Emmaus, we can identify with one or other of the characters in each of Jesus’ parables, we can allow ourselves to enter into the allegories of the Books of Ruth and Jonah.  We become participants.

I have been reading Madeleine L’Engle’s A Stone for a Pillow: Journeys with Jacob.  Better known as a writer of children’s books, Madeleine L’Engle is also a poet and a writer on spirituality.  In her book to which I have just referred, she writes:

On a TV interview I was asked by a clergyman if I believe that fantasy is an essential part of our understanding of the universe and our place in it, and I replied that yes, I do believe this, adding truthfully that Scripture itself is full of glorious fantasy.  Yes, indeed, I take the Bible too seriously to take it all literally…Once I remarked that I read the Bible in much the same way as I read fairy tales, and received a shocked response.  But fairy tales are not superficial stories.  They spring from the depths of the human being.  The world of the fairy tale is to some extent the world of the psyche.  Like the heroes and heroines of fairy tales, we all start on our journey, our quest, sent out on it at our baptisms.  We are, all of us, male and female, the younger brother, who succeeds in the quest because, unlike the elder brother, he knows he needs help; he (the elder brother) cannot do it because he is strong and powerful.  We are all, like it or not, the elder brother, arrogant and proud.  We are all, male and female, the true princess who feels the pea of injustice under all those mattresses of indifference.  And we all have to come to terms with the happy ending, and this may be the most difficult part of all.  Never confuse fairy tale with untruth. (A Stone for a Pillow, Convergent Books, New York, 2017, p. 77-79)

Madeleine L’Engle’s insights prepare us to engage with the readings of this second Sunday of Advent.  The first reading is from the section of the Book of Isaiah that is generally referred to as the “Book of Consolation”.  Isaiah presents himself as God’s messenger to the people of Israel who have been forced to endure a long and bitter exile in Babylon.  Isaiah announces that their exile is over but they will still have to face their journey home, and then get involved in the restoration of their nation and the renewal of their faith and trust in God.  He assures them that God will be their shepherd, protector and healer of their scars.  In the gospel reading, Mark borrows Isaiah’s imagery to describe John the Baptist as the newly arrived herald and prophet of good news to come.  We also have to remember that the details of Mark’s description of the Baptist resemble the appearance of the great prophet, Elijah as he is presented in the Second Book of Kings:  ‘A man wearing a hair cloak, and a leather loincloth.  It was Elijah the Tishbite’ (2 Kings 1, 8).  Many Jews, even contemporaries of Jesus, held firmly to the view that Elijah would be the one sent back to earth by God to announce the arrival of the Messiah and the restoration of Israel.  Mark, however, presented John the Baptist as the herald of that good news, and as the one who would identify Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.  While John would preach repentance and baptize with water, Jesus, the Messiah, would baptize with the Spirit, filling people with the life of God.  Today’s second reading from the Second Letter of Peter echoes last Sunday’s theme of patient waiting, stressing that what looks to be a delay in Jesus’ second coming is really a blessing of more time to prepare for his return.  Let’s now turn our attention to the Baptist and his exhortation to prepare properly for the coming of the Lord.

John the Baptist was not your ordinary human being.  True, he was eccentric in his dress and in the manner in which he presented himself.  But that can distract from the distinctiveness of his message and the impact he had on the audiences who gathered to listen to him.  He attracted people as though to a magnet  -  “All Judea and all the people of Jerusalem made their way to him, and as they were baptized by him in the river Jordan they confessed their sins” (Mark 1, 5).  Moreover, he was totally selfless in the message he proclaimed:  “The man who will come after me is much greater than I am.  I am not good enough even to bend down and untie his sandal” (Mark 1, 7).  While he spoke with directness and urgency, and attracted multitudes, he did not bask in notoriety.  He took no pride in his success.  Instead, he saw Jesus as someone both different and better, and deferred to him.  His own extraordinary charism and talent mattered nothing to him.

Just for a moment, compare how our society has conditioned us to compete and compare, and to want to express our individuality.  Education from primary school level through to university is built on competing for grades and results.  We compete for selection into every kind of team sport.  Jobs are allocated on the basis of applicants’ levels of competence.  Deep down we know that opportunity is never really equal.  Selection is often denied to those whose ethnicity, religion or economic status is perceived as inferior.  All this often pressures people to find comfort in concentrating on wanting to express their uniqueness as a way of dealing with what they experience as harsh reality.  Perhaps there is some comfort for self in putting the focus on what one believes is his/her own uniqueness.

The explanation for John’s downplaying of his own importance is to be found in the words which Mark attributed to him:  “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1, 8).  These are words which more appropriately belong to those who wrote the books of the New Testament.  They understood the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of a God who was full of surprises, who was able to inspire Jews, slaves, free people and Gentiles to live and worship side by side in the early Christian community.  Diversity came to be accepted as a sign of God’s Spirit at work.  Competition and jealous comparison evaporated.

So, in Mark’s perception, John was able to understand his role and task as different from but complementary to the role and task of Jesus.  That enabled him to speak the truth about his own role and the role of Jesus in the same breath.  Jesus saw himself as the ambassador of God’s love, mercy and compassion.  Competition and comparison were foreign to his way of acting.  Surely that rubbed off on John.

And that’s a significant message for us to take from today’s readings.  We are challenged to welcome and encourage the gifts that others have to offer, even if they overshadow us and our gifts.  That means letting go of any desire to draw attention to our own uniqueness or to be seen as special.  If we can bring ourselves to do that, we might be able to recognize and welcome somebody like Jesus whenever he or she comes into our life.  That, of course, is one of the challenges of Advent:  to recognise Jesus who comes to us every day in the people we encounter.         

First Sunday of Advent
“No one has ever seen or heard of a God like you, who does such deeds for those who put their hope in him.” Isaiah 63, 16-19; 64, 2-7

“And what I say to you I say to all:  Stay awake!” Mark 13, 33-37

Welcome to Advent and the beginning of a new Church year.  The prominent themes of the Advent readings are patient waiting and expectation. However, to better understand the significance of the Advent season and its focus on preparing for the coming of Jesus  -  at both the end of time and the time of his birth as a human being, we might do well to look at the origins of the celebration of what we now call Christmas.

The feast of Christmas was not introduced into the Church’s calendar until some time in the fourth century.  Understandably, the prime focus of the early Christian community was on Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus from the grave.  Ever since Christmas found a place in the calendar, its profile has grown, and, in the popular mind, now overshadows Easter in importance.  However, in recent decades, it has been stolen from Christians by the secular world of marketing and retail sales.

But, back in the fourth century, Christians borrowed much of the symbolism of Christmas from ancient cosmology.  As the ancients observed the changes in the earth’s seasons and weather patterns, and watched the movements of the sun, they began to wonder, as the days became shorter and colder, if darkness would eventually blot out the sun’s warmth and light.  They thought of the progression into winter as a contest between light and darkness.  However, they also noted that, after what we call the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, the days were slowly becoming longer.  This transition from darkness to light was celebrated with a festival towards the end of December.  It was a celebration of the triumph of the sun over darkness.  The Christian community capitalized on this festival, replacing “sun” with “son”, referring directly to the coming of Jesus, the Son of God into the world.  Desolation, gloom, despair and sin would be overcome by Jesus, the light of the world.  This triumph they called Christmas, and established Advent as a season of preparation for the time when darkness would be dispelled by the arrival of Jesus, the Light of the World.  Advent is a time for Christians to ready themselves to live in the light.  It confronts us with a very direct question:  What darkness are we aware of in our own personal lives and in the world to which we belong?  Do we want to overcome or reverse that darkness?  As we embark on a new year in the Church’s calendar we are challenged to look at our lives and our surrounds of family, community, work, relationships and confront what needs to be changed.  Only then will we be living with integrity and authenticity.  And that’s all about our readiness to let Jesus and all he represents into our lives.  If we are prepared to do that, we, too, will play a part in rolling back the darkness of things like prejudice, fear, corruption and loneliness.

Still, today’s readings could leave us a bit confused.  While they invite us to ponder the notion of expectations, the first reading from Isaiah looks at the expectations the people of Israel had centuries before the coming of the Messiah.   What their descendants were given eventually was the birth of Jesus  -  something that was a long way from matching their expectations.  

Isaiah looked at the situation of humankind before that event, and compared what the people of his time were hoping for with what they actually got.  That’s what today’s first reading is all about.  But, when we look at the second reading from Corinthians and the gospel from Mark, we find that we are being invited to examine what we expect for the future, in the light of the impact that Jesus Christ has had on our world and our lives.  So, some of the readings for the season of Advent focus on expectations related to the first coming of Jesus, while other readings concentrate on expectations related to his second coming at the end of time.

The remainder of this reflection will give some attention to events that led up to the incarnation, the birth of Jesus.

Think for a moment of the chequered history of the people of Israel over the centuries before the coming of Jesus in the flesh.  True, they had high hopes and expectations, but their history was littered with experiences of neediness, desolation, hopelessness, exile and deportation, as well as with occasional surprises and satisfactions.  But, if you think about it, the miracle of their history is that they had any bright expectations at all.  Incredibly, they held on to the expectation of a saviour.  To expect a solution, let alone a solution in human form, was testimony to their abiding faith.  It was one thing to believe in God’s providential care, but quite another to trust that God’s providence would have a creative impact on the unfolding of human history.  But that is something that grew in their consciousness and to which they held fast.

Having the benefit of encountering the person Jesus, his history and his message, we Christians can appreciate how he reflected and made real in tangible ways the goodness and love of God.  But, take just a moment to imagine what our expectations and hopes would be like if Jesus had not yet come.  Would you and I, surrounded by greed, corruption, terrorism, stupidity, superstition, indifference and cynicism, be able to summon up in ourselves any expectations of relief, comfort or consolation?

The miracle of the people of Israel was that they never lost hope in God’s promise to them.  That led them to rise above their desolation, despondency and the cynicism that springs from doubt.  Somehow or other, their prophets and patriarchs kept alive for them the promise of God, so that it invaded their dreams and their waking hours, and spoke to them in their prayers and their political fortunes and misfortunes; in their triumphs and their failures.  As a people, Israel held fast to the conviction that God would work something marvellous in their humanity, because that was God’s promise.  And, as they looked back over their history, they could point to countless signs of that promise.

Our own lived experience tells us that we are unable to put faith in any promise that is baseless.  We know that we can have no faith in promise unless we can recognise that it has real possibility.  If we expect nothing, in all likelihood nothing will happen.  If someone offers me a scholarship to study medicine, nothing much will come of it if I cannot see some glimmer of possibility for actually practicing as a doctor.  People don’t become Olympic athletes unless they can see within themselves the promise and potential for that.
 
Time and again, the people of Israel were challenged to find within themselves seeds of possibility.  They were asked to trust that God could develop in them the capacity to identify and appoint wise kings, heroic judges, courageous prophets and selfless healers.  That’s why their scriptures have been a source of spiritual wisdom for us and for our world.

And yet, things could have been different.  Imagine how things might have been had Israel settled for the pitiful self-portrait we see in today’s reading from Isaiah:  “All of us have been sinful; even our best actions are filthy through and through.  Because of our sins, we are like leaves that wither and are blown away like the wind” (Isaiah 64, 5-6).  Providentially, Israel clung to the belief that God could and would transform humanity as sure as God had created it:  “And yet, Lord, you are our Father; we the clay, you the potter, we are all the work of your hand” (Isaiah 64, 7-8).

Tragically, when the potter provided the solution in the shape of an infant named Jesus, born in obscure circumstances, many could see no promise.  Faith has to be flexible enough to be open to the unexpected.

And that’s where our lives intersect with today’s readings and the invitation to engage in the whole process of Advent.  As we live the next few weeks preparing for the Christmas event, we are invited to articulate for ourselves our hopes and expectations.  No fewer than four times, today’s gospel urges us to be awake.  Awake to what?  Awake to God present in every person we encounter, in every event of each day, in the feelings we feel, and in the beauty we see in the created world around us; in our failures and successes, in our disappointments and sadnesses.  Advent urges us to be awake to the opportunities life gives us to discover God in our midst.  It calls us to the signs of God’s unmistakable presence in our lives, and to live our lives expectantly as a gift from God who is present to us in everything that happens, even in our vulnerabilities.  But we will experience God’s presence only if we take the time to pause, to look and to ponder.           

Christ the King/Reign of Christ

“Come, you who are blessed by my Father.  Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me…Whatever you did for one of the least sisters and brothers of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25, 31-46

There would be no Christianity without the person of Jesus Christ and the message he lived and proclaimed.  He and his message are the foundation of the kingdom of God on earth.  In that sense, he is king.  There was and is nothing regal about him.  He lived, modelled and proclaimed servant leadership. He, whose personality and actions attracted people as no other before or after him, is the one we acknowledge and celebrate today.  But let’s not forget that he did not set out to found a church.  The community which tried to live as he did, which built their lives on what he taught, attracted and inspired others, and eventually organized themselves into a church.  We demonstrate our reverence and respect for him to the extent that we embrace the message he proclaimed and live as he lived.

To understand the full significance of today’s gospel reading or, for that matter, any gospel message of Jesus, we have to remember that Jesus had no inside running in his coming to understand the love of God.  Fully human like us, he had to learn to ponder the scriptures of the Jewish tradition in which he grew up.  Through personal reflection, he came to appreciate what it meant to be created in the image of God.  That appreciation came only through spending time in prayer and reflection.  Similarly, Jesus came to understand the message of today’s first reading from Ezekiel, which serves as a backdrop for his own parable of the sheep and goats  -  the centrepiece of today’s gospel.  Moreover, Jesus had seen enough of his world’s kings and rulers to know that they were more interested in their own interests than in caring for their people.  They were more like bad shepherds, ruling by force and brutality, with no idea of how to care for their sheep.  (In the verses leading up to today’s first reading, Ezekiel scarifies bad shepherds and leaders, who have no interest in the welfare of their sheep.)

Jesus’ own strength and influence are to be seen in the fullness of his humanity.  Perhaps his greatest human achievement was to have successfully taught his followers the full extent to which he chose to identify with every single one of them.  He built solidarity with and among them precisely by making their relating to one another the principal condition for relating to him.  He deflected them from giving all their attention to him by pointing out that they would find one another equally attractive if only they took the risk of getting to know one another.  The way in which he expressed his identification with all people could not have been any clearer:  “I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me into your home, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25, 35-36).  But he had a special concern for those who were on the outer.  If he was “king” for anyone, it was for the lost and the losers, the dregs of society, the strugglers, the strange and the questionable.  That only confirms that he took the world as he found it and was in touch with the reality that confronted him.  While many were scandalized by his preference for the poor and downtrodden, he did not allow himself to be diverted from what he had learned from his own reflection and experience:  a deep sense of God’s abiding presence in humankind.  He did not allow hierarchies, conventions, expectations or threats to get in his way as he tried to convince all around him of God’s deep desire to relate to them, to hold them dear.  He had come to know well the God to whom Ezekiel ascribed the words of today’s first reading:  “I myself will pasture my sheep, I myself will show them where to rest…I shall look for the lost one, bring back the stray, bandage the wounded and make the weak strong.  I shall watch over the fat and healthy.  I shall be a true shepherd to them” Ezekiel 34, 15-16).  And he lived what he learned.  

Ezekiel described the actions of God as shepherd of the people.  Matthew, in today’s gospel reading, sets down a set of responsibilities for us to undertake on God’s behalf.  While some of those tasks might not look very attractive, they are the responsibilities on which, according to Matthew, we will be judged. We are challenged to meet Christ present in the stranger who comes into our life, in the prisoner whose crimes cause us revulsion, in the sick whose illnesses are accidental or self-induced, in the hungry, who, we believe, should have been able to provide for themselves.  The challenge that Jesus puts to us in today’s gospel is as real as that, and it demands of us a combination of imagination, faith and compassion  -  all within our reach, all gifts given to us by a loving God.  But we also know our capacity for the kind of insensitivity that can look at a stateless refugee and tell ourselves:  “He’s not my responsibility”.   Insensitivity that can see an old, dishevelled man sitting on a park bench, and have us rationalize to ourselves:  “Well, he’s not my grandfather.”  Coldness that can look at a starving child, and say:  “She’s not my daughter.”  

Are care, compassion, sensitivity an integral part of our stance to our world and its people or responses we use selectively?  True, we may not have the wherewithal to make an effective, tangible response to all the needy people we encounter.  But we all have the capacity to engage with them respectfully and with the dignity they deserve as our sisters and brothers.

How does all this fit in against the warnings in the first reading from Ezekiel and Matthew’s imaginary description of the Son of Man coming in glory?  Well, notice that the same question is asked by both the virtuous and the neglectful:  “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or naked, sick or in prison, and did not come to your help?”  The virtuous are unaware of the good they have done and the condemned are not aware of having done anything wrong.  Therein lies the crux of the matter.  Our capacity for sensitivity and compassion and our human imagination come from a loving God who urges us to look at our world with new eyes.  Yet we can allow these gifts to sit dormant, to be controlled by fear and hesitation.  It is entirely up to us to decide whether we will express them creatively for the benefit of others or for nobody but ourselves.  We may even do nothing with them, and just let them lie dormant.  The choice is ours, and so, too, are the consequences.         

Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

“You wicked lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant and gather where I did not scatter…” Matthew 25, 14-30

Every single parable that Jesus told presents us with at least one challenge for the way we live our lives.  Often, the challenges are many.  But one thing they all have in common is that they invite us to puzzle over their multi layers of meaning.  The parable of the talents is no exception.  It is considerably more than a pressing call to us to make sure to use our talents responsibly.

On the surface, this is a parable about money, and large amounts of money.  A talent, in the time of Jesus, was equivalent to the total earnings an average worker would receive over a 15-year period.  It was estimated to be the equivalent of about 22kgs of silver.  So Jesus was not telling a story about a small-time investor and his trusted employees.  Moreover, it would take a big hole to keep a talent well and truly hidden.  Jesus’ parable is about a wealthy businessman who, before setting out on a trip, instructs his employees to make his money work for him.  The wealthy boss is not only good at business.  He is also very lucky.  So it’s clear that, if his trusted employees don’t appreciate his luck, they haven’t really understood him and his expectations.  That explains why his reaction is so severe towards the third and least-able employee (the one who was given only one talent to invest):  “You wicked, lazy servant!  So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant, and gather crops where I did not scatter seed?  Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have gotten it back with interest, on my return?” (Matthew 25, 26-27)

I suggest that we risk missing the point and spirit of this gospel parable if we start by applying it to our moral lives, if we reduce it to an exhortation on the need to develop our personal talents and direct them towards good works and service of others.  This parable is about more than using responsibly our brains, creativity and energy for the purpose of making real in our world the kingdom of God, even though that’s a worthy thing to do.   The spirit of this parable comes from its invitation to us to engage with God in a risky venture, in a shared undertaking based on daring, trust and a measure of luck.

This is not a parable about doing our duty.  It is not just about how God can work through us and through our gifts.  But it is about how God trusts us to do our thing, using our flair and daring, with the gifts God has given us.  If the relationship between God and us is one of trust, there is surely an expectation for us to bring our initiative and imagination to the way in which we manage our gifts.  Think about it!  We flourish in proportion to our willingness to be adventurous and daring with the talents and creativity we discover in ourselves.  We have all met people whose personalities shrivel up and whose lives become impoverished and listless because they cannot bring themselves to risk, to dare, to take initiative.  Talent simply suffocates if it is not expressed in an atmosphere of trust in God and in the people with whom we live and work.
We also know that we flourish and give of our best when we know that we are trusted.  While we might find ourselves quivering at the seemingly chauvinistic style of today’s first reading from Proverbs, it gives us a good example of a woman who uses her talents creatively and well.  In describing the ideal wife, the writer of Proverbs points to the relationship of trust that exists between the woman and her husband.  He does not give her a list of jobs to do.  Instead, “he puts his confidence in her”, and his trust releases her creativity in abundance.

At one level, this is a parable about stewardship.  True stewardship is more than looking after something, minding it or keeping it safe.  Rather, it is about proper use of time, energy and opportunity in all the affairs of life, including financial management.  The third servant made a severe blunder in saying to his master:  “I knew you were a demanding person…Here is your talent back.” Matthew asks us if we are brave and daring enough to put to work the life that is God’s gift to us.  If not, we will be handing back something totally sterile.

In conclusion, I offer a parable of a different kind, from a Jewish community that had close links with their Christian neighbours:

Once upon a time, two babies were born on the same day, in the same village.  One was born into a poor, struggling family, and all his life wondered what it would be like to be rich.  He was a good Jew, obedient to the Law, and even generous to beggars who were worse off than he was.  Whenever he looked at the rich man’s family, who lived on the hill overlooking the ghetto, he yearned for the life he was not given.  He became jealous.  The other man, born into the rich family, had the benefits of wealth, privilege and education.  He, too, was a good Jew, who obeyed the Law and was generous to everyone in the town, rich and poor alike.

It happened that both men died on the same day.  When they got to heaven they were surprised to find the gates wide open, and Peter waiting for them.  Peter stepped forward, pushed the poor man to one side, and welcomed the rich man with a strong embrace.  There was even a red carpet rolled out, a band playing and trumpets blaring.  It looked as though everyone in heaven had turned out for the welcome, which was followed by dinner and speeches.

The poor man was stunned, managing to creep in through the gates just before they closed.  Then, as he watched the way in which the rich man was welcomed, he became increasingly angry.  This was not the way things were supposed to be!  He had been taught that, because his life on earth had been difficult, he would be richly rewarded in heaven, and that the rich on earth would “have hell to pay”.  What he now saw was looking like a repeat of how things were on earth  -  the rich getting special treatment and the poor being cast aside.  He was beginning to wonder if it was all worth it.

He stuck around for the dinner and the speeches, hearing glowing accounts of the rich man’s life.  But the last straw came when the rich man was given the keys to a splendid mansion, much better than the poor man had seen or even imagined.  There and then, he decided to give Peter a piece of his mind.  After all, if this was heaven, he wanted no part of it.  So, as things were winding down, he strode boldly up to Peter to demand an explanation, pointing out that he was here, too, and that he was now totally fed up.

At first, Peter was stopped in his tracks.  Then he began apologizing for forgetting the poor man.  But the poor man was not done.  He listed all the privileges the rich man had been given, stated that he had been given nothing, and concluded by saying that the gates of heaven were almost slammed in his face.  If that was how things were going to be, he wanted out.  Peter was quick to reassure him that there was, indeed, a mansion for him, too, and that it made the rich man’s look no better than a backyard shed.  That took some of the steam out of the poor man, and he thought he had better check it our before leaving in a huff.

So the poor man was led deep into the kingdom of heaven and, when he saw what had been reserved for him, he could hardly believe his eyes.  But he was still seething with anger.  “But why didn’t I get the red carpet, the trumpet fanfare, the band, the dinner and the speeches?  It just wasn’t fair!”  “I know”, said Peter as he put his arm around the poor man, “I really do know.  But you have to understand.  People like you arrive here every day, but, for the life of me, I can’t remember how long it’s been since somebody like him came through the big gates.”

With which character do you identify?      

Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

“Wisdom shines bright and never grows dim.” Wisdom 6, 12-16

“The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.  Five of them were foolish and five were wise.  The foolish ones…brought no oil with them…” Matthew 25, 1-13

Two themes running through today’s readings are wisdom and preparedness.  To deal with the various challenges we encounter in life, we need to be prepared and we need the gift of wisdom.  We know from experience the need to be prepared for the unexpected.  However, wisdom is sometimes elusive and difficult to pinpoint, mainly because it seems to change complexion as the situations in which it is needed change.  The wisdom needed by parents in raising small children is different from the wisdom required to deal with adolescents.  A wise judge is not the same as a wise grandparent or a wise politician.  Some people acquire wisdom through suffering and bitter experience, while others demonstrate wisdom when they refuse to endure the suffering and pressure that is being inflicted on them.  Sometimes wisdom is equated with common sense, while, at other times, common sense and wisdom seem opposed to one another.  There are times when we get the impression that wisdom is being expressed in very carefully crafted sentences and sayings.  At other times it is expressed in silence.  And paradoxically, in the world of literature, the greatest wisdom comes from the mouths of fools.  In today’s first reading, wisdom is personified as a mysterious woman who is there to help those who seek her but who doesn’t push her way in without being invited.

Of interest, then, is the gospel parable of the ten bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom to turn up for a wedding banquet.  Five are described as foolish or less than wise. (The Greek word used to describe them is the word from which “moron” is derived.)  Those five were “foolish” because they were negligent and did not plan ahead.  The other five were “wise” because they had made sure to bring extra oil for their lamps, just in case the bridegroom was delayed.

This parable occurs only in Matthew’s Gospel, and scripture scholars are unanimous in interpreting the coming of the bridegroom as a symbol for the return or second coming of Jesus at the end of time.  Today’s second reading, from Thessalonians, leaves us in no doubt that the very early Christians anticipated that Jesus would return in their lifetime.  Moreover, in the section of Matthew’s Gospel immediately preceding the parable of the ten bridesmaids, we are given a detailed description of the end times, in the words of Jesus himself, with a clear indication that they will come sooner rather than later:    “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man...Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matthew 24, 27-35).  However, as the years went by hopes of Jesus’ early return faded, and some Christians even expressed doubts as to whether he would come back at all.  Others speculated about when he might return, asking how they might be expected to behave during their waiting.  Today’s parable of the bridesmaids is Matthew’s attempt to respond to the questions coming from his community, assuring them that Jesus would certainly return and that their duty was to be prepared, despite their having not even a hint of Jesus’ plans.  The waiting has now gone on for more than two thousand years, resulting in our not sharing in the sense of urgency felt by first-century Christians.  

Yet, down through the centuries there has been an almost endless succession of confident predictions of Jesus’ second coming.  Two puzzling predictions from Nostradamus suggested either 1999 or 3797.  So don’t hold your breath waiting for the second one.  Others have suggested 2012 because that was the last year of the ancient Mayan calendar.  Matteo Tafuri (1492-1582), described variously as a philosopher, an astrologer and a sorcerer, claimed that Jesus would return after the tiny southern Italian village of Salento had a two-day long snowfall.  Hardly likely, even if climate change is rapid and dramatic.  Back in 1143, an Irish bishop declared that Jesus would come again after the 112th successor of Pope Celestine II had died.  Pope Francis is the last of the 112!  As recently as 1970, the American tele-evangelist, Hal Lindsey published The Late Great Planet Earth.  In it, he predicted that the Second Coming of Christ would occur in the late 1980s, one generation after the founding of modern Israel.  By 1980, 28 million copies of the book had been sold.  Lindsey, now well over 80 years old, still runs a weekly program on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, making endless prophecies and predictions.  People have been both fascinated and amused by these “prophets” and their predictions.  I wonder if that’s because subconsciously we carry an awareness that time will come to an end and that Jesus will come again!

Every Sunday we stand in our churches and recite the Creed, with varying degrees of conviction and urgency.  Perhaps familiarity has deadened my sensitivity, but I find I give only minimal attention to the line:  “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.”  So the readings of today prompt me to ask myself if I’m really looking forward to Christ’s Second Coming or whether I am content to wait listlessly in the interim, in the meanwhile.  In his parable of the ten bridesmaids, Matthew offers some advice about how we might go about living in the interim.  He encourages us to claim our identity and to be awake to the visitations of Jesus, who comes into our lives every day.

Created in God’s image and stamped by our baptism as Christians, we claim Jesus as our brother.  Our identity is that we are brother or sister of Jesus.  Does the way I live and relate make me recognisable as such?  It is the good I do in my everyday encounters with family, friends and strangers that allows Jesus to recognise me.  How I live and relate is part of my personal responsibility.  For me, the most challenging part of today’s parable is where the foolish bridesmaids ask the wise ones to share their oil.  The latters’ resounding “No!” sounds miserably selfish.  But, when I realise that their oil is a symbol of their faith and good deeds, I see immediately that these things are not like frequent-flier points, they are just not transferable.  I cannot borrow another’s faith.  Nor can I borrow a friend’s good works or his or her hard-earned reputation.  If I have failed to measure up, Jesus will have no other option but to say to me the words the bridegroom of the parable said to the foolish bridesmaids:  “I tell you honestly that I do not know you.”  The way I live proclaims who I really am.  

Jesus comes into our lives every day, but in ways that we don’t always recognise.  He comes unannounced in the single mother with whom we engage in conversation while waiting for our appointment with the dentist, in the young gay man who turns up in our parish church, admitting that he feels like an outcast, in the company director who acknowledges that, while he has everything he wants, he still feels empty.  He comes in the urge I feel to volunteer at the local soup-kitchen, in the refugee who tells me he is hungry.  These are the times when you and I need to be awake, alert and prepared.  These are the times when the groom arrives and expects to find us ready.

Today’s first reading urges us to cultivate wisdom and to rely on it to guide us in our living.  The second reading from Thessalonians offers us the consolation that our fidelity to Jesus will ensure that he will not abandon us.  The gospel reading is Matthew’s attempt to keep us alert and ready for every occasion that Jesus comes into our lives:  “Watch out, then, because you know neither the day nor the hour.”  The clear message of all these readings is that it’s better to be wise than stupid.  We’re the only ones who can make that choice.

Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

“The greatest among you must be your servant.” Matthew 23, 1-12

I admit to being perplexed by Matthew’s description of Jesus criticising the scribes and Pharisees.  Today’s gospel reading opens with a verbatim account of Jesus’ savage criticism, making me wonder if Matthew has quoted him accurately.  That’s because the words Matthew attributes to Jesus are loaded with judgemental language and sweeping generalisations.  Are we meant to accept that there were no decent men of honesty and integrity among all the scribes and Pharisees in Israel?  Not a single one?

The words Matthew puts in the mouth of Jesus are full of bitterness, seemingly directed to fire his listeners to resolve to do nothing more than respect their authority:  “Do as they say, but make sure not to imitate what they do, for they are hypocrites!”  Jesus’ comments seem to be all about rabble-rousing, a ploy to get the crowd on his side, and to further alienate the scholars and religious leaders he had come to regard as his enemies.

After reading this, you might end up being unsure about the message Jesus is trying to give.  Is he suggesting that the burdens being put on people’s backs are legitimately imposed, even though they are heavy?  Or is Jesus questioning the very authority of the Pharisees and scribes to make the kind of rules they came up with?  If what they imposed on people was unjust in the first place, then they had no authority to impose it.  Remember, Jesus had previously rejected their authority to rule that curing on the Sabbath was unlawful, as was mixing with sinners and eating with unwashed hands.

But analysing this gospel reading for such distinctions or even expecting Jesus’ words to be without contradictions is to miss the point altogether.  Jesus was fired with anger at what he had seen some scribes and Pharisees doing, and heard them saying.  He was fed up with them.  His emotions were roused and he let fly, as any of us might do when we are really angry.  When anger rules, niceties and neat distinctions go out the window, to be replaced by sweeping statements and the attributing of motives.  If we want to understand what was going on inside Jesus, we have only to look at what happens inside us when we want to give a politician, or a public servant or our boss a piece of our mind.  We get so frustrated and upset that facts get distorted and objectivity disappears.  We are more interested in giving free reign to our frustrations and feelings than in being cool, calm and accurate with our words.  Moreover, we get very upset when we perceive people in high places using their status and position to get special treatment or to give the impression that they are a cut above the rest of us.

Jesus’ emotions then spilled over to his disciples as he warned them not to let people put them on a pedestal.  Implicit in what he said to them was his perception that the scribes and Pharisees had allowed themselves to be put on pedestals and to be given authority they had neither deserved nor earned.

We ourselves don’t have to look far back into our history to see that some Church people lapped up praise, accepted special treatment and ended up being besotted by their own importance, and abusing the power thoughtlessly vested in them.

And let’s not ignore the fact that there are some people who are quick to pass on responsibility for their own decision-making to others for no other reason that they are afraid of having to deal with the emotional turmoil that often accompanies the making of difficult decisions.  Moreover, we can very easily turn prominent people into idols and heroes without realising that we are transferring to them the power in ourselves that we are afraid to use.

We’ve all heard ourselves and others say things like “the Principal or the Parish Priest or the Boss knows best.”  And we’ve all seen people in positions of leadership succumb to flattery.  But they are the ones who should be the first to reject the opinion that they know best.  People who are genuine authorities will surely measure their effectiveness by the way in which they empower others to use their own initiative and exercise their own responsibility.

What then is the message from today’s gospel for us?  (Note, incidentally, that, more than four centuries before Jesus, the prophet Malachi found reason to criticise the priests of Levi for their hypocrisy:  “You have strayed from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your teaching.”  -  today’s first reading.)  The hypocrisy that both Malachi and Jesus railed against was neither new nor surprising.  We have all seen it in others, and even in ourselves, if we are honest.  It is an occupational hazard for leaders, and an even greater scandal when religious leaders allow themselves to be contaminated by it.  At its root is pride, which is the source of all expressions of hypocrisy, and the desire in all of us to want others to see us as better than we really are.

To live with integrity his own mission in life, Jesus had to deal with the opposition that came from the religious scholars and leaders of his time.  What he saw as their eagerness to be revered, their slavish adherence to the details of law rather than to its spirit, their desire to dominate rather than serve became too much for him, to the point that he could not contain his feelings.  And so, with barely restrained fierceness, he vented what he felt.  That made them even more determined to settle the score.

I suggest that the real message for us is to be found in the warning Jesus gave to his disciples:  “Don’t let yourselves be carried away by success, position, flattery or self-importance.”  In some way or other, we are all leaders.  The measure of our leadership will be the integrity of our living and the quality of our service to, and respect for, all those whom we are privileged to lead.  As Br Edmund Garvey (Christian Brother and Leader of Christian Brothers in Europe) put it in a recent address: “The inspiring leader is indeed a servant leader, best recognised for being in the first place what he or she teaches… We believe people far more readily when their word is their life.” (Marino Institute of Education, October 18, 2017)

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments.” Matthew 22, 40

Every now and then, many of us, in a fit of fervour, post reminder notes for ourselves on the fridge, on the bathroom mirror or on our office notice board:  “Buy sugar-free cereal”, “Remember to exercise with…on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 6.00 am”.   At other times we make mental notes:  “Make sure to be patient with grandpa, especially if he gets onto his usual hobby-horse!”

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus quotes from a reminder written on the hearts and minds of every Jewish woman, man and child.  It’s called the Shema, from the Hebrew word for “hear” or “take notice”, and it is found in the Book of Deuteronomy.  It calls all people to love the Lord with every ounce of their being, their energy and their talent:  “Attention, Israel!  GOD, our God! GOD, the one and only!  Love GOD, your God, with your whole heart: love God with all that’s in you, love God with all you’ve got!  Write these commandments that I’ve given you today on your hearts. Get them inside of you and then get them inside your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning to when you fall into bed at night. Tie them on your hands and foreheads as a reminder; inscribe them on the doorposts of your homes and on your city gates”  (Deuteronomy 6, 4-6).  And that’s what they did and still do.  

We probably like to think that we need no reminder to love God.  However, even a moment’s reflection is sufficient to demonstrate to me that I can easily get so involved in the business of the day that God get’s forgotten, unless, of course, I build into each day times for reflection and prayer.  I suspect that’s how life is for most of us.  The Jewish people had come to that realisation well before the time of Jesus, and they came up with the Shema as a way of reminding themselves that God was central to their lives.  We know from our Muslim friends that they pause for prayer five times a day, while the women and men who belong to Monastic Orders pause 8 times a day to pray the hours of the Divine Office.  If we are in the habit of taking time at night to reflect on where we might have encountered God in the course of each day, we might discover just how little time we actually give to our relationship with the God who loved us into life.

In the gospel reading, Jesus reminds us that our responsibility as children of God is a dual one, that love of God and love of neighbour are inseparably linked.  We cannot claim to love God if we ignore those around us or show them no respect.  But there’s a catch in the second part of that dual responsibility  -   we are told:  “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.”  If you’re like me, I’m sure there have been times in your life when you were not actually pleased with yourself; times when you felt ashamed of what you had said or done.  Some of us get trapped into our past and begin to think that nobody, not even God, loves us.  And being told that God doesn’t make rubbish is not enough to shake us out of our self-loathing, which can often descend into self-pity.  But God really does love us endlessly, despite our failures and frailty.  Probably even because of them!  That’s really one of the messages of the parable of the Prodigal Son.
I suggest that there is another way to look at the responsibility to “love your neighbour as you love yourself”.  Look, for instance, at today’s first reading from Exodus.  It itemises some of the especially nasty ways in which some people treat others:  victimising foreigners, swindling widows, making money out of orphans, charging poor people high rates of interest on loans, forcing people to provide collateral on loans with what they need to stay alive.  This reading invites us to imagine how we would feel if the banks, the government and our next-door neighbours did things like that to us.  It is as though we are being asked to learn how to be compassionate by reflecting on how we would cope if those things were done to us.  There are times when we respond with hostility if we sense that someone is prejudiced against us or is downright disrespectful or treats us as dirt.  We respond angrily.  The Exodus reading invites us to imagine how we would feel in those circumstances and then ask ourselves if others might feel that way too.  Everyone I know hurts the way I hurt, fears the way I fear, and needs to be loved as much as I do.

And that’s where the two great commandments to which Jesus refers come together.  When we think about it, it’s really only when we come to realise deep down that God does actually love us that we are then free enough to treat those around us with kindness, care and compassion.  Becoming convinced that we are really dear to God is the challenge of a lifetime.  So, a reminder to ourselves that we are dear to God might be something worth sticking onto the fridge or the mirror in our bedroom.
Let me conclude with a story I’m sure I’ve shared before, but is well worth repeating.  I have borrowed it from Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird:  Some Instruction on Writing and Life (Pantheon Books, New York, 1994, p. 205):

The little sister of an eight-year-old boy was diagnosed with terminal leukemia.   The doctors explained that the little girl needed a blood transfusion from someone whose blood matched hers.  They suggested that one of her siblings might well be a compatible donor.  The parents explained to their son that his blood might do the trick, and asked if he would be prepared to have the doctors test his blood.  He agreed, and the results were positive.  Then the doctor told the boy that the only chance his sister had to remain alive was that if he were prepared to give her a pint of his blood.  He asked the doctor if he could think about it overnight.  This he did, and the next day he told his parents that he would donate his blood to his little sister.  So off they went to the hospital where the boy was put on a bed next to his sister.  A needle was inserted into the boy’s arm and a pint of his blood was collected in about 40 minutes.  The blood was then hooked up to an IV system that allowed it to drip slowly through another tube attached to his sister.   The boy lay on his bed totally silent, watching his blood drip down the tube and into his sister’s body.  The doctor supervising the process eventually came over to the boy and asked him how he was doing.  The boy turned and asked:  “How long now before I start to die?”

Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

“Then give to Caesar what is his, and to God what is God’s.” Matthew 22, 15-21

Today’s gospel reading begins with an attempt by the Pharisees (religious scholars) and Herodians (supporters of Herod’s civil rule) to catch Jesus off-guard by flattering him.  It doesn’t work.  However, politics and government are two topics on which many of us can be drawn out, and eventually trapped.  Today’s first reading from Isaiah also touches on the theme of rulers and politics and makes reference to how God can even work through kings to bring about good in the world.  So a brief excursion into history and personal experience might help with some background into today’s readings.

Governments, whatever their colour, have a reputation for upsetting the lives of ordinary people.  They are a presence from which none of us can escape.  Common opinion suggests that they are rarely benevolent, often threatening and always irritating.  They can tax us, arrest us, conscript us into military service, torment us with bureaucratic processes and form-filling, and bore us to tears with their speeches.  Most of us take part in electing them but rarely see them delivering on the promises which prompted us to vote for them.  All too often we find ourselves disillusioned by the way in which they misappropriate the taxes we pay, and by the various corrupt practices in which some politicians engage in order to stay in power.

In today’s first reading, we are given something of a surprise as Isaiah describes Cyrus II, the King of Persia, being used by God to free Israel from slavery in Babylon.  Isaiah tells how God took Cyrus by the hand and led him to disarm kings and open gateways.  He then proceeds to quote God’s words of assurance to Cyrus:  “It is for the sake of my servant Jacob and of Israel my chosen one, that I have called you by your name, have given you a title, though you do not know me.” (Isaiah 45, 4)  

We know that Jesus knew well the Book of Isaiah, so presumably he had a good opinion of Cyrus II.  According to the Greek historian, Herodotus, Cyrus I (grandfather of Cyrus II) knew the vices that caused governments to fall.  He lectured a group of his fellow Persians on the fate of governments that became too comfortable, fat and powerful:  “Soft countries” declared Cyrus I, “breed soft men!”  Herodotus then recorded:  “The Persians had to admit that this was true, and chose rather to live in a rugged land and rule themselves, than to cultivate rich plains and be slaves.”  (Herodotus, Histories, Book 9, ch. 16)

It’s anybody’s guess as to whether Jesus had even heard of Cyrus I, and, for that matter, the great historian, Herodotus.  But we know he lived in a rugged land.  And in today’s gospel, the Pharisees were not able to draw him out on what he thought of the Roman government then occupying Israel and getting rich on the taxes it exacted on ordinary citizens.  Perhaps he saw them mirroring the good and bad that exists in every society.  Maybe he had already come to the conclusion that religion and politics don’t mix, for he certainly didn’t suggest that religion has any magical remedies for dissolving the forces of governments, be they just or unjust.  Besides, he realized that he was being baited by religious and civic leaders who were more interested in trapping him than in searching for insights or truth.  What’s more, they themselves had not dared to be openly critical of the Roman occupiers.

So, how did Jesus rate with the answer he gave his questioners?  His response that Caesar should get what he deserves could be interpreted as dripping with irony.  But that all depends on the meaning we give to “what he deserves”.   Does Caesar deserve every shekel of the taxes he demanded or does he deserve nothing?   But there’s nothing else in the text to suggest that Jesus was using irony.  But what Jesus did say is that everyone claiming to be religious has to be discerning and discriminating in responding to the demands and decisions of government.

Support for this approach to government and civil authority can be found in Paul’s letter to the Romans (almost certainly written before Matthew’s Gospel).  The words Matthew had put into the mouth of Jesus echo what Paul had already written:  “And this is why you should pay taxes, too, because the authorities are all serving God as his agents, even while they are busily occupied with that particular task.  Pay to each one what is due to each:  taxes to the one to whom tax is due, tolls to the one to whom tolls are due, respect to the one to whom respect is due, honour to the one to whom honour is due.  The only thing you should owe to anyone is love for one another, for to love the other person is to fulfill the law.” (Romans 13, 6-8)

Jesus did not go as far as both Isaiah and Paul.  He certainly did not say, as they did, that rulers and governments all work for God.  And most of us would surely adopt Jesus’ view that we be discerning and discriminating in our responses to government, and to both appointed and elected authority.  However, Jesus did make it clear that we can’t hide behind government regulations for our failures to be kind, generous and caring.  Love takes precedence over rules and regulations, whatever their source.

By the very fact that they had produced a Roman coin as they questioned Jesus, the Pharisees and Herodians answered their own question.  By using money with Caesar’s image on it, they declared that they accepted their obligations to Caesar.  But Jesus’ answer made it clear that the choices we all have to make in life are rarely as simple as either-or choices.  They require us to search and discern, and then to act out of our deepest convictions, to be guided by conscience.  And to follow up by taking responsibility for whatever decisions we do make.  When we look at our world and see how governments, leaders and politicians vacillate in their decision-making, we often find ourselves shaking our heads in confusion and disbelief.  But somehow, we have to go deep into ourselves to connect with God’s guiding Spirit, who helps us to see God’s presence in all that comes our way and in every person we encounter.  Then we will be able to deal with the complexities of our world and with the governments and authorities who are supposed to assist us in the task.  

Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding-garment?”  But he was silent. Matthew 22, 1-14

I have to admit to being puzzled by today’s gospel parable for many years.  I simply could not understand why someone dragged into the wedding feast would be punished severely for not wearing the appropriate clothes.  After all, the poor fellow was only someone walking along, minding his own business, until he was accosted by the king’s servants and pressured to join in the lavish wedding reception.  When I looked at the list of those who had already declined their invitations, and the reasons for their non-attendance, I concluded that this man and all the others who had agreed to make up the numbers were actually doing the king a favour.  Besides, as the story is told, it is clear that the servants had no time to pick and choose.  They dragooned everyone they could get hold of.  So I could not work out why the king was so upset by the fact that there was one guest who did not have a wedding gown.

But, according to the story, the king was extremely upset.  In fact, he was so upset that the only conclusion we are meant to come to is that the guest with whom he was upset must have deliberately refused to wear the expected dress.  I have since discovered that many of the scholars who have analysed this parable observe that it was the custom of the time to provide wedding gowns to guests as they arrived for the celebration.  So there was really no excuse for not wearing one.  The man without the wedding garment was at fault, and he was guilty of insulting the king deeply.  And the evidence for that is to be found in the very simple sentence that had escaped my notice for years:  “But he was silent.”  When the king confronted the offender, there was only silence.  That silence spelt guilt.  The man simply had no way of defending himself.  He wasn’t speechless because of fear or confusion, or because he was overawed.  He could not find even a single word to say in his own defence.  His silence was his judgement on himself.  That simple sentence  -  “But he was silent.”  -  speaks volumes.  And I had not noticed it!

But that still does not explain the severity of the punishment the king imposed on him.  Let’s take a moment to reflect on why any of us follows a variety of dress codes.  We dress formally for formal occasions, and to show respect to those who have invited us to particular events.  Some invitations even give us clear indicators about the expected dress code for the occasion.  Not to follow it can lead to embarrassment for us and for our hosts.   On other occasions, we wear uniforms to signify that we identify with a particular group.  Even people who belong to criminal groups and street gangs have codes of behaviour and dress, which they must follow if they want to be accepted.  But the parable tells us that the servants gathered in “everyone they could find, bad and good alike.”   So nobody was excluded on the basis of his or her criminal or sinful past.  And we are not told that the man without the wedding garment was one of the bad people who were brought into the celebration.  My guess is that he was one of the supposedly good people, with no criminal record and no shady reputation.  But, he was somebody who considered himself as being above all the trashy people dragged in from the streets, and seated near him.  Haven’t we all met people who see themselves as being on a rung above everyone else, especially above those who drink too much, who have criminal records, who are HIV+, who have a physical or intellectual disability, whose appearance is grubby, who can’t keep a job, who receive social security benefits?  So, how did the king feel when he looked at all the guests drawn in from the streets to share his happiness on the occasion of his son’s wedding?  His joy was blown away by one, self-centred guest passing judgement on everyone else, and looking down his nose at “riff-raff” who were not up to his own standard.  The man without the wedding garment could not even allow acknowledge that he might actually be no better than the rubbish people from the streets, whom he despised.

Today’s gospel parable challenges me to look at how I go about categorising others, whether consciously or unconsciously, separating them into desirable and undesirable, acceptable or unacceptable.  Do I even act as though some are suitable to come into my office, to sit at dinner with me, to find a place in my school, to sit beside me at Mass, while others are definitely not?

This is a parable to press home the message that God’s love is for all.  While nobody is excluded, nobody has special preference.  Then again, nobody is forced to accept God’s invitation.  Those who declined the invitation in the first place wanted no part of God’s kingdom, and wanted nothing to do with Jesus.  They had found alternatives, and worshipped at the altars of business, wealth and every other attraction imaginable.

Then there are those who, for one reason or another have been so distracted or preoccupied with other things that they have not heard the invitation to God’s kingdom, to let God into their lives.

A 2002 article in Spirituality & Health, by a young writer, Courtney Cowart describes how a crane operator in New York volunteered to clear debris on the site of the burned out World Trade Center.  Cowart recorded the crane operator’s words about how some of the categories in which he had placed young people disappeared on that unforgettable night:  

“When I got to Houston Street, a bunch more of these kids (Salvation Army volunteers), all pierced and tattooed with multicolored hair, had made a little makeshift stage.  And they started to cheer as we came out, and that was it for me.  I never identified with those people before, but I started crying, and I cried for blocks…I’ve been a construction worker my whole life…I never knew anything about Episcopalians or Presbyterians or gays, or people with nuts and bolts through their cheeks, or those Broadway people, but now I know them all.  We’re not the heroes.  They are the heroes.  They’ve cried and prayed out loud for me.  I never thought I’d have a family like this one.”

Today’s gospel parable tells us that there is a place for everyone at God’s banquet table, irrespective of their age, race, religion or the way they dress.  All that is required is a willingness to bury our prejudices and biases, and be ready to give generously of what we have, and receive humbly whatever others bring to the table  -  the little or much that they have, or just themselves.

Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

“Israel is the vineyard of the Lord Almighty; the people of Judah are the vines God planted.” Isaiah 5, 1-7

“I tell you, then, that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” Matthew 21, 33-43

Today’s gospel parable of the morally bankrupt tenants is very tightly constructed and has multiple layers of meaning.  It is paralleled in the first reading from Isaiah with the allegory of “the friend’s vineyard”, in which God’s work in the world is described through images from farming.

Using imagery from horticulture, Isaiah describes how God goes about growing people.  While it might sound a bit forced, I think we would have to agree that the image of “God, the gardener” is a significant improvement on the more frequent image of God as “the Grim Reaper”.

One of the lessons in this for us is that, whenever we take a hand in “growing” people, we have to respect the fact that they all have distinctive personalities and individual needs.  We must recognise that some need shelter and protection, others are sensitive, while others still quickly recover from being trampled under foot.  While all need physical and emotional nourishment, that does not mean that their every demand has to be satisfied.  And then there are some for whom “pruning” is necessary.  But it’s not always easy to convince them of that.  Yet, we know that, if the cultivation and pruning process goes well, the reward is a rich harvest of people with a wide range of personalities and talents, which they generously share with those around them.

In the gospel parable, we see Jesus roundly criticizing the tenants of his day, to whom God’s vineyard had been entrusted.  God is described as leasing the property to the religious leaders of Israel.  Despite the fact that a long line of prophets (the servants in the parable) had been sent to them to remind them of their debts, they paid no heed.  What’s more, not only did they ignore them but they also brutalized them.  Their crowning treachery was to murder the vineyard owner’s son and heir, as he was the last remaining obstacle to their taking possession of the property in their care.  Clearly, this is a thinly veiled reference by Jesus to himself, and how he would be brutally murdered outside Jerusalem (the vineyard).  For Matthew, Jesus was the last in the long line of prophets rejected by Israel.

In looking at this parable, we have to wonder which parts of it fit into Jesus’ version, and which parts were added by the writer of Matthew’s Gospel.  There is little doubt that Jesus was intent on giving the opportunity to the religious leaders who opposed him to paint themselves into a corner.  The parable is situated in the context of the religious leaders challenging Jesus’ authority to teach.  The religious leaders seemingly saw both John the Baptist and Jesus as threats to the control they held over the interpretation of the Law and what they regarded as legitimate religious practice.  To protect themselves, they questioned the authority of both John and Jesus.  However, knowing the respect the ordinary people had for John, they did not criticize John in public.  In the context of today’s gospel parable, both the Baptist and Jesus were asking for God’s rent to be paid, for what was produced by the religious practice of the nation to be used for the benefit of God’s poor.  However the religious leaders preferred their own customs and status to the growth and development of the ordinary people they led.  What the religious leaders (tenants) failed to recognize was that, in the long run, they would be required to account not to one another, nor to the Law, but to God, the one in whose name they claimed to act.  But, by adding just one verse, the writer of Matthew’s Gospel shifted the focus of the parable from the religious leaders of Israel to the members of the new Christian community, to those who would be expected to be “fruitful vines” at the time of the Great Harvest at the end of the world.  It is for that reason that the writer of Matthew’s Gospel attributed to Jesus the following:  “I tell you, then, that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” (Matthew 21, 43)

But how does this parable touch our lives?  I suggest at several levels.

To begin with, this story has some parallels with the creation story in Genesis.  We are stewards of God’s estate, the earth.  We are not its owners, and, as tenants, we have a responsibility to account for our stewardship.  We have a duty to care for the earth, to treat it with respect, to protect it as our common home, giving opportunity to all of humankind to draw from the earth a sound and sustainable future.

It is important for us to accept that there is a temptation for those who are part of any institution, including the Church, to put privilege and position ahead of the demands of personal and spiritual growth.  Even those of us in different levels of Church leadership can fall into the same trap as the religious leaders whom Jesus confronts in today’s parable.  We can cling to the comfort offered by inflexible religious practice and, as a consequence, resist healthy change.  Indeed, all of us can find ourselves quashing new directions for growth because of our fear of change or resentment that others may have suggested it first.  To make matters worse, we can descend into bad-mouthing those brave enough to explore the new.  If you can’t see that close to home, pause for a moment to hear the criticism directed at Pope Francis for wanting to open the way for divorced and remarried Catholics to participate fully in Eucharist.  He is bad-mouthed as a heretic.

There is just one other corollary to this.  We can all ask ourselves what is our way of distinguishing whether we are in a rut or whether we are growing.  And what scale do we use for others?  Here’s a simple measure:  Do I hear myself and others talking about ways to grow?  From those in ruts, one rarely hears anything about growing.  Jesus spoke about it often.  There’s something in there that is worth pondering.  When did you last catch yourself thinking or talking about growing?                       

Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

“My thoughts,” says the Lord, “are not like yours, and my ways are different from yours.” Isaiah 55, 6-9

“I choose to pay the last comer as much as I pay you.  Have I no right to do what I like with my own?  Why be envious because I am generous?” Matthew 20, 1-16

Those reading the parable in today’s gospel from the perspective of employers of day-labourers would be shaking their heads in disbelief at the vineyard owner’s excessive generosity, and wondering if they would ever find willing day-labourers again.  But this parable is about something very different from economics and labour markets.  If we read the parable closely, we come to realise that it is not as silly as it sounds, and that it is a variation on the theme that runs through the parables of the Prodigal Son, the Lost Sheep, the Guests Invited to the Wedding, and the Lost Coin.  The vineyard in today’s parable represents the kingdom of God, where God’s love is limitless and where “comfortable expectations are withdrawn, and the unexpected prevails.” (Rod Doyle cfc)  This vineyard is renowned for its owner’s generosity, boundless love and mercy, paralleling the qualities found in the father who waits for his lost son and the king who invites to the wedding feast all manner of peasant workers.  In the parable of the wealthy vineyard owner Jesus invited those who were engaged first to understand something of the world into which they were invited and to imitate him in inviting into their lives the last and the least  -  the poor, the sick, the latecomers, the disregarded  -  instead of comparing and complaining.

All of the parables referred to above reveal a God who approaches us in gentleness, mercy and love  -  a far cry from the God we were once told is out to judge us harshly for our failings.  Kings and potentates in the time of Jesus were no more into forgiving heavy debts than Visa Card would be into cancelling thousands of dollars of spending on our credit cards.  Nor would any sensible shepherd risk exposing a whole flock to marauding wolves while he went searching for one stray sheep.  And no woman with any degree of common sense would clean the whole house searching for an almost worthless coin.  Neither would a first-century father run to meet his wayward son, forgive him for his debauchery, and then throw a party to celebrate his home-coming.  He would be more inclined to put him on probation until he demonstrated that he really had turned his life around.

We can empathise with the workers of today’s parable, who, after toiling all day under a hot sun, feel aggrieved when they discover that those who turned up for only an hour in the late afternoon receive the same pay.  And as if to rub salt into their wounds, the vineyard owner instructed his foreman to pay the late-comers first, and exactly the same amount as every other worker.  The vineyard owner then told the complainants and whingers that what he did with his money was none of their business.

But stop and ponder for a moment the thread that runs through all the parables to which I have referred.  The workers who were engaged late, the servant whose huge debt was forgiven (last week’s gospel), the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son are all the same character.  Through all these parables Jesus proclaimed that, as far as God is concerned, everyone is dear to God, no matter who they are or what they have done.  All fringe-dwellers, the marginalized and the alienated, those crippled by debt or laziness, the lost and the late-comers are offered welcome, kindness, forgiveness and mercy.  And they don’t have to earn it.  But they do have to accept it.

It’s worth noting also that the prodigal son’s elder brother and the grumbling workers of today’s parable are similar characters in that they are all envious.  They are unable to be satisfied or even delighted with what they have.  They are driven to look at the good fortune of others and feel as if they have been cheated.  A sense of entitlement takes over.

But look at today’s parable as a kind of allegory.  Think of the agreed daily wage as God’s forgiveness, acceptance and love.  They can’t be earned.  They are not a reward for effort.  It makes no sense to think that God’s grace, love and forgiveness can be halved or multiplied or distributed in different amounts.  God’s forgiveness is forgiveness and God’s love is love, complete, entire and boundless.  Yet somehow we allow envy to trap us into thinking that we can get more of something that is already perfect.  We end up not being able to enjoy what we have been given because envy makes us fear that somebody else might have been given something better.  

So the real point of this challenging parable is that the vineyard owner (God) does not favour some workers over others but that he wants to give the same to everybody, the same to first and last alike.  God gives to everyone of us according to our needs, and there is not one of us who is not in need of God’s love and forgiveness.  Let’s dismiss, once and for all, that God’s love and forgiveness are distributed to each of us on the basis of merit.      

Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

“Could anyone refuse mercy to someone like himself/herself, while he seeks pardon for his/her own failings?” Sirach 27, 30 - 28, 7

“Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?” Matthew 18, 21-35

While today’s gospel reading presents readiness to forgive as a central dimension in the life of anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus, the parable of the unforgiving servant, around which the reading is built, is an object lesson on what happens in the lives of those who not only refuse to forgive but who fail to learn and express genuine compassion.

I had occasion this week to visit a chiropractor here in Rome.  On the table of one of his consulting rooms there is a plaque presented to him for some volunteer work in which he had been involved, On it were inscribed some words attributed to the 19th Century American Puritan theologian and mystic, Ralph Waldo Emerson:  “What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pale into insignificance in comparison to what lies within you.”

Those words are a fairly accurate description of the message of the parable of the unforgiving servant.  The loan the king had given his servant is a symbol of something more significant than money.  The parable is really asking us about the way in which we live our lives.  Do I give to life and the people I encounter more than I expect in return?  Do I really serve others rather than anticipate being served by them?  Do I expect everyone I invite to dinner to return the invitation?  Do I insist on being thanked for anything I give or do to others?  Do I harbour resentment when I think my efforts for others have not been adequately acknowledged?  Do I store up in my mind memories of the people who have not danced upon me the kind of attention I thought I deserved?  Maybe I had a deprived childhood or a mean and petty boss, and can use them to justify my bitterness and selfishness.  Do I hold onto hurts from the past and relive them angrily to others when opportunity presents itself?  To the extent that I behave like that I resemble the unforgiving servant.  Do I want God to treat me generously and compassionately, while expecting others to give me kid-glove treatment, in accord with the dignity and respect to which I believe I am entitled?  

We can all invent our own ways of making that single petition in the Lord’s Prayer that has a condition it  -  Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us  -  come back to bite us.  

Refusal to act with compassion, failure to reconcile with those whom we have hurt or who have hurt us does not stop God from loving us.  But what does happen is  within us:   something changes in our own hearts and attitudes.  Our own inner self rebels against us.  From being open and expansive, we notice that our moods change, our words develop an edge of hardness, our hearts become progressively closed.  We begin to feel uneasy, we are dissatisfied with ourselves, and find it difficult to put our finger on the cause.

Harbouring resentment and anger affects our emotions, our spirit and even our body.  Hostility, turned either inward or outward, prevents us from praying at any depth, and manifests itself in emotional upheaval, difficulty in being present to others, distracted thinking, and an inability to sit still.

In our lucid moments, we recognise that we are made for love.  It is the ability to relate that distinguishes us as human.  Forgiving and genuine compassion are reflections of God’s love and measures of our humanity.

If we dare to look closely at what it is in others that disturbs and pains us, we quickly discover that we are like them in our frailty, our humanity, our worth.  It is then that we can begin to allow understanding to displace our irritations.  When we come to appreciate that God extends to us and to others exactly the same generosity and love, we begin to understand what is meant by living compassionately.  

This does not mean that forgiveness is ever easy.  Shifting the focus from our seething anger or from our outrage at being slighted or wronged and replacing it with concern for the person who has offended us is hard work.  It can be a little easier if we have the humility to recognise that, in other times and places, our selfishness and insensitivity have been the cause of hurt to others.  But we also know the liberation and healing that can come when we are prepared to forgive or to ask forgiveness of someone we know we have hurt.

The kernel of Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness is that nothing is unforgivable.  Neither does Jesus allow us to put limits on our capacity to forgive.  There is a certain irony about the fact that Peter was the one to question Jesus about measures of forgiveness, as it was he who received forgiveness beyond measure following his denial of Jesus to bystanders during the events leading to Jesus’ crucifixion.  Jesus responded to Peter by making it clear that his and our readiness to forgive should mirror God’s limitless forgiveness and compassion extended to all.

Forgiving and seeking forgiveness exposes us in all our vulnerability.  But let’s not forget that the Prodigal Son experienced the enormity of his father’s forgiveness only because he had sinned.  It was the poet Dante who reminded us that refusing to forgive and to ask forgiveness is a choice we make to distance ourselves from others and from God.  It is, as Dante says, like pushing God to say to us:  “Thy will be done!”   Fortunately for us, however, we will never control God.                                                                                                                                                   

Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

“If your brother/sister does something wrong, go and have it out with him/her alone, between your two selves.” Matthew 18, 15-20

The early Christian writer and father of western theology, Tertullian reported that, in referring to Christians, ordinary people in the Rome of his time were heard to exclaim:  “See how they love one another!”  (Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1, Harper and Collins, New York 2010).  While the cynics among us might be inclined to say that Christians have gone only downhill since then, it would be remiss of them and us not to acknowledge that an enormous amount of disaster relief and outreach to the needy and marginalized in the history of the world has been carried out by Christians in the name of the Gospel.

The challenge of Jesus in today’s gospel to all of us to examine ourselves on our record to reach out to others in reconciliation is a challenge that is relevant to a world that is inclined to seek solutions to differences and disagreements through threats and shows of military might.  It’s a challenge that Paul saw as relevant to the very early Christian community of Corinth and that moved him to write:

And how dare you take each other to court! When you think you have been wronged, does it make any sense to go before a court that knows nothing of God’s ways instead of a family of Christians? The day is coming when the world is going to stand before a jury made up of followers of Jesus. If someday you are going to rule on the world’s fate, wouldn’t it be a good idea to practise on some of these smaller cases? Why, we’re even going to judge angels! So why not these everyday affairs? As these disagreements and wrongs surface, why would you ever entrust them to the judgment of people you don’t trust in any other way?

I say this as bluntly as I can to wake you up to the stupidity of what you’re doing. Is it possible that there isn’t one level-headed person among you who can make fair decisions when disagreements and disputes come up? I don’t believe it. And here you are taking each other to court before people who don’t even believe in God! How can they render justice if they don’t believe in the God of justice?

These court cases are an ugly blot on your community. Wouldn’t it be far better to just take it, to let yourselves be wronged and forget it? All you’re doing is providing fuel for more wrong, more injustice, bringing more hurt to the people of your own spiritual family.  1 Corinthians 6, 4-8

In addition, today’s gospel reading attributes to Jesus an exhortation on the process of reconciliation to be followed by his disciples whenever divisions and disputes occurred.  Difficult as it may be, reconciling with one another is arguably the primary plank of Christian living, because it is an expression of the primary law of love.  Jesus himself had stressed that the greatest commandment is to love God, and that the only way to demonstrate love of God is the manner in which we reach out in love to everyone we encounter.

The impact of Christianity is as powerful as the witness of those who claim to be Christian.   The great Protestant theologian, Karl Barth once said that if those who claimed to be followers of Christ really knew what they were committing themselves to, “their number would melt like snow before the sun”.  And the noted homiletics professor at Emory University, Georgia, Fred Craddock, 1928-2015, observed that “throughout history, Christianity had civilized millions, moralized thousands and converted a few.”  Hardly a record of which to be proud!

The whole point of what Jesus says is that break-downs in relationships in any community worthy of the Gospel have to be mended.  When divisions occur in families, religious communities, parishes or friendship groups, they should not be put under the carpet or treated with silence, whatever their cause.  Fear of mentioning a “forbidden” topic such as someone’s drunkenness, gambling addiction or abuse (verbal or physical) can turn into a powerful controlling mechanism.  Warnings to say nothing, to not mention a delicate issue, or to keep quiet in order to avoid an emotional explosion can cause us all to shrivel up and die.  Jesus urges us not to tolerate the kind of silence that stands as an obstruction to reconciliation and healing.  His approach to reconciliation means that we have to be big enough to put aside anger, self-pity and wounded pride and take the first step towards mending whatever it is that separates us from others.  That means actually speaking to the person we feel has wronged us.

As a matter of interest, the only petition with a condition in the prayer that Jesus taught us is the one about forgiveness:  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Clearly, Jesus knew that forgiveness would always need special emphasis, simply because he knew human nature.  As a matter of interest, the three-step process of reconciliation put to us by Jesus is the very same process practised by the Essene community in Qumran (150 BCE - 75 CE, and the site of discovery of the now famous “Dead Sea Scrolls”).

Jesus challenges us to take on the difficult work of reconciliation, to commit ourselves to finding the solution to our disagreements and divisions, not out of a sense of wanting to justify ourselves, but out of a desire to imitate the love and mercy of God.  It’s a significant challenge, but one which leads to peace of mind and heart, and one which helps us to grow into being healthy human beings.

Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Then, taking Jesus aside, Peter started to rebuke him.  “Heaven preserve you, Lord”, he said, “this must not happen to you.”  But Jesus turned to Peter and said:  “Get behind me, Satan!  You are an obstacle in my path, because you are thinking not as God thinks, but as humans do.”  Then, he said to his disciples:  “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Matthew 16, 21-27

I want to suggest that today’s gospel reading gives us another incident in which we see Jesus in his full humanity.  Peter had just publicly acknowledged Jesus as Messiah and affirmed him in his ministry.  After acknowledging Peter’s enormous potential for leadership, Jesus proceeded to predict that, instead of being a popular Messiah and an acclaimed liberator of Israel, he would be executed in Jerusalem.  Moreover, anyone who wanted to follow him as a disciple would encounter pain, humiliation and rejection rather than popular approval.

Repeatedly throughout his ministry, Jesus had urged his followers not to be afraid, pointing out that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear.  I want to suggest that, while Jesus could clearly see that the Jewish leaders, whom he had alienated, were planning for him a bloody end, the prospect of what they were plotting terrified him.  Understandably, he was afraid of what lay ahead.  And that’s why Peter’s interjection was a powerful temptation for him.  Humanly speaking, and Jesus was fully human, he did not want to die the violent death he could see was being planned for him.

To state that Jesus was actually tempted by Peter’s interjection  - “Heaven preserve you, Lord, this must not happen!”  -  is to honour Jesus’ humanity.  Jesus was afraid, and why wouldn’t he be?”  Yet, deep down, he knew that the easier way that Peter urged him to follow was not a real option.  He knew that he had to keep challenging the Jewish religious leaders and the unjust burdens they continued to put on the shoulders of the people they led, especially the poor.  It was his conscience and his sense of mission that made clear to him the way he had to follow.  That’s why he saw Peter’s easier solution as a seductive temptation.  And that’s why his rejection of it was so forceful.

In stopping by Caesarea Philippi and asking his disciples who they thought he was, Jesus was looking for reassurance and the courage to continue along the path he had chosen.  Peter uttered the encouragement Jesus needed to hear, but just as quickly chipped in with an unrealistic expression of support and reassurance  -  that bad things should not happen to good people.  Peter acted in a way that we, too, are inclined to imitate.

Pause for a moment to listen again to some of the things we find ourselves saying:  “Don’t talk like that, grandpa, you’ll outlive the rest of us!”  “Don’t be silly, grandma, you’ve never said a bad word about anybody!”  If we delude ourselves with the view that there is nothing wrong with the people we love, that they never do wrong to others, we are really protecting ourselves from the difficult challenge of speaking the truth to them in love.  If Jesus could have been stopped from being crucified, Peter would not have had to even consider the possibility of crucifixion for himself.  Discipleship is not about us, but about following the lead that Jesus gave us, and accepting his invitation to walk with him.  It is about naming injustice and evil and delusion for what they are.  There is a cost to that.  And the cost is rejection, humiliation, loss of popularity.  And Jesus described that cost with the metaphor of taking up the cross ourselves.

Peter reminded Jesus of his humanity.  That was his gift to Jesus, and that is his gift to us as well.  The easy way will always seem attractive, but against that we know we have committed ourselves to the difficult path of discipleship and that we need the help of God’s Spirit to keep us on that path.  When we reflect on the fact that right now in Yemen a child is dying every ten minutes of the day from malnutrition or cholera, that people seeking asylum from war are being denied shelter, safety respect and dignity, that millions of people in developing countries do not have access to clean water and sanitation, we begin to doubt whether our voices and actions for justice can make a difference.  We wonder whether the difficult path of discipleship of Jesus is worth the effort to walk it.  But if we stop pursuing justice, peace, healing and wholeness for our world and for ourselves, we become supporters of the very things we oppose.
But let’s not forget that we have other disciples to support and encourage us along the true path.  In 2001, Dorothy and Gwen Hennessy, two Franciscan nuns who were siblings went to prison in Iowa for trespassing in protest on the grounds of a military education institution (Fort Benning, Georgia), built to train Latin American soldiers to fight in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras.  Two of the graduates of Fort Benning were the notorious General Manuel Noreiga of Panama and Roberto D’Aubisson, of El Salvador, who were both linked to human rights abuses in their respective countries.  A brother of the two Franciscans, Ron Hennessy, had worked for many years as a Maryknoll missionary in Guatemala.  In letters to his family, he described how many of his parishioners, Mayan Indian peasant farmers, were being terrorised and murdered by Government soldiers.  He had urged family members to become active in efforts “to help stop this madness.”  Sisters Dorothy and Gwen became active, and for their efforts were imprisoned.  Meanwhile, Fr Ron and Archbishop Oscar Romero had become close friends, and Ron was present in the crowd of mourners at Romero’s funeral when the military fired live bullets at them (New York Times, June 24, 2001).

The way of the cross is the way of faith  -  of claiming life and truth in the face of everything that tells us not to.  Once we have seen and heard too much, once Jesus has come too close, then the only thing we can do is to witness to the truth, follow and keep on the path.  But remember that this path of the cross is never lived outside of God’s love. That’s the promise in which we live, and that’s the promise that keeps us keeping on.

Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jesus said to them:  “But who do you say I am?”  Simon Peter said in reply:  “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Jesus said to him in reply:  “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.  And I say to you, you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.” Matthew 16, 13-20

Today’s gospel, like every other gospel reading, is designed to involve us as participants rather than spectators.  The question Jesus put to his disciples  -  “But who do you say I am?”  -  is directed to every one of us.  Whatever reply we make in words has to be confirmed by the way we act.  What then are the implications for the way we live that follow from whatever proclamation we make to Jesus’ question?  And if we dare to identify with Peter in his response, how do our words translate into action?  To be authentic, any kind of profession of faith has to find expression in the way we go about our daily living.

While Peter’s response was welcomed and affirmed by Jesus, it very soon became clear that Peter himself did not understand the full significance of his words.  In the very next section of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus predicted his own suffering and death, and Peter’s response was to take him aside and point out that what he was saying was nonsense:  “God forbid, Lord!  No such thing shall ever happen to you”  (Matthew 16, 22).  In the space of a couple of verses, Jesus goes from telling Peter that his proclamation has been inspired by God and that he will be the rock on which he will build his Church to reprimanding him as an obstacle in his way, as one who thinks “not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matthew 16, 28).  In the blink of an eye, Peter had gone from the penthouse to the doghouse.

For dramatic effect, the Gospel writer has deliberately placed together two separate episodes in Peter’s life.  One inspired moment of partial insight on Peter’s part prompted Jesus to affirm Peter on his potential for leadership.  But, while Peter recognized Jesus as the Messiah, he held to the popular belief that the Messiah would be a powerful liberator who would free Israel from foreign rule.  He had not yet come to appreciate that the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus would be a way of living by which people would reflect the love and mercy of God in their relationships with one another, and that the Messiah who promoted such a way of living would be tortured and murdered for daring to challenge inflexible religious leaders, who could find no room in their lives to accommodate justice, compassion, tolerance and care of the poor.  Peter proved to be a rock of support for Jesus by reinforcing Jesus’ unique sense of mission.  Jesus expressed appreciation and respect for Peter by calling him blessed.  He also added that all those who identified with his vision would need the support of people like Peter who could recognise, promote and affirm them in their gifts.  

All those called to leadership in our contemporary Church would do well to take the lead from Peter and make affirmation and encouragement an integral part of their leadership style.  We have all encountered leaders who can tie people up in knots and stifle their gifts.  We have met others who know how to set free those whom they lead.  It was precisely because Peter was not the kind of man who stifled the giftedness of others that Jesus could say to him:  “What you prohibit on earth will be prohibited in heaven; and what you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven” (Matthew 16, 19).  

I think there’s something more we can take from today’s gospel.  Jesus put a question to all of the disciples, but it was Peter alone who responded, and his response stood in stark contrast to the silence of his companions.  Isn’t Jesus’ question one that calls for a personal response from all who claim to follow him?  Surely it’s not enough to respond with the words of others!  Are we not being invited to express our own commitment to Jesus and his Gospel in our own distinctive way?  And if we dare to acknowledge Jesus as the Christ of God, what exactly is involved in making such a confession?  Perhaps we have to acknowledge that Matthew was not only saying that Peter did not fully understand what awaited Jesus as Messiah, but also that he was never meant to understand what lay ahead for Jesus, and for anyone who would follow Jesus.  If our faith in Jesus is genuine, we will commit to following in his footsteps, even into a future whose demands we do not know.  The question that Jesus put to his disciples at Caesarea Philippi came at the mid-point of his ministry.  It was not his first question to them, nor would it be his last.  We hear his question part way through our own following of him.  Our world is so messy and unpredictable that we can hardly guess what will happen next or what the following of Jesus will demand of us tomorrow.  However, we do know that whatever eventuates, we will still be required to change, to be flexible, to grow; to take up some kind of cross, to somehow lose our lives in order to find them again  -  but we can be assured that we will find ourselves  changed, renewed and better for the experience.

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

“Lord,” the woman said, “help me.”  Jesus replied: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to little dogs.”  She retorted:  “Ah yes, Lord; but even little dogs eat the scraps that fall from their masters’ table.” Matthew 15, 21-28

In one way or another, all three of today’s readings raise the question of how we relate to people whose religious practice is different from ours.  While Isaiah proclaims that Israel will become a “house of prayer” for all nations, it is clear that foreigners will be welcome on condition that they leave behind their own religious practices, and accept Israel’s traditions.

In the second reading, Paul laments the fact that the Jews with whom he had previously worshipped in the synagogue have not come to share his convictions about Jesus.  His hope is that his reaching out to the Gentiles will make his fellow Jews jealous, especially when they realize the worth of the message the Gentiles are receiving.  However, he does concede that God’s mercy, so prominent in the life and message of Jesus, will eventually be welcomed by his fellow Jews.

The encouraging thing about the gospel reading is that it contains a reluctant admission by Jesus that great faith can be found beyond the religion in which he grew up.  It took the persistence and faith of a despised Canaanite, and a woman, to boot, to bring him rather begrudgingly to acknowledge that his ministry was not confined to the Jewish people.  This story held a special significance for Matthew’s community, which was predominantly a Gentile one, even though it was a mixture of both Jews and Gentiles.  Matthew was surely using it as a model for bringing together those who had come from different religious traditions.

The encouraging aspect of all three readings is that they contain no directions as to how those from different religious traditions are to go about relating to one another as they make the transition from one tradition to another.  That leaves the way open to discuss their differences and to discover for themselves how to come to a shared way of living in harmony and with integrity, as they pursue their way to God.

All this has some relevance for us who belong to a Church that has not always been at ease with other faiths and religions.  However, one of the less known documents of Vatican II, The Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, (# 2), offers some guidance for us:  “The Church, therefore, urges her children to converse and collaborate with the followers of other religions in order to preserve, indeed to advance, those spiritual and moral goods as well as those socio-cultural values that have a home among people of other religious traditions.” 

We are urged to acknowledge, learn from and engage with Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Mormons, Moonies and Jehovah’s Witnesses.  And without setting out to convert them to our way of living, thinking and worshipping!  It takes big-mindedness and big-heartedness on our part to be secure in living our own Catholic faith and, at the same time, to look for what is good in those who are different.

Now, for a closer look at today’s gospel.  The woman at the centre of the story knows that she is a despised outsider.  The disciples immediately see her as a nuisance.  They are disturbed by her loud and vulgar yelling, and by her persistence.  They want Jesus to send her about her business.  Yet it turns out that Jesus is the one who ends up being disturbed.  He acknowledges that he sees his mission to the Jews, and nobody else:  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  Initially, she had called out:  “Hey, Jew (Son of David), what about showing some mercy to the likes of me?”  Moreover, she’s not going to be put off.  She comes back by dropping the reference to their ethnic difference, and addresses Jesus more politely:  “Lord, help me.”  Effectively, she appeals to Jesus to set aside name-calling and racial slurs. Pushed off balance, Jesus continues to play the race card, referring to the woman as a “dog”, an insult commonly used by Jews for foreigners and outsiders.  Here, it is important to note that Jews did not allow dogs into their houses.  Scraps from the meal table were picked up and thrown outside to any waiting dogs.  Jesus asks her if she wants him to get up, take food that was intended only for Jews, and throw it to an outsider like her.   However her quick-wittedness catches Jesus off guard.  In a flash, she comes back with:  “Please, Lord, for even dogs (like me) eat the scraps that fall from the tables of their masters.”  And Jesus admits defeat.  He acknowledges the woman’s faith, but, more than that, he knows that she has taught him to let go of his narrowness, and to accept that his mission is to all people, irrespective of their race, colour or religion.

What drove this Canaanite woman to risk rejection and scorn was the fact that she was the mother of a tormented girl.  Her love for her daughter and her conviction that the girl needed to be spared a life-time of prejudice and rejection moved this mother to risk all.  Ethnic division was just not going to stop her.  If this Jewish rabbi was as good as the reputation that preceded him, she was not going to let her opportunity pass her by, she was going to call him to account.  This woman is every mother who is determined to protect her children from whatever can destroy their lives.  There is something of the tigress in her.  She will stop at nothing to ensure that those she loves are not harmed, neglected or led astray.  She is a model of fierce determination, boundless love and hope that will never say die.  The risk of humiliation and personal rejection is as nothing to her as she seeks to find a better future for the love of her life.  She is an inspiration for every parent and teacher, for every guide and mentor who has a passion for justice, fairness and compassion.

She is an exceptional woman who stopped Jesus in his tracks and expanded his understanding of his mission in the world.  There is nobody in all of the Gospels quite like her.  She is a model for us all.

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks…but the Lord was not in the wind.  After the wind there was an earthquake  -  but the Lord was not in the earthquake…but the Lord was not in the fire.  After the fire there was a gentle, whispering wind.  When he heard this, Elijah hid his face. 1 Kings 19, 9-13

At once Jesus spoke to them:  “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Matthew 14, 22-33

Today’s first reading and gospel give us two examples of men who, in different ways, were struggling with their faith in God.  To understand the first reading, we have to look at it in the context of the whole story of why Elijah was in the depths of depression and despair.  Threatened by Elijah’s honesty and his decisive action of putting all the false prophets to the sword, Queen Jezebel set out to do away with him:  “May the gods do thus and so to me if, by this time tomorrow, I have not done to your life what was done to each of them” (1 Kings 19, 2).  Elijah fled across the desert, and was soon physically and emotionally exhausted.  He became so depressed, that he even contemplated suicide.  At the end of his tether, he sat under a broom tree and asked God to take his life:  “Enough already; I’m ready to die:”

While we may not have reached the point of contemplating suicide, we can all find some consolation from Elijah’s story simply because we can resonate with some of his feelings.  We know what it is to be down in the mouth, to be at the end of our tether.  Loss, grief and fear touch us all, at one time or another, at the personal and communal levels.  We struggle with the unpredictability of war-mongering political leaders, and taste the fear of unknown consequences that could come from decisions motivated by narcissism.  We look with dismay at the plight of millions of refugees begging for shelter from nations deaf to their pleas.  We are aghast that a football club will pay a transfer fee of 222 million euro to gain the services of a Brazilian player and pay him 550,000 euro per week, while tens of thousands of fellow human beings die daily from starvation and lack of clean water and sanitation.  At the personal level we know the loss of loved ones through separation, imprisonment, divorce, disease and death.  We know directly or vicariously the hurt that comes from job loss, broken trust, addiction, loneliness, betrayal and depression.  We all have Elijah moments.  We all know of friends and family who seem to have lost the will to keep going, who are sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Today’s story of Elijah is a reminder to us to step back from trying to control what is hurting us either from the outside or from within our own minds, hearts or imaginations.  It’s an invitation to stop and listen for the presence of God who is not to be found in the spectacular but rather in the quiet of our hearts or in the gentle whispering of the wind.  Uplifted by the encouragement of an angel, Elijah picked himself up and journeyed forty days and nights to the mountain of Horeb, where he took shelter in a cave.  And there, the presence of God was revealed to him, not in thunder, lightning, earthquake or fire, but in a refreshing, gentle breeze.  God was present to him in a way he least expected.  And God comes to us, too, in ways we least expect.

While there are still people around who want us to view cataclysms, tsunamis and earthquakes as dire warnings and punishments from God, their threats and warnings don’t fit a God whom Jesus revealed as merciful, compassionate and loving.  The American poet, Grace Noll Crowell surely got it right when she wrote:  “Hold up your cup, dear child, for God to fill.  He only asks today that you be still.”  (Prayer for One Who Is Tired)  If we’re patient enough, we will find God in the depths of our own hearts.

Today’s gospel story uses a different metaphor from the one we find in the Elijah story.  We hear of a rather spooky encounter between Jesus and his disciples on a turbulent sea, where they are being battered by the waves on the outside and fear on the inside.  Peter is us as he steps out of the boat in response to an invitation from Jesus.  But as he gets closer to Jesus, he begins to sink.  We have a desire to be open to Jesus’ invitation to come to him, but falter when he gets too close for comfort.  He might ask too much of us.  Perhaps it’s safer to know him from a distance.

There is real irony in all this, for our faith in Jesus matures as it is challenged in the rough and tumble of everything happening within us and around us.  Moreover, closeness to Jesus will often mean venturing into turbulent waters, and taking the risk of “rocking the boat”.  Living the way Jesus invites us to live, translating his message into action will involve us in actively confronting some of the agents of fear, disruption and injustice that unsettle our faith in the first place.

One of the obstacles we encounter as our faith struggles to grow and develop is to be found in the excuses we can make when the Gospel looks to be too demanding:  “I’m not good enough, I’m not properly qualified, I’m no saint, I don’t have what it takes, I can’t do what’s expected”.  We know we can put God off and shrink from the demands of the Gospel by a false humility that proclaims that we are not worthy.  We want to forget Paul’s observation in his letter to the Corinthians:  “God chooses the weak to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1, 27).  Perhaps one of the reasons why Peter faltered and began to sink was that he did not have enough self-confidence, he did not think he was good enough for what Jesus wanted of him.

Even if our faith in God, Jesus and ourselves might not be all we would like it to be, we can find consolation in Jesus’ words of encouragement to Peter and to all of us:  “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”       

The Transfiguration (18th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
From the cloud there came a voice which said: “This is my beloved Son; he enjoys my favour.  Listen to him.”…Jesus gave them this order: “Tell no one about this vision until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.” Matthew 17, 1-9

There must be something quite important about this story of the transfiguration of Jesus for no other reason than that it is put before us twice each year  -  during Lent and on the annual celebration of the Transfiguration.  What message is so important that there is a need to have us deliberately reflect on it twice a year?

Occasionally, most of us have moments when we feel close to God, experiences that remain etched indelibly in our memories.  They are few and far between, but they help us to deal with disappointing and hurtful experiences when they come our way, remembering that God is always with us, even when life looks bleak.  Psychologists refer to our uplifting  “God moments” as peak experiences.

Today’s gospel story of the mountaintop experience we now call the Transfiguration is Matthew’s rewrite of a story that was passed on to him.  It’s also his way of trying to make sense of that story.  What Matthew has put together operates as a parable, even though he does not call it a that.  This story is loaded with symbols.  There’s a mountaintop, because it was on mountaintops that prophets and other holy people encountered God.  There’s a face, shining brightly, calling to mind Moses’ meeting with God on Mt Sinai.  There’s a voice from heaven.  Included are the great champions of the Jewish Law, Elijah and Moses.  Where there are symbols, there’s an invitation to explore them for their meaning.  The characters of parables like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan represent much more than the individuals involved in the story.  They stand for actions that we are all capable of doing, and they act as mirrors into which we are invited to look.  For example, in the characters who ignore the man who was beaten and robbed in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we can see something of ourselves.  In the same way, the story of the transfiguration carries a message for us to reflect on.  Just in case we missed that message on the second Sunday of Lent this year, we are invited to ponder it again this week.

We have to remember that Matthew was writing for a community that was experiencing rejection and persecution because of its adherence to Jesus and all he had taught.  Peter, James and John were names well-known to Matthew’s community, and the story of their intense religious experience on the mountaintop when they were given an assurance that God was really with them was meant to remind Matthew’s community that God was with them as truly as he was with Peter James and John.  The inclusion of Moses and Elijah, giants of faith in the history of God’s love for their people, is a double reassurance that God was with them and would continue to be with them.  The voice from heaven urging the apostles to hold tight to what Jesus taught them, followed immediately by an unexpected reference to the death and resurrection that awaited him, was intended to be a call not to lose hope, even when things looked bleak and hopeless.  That was the message of this parable for Matthew’s community, and that’s the message for us, too, as we struggle to stay faithful to Jesus and his Gospel in a world that is gripped by fear and confusion, in a Church that looks to be faltering and whose morale has been seriously dented.

There is a message for us, too, in the stunned response by Peter, James and John to what they had experienced.  They could hardly be blamed for wanting to linger on the mountaintop after such a revelation? There were plenty of examples in their tradition of others building monuments and altars at places of divine encounter.  But perhaps there was more than that to their wanting to linger.  As they had accompanied Jesus in his ministry, they had seen an endless trail of human brokenness and need, and could anticipate that there would be more to come.  Staying where they were would give them some respite from the heartbreaking human longing that awaited them back down the mountain.

Aren’t there times when we find ourselves wanting to distance ourselves from a world whose needs are unable to be addressed, a world gripped by fear, battered by frequent acts of terrorism, and overwhelmed by wars, racial conflict, starvation and disease?  While our urge may well be to retreat from strife like this, we also know that it is often only the privileged who have the means to do that.  Right now, we know that there are millions of refugees fleeing the civil strife that has descended upon countries like Syria and South Sudan.  We know, too, that many of them are being turned away by nations and governments unwilling to respond to their plight.

However, it seems to me that the disciples’ desire to stay on the mountain came from their thinking that what they had experienced was the pinnacle of God’s revelation in the person of Jesus.  But Jesus was quick to make it clear to them that God’s ultimate revelation was still to come  -  in Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. That is how God’s love and power would be put on full display  -  not in self-importance, not in glory or dazzling whiteness, but in self-emptying, in standing in solidary with the forgotten, the down-trodden, the poor and the suffering.  Maybe, that is why the only thing Jesus said in this whole story was an instruction to the disciples not to tell anyone about their mountaintop experience until after his resurrection  -  so that others wouldn’t make the same mistake.  And that’s precisely why Matthew sandwiches this transfiguration story between two predictions of Jesus’ passion and death, along with a reminder that the cross will be a part of the life of everyone who wants to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.

Jesus put to one side the brilliance and exhilaration of the transfiguration, and headed down the mountain to listen to the pleas of a man whose son, gripped by mental illness, was repeatedly endangering his life by throwing himself into the fire or into the water.  He rejected personal privilege, nailing it to the cross for the sake of the needy, the forgotten and the dispossessed, indeed, for every one of us as well.  While his transfiguration on the mountaintop was intended for his disciples and for us to be a reminder not to lose hope, no matter how bleak life may become, Jesus made it clear that lasting transfiguration would come for us and our world through his cross and ultimate resurrection.  In laying aside privilege and special treatment, he reminds us to do the same for the sake of others and the good of our world.  In today’s gospel story, that message is reinforced by the voice of God: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

And let’s not forget that there are many other transfiguration moments in our lives as we respond to Jesus’ invitation to reach out to others in love:  “To love another person is to see the face of God.”  (Victor Hugo, Les Miserables)

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
God said to Solomon:  “Ask something of me and I will give it to you”.  Solomon replied:  “Give your servant an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.” 1 Kings 3, 5, 7-12

“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field…a merchant searching for fine pearls…a net thrown into the sea…” Matthew 13, 44-52  

In today’s gospel reading, we are offered three more parables.  The first two, the parables of the buried treasure and the pearl, highlight, at one level, the need for disciples to be totally attached to Jesus and his message, and detached from whatever gets in the way of our Christian commitment.  The parable of the net cast into the sea is a reminder to us to seek the things of God, camouflaged in the clutter of life.  In encouraging us to be builders of God’s kingdom in our world, Jesus reaches for parables and illustrations that capture his experience of God’s presence and action in the world.  Perhaps we can only hope that his comparisons about God’s final judgement limp a little.

However, I would like to suggest that we try to look through the eyes of Jesus at the parable of the treasure buried in a field.  For starters, Jesus would see exactly what everyone else looking at a field sees:  soil, grass, weeds, litter.  But he knows that underneath the surface, under the dirt and grime and weeds, there lies a treasure  -  you and I and all the people around us.  So he gives away all he has, including his divine connections, comes down to our level and invests his energy, his talents and his life in buying the treasure that is us.  We are so precious that Jesus spends all he has and is to bring us to himself.  The parable of the merchant buying the precious pearl carries a similar message.  From these two parables we can conclude that Jesus is our biggest fan.

I also want to suggest that there is something to be gained from delving into today’s first reading about Solomon.  If we can acquire even a little of his wisdom, we might not be in a rush to judge others.  The writer of this story makes it clear that Solomon’s wisdom was at work in a social context:  “I serve you, God, in the midst of the people you have chosen, a people so vast that it cannot be numbered or counted.”  This is a reminder to us that we must always see our faith development in conjunction with the faith development of all those around us.  If we really looked at ourselves and the people around us, all of us with our complex personalities and behaviours, our fears and our emotional upheavals, we might moderate our views of God’s final judgement, and be a little less hasty to want to separate the “weeds” from the “wheat”.

It is telling that Solomon asks God for wisdom, for an understanding heart to distinguish right from wrong.  In the years that have elapsed since Solomon’s time, the bearers of wisdom have come to appreciate that it is over-simplistic to view people and their actions in terms of right and wrong, black and white.  We all know that there are shades of grey between black and white, and gradations between right and wrong.  Yet, we still fall into the trap of categorizing others as traditionalists or radicals, as liberals or conservatives, as leftist or rightist.  Over and over, we slip into articulating our political, social, cultural and, even, theological realities and concepts in exclusive ways.  Such discrete categorization is a neat way of avoiding the difficult and complex work of discovering subtle differences and  modulations in the views and opinions of the people with whom we engage.  Crude categorisations of others and their views imply that we engage with our world as spectators rather than as participants.

Reflection on our own lives as individuals, as members of communities and groups, and as citizens of nations demonstrates that what we have become is considerably more than an accumulation of right and wrong decisions or the result of participation in liberal or conservative social, religious and political groups.

We live in a world gripped by fear, a world that seems over hasty to separate terrorists from pacifists, radicalized from those who are “middle-of-the-road.  Yet, it’s a world in which some have become extremely wealthy through injustice, exploitation and violence, while others have become destroyed by those very same practices.  Somehow, we have to learn from engaging with one another around our various histories  -  histories of our family of origin, of our local communities, of our nation  -  and exploring how those histories interconnect with our economic, cultural, political, geographic and military histories.  We have all been touched by these various histories and, along the way, some of us have been advantaged by them, others impeded by them, and others still, strangled and impoverished by them.

This is not easy work leading to simple solutions.  It is work that calls for patience, insight and creativity; work that ultimately calls us to strive to change some of the social, economic and political structures that obstruct freedom, self-determination and the common good.

Discipleship of Jesus demands that we challenge and work to dismantle structures that enslave people and systems built on the accumulation of power and wealth through injustice, violence and destruction.  The irony, of course, is that working for justice, challenging unjust structures, advocating for refugees and collaborating with those made poor will attract labels like radical, liberal.  Solomon looked at the legacy he had inherited from his father, David, reflected on its implications for his people, and responded by asking God for wisdom.  We could do a lot worse than to imitate Solomon.       

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“We do not know how we ought to pray; the Spirit pleads with God for us in groans that words cannot express.” Romans 8, 26-27

Matthew’s Gospel is notable for the fact that it contains just over fifty references to the kingdom or reign of God.  Because of that distinguishing feature, some Biblical scholars refer to Matthew’s Gospel as “the Gospel of the Kingdom”.  But for both Matthew and Jesus, the kingdom of God is neither a place nor an identified and named area of land.  Rather, it is a way of living and relating, built on practiced values such as justice, compassion, tolerance and reconciliation.  The kingdom of God grows out of the coming of Emmanuel  -  “God with us”  -  in the person of Jesus, and is made up of people living in communion with one another, respecting one another, living good and decent lives, and reaching out to one another in care, compassion and support.  It has nothing to do with temporal power, control or subservience to authority.  Today’s gospel offers us three short parables which illustrate different characteristics of God’s kingdom on earth  -  the parables of the wheat and weeds, the mustard seed, and the yeast, and the first of these parables is not quite as simple as it looks.

The parable of the wheat and weeds strikes me as contradictory, presenting God as someone who is patient and considerate in dealing with evil and those who do it, but, in the long run, dispatching them.  So I would like to suggest that the parable is more than an attempt to underline the patience of God.  Might it not be a way of reflecting back to us our own desire and tendency to deal with evil things and evil people by trying to exterminate them summarily?  After all, they are, at best, obstructive and, at worst, harmful and destructive not only of our growth, but of our very survival.  Yet, Jesus himself would probably be urging us to be less hasty and  more tolerant, if only to give us time and space to come to the realization that the world is not made up solely of black and white, good and evil, but that there are weeds and wheat existing side by side in all of us.  We know that we are equally capable of both heroism and treachery, of the very best and the very worst.  Perhaps we might even come to believe in a God, described in today’s first reading from Wisdom, as one who is not hell-bent on taking out revenge on those who do evil.

But, we are still left with the less comfortable parts of today’s gospel which suggest that God will eventually come up with a “final solution” to rid the world of evil and those who do it.  The only plausible explanation I can offer is that there is a little bit of Matthew mixed in with the thoughts of Jesus.  Matthew was writing for a community struggling with persecution, and, understandably, flagging under the pressure.  He wanted to stiffen their faith and assure them that the God of Jesus would eventually triumph over those causing them grief.  So, we may need to overlook his zeal to have God come up with a violent solution.

At the same time, today’s gospel challenges us to reflect on the ambiguities that are part of real life, and on a God who is merciful and patient on the one hand, yet impatient and decisive on the other.  That might well explain why Paul, in the second reading from Romans, refers to our prayer as sometimes sounding like groaning that simply cannot be put into words.  We find of the existence of evil in the world,  and, consequently, unable to pray as we would like.

The parable of the mustard seed suggests that God’s kingdom grows out of the smallest, most insignificant and humblest of beginnings, and that we contribute to that growth through very ordinary acts of kindness, care, compassion, affirmation and encouragement.

The parable of the yeast emphasises that we often don’t realise the impact that a very ordinary act of kindness or encouragement can have on those for whom it is done.  Just as a tiny quantity of yeast can transform dough into bread, so simple acts of kindness can have an impact for good far beyond what we can imagine.  

By way of illustration, I offer a couple of stories for both of which I am indebted to retired parish priest, William Bausch.  An elderly parishioner, conscious of her approaching death, penned the following to the usher in her parish church:
“Dear Harry, I’m sorry I don’t know your last name, but then you don’t know mine.  You’re at the ten o’clock Mass each Sunday.  I’m writing to ask a favour of you.  I don’t know the priest too well, but somehow I feel close to you.  I don’t know how you got to know my first name, but every Sunday morning you smile and greet me by name, and we exchange a few words  -  how bad the weather is, how much you like my hat, and how I was late one particular Sunday.  I just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to remember an old lady, for your smiles, for your consideration, for your thoughtfulness.  Now for my favour.  I am dying, Harry.  My husband has been dead for 16 years, and the kids are scattered.  It’s very important for me when they bring me to church for the last time that you will be standing there at the front entrance.  It wouldn’t be right if you didn’t say:  ‘Hello, Gert. Good to see you.’  If you are there, Harry, I feel assured that your warm hospitality will be duplicated in my new home in heaven.  With love and gratitude, Gert.”

The second illustrates how we can all rise to the heights, despite out human frailty:
During the decades when East and West Germany were separated by the Berlin Wall, thousands of people met their death attempting to escape to freedom across the wall.  One day a small, chubby boy arrived at the wall, his hands held apart in an expression of pleading.  The East German guard who encountered the lad had a reputation for being a thief and a drug-dealer.  However, he was so moved by the boy’s pleading that, after checking to see that nobody was watching, he lifted the lad over the wall to freedom.  Shortly afterwards, the young soldier was arrested and executed by firing squad for an act of compassion for a young boy to whom he had not said a single word.  Nevertheless, they had met heart to heart.

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“The seeds sown in good soil stand for those who hear the message and understand it.” Matthew 13, 1-23

In today’s first reading from Romans, Paul describes an experience with which, I suspect, many of us can identify.  Using the image of the slow rate of change in the created world, Paul applies it to the frustrations we experience and the lamenting we do about how slow we are to let the action of God change our hearts and minds.  While we express the desire for the kind of conversion of heart needed to be genuine and committed disciples of Jesus, we know our frailty and the struggle we have to change, even a little.  Embracing the “glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God” proves to be much more difficult than it sounds.  Perhaps the slowness of our progress has a lot to do with the way in which we relate to God.  God loves us extravagantly, yet so often we find ourselves hesitant or even cringing at the very thought that God really does love us in our weakness and human fragility.

Today’s gospel is decidedly more optimistic.  It speaks of our faith in God growing and developing like a seed sown in the ground.  While the dangers facing the seed are listed, our faith is described as something that grows, sometimes even laboriously, over time.  With the care of a patient “farmer”, who knows how what is planted develops and changes shape, we are assured that our spiritual and personal evolution is underway.

Like all of the stories that Jesus told, the parable of the sower is multi-layered.  Within this parable there are meanings tucked away, which sometimes don’t register with us for years.  Paradoxically, the parable of the sower is so well known to us that we can probably repeat it in its every detail.  But knowing the details so well, of any story, means that we can miss the hidden meanings.  Yet, if we consciously set our imagination to work on it, some of those hidden meanings might well come to light.  The simplest meaning of the parable is that that we are invited to mirror both Jesus, the story-teller and the Sower in the parable.  We are invited to scatter the seeds of the Gospel by the way we live it, and we just don’t know what kind of ground they will land on, or how long they might take to germinate.  And we are asked to share our stories  -  the stories of our lives, of where and how we encounter God each and every day of our lives.  Stories, by nature, create ripples in the minds and hearts of those who hear them.  They fire not only our own moral imaginations, but the moral imaginations of others.

Jesus grew up and was educated in an oral culture.   We, too, belong to an oral culture, but it is being squeezed out by an electronic one.  Many of our stories are being told in abbreviated form on social media such as Twitter and Facebook.  Despite that, everyone still loves a story.  Maybe one of the following stories might touch your moral imagination in such a way that you will shape it as your own, expand it, and pass it on in your words to someone else:

Every day of the week, except Saturday, wonderful smells wafted up from Moishe’s bakery.  Customers came early to make sure they did not miss out on Moishe’s fresh bagels.  And every day old Aaron turned up, just to smell the bagels, because he could not afford to buy even one.  He stood outside the shop every morning, sniffing the air, with a smile on his face.  Moshe started to get annoyed by Aaron’s presence and eventually told him to get out of the way because he was getting in the way of regular customers.  Aaron replied by stating that his meagre pension prevented him from buying, and that he came each day because the smell of garlic and poppy seed in the air reminded him of his childhood days, when fresh bagels were within his father’s budget.  Some of Moshe’s customers took Aaron’s side, telling Moshe to stop harassing the old man.  Others tried to make light of the matter, telling Moshe to take Aaron to TV court  -  Judge Jackson’s Jiffy Justice.   “Not a bad idea”, Moshe replied, “I’ve seen that guy on the box, and he’s pretty clever!”  So the following week, Moshe took Aaron to TV court.  Proceedings began with the Clerk of Court calling everyone to stand while Judge Jackson took his place at the bench.  The judge wasted no time, and immediately called Moshe to state his complaint.

“Well, your Honour”, Moshe said pointing at Aaron, “that man stands outside my bakery every morning, taking up valuable space and stealing the smell of my fresh bagels, and he never buys one.  So, I want full compensation for the smells he steals”.
“Well, Aaron, you’ve heard Moshe, the baker’s charge, so what do you have to say?”
“It’s true, your Honour, I do come for the wonderful smells, because they remind me of my childhood days, when my father could afford to buy.  Now, in my old age, I don’t have the money.”
“Thank you both”, said Jude Jackson, “I will retire to consider my verdict.”
The judge was back in no time and announced to the assembled court:  “This was not an easy decision, but I rule in favour of Moshe, the baker.”
And uneasy murmur went through the courtroom.  Judge Jackson banged his gavel, and turned to Aaron:  “Do you have any money in your pocket, Aaron?”
“Just a few coins, your Honour”
“Will you please shake them, Aaron?”  Aaron did as Judge Jackson requested.
“Moshe, did you hear those coins rattling?” asked Judge Jackson.
“Yes I did, your Honour.  But when do I get my compensation?”
“Moshe, the baker, you’ve been fully compensated.  The sound of Aaron’s coins just paid for the smells of your bagels.”

Now, before we hurry on to the next story, we might take a few moments to reflect on our own demonstrations of pettiness and narrow-mindedness in our relationships with others.

The second story comes from a retired policeman, reflecting on some of the embarrassing situations in which found himself.  He told of seeing a middle-aged male driver being tailgated by a frustrated female driver on a busy arterial road.  Suddenly, the traffic lights turned amber, and the man stopped his vehicle.  That resulted in a stream of four letter words from the woman behind.  She leant on the horn, produced some even more colourful language, and took out her cell phone.  Her ranting was interrupted by a gentle tap on her window.  She looked up to see a stern-looking Sergeant of Police.  The policeman ordered her to move to the side of the road, and then took her to the police station where she was required to surrender her belongings to the duty officer, and then placed in a holding cell.

About two hours later, she was escorted back to the desk by a somewhat embarrassed arresting officer.  Her personal effects were returned, and the officer explained:  “I’m very sorry for my mistake.  You see, I pulled up behind you just as you were leaning on the horn and cursing the driver in front of you.  And then I noticed the ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ bumper sticker, the ‘Choose Life’ registration plate holder, and the Greek Christian fish emblem on the rear window.  I naturally concluded that you must have stolen the car.”

What’s it like looking into that mirror?

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Come to me, all you who labour and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11, 25-30

Here in the northern hemisphere, summer holidays are in the air.  It’s hot, the markets are full of peaches, plums, figs, cherries and apricots  -  all announcing that summer is here.  The schools have closed until late August or early September, and university exams are all but over.  Families are making plans to get out of Rome for some cooler place.  Despite what Paul seems to be saying in today’s second reading from Romans, we really do owe a debt to the flesh, in the sense that we have a responsibility to care for the bodies with which God has blessed us.  Our bodies, minds and spirits all need to be renewed and refreshed from time to time, and, for most of us, summer is the traditional time for that.  Paul’s focus is on a theme he often repeats:  If we engage in dull, destructive, repulsive pastimes, we’ll naturally end up dull, deadened and repulsive.  And that’s hardly an expression of appreciation to the God who loved us into life.  The debt we owe to the flesh is to revive its energy, to bolster it up, to prepare it to encounter life’s stress.

Yet, one of the paradoxes of the world in which we live is that rest and recreation are almost dirty words.  In some quarters we are thought to be “indulgent” or “self-centred” if we dare take a day off.  Busy-ness is rewarded, and those who can multi-task from dawn to dark are held up for admiration.  The standard response to the question “How are you? is no longer “Well”, but “Busy” or “Stressed”.  Busy-ness now carries the implication of value, worth, indispensability.  

Yet, in today’s gospel, we hear Jesus’ invitation to rest.  And it’s an invitation that is supported by his action.  The Gospel writers make frequent references to his going off by himself to rest and pray.  Without rest and renewal, we do, in fact, reduce our productivity, and become irritable, prickly and testy.  All too often, rest and holidays fall into the category of privilege rather than necessity.  I am reminded of a cartoon that depicted a family on a beach outing, all in swim wear  -  dad is sitting under an umbrella tapping away at his laptop, mum is seriously talking on her I-phone,  and two teenage children are fully engrossed in electronic games.  Even on holidays, we feel the need to be constantly connected with the business and people we have left behind, through emails, texting, What’s Ap, Facebook and other social media.  Perhaps we might need to consider that rest for the weary and heavily-laden is as much a matter of justice as of anything else.

What’s more, we may well benefit from reflecting on some of the implications of accepting Jesus’ invitation:  “Come to me, all you who labour and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”  Is it an invitation we accept with eagerness?  When did you and I last respond to it with alacrity?  In reality, I can use busy-ness as a means of keeping myself away from a personal encounter with Jesus, of keeping God at a distance.  Accepting Jesus’ invitation implies getting close to him, and that can make me uncomfortable.  I may have to ponder some of his questions and reflect on his challenges.

Seared into my memory is the image of a Turkish soldier holding the body of three-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi.  He, his five-year-old brother and their mother drowned in their attempt to reach safety.  In the wake of this and other tragedies, of frequent incidents of terrorist savagery and of the recent Grenfell Tower fire in London which claimed more than 80 lives, people have been heard to ask:  “How does one square these things with a God who is supposed to be gentle and merciful?”

Digging into questions like that inevitably leads me to ponder just what kind of relationship I have with God.  What is my God like?  The only way to answer those questions is to explore my relationships with other people.  After all, the kind of relationship I have with God is reflected in the way I relate to everyone I encounter.  All relationships are built on trust.  We get nowhere if we try to turn relationships into contracts:  “I will be faithful, if you are faithful.  I will be honest, open and loyal if you are.”  Human beings don’t successfully relate that way.  We learn from experience that there are no guarantees when human beings get involved with one another.  We learn to forgive, to be flexible enough to allow one another to make mistakes and to grow from them, to live with uncertainty, to be tolerant, to accept one another’s deficiencies.

But when it comes to God, we want to change the rules.  We slip back into wanting a contract:  “God, I have been faithful to my religious commitments, I have been kind and generous to people in need, so why did you let my brother commit suicide, why did you let my mother die of cancer?”

Somehow we suffer from memory lapse.  Every year in Holy Week, we commemorate the brutal torture and death by crucifixion of the one whom God called “my beloved Son”.  God did not intervene to take back the freedom of choice given to those who hatched the plan to have Jesus falsely condemned and executed.  Neither does God take away anyone else’s freedom.  Still we slip into expecting a relationship with God that is built on predictability and an iron-clad guarantee.  We would not expect that kind of relationship from anyone other than our insurer.  In practice, the faith and trust we place in other people go out the window when it comes to our relationship with God.

Perhaps we even subscribe to the view that Jesus himself had some kind of inside running in his relationship with God; that he endured torture and crucifixion in a detached way, knowing that God would eventually come to his rescue.  Yet we know that he experienced doubt, and felt the same kind of abandonment experienced by the rest of humanity:  “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”  Still, we persist in clinging to the view that Jesus had the full script tucked up his sleeve.  In Hebrews, we are reminded that Jesus was like us in everything except sin.  Having become human, he experienced the human condition in its fullness; he felt all the unfairness that life has to offer.  True, life is unfair.  We can all testify to that.  Yet, the resurrection of Jesus is clear proof that God will have the last word.  In the meantime we know that love sustains us, and keeps us living in the kind of trust and hope that allows us to accept Jesus’ invitation to come to him.  But accepting the invitation is still risky!  

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

“Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.  Anyone who welcomes a prophet because he is a prophet will have a prophet’s reward; and anyone who welcomes an upright person because he is an upright person will have the reward of an upright person.” Matthew 10, 37-42

Today’s gospel describes the price that had to be paid by members of Matthew’s community for being disciples of Jesus.  As those disciples abandoned the traditional practice of Judaism to embrace Jesus’ version of it, they experienced considerable personal pain.  For instance, family and friendship connections came under great strain.  Those who followed in Jesus’ steps were seen as traitors to their great Jewish heritage.  How different is it now?  Matthew presents in very stark terms the cost of siding with Jesus:  “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”  It’s one thing to deal with family division and conflict, quite another to deal with the inner conflict that rises as one struggles to interpret Jesus’ vision and values in real life situations.  Living that vision and those values in all manner of work and social situations will lead to interpersonal tensions and disagreements.

While the interface between Christianity and our contemporary world is different from what it was like in Matthew’s time, there is still a price to be paid for being a disciple of Jesus in the 21st century.  We have to stop and measure our willingness to adhere to our Christian values when they are a source of conflict in the social arenas of our lives.  And, when we look at our personal life ambitions and potential, do we stop to ask ourselves if they resonate with the values of Jesus and his Gospel?

Jay Cormier, a contemporary writer who explores issues that confront those who try to live as disciples of Jesus in today’s world, shares a speech given by an extremely successful company director at his retirement dinner.  As he brought his speech to a conclusion, he turned to the company’s younger executives and said:

“I know you all want my job.  Let me tell you how to get it.  Last week my daughter was married, and as I walked her down the aisle of the church, it struck me that I didn’t even know the name of her best friend, the main bridesmaid, or the last book my daughter had read, or her favourite colour.  That’s the price I paid for this job.  If you want to pay that price, you can have it.”  (Jay Cormier, Table Talk:  Beginning the Conversation on the Gospel of Matthew, New City Press, 2010)

Sometimes, we discover our own poverty only by doing a stock-take of our successes and achievements.  We can become so wrapped-up in pursuing our ambitions that we fail to develop our humanity.  In today’s gospel, Matthew presents Jesus calling those who would be his disciples to lay aside their obsessions and empty pursuits in order to find a quality of life that is truly human and energized by hope, gratitude, compassion and presence to others.

Max Lucado, a Church of Christ pastor and writer, tells the story of an encounter he had with a young woman in Los Angeles airport.  The woman, from an Eastern religious sect, stopped him as he walked through the terminal, and offered him the gift of a book explaining the philosophy of the cult to which she belonged.  Max thanked her for her kindness and continued on his way.  However she pursued him:  “Would you like to make a donation to our school?”  “No”, he answered, “but thanks for the Book.”  He set off again, but was challenged:  “Sir, everyone so far has given a donation in appreciation of the gift”.  “That’s good”, Max replied, “but I don’t think I will.  However, I do appreciate your gift.”  He was about to keep going when the woman, by now quite agitated, said:  “Sir, if you were sincere in your gratitude, you would make a donation in appreciation.”  “That may be true”, Lucado replied, “but if you were sincere, you would not give me a gift and then ask me to pay for it.”  The woman reached for the book, but he tucked it under his arm and walked off.

Later, reflecting on the exchange, Lucado wrote:  “This incident made me think of my own self-serving gifts, how often I expect something back, and how far removed I am from the total giving of Jesus of himself.  And so we ask ourselves:  When we give a gift, is there a hook?  Are we hospitable without expecting recompense, the ‘I’ll have you over for dinner, and then you’ll have me over for dinner’ sort of thing?  Can we be as generous as God who makes it rain on the just and unjust alike”  (Max Lucado:  And the Angels Were Silent, Thomas Nelson, Nashville 1987)

Today’s first reading from the Second Book of Kings tells the story of the hospitality offered by the Shunammite woman and her husband to the prophet Elisha.  The woman recognized Elisha as a “holy man” and persuaded her husband to build a special room for Elisha, where he and his servant could stay whenever they were passing.  Recognising her kindness, Elisha asked, through his servant, if she wanted anything in return for her hospitality.  Her simple response was that she was satisfied with what she had:  “I live with my own people about me.”  But Elisha’s servant quietly pointed out to him that the woman’s husband was advanced in years, and they had no son (to care for them).  Elisha had his servant call her, and then announced:  “This time next year you will hold a son in your arms.”  This is simply a metaphor for saying:  “For your selfless kindness and hospitality you will find yourself embracing new life.”

We must always remember to be careful not to take literally much of what we read in the Scripture.  It is literature.  In today’s gospel, Jesus is not launching an attack on family life.  But he is saying that following him calls for generous commitment to his vision and mission.  We have to be wary of what can distract us from being generous, compassionate and caring.  In order to receive “the prophet’s reward”, we have to use our God-given gifts to mirror the love of God in every one of our encounters and interactions with others.  In our own way we have to be prophets, too, witnessing to God’s mercy, compassion, justice and love.  Jesus is as alive in our world today as you and I make him.  But there is a cost to making that happen.  Are we prepared to pay that cost, to lose some of our popularity, to set ourselves up for ridicule?

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Can you not buy two sparrows for a penny?  And yet not one falls to the ground without your Father knowing…So there is no need to be afraid; you are worth more than hundreds of sparrows.” Matthew 10, 26-33

One of the very clear messages that Jesus gives in today’s gospel is that we really matter to God.  If God cares for the sparrows, God will care much more for us, who are worth more than hundreds of sparrows.

I have to admit that I’m really not an admirer of Facebook.  That’s because I struggle to use it, and, besides, it takes too much time.  However, I discovered recently that the chief operations officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg is rated as one of the most visible and successful women in corporate America.  Just three years ago, her husband, Dave, died of a heart attack while they were holidaying together in Mexico.  In April this year, a book Sheryl Sandberg co-authored with psychologist, Adam Grant was published.  The book is entitled:  Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, and is an account of how she and her two children  -  a 7-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son  -   dealt with their grief and loss.  Early in the book, Sandberg, reflecting on the inability of friends to offer comfort or even acknowledge Dave’s death, had this to say:

“People continually avoided the subject. I went to a close friend’s house for dinner, and she and her husband made small talk the entire time. I listened, mystified, keeping my thoughts to myself. I got emails from friends asking me to fly to their cities to speak at their events without acknowledging that travel might be more difficult for me now. Oh, it’s just an overnight? Sure, I’ll see if Dave can come back to life and put the kids to bed. I ran into friends at local parks who talked about the weather. Yes! The weather has been weird with all this rain and death.
Many people who had not experienced loss, even some very close friends, didn’t know what to say to me or my kids. Their discomfort was palpable, especially in contrast to our previous ease. As the elephant in the room went unacknowledged, it started acting up, trampling over my relationships. If friends didn’t ask how I was doing, did that mean they didn’t care? My friend and co-author Adam Grant, a psychologist, said he was certain that people wanted to talk about it but didn’t know how. I was less sure. Friends were asking, “How are you?” but I took this as more of a standard greeting than a genuine question. I wanted to scream back, “My husband just died, how do you think I am?” I didn’t know how to respond to pleasantries. Aside from that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?  (Remember, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at the theatre.)
…Until we acknowledge it, the elephant is always there. By ignoring it, those in pain isolate themselves and those who could offer comfort create distance instead. Both sides need to reach out. Speaking with empathy and honesty is a good place to start.”
Sheryl Sandberg & Adam Grant, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, Penguin Random House, New York, April 2017

Sheryl Sandberg goes on to explain how she guided herself and her children to cope with their loss and grief.  She stressed the importance of “mattering”, “family” and “memory”.  I will limit myself to “mattering” in this reflection, recommending that this is a book well worth reading in its entirety.

When we stop to remind ourselves about how Jesus lived and spoke about his relationship with God, we end up concluding that Jesus is the sacrament of God and we, the Christian community, are the sacrament of Jesus.  That means that one of our principal roles is to mirror Jesus to everyone we encounter.  In today’s gospel, Jesus reminds us in graphic imagery that we matter to God.  In our relationships with others, we demonstrate our authenticity as followers of Jesus, as the sacrament of Jesus, by treating them in ways that clearly transmit that they matter  -  to God, to Jesus and to us.  Sheryl Sandberg repeats in the language of sociologists what Jesus said in language that everyone could understand.  Sociologists would say that we know that we matter when others notice and acknowledge us, when they show they care about us, and signal in their actions that they rely on us.  At some stage in our lives we find ourselves wondering if we really matter.  We feel devalued when we are ignored.  We feel valued when others acknowledge, encourage and affirm us.

In times past, one of the prescribed texts for the Year 3 undergraduate English course at Sydney University was the Middle English allegorical poem, Piers Plowman, written by William Langland.   Some of Langland’s insights were centuries ahead of their time.  Langland believed that, as we were all created in the image of God, baptism was not essential for being united with God after death.  In the text of Piers Plowman one can read:  “The divine fire comes not to consume, but to bring light.  So an honest man who lives by the law that he knows, believing there is none better (for if he knew of a better he would accept it)  -  a man who has never treated anyone unjustly, and who dies in this spirit  -  surely the God of truth would not reject such honesty as this.”  Elsewhere in his poem he writes:  “…faith alone is sufficient to save the ignorant.  And that being so, many Jews and Saracens may be saved, perhaps before we are…the Jews possess a true Law, which God himself engraved on stone so that it should be steadfast and last forever. ‘Love God and your neighbour’ is the perfect Law of the Jews, and God gave it to Moses to teach to men until the Messiah came.  So to this day the Jews follow that Law and believe it to be the best.”  Jesus undoubtedly agreed.  

Jesus’ allusion to the fall of a sparrow emphasises his view that God is attentive to us individually.  Isaiah made the same point when he has God say:  “…I will not forget you.  Look, I have engraved you on the palm of my hand” (Isaiah 49, 15).

We need to periodically remind ourselves that faith is well and truly alive in humanity because of the love and loyalty of God, who gives freely, and who is totally unmoved by our prejudices, our anxieties, our categorisations and our tendency to be judgemental of the spiritual state of our neighbours.  God is not selective.  In God’s eyes we are all worth more than many sparrows.  So let’s not do God a disservice.

The Body and Blood of Christ
“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

I find today’s gospel reading difficult because my early religious education led me to a literal understanding of Jesus’ words:  “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him.”  To take those words literally places me squarely in the same camp as the Jews, who could not comprehend the meaning behind them.  One of the principal differences between John’s Gospel and those attributed to Mark, Matthew and Luke is that John’s Gospel works through poetry, symbol and metaphor, while the other three Gospels are substantially a collection of stories.

A further difficulty about matching today’s reading from Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel with the institution of the Eucharist is that John’s account of the Last Supper ignores completely any reference to bread and wine.  Eucharist is all about building community, and John’s point is that the cement of community is hospitality, symbolized by the welcome that is extended to a guest through the washing of his/her feet.  For the other three evangelists, close, welcoming community is nourished through the sharing of a meal.  For John, genuine community is built and nourished through the ritual of gracious foot-washing.  He makes it clear that the way we are in communion with one another, the way we treat one another with welcome, dignity and respect reflects the way we are in communion with God.  The challenge for all of us is to match the beliefs and values we say we hold dear with the way in which we actually live.  The greater the congruence or harmony between our rhetoric and our behaviour, the more authentic will be our humanity.  And our model for that is Jesus himself.  There was no credibility gap between what he said and what he did.  Jesus engaged with the messy reality of life with integrity and credibility.  The challenge for all of us is to do likewise.

In turning our attention to Eucharist, we have to keep in mind that, for Jewish people, sharing in a meal (breaking bread and drinking wine) was a demonstration of intimate relationship with one another and, consequently, a symbol of our communion with God.  True hospitality to others reflects our relationship to God.  In other words, if what we celebrate when we gather in our parishes for Eucharist on Saturday evening or Sunday does not lead us to treat one another with respect and dignity, does not bring us closer together as a community or parish, then we have little in common with the Jesus we claim to follow.    

In today’s gospel reading, John ascribes to Jesus the words:  “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven” (John 6, 51).  A few verses earlier, John has Jesus say to the Jews who had gathered:  “I am the bread of life” (John 6, 48).  Very clearly this is poetic language, metaphors used by John to say that Jesus is the way to God.  Fully immersed in our humanity through the flesh and blood realities of life, Jesus is pointing out that the way to God is to be found in engaging with and processing the earthy events of our lives.  God is to be encountered in the ordinary stuff of life.

One of the real difficulties with understanding and fully participating in Eucharist is that most of us have to move into the uncomfortable territory of letting go of what we learned all those years ago when, as children, we were preparing for our First Holy Communion.  If it has to be unlearned, it was poor teaching in the first place.  My memory is of being told that the high point of Mass was to receive Jesus, “body and blood, soul and divinity”, into my heart and that this was a private moment between Jesus and me.  

Jesus is, indeed, really present in the Eucharist, but it is not in the form of physical flesh and blood.  We do not receive the Jesus who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, or the Jesus who chased the money-lenders out of the temple.  Rather, it is the risen Jesus, sacramentally and spiritually present.  Even Thomas Aquinas explained that the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is not a physical one, but a spiritual one.  But that does not mean that his presence is less real.  Somehow, we have been brainwashed into believing that the only true reality is material or physical.  In the Eucharist we encounter the person of Jesus and all he stood for and proclaimed.  Surely that is enough to change our lives.  That encounter is a sacramental one, but still real.

When we hear the word of God proclaimed and respond with “Thanks be to God” and “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ”, we are committing ourselves to live what we have heard.  What’s more, in our western world, we have lost the true meaning of the offertory.  Celebration of the Eucharist in every African country involves the whole community.  Everyone walks or dances to the front of the church to make his/her monetary gift, and those selected for the offertory procession itself come bearing everything from fruit to canned goods and toilet tissue.  These are gifts for the support of the priest and needy people in the area.  But the gifts represent the life of the community and the people who make up the community.  And when those gifts, represented by the staples of bread and wine, are consecrated and made holy, it is the community that is made holy, and immersed in the life of Jesus.  That is why Augustine can suggest that the priest distributing communion might well say to everyone approaching the altar:  “Behold who you are, become what you receive”  -  See, you are the body of Christ, the way to God for others, become the body of Christ and be for others the way to God.

There is ever so much more that can be said about Eucharist.  However, let’s not forget that each Sunday we gather as community to encounter the Word of God, Jesus.  Jesus Christ is, for us, the way to God.  By welcoming Jesus into our lives when the Word is proclaimed and by receiving the Body and Blood of Christ sacramentally at communion, we in our turn become what we receive, namely, the way to God for others.

(For many of these thoughts I am indebted to Frank Andersen, MSC whose book Eucharist: Participating in the mystery, John Garratt Publishing, 1998, transformed my understanding of Eucharist when I read it nearly 20 years ago.  I hope I have not done Frank a disservice.)  

Trinity Sunday
“God so loved the world that he gave his only son…God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.” John 3, 16-18   

If we get caught up in our memories of what we learned about “The Trinity” in our school days, we might easily miss the point of today’s celebration, and launch ourselves into an excursion into theological gymnastics.  Today’s readings say nothing about exploring the mystery of how there can be “three persons in one God”.  So, if you’re not a full-time, speculative theologian, my suggestion to you is to forget the mental gymnastics and ponder the readings, especially the gospel for today.  Over centuries, lots of metaphors have been used to explain the Trinity.  I prefer one that was presented by St John Damascene (also known as St John of Damascus, Syria).  John was an 8th century Orthodox Catholic bishop.  He suggested that we think “of the Father as a root, the Son as a branch, and the Spirit as a fruit, for the sustenance of these three is one.”  This is simply stating that God has been revealed to us as Father, the root which sustains life, Jesus (Son), the Word of God who grafts us to that life as branches (cf. “I am the vine; you are the branches”, John 15, 5), and Spirit, the fruit of God’s love in everyone, binding us all together in love.

One of the great paradoxes in our lives is that, after hearing John’s assertion about how God loved our world and all who belong to it, many people end up hating it, somehow mesmerised by the way it is being abused, instead of seeing how it can continue to reflect God’s goodness and glory.  God is incarnated into it in the person of Jesus. Yet, again and again, we fail to recognise God’s presence in and around us.  Charles Causley, a twentieth century, Welsh poet gave us the following reminder:   

I am the great Sun, but you do not see me.
I am your Husband, but you turn away.
I am the Captive, but you do not free me.
I am the Captain you will not obey.
I am the Truth, but you will not believe me.
I am the City, where you will not stay.
I am your Wife, your Child, but you will leave me.
I am that God, to whom you will not pray.
I am your Counsel, but you do not hear me.
I am the Lover, whom you will betray.
I am the Victor, but you do not cheer me.
I am the Holy Dove, whom you will slay.
I am your Life, but you will not name me.
Seal up your soul with tears and never blame me.
                                  Charles Causley, 1917-2003, Inspired by a Norman Crucifix, 1632

One good reason as to why we gather regularly in our religious and parish communities is to stop to take time to recover our sense of vision, to pause to ponder and celebrate the God we have bumped into each day, often without knowing it, to listen to God’s Word in Scripture, to handle the bread of Eucharist, and to look at our communities with the awakened awareness that such ordinary people and things harbour the very presence of God.

The great obstacle in the way of this is our own cynicism and our urge to opt for peace and quiet, to be left undisturbed.  There is no doubt that we are bombarded every day with physical pollution of our planet and moral pollution of our values.  But faced with today’s reminder that God’s love for us and our word is inexhaustible and unconditional, our only genuine response as Christians is to praise God, in spite of the mess around us, to search for God hidden in that mess, to sense ultimate goodness pulsating through the planet and all of creation, to acknowledge the beauty and truth that are really in great abundance in our world, and to be sensitive to love, present at every turn.

Today’s second reading from Corinthians directs us to give our attention to the love that is present in the members of our parish, family or religious community, for that love reflects something of what God is like:  “Live in peace. Be agreeable.  Keep your spirits up. Live in harmony.  Do all that, and the God of love and peace will be with you for sure (2 Corinthians 13, 11).”  In order to live in peace and harmony, we have to learn to identify ourselves with others, to see ourselves in them.  For most of us that’s difficult, for we are reluctant to want to identify ourselves with those we regard as “over pious”, or ponderous sermonisers, or rigorous ritualists, hypocrites, cynics or railing activists.  Yet our capacity to welcome and include all these is an indication of the similarity between our love and God’s.  And that’s quite a challenge!

Yet we know that love breeds love, and love finds a multiplicity of expressions, from the ordinary and unspectacular to the never-say-die dedication of those whose efforts at loving seemingly elicit no response from the beloved for no other reason than impaired capacity caused by illness.  Here’s an example of a simple act of love that became contagious, as love often does:

A small high-school social-justice group decided to take on the project of cleaning up a local park that had become a haven for drug-abusers.  They removed all the litter, mended the fence, and created raised-up garden beds from disused book-cases.  They planted daisies and dahlias, and took turns to water them.  Some days, they were discouraged by the number of used syringes and discarded bottles that were left in the park.  However, they persisted, and their efforts caught the attention of local residents, who donated more plants and signed up on the watering roster.  The group co-ordinator was invited for an interview by the editor of the local community newspaper.  His simple comment was:  “In our group we started to think about how we could improve our local neighbourhood.  Someone suggested the park project, pointing out that the beauty of nature can work against neglect. And it really did work.  Isn’t that one small way of building God’s kingdom?”  (Carol Merritt, Church in the Making: Knee-deep in Renewal, The Christian Century, December 9, 2015)  And isn’t that just one small reflection of God’s love at work in our world?                                                                                                                                          

Pentecost
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Acts 2, 1-11
Jesus breathed on them and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” John 20, 19-23

After the death and burial of Jesus, the disciples, gripped by fear and confusion, sought seclusion.  While we can only speculate about the prayer and discussion in which they engaged, they came to a resolution to embark on the mission that Jesus had entrusted to them.  Pentecost was a moment of realization for them, a moment when they came to the conclusion that they had no alternative but to share with others the dream for a better world that Jesus had inspired in them.  That was what they understood establishing God’s kingdom on earth to be all about.  That’s essentially the Christian understanding of Pentecost, which was a combination of a Jewish harvest festival and a commemoration of the time when Moses received the Law on Mt Sinai.  It was celebrated by devout Jews with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  That explains the reference in today’s first reading to the presence in Jerusalem of “devout Jews from every nation” (Acts 2, 5).

Pentecost is often referred to as the birthday of the Church.  While theologians debate about the accuracy of that, Pentecost marks the event at which the gift of God’s Spirit was given to everyone in the infant Christian community that was just beginning to take shape.  God’s Spirit was and is a gift for all  -  those who were present at that first Pentecost, and those who through the centuries continue to walk in their footsteps.  That’s a pretty good reason for a party, and what a gift to celebrate!  Today’s reading from Acts gives us a glimpse of who was on the invitation list.  Almost everyone was represented:  Galileans, Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Arabs, Romans and Cretans.  And they were all having such a great time that onlookers thought they were drunk.  But no, they had just been given the most extraordinary party gifts  -  prophecy, visions and dreams.  It must have been a really rousing and riotous event!

Over the years, I have found myself wondering why families sometimes make a big thing of celebrating a child’s first birthday, especially as the child will have no memory of it in later life.  It is a particularly important event among Asian families.  A very significant event in an Asian child’s life is his/her very first birthday because it highlights the fact that the child has survived infancy (there were times when the mortality rate among infants was extremely high), and is now ready to be blessed for a future which families hope and pray will be prosperous in one way or another.  The child is normally dressed in rainbow coloured clothing, which is a reminder of the dreams parents have for their children.  Rice cakes are provided in abundance, because they are a sign of prosperity.  The highlight of the party occurs when various objects representing different kinds of prosperity are placed on a table in front of the child, who is then encouraged to reach out for one of them.  A book, for instance, stands for wisdom, money represents wealth, a long piece of multicoloured thread means long life.  Whatever attracts the child’s attention is a symbol of the destiny the child claims for herself/himself.

However, the good news for all of us is that we don’t have to choose.  Irrespective of our age, gender and social status, the gifts of God’s Spirit are made available to us, for the Spirit, present at the first Pentecost, is present to us now.  In the verses of Acts following immediately on today’s reading, Peter addresses the gathered crowd and refers them to the words of the prophet, Joel:  “The Lord declares: ‘I shall pour out my Spirit on all humanity.  Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young people shall see visions, your old people dream dreams.  Even on the slaves, men and women, shall I pour out my Spirit’” (Acts 2, 17-18).  God’s Spirit embraces us, grounds us in the traditions of the past through the words from Joel, and launches us into the future with the exhortation to dream dreams and to envision possibilities.  Implied in that exhortation is the call for us to prepare the ground and to make the space for our dreams to be taken up by others and allowed to blossom and expand.  Clearly, those dreams and visions are not meant to be dreamt alone, but in the various communities to which we belong, communities united in the Spirit.  This challenge to dream and envision involves all of who we are.  We are reminded that we hear and feel it, “like the sound of a violent wind”.  We also see and feel it, like “tongues of fire”.  Moreover, we speak it out in our own language and it is heard and understood by foreigners.  After all, love speaks all languages.

If we care to look closely enough, we can see signs of the kind of community envisioned in today’s reading from Acts.  I am reminded of another story I came across in the New York Times last month.  It was called Making a Mark on People, written by Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist, David Brooks, and inspired by the outpouring of tributes for a fireman, Joe Toscano, who had died of a heart attack while fighting a fire in March of this year.  David Brooks and Joe Toscano were contemporaries who, as teenagers and young adults, had worked side by side as counsellors at Incarnation Summer Camp over a 15-year period.  Incarnation Summer Camp was founded in 1886 by the Incarnation Episcopal Parish community in Manhattan.

Moved by the number of former Incarnation campers who turned up at Joe Toscano’s funeral, Brooks wrote about the mark the camp experience had left on them:  “Some organizations are thick, and some are thin. Some leave a mark on you, and some you pass through with scarcely a memory. I haven't worked at Incarnation for 30 years, but it remains one of the four or five thick institutions in my life, and in so many other lives.  A thick institution is not one that people use instrumentally, to get a degree or to earn a salary. A thick institution becomes part of a person's identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart, and soul . . . Members of such organizations often tell and retell a sacred origin story about themselves. Many experienced a moment when they nearly failed, and they celebrate the heroes who pulled them from the brink. They incorporate music into daily life, because it is hard not to become bonded with someone you have sung and danced with . . .Thick institutions have a different moral ecology.” New York Times, April 20, 2017

Many of us have belonged to “thick” or closely-knit groups that have left us not only better for the experience, but also have shaped the values and direction of our lives.  Parish groups like the Catholic Youth Organisation (CYO), St Vincent de Paul conferences, school year groups, Edmund Rice Camps have helped to shape us into who we are, as we have dedicated our time and energy to accompanying people in need and helping one another to grow and mature, and live out our Christian commitment.

These groups mirror the Christian community that had its beginnings at Pentecost.  They live and reflect the love of God made real in the life of Jesus as they inspire us to give generously of our gifts for the good of all.  In very ordinary ways, they bring God’s life and love into our world.  The same Spirit, breathed upon the disciples on that first Easter night (cf. todays gospel reading from John), continues to breathe on us, giving us life and direction as we work to mirror the Gospel through lives of selfless and generous caring.  We, indeed, have every reason to celebrate.

The Ascension
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1, 1.11

“The Ascension of the Lord is not the marking of a departure, but the celebration of a presence.”  That statement by writer, Jay Cormier captures in a nutshell what the Ascension is all about.  Yet, we can easily be distracted from this central message if we get drawn into sympathising with the disciples who were paralysed by self-pity and grief.  To do that is to miss the whole point.  The angel’s message to the disciples is for us, too.

Today’s story from Acts describes how the angel, who appeared to the disciples after Jesus had disappeared from their sight, summed up the situation perfectly and confronted them:  “Men of Galilee, why are you standing around, dawdling?  Get going, for you have a job to do.  Your best friend, who helped you to find real meaning in your lives, has just given you a mission to accomplish.  Moreover, he has empowered you to continue his mission of witnessing to the wonderful works of God.  So, get a move on!”  Luke’s angel is a little more polite than that.  But that was the substance of the angel's message.  Yet the disciples took time to digest that message.

Ascension is a difficult celebration in the Church’s calendar because of the way in which Luke talks about Jesus being “taken up to heaven” as though it was literally a physical transfer from one place to another.  However, if we were to accept that literally, we would be subscribing to the simplistic cosmology of the ancient Israelites, who believed in a three-tiered universe, with the dead down below in the bottom tier, the divine powers up above in the heavens, and the living between them in the middle tier.  Indeed, some biblical poetry (So think “metaphor”!) pictures the might of the universe as something/somebody beyond our knowing, as if it were a throne room in the sky.  For Matthew, “heaven” is another word for God.  But we have to blame the Medieval mystics for giving us the notion that heaven is a place “up there somewhere” to where we will go after death and see God face to face.  Earlier, the Greek philosopher Plato introduced the idea that humans were made up of two parts  -  a body and soul fused together, and that after death the soul would enjoy a place called heaven.  Relics of these ancient cosmologies still survive in the creed we recite on Sundays, which situates the risen Christ “at the right hand of the Father”.  And believers and non-believers alike often speak as if God is “up there somewhere”.

Like all great metaphors, the picture is an engaging one:  a deity, sitting on a throne, surrounded by supernatural powers, with Jesus, God’s Prime Minister making sure everything and everybody are in their right place, and justice and peace are flourishing.  Despite all this imagery, as early as the 5th century, no less a person than Pope St Leo the Great stated that “Christ has ascended into the sacraments”.   Today we say that Christ is alive and active in the Christian community, in all of us who live and proclaim the Gospel entrusted to us.  That very message is encapsulated in the final few lines of today’s second reading from Ephesians (cf Ephesians 1, 22-23).

I think the real clue to understanding the Ascension is to be found in the three verses of Acts that follow on from today’s first reading.  They tell of how the disciples, after Jesus had been taken from their sight, returned to the upper room in Jerusalem and joined together in prayer.  That is Luke’s way of telling us that they were bewildered, fearful, and just didn’t know what to do next.  They were a leaderless, shattered community.  So they went into hiding to give themselves time to decide what to do, hoping that somehow the promise Jesus had made  -  “you are going to be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1, 5)  -  would come true.  They found themselves in an in-between time, caught between loss and promise.  And that’s an experience we have all had, and we know how uncomfortable and disconcerting it can be.  Most of us, for example, have felt the pain of losing a close family member through accident or terminal illness.  It’s as though we are in a vacuum, bewildered, hurting, yet trying to hold ourselves together as we strive to get our life back on track.

Others know the in-between time of going away to boarding school or leaving home to take on full-time employment or study in the big city.  Securities they have taken for granted have evaporated and the pall of homesickness envelops them.

Still others find themselves no longer needed in their place of work.  They are casualties of an economic downturn.  They are too old to retrain for something new and too young to retire.  They fear they may not get another job.  And then there are those whose marriage falls apart, and those who find themselves wondering if they will ever recover from a debilitating physical or mental illness.  All these people know what it is to struggle through in-between times.

Implicit in today’s reading from Acts is a recipe for how to pull through:  pray, find support from close friends, accept that one can survive without living in luxury, and don’t lose hope.  That’s what the disciples did.  And living like that is not beyond us either.  The essence of it is to live with authenticity and integrity.

Maybe, we can all learn something from the German tennis star, Boris Becker.  At the age of seventeen, he had already won Wimbledon.  Despite his youth, he had come realise that the German people were beginning to idolise him.  In reflecting on that, he made this extraordinary statement:  “The German people wanted me to live for them…When I entered my home town people stood and gazed at me as if they were expecting blessings from the Pope.  When I looked into the eyes of my fans at the Davis Cup matches last December, I thought I was looking at monsters.  Their eyes had no life in them.  When I saw this kind of blind, emotional devotion, I could understand what happened to us a long time ago at Nuremberg” (Heather MacLachlan, The Telegraph, London, Nov 26, 2001).  Boris Becker wanted to be authentically himself.

The readings for Ascension are a challenge to us to be authentic witnesses to the values we have learned as disciples of Jesus.  They are a call to us to involve ourselves in the life of the Christian community to which we claim to belong.  Am I able to hear and respond?       

Sixth Sunday of Easter
“Whoever has my commandments and keeps them is the one who loves me.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always,  the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him.” John 14, 15-21

The Easter season retells and celebrates the greatest love story the world has ever known.  It spells out in detail the story of God’s love made real in the life death and resurrection of Jesus.  The gospel readings of five of the last six Sundays (and on almost all of the weekdays) have been taken from John’s Gospel.  They are John’s way of driving home to us what he understood to be the essence of God’s love for us and our world.  John also set about showing how Jesus had reflected that love in the way he lived and reached out to everyone he encountered.

On a note of caution, many translations give us the opening words of Jesus in today’s gospel as:  “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  That sounds pretty much like a threat or a bit of gentle blackmail.  But Jesus is hardly telling his closest friends that, if they really loved him, they would do exactly what he tells them to do.  Rather, he is saying that if they were truly inspired by his love for them, the natural thing for them to do would be to reach out to others as he had reached out to them.

John makes it clear that we, as disciples of Jesus, are also invited to radiate God’s love to everyone we encounter and to live acutely aware of the fact that God’s love is ever present in our midst and is reflected to us in creation and in the goodness, compassion and decency of people all around us.  Moreover, we often glimpse that love in unexpected places and ways.

For me, one of the benefits of frequent international travel is that I get to read journals and newspapers from many cultures and countries.  On a plane to the United States in early March, I came across an article written by a woman whom I had known only through her story-picture books written for small children.  I soon discovered that Amy Krouse Rosenthal was also a journalist and host of a radio programme.  The article I read was in a copy of the New York Times, published just a few days before.  It appeared under the heading:  You May Want to Marry My Husband, and turned out to be a truly loving tribute to her husband, Jason from whom she was about to be separated.  That article was Amy Rosenthal’s last published writing, for she died just 10 days later of ovarian cancer.  Here are some extracts from it:

“I have been trying to write this for a while, but the morphine and lack of juicy cheeseburgers have drained my energy and interfered with whatever prose prowess remains…Still, I have to stick with it because I’m facing a deadline, in this case a pressing one.  I need to say this while I have a) your attention, and b) a pulse.”

Amy went on to compile a profile of Jason as a Valentine’s Day gift for him, but also in the hope that her letter would be published, and that “the right person reads this, finds Jason, and another love story begins”.

In the body of the article, she had written:  “He (Jason) is an easy man to fall in love with.  I did it in one day…By the end of dinner, I knew I wanted to marry him.  Jason?  He knew a year later…He is a sharp dresser.  Our young adult sons, Justin and Miles, often borrow his clothes…If our home could speak, it would add that Jason is uncannily handy.  On the question of food  -  man, can he cook?...He loves listening to live music; it’s our favourite thing to do together.  I should also add that our 19-year-old daughter, Paris, would rather go to a concert with him than anyone else…Here is the kind of man Jason is:  He showed up at our first pregnancy ultrasound with flowers…If he sounds like a prince and our relationship seems like a fairy tale, it’s not far off, except for all of the regular stuff that comes from two and a half decades of playing house together.  And the part about me getting cancer.”   (Amy Krouse Rosenthal, You May Want To Marry My Husband, New York Times, March 3, 2017)  

This humorous yet moving tribute from a dying woman to the love of her life reflects something of the complete and unconditional love we have been celebrating throughout the whole Easter season.  It is love that is able to express gratitude despite the pain of parting.  Moreover, it is love that genuinely celebrates the goodness of the other even in the presence of sadness and heartache.  Today’s reading from John assures us that the Spirit of the risen Jesus can open our eyes and hearts to recognise the love of God present in the lives of those who love and care for us, especially when we are hurting.

Today’s gospel reading also speaks about the Spirit of truth whom many in our world cannot accept because they cannot “see or know him” (cf John 14, 17).  John is highlighting a reaction to truth that springs from denial.  Tragically, there are people whom we have all known or met who are intent on clinging to denial of the truly known shape of love.  John accuses the world of putting on blinkers to its own capacity for loving, and of ignoring the evidence and signs of love all around.  And John has Jesus alerting us to the fact that the Spirit of God, deep within us, is ever reminding us of the shape of love.

Jesus refers to the Spirit of God as an advocate, a lawyer who argues a case for love against anyone who wants to deny its presence.  The Spirit insists that genuine love is possible, and has a recognisable shape, to be seen in the lives of people around us, people like the Amy and Jason Rosenthals of this world, in the people who make up our families and communities, in the people we name as friends.

But John also knows that there are people who insist on promoting counterfeit love, who, even in the name of religious commitment, want to promote viciousness, violence, terrorism and murder in the name of love.  Equally dangerous are those who insist on trying to delude themselves and others with what they present as alternative facts, alternative truth.  The best way to counter such counterfeiting is to live our lives lovingly.                                                                

Fifth Sunday of Easter
“I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me…Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater than these, because I am going to the Father.” John 14, 1-12
 
Today’s gospel is taken from John’s long account (5 chapters) of Jesus’ last night on earth.  To convey his message, John uses a stylistic device previously used by some of the Old Testament writers:  Leaders who realised that death was imminent followed the custom of gathering together family, friends and followers to give them farewell advice and instructions for maintaining traditions.  Prominent figures like Moses, Joshua, David and Tobias had set the trend.  Jesus, in his turn, dwelt on encouraging and comforting those who would continue his mission, and exhorting them to remain faithful.

The thrust of Jesus’ message in today’s gospel is for his disciples, ourselves included, to embrace the implications of his parting words.  If we were to really hear those words, our living would change dramatically.  In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard gives us a woman’s perspective on taking the Gospel seriously.  All too often, what we hear each Sunday in the set readings sails over our heads.  That prompted Annie Dillard to write:
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions.  Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets… For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ” (Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper & Row, 1982)
Jesus, in today’s gospel, draws us to a point from which we cannot return.  What he says is not for the faint-hearted.  But it’s not easy to grasp.  We’re often reminded that one effective way of tapping the richness of any scripture passage is to identify with one or more of the characters.  So, what do I make of the following exchange between Jesus and Thomas, if I identify with Thomas?  Jesus said:  “Where I am going you know the way.”  Thomas said to him:  “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?”  Jesus said to him:  “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you know me, then you will also know my Father.  From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

While those words would have stunned me, I think Jesus is saying that I have to learn what he has learned.  And he did learn and grow from seeing the faith of the many people whom he encountered and cured.  They inspired him.  He learned from the Syro-Phoenician woman whom he initially called a dog.  The woman’s persistence and quickness of wit shook him into seeing differently and shedding his prejudice.  He learned something from a foreigner of a different faith, and a woman, to boot!  So, he’s asking me to let go of prejudice, to learn as he has learned, to realise that God graces everyone not just those whose religious belief is the same as mine, to listen to others, and not to refuse to use my God-given gifts to enrich the lives of everyone I encounter, especially those in need.  Learning from and imitating the way Jesus learned and lived is the way to God, the way to wholeness, the way to full humanity.

There are many other challenges in today’s gospel.  What, for instance, do we make of the following:

“I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.”  (John 14, 12)

“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”  (John 14, 9)

“Philip said:  ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” (John 14, 8)

And in the few verses that follow today’s reading:  “If you ask for anything in my name, I will do it.”  (John 14, 14)

There are lots of questions here, and we have to ask ourselves where our preference lies.  Do we prefer:  “Ask me anything, and I will do it.”  or  “the one who believes in me will do greater works than these”?  Do we emphasise “in my Father’s house there are many rooms” or “where I am, there you may be also”? Are we more inclined to choose “I am the way and the truth and the life” or “no one comes to the Father except through me”?  In all of the above pairs, the distinctions may seem slight or unclear.  But ask yourself as you look at each pair:  Am I looking at what’s in it for me, or at what I can do in response?  Am I looking for clarification and certainty, or do I trust in what I have already seen and experienced?  Do I focus on what my place in heaven might look like, or am I able to recognise and enjoy Christ present in every day and everyone and everything around me?  Do I find myself thinking about who’s in and who’s out, rather than about following Jesus who is the way?  Of course, thinking about these things is much easier than following the one who takes the lead!  Do I believe my experience of the Jesus I have come to know, or do I side with Philip, wanting a little more evidence?  Can you and I hear Jesus saying to us as he said to Philip:  “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?  Look, my friend, this is as good as it gets!” (cf John 14, 9)

Finally, while today’s reading concludes with Jesus saying: “Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14, 12), we really have to take into account the very next verse, where Jesus continues with:  “Whatever you ask for in my name I will do…” (John 14,13).  What can I actually ask Jesus for, if I am assured by him that I can do myself greater things than he has done?  That leaves me wondering.  But John gives me the answer in the next chapter when he has Jesus explain that there in no greater love than to spend one’s life for one’s friends, and to love one another “as I have loved you” (John 15, 12).  Maybe I should be asking Jesus to help me to do that.

Fourth Sunday of Easter
“If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God.  For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.” 1 Peter 2, 20-25

“I am the gate for the sheep.  All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.  I am the gate.” John 10, 1-10

The gospels for the Sundays of Easter present Jesus in a multiplicity of disguises:  the gardener who spoke gently to a grieving Mary Magdalene, the “apparition” who startled the disciples locked away in fear, the barbecue chef cooking breakfast on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the sheepfold gatekeeper opening the door to rich and energetic life, the insightful stranger accompanying the disciples on the road to Emmaus.  I suggest that this is the Gospel writers’ way of making the point that Jesus is very much alive in the ordinariness of our daily living.  The Risen Jesus is alive and well, and present to us in everyone we encounter and everything we experience.  While we are not always conscious of his presence, we can all point to times when we have sensed his presence acutely.  We’ve probably all had an experience similar to that of the two disciples walking the road to Emmaus.Let me share an extract from an article I read recently in one of last year’s editions of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin.  It was written by a young woman, who, in her first year as a university lecturer, had to deal with unexpected eviction from her rented accommodation, and serious illness in her family.  She had volunteered to fill in as the organist in her parish church before a string of crises came into her life.  Her first thought was to withdraw from her parish commitment.  However, despite the other demands on her time and energy, she honoured the commitment she had made.  This is part of her reflection:


Recently, our congregation said farewell to a member named Gail, who lived to the ripe old age of eighty-seven, in spite of admitting to a nearly eighty-year-long smoking habit. To an ordinary observer, Gail was unremarkable  -  a small, frail fellow with sunken eyes who lived in one of the nearby housing projects. He didn’t usually say much beyond “hello” and “how are you,” but I know from experience that Gail could always be trusted to provide a cigarette lighter whenever the sacristan or altar servers could not find the matches. Many eulogies would paint a bigger picture of Gail.  He was, in fact, a man of deep and remarkable talents amid curmudgeonly flaws: a prolific painter and poet, a beautiful soul who could nevertheless be stubborn and self-centred, and hold an impressive grudge. But one thing was about as dependable as the sun coming up: Gail occupied the same seat in the same pew, near the back on the right side, every single week, almost without fail.

During his final weeks, in hospice for cancer, this loner and lifelong bachelor enjoyed a steady stream of visitors, the majority of whom knew Gail solely from church.  Some visited because, at one point or another, they had formed a deeper bond with Gail and knew well the tales of his younger life at sea or had shared his fanaticism for baseball.  Others went out of the simple habit of Christian duty.

One of these visitors was a middle-aged truck-driver named Mark. After his visit, Mark reported that Gail had insisted on one puzzling request: that Mark sing Jesus Loves Me.  Now, Mark doesn’t sing in the choir, and he’s certainly never sung a solo in church or anywhere else.  But later, it became clear that Gail hadn’t asked anyone else to sing.  Mark told us that, before agreeing to Gail’s request, he had said: “Are you sure? If the cancer doesn’t take you, then my singing very well might.”  But he knew the song, so sing it he did.

Later, when Mark recounted this to other parishioners, remarking how it really was the strangest thing, a woman named Susan pieced it all together:  “Well, you all know Gail sits in the same place every week.  And Mark does too  -  right behind Gail.”

Whatever going to church had meant for Gail, it must have been wrapped up with the experience of hearing Mark’s flawed, strong voice behind him every week, singing out the old songs, slightly above the pitch of everyone else’s voice. And that was apparently something that Gail wanted to relive, one more time, at the end of his life.
Living in the world as it is, no one has to go looking for pressures. They will find us. Demands and aspirations compete not only for our time, but also for our claims to identity; they ask us to be authentic, unique, innovative.  As I navigate the opportunities, expectations, and challenges that confront me in my daily life, somehow church—with all of its flaws—stands out like Mark’s voice, making me conscious that it’s all the things in between, all the habits taken for granted, that most fundamentally shape who we are.  What I needed most in my hardest year was, paradoxically, to be needed. In retrospect, I realized how much making music alongside saints like Gail and Mark sustained us all.  (Michelle Sanchez, On Habit, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Summer/Autumn 2016)

Michelle Sanchez somehow recognised the voice of Jesus in the unspectacular, and she responded.  In essence, her story is no different from that of Mary Magdalene in the garden, of the two disciples walking to Emmaus, of the disciples returning from their fishing.  And it’s our story, too.  When we’re troubled and upset, Jesus comes in the form of a friend, a neighbour or a complete stranger.  When we’re experiencing arid dryness, the Gardener appears.  When we are hungry and thirsty for trust and comfort, the Cook is there.  When we’ve strayed or have become lost and confused, the Shepherd is there.  When we’re afraid and go into hiding, an Apparition comes to restore us.  When we feel excluded or locked out, the Gatekeeper arrives to bring us in.  Whenever we feel overlooked, betrayed, belittled or rejected, the Risen Jesus is at our side in one disguise or another.  In one way or another, Jesus is present to us in every situation that unfolds in our lives, and for no other reason than to open whatever gates will lead us to life in abundance.

I cannot finish this reflection without a brief word on today’s second reading (1 Peter 2, 19-25) which risks leaving us with the impression that there is something intrinsically meritorious about suffering.  However, it’s important to look carefully at what is written:  “If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God.