Second Sunday of Lent
Peter said to Jesus: “Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Mark 9, 2-10
All three readings set down for this Second Sunday of Lent are difficult. If we fail to grasp that the gospel account of Peter, James and John on the mountain with Jesus and the Genesis story of Abraham being asked by God to deliver up his son, Isaac, in a human sacrifice are made-up stories, we will end up with a very strange view of God. Both accounts are stories from very old Semitic cultures with references and images with which the Jews from before, during and after the time of Jesus would have been very familiar. Every Jew who turned up for worship in a synagogue would have known that bright lights, clouds, visions of prophets, and mountain-tops all suggested close encounters with God. The gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke all include this “transfiguration” story to highlight the specialness of Jesus and to emphasize that his mission was inspired by the depth of the relationship he had cultivated with God throughout his life.
Today’s gospel is a story designed to illustrate the quality of Jesus’ relationship with God, and the first reading from Genesis is another story to illustrate something of Abraham’s relationship with God. But let’s not forget that these are stories, similar in style and intention to The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan and Dives and Lazarus - all used by Jesus to teach.
The second reading from Romans also needs to be read carefully, for we could come away thinking that God had a part in planning the death of Jesus.
So, how do we make sense of today’s three readings, and what is their relevance to us and to our lives as we continue into the season of Lent?
It is not too difficult to see why the story of Abraham and Isaac is paired with the reading from Romans. The Genesis story tells how Abraham was willing to give up his only son (born in extraordinary circumstances to Sarah and Abraham in their old age), while Paul makes reference to God’s willingness to let go of Jesus, allowing him to be the victim of those who brutally murdered him. But let’s be clear about this: God did not plan the death of Jesus. Nor did God agree to Jesus’ murder by turning a blind eye to a sneaky plan cooked up by those who would stop at nothing to rid themselves of a man who threatened their comfort.
By being born into our world, Jesus took on the mystery and limitation of human freedom. He stood in solidarity with all of humanity. As a consequence, he was surrounded by all the risks, accidents, surprises, coincidences and chaos that touch the lives of every human being, that are part and parcel of life. So he was caught, like the rest of us, in the crossfire of other human beings expressing their freedom in the ways they chose. Therefore, we must keep reminding ourselves that Jesus didn’t simply die. He was savagely tortured and executed. What was done to him is not something to be celebrated with joy. His death, like the death of every other human being, remains the wrenching, grief-filled, crushing thing that all death is. We do him and God a disservice by trying to sugar-coat it, by wanting to dignify it as something planned by God.
I suggest we could get a better insight into the Father’s stance towards the life and death of Jesus by looking at what all parents go through as they let their daughters and sons go off to make their way through life; as they send them off to study in universities, to find their first job or to live in rented accommodation away from home. Parents know that their children, on the verge of adulthood, are vulnerable. They know they will see them making mistakes, yet they will hold back their urges to interfere. They will pray for their children and be always ready to support them whenever they are invited to assist. But those same parents are also courageous enough to respect the individuality and the wonder of the mystery of their children’s unfolding lives. Moreover, they are sensible enough not to take responsibility for the mistakes their children make and for the pain and hurt that they experience through their own fault or the treachery of others. Yet, we would not say that those parents planned their children’s misfortunes, even though they might have seen those misfortunes coming. But like Jesus’ Father, they stand in solidarity with their children through thick and thin. Their courage is demonstrated by their allowing their children to be exposed to all the ups and downs of the human condition.
Even though we might find ourselves shocked by the Genesis account of Abraham’s testing time, today’s first reading is asking us to reflect on what may be the “Isaacs” in our lives. What or whom do I need to let go of, who or what is preventing me from growing into the person I know I truly want to be? Lent is a time for us to reflect on things like that.
Let’s turn our attention to the gospel story of the “Transfiguration”. All the symbols which I have already mentioned tell us that Mark is describing an extraordinary, peak experience - an encounter with God - that Jesus had and which Peter, James and John witnessed. Peter was so dazzled by it all that his first response was to want to commemorate it with three shrines. Had it happened in modern times, he probably would have wanted to get photographs. Mark is telling us that the presence of God was so intense within Jesus that it shone through him. And the voice Jesus and the disciples heard was Mark’s way of telling us that this was God claiming Jesus as Son and proclaiming that he was the Messiah.
But the wind was quickly taken out of Peter’s sails - a situation matter-of-factly summed up by Mark: “Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them.” Moreover, to emphasize that, Jesus tells the three of them to keep their mouths shut, and then starts talking about death and resurrection. Perhaps this was as much a reality check for Jesus himself as for his companions. Had he dwelt on what had just occurred, he might have had second thoughts about continuing to pursue the mission he had mapped out for himself, for he knew that the pursuit of that mission would inevitably make enemies for him and that they would not be satisfied until he was exterminated.
The implication of Jesus rejecting the possibility of commemorative monuments leads me to conclude that this “transfiguration” event is also about Peter, James, John and us. God’s life, after all, was present in the three disciples and is likewise present in us. Moreover, being brought back to earth for the disciples and for us surely means that the life of God in us in intended to shine brightly in the way we live our lives in our messy, chaotic world, in the kindness, compassion, forgiveness and encouragement we extend to everyone with whom we live, work, recreate and engage. Lent is an insistent invitation to us allow our lives to be transfigured by the God who dwells within us, so that we, in our turn, can become agents of transfiguration in the lives of everyone we meet.
First Sunday of Lent
The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. Mark 1, 12-15
“The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert” is a very strong statement. However, we are mistaken if we equate “drove” with “forced”. After all, Jesus was a thirty-year-old man, steeped in his Jewish faith, with a deal of experience behind him. He was well able to listen to his own intuitions and the promptings of God’s Spirit, and then make his own decisions. He was fully human, making his decisions the way we make ours. To prepare himself for the mission he had decided to pursue, he saw the need for an extended period of solitude, reflection and prayer. In response to the promptings of God’s Spirit in his heart, he set off into the desert. In Mark’s account, this decision followed immediately after his baptism by John, during which he experienced a sense of approval and affirmation from God, described graphically as a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life” (Mark 1, 11). To come to appreciate the full significance of that would, of itself, require time for reflection.
Yet, like every other human being, Jesus had to work through the urges to look for short-cuts and to satisfy his desires for comfort, popularity and approval. Mark describes these metaphorically, depicting Jesus as being surrounded by wild beasts and being tempted by Satan. But they are no different from the urges and desires we all experience in the ebb and flow of our lives, when we want to replace kindness, forgiveness and personal inconvenience with self-serving, retribution and soft living. We know the values of God’s kingdom, but feel drawn to adopt attitudes and behaviours that prevent us from being our true selves. Jesus was on the verge of embarking on his mission to the world, of bringing a message of hope, healing and new life to people who were downtrodden and alienated. Yet he was tempted to have second thoughts, to question whether the dream he had for our world was worth the effort.
Lent basically means “spring”. The word is derived from Old English “lencten”, which, in turn evolved into Middle English “lenten”. The liturgical season of Lent began 4 days ago with Ash Wednesday and the smearing of ashes on our forehead - a reminder of the fragility of our lives and our eventual return to the earth from which we are made. The rest of Lent is an invitation to embark on “turning over” our lives, reflecting on and listening to how God’s Spirit is prompting us to spring-clean our living, to sow the seeds of something new. This fits with what is happening in the astronomical world, with the earth turning towards the sun and the agricultural world, as farmers and gardeners begin turning the soil in preparation for Spring planting. All this, of course, makes proper sense only in the northern hemisphere. In the popular mind in Ireland, the feast of St Brigid (February 1st) signals that Spring is approaching, while the Vernal (Spring) Equinox, when the sun shines directly over the equator and the lengths of day and night are approximately equal, will occur on March 20th, 32 days into Lent. And to cap it all off, we note that the Hebrew word for repentance basically means “turning”.
By venturing into the desert, Jesus turned aside from the euphoria of the affirmation associated with his baptism, and took time to consider his mission and the responsibilities he would have to take on in order to embrace it with integrity.
Lent provides an invitation and an opportunity for each of us to reflect on our mission as followers of Jesus, to decide on what we might need to embrace and from what to turn aside if we, too, are to live with integrity. This is not quite as simple as it sounds, for we don’t have to look too far to recognise that our lives are filled with all kinds of competing priorities. That does not mean that any or all of them are bad. But some of them can pull us in directions that are less than life-giving. You and I know who we are and who the Gospel calls us to be. Anything that drags us away from who we are and who we are called to be can be classified as temptation. In his wilderness experience, Jesus was tempted to move away from who he was and who God was calling him to be. Surely we can’t expect that our experience will be any different from his.
The bottom line of all this is conversion of heart. We all face the constant challenge of being true to the one we claim to follow and to his Gospel. Lent is an invitation to give serious and intensive attention to conversion of heart, to changing in our lives what we know needs to be changed. In this context, we may well ask ourselves what we make of the metaphor in today’s gospel where Jesus is depicted as being surrounded by “wild beasts”. As we launch into Lent, one of the occupational hazards for us is the nagging thought: “Why bother? The people with whom I live and work and recreate aren’t really interested in improving themselves. So why should I be the odd one out?” This, of course, is built on the low opinions we form about other people. We really don’t know what’s going on in their minds and hearts. Yet, we can convince ourselves that, like Jesus, we are surrounded by “wild beasts”. The world out there is a jungle, and if we’re not careful we can be bitten, pulled apart, infected or even devoured. And we certainly don’t notice too many angels looking after us. So, from the start, we can slip into thinking that there’s no point in improving ourselves if we’re going to be swallowed up in the long run.
I suggest there are two challenges for us if we find ourselves thinking like this. The first is to ask ourselves why we want to make our conversion of heart dependent upon what others are doing about improving themselves. Secondly, we might do something about changing our inclination to regard others as obstacles in the way of our own efforts at personal conversion. The temptation to compare ourselves with others might be an appropriate launching point for us as we begin this season of Lent. Today’s first and second readings make reference to the cleansing waters of the great flood of Noah’s time and the waters of baptism in the Christian era. Peter reminds us that baptism “is not the washing off of bodily dirt”. Rather, it initiates us into the life-long process of our relating with ourselves, with those around us and with God, in the person of Jesus. Lent is a time when we take practical steps to better those relationships.
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
A leper came to Jesus and pleaded on his knees: “If you want to”, he said, “you can cure me.” Feeling sorry for him, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. “Of course I want to!” he said. “Be cured!” And the leprosy left him at once and he was cured. Mark 1, 40-45
There was a wonderful woman in Wagga Wagga who cooked for the Brothers there for decades. Back in 1948, she cooked a leg of pork, and nearly everyone in the community became ill. She refused to cook pork ever again. Somewhere in their history, the Hebrews noticed that some of their number took ill after eating pork. That led them to formulate rules forbidding the eating of pork. Similar kosher rules were made forbidding the eating of eagles, vultures, buzzards, crows, ostriches, hawks, seagulls, pelicans, owls, storks and herons, and about “those disgusting little creatures that crawl or walk close to the ground”. Shellfish was also forbidden, but locusts, grasshoppers and crickets were allowed to be served up at mealtime. Chapter 11 of Leviticus has all the details. Similarly, there were all kinds of rules about skin diseases and about avoiding contact with anyone suffering from them. In the popular mind, complaints like skin rashes, scabies, ringworm, boils and pimples all came under the one heading of leprosy because they were seen to be contagious. That explains why we hear in today’s first reading: “If you have leprosy, you must tear your clothes, leave your hear uncombed, cover your upper lip, and go around shouting: ‘I’m unclean! I’m unclean!’ As long as you have the disease, you are unclean and must live alone outside the camp” (Leviticus 13, 45-46). The penalty for leprosy was exclusion, and anyone suffering from it had to wear the distinguishing marks of exclusion from the community.
This challenges us to reflect on who are the ones we exclude from our communities and countries. Moreover, what are the markers we put on them to indicate to us and to others that they are excluded? Among those indelible markers are skin colour, ethnicity or simply the fact that such outcasts have arrived at our borders on small boats or on foot.
The leper is one of the central characters in Mark’s Gospel. Blind Bartimaeus, the leper and the destitute woman who gave her last penny to the Temple collection are, for Mark, models of true faith in God. Moreover, Bartimaeus and the leper not only recognise Jesus for who he is, but they place their entire faith and trust in him. Their cries for help are effectively professions of their faith in Jesus, the Messiah of God.
The story of the cure of the leper gets much of its force from the details associated with the act of healing. Jesus broke all the rules spelled out in Leviticus about dealing with lepers. Not only did he invite the leper to come near, he actually touched him, making himself ritually unclean. But Jesus did not encounter a “case of leprosy”, he engaged with a fellow human being, a man in desperate need, a man who had been excluded from the community and from all social interaction.
But there are also several levels of irony in this story. Though Jesus had deliberately broken the rules about dealing with lepers, he still told the man whom he had cured to observe what the law required of him: “Go and show yourself to the priest, and make the offering for your healing prescribed by Moses, as evidence of your recovery.” This was Jesus’ way of trying to get the Religious Leaders to open their eyes to what was happening around them. Mark’s very clear message is that the Messiah had arrived on the scene and the Jewish establishment could not or would not recognise him. Ironically, a leper, ostracized from the community, recognized the Messiah while the established community leaders were blind to that reality.
While it is entirely understandable that the cured leper could not contain his happiness and excitement at readmitted to his village community, Jesus was the one who ended up being pushed aside: “He had to stay outside in places where nobody lived.” The great irony of today’s gospel is that the leper who had been excluded can now freely enter the village while the one who had cured him is forced to stay outside. Remember that Jesus was not interested in personal popularity or in gathering fans around him, who could not appreciate the real significance of the miracles he worked. Jesus was not going to let himself be distracted by those whose sole interest was in wonder-working. Of course he felt for those who suffered and were excluded, but he also knew that no amount of healing or holiness would remove sickness, pain and anguish from our world. He was really calling people to put their faith and trust in a God who loved them unceasingly in good times and in times of struggle, illness and pain. Jesus came not to make people’s problems and difficulties evaporate, but to assure them that they could cope with them by trusting in a God whose love for them is boundless.
This gospel is for all of us. If truth be told, we have all felt excluded at some time or another. Think of the times when we may have missed out on selection for sports teams or for committees for which we had been nominated. Some of us may have missed out in applying for promotions in schools or universities or been told that our services and expertise were no longer needed. Still others of us may not be able to disclose our failures or our personal weaknesses and vulnerabilities. All these situations cause us to experience loneliness, rejection or isolation. Today’s gospel is an invitation to anyone who has known isolation and rejection to come to Jesus as that leper did, asking for healing, consolation and acceptance. It is also a reminder to us that we, too, have the capacity to isolate and exclude others, as well as to welcome, accept, include and heal them. And, in some situations including and welcoming the “lepers” of our modern world may lead to our being excluded. That’s the risk and the price of taking today’s gospel to heart.
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
That evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were sick and those who were possessed by devils. The whole town came crowding round the door, and he healed many who were suffering from diseases of one kind or another; and he cast out many devils, but he would not allow them to speak, because they knew who he was. Mark 1, 29-39
We are now about to move into the last two weeks of Ordinary Time before the season of Lent begins. Over the years we may have come to conclude that Ordinary Time in the Church’s calendar is associated with the uninteresting and the boring or is something to fill up the spaces between the great celebrations of Christmas and Easter and Pentecost and Christ the King.
On the contrary, Ordinary Time is about heightening our awareness to God’s presence in the very ordinary events of everyday life. The ordinary is a revelation of the divine, and it’s through practices such as mindfulness that we grow in our attentiveness to the divine, present in ourselves, one another and in all that happens in the world around us.
Today’s gospel is a telling reminder to us of how Jesus was able to see the presence of God in every person and situation he encountered, of how he was able to reflect the presence of God to others as he engaged with them in the everyday events of life, and of how he touched the face of God in everything he experienced. Untold numbers of people down through history have looked at the person of Jesus and have learned from him how to recognise the presence of God in the ordinary and extraordinary events of their own lives.
John Gillespie Magee Jr was born in China in 1922. He was the first of four boys born to two Anglican missionaries working in China. Most of John’s schooling was completed in Britain. However, in 1939 he visited the United States and was prevented by the outbreak of World War II from returning to the Rugby School in England to complete the last year of his secondary education. He completed the final year of his schooling in Connecticut and was awarded a scholarship to Yale University. Instead of taking up the scholarship, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and, after qualifying as a pilot, was drafted to a Fighter Squadron in Wales, where he learned to fly spitfires. In training he had flown a spitfire to an altitude of 33,000 feet, and that was the inspiration of his poem High Flight, reproduced below. He saw combat action in November-December 1941, but was killed in a mid-air collision with another plane during training in December 1941. High Flight is the official poem of both the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Air Force, was taken by astronaut Michael Collins into space on the Gemini 10 flight, and quoted by President Reagan in his address to the nation in January1986, following the Challenger disaster.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, --and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of --Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air...
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew --
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Both today’s gospel and the poem High Flight are invitations to us to pause and reflect on the opportunities of touching the face of God that come to us every day of our lives, even though those days may be characterized by the same frenetic pace that Mark saw in Jesus’ life and which he describes in the first chapter of his Gospel. In what experiences in the last twenty-four hours of my life was I aware of touching the face of God? How might the quality of my life change if I were to take time at the end of each day to reflect on where I have encountered the divine?
There is a kind of urgency about the gospel readings of today and the last two Sundays. They are all from chapter 1 of Mark’s Gospel and describe the busyness of Jesus’ life as he launched into his ministry. However, Mark makes the point that Jesus would not have been able to get a grasp on what his role in life was all about without taking time for reflection and prayer: “Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place and prayed” (Mark 1, 35). Clear evidence of the depth of his reflection can be seen in his plea to those whom he healed and freed from the grasp of evil. He told them to keep quiet about what he had done for them. He was not looking for fans and popularity. Rather, he was intent on encouraging others to follow him in spirit, by living true to the message and values he proclaimed.
The incident in today’s gospel about the cure of Peter’s mother-in-law has sometimes prompted some to ask why the men sat back and let the woman who just been cured get a meal for them. I suggest that Mark’s message is quite different. While our modern translation says: “the fever left her and she waited on them”, the original Greek word was diekonei, meaning “served” rather than “waited on”. Mark is making the point that once someone is touched by Jesus, he or she automatically chooses to serve others. Jesus did what true compassion required. He did not bother about being ritually contaminated by touching a woman who was ill. Nor did he worry about catching her sickness. If we allow ourselves to be touched by Jesus, we too will put self second and do what we can to reach out in service to others in need. Jesus’ final act of ministry was one of service – he washed the feet of his disciples. He invites us to do likewise.
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Moses said to the people: “Your God will raise up for you a prophet like myself…to him you must listen.” Deuteronomy 18, 15-20
The people were so astonished that they started asking each other what it all meant. “Here is a teaching that is new”, they said, “and with authority behind it: he gives orders even to unclean spirits and they obey him.” Mark 1, 21-28
In today’s first reading, Moses tells the people that they have a choice: they can get God’s message directly or through a prophet designated and appointed by God. But Moses proceeds to warn them that they will know God’s word when they hear it and will be held responsible for how they respond to it. The people had not been slow to point out to Moses that they were afraid of dealing with God directly, saying: “Don’t let us hear the voice of the Lord, our God again, or look any longer on this great fire, or we shall die” (Deuteronomy 18, 16). This was a nation whose collective perception was that God was someone to be feared, to be held in reverence and awe. The people with whom Moses was dealing had little or no concept of a God of love. It was another 600 years before Hosea described God as guiding Israel “with leading strings of love…and being like someone lifting an infant to his cheek and bending down to feed him” (Hosea 11, 1-4).
Moses’ warning came from the insights into human behaviour that he had gathered from observation and experience. He had come to realise that, when we deal with intermediaries, priests, preachers and prophets, we can easily find excuses for missing and dismissing their message. We know that we can hear what we want to hear. We can filter and distort what we hear from the pulpit, simply because listening is never neutral. If we don’t like what the preacher says, we can resort to sheltering behind our own private revelations or connecting to our own direct line to God. Besides, the fact that a prophet is not heard in her or his own country, is no guarantee that she or he will be heard in another country.
That does not mean that we should not critique what we hear from our preachers. Yet, while Father is not always right, he is also not always wrong. That raises the issue of how we might profitably engage with the prophets and preachers of our day. Maybe there should be an agreement that we engage in a dialogical way with those who preach to us. I wonder if we could ever get to the point of interaction and discussion with those appointed to present out Sunday homilies. That way, we might learn from one another. I want to suggest that today’s second reading gives us an incident that contributed eventually to Paul’s education. Can you imagine for a moment how the Corinthians might have responded to Paul’s personal opinion about celibacy and marriage? He had the gall to say that, if the Christians of Corinth took the Lord seriously, they would give up getting married. After being told that “An unmarried man concerns himself with the Lord’s work, because he is trying to please the Lord. But a married man concerns himself with worldly matters, because he wants to please his wife” (1 Corinthians 7, 32-33), the people of Corinth could be forgiven for wanting to lynch Paul. Fortunately, by the time Paul wrote to the Ephesians, he spoke of marriage as being intimately connected with God’s plans for humanity. It would seem that he had learned something from those to whom he preached and wrote. And let’s not forget that preachers and prophets don’t have a monopoly on the truth. God still continues to speak to all of us in the depth of our hearts. We all have insights into truth; God’s Spirit continues to inspire us and lead us to wisdom. So prophets and preachers, in their turn, would do well to be open to feedback and suggestion from the people who sit in the pews.
In reading today’s gospel, we might get the impression that Jesus was totally successful as a preacher and, so, didn’t need feedback from his listeners: “His teaching made a deep impression on the people because, unlike the scribes, he taught them with authority” (Mark 1, 22). However, this was only early in his career. In time, critics from among the ranks of recognized teachers began to analyse his words and find fault with them. We also know that he took the risk of asking for feedback. We read in Mark 8, 27-30 how he asked his disciples what the people were saying about him and who they thought he was. That’s a very risky question for any teacher to ask, for it opens him or her up to have their weaknesses and vulnerabilities exposed. Moreover, as one who took on the human condition fully, Jesus exposed himself to all the potential criticism, praise and dissatisfaction that are part of the dynamic that develops between preachers and their audiences. It would be a cause for admiration if everyone who engaged in teaching did the same.
Finally, I believe that Mark’s comment about the authority of Jesus’ teaching is worthy of further comment. When we reflect on our years of growing and developing towards maturity, many of us can point to somebody who was able to call us to achieve above and beyond what we thought possible. We can identify a teacher, a coach, a boss or a friend who called out of us abilities and skills that we didn’t realise we had. We still remember with gratitude such people for the profound influence they had on our lives. Their encouragement, their affirmation or their belief in us served to inspire us. And in the process, they modelled for us how we, in our turn, can help others to grow into their best selves. They demonstrated the kind of “authority” that Mark, in today’s gospel, describes Jesus as having. His authority emanated not from his power to enforce anything on anybody, but rather from his ability to inspire others and bring out the best in them. It came from his compassion and from his ability to empathise with the people with whom he engaged.
We are further told of how Jesus drove away an “unclean spirit” that controlled the life of one of the people he encountered. Mark’s term “unclean spirit” is a metaphor or symbol for the tendency to evil that we can all sometimes allow to control our actions. The desire to get even, believing that we are better than others, allowing our anger to control us, giving in to jealousy, being afraid to speak out in the face of manifest injustice, allowing selfishness to contaminate our decision-making are all manifestations of “unclean spirits” at work in our lives. By teaching as he did, by releasing others from whatever controlled and troubled them, Jesus made real the love, compassion and mercy of God to a people who had come to experience little other than oppression and injustice. The invitation is for us to do likewise.
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
As he was walking along by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net in the lake - for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them: “Follow me and I will make you into fishers of men.” And at once they left their nets and followed him. Mark 1, 14-20
Back in 1653, the political magazine Mercurius Politicus carried the following advertisement:
“There is newly extant a book of 18d (That’s 18 pence, for those who know only decimal currency), called The Compleat Angler or the Contemplative Man’s Recreation, being a discourse of fish and fishing not unworthy the perusal of most anglers.” Though Izaak Walton gets most of the credit for this extraordinary treatise on the art and recreation of fishing, it was jointly written by him and Charles Cotton, and sold from a bookshop in London. Since then it has gone through countless editions, and can still be bought in paperback for about $10.
I was prompted to make reference to this book by today’s second reading from Corinthians and the gospel story of Jesus calling Simon, Andrew, James and John to leave their nets behind and join him as “fishers of men”. Both readings are about faith - something we all experience, but often find difficult to put into words.
Faith and trust are almost interchangeable in our spoken language and in our day-to-day experience. Just look for a few moments at some of the things we say and do as we go about relating to the people who come into and go out of our lives. For instance, have you ever heard yourself say to someone: “I trust you implicitly”, when it might have been more accurate to have said: “I trust you explicitly”? Or have you ever found yourself wondering if you really trust so-and-so fully or just trust the image you have projected onto that person, hoping that he or she will deliver in accord with the image you have created of him or her? And I’m sure there have been times when you've placed your faith and trust in someone, and then found yourself beginning to doubt because some of that person’s behaviour doesn’t square with the expectations you have created in your imagination.
Is the faith and trust we say we have in God any different? While we might claim that it is based on certainty, if we’re honest, we have to admit that we sometimes have doubts and even find that our faith in God is a bit blurred around the edges. Yet, if we have never had doubts about our faith in God, we are not fully human. Even Jesus dying on the Cross struggled with his faith in God and wondered if God had abandoned him.
In today’s second reading, Paul offers some advice to the Christian community in Corinth on some of the practical matters that impacted on their everyday lives. The context in which Paul offers his advice is important. He and his fellow Christians were convinced that Jesus’ second coming was just around the corner. So he offers his listeners a technique for looking at some of the practical matters of their lives in the light of their faith. He really invites them to downplay the importance of some very practical aspects of their lives: “From now onwards, married men should live as though they were not married (Even then, it seems that women had no voice, and wives were not consulted); those who weep, as though they were not sad; those who laugh, as though they were not happy; those who buy, as though they did not own what they bought; those who deal in material goods, as though they were not fully occupied with them. For this world, as it is now, will not last much longer” (1 Corinthians 7, 29-31). Things like marriage, crying, celebrating, buying and selling and generally running our own lives are substantial, tangible experiences. By contrast, faith seems to be an experience that we find difficult to get hold of; it’s intangible and elusive. So Paul suggests to his audience, that they might do well to play down the things that preoccupy them and give more attention to their religious faith and trust. I wonder if this was Paul’s way of saying that satisfaction of the three most powerful human urges - for possessions, sex and the desire to be in charge of our lives - can distract us from putting our faith and trust in God. I leave that to you to decide. But, at the very least, he is offering a technique to help his listeners to stop and reflect on the quality and shape of their faith in God. And that prompts me to ask myself what my faith in God is like.
But the normal, everyday, concrete experiences of life don’t have to be a threat to faith. Sometimes faith is an extension of those experiences. Today’s gospel gives us a very real example of that. Note that Jesus doesn’t belittle or criticise what those first disciples were doing with their lives. Rather, he capitalises on the fact that they were fishermen, telling them that he will build on the skills they already have, as he teaches them to be fishers of men. They already have the flexibility required to be patient as they go about their trade, waiting for the right conditions to play out their nets, experimenting with different kinds of gear and lures, resigning themselves to the fact that a good catch won’t come every day. These are skills and attitudes that are transferable to working with people. When it comes to inviting others to change their attitudes and behaviours, one has to be patient and able to judge when the circumstances are right for them to be able to hear the message. Jesus knew that the journey ahead would not be without its challenges. He therefore chose helpers who would know how to rough it, who would have a capacity to endure resistance, who would be able to adapt to different circumstances. Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler was still 1600 years away, but those first disciples had an affinity with nature, with seas and waterways; they knew tides and currents; they knew the experience of having to wait patiently for the right conditions for catching fish. Jesus seems to think that experiences from their daily work would stand them in good stead when it came to dealing with people.
John Henry Cardinal Newman once said: “Belief engenders belief,” suggesting that, in our day-to-day lives, we have a far greater experience of faith than we actually realize - faith in other people and in what they say and do. And all this, before we even begin to consider our faith in God! In the long run, if our faith in God isn’t a bit fuzzy or uncertain, it probably isn’t faith at all. But it grows out of the ordinary experiences of our living, working and relating.
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Eli then understood that it was the Lord who was calling the boy, and he said to Samuel: “Go and lie down, and if someone calls say: ‘Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.’” 1 Samuel 3, 3-10, 19
Jesus turned, saw them following him, and asked: “What are you looking for?” John 1, 34-42
Marked declines in things like church attendance and voter turn-out in national elections all around the world suggest that there is an increasing lack of confidence on the part of ordinary people in government, Church and institutional leadership. The publication this week of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury is symptomatic of ordinary people’s loss of faith in leadership, and their search for satisfaction and meaning beyond the institutions that have repeatedly failed them.
More and more people are simply fed up with the hypocrisy, the lies, the bickering and the betrayal by leaders and institutions of whom they had every right to expect better. They have embarked on their own searching to find meaning elsewhere.
Today’s gospel reading presents some of those who would eventually become Jesus’ earliest disciples as people searching for something they have not yet been able to properly articulate. Yet, they had high expectations: they wanted a messiah. They were blessed in finding Jesus. Not all who follow someone attractive have the good fortune to have their attention captured in the way that Jesus captured theirs.
Of significance in the first reading from the Book of Samuel and the Gospel reading is the fact that they give attention to three people who were instrumental in helping others in their search for meaning in their lives. Eli directed a very young Samuel to be attentive to the voice of God, John the Baptist directed two of his own disciples - Andrew and one who is not named - to make contact with Jesus, and Andrew, in his turn, invited his brother Simon to meet with Jesus, whom Andrew had already recognized as the Messiah. The same Andrew was later to bring to Jesus the youngster with the five loaves and two dried fish and to introduce to Jesus the group of Greeks who had come to him asking: “Sir, we would like to meet Jesus” (John 12, 22). All three of these characters leave me asking myself if I have ever been instrumental in helping anyone in his or her searching for God, the only real answer to everyone’s search for meaning.
It is worth taking a few minutes to reflect on Eli’s life. He is described as a father who knew bitter disappointment in his own life. Despite his holding the very significant position of high priest, Eli was unsuccessful in his efforts to raise his two sons in the faith and traditions of Judaism. They are described as having “no regard for the Lord”. Eli would have had to endure the gossip and criticism of a congregation wondering about his capacity as a religious leader when he couldn’t get his own sons to darken the doors of the Temple or a local synagogue. Eli is a sign of hope for all disappointed parents and grandparents. While he could not open the minds and hearts of his own sons, he taught one of the great future prophets of Israel to listen to the voice of God. Eli is a sign of hope for all of us. However fragile we are, we all can be wounded healers for others, perhaps even without knowing it. By living authentically our vocation as disciples of Jesus, we can all be teachers of life and integrity to others.
In the gospel reading of today, we hear the Baptist selflessly directing two of his own disciples not just to notice Jesus but to “behold” him - to take hold of Jesus, to grasp the significance of who he really is. That same invitation is directed to us. We, too, are invited to open ourselves to the presence of Jesus in our midst; to encounter Jesus present in everyone with whom we engage each day. We have just celebrated the birth of Jesus as one of us, as one in whom God has taken on our humanity in all its messiness, failure and disappointment. But in Jesus we can also learn how to manage our lives with compassion, graciousness, generosity and love.
We also know that we do not always measure up as encouragers to those around us who are searching. And it’s not out of malice that we fail. All too often we are slow to reveal to others our deeper, richer selves, simply because we are reluctant to acknowledge our own goodness and worth. We sell ourselves short because we don’t appreciate ourselves as known to and loved by Jesus. It is important for us to accept that we, like Andrew, have a mission to proclaim Jesus by the way we live and act. Today’s gospel reading makes it clear that it was only through Andrew that Simon came to encounter Jesus, and that it was only through the Baptist that Andrew himself found his way to Jesus. Our role is to be Andrew and the Baptist for others.
Finally, let’s not forget that, in our Christian tradition, searching is a two-way-street. However intense may be our personal searching for truth, for meaning, for God, let’s remember that God is always searching to find a way into our lives. God persisted with young Samuel. We can we sure that God will be equally persistent with us, too. Eloquent testimony to that can be found in Francis Thompson’s poem The Hound of Heaven. (It’s readily available in full on “Professor Google”.)
“Nations will be drawn to your light, and kings to the dawning of your new day.” Isaiah 60, 1-6
Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying: “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We have seen his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” Matthew 2, 1-12
In his book Table Talk: Beginning the Conversation on the Gospel of Matthew (New City Press, N.Y. 2009), Jay Cormier describes the response of the members of a parish community after their church was destroyed by fire. He writes:
“As soon as the fire marshal gave the all-clear, the devastated pastor and parishioners combed the rubble to salvage the few things they could. Then interesting things began to happen. A nearby church - a congregation that the displaced congregation had little to do with before - offered them the use of their religious education building for services and meetings for as long as they needed it. Churches from nearby towns offered hymnals and other supplies; several churches took up a special collection for the congregation.
At the first service following the fire, the members of the congregation, who were used to sitting in their “own” places at a comfortable distance from one another, found themselves sitting side-by-side on folding chairs. After the service, teams started to form to deal with insurance, organize temporary arrangements for parish programs and religious education, and sketch out preliminary plans for a new church…Parishioners who knew one another only by name, who, until then, had exchanged only pleasant but perfunctory hellos on Sundays, were now working together to rebuild not just their beautiful building but the community they had taken for granted. And in the grief and loss they felt that Sunday morning they prayed and sang in a way few had ever experienced before. In the new journey they had begun as a church, they had rediscovered the God within them.”
The members of that small community had experienced an “epiphany” - the manifestation or appearance of the holy within and among them.
Today’s gospel presents the story of how a group of sages or astrologers from the east embarked on a long and risky journey in search of an unknown, newborn king, with the light of a mysterious star to guide them. Matthew is the only Gospel-writer to include this story, and it’s a story that has attracted many additions since Matthew’s time. Note that he doesn’t call the visitors “kings”, he does not record how many there were and he doesn’t give them names. By telling the story the way he does, Matthew offers his audience a preview of what is to come in his Gospel: Different people will have different reactions to the birth of Jesus. Those reactions parallel the later reactions to Jesus and what he taught in the course of his ministry.
The sages from the east did not arrive unnoticed. They were clearly a topic of conversation. Matthew tells us that when they announced the reason for their coming, “Herod was perturbed, and so was the whole of Jerusalem.” Herod’s reaction was to call in the chief priests and scribes for more information. Their response was what one might expect from totally disinterested bystanders. Without the slightest show of emotion, they identified Bethlehem as the place where the Messiah was to be born, and quoted from the prophet Micah to substantiate what they said. Yet, despite their pretended indifference, these religious leaders must have been taken aback by a group of exotic magicians, carrying horoscopes and gifts of aromatic spices.
Herod, on the other hand, called in these sages for close interrogation, specifying the questions to which he wanted answers. Warned in a dream to steer clear of Herod, they took a different road out of town. Herod’s feigned interest in wanting to worship this infant king heralded by the magi quickly evaporated. The credibility of the magi triggered his insecurity, which, in turn, fuelled his fury, which led to the irrationality of mass infanticide. Herod is testimony to the fact that even tyrants who behave like fools can be frighteningly dangerous.
In marked contrast to Herod and the Jewish religious leaders, the magi, who would have been seen as non-believers in the eyes of every true Israelite, came with open hearts and minds, ready to welcome whatever would be revealed to them. Theirs was a journey of faith, a search for the things of God. In that respect, their searching mirrors our life-long journeying to find and embrace the justice, peace, generosity and compassion that Jesus ushered into our world. Epiphany is an invitation to all of us to welcome into our lives Emmanuel, God-with-us, whose light helps us to see the presence of God in our midst, to recognise the God who is ever present, but not always apparent.
I offer a final comment on this wonderful magi story from that great scripture scholar, Raymond Brown. He notes how Christians, over the years, have set their imaginations to work on Matthew’s original story. Even now, children shape it in their own way to make it meaningful. One small boy from England recently volunteered: “The three wise men brought Jesus some gold stuff, but Legos would have been better.” In his book, The Birth of the Messiah, Brown comments that Matthew would have been thrilled with the way we Christians have coloured his magi story with the crayons of our imagination. The exotic details which Matthew provided invite us to imagine the unimaginable: that God has turned the face of welcome and mercy to every people and nation on earth; that magi from the East, hippies from San Francisco and mountain dwellers from Bolivia can all find their way to God. This story of the magi opens for us all the story of Jesus, Emmanuel, coming to live as one of us, assuring us that there is a place for all of us in his circle, whether we come from near or far, from a recognized faith or no faith at all. It was no wonder that Herod and all of Jerusalem were set on edge when the magi turned up from nowhere asking for the king of the Jews. Yet, despite his ambitions, Herod had no control over who would get access to the king the magi had come to find. Just a week ago, children across the globe dressed up in bathrobes and cardboard crowns, and made their way down church aisles, imagining that they had an integral role in the great event of Christmas. They were surely onto something that many of us still have to learn.
The Holy Family
“This child is chosen by God for the destruction and the salvation of many in Israel. He will be a sign from God which many people will speak against… ‘Did you not know I must be about my Father’s business?’” Luke 2, 22-52
(Please note that in some places today’s gospel reading is Luke 2, 22-40)
Bringing up a child presents all parents with a succession of challenges. We know from our observations that most children adopt their parents’ values and attitudes, at least until they reach adolescence. They often pick up their parents’ mannerisms and style of relating and communicating. They even mirror their parents’ prejudices, ambitions and political views. In their infancy, children learn to trust, to love and to depend, through being touched, held in warm embrace and fed and bathed regularly.
Adolescence is often a time characterized by rebellion, petulance and emotional unpredictability. It can also be a time when young people, in their quest for independence, take risks, branch out on their own and express their initiative in creative and healthy ways.
Today’s gospel tells us something about the way in which Jesus grew and developed in a small family that belonged to a tightly ordered society. We are told, too, that his religiously observant parents took him as a child to the temple in Jerusalem, where they fulfilled “all that was required by the Law of the Lord.” They might well have had second thoughts had they known in advance the reception they would get from Simeon and Anna - two energetically devout, elderly people, symbols of those ever-faithful women and men who are the pillars of our churches today. Mary and Joseph could not have imagined that their son, whom they were consecrating to God, would one day return and, in a fit of anger, overturn the tables of the money-changers and the precincts of that same temple. Surely they would have been embarrassed to think that he would have heated debates with their religious leaders, would disrespect their laws and even encourage his disciples to do likewise. Yet it was at things like this that Simeon was hinting when he foretold that the child Jesus would create division and was “destined to be a sign that is rejected”.
There is no evidence in scripture to allow us to conclude that the seeds of Jesus’ thinking, feeling and acting in his adult life were sown by Joseph and Mary. However, the values of prayerfulness, honesty and integrity that he grew to espouse are values that every parent works to instill in their children. As children mature, we come to learn that many of them are full of surprises. They take new directions and make life choices that go beyond everything their parents ever dreamed of. Jesus was clearly in that category. But he surely learned from his parents that centring one’s life on God is indispensible. He learned their values, yet found his own way of giving practical expressioin to those values.
The incident of Jesus, in his early adolescence, confounding the teachers in the temple, identifies him as being something of a child prodigy. That’s a theme that has been part of stories and legends across generations. Stories in which children outsmart learned and powerful adults appeal to the child in most of us. In our childhood, we all enjoyed the repetition of the English fairy-tale, Jack and the Beanstalk, in which Jack gets the better of the giant, claims the giant’s treasure, and saves his widowed mother from destitution. Hansel and Gretel trick the wicked witch, Red Riding Hood finally outsmarts the wolf, and, in the Book of Samuel, we learn how David, in his youth, prevailed over the might of the Philistines by bringing down Goliath with a stone and a slingshot.
Today’s gospel reading describes how Jesus, a youngster from an obscure village, with no formal education, confounds the elite teachers in the temple. It is a story to assure us that no matter how humble our origins, how insignificant our resources, how low our social status, we all have human dignity and the assurance that God is with us. As a consequence, we are encouraged to settle for nothing less. All too often, we can slip into being hesitant, insecure and fearful because we convince ourselves that our gifts might make us stand out from the crowd, if we express them fully. In her book A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles, Marianne Williamson comments on that tendency, to which we are all prone:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” (Published by HarperOne, 1996)
Do we ever stop to think that Jesus got it right when he said to his parents: “Didn’t you realise that I must be about my Father’s business?” As an adolescent, he had already come to appreciate that God’s business is about reaching out to the needy, promoting peace and justice, forgiving those who have offended us, treating with respect and dignity everyone we encounter in our day-to-day lives. St Irenaeus reminded us that: “The glory of God is men and women fully alive.” Are we courageous enough to shine the glory of God on our world?
So, today’s stories of Simeon’s understanding of how Jesus’ life could unfold and of Jesus startling the most learned scholars of the Jewish Law are invitations to us to remind ourselves of what it means to live as sons and daughters of God. They are invitations to let our light shine at its best and brightest.
Christmas: The Birth of Jesus
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home, for it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” Luke 2, 15-20
“For today in the city of David a saviour has been born to you, who is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2, 1-14
“Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” Luke 2, 15-20
“And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us…” John 1, 1-18
We are all well aware of how every culture creates stories to explain very important events and to commemorate very significant people. All the Gospel writers did that very thing to tell the story of Jesus and the extraordinary circumstances of his conception and birth. Matthew introduced his story by giving us the genealogy or family tree of Jesus. While there is considerable doubt about its historical accuracy, Jesus’ genealogy is Matthew’s way of saying that Jesus’ birth was always in the mind of the God who created a world that would come to know true justice and peace. Matthew proceeded to give his version of how Jesus came to be born. Joseph has a central role in Matthew’s telling of the story.
Luke’s version of the same story puts the spotlight on Mary. He places Jesus’ birth squarely in the reign of the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, who was described in many Greek inscriptions as a god and saviour. Luke is at pains to point out that, during the reign of Augustus - an era often referred to as the pax romana, a time when peace prevailed throughout the entire Roman Empire, Jesus, the Messiah and Christ of God, the true Saviour of the world was born. Luke also notes that the announcement of Jesus’ birth was made first to shepherds, who were regarded as the dregs of Jewish society. This introduces a theme that runs throughout Luke’s Gospel: that God’s preference is for the poor and marginalized, and it was they who were the first to heed the message of Jesus and walk in his footsteps. Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus herald’s the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah, the Prince of Peace and Saviour of the world. Matthew announces that Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled - a prophecy that a virgin will conceive and give birth to a son who is a descendant of David. Moreover that child is Emmanuel, God-with-us.
Matthew and Luke provide the gospel passages that are proclaimed at the vigil, midnight and dawn Masses of Christmas. The gospel proclaimed on Christmas Day itself is taken from John, who announces that Jesus is the Word of God who ushers in a new creation, is the light that shines in the darkness, is God’s love personified and dwelling among us in human flesh. John’s language is not the concrete language of narrative and story-telling. It is the philosophical and theological language of concept and logical explanation.
Matthew and Luke give us stories peopled with shepherds, angels, magi and unwelcoming inn-keepers. John gives us abstract, theological explanation. And ever since then, almost every known culture has added its own stories and legends to illustrate how the birth of Jesus has impacted on our world and its peoples, and how love is the key to unlocking everything that prevents them from being their true selves. The Russian story of Babushka is one example:
Grandmother Babushka was about to retire for the night when there was a knock at her door. It was the Magi, who told her excitedly about the King born in Bethlehem. They urged her to go with them to honour him. She peeped out of her door at the fierce wind and snow, looked back at her warm bed, hesitated and said: “I will visit the Christ Child - tomorrow.” No sooner was she in bed than there was another knock at her door. This time it was the shepherds urging her to join them, but if not, at least to give them a basket of sweets to take to the Christ Child. Once again, she looked at the weather, back again at her bed, hesitated, and finally replied: “I’ll bring them myself - tomorrow.” The next day, Babushka was as good as her word. She packed some food and headed for Bethlehem. When she got there the stable was empty. Crestfallen, but determined, she started searching. And she searched for the rest of her life. On her endless journey, she encountered children everywhere she went. She came across many a manger and many a cradle, and found many mothers nursing their babies. She left gifts for every baby she met, hoping that one of them was the Christ Child. Eventually, she could go on no longer, and, near death, lay down to die. As she was dying, the Christ Child appeared to her, wearing the face of every child she had ever visited. And so, she died happily, knowing that, despite her first hesitation, she had encountered the Christ Child, not in the manger where she had expected him, but in every one of the poor children she had visited.
The Christ Child does not come to us alone. He has strange friends and hangers-on. He even has causes to embrace and things to be done. Despite all his love for us, he is uneasy if we fail to embrace all his friends and projects. When he grew up, he took a lot of people to heart, and suffered because of his love for them. He took them to heart in their pettiness, their brokenness and their isolation. Sometimes his heart looked more like a hospital emergency room than a treasure house. Without a doubt, his mother had taught him a thing or two along the way.
Christmas is a time for treasuring. Sometimes we get it back the front. We give gifts, not always as a sign that we treasure those to whom we give them, but as an alternative to letting them into our lives. If we dare to look around us, we will see others who reach out in welcome to street people and shut-ins, to the lonely and isolated, to sick children and to elderly people who are forgotten. Christmas is a time when these generous people shine, when they succeed where the stingy inn-keepers of our world are found wanting. Somehow, they have caught the spirit of God’s kindness and love. Unlike Santa, God does not ask if we have been good boys and girls. The true spirit of Christmas takes the risk of love - just as Mary did. When we come to realize this, we may well feel humbled. We may even doubt our capacity for generosity, for making a treasure room out of our barren stables. The answer for us is born today.
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.)
“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?
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.
“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.” God does not approve of suffering, whether it is self-inflicted, gratuitously meted out by others, or delivered as punishment. However, there will be times in life when we will suffer for actions we have taken. Confronting injustice in the work place, speaking a challenging truth, or marching in support of asylum seekers are actions that can lead to criticism and alienation. They are actions that are expressions of our integrity and they are freely chosen. They are very different from situations of violence and abuse that people would get out of if they could. When we stand up, speak out or demonstrate out of personal integrity, we are willingly doing something that we know may have painful consequences. It’s that willingness that gets the stamp of God’s approval. The reading goes on to point out that Jesus endured suffering because he was unwilling to return abuse for the abuse he received. He saw his mission as something bigger than that. And that was a conscious choice on his part. One of the reasons he conducted himself like that was to demonstrate how we could live in order to promote right values (righteousness) and justice. Conducting ourselves that way is living as God would have us live. And that’s our choice. Involuntary suffering is totally different. As far as God is concerned, it certainly does not meet with any kind of approval.
Third Sunday of Easter
And it happened that, while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognising him. He asked them: “What are you discussing as you walk along?”…One of them, named Cleopas, said to him in reply: “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?” Luke 24, 13-35
The story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus is very tightly structured. Moreover it has much to say to those of us who want to see ourselves as ordinary Christians, struggling to do our best. Before exploring the story, we might do well to look at some of the subtleties within, and even to see what assumptions we come with.
This is the only place in the New Testament where the disciple Cleopas is identified by name. The root meaning of the name is “renowned father” or “glory of the father”. Perhaps Cleopas was his father’s greatest treasure. We know well the feminine form of the name in Cleopatra. There might be value in asking ourselves why Cleopas’ companion is not identified by name. Indeed, we may have assumed that his companion was another man. Yet there is nothing to suggest this, and we do know that Jesus had female disciples. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, we are told that Jesus sent his disciples out two by two and that their message to those they encountered was to be: “The kingdom of God is near” (Luke 10, 9). I want to suggest that it is not just coincidence that Jesus is described as “coming near” to the disciples when he encounters them on the road. They had been taught that when they engage in doing good, God’s kingdom comes near to those to whom they reach out. Yet, they failed to recognise that God’s kingdom was present to them when a stranger came near and encouraged and comforted them. And isn’t that the same with us? Don’t we often fail to recognise God’s presence in the ordinary kindnesses we receive from friends and strangers? The last part of preparing ourselves for this Emmaus story is a brief exploration of the word “stranger”. Luke uses a Greek word paroikos, meaning stranger, exile or alien. Our translation gives us the sanitised word visitor.
But think about it. Jesus and his message were alien to the powerful people of his day. In fact, in his infancy, he and his parents were quite literally aliens and illegals in Egypt, as were his Jewish predecessors, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and Jeremiah, who all lived as aliens at some time or other. “Alien” is an ugly word signifying difference or not belonging. In these days of border protection and locking people out, those who manage to elude immigration police are frequently described as illegal aliens. I want to suggest that the two disciples of today’s gospel mistook Jesus as an alien, because of his pretended ignorance of local happenings or maybe because of his Galilean accent. Such misrecognition is essential to the story as Jesus plays “hide and seek” with the disciples. But notice that the other resurrection stories are all built around misrecognition. Mary Magdalene did not recognise Jesus. Peter and the disciples, when they were out fishing, did not recognise that it was Jesus who was cooking breakfast on the shore. And finally, those in the early Christian community regarded themselves as belonging to a paroikia (from which the words parish and parochial are derived) - a group of aliens – because their lives were built around the person and teachings of one who was executed as an alien, outside the walls of Jerusalem. The message that we as Christians try to live and proclaim is alien to so much that is happening in our world.
So, the Emmaus story is Luke’s way of teaching us that Jesus is somehow present in every event of our lives but all too often we fail to recognise him. The story of the two disciples on the road is our story. It's a story of everyday discouragement, disappointment and drudgery. It’s about bumping into a stranger on the way to work or in the supermarket; about the everyday occurrence of sitting down at table and sharing a meal with family or friends. It’s about the commonplace things that make up our daily lives and about our efforts to make sense of them all and to ponder where they are leading us.
As the two disciples made their way to Emmaus, they were certainly dispirited. Their life with Jesus had not turned out to be what they expected. As we follow the story, we know that these disciples are on the road of life, and they have just experienced one hurt too many. They certainly can’t see God anywhere in what has happened. So their meeting with a total stranger allows them time to vent, and to pour out their woes to someone who is a willing listener. Their venting is no different from ours: the insensitivity of our politicians, the mess of the economy, the refugees around the world, the pressure at work or in school and university - all the threads of our lives. And they finish off by voicing their deep disappointment: “We had hoped…” But for what? The same kind of thing we think about and hope for: Where is God in all the mess? What’s the point of slogging away at what we’re trying to achieve? Why did I get cancer and am now forced to go through chemotherapy? I wish I had some kind of a sign from God.
This Emmaus story picks up the worries, questions and concerns we all face, whether we are in the second half of life, the middle or just venturing out. Along the way, we talk with others, we argue, we question, we wonder if it all makes sense. Every now and then something good happens. But we bemoan our lot when the cheats of our world seem to prosper. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus find the words we may not be able to articulate: “We were hoping that we had found the Messiah, a God of compassion and justice who would put things right and help us to make sense of it all.” And then, unexpectedly, in response to an offer of hospitality, comes the Risen Jesus - in the disguise of a stranger with holes in his hands. He shares a meal with them, he shares himself.
And, of course, that’s the very point of the story. God is here in our midst. God touches the everydayness of our lives, but we so often fail to recognise what is happening. This story is a potent reminder that God wants to be near us; that God can be found everywhere; that resurrection moments abound in our lives, if only we could see them.
A keynote speaker at an education conference (we’ll call him Frank) was on his flight home, and was allocated a seat next to one of the conference participants. They struck up a conversation, during which the man told Frank that one of his sons, a young man of 24, was in a nursing home in a comatose condition, as the result of a serious road accident. The man startled Frank when he admitted: “My wife and I visited our son often, out of our duty as parents, but we got to a point when we stopped loving him. We saw love as a reciprocal relationship, and our son could neither give nor receive. We continued visiting him, but we really stopped loving him. However, when we turned up routinely one day for one of our weekly visits, our son had a visitor who was a complete stranger to us. We soon realised that he must have been a Eucharistic minister from our local parish. As we waited impatiently outside the room, we saw the visitor talking to our son, as though they were having a conversation. I thought to myself: ‘As if my son could appreciate a conversation!’ Then he prayed a psalm from the Bible - ‘As if my son could appreciate a psalm!’ Then he gave him communion - ‘As if my son could appreciate receiving communion!’ And then it struck me that the visitor really did know something. He did not see my son as a case, but as a young man who had value and dignity. He saw my son as God sees him.”
That eucharistic minister was the stranger on the Emmaus road. How many strangers are we likely to encounter in the coming week?
Second Sunday of Easter
Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them: “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side…He said to them again: “Peace be with you…” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” John 20, 19-31
Some years ago, Christine Kingery, a woman of Jewish extraction, explained how stories told to her by her grandmother helped her to make sense of her own life. Christine's Russian-born grandmother had been captured by the Nazis and taken to a work camp in Germany when she was 17. They shaved off her waist-length hair and tortured her. She never saw her parents or siblings again. However, the resourceful young woman escaped and worked for many months as a nurse in underground movements in Germany and Belgium, until she was captured a second time and taken to a concentration camp. There she met Christine's grandfather, and the two escaped. Eventually, they and their newborn-daughter - Christine's mother – made their way to the United States.
Christine remembers hearing that story when she was eight years old, and saying to her grandmother: "I hate the Germans for what they did to you! Don't you just get so mad at them?" But, to this day, she remembers her grandmother's response. In broken English the elderly woman said: "The German people are my friends. When I escaped and had nowhere to go, they gave me food, shelter, and clothes. They were my friends, even in the camps. The Germans are the kindest people I know." While her grandmother’s answer shocked Christine, it was her first introduction to the meaning of compassion.
A few years later, when Christine was in high school, she had the chance to go to Japan. She visited Nagasaki. The experience was overwhelming. In almost every photograph she looked at, in every Japanese victim's face, she saw her grandmother's reflection. Christine had to go outside to Peace Park, located on the bomb-site. Beautifully coloured origami cranes - thousands of them - were draped over statues and trees. Christine sat on a park bench and cried uncontrollably. An old Japanese woman, about the same age as Christine’s grandmother, saw the teenager on the bench, and came and sat next to her. The old woman put her wrinkled hands in Christine's, and, in broken English, said: "Peace starts right here. Peace starts with you and me. It starts today." (Produced by Dan Gediman for This I Believe Inc, 2010)
As we grow and mature, we all struggle to establish our identity, to stabilise it and to understand it. And to tell the truth, there are times when we behave in ways that surprise us, and leave us wondering whether we really do know and understand who we are. When we are courageous enough to stop and ponder who we are, we soon realise that we are a strange mixture of body, emotion, intellect, relationships, plans, hopes and happy and haunting memories. And we consciously set ourselves to manage all these elements with as much skill as we can muster, trying not to self-destruct. We discover that the task is not simple, especially when we become aware of our inner conflicts and contradictions. We become even more confused when our mood swings take over and our psychic circuitry becomes overloaded. Yet, we live in the hope that, if we make the effort to grow and discover ourselves, one day a relatively peaceful and well put-together person will emerge. But we will still carry the scars of our struggle.
Notice in today’s gospel that Jesus, immediately after offering his disciples the gift of peace, showed them the scars on his hands and side. Why does the Gospel writer connect the peace of Christ with the wounds of Christ? Ponder this for a moment: How would those near us react at the “Sign of Peace” during Mass if we exchanged greetings like: “Peace be with you, Henry, and have a look at the scar on my chest from my bypass surgery!” “Peace be with you, Madonna. I’ll show you the huge electricity bill that arrived in my mail today.” “Peace be with you, Helen. Did you hear about my son’s broken leg?” While we are people of faith, we are fooling ourselves if we try to pretend that the personal hurts we suffer do not make us guarded and fearful.
Back to the gospel story: A week later, when Jesus appeared to all the disciples, Thomas included, he greeted them with peace, and immediately pulled up his shirt and invited Thomas to trace his scars with his finger.
Jesus was demonstrating graphically that our wounds, our inadequacies are part of who we are. In the room where the disciples had locked themselves, everyone’s wounds were on display, including the wounds of Jesus. Thomas came to belief precisely because those wounds were on display. He was struggling not just with the possibility that Jesus was alive, but with the apparently senseless need of his having to die in the first place.
There are still a couple of other challenges in today’s readings. If the disciples believed that Jesus was risen, why had they locked themselves away, apparently paralysed by fear? Was it simply because they feared the Jews would murder them as they had murdered Jesus? Might it have been because women were regarded as unreliable witnesses, and, therefore, could not be believed? But, there is not even a hint that they did not believe the women. So, I suggest it was because they were not confident that even a risen Jesus could save them. Doesn’t that reflect something of you and me? We say we believe in God, but we’re not always confident that God can or will help us when things are tough. The Letter to the Hebrews has a lot to say about faith, including this: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, for anyone who approaches God must believe God exists AND rewards those who seek God.” (Hebrews 11, 6) The small-minded part of me might prefer to criticise the disciples for not believing women. But, if I am honest with myself, I have to acknowledge that I really don’t earnestly seek God and that I could, like the disciples, lock myself away in the belief that the risen Jesus doesn’t really care about me. And let’s not forget that today’s second reading reminds us that the trials that come our way are to test us to see if our faith is genuine: “Even gold, which can be destroyed, is tested by fire; and so, your faith, which is much more precious than gold, must also be tested, so that it may endure.” (1 Peter 1, 7) The fact that we have not seen God or Jesus makes our faith tougher - tougher to attain and tougher or more durable once we have embraced it. So, today’s readings push us to examine the depth and genuineness of our faith.
Finally, there’s a puzzling aspect of today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. It presents an idyllic picture of faith, giving the impression that the fledgling Christian community had no inadequacies, no problems with which to deal. Yet the remainder of Acts describes how the community almost fell apart at the seams. There are episodes of confusion, squabbles, rivalry, deceit and recrimination. Luke records how those early community members grew as they came to appreciate the price of a mature faith that refused to see religion as an escape from the realities going on among and around them. So, too, for us, faith is not some kind of haven where we can ignore or dismiss what is going on inside ourselves and in the world around us.
The enduring message of Easter is that the Risen Christ leaves his disciples (and that includes us) with the gift of his peace - a peace that is ever so much more than an absence of conflict; a peace that renews and transforms; a peace that grows out of gratefulness and integrity; a peace that respects the needs, hopes and dreams of others above our own; a peace that welcomes the lost, heals the broken-hearted and honours the dignity of all. Today’s readings ask us if we are able to embrace this kind of transforming peace and share it with everyone we encounter. Let’s not forget that peace in our world begins with us.
“My love for you will never end; I will keep forever my promise of peace.” Isaiah 54, 5-14
And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, approached, rolled back the stone, and sat on it…Then the angel said to the women… “Go quickly and tell his disciples ‘He has been raised from the dead and he is going before you into Galilee; there you will see him.’ ” Matthew 28, 1-10
Two weeks ago we were invited to ponder Tolstoy’s comment: “Anyone over thirty-five who does not reflect on death is a fool.” Today, we cannot avoid thinking about death, but from an entirely different perspective. After all, one has to love something very, very deeply to want to bring it back from the dead. Think, for example, about what it is that keeps slums from developing. It is a mixture of disdain from those outside and self-hatred on the part of those within that keeps slums the way they are. And it’s a scarcity of caring people that locks entire nations into cycles of poverty, starvation, unemployment and hopelessness. If we all cared enough for the earth, our common home, rivers would run clear again, stars we haven’t seen for decades would reappear, and trees would look resplendent. Dead and strained relationships in families, communities, work places and schools; boredom and edginess; sullen distancing than keeps out strangers - all these could begin to be transformed with a word of encouragement, acceptance, humour or welcome. At Easter, we can dare to ask: Who can love enough to resurrect the earth and all its people? The answer, of course, is to be found in the gospel readings.
But that’s just for starters! What kind of love can brighten the lot of the sick and elderly who wait, frail and faltering, for death to come their way? And, what of all those who, since almost the dawn of time, have lain buried in the earth?
Yet, the focus of our Easter celebration is the boundless love than can handle all this death and more. It is God’s love for Jesus, the Christ. As we listen to the readings and the Easter proclamation, we are given a grandstand view of how God stunningly expresses love for Jesus in a resurrection. Even more incredible is the fact that resurrection is not limited to Jesus, for he has linked himself irrevocably with us, and elicits from God for us the same kind of recreative love that God has for him. Jesus presents us to God as his brothers and sisters, not because of our virtue, but on account of our humanity, however frail it is. In the Easter Vigil reading from Romans, Paul reminds us that, through our Baptism, we have been crucified with Jesus, and, therefore, will be raised with him by God. We can all too easily gloss over the first part of that reminder, giving it dutiful assent, but hoping it won’t come true. But let’s pause to look at what it really means. Baptism is much more than being blessed and doused with water. It means being initiated into a community that tries to reach out to others in love and compassion, and getting criticised and crucified for our efforts. There isn’t one of us who has not been hurt while straining to do our best in the service of compassion and love. Christians don’t have to make arrangements to be crucified. It’s just a consequence of trying to stave off the many kinds of death that plague us as humans. What’s more, if we are honest, we have to admit that we have even done our own share of crucifying. Yet somehow, Jesus spruces us up and presents us to God as old friends who share with him all the limitations that go with being human. Whatever our inadequacies, Jesus sticks by us, overlooking our failures to stand by him. It’s his way of reinforcing his message that God loves us unconditionally, and has always loved us. If we need any further convincing, all we need do is return to the readings of the Easter Vigil, which offer us a panoramic view of the history of God’s love for humanity. Easter is God’s vindication of Jesus, of all that Jesus lived and proclaimed. The empty tomb signals the ultimate victory of the Gospel, of compassion, forgiveness, respect, generosity and love over humanity’s inclination to slip into despair, isolation, prejudice and self-interest.
Easter is not entirely a gentle or welcome experience, for it tumbles us out of the tombs we build for ourselves. Confinement can dull us into a sense of safety and security. After all, we come to know the limits of our tombs, and learn to exist within those limits. Easter signals the return of the risen Christ who comes to dismantle the protective walls we build, to drag us from our tombs and to push us into light and life. Easter is never about safety; it’s about freedom. As one of today’s gospel readings proclaim, Easter is not about the past in Jerusalem, but about the hope and freedom that await us in Galilee. This is all summed up in the words of a poem written by Michelle Berberet:
After the agony and humiliation
would you be willing to give up
the cold comfort of death
for the pain of rebirth
and the cell-splitting joy of glory? (America, Nov 17, 2016)
We manage to adjust to suffering and humiliation; we come to accept our crucifixions and deaths, relieved that they're over. We accept our existence in our "tombs," happy that the humiliation is behind us: a promised promotion doesn’t materialise, so we keep our heads down to hold on to the job we have; we apply for a position in another institution, fail to make the interview list, and try to convince ourselves that we’re better off where we are; the constant clashing with a work colleague has settled into a silent if uneasy truce of sorts, and we pretend that all is well.
We say to ourselves: “Keep the difficult stuff buried. Don't risk anymore. Get on with life.”
But at Easter, our spirits find voice. We're really not satisfied with the incomplete, the broken, the lost, the dysfunctional in our lives. The empty tomb challenges us to give up the Good Fridays we've adjusted to in order to experience the "cell-splitting joy" of Easter. Are we equal to the challenge?
Fifth Sunday of Lent
“I will put my breath in them, bring them back to life, and let them live in their own land.” Ezekiel 37, 12-14
The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face wrapped in a cloth…“Unbind him and let him go free.” John 11, 1-45
Tolstoy once said that anyone over thirty-five who doesn’t give a lot of thought to death is a fool. There are others who say that death is God’s way of testing us. However, it might be more accurate to say that our though of death is our last opportunity for indulging our practice of testing God. That’s precisely because reflecting on the certainty of our approaching death provides us with out last opportunity to complain against God and to question God’s trustworthiness. Thinking about death inevitably forces us to reflect on the kind of God in whom we really believe. And that can be so uncomfortable that we prefer to avoid thinking about death altogether.
Yet, not a day goes by without our being confronted with the reality of death. We receive phone calls and emails informing us of the death of friends, relatives and colleagues. We reach out to neighbours who have lost a loved one through illness, suicide or accident. Our TV news networks show us graphic pictures of terrorist atrocities that claim scores of lives. In the face of all that, today’s three readings assure us that God’s love, reflected in so many ways by prophets, saints and ordinary, decent human beings, is stronger than death. The clear message is that God favours not death but resurrection.
Coming as it does on the Sunday before Holy Week, today’s gospel story of the raising of Lazarus from the grave is effectively a preview of the resurrection of Jesus. The prominent Biblical scholar, Raymond Brown explains that John’s Gospel structurally consists of four parts: The Prologue (1, 1-18), The Book of Signs (1, 19 -12, 50), The Book of Glory (13, 1 – 20, 31) & the Epilogue (21, 1 – 25). The raising of Lazarus is the climax of the Book of Signs and, in John’s view, clear evidence that Jesus was the Messiah, who offers life to all who put their faith and trust in him. The details of today’s story underline this. In responding to Jesus’ assurance: “Your brother will rise again”, Martha expresses a belief in bodily resurrection that was held by many Jews: “I know that he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day.” (John 11, 24-25) But, notice how Jesus replies in the present tense: “I am the resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies, he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11, 26) What Jesus is saying is that we have to look at living and dying in a completely new way. We have to look at them not just in reference to the last day, but in relation to the present, to the deaths we experience in our daily lives, when we lose people close to us, when our close relationships fall apart, when family members just don’t come home, when others sneer at us, when we fail to live up to our own values and expectations, when our human frailty gets the better of us. Belief in Jesus and his message strengthens us to see all those kinds of “death” in a new way. That kind of trust and belief in Jesus helps us to see that resurrection is already here. So, instead of complaining, instead of lapsing into grief, depression and despair, we are encouraged by Jesus to trust the power of God’s love at work in our midst and to see God’s love as an unfailing source of renewal and life. The words that Jesus addresses to Lazarus: “Unbind him, let him go free” (John 11, 44) are meant to resound beyond today’s reading into our own lives. Jesus invites us out of the graves in which we can so easily bury ourselves; out of our graves of anger, self-pity, bitterness, desire to get even, or anything else that binds us from experiencing the richness of God’s life and love. And as a corollary to that, we, in our turn, as disciples of Jesus, are urged to set free other people from their graves of embarrassment, shame, fear, addiction, or whatever is keeping them bound up without freedom, life or hope.
I conclude with a true and touching story from 1992:
When a young couple were expecting their second child, they decided that it was important to prepare four-year-old Michael for the arrival of his new sister. Every night before being put to bed, Michael would sit beside his mother, Karen and sing to the baby inside Karen’s tummy the only song he knew: “You are my sunshine.” That ritual was repeated every night for months. At the birth of the new baby, there were serious complications, and she was rushed by ambulance to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at St. Mary’s Hospital. In the course of the following week, the tiny baby’s condition deteriorated so much that the doctors told the parents to prepare for the worst. They, in turn, contacted the local cemetery and purchased a burial plot. However, young Michael, sensing something was amiss, started to insist on singing to his baby sister. Despite the fact that children were not allowed into the NICU, Michael’s parents took him to the hospital, reasoning that if he did not see his new sister there, he would not see her alive. When the duty nurse spotted Michael, she ordered: “Get that child out of here now! You know that children are not allowed.” The usually mild-mannered Karen replied with equal force: “This child is not leaving until he has sung to his sister.” Michael sidled up to his baby sister’s cot and, in full voice, started to sing: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey…” The baby’s pulse rate changed almost instantly, becoming quite steady. Her breathing soon became as smooth as a kitten’s purr, and her whole body relaxed. Without knowing what was happening, young Michael continued his singing: “You never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.” And on he went: “The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping, I dreamt I held you in my arms…You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…Please don’t take my sunshine away.” When he reached the end, his parents turned and, through their own tears, saw tears streaming down the face of the head nurse. The medical staff could hardly comprehend the change that had come over the baby, whose improvement was so rapid that she was discharged from the hospital the next day. The doctor-in-charge called it a miracle. (Story as told by Karen Simmons-Knapp, the children’s grandmother.) Perhaps it’s another version of the Lazarus story, assuring us that love really is stronger than death.
Fourth Sunday of Lent
“One thing I do know: I was blind and now I see…I have already told you, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Maybe you, too, would like to be his disciples?” John 9, 1-41
Oliver Sacks, once described as “the poet laureate of medicine” was a distinguished neurologist and a prolific writer. In his book An Anthropologist on Mars (Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1985), he tells the story of Virgil, a 50 year old man who, blind from a very early age, had his sight restored. Because he had no visual memory, Virgil could see but could make no sense of what was registered by his optic nerves. As a consequence, he became profoundly depressed and urged his doctors to re-blind him. When they refused, he persisted in wearing a blindfold so that he could return to the only world in which he was able to function. That story was based on the medical history of a man by the name of Shirl Jennings. Sacks elaborated on that experience in an article entitled To See and Not See, published more than a decade later in the New Yorker (New Yorker, May 10, 1993).
To See and Not See would be an appropriate title for today’s gospel. In reality, there are various kinds of blindness. There is physical blindness, congenital in some people and in others caused by injury or accident. There is emotional blindness, sometimes caused by severe shock or trauma, at other times by insensitivity, as when some people can’t or won’t see the needy, the lonely and the rejected in their society. In the wake of the Pol Pot atrocities, there have been recorded cases of women who cannot see because of the trauma they experienced, even though ophthalmologists have demonstrated that there is nothing organically amiss with their eyes or optic nerves. There is also spiritual blindness, the kind evidenced in the religious authorities of today’s gospel, who could not see any good at all in Jesus. They could not deviate from literal adherence to the Law. There is intellectual blindness, demonstrated by those who insist that global warming and climate are myths. Perhaps many of us, at one time or another, have experienced personally one or several of these kinds of blindness. Today’s gospel, paradoxically, invites us to look into the mirror to see the kinds of blindness which might be keeping us from seeing and accepting the truth.
Structurally, today’s gospel story from John is a one-act drama made up of six scenes: Jesus healing the blind beggar on the Sabbath by mixing spittle and soil and rubbing it on the man’s eyes; the crowd’s reaction to what they witness; the cured man’s testimony to the Pharisees; the spoken evidence of the cured man’s parents; the beggar’s cheeky response to the Pharisees when they interrogate him a second time; the cured man’s return to Jesus and Jesus’ clash with the Pharisees.
The drama opens with the disciples asking Jesus for an explanation of the beggar’s blindness. There is no hint of their seeking a remedy. They are intent on knowing where to attribute blame for his disability. The prevailing belief was that bad things happened to bad people, that affliction and disaster were punishments from God. In this particular situation, the man’s blindness was seen as a punishment for his sins or those of his parents. The message for us is that, when we focus on wanting to attribute blame, at best we can get trapped into digging up the past and, at worst, can get caught up in vindictiveness. Attributing blame is often our way of coping with situations that threaten or discomfort us. It is decidedly unproductive. By contrast, Jesus’ eye is on making real God’s possibilities in the here and now. His focus is not about determining why we can’t see, but on getting us to open our eyes and minds so that we can see. Blame, recrimination and punishment do not belong to the kingdom of God. All they achieve is blinding us to what Jesus is all about.
When the man returns from the pool of Siloam with his sight restored, an argument breaks out among the crowd as to whether he is the same man as the one who was their neighbour and who spent his time begging. He quickly sets them straight. Their response is to lead this living proof of a miracle to the Pharisees. And that, in turns, heightens the tension between them and Jesus. The significance of the miracle quickly becomes irrelevant as the Pharisees use it to discredit Jesus. By making mud from spittle and soil, and rubbing it on the blind man’s eyes, Jesus has engaged in physical labour on the Sabbath, thereby profaning the Jewish holy day. John holds up Jesus’ work of compassion to compare it with Pharisees’ cold and slavish adherence to empty legalities. Yet the control they have over ordinary people is illustrated by the fear that grips the cured man’s parents. They dare not contradict their religious authorities, so refer them to their son for his opinion. He, in his turn, speaks with courage the truth of his experience, and even taunts the Pharisees. This makes them so uncomfortable that they resort to discrediting him, doing what the disciples tried to do at the outset - attributing his blindness to his personal sinfulness.
John, in his narrative, skillfully plays on the man’s blindness to emphasise his point that it is Jesus’ enemies who are spiritually blind, while those who, like Jesus, subordinate law to love, are the ones who have really seen the light. Ironically, had the Pharisees been sincere in the stance they had adopted and had they been as clever as they tried to present themselves, they could have used the same imagery to counter Jesus: He’s the one who claims to see, but he’s even more blind than the man who has come to us claiming to have been cured.
The final scenes of this drama - the inquisition of the blind man and his parents (scenes 3 & 4) and the expulsion of the man himself from the synagogue (scenes 5 & 6) - are of historical significance for us. The members of John’s community were ridiculed for adhering to their belief that Jesus was the Messiah, and punished with expulsion from their synagogues.
And the message for us? We are asked to assess the kinds of blindness that dull our lives. In the apparent mess and upheaval of our world, in the abysmal lack of integrity and enlightenment we experience in our elected leaders, are we able to see evidence of the goodness and compassion of God still at work? Are we sufficiently insightful to admit that we are meant to be instruments of God’s compassion and goodness wherever we live and work? Or do we find ourselves with those who see and yet do not see?
Third Sunday of Lent
Jesus, tired and thirsty from his journey, sat down at the well. The hour was about noon. John 4, 5-42
The symbol of water runs like a stream through all of today’s readings. In the first reading from Exodus, we find Moses, at God’s direction (and to protect himself from being stoned), striking the rock with his staff: “You are to strike the rock, and water will flow from it for the people to drink” (Exodus 17, 6). In the second reading from Romans, Paul describes the love of God as a flood “poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5, 5). And the gospel is filled with images of water.
Everyone knows the centrality of water in sustaining life. We also know its cleansing qualities, how it can clean away the dirt and grime that diminishes and destroys life. In his encounter with the woman at Jacob’s well, Jesus reveals himself as the Messiah, describes himself as life-giving water, and discloses that his principal mission is to reconcile all people with God.
Today’s gospel story reminds me of an incident in the first Harry Potter book, The Philosopher’s Stone (originally, The Sorcerer’s Stone). Harry and his friend, Ron have just rescued Hermione Granger from a mountain troll. Till that point in the story, Hermione has been an outcast. But when Harry and Ron are about to be penalised by their teacher, Professor McGonagall, Hermione rescues them in a manner than stuns them: “Ron dropped his wand. Hermione Granger, telling a downright lie to a teacher?” When the excitement dies down the three students come together as all the students gather for a meal: “Hermione, however, stood alone by the door, waiting for them. There was a very embarrassed pause. Then, none of them looking at each other, they all said ‘Thanks,’ and hurried off to get plates. But from that moment on, Hermione Granger became their friend. There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.” (J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone, Ch. 10, Halloween)
Hermione had been an outsider, and she knew it, too. She had no reason to believe that her situation would change. But then, surprisingly, it did.
The scene that plays out in today’s gospel has a similar impact on us, even though we know the whole story and its intent. We know that Jesus came for all people, with a preference for the lonely, the marginalised and the rejected. But it took time for that message to sink in, even to sink into us. So, in John’s story, this unnamed woman comes to the well with no reason to expect anything in her life to change. As a Samaritan, a woman, and a person who has had multiple partners, she has little reason to expect anything good to come out of meeting up with a Jew, who was a stranger and a male.
But Jesus showed her that God was up to doing something new. (cf. Isaiah 43, 19: “Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something new. It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it? There it is! I’m making a road through the desert, rivers in the wastelands”). The encounter begins with what may seem an ordinary request. Jesus asks her for a drink. She sees this for what it is - a transgression of boundaries. When she hesitates, Jesus seizes the opportunity to speak of a different kind of water, one that satisfies every thirst and gushes with eternal life for anyone who will drink it.
Jesus pushes the conversation a bit more, speaking of a time when the divisions between God’s people will be healed, when true worship will be centred neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. They, and, by implication, all people, will worship together in spirit and truth. The woman seems to understand the direction in which Jesus is leading her, for she also has been waiting for the Messiah. That is the moment for John to deliver the punch-line of the story, and Jesus says: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
This marks a shift in the story. The Samaritan woman’s life is transformed. She is no longer an outsider, for she has been brought into the kingdom that Jesus has come to realise. She has become a member of the family of God, transformed by the living water offered to her by Jesus. She now knows that she is valued and loved, and that Jesus the Messiah has come, and has come for her.
And that’s the very same message of today’s gospel for us. Moreover, we are explicitly told to rid ourselves of the kind of unspoken thoughts attributed to Jesus’ disciples: “What do you want from her? What are you talking to her about?” (John 4, 27) Notionally, we can accept that Jesus has come for all people, yet, in practice, we can find ourselves thinking: “But surely not for people like that Samaritan woman.”
A telling aspect of this story is that Jesus did not condemn her. Neither did he send her away, urging her to change her life. In her elation, she hurried off to share her experience with those who had previously scorned her. She became a disciple herself, and her testimony was so effective that those who heard it came to Jesus and “begged him to stay with them.” (John 4, 40) They too were changed, just as she had been.
Like the Samaritan woman and so many others before us, we are invited to come to Jesus in our frailty and brokenness. And the encounter leads to his sending us, too, to give testimony, through our lives, to the light and life and love that he offers to all.
Sadly, much of our world is gripped by fear of the stranger. Countries like Australia, Hungary and the United States are closing their borders to refugees. It was, therefore, heartening for me to read, recently, of a group of people in Missoula, Montana, who have opened their hearts to refugees from Laos, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria. They call themselves Soft Landing Missoula, and their efforts are having such an impact on fellow citizens that more and more are joining the group and welcoming refugees to their “well”. They are breaking down the fear and prejudice that label people of other religions and cultures as dangerous and undesirable. It is the inspiration of groups like Soft Landing Missoula that can help us to move beyond fear, suspicion and selfishness to embrace and live the challenge of today’s gospel.
Second Sunday of Lent
Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James and John; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light…From the cloud came a voice that said: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Matthew 17, 1-9
A children’s book that has stood the test of time is The Black Stallion. Written by Walter Farley back in 1941, it tells the story of how a boy and a wild stallion developed a close relationship after becoming stranded on a deserted island, following a shipwreck. As the ship foundered, seventeen-year-old Alec was able to free the stallion, which then pulled him to a nearby island. Everyone else on the ship, including Alec’s father, perished. The only thing that Alec was able to save was a small figurine of Alexander the Great’s horse, Bucephalus, a gift from his father, and a reminder of his love. Dependent on one another for survival, the boy and the horse learned to love and trust one another, forming a relationship that endured. Whenever the loneliness of isolation closed in on him, Alec would take from his pocket the figurine of Bucephalus, which had become for him an icon of his father’s love. Looking at it gave him renewed hope, and the energy to deal with his struggles to survive. Eventually, the young man and his horse were rescued by the crew of a passing freighter, and went on to greater things.
Almost two thousand years before The Black Stallion was published, the story we now refer to as the Transfiguration was written down and included by Matthew in his Gospel. This story is a piece of creative writing, not an eyewitness account, intended to convey a message of hope to Matthew’s fledgling and struggling Christian community. In the style of other Semitic writers of his time, Matthew shaped his story by drawing on symbols and themes familiar to his Jewish audience.
So, he included a mountain, because that’s where God was thought to dwell. He added a cloud, a common symbol of God’s presence. Moses and Elijah were included because they were the great Jewish champions of the Law and the Prophets. And the shining face of Jesus recalled the way Moses looked when he came down from the mountain, following his encounter with God. To guarantee that his message would not be missed, Matthew repeated the words that came from the heavens at the time of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” (Cf Matthew 3, 17) What Matthew then did was to locate his story between two pivotal events in the life of Jesus - his baptism, which launched him into his public ministry and his execution on the cross, which looked to spell failure in capital letters. He knew that, in the course of our lives, we all experience moments of elation and bitter disappointment. There are times when we feel that God has deserted us. We therefore need powerful memories to sustain us.
Of course, Matthew knew that Jesus, too, had experienced similar feelings. In his darkest hour, Jesus had called to God from the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27, 46)
With our schooldays behind us, we launch into the adventure of adult life, embracing the decisions and responsibilities integral to it. We pursue studies, work for qualifications, seek employment, make vocational choices, search to find the most fulfilling way to express the love in our hearts, decide to marry or to remain single. Then, for reasons we may not fully understand, the circumstances of our lives change. Relationships become strained, our own physical and emotional health or that of those we love goes into serious decline; sadness, disappointment, failure or grief have a profound impact on our lives. Sometimes catastrophic events overwhelm us, such as an earthquake, a tsunami, a tornado, a civil war or the destruction of a nuclear power plant. And our faith in a God who cares deserts us. We ask ourselves if we have been abandoned by the God in whom we had put our trust.
That’s why the transfiguration event of today’s gospel has significance for us. As Peter, James and John came back to earth, and set off down the mountain after their experience of intense elation in which they witnessed something of the divine in Jesus, they were stopped in their tracks by what seemed to be an off-hand comment from Jesus: “Don’t tell anyone about this until after I have been raised from the dead.” (cf Matthew 17, 9)
The disciples must have been wondering why Jesus would suddenly make a comment about dying, immediately after an experience that was no less than an encounter with God. Jesus was making it clear to them that the memory of what they had just witnessed was to sustain them in his darkest hour, when all seemed lost. This “beloved Son” of God whom they had just seen in glory would not be exempt from betrayal, rejection, public humiliation and execution as a criminal. And when that seemingly hopeless experience befell them, he and they would have their mountaintop experience to sustain them. It was because of that experience that Jesus was later able to cry out loudly from the cross and commend himself to God. (Matthew 27, 50)
What are we to take from this story? Peter, James and John saw the very life of God alive in Jesus. We have the assurance that a spark of that divinity is embedded in us, too. It is evident in every act of compassion, kindness, encouragement and affirmation we do. Such acts reflect the kindness, compassion, affirmation and encouragement of God. They bring to life in our world the very life of God. They enrich the lives of everyone we encounter. They bring hope to the forgotten, the lonely, the discarded.
Finally, I cannot leave this second Sunday of Lent without a brief comment on the first reading from Genesis. It’s the story of how Abraham and Sarai in their old age were asked by God to leave the familiar and comfortable and set out for an unknown destination. As I was flying into Newark last Sunday after eight weeks in Africa and anticipating eight more in North America, it struck me forcefully that we are all on a journey not of our own making. Like Abraham and Sarai, we are all called, again and again, to leave behind the safe and the familiar, and to venture into the unknown. Our birth was one of those moments, and so, too, were our first day at school, at university, on the job, in retirement and finally in aged care, as a prelude to death. Like Abraham and Sarai, we are all nomads, forever leaving and arriving, and, in this early part of Lent, we are invited to reflect on their lives as models for our own. What stands out in their story is that they stepped into the unknown trusting that God would guide and sustain them. That did not mean that there would be no difficulties. But along the way, they stopped to entertain angels - they extended kindness and hospitality to complete strangers.
For us, Lent is a time to pause and take stock of how we are growing towards God, developing in our humanity, and in faith and trust on our journey through life. Do we stop to entertain angels, to welcome strangers, to affirm, encourage, forgive? Are we better human beings than we were this time last year? Are we growing up, or just growing older?
First Sunday of Lent
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, after which he was very hungry… Matthew 4, 1-11
Back in the late 1840s, a Quaker Elder wrote the words of Simple Gifts, a hymn which picks up the true themes of Lent - to unclutter our lives by living with simplicity, and to turn our minds and hearts away from whatever lessens us and to point them towards the things of God:
'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed;
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.
Joseph Brackett, 1848
Aaron Copland echoed Brackett’s tune in his orchestral ballet piece, Appalachian Spring. In much more recent times, Frank Andersen msc has picked up the same themes in his beautifully haunting Ash Wednesday antiphon based on the call of the prophet, Joel: Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn; turn to the Lord, turn to the Lord, again. Frank Andersen msc, Rising Moon, Ash Wednesday
The Latin word convertere (meaning to turn around, and from which comes conversion), the Greek word metanoia (change of heart) and the Hebrew nahum (to take a different course of action) are all basically equivalent, and have the same meaning of turning as it is used in the hymn Simple Gifts. And the final piece in this linguistic exploration is the old English word Lent, which means Spring, the time when the northern hemisphere of the earth turns toward the sun and when the farmers turn over the soil in preparation for sowing crops. In that whole context, the Ash Wednesday readings and all the readings of Lent urge us to turn away from our complacency, to turn over our mean-spirited attitudes, to turn towards the things of God.
The gospel reading for the First Sunday of Lent gives us Matthew’s account of Jesus’ experience in the wilderness and the temptations that confronted him there. All three temptations, paralleling the temptations to which the Israelites succumbed during their wanderings in the wilderness, are directed at Jesus’ personal integrity. The tempter offers him possessions, power and personal comfort, and Matthew makes it clear that if Jesus were to compromise his integrity, he would actually be breaking the great commandment spelled out in the book of Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy6, 5). And it is no coincidence that, each time Jesus rejects the temptation put to him, he quotes from other parts of Deuteronomy. Weakened by hunger, Jesus is tempted to resort to magic and turn stones into bread. However, the temptation is more subtle than that. Effectively, the tempter is saying: “Look, aren’t you God’s Son? And if you really are, it’s beneath your dignity to go hungry.” He responds to his tempter: “Humans do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Deuteronomy 8, 3) It’s a response from which we can all learn. Isn’t it true that we sometimes think that, because God loves us, we are entitled to special treatment? In rejecting the temptation, Jesus makes it clear that being loved by God does not exempt us from being hungry, weak, tired, depressed. God’s love for us is a guarantee that, no matter what happens to us in life, God will guide us through it. Yet, we still sometimes hear ourselves saying that, because we live decent lives, care for the needy and go to church regularly, God should keep us healthy, comfortable and safe from disappointment and loss. Status, position, importance do not mean that our lives will be free from pain and hurt. Nor do pain and loss and hardship mean that God is indifferent to what befalls us or that God has stopped loving us. I am reminded of the story of how a priest once responded to a grief-stricken mother whose anguish led her to scream at him: “Where was God when my son drowned in the river?” The priest could only reply: “The same place when Jesus died.”
The second temptation was all about the foolish things humans can do when they are besotted by power. Jesus is tempted to play Superman and jump from the pinnacle of the Temple. God is not going to overturn the laws of gravity simply to comply with the stupidity of people. We can’t experiment with drugs, fiddle the books or walk into danger with our eyes wide open and expect that there will be no consequences. Jesus’ simple and direct response is: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Deuteronomy 6, 16)
The third temptation is to worship at the altar of materialism, consumerism, the accumulation of possessions. Treat yourself to as much pleasure and comfort as you want! Jesus points out that to live like that is to choose death, for it spells the death of healthy relationships, sharing, generosity, compassion, justice and respect for others. There is more to being truly human than satisfying all our urges and desires: “The Lord your God is the one to whom you are to pay homage; God alone is the one you are to serve.” (Deuteronomy 6, 13)
All of us experience wilderness or desert times in our lives. They might come in the shape of broken relationships, the death of a loved one, failure in a university exam, losing secure employment, an international transfer. And we all know what it is to be tempted to compromise on our principles and values, to follow paths that can lead to moral bankruptcy. We can all be seduced into becoming less than we are, into compromising our integrity. Temptation is not always bold and brazen, or emblazoned in neon lights. So, I conclude with a parable entitled Give them what they want, adapted from a story told by William Bausch, a retired pastor:
A wealthy industrialist, interested in animals, decided to establish his own private zoo. He collected and carefully housed animals from all over the world. He was so successful in developing his zoo that it became the envy of zoo- keepers around the globe. One day he learned about a rare and beautiful African gazelle, which had eluded capture. No zoo in the world had this particular kind of gazelle. The industrialist, determined to be the first to get one, mounted an expedition to Africa. When he arrived, he was told by the local people that his efforts would come to nothing. That made him only more determined to succeed. He even boasted to a reporter that he would not only get one prized gazelle, but as many as he wanted. And that’s exactly what he proceeded to do.
When his party located a herd of the rare gazelles, he had his helpers spread around a blend of oats and barley rolled in molasses. Every night for two weeks they repeated the process. And every night the gazelles returned to feed on the sweet mixture. On the first night of the third week, the food was put out in the same place, but his men sank a two metre post in the ground about six metres away from where the gazelles were feeding. Each night from then on, when the sweetened food was put out, another post was added, until he has sunk a circle of posts around the feeding area. Then he started putting boards between the posts. And every night the gazelles returned to eat the sweet food. They learned to find the gaps between the boards, totally unaware that they were losing their freedom as they were being gradually corralled.
Isn’t that exactly how temptation can seduce us? It blocks our peripheral moral vision.
Finally, after about a month of feeding and slowly closing the gaps, the industrialist watched the entire herd squeeze through the last remaining gap to get to the sweet food. He quietly moved in behind the gazelles and put in place the final board to complete the corral. He picked out the animals he wanted transported to his zoo and released the others. When the reporter who had earlier interviewed him returned and asked him how he knew just how to catch the gazelles, he said: “I treat animals the way I treat people. I give them just what they want. In exchange, they give me their freedom.”
Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“You cannot serve both God and money. That is why I tell you not to be worried about the food and drink you need in order to stay alive, or about clothes for your body. After all, isn’t life worth more than food? And isn’t the body worth more than clothes?...Your Father in heaven knows you need all these things. Instead, be concerned, above everything else, with the kingdom of God…” Matthew 6, 24-34
Just over ten years ago, Ms Lockwood, an English teacher at Xavier High School in New York, gave her students an exercise in persuasive writing. She asked them to write a letter to their favourite author, inviting him or her to visit their class to speak about the art of successful writing. Several students wrote to Kurt Vonnegut, author of books such as Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, and Breakfast of Champions. Vonnegut was unable to accept the invitation but wrote back, saying:
“I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don't make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.
What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what's inside you, to make your soul grow.
Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you're Count Dracula.
Here's an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms Lockwood will flunk you if you don't do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don't tell anybody what you're doing. Don't show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms Lockwood. OK?
Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what's inside you, and you have made your soul grow.
God bless you all!
On Palm Sunday 1980, Vonnegut had been invited to deliver a sermon in St Clement’s Episcopal Church, New York. In the course of it, he described himself as a “Christ-worshipping agnostic, but went on to say: “I am enchanted by the Sermon on the Mount. Being merciful, it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far. Perhaps we will get another idea that good by and by - and then we will have two good ideas.” (Dan Wakefield, Kurt Vonnegut, Christ-Worshipping Atheist, Image Journal, issue 82)
Despite his cynicism, Vonnegut knew that our world could be very different if only Christians took seriously the message of Jesus, and extended their efforts at making the kingdom of God a reality.
Reflecting, then, on the letter he wrote to the English class at Xavier High School, I came to the conclusion that the crux of his challenge to each of the students resonates with today’s gospel: “Forget about getting anxious, and do something each day to discover what’s inside you, to make your soul grow!”
And that is very close to the challenge that Jesus puts to us in today’s gospel. In urging us not to invest too much nervous energy worrying about what we are going to eat and drink and wear each day, he is pointing out that we can easily become so absorbed with the basic essentials of food and clothing that we forget what gives meaning and purpose to our lives - deep joy, compassion, intimacy, gentleness and love. We will discover those true necessities only by taking the time to plumb the depths of our hearts, to look inside ourselves and to discover what will help our souls to grow.
In alerting us to the way in which God cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, Jesus invites us to ponder the fact that our worth lies in the regard that God has for each of us. Our consumer society proclaims that we are nobodies if we do not sport Manchester United tops, Nike or Puma shoes, a Rolex watch and designer-label clothing. The corporate world measures our worth by the magnitude of our salary and the prestige of our academic qualifications. Yet, in his letter written from prison to the people of Corinth, Paul reminds us all of the true source of our worth: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and the grace that God gave me has not been fruitless.” (1 Corinthians 15, 10) Resonating with Paul’s assertion are the words of Isaiah in today’s first reading, with which Jesus would have been entirely familiar: “Can a mother forget the child of her womb? Certainly not, but even if she should, I will never forget you, my people.” (Isaiah 49, 15)
Today’s gospel prods us to let go of the compulsions and peripheral things that can clutter our lives and to concentrate on what gives them true meaning - acting with justice and mercy, accompanying those around us to find dignity and to realise their hopes and dreams. As we shift our attention to Lent, which begins on Wednesday, we might make a conscious decision to loosen our grip on the consumer world, and absorb some of the beauty of the natural world; to reconnect with someone with whom we have lost contact; or to get in touch with our own inner poetry, art and creativity, as a way of nourishing our souls.
Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
“When a person strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer him the other. If anyone wants to go to law over your shirt, hand him your coat as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him two miles…My command to you is: love your enemies, pray for your persecutors. This will prove that you are sons and daughters of your heavenly Father…In a word, you must be made perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5, 38-48
Many of us can surely recall the TV news coverage of the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Firdos Square, Baghdad, back in 2003. It followed the invasion of Iraq by forces of the countries that had joined together to form the “Coalition of the Willing”. Iraqi citizens beheaded the statue and dragged it through the streets of Baghdad, giving it (and the man it represented) the worst possible insult by hitting it with their shoes. Thirteen years later, Khadhim Sharif Hassan, who had played a leading role in toppling the statue, stated: “Things have started to get worse every year. There has been infighting, corruption, killing, looting. Saddam has gone, but in his place we have a thousand Saddams.” (BBC News, July 5, 2016)
Khadhim’s words are a penetrating comment on part of today’s gospel - the futility of our efforts to get even with those who have wronged us.
In Jewish law, the accepted understanding of retaliation - "an eye for the eye" - was intended to restrict vengeance, and to keep violence within limits. But Jesus taught his Jewish audience to respond to injustice the way God wants us to respond. So, in today's Gospel, we see Jesus pointing to three offences that seem, at first sight, to be relatively insignificant. And he explains that, with a little bit of calm and cunning, those who are abused can turn the tables on those who try to take advantage of them.
First, there is the slap on the cheek. In Gospel times, a superior could slap a worker or slave with the back of his right hand. Such a slap was intended to insult and humiliate, but not injure. But turning one’s cheek when struck, forced the striker to hit with an open hand, thus making him face as an equal the person he had hit. Such a "turning" of the cheek robbed the aggressor of the power to humiliate and, in effect, shamed him.
Then there is the matter of suing somebody for his clothing. In Jewish culture, nakedness was considered a grave humiliation, both for the person stripped and the one who did the stripping. Genuine hospitality required that no person ever be shamed in that way. “So if someone makes an unreasonable demand for your shirt”, Jesus said, “give him your coat as well. Give him everything, so that he might come to realise the impact of his avarice, and see that he has reduced you to nakedness, thereby shaming you.”
And finally, there is going the extra mile. A Roman soldier could force anyone to carry his equipment for one mile, but no farther. Going a second mile trapped the Roman soldier into a difficult position: he could be severely punished by his superiors for abusing his authority. By choosing to go the second mile, Jesus taught, a man could make a despised Roman treat him as an equal. The man who chose to go the extra mile was really teaching the soldier that, while he could demand a service permitted to any member of the occupying forces, he could not control anyone’s generosity.
In today's Gospel, Jesus is challenging all of us to answer oppression and injustice with dignity and calmness. He proclaims that behaving as God would have us behave undermines the cycle of fear and violence, and replaces it with justice and big mindedness.
It’s quite likely that we rarely find ourselves hating anyone. However, I’m sure that we can remember finding ourselves brooding or festering over hurts we have received. We know that we can invest lots of emotional energy into harbouring our hurt feelings and trying to avoid interacting with the person who has wounded us. We can so easily surrender our peace of mind and risk destroying a relationship that may have been healthy and purposeful right up to the time of the hurt. Planning to get even can disturb us emotionally and even upset our thinking, leading us to act irrationally. In the long run, we end up doing more harm to ourselves than we do to the person who has insulted or injured us. We give our “enemy” power over us, over our emotions, and even over our sleep and blood pressure. And if our “enemy” knew how he/she was keeping us restlessly plotting revenge or giving us sleepless nights, he/she might well be delighted.
So, Jesus surely knew what he was talking about when he urged us to forgive and love our enemies. Besides, if we want Jesus to forgive us, it makes no sense at all for us to insist on denying forgiveness to those who have hurt us, or to refuse to reach out to them in love.
And even if we don’t hate anyone, we know that there are some people in our lives whom we keep at a distance by our attitude of superiority. They are the people whom we regard as not measuring up to our standards of what is good, right and correct. We might have similar attitudes of superiority towards those who don’t share our political views, our religious beliefs or our skin colour, towards those who are different from us.
In pointing out that there is no virtue in loving only those who love us, Jesus is implicitly condemning us whenever we demonstrate a lack of respect, sensitivity and empathy for the poor, the bedraggled, the unkempt and the shabbily dressed. The kingdom of God is on the way to becoming a reality only when we treat the poor, the forgotten, the destitute and the alienated as our sisters and brothers. It is so easy to treat them as inferior or beneath us. Yet, they are worthy of not just our help and tolerance but of our respect, our care and our love.
The kingdom of God begins when we actually realise that all those people are us. It is then that Jesus’ dream for us - that we might be perfect, like God, - begins to become possible.
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“…whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven. I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5, 17-37
When a friend unexpectedly came upon W.C. Fields (American comedian, writer and actor) reading the Bible, he said jokingly: “I’m just looking for loopholes.” He was simply reflecting what so many of us do when we find ourselves challenged or constricted by laws, commandments, regulations and rules, be they religious or civil. - we look for loopholes. Alternatively, we become obsessed with law and its interpretation and demand of ourselves and others exact adherence. Some few of us realize that law is intended to breathe freedom into the lives and actions of those for whom it is designed. Particular laws and rules are meant to ensure that we preserve our own dignity as responsible human beings and respect the freedom and human dignity of all whom we serve and encounter.
Some of us belong to a generation schooled to observe in every detail the Ten Commandments of God and the Six Commandments of the Church. Religious practice was reduced to a set of “dos” and “don’ts” to be applied to just about every possible life situation. Failures to adhere to every commandment were graded into “venial” and “mortal”, with the latter qualifying an offender for committal to hell if he or she were to die without seeking God’s forgiveness. To willfully neglect attending Mass on Sunday or to intentionally eat meat on Friday were mortal sins. The legalists got to work to define what was essential for Mass attendance, concluding that, provided one was present from the start of the Offertory to the conclusion of the Post-communion prayer, the requirements of the law were met. Others advised that abstaining from meat on Friday also meant abstaining from the gravy produced by meat.
These 19th and 20th century legalists had a lot in common with the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Historically, the role of the scribes had evolved. They had progressed from being mere classifiers and recorders of what was contained in the Torah into interpreters of the Torah itself. Complementing the scribes were the Pharisees. Their focus was making sure they observed the Law meticulously, thereby setting themselves up as models of observance for everyone else to imitate. Today’s gospel gives us the first hints of the tension and trouble brewing between Jesus and the Jewish religious authorities.
As he taught the crowds, Jesus had begun to emphasise the more difficult practice of looking beyond the letter of the Law to seeing how God’s Spirit gives all laws their life and meaning. Jesus clearly understood the role of the human heart and one’s personal integrity in determining what is right and wrong for each of us. He proceeded to illustrate that by pointing out that our prayers and piety are meaningless for as long as we allow our anger and bitterness to keep our sisters and brothers alienated from us.
All the comments about law and commandment attributed to Jesus in today’s gospel combine to tell us that all just and healthy laws and commandments are meant to help us to live in freedom - freedom from fear, from the burden of stifling adherence to meaningless detail. Even his comment which, on the surface, might seem to support the oppressive interpretations coming from the scribes and Pharisees: “until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or smallest part of a letter will pass from the Law until all these things have taken place” is saying that, ultimately, freedom from the Law is a freedom that comes through the Spirit who inspires the Law. It is not the abolition of the Law that will set us free, but its proper fulfillment. Paradoxically, what impedes us is our tendency to be drawn into giving undue attention to our favourite jots and tittles, rather than to the fullness of life and freedom that come from proper appreciation of the Law.
While none of us would want the title of scribe or Pharisee attributed to us, that does not exclude us from being like them in our blindness to our own little hypocrises. The good works which others see in us and for which they “give glory to your Father in heaven” (last Sunday’s gospel) are not jot and tittle adherence to any law, but, as the prophets declared: setting free the oppressed, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, feeding the poor and caring for the widow and orphan.
For contemporary examples of jot and tittle adherence, we need look no further than the nit-picking critics of Pope Francis. They are determined to find errors of doctrine in his proclamations of mercy, acceptance and tolerance for those Catholics excluded from full participation in Eucharist because of their “irregular marital status”.
Fulfilling the commandments and living the spirit of God’s Law call us to die to letter-perfect obedience and to see and live as Jesus saw and lived; to notice the human hurt and deprivation all around us, and to address them as Jesus did and as God invites us to. Too much notice given to the letter of the law becomes an excuse to do nothing. We are being invited to run to the stranger, the widow and the orphan in their need. We can apologise later for ignoring the “Keep Off the Grass” sign.
I conclude with a story from an article that appeared late last year in America magazine. It’s about someone who understood law and ignored the ‘rules’:
“During my annual retreat I was praying a meditation on gratitude. I suddenly thought of Sister Thaddeus, the nun who had taught me in fourth grade at our parochial school in suburban Philadelphia in the early 1960s.
Three images returned. My friend Vince had the worst handwriting in the class. Rather than upbraiding him, as other teachers had done, Sister Thaddeus would cheerfully tutor him during recess. “It’s getting better, you know. Keep up the good fight.” This was no minor issue. In the preconciliar Catholic grammar school, penmanship enjoyed quasi-sacramental status.
The poorest pupil in class was Charlotte. The school’s class structure was simple: the split-levellers, the row-housers and the people from ‘the project’, where Charlotte lived. She also stuttered badly. In Sister Thaddeus’s class, one of the girls would call out a pupil’s name from a stack of cards as we ploughed through the daily oral drills. After several weeks, however, I noticed that Charlotte was the one pupil whose name was never called. Only years later did I surmise that Sister Thaddeus had withdrawn her card to avoid any humiliation.
Our parish was an endless round of social celebrations: the May procession, the carnival, the St. Patrick’s dance, the St. Joseph table, bingo, the concert by the Mummers string band. Sister Thaddeus would circulate among the families with a warm greeting for each person. When our family showed up at the festivals, we often brought our sister Nancy, who had Down syndrome. Sister Thaddeus would always go out of her way to give a small gift to Nancy. We quickly acquired “the Sister Thaddeus collection”: a St. Bernadette medal, holy cards of Our Lady, a plastic rosary bracelet.
After decades of teaching, it dawned on me that Sister Thaddeus had long ago made her own preferential option for the poor. Whereas many teachers play for the stars, Sister Thaddeus cared for the vulnerable. Her pedagogical compass was compassion. The Gospel made her tick.” (John J. Conley, Teachers Who Teach, America, December 19-26, 2016)
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.” 1 Corinthians 2, 1-5
“You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world…” Matthew 5, 13-16
In today’s first reading we hear Paul’s reflection on how he saw himself when he arrived to preach to the people of Corinth: “I came to you in weakness.” With those words, Paul effectively speaks for all of us. As we go about trying to live our lives as followers of Jesus, the best we have to offer is limited. True, we have some talent, some gifts and good intentions. But what we all have in common is human weakness, frailty and limitation. However, we can take comfort from the assurance that Jesus invites us to be witnesses out of our weakness. Just a little before in that same letter to the Corinthians, Paul had written: “God chose those who by human standards are fools to shame the wise; God chose those who by human standards are weak to confound the strong.” (1 Corinthians 1, 27) The consequence of this is that there is no room for making excuses, for protesting that we lack capability. God expects us to use whatever little we have to work to make our world better.
The following is a story that appeared in the Houston Chronicle some years ago. Whether it’s fact or urban myth matters little. It carries, nonetheless, a message worth hearing:
“As a child, the world-renowned violinist, Itzhak Perlman was stricken with polio. As a result, he relies on crutches for mobility, and his walking is slow and laboured. To see him walk across the stage one step at a time, painfully and slowly, is an awesome sight. He walks painfully, yet majestically, until he reaches his chair. Then he sits down, slowly, puts his crutches on the floor, undoes the clasps on his legs, tucks one foot back and extends the other foot forward. Then he bends down and picks up the violin, puts it under his chin, nods to the conductor and proceeds to play.
But this time, something went wrong. Just as he finished the first few bars, one of the strings on his violin broke. You could hear it snap -- it went off like gunfire across the room. There was no mistaking what that sound meant. There was no mistaking what he had to do.
But he didn't. Instead, he waited a moment, closed his eyes and then signalled the conductor to begin again. The orchestra began, and he played from where he had left off. And he played with such passion and such power and such purity as they had never heard before. Of course, anyone knows that it is impossible to play a symphonic work with just three strings. I know that, and you know that, but that night, Itzhak Perlman refused to know that. You could see him modulating, changing, recomposing the piece in his head. At one point, it sounded like he was de-tuning the strings to get new sounds from them that they had never made before. When he finished, there was an awesome silence in the room. And then people rose and cheered. There was an extraordinary outburst of applause from every corner of the auditorium. We were all on our feet, screaming and cheering, doing everything we could to show how much we appreciated what he had done.
He smiled, wiped the sweat from his brow, raised his bow to quiet us, and then he said -- not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, reverent tone – ‘You know, sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.’
Perhaps that is the definition of life -- not just for artists but for all of us. Here is a man who has prepared all his life to make music on a violin of four strings, who, all of a sudden, in the middle of a concert, finds himself with only three strings; so he makes music with three strings, and the music he made that night with just three strings was more beautiful, more sacred, more memorable, than any that he had ever made before, when he had four strings. So, perhaps our task in this shaky, fast-changing, bewildering world in which we live is to make music, at first with all that we have, and then, when that is no longer possible, to make music with what we have left.” (Houston Chronicle, Feb 10, 2001)
However inadequate, broken or fragile we are, whatever our story, our role is to make the music of the Gospel - the upside-down values of the reign of God, the Beatitudes - for everyone we encounter.
Today’s gospel reminds us that God has chosen us to be salt and light for our world. Jesus does not say “ You must be”, “You will become” or “You should be”, but you are salt and light. That implies giving ourselves away fully. When salt savours food, it becomes invisible and succeeds in making the food tasty. When light is freely dispersed, it is obstructed neither by a bushel nor any other screen. It is liberated from the captivity of darkness. However, in the lived reality of our lives, most of us are hesitant to give ourselves away completely. We are inclined to hold something back or even to share our saltiness only with those with whom we are comfortable. When that happens, our saltiness loses its edge and we end up savouring nobody. Being salt for our world runs the risk of rejection, alienation and insult. We don’t want to see ourselves as ignored Christians, belittled Christians, persecuted Christians.
In calling us light, Jesus warns us not to hide ourselves out of fear that our light will be dissipated if we allow it to reach as far as it will go. Is that because we secretly hold the view that there are some corners of God’s world unworthy of being illuminated or because we think that our light will be rejected? In the long run, to be salt and light is to allow ourselves to be used up by God, to dissolve and dissipate without fearing what will become of us. And in the process we will flavour and enlighten the world around us. In recent weeks, I have found myself in churches in Sierra Leone and Kenya, where I have heard people singing the late 19th Century Methodist hymn “I Surrender All”. Its opening lines are: “All to Jesus I surrender, all to him I freely give.” Being salt and light, dissolving and dissipating, means nothing less than surrendering all, in fact, dying - if not physically dying, at least dying to my own ego. And that’s a big ask!
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Blest are the hearts of mercy, to them shall be mercy returned…all who strive for peace, God’s own children shall be; all who live afflicted, pursued for the sake of justice, surely, surely, theirs is the reign of God…Blest are gentle hearts, they inherit the earth; Blest are all who hunger and thirst for the taste of justice, surely, surely, they shall receive their fill.” The Beatitudes (Mt. 5, 1-12), St Louis Jesuits, Steadfast Love
The way we look at ourselves and the world to which we belong has a profound impact on our behaviour. For instance, if we allow ourselves to be contaminated by a culture that says we will be satisfied if we go to university and find a profession that pays well, we will be able to afford a car, a comfortable house and enjoy a level of luxury. In some previous reflections, I have referred to Harsh Mander’s book, Looking Away, in which he explains that wealthy Indians cannot see the tens of millions of their poor and destitute sisters and brothers because their gaze is fixated solely on the good things of life and on acquiring more and more.
It was the way in which Jesus saw his world and the religious establishment that controlled his fellow citizens that propelled him to begin his public ministry by announcing that God’s dream for the world was near to becoming reality: “the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4, 17). When he sent his disciples out to preach and to heal, he instructed them to make the same announcement (Matthew 10, 7). In today’s gospel, Jesus explains to his disciples, through eight statements, which we call the Beatitudes, what that kingdom looks like. In fact, in the first and last Beatitude, he states that God’s kingdom is already present in the lives of those who are “poor in spirit” - those who know they are inadequate, but who trust that God will make up for what they lack. The other six Beatitudes are promises of how God’s dream will come to reality in the lives of those who are meek, merciful, overcome with grief, work for peace, and have a passion for justice. These are people who see the way Jesus sees; people who have not been seduced by power, comfort or possessions. The way of seeing and living which Jesus proclaims (the kingdom of heaven) infiltrates the lives of the unfortunate (those who are overlooked and ill-treated) and transforms them. In this context, blessed or blest does not mean holy or special, but fortunate.
Teilhard de Chardin, the great Jesuit philosopher and palaeontologist, was passionate in stating that he regarded his main mission in life as one of helping people to see: “Seeing. We might say that the whole of life lies in that verb.” (The Phenomenon of Man, p.31, translated by Bernard Wall, Harper and Brothers, New York 1959). In the preface of his book, And Now I See, theologian Robert Barron (now auxiliary Bishop in Los Angeles) writes: “Christianity is, above all, a way of seeing. Everything else in Christian life flows from and circles around the transformation of vision. Christians see differently, and that is why their prayer, their worship, their action, their whole way of being in the world has a distinctive accent and flavour. What unites figures as diverse as James Joyce, Caravaggio, John Milton, the architect of Chartres, Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the later Bob Dylan is a peculiar and distinctive take on things, a style, a way, which flows finally from Jesus of Nazareth.” (Crossroad, New York, 1998, p.1)
Of significance is the fact that the much-published Rabbi Harold Kushner shares the same view as Teilhard de Chardin and Robert Barron. In his book, Who Needs God?, Kushner writes: “Religion is not primarily a set of beliefs, a collection of prayers or a series of rituals. Religion is first and foremost a way of seeing. It can’t change the facts about the world we live in, but it can change the way we see those facts, and that in itself can often make a difference.” (Fireside, New York, 2002, p. 21)
So, having started out on his ministry by selecting co-workers and taking them with him as he healed the sick, Jesus paused to tell his disciples about what it was that was compelling him to follow the path he had chosen. And he did that through a series of eight brief, poignant and somewhat cryptic statements which reveal how he saw the heart of God, reaching out to people whose circumstances in life were less than comfortable - the poor in spirit and fact, the meek and humble, those who were grieving and persecuted, those who had a passion for peace. We can imagine how many in the crowd would have seen themselves in one or other of those categories, and how they would have been encouraged by being called blessed, as they dealt with the challenges and opposition confronting them.
Likewise, even if our own life circumstances might suggest otherwise, we may find the courage to believe that we too are blessed, fortunate to have the assurance that we are dear to God.
There has been a long succession of women and men who have come to see as Jesus saw, and have found the courage to act on what they saw. They have seen what is important, what matters, what needs to be addressed immediately. They are our saints, whether or not they have been given Church or civil recognition for their deeds.
Ajahn Brahm is a British-born Buddhist monk, who is abbot of a monastery in Serpentine, Western Australia. He has compiled a book of stories about dealing with life’s difficulties in ways that lead to peace and contentment. One of his stories illustrates what can come from living in tune with the Beatitudes:
A monk was asked to teach meditation at a nearby prison. Many of the inmates had never met a monk. After the first session, they began to ask him about his life in the monastery.
"We get up at four o'clock every morning," the monk began. "Sometimes it's very cold because our rooms don't have heaters. We eat one meal a day, all mixed together in the one bowl. There is no alcohol, and we live as celibates. Much of our day is spent in silence. We work hard, and sleep on our cell floor. We also spend a lot of time in prayer and meditation."
The inmates were stunned by the austerity of the monastic life. It made their high-security prison seem like a five-star hotel. One prisoner, moved by what he heard, said: "Why don't you come in here and stay with us?"
The monk thanked the inmates for their kindness, but said he was happy as a monk. He had chosen this life in order to seek God in a community of like-minded men. The monastery was not a prison; it was a place in which, the monk said, he has never been as free. (Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung, Wisdom Publications, Somerville MA, 2004)
Anywhere we don’t want to be, no matter how physically comfortable, is really a prison. It might be a workplace, a domestic situation, a group that does not share our values. But we can escape from such confinement by embracing the spirit contained in the Beatitudes of today’s gospel. They have the capacity to transform our lives, to help us to see and live, inspired by the mind and heart of Jesus.
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
From that time on, Jesus began to preach: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”…As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers…they were fishermen. He said to them: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him…He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and curing every disease and illness among the people. Matthew 4, 12-23
This is a fascinating story about the commencement of Jesus’ ministry, fascinating for what it does not say. Matthew records nothing of the reactions of the family of Simon and Andrew as they come to terms with the sudden departure of two adult bread-winners. Neither does he tell us what Zebedee had to say when his two sons, James and John, dropped the nets they were mending and followed Jesus. Fishermen have long been notorious for their coarse language, so it’s very likely sensitivity on the part of Matthew that stopped him from reporting what came out of Zebedee’s mouth. Maybe all four fishermen who responded to the invitation from Jesus imagined that they were being offered a promising future. Whatever their motives for leaving their nets, it seems clear that they had no idea that the rabbi whose invitation they accepted would end up being executed as a public criminal. Yet there must have been something magnetic about the personality and message of Jesus that compelled them to leave behind family and job to follow him. Whatever it was, it changed their lives dramatically.
From our vantage point, some two thousand years later, we can look at how the four Gospel writers and other New Testament commentators have summarised and explained the life and teaching of Jesus and his first followers. We can appreciate how countless generations have been captivated by Jesus and his message. Above all, we know from personal experience that all he is and stands for gives meaning and purpose to our lives, and that we, too, are committed to his invitation to follow after him as fishers of women and men.
Much of the following we do is from the safe distance of our lounge-room armchairs. We follow the football, the tennis, our favourite movie stars and the unfolding events in the world around us from the comfort of our homes. We might even find ourselves becoming emotionally involved in what we see. However, we know in our hearts that Jesus extends to us the same invitation as he offered to Simon, Andrew, James and John. We also have the advantage (Or do we see it as disadvantage?) of knowing what those four did not know - that the following of Jesus calls for nothing less than unconditional commitment to a set of values and principles that leave no room for compromise or dilution.
Commitment to Jesus and His Gospel is not limited to turning up to Mass on Sunday, or, indeed, on every other day of the week. It involves living out the compassion, the mercy, the forgiveness, the tolerance, the justice, the witness to God’s love that infused everything that Jesus said and did. It is a way of life that admits of neither compromise nor concession. Yet there is something attractive about it. Otherwise we would not set our hearts on embracing it. The magnetism of Jesus and his message is as alive today as it was when it drew Simon, Andrew, James and John to drop everything and follow.
As we reflect on all this, it is worth pausing to consider the circumstances and urgency that launched Jesus on his public ministry. Matthew outlines them for us. The civil and political establishment was clearly unsettled by John the Baptist’s outspokenness and by the restiveness he was causing among the general populace. The privileged, religious class was threatened by a fiery prophet who heralded that God’s kingdom was nigh. Even though he held out to them the promise of participating in something that would change their lives for the better, they baulked at the very prospect of change. Jesus saw what was happening around him and responded with urgency. He set his mind on speaking even more boldly than John, and realised the need to engage others to assist him. The dramatic change of lifestyle embraced by the four fishermen of today’s gospel is a metaphor for stating that the major change that Jesus would set about leading required an enormous shift in perspective, lifestyle and attitude.
We would be less than alert if we failed to realise that our world and our Church are in the midst of dramatic change. Political upheaval surrounds us. Legitimately elected leaders are being blocked from office by incumbents who refuse to step aside. Civil unrest has become the norm in many countries. The orthodoxy and leadership of Pope Francis are being questioned and challenged by some of his cardinals and bishops. Religious Congregations are facing diminishment. Securities are shifting and certainties are being eroded. Our Church is being challenged to the growing need to reach out to refugees and to take a stand against the religious bigotry that exists within and beyond its boundaries. We all are being pressed to address the changing needs that are emerging and to decide whether traditional ways are sufficient to address those needs. Do we have the flexibility to change and to grow or are we content to hold fast to what is known and comfortable? Are we open to the kind of dramatic change that transformed the lives of Simon, Andrew, James and John?
Today’s gospel signals the revelation that Jesus was about to make to the world of his time. That revelation continues in our time and place. It continues to be disruptive and challenging. We have to ask ourselves if we are open to allow it to disrupt, to disturb and to challenge us.
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” John 1, 29-34
From my reading of the Gospels, I am left with the impression that there was nothing meek and mild about John the Baptist. He is presented as a vigorous, fiery preacher and prophet calling people to repentance. So, it comes as a surprise when he points to Jesus and calls him “the Lamb of God”. That’s an expression that is out of character with my image of the Baptist. It suggests gentleness and calmness, even passivity. In fact, the Old Testament has references to God’s chosen one as being “led like a lamb to the slaughter”. And it might have been more appropriate on John the Baptist’s part to have referred to Jesus as “the Lion of God”, one who really meant business.
We Catholics are so accustomed in our praying and reading to references to Jesus as “the Lamb of God”, that we become dulled to its significance, especially when we read that Jesus is the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” If we stop to think of our own frailty and weakness of character, and the sinfulness of the whole of humanity throughout history, that amounts to a lot of sins that Jesus had to deal with. And all that is something that we seem to take for granted.
When we come to consider some of the evils that have existed in our world, we can look to some of the interventions made by leaders who have done their best to promote justice, peace and respect for all people. Think, for a moment, of the way in which Gandhi spent his life campaigning for peace through non-violence. Think, too, of how reformers in America in the 1920s set out to prohibit the manufacture and sale of alcohol because drunkenness had led to wide-spread physical, emotional and sexual abuse of women and children. And look at how that very Prohibition led to the rise of the bootleggers who sold alcohol that was produced illegally. In fact, the bootleggers recruited children to deliver the illegal alcohol to clients. As a result there were public demonstrations to do away with Prohibition in order to save children from being corrupted. In Australia, gambling has been a cause of domestic violence and family breakdown. In some States, poker machines (called “slot machines” in other countries) were banned. So people hired buses to take them across State borders to casinos and clubs where they could gamble to their heart’s content. And when hotel owners successfully lobbied governments to extend the sale of alcohol for an additional four hours every day, there were demonstrations to protect women and children from abuse resulting from drunkenness. But the casino operators and the hoteliers carried the day because Governments gained revenue form high taxes levied on gambling and the sale of alcohol.
In Eastern Europe and China we have witnessed the rise of Communism, promoted to address the evils of capitalism at one end of the economic spectrum and poverty at the other end. It was meant to convince people that they are all equal, yet anyone who questioned its leaders was exterminated. In the process, the common good was pushed aside while those supposedly promoting it lined their pockets and lived in comfort. Communism’s failure to nourish people’s bodies and spirits caused its ultimate collapse. In more recent times, “the Coalition of the Willing”, a group of so-called “developed” countries, joined together to rid the world of the sins of terrorism and of dictators accused of amassing weapons of mass-destruction. Instead of bringing the blessing of peace, they have left the rest of the world with an insoluble problem of trying to address the needs of millions of refugees and asylum seekers. In addition they have all but destroyed cultures that have enriched the world for millennia.
In contrast to all this, John the Baptist, immersed in the prophetic tradition of ancient Israel, heralded the advent not of one who would take the world by storm and rid it of evils, but of one whom he described as “the Lamb of God”, who would change the world by calling its people to live with integrity, decency, compassion, dignity and respect for all, irrespective of their race or religion. John pointed to one who understood that justice, mercy, goodness and love came from the hearts of little people who understood the value of living in harmony with one another and sharing the gifts of creation.
For too long, our world’s little people, others of God’s lambs, have been exploited by morally bankrupt leaders and politicians and by wealthy individuals with no ethical or moral compass. Ultimately, it will be those who embrace the “Lamb of God”, those who live by the message and values which he lived and proclaimed, who will bring to our world the peace and contentment for which it longs. Those who lionize themselves and who rely on force and violence to rid the world of the evils they perceive will end up replacing one set of evils with another.
John the Baptist, the last of a long line of Israel’s great prophets recognized Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, and urged all who heard him to behold him, to look closely at Jesus and heed his message. If we really hear what Jesus proclaimed, we ourselves will be transformed and will not see the world the same way again. To heed Jesus’ message will be to set aside suspicion, distrust and prejudice and to replace them with tolerance, understanding and acceptance. By acting with justice, generosity and compassion, we demonstrate that we are at home in the company of “the Lamb of God” and that his way of addressing the evils of the world is our way.
I read recently the story of a couple who had been married for nine years. On their wedding day, the bride’s Aunt Alison had given them a nicely wrapped box on the outside of which was written: Do not open until first argument. Despite times of tension and disagreement, despite occasional harsh words and the slamming of doors, the couple resisted opening the box, because they had come to regard opening it as an admission of failure. They had come to believe that their love for one another would be sufficient for handling whatever happened to them. On the night they celebrated their ninth wedding anniversary, after putting their two children to bed, they decided to open Aunt Alison’s wedding present, not because they needed to, but because they were now convinced they would not have to open it. What they found was entirely unremarkable - an envelope with money for flowers, a bottle of wine, a packet of bubble-bath and another envelope with money for pizza, just what might be useful to create a moment to stop and calm down. That’s when it hit them that the real gift was not what the box contained but what they had acquired over the previous nine years - tolerance, patience and the ability to forgive one another. They discovered “the Lamb of God”, the compassion, the forgiveness and the love of God right in the middle of their lives together.
Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying: “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” Matthew 2, 1-12
In his autobiographical work, Letters from the Desert, Carlo Carretto describes how his observation of the stars from the dark nights of the Algerian Sahara desert had a profound impact on the way in which he came to contemplate and reflect. Carretto had left behind in Italy a successful career as a teacher, writer and activist to embark on a 10-year-long pilgrimage in the desert, and to join the religious congregation of The Little Brothers of Jesus. In a blog posted in 2007, Frederick Henry, Bishop of Calgary quoted from Letters from the Desert and added an accompanying comment:
"The first nights I spent here made me send off for books on astronomy and maps of the sky; and for months afterwards I spent my free time learning a little of what was passing over my head up there in the universe...It was all good material for my prayer of adoration. Kneeling on the sand, I sank my eyes for hours and hours at those wonders, writing down my discoveries in an exercise book like a child.... Finding one's way in the desert is much easier by night than by day ... In the years which I spent in the open desert I never once got lost, thanks to the stars. Many times I lost my way because the sun was too high in the sky. But I waited for night and found the road again, guided by the stars.”
It is also true that we can sometimes navigate best in life in the darkness of pain and suffering. The glitz and glitter of the daylight today can blind us and cause us to lose our way. The solution is to continue to gaze upon the face of Christ in the sick and suffering who will show us the way as we get close to them. (Bishop F. Henry, August 3, 2007)
The Epiphany of Christ (derived from the Greek word for manifestation, appearance or revelation), which we celebrate today, is a reminder to us that the natural world, the sacred and the secular interpenetrate one another to form one living and dynamic reality. The Divine is, indeed, with us and in us and all around us. We can, therefore, encounter God in nature, in the events of ordinary life, in our encounters with others and in the times and places we set aside for prayer, reflection and worship. That is where we experience our own epiphanies, revelations and inspirations.
Today’s gospel tells the story of the Magi, wisdom figures from the East and followers of Zoroaster, who trust in the ultimate victory of light over darkness, and who come to worship a seemingly simple child born in poor circumstances. Their story is a reminder to us that the fullness of God is not normally to be found in the temple of Jerusalem or the basilica of St. Peter in Rome, in houses of Parliament or in the board rooms of big corporations. Of course, God can be found in these places, but Epiphany is a stark reminder that God comes to us in the destitute and vulnerable, and in the birth of a small child whose parents will be forced into exile in order to ensure the safety of their infant son. It is not long before the Magi discover that the rich and powerful want to hold on to power and position even at the expense of the dispossessed. We see this in our own day, with national leaders refusing to heed the results of properly conducted elections or moving to seek constitutional amendments that will keep them in power. At the same time their citizens slip deeper and deeper into poverty. When the Magi discovered the machinations of Herod, they were urged in a dream to change their plans and bypass Jerusalem. And so, “they left for their own country by a different road”.
In real life, the same happens to us. We make our plans, and then find that we have to amend them because circumstances change or because we get new insights or because we experience unsettling intuitions. Sometimes we get to choose another road. At other times, it is thrust upon us by illness, loss of employment, natural disaster, failed marriage, mid-life crisis or even a national election result we just did not anticipate. As a consequence, we have to make other plans and make our way ahead on unfamiliar paths, unsure of where they will lead us. Somehow, we have to decide how we are going to choose life on whatever path uncertainty and change of circumstance force us to take.
Even when civil leaders lose their moral compass and Church leaders disappoint us with their human frailty or their wanting to revert to pre-Vatican II certainty, we have to find our own stars to guide us along another route. But let us not forget that God’s light has come into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, and that light is for everyone.
In today’s second reading from Ephesians, Paul points out that the Gentiles are “co-heirs, members of the same body and co-partners in God’s promise” made to us all in Christ Jesus through the Gospel. We, therefore, must ask ourselves who are the Gentiles of today’s world. Surely they are the immigrants and asylum seekers from all over the globe, the homeless people of all our cities and towns and with whom we are reluctant to engage, our forgotten indigenous brothers and sisters, those who have changed their gender. As Christians, we must extend a welcome to the foreigner and the stranger, and demonstrate that welcome in practical kindness and compassion, in advocating for their rights and in working to transform our communities through education and example. For good measure, Psalm 72 (It follows immediately after today’s responsorial psalm) assures us that rulers and political leaders get their credibility from the ways in which they treat the poor with justice and protect the rights of the oppressed. (Psalm 72, 2-4)
The readings for today’s celebration of Epiphany urge us to stop and consider whether we need to chart another course for ourselves, one that may be filled with obstacle and challenge, one that may bring us into conflict with political and even religious leaders. Our role is to keep the Christ light shining. We can take comfort from the fact that Pope Francis, to keep that light shining, is leading us along a different route. Are we prepared to walk that way with him?
Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
“When the right time finally came, God sent his own Son. He came as the son of a human mother and lived under the Jewish Law, to redeem those who were subject to the Law, so that we might become God’s sons and daughters.” Galatians 4, 4-7
And Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. Luke 2, 16-21
The events surrounding the birth of Jesus were so extraordinary that it was little wonder that Mary spent considerable time reflecting on them and trying to make sense of them. To begin with there surely was a mismatch between being asked by the angel to be the mother of the “Son of the Most High” and the circumstances of that Son’s birth in a stable for sheltering farm animals. Surely she must have been wondering where God was in all that mess.
As her child grew and developed, just like every little boy’s mother, she surely found much more on which to reflect. She would have had to pacify and comfort him when he was teething. She would have guided him in his first steps when he began to walk, and stopped him from climbing into danger once he started to explore. Like every other little boy he would have collected bugs and beetles and stowed them safely in his pockets, and he would have had his fair share of bumps and bruises that needed kissing better. And would he not have been as restless and fidgety as any other Jewish child on his early trips with his parents to the synagogue for prayers?
The ability to reflect on ourselves, our lives and all that happens around us is uniquely human. While it starts in childhood when we begin to search for explanations for the things we cannot understand, reflecting or pondering in depth is essentially an adult practice with which we become more comfortable as we mature. Mary had thirty years to practice it. And how she must have puzzled over the mysteries surrounding her son’s birth, the predictions of what he was to become, and the meaning of the disconcerting prophecies made by Simeon and Anna when Jesus was but a baby!
How did she make sense of her son’s departure from Jewish tradition when he left his trade behind and not only started to preach, but set about challenging the teaching and authority of his country’s religious leaders? Must she not have experienced extreme embarrassment at his unconventional behaviour? How did she cope with the gossip that must have circulated about him? How she must have struggled to see where God was in all of that!
That kind of challenge and puzzlement is not foreign to us either. We, too, have to learn the art of pondering as we try to make sense of our personal frailty, our contradictions and our inner conflicts. We, too, struggle to discover the presence of God in what is happening in our world as human beings do violence to one another and as those close to us behave in ways we cannot easily fathom.
Yet the almost incredible consequence of God’s becoming one with us in the person of Jesus, born of Mary, is that we are, as today’s reading from Galatians assures us, brothers and sisters of Jesus, children of God. And the consequence of that for us is that we have a responsibility to reflect something of the presence, the goodness and the love of God to others in the ordinariness of our living.
So, as another year begins and we think of New Year resolutions, let’s start by committing to put the practice of pondering high on our “to do” list.
Through her pondering Mary came to understand how God’s love for her and her family was evident in the events surrounding Jesus’ birth and in all that unfolded as he grew and developed, as he went about his work as a carpenter, and as he encouraged, affirmed and challenged all whom he encountered in his public ministry.
If we, in our turn, do not make our world a little more beautiful and a little better for having been part of it, then our lives will be meaningless. Through our reflecting on ourselves and our role as Christians, we have to decide how we are going to mirror something of the face of God to others in ordinary, practical ways.
I am reminded of a story told by a man about his school days. Somehow, on his way home from school each afternoon, he managed to get distracted. Invariably, he was late home and late for his dinner. Finally, his parents had had enough and his father issued an ultimatum: “Next time you come late for dinner, you’ll be sitting down to bread and water. Now that’s it!”
True to form, the very next afternoon he was late again. When he came into the dining room, the other members of the family had plates of meat, potatoes and other vegetables in their places. In his place was a slice of bread and a glass of water. He was deflated, and sat miserably in his place staring at the bread and water. After waiting for some minutes for the lesson to sink in, his father quietly got up and exchanged his own full plate for the slice of bread and glass of water. The boy, now a grown man, reflected: “Ever since then, I have known what God is like, from what my father did that night.”
Canadian writer, Eleanor Coerr and illustrator Ronald Himler have published the beautiful story of Sadako Saoaki, a young Japanese girl who, at the age of two, survived the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. However, she was severely affected by radiation, and, by the time she was eleven, was dying from leukemia. As she lay in her hospital bed, her friend Chizuko gave her some hope by telling her that, if she made a thousand origami cranes, her wish would be granted. So she decided that each day she would make a white paper crane. This she did for 644 days, and then she died. Her school friends brought the number up to 1000. On her grave is written: “I will write peace on your wings. And you will fly all over the world.”
What will emerge as a result of our pondering during 2017?
“Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2, 1-14
“What keeps the wild hope of Christmas alive year after year in a world notorious for dashing all hopes is the haunting dream that the child who was born that day may yet be born again, even in us.” Frederick Buechner
“It lies within your power of choosing to conceive the Child who chooses you.” W.H. Auden, A Christmas Oratorio
Here in Rome in recent days there has been lots of activity in churches, piazzas, other public places and shops, as Christmas cribs have been built and displayed. In Piazza del Popolo, there is an outdoor exhibition of cribs of all shapes, sizes and designs, and one of the large churches has live animals in its crib. The daily papers carry invitations to parents to bring their children to come and see “Bambino Gesù” between December 26 and Epiphany, in any number of churches. There is something admirable about all this, for it calls us all, not just the children, to look back to the historical birth of Jesus more than twenty centuries ago, and to come back to the present in order to stop, to ponder, to wonder at and celebrate the very presence of God in our midst here and now. And while everyone who visits a crib, here in Rome or anywhere else, might not grasp the full significance of the event it celebrates, they are reminded that there is something special about the Child in the centre. Sad to say, there are so many other cities around the globe where distorted political correctness demands that Christmas cribs not be displayed in public and the Christmas story not be told in schools.
At the birth of Jesus, hope and promise were born into our world. And just as the creative genius of artists and designers finds expression in endless variations of that first Christmas crib, so too, are hope and love and promise born into our world in every act of generosity, kindness and compassion done in imitation of Jesus who was born in that Bethlehem stable and lived among us.
Jesus is born again and again into our present world, but all too often we are unable to see it happening. A single father and his two sons have managed together somehow for another year. They forget their own struggles and build a make-shift table on which to serve up a Christmas dinner for elderly people in their street, who would otherwise spend their Christmas alone. Their “stable” becomes a dwelling place for God.
Fred and Dulcie, both in their 80s, sit in their assisted-living unit, eating a special dinner that Fred has cooked. Dulcie is reliving Christmases of years ago, with no awareness of this Christmas. Fred is cutting off pieces of turkey and coaxing his wife of 60 years to eat them. When the struggle of the meal is over, he will patiently remind her of who he is, who they are, and that it is Christmas. He will take down the family photograph and name each of their children for her and tell her stories of the kids as they were growing up. Into this nursing-home “stable”, Jesus is born day after day after day…
Clare is up at the crack of dawn on Christmas Eve. Everything is in readiness for the family celebration of Christmas, leaving her free to spend the day cooking scones and cakes for the meal served by her local parish for the homeless in the area. Her husband, Brian, will deliver all the goodies late that afternoon. They have been doing this since they were in university together, when they were “volunteered” by a friend - that was 28 years ago. Just knowing that what she cooks and he delivers can bring joy to others has kept them at it all those years. Their kitchen is another Bethlehem (house of bread) where Christ is born.
Frederick, Buechner (quoted at the head of this reflection) is a 90-year-old Presbyterian pastor. In the course of his life and ministry, he has written some 36 books, from novels, to essays to sermons and theology. In a reflection on the birth of Jesus he wrote: “Once we have seen God in a stable, we never know where we might see him (sic) again. If God is present in this least auspicious place, there is no place or time so lowly or earthbound but that holiness can be present too.” (The Hungering Dark, 1968) And that leads us into what W.H. Auden wrote: “It lies within your power of choosing to conceive the Child who chooses you.” (A Christmas Oratorio) The challenge for all of us as we celebrate Christmas is to allow Jesus to be born in our own hearts, and to have him live in all we say and do.
There is one other aspect of today’s gospel that calls for reflection. The journey that Joseph and Mary made on foot from Nazareth to Bethlehem was approximately a hundred miles - quite an ordeal, especially for Mary in full-term pregnancy. It was not undertaken by choice, but at the behest of the bureaucracy of Caesar Augustus. They were required to make the trip just to fill in some government census forms. Millions of poor and defenceless people of every place and time have had to do likewise, for no other reason than to comply with what thoughtless and heartless governments and their bureaucracies dream up. The red tape that refugees and asylum seekers have to cut through when they are allowed to cross borders or are released from detention, beggars belief. While Joseph and Mary and their unborn child dutifully made for Bethlehem to be counted, they really didn’t count at all. As far as Rome was concerned they were mere numbers, worthless nobodies. Current governments the world over are busy counting the people fleeing from places like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Sudan. Rarely are these poor people named or treated as deserving of respect and dignity. And seldom are they made to feel welcome by governments who, uninvited, joined in wars to “liberate” them.
The hope of Mary and Joseph was certainly not in Caesar, but definitely in God. We can only pray that the millions of refugees, men women and children displaced from their homes by warring Caesars, are able to place their hope in God. The Caesars of our world, if they’re not fighting wars, are sitting on their hands.
The fact that God became one of us in the person of Jesus means that we all count. Even if we are among those who are beaten down, trampled upon, discarded or forgotten, the birth of Jesus among us gives us reason to hope. In Jesus, Emmanuel, God is with us.
What kept Joseph and Mary going was not the hope that one day they would strike it rich or that the stable they sheltered in would miraculously become heated. Their hope was in God - that with God’s guidance they would negotiate whatever befell them and make the most of it.
They were carried by the kind of hope described by former Czech Republic President, Vaclav Havel: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out".
To all who read these weekly reflections, I extend best wishes for a blessed and peace-filled Christmas, and a graced and rewarding year ahead.