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Fifth Sunday of Easter
“Let me give you a new command: Love one another; just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. This is how everyone will recognise that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.” John 13, 31-33a, 34-35
On the surface, today’s gospel looks to be fairly inoffensive, the run-of-the-mill stuff we expect of Jesus. I suggest we look at it in the context of when Jesus spoke those words about loving one another, and in the contemporary context of Francis’ papacy.
In what we now call “The Last Supper”, Jesus had a very clear premonition that his enemies were about to do away with him. So, he turned his attention to the legacy he wanted to leave to his closest friends. He set out to give them something that they could hold onto when confusion and grief would overcome them, after his death. He sensed that the only experience that would carry them through would be love. And let’s not forget that love is much more than a feeling. It is a verb; it is action; it is action that makes real demands.
To better understand the pressures under which Jesus lived his life, we have to appreciate that he was fully human. That’s what incarnation means. He was flesh and blood like us, with all the accompanying emotions and feelings that are part of being human. To spell that out, I am indebted to a piece written by a man I greatly admire, the late George McCauley SJ. He described, in a very imaginative way, how Jesus loved us:
“I will act as though I’m not God. I’ll go the acculturation route, wear native dress - they call it flesh and blood - live like them, be one of them. I will take on their full emotional range. I will get angry, frustrated, anxious, annoyed, guilt-stricken. I will get knots in my stomach before I preach, just as they do, and I’ll have to raise my voice to be heard. I’ll pray like them, dealing with all kinds of distractions and doubts. I’ll taste the silence and waiting of prayer. I’ll experience the fear that, in prayer, I just might be waiting for the echo of my own voice to return. I’ll draw near to God in all my humanity, and pray that I don’t melt when I get too close. I’ll feel the deep human shudder before the mystery - the helplessness and the incomprehension.
“I’ll try to free up other people in their relationship to God. People can get so constipated in this regard; sometimes, I don’t know whether to laugh at them or cry. It will take a lot of convincing to get them to see that God is smarter, funnier, more sophisticated, more tender and knowing, more classy than they are. I will probably lose it at times, and run on about fire and brimstone. But I can’t be expected to take on a kind of measured expression that is really inhuman.
“Many of them are over twenty-one. So, if I break a law here and there to make a point about God, they should be able to figure that out, too. I’ll reject sin because I will come to see it as the enemy within my own humanity. Getting things across to people will be difficult at times. They seem so uptight, isolated, selfish and even vicious. Will that happen to me, too? In any case, I know there will be no shortcuts. I’ll be especially conscious of people’s history - where they have come from, and what resources, customs and habits they come with. I’ll work out how to deal differently with adults and young people. I’ll live with all their myths and legends, and their late-night storytelling.
“I’ll forge my own values out of the disarray I see and the conflicting opinions I hear. And when I share my values with others, I’ll take the consequences - incomprehension, misquoting, suspicion of my motives and of my convictions (they really know how to go for the weak spot, don’t they?) But it won’t be so bad. At least my friends will never abandon me. Anyway, who would want to hurt anyone who is in favour of love?” (George McCauley, The Unfinished Image, Sadlier NY, 1983, p. 165-167)
The love with which Jesus loved is completely and authentically human in shape and form. It’s the kind of love that God’s spirit has planted deep within us, and which has been reinforced by the parents who loved us into life and who modelled for us the selflessness of love. The biggest difficulty that most of us have with Jesus is accepting that he was consistently, relentlessly human. We have often been reminded of the words of St Irenaeus: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Those words hold just as true for Jesus as they do for each one of us.
Being told by Jesus to love one another leaves no room for word games, rationalisations, negotiations, exceptions or explanations. “One another” surely means those all around us, those with whom we live and work and play and worship. They mean our parents, siblings and the next-door neighbours. They mean those with whom we argue and litigate about the fairness of grandad’s will. Loving one another means much more than tolerating or getting along with our brothers and sisters. It means actually loving them, wanting what’s best for them, rejoicing with them in their successes and supporting them in their losses and failures, and when they make mistakes and end up in prison. And if today’s gospel is not quite enough, we can stop and look at how St Teresa of Avila spelled it out in detail for us: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
When Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope in 2013, it was not by accident that he chose the name Francis. He was acutely aware of Francis of Assisi - a man of poverty and peace, a man whose heart overflowed with love of those around him, and whose love embraced creation, the environment and all the other creatures among whom we live. But the new Pope was also acutely aware of the profound change of heart that Francis of Assisi underwent in the broken church of San Damiano, outside the walls of Assisi. It was there that the first Francis heard the call: “Go, rebuild my church which, as you can see, is falling into ruin.” Our present-day Church is broken and falling into ruin. According to census takers, the second largest “religious group” in the world is now ex-Catholics. They have been disillusioned and disaffiliated by things like the scandal of sexual abuse, clericalism, the Church’s inability to stay connected with young people, its inertia, and reluctance to invite into leadership lay women and men. Pope Francis realized that he inherited a Church that is in desperate need of rebuilding. It will be rebuilt when we, as a community, take seriously Jesus’ words: “I give you a new commandment: love one another; just as I have loved you, you also must love one another.” That means being a community that engages with the poor, the dispossessed, those driven by war, terrorism, violence and injustice from the places they call home. It means reaching out with genuine love and care to our needy brothers and sisters. It means love in action. It means, as Pope Francis says, getting our hands dirty, catching the smell of sheep in need. Love in action speaks all languages. It also helps to rebuild broken lives and broken communities.
Fourth Sunday of Easter
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” John 10, 27-30
Last month, the Australian media gave a lot of attention to comments about gay people made on social media by a high-profile Australian Rugby player. While officials of the Australian Rugby Union stated that the player is entitled to hold to his religious beliefs, they indicated that his contract would be terminated because of his intemperate, discriminatory and bigoted comments posted on a public media site. In the player’s view, gay people have no place among Jesus’ sheep. So, in the context of today’s gospel reading, I found myself wondering who’s “in” and who’s “out”. I even wondered if John had quoted Jesus accurately, and what exactly Jesus meant when he said: “My sheep listen to my voice;”
We all know from experience that many people get turned off religion when they hear categorical statements made about who is “saved” and who isn’t. Over the centuries, fanatical adherents from a wide range of religious institutions have publicly voiced this kind of discrimination. I find it depressing, for it gives religion a bad name. Every now and then, I encounter somebody or other who has the gall to judge my orthodoxy, to give me a spiritual once-over with a measuring rod of their own making. I find myself wondering about how such people arrived at their calculation standards. However, I am always comforted by the remark of an elderly religious sister who was pressured into reluctant retirement after spending thirty years among poverty-stricken people in India. In her delightful Irish brogue, she would sometimes say: “It’s better to be around sinners. They don’t put on airs and graces, you know.”
Yet, today’s gospel reading still leaves me with the uncomfortable impression that some sheep belong and others don’t. Moreover, the other two readings don’t help me very much. The second one from the book of Revelation gives me the message that those who are persecuted for their faith (members of John’s Christian community) are definitely “in”: “He will guide them to springs of life-giving water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7, 17). Persecution and the threat of death are not exactly the most attractive indicators of assuring anyone that he or she is in the right group of sheep.
There’s a bit more encouragement for me in the first reading from Acts. It describes something of the dilemma experienced by those who set out to proclaim the message Jesus had entrusted to them. When Paul and Barnabas experienced opposition in Antioch, we are told that they “shook the dust off their feet in defiance” and went to Iconium. They had made no impression at all on a group that insisted on basing their religious practice on soul-destroying, rigid adherence to rules and regulations: “Paul and Barnabas spoke out even more boldly: ‘It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you (Jews). But since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we will leave you and go to the Gentiles’” (Acts 13, 46). However, those (converts) who did listen to them “were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13, 51)
Therein, I suggest, is to be found the clue for recognizing just who belong to Jesus’ sheep. They are the people who have come to the realization that God truly loves them. We all struggle to be convinced of that. But people whose lives are bound by rigidity and correct and controlled performance rarely demonstrate much in the way of love and joy.
Underneath that is a question for all of us: Is the parish or community to which I belong noted for its vibrant, energetic, joyful members who are ready to engage with one another and make visitors welcome? There’s a challenge for our churches today! Is there anything attractive about them? Do we read welcome on the faces of their leaders? How much energy is expended on reminders about who can and who cannot receive communion? And then there are the really momentous questions and debates as to whether “altar girls” are allowed or grudgingly tolerated, or whether women qualify to have their feet washed on Holy Thursday. Can you believe that St Peter’s Basilica in Rome still has a dress code, and temple police to enforce it: Men in shorts, women in short skirts and with bare shoulders are not permitted to enter. Control is the order of the day. One wonders if Paul and Barnabas would shake the dust from their feet today if they experienced the controls practiced in some of our parishes and churches. But let’s not go too far in the direction of shaking dust from feet. There are some very vibrant parishes and communities in which people are actually “full of joy and the Holy Spirit”. Perhaps it’s true that Jesus’ sheep are distinguished by their graciousness and their cheery smiles.
But we can’t leave today’s gospel reading without giving some attention to the opening words attributed to Jesus: “The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice…” Guided by God’s Spirit, we are invited to listen to the voice of Jesus in the depths of our heart, and in the cries of his and our brothers and sisters calling for compassion and care in the world around us.
This fourth Sunday of Easter is also “Vocation Sunday”, and therefore a reminder to us to live true to our vocation as disciples of Jesus. Whatever our state in life, as Christians we would do well to remind ourselves that each one of us might be the only gospel that some people will ever read or encounter. Our vocation as Christians is to somehow be the face and the voice of Jesus to the people who come into our lives each day, and to see the face and hear the voice of Jesus in everyone we meet. I think we have little difficulty in seeing reflections of Jesus in those who have been officially recognized as saints. But we often fail to see Jesus reflected in the very ordinary “saints” we encounter in the office, on public transport, in the newspapers and magazines we read, and in the people who live with us. About 12 years ago, I was struck by a book review I came across in The New York Times. It was about a book written by Pauline Chen, a surgeon who specialized in liver transplants, but who took time out to write about what she described as “the troubled relationship between modern medical practice and the emotional events surrounding death”. She even admitted to the discomfort she experienced in medical school, when she and others were given “lessons in denial and depersonalization” which were intended to help would-be doctors to achieve high levels of technical competence without letting their emotions get in the way. She then wrote of doctors she met who were unable to empathize with the relatives of dying patients or even confront their own fears about death. However, she wrote movingly about her experience of a man whose heart began to fail rapidly after a long battle with colon cancer. She called his family, and then summoned the surgeon on duty. The man’s wife arrived first and Dr Chen took her to her husband’s bedside and quietly slipped away (as hospital protocol required). When the surgeon arrived, he quietly took the woman’s hand and gently explained what was happening. He indicated what the monitors were registering and whispered to her that her presence and her holding her husband’s hand were a comfort to him as he breathed his last. The surgeon stayed with the woman for another thirty minutes. Shortly afterwards, the man’s wife stepped out and quietly thanked the surgeon and Dr Chen. Pauline Chen went on to explain that what the duty surgeon did that morning completely changed her way of dealing with dying patients (Pauline Chen, Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality and William Grimes, New York Times, Jan 10, 2007, Doctor Confronts the Human Drama’s Inevitable Finale). The face and voice of Jesus are reflected to us in unexpected ways. We, in our turn, might reflect something of his face and voice to others.
Third Sunday of Easter
Jesus said to Simon the third time: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” John 21, 1-19
Before we launch into a discussion of today’s gospel reading, I think it is worth noting that Scripture scholars point out that this last chapter of what is officially John’s Gospel was not written by the person who wrote the first twenty chapters. The style and vocabulary of this chapter are so different from the rest of the book that the experts conclude that it was an addition at a later date, probably to pick up on the unfinished story of Peter. The last mention of Peter before Jesus’ resurrection was of him standing around a charcoal fire warming himself and vigorously denying that he had any connection with Jesus. Presumably some member of the early Christian community wanted to explain how Peter found his way back to acceptance and future leadership. Among other things, this epilogue story describes Peter and the disciples gathered around another charcoal fire.
But let’s start with another story. It’s about a young lad who had gone with his sister to stay on their grandparents’ farm. The boy’s grandfather had given him a slingshot and sent him off to practice with it in the woods. Despite all his efforts, the lad failed to hit anything he aimed at. As he made his way back to the house for lunch, he took aim at his grandmother’s pet duck. This time his aim was accurate and the duck fell dead in front of him. At first, he was shocked, but then guilt at what he had done overcame him. He was afraid to tell his grandmother and was also aware that his sister, Sally had seen him hit the duck and then watched him as he hid it in the wood heap. But she didn’t say a word. After lunch, Grandma asked Sally to help her with the dishes. Instantly, Sally replied: “Grandma, Johnny told me that he wanted to help you in the kitchen today, didn’t you, Johnny?” Then, she whispered in his ear: “Remember, the duck!” So, Johnny quietly helped with the wash-up. Later that afternoon, Grandpa asked if they wanted to go fishing with him, but Grandma said that she needed Sally to help her to get the evening meal ready. Sally, however, didn’t miss a beat, and quickly volunteered Johnny to help Grandma: “Johnny already told me that he wants to help you, Grandma.” Then she whispered to Johnny again, “Remember, the duck?” So, Sally went off fishing and Johnny stayed in the kitchen helping Grandma. This went on for several days, with Johnny doing all the helping around the house, and Sally enjoying herself endlessly. Finally, Johnny cracked and went and told Grandma how he had killed her pet duck. She bent over and gave him a big hug, saying: “I know, sweetheart. I was standing near the window and saw what happened. But I love you very much, Johnny, and forgave you immediately. However, I’ve been wondering just how long you’re going to let Sally make a slave of you.” Sometimes we can let guilt tie us up in knots and allow it to paralyze us.
Another clue that helps us see today’s gospel reading as an addendum to John’s Gospel is the fact that it doesn’t fit into the sequence of the resurrection stories of the last two Sundays. There is a strong suggestion that the disciples were at a loss following the death of Jesus and, in their grief, they went back to doing something they were used to doing and which would distract them for their grief. They went back to fishing. As they were winding up their night’s unsuccessful work, they heard from the shore something that every fisherman is used to hearing - the voice of a stranger calling out: “Lads, did you catch anything?” When they admitted that they had had no luck, they got the advice that lots of fisherfolk get from passers-by: “Well try somewhere else.” Except this particular morning, the stranger calling out told them to put their nets out on the other side of the boat. Their success was immediate and so far beyond expectation that one of them realized that the stranger calling out was more than an ordinary passer-by. It could only be Jesus. Impetuous Peter was in the water in no time, and before long the others joined him around the charcoal fire, having dragged their net and their catch behind them.
When they had all eaten, Jesus singled out Peter and asked him three times: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” This, of course, is part of the story-teller’s stock in trade: Jesus’ three-time questioning parallels Peter’s three-time denial. And that fits perfectly the Jesus the disciples had come to know. Mercy and forgiveness were the focus of all he had said and done. There was not an ounce of vindictiveness in him. And that’s the reassurance that Jesus offers every one of us. This story recounts how Peter was forgiven and reinstated as leader of the community. It also reassures us that Jesus is in touch with the realities with which every disciple struggles - a ready willingness to give generously together with the knowledge that we all falter and stumble, despite our best efforts. Yet forgiveness is readily offered to us all.
2003 saw the publication of Kiss of Death: America’s Love Affair with the Death Penalty. It was written by John Bessler and published by Northeastern University Press, Boston. Bessler is a serious researcher and gives an exhaustive account of how law codes throughout history have evolved. He recounts how the Babylonian Law Code of Hammurabi (1750 BC) listed 25 offences punishable by death. Among them were corruption, theft and the fraudulent sale of beer! The Legal Systems of the United Kingdom and the United States differ considerably, but both have come a long way since Hammurabi. However, both have evolved and both have struggled with capital punishment. It is no longer practiced in the U.K. There are strong campaigns in the United States to have it abolished. Martin Luther King’s widow, Coretta Scott King has stated that the death penalty “does a disservice to everything my husband lived for and believed.” A brochure published by campaigners states: “We can’t stop all violence but we can work to stop the violence carried out by a government that kills in our names.” Three Federal Government prisoners have been executed in the United States this century. One was Timothy McVeigh who discharged a bomb in a Federal Government building in Oklahoma in April, 1995. The explosion killed 168 people and left more than 500 injured or maimed. Bud Welch, whose only daughter was killed in the blast, was one of the few people who spoke out against McVeigh’s execution: “The day Timothy McVeigh is taken from that cage in Indiana and put to death is not going to bring Julie Marie Welch back and is not going to bring me any peace or anybody in this nation any peace,” he said. “God did not make us so that we feel good about killing a caged human being.” For months after his twenty-three-year-old daughter died in the bombing, Bud Welch, a Texaco service station owner, felt only rage, depression, and grief. “I didn’t even want trials for them,” Welch said of Timothy McVeigh and his codefendant, Terry Nichols. “I wanted them fried.” After smoking three packs of cigarettes a day and drinking himself to sleep at night, Welch, realizing his life was falling apart, finally abandoned thoughts of revenge, let go of his rage, and arranged to visit Bill McVeigh (Timothy’s father) at his home near Buffalo, New York. “The reason Julie and 167 others were dead was rage and revenge,” Bud Welch would say before Timothy McVeigh’s execution. He went on to say: “If Timothy McVeigh is executed I won’t be able to choose to forgive him. As long as he is alive, I have to deal with my feelings and emotions…It’s a struggle I need to wage. To me the death penalty is vengeance and vengeance really doesn’t help anyone in the healing process.”
The message that rings out from today’s gospel reading is that Jesus wants nothing to do with vengeance or vindictiveness. Nor does he want anyone to be imprisoned by guilt. Both stifle life, both run counter to the Gospel. We are less than we can be if we allow ourselves to be controlled by the hate and bitterness of others. The choice is ours.
Second Sunday of Easter
When the disciples said: “We have seen the Lord,” Thomas answered: “Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands…I refuse to believe.”John 20, 19-31
One of our distinguishing characteristics as human beings is that we have a thirst for knowledge. When things puzzle and challenge us, we ask questions. When we can’t find answers, we become frustrated. Our thirst for knowledge becomes apparent early in life. We see evidence of it in little children who seek to satisfy their curiosity with endless “Daddy, why…?” questions. The history of scientific exploration and philosophical hypothesizing is peopled with inquirers from Socrates to Galileo, from Marie Curie to Rita Levi-Montalcini, from Charles Darwin to Einstein. These giants, and many others like them, have been driven in their search for answers to questions which only they had the intellectual acumen to formulate and the determination to pursue.
In his last book, published only after he died, the great mathematician, physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking posed questions the answers to which may not be found this side of eternity. His opening question: Is there a God? is one that has been asked and explored ever since human beings have walked the earth (Brief Answers to the Big Questions, Bantam Books, NY 2018).
We all struggle with questions. Our inability to answer some of them with speed and certainty not only frustrates us, but confronts us with our limitations. Most of us struggle to fully accept our limitations and the reality that we belong to a limited species.
Thomas, one of the central figures of today’s gospel reading, is a character who is often misjudged for his apparent disbelief. I want to suggest that he is worthy of our admiration. He had seen and felt the fear, doubt and depression that had overwhelmed himself and his fellow disciples in the wake of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. When he was confronted with the assertion that Jesus had risen and appeared to his companions, he did what most intelligent people would do. He asked them if they had let their imaginations run away with them or whether they had drunk too much in trying to drown their sorrows. Maybe he concluded that, out of desperate hope, the other disciples had become delusionary. He was not going to let himself be drawn in that direction. So, he was honest and open in stating that he was not prepared to accept an assertion that had no evidence to substantiate it. But he was punished for his honesty. Because he insisted on being given hard evidence, he found himself alienated by his friends, cut off from the group to which he thought he belonged.
But let’s not forget that John had already presented Thomas as a down-to-earth, plain-spoken man. When Jesus announced his intention to return to Bethany after receiving news of the death of his friend, Lazarus, all the disciples, except Thomas, tried to dissuade him, for it had been in Bethany that some Jews had tried to stone Jesus. Thomas, however, insisted that they not let Jesus go alone, even if that meant risking their own lives: “Let us also go to die with him” (John 11, 16). During Jesus’ long farewell speech, he was bold enough to interrupt, asking him to speak plainly, instead of talking in the kind of poetic and flowery language that he clearly found baffling. Jesus was saying: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. . . where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” This was too much for Thomas, who interjected with: “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14,5)
A week after Thomas’ demand for convincing evidence of Jesus’ resurrection (and it must have been a long week for him), Jesus reappeared to the whole group. His first words were clear indication that he had neither isolated nor rejected Thomas. He simply invited him to set aside his doubts and believe. By making allowance for Thomas’ scepticism, the risen Jesus made it clear that he is open and ready to meet all of us, wherever we happen to find ourselves. The palpable irony of the story is that from the mouth of the man, who has subsequently been labelled as “doubting Thomas”, came one of the greatest expressions of faith: “My Lord and my God.”
While John put the focus on Thomas’ doubt, he glossed over the doubt of the other disciples. Even though Mary Magdalen had told them of her encounter with the risen Lord, all of them except Thomas stayed in hiding, while he, the practical one, might well have been out doing the shopping or even trying to verify what Mary Magdalen had claimed.
Yet, if we are honest, we have to admit that we, too, waver between faith and doubt, but come down eventually in favour of faith. In the course of our lives, we gain knowledge through direct experience, deduction or reasoning and through putting our faith in what others tell us. Social researchers point to the fact that more than 75% of our knowledge comes from accepting what others tell us. For example, if I go to a pharmacy searching for medication for an upset stomach, I accept the pharmacist’s recommendation or take as true the instructions for use and the description of possible side-effects printed on the package or bottle containing the medication I purchase. Whenever I board a plane, I take it on trust that the crew members are qualified to fly the plane. I don’t ask to see the captain’s flying licence. However, if we experience severe turbulence on a flight, we might catch ourselves questioning the competence of the captain. When we stop to reflect on an intangible reality like religion, most of us experience intellectual doubts from time to time. We catch ourselves wondering if the miracles in the Gospel actually happened. We have doubts about the divinity of Jesus and the existence of God. These days, we are aware of lots of Catholics doubting how a Church with a history of terrible sexual abuse can really be the Church that Jesus founded on Peter. And then there are our emotional doubts that come to the surface when tragedy and illness strike us or those we know and love. Those who have been faithful to their religious practice find themselves thinking that they are entitled to better treatment from a God who allegedly loves them.
Thomas wanted assurance and evidence. He also wanted Jesus and needed personal connection to dispel his doubts. While others can inspire and encourage us, they cannot give us their faith. The journey to faith in God and Jesus is ultimately personal and sometimes lonely. In today’s gospel we come to see that Mary could not experience the resurrected Jesus for the disciples, and the disciples couldn’t experience Jesus for Thomas. In the long run, we come to understand that it is faith, shaken at times by doubt, that keeps us on the path of searching for our own experience of Jesus. And we need the support of community to help us along that path. John’s Gospel spells out that the fundamentals of being a disciple of Jesus are faith and love. To grow into these is the journey of a lifetime. And we human beings will never achieve them perfectly.
Then the other disciple (John) who had reached the tomb first also went in; he saw and he believed. John 20, 1-9
In recent years, surveys conducted in both the United Kingdom and the United States have revealed that a little more than 50% of respondents in both countries believe in an afterlife, without necessarily believing in God. Moreover, there has been a spate of books describing near-death, out-of-body experiences attesting to a life after death. In 2010, The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven was published, and sold millions of copies. It is the story of Alex Malarkey who was left a quadriplegic after a traffic accident, and describes the boy’s experiences of heaven, angels and hearing God’s voice while he was in emergency surgery. It was written by the boy’s father, Kevin who was in the accident with his son. Kevin later admitted that the story was a fabrication. Alex’s mother, Beth, subsequently told reporters that her son was not some kind of supernatural being and is still a quadriplegic. As a consequence of the writing and publication of the book and its subsequent withdrawal from sale, Alex’s parents are now separated. In stark contrast, Heaven Is For Real, also published in 2010, has sold more than 10 million copies. It recounts the out-of-body experience of Colton Burpo during emergency surgery to remove his burst appendix. It was co-written by Colton’s father, Todd Burpo and a family friend, Lynn Vincent and has been made into a film that has pulled in more than $101 million at the box office. It describes Colton’s experience of seeing Jesus and Mary in heaven. While I am not inclined to recommend either of these books to anyone, the volume of sales point to the urge in people to want to believe in heaven or an afterlife.
If that’s not enough, the popularity of the TV show, The Walking Dead, reinforces this acceptance in people of an afterlife. The programme is so popular in Australia that Foxtel tied up rights to it, preventing fans from buying weekly episodes from iTunes and Google (Sydney Morning Herald, October 2016). All of these contemporary productions get some of their inspiration (perhaps unconsciously) from very old creations like Dante’s Divine Comedy or Milton’s Paradise Lost. Despite the advent of rationalism and the cynicism of Post-Modernism, there seems to still exist a deep conscious or unconscious longing in much of humanity for the existence of an afterlife.
I suggest that this longing is somehow connected to humanity’s search to find meaning in the unanswerable questions that life’s struggles and disappointments throw up. Somehow, very ordinary people instinctively conclude that the efforts they make to live decent, honest lives really come to nothing if death is the ultimate winner. Whether we are of any religious faith or none, deep down we cling to an intuition that we are going to die into life (albeit different) rather than away from life. We have within us a sense that the intangible realities of love, faith, hope, kindness, compassion and beauty will never die. The very fact that so much of humanity experiences a longing for more is testimony that there really is something more. Our continuing living and longing work together to keep this “truth” alive. It’s not a factual truth to which we can point, but it is a “truth” we come to by deduction.
I am writing this reflection in New Rochelle N.Y. where I have been for about a week. Yesterday, I came upon a story recounted by Michael Shermer, a member of the Skeptics Society and founder of their magazine Skeptic. The story was published in the magazine and is an account of an incident that happened on the day he married Jennifer Graf, who had emigrated from Germany to the United States in 2014. They married a year or so later. In transit from Germany, a trunk carrying some of Jennifer’s possessions was damaged, together with a transistor radio she treasured because it belonged to her deceased grandfather who reared her after her own father had died. All efforts to repair the transistor radio proved fruitless. Following their wedding, and during the reception held in their home, Jennifer confided to Michael that, despite her happiness, she felt really sad that there was nobody from her German family at the wedding and that the person she missed most was her grandfather. Shortly after confiding this to Michael, they farewelled guests and went up to their bedroom, where they heard music coming from somewhere. Eventually they traced it to a drawer in one of the cupboards. The 1978 Phillips transistor radio had come to life, and with tears running down her face, Jennifer acknowledged that her grandfather was at the wedding after all. She and Michael fell asleep listening to the classical music coming from grandfather’s transistor. By next morning, the music had stopped, and the transistor did not work again.
One final story: People who knew Pope Francis when he was a bishop and cardinal in Buenos Aires, find it difficult to understand what they see as a marked change in his personality since his election. In Argentina, he had a reputation for being shy, even boring, with no spark in his interpersonal engagements. When he was asked to be Pope, he said he was reluctant but accepted because he saw it as God’s will for him. When an interviewer in 2015 asked him: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?”, he replied: “I am a sinner. That is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” However, he did confide to a good friend and fellow bishop from South America some time before the 2015 interview: "On the night of my election, I had an experience of the closeness of God that gave me a great sense of interior freedom and peace, and that sense has never left me."
Stories like the ones above give me reason to pause and ponder. They challenge me to ask myself exactly what it is to which I am committing myself when I recite the Creed at Mass on Sundays. Do I really look forward to “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”? These have been some of my thoughts and ruminations as I approach Easter.
Easter, the resurrection of Jesus, confronts all of us, the sisters and brothers of Jesus, with the prospect and hope of renewed life. It is resounding testimony to the power of love. It is not only God’s validation of the life and death of Jesus, but a profound affirmation that goodness, love, compassion, beauty and hope are enduring.
In the latter years of his life, the great impressionist painter Renoir suffered severely from arthritis. His arms and legs became stiffened and his hands twisted and distorted. Matisse, then one of his students, asked him one day as Renoir was working on a large canvas, barely able to stand: “Why do you keep on torturing yourself like this?” The master painter merely replied: “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.” Jesus came to teach us by example how to be authentically human, how to live with dignity and integrity through the disappointments and ordeals we encounter. His efforts brought him cruel execution from those who could or would not see or listen. But God raised him as proof positive that beauty, love and life will ultimately triumph. It’s for us, now, to reflect some of that life and love and beauty to others. The apostle John “saw and believed”. All the puzzling pieces he had heard previously from Jesus fell into place. He needed no further convincing. Do we?
Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion
The Criminal said: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 22,14 – 23, 56
The themes of today’s readings are love and human frailty and fickleness. The following poem is an introduction into the first of those themes.
Love's As Warm As Tears
Love's as warm as tears,
Love is tears:
Pressure within the brain,
Tension at the throat,
Deluge, weeks of rain,
Featureless seas between
Hedges, where once was green.
Love's as fierce as fire,
Love is fire:
All sorts--infernal heat
Clinkered with greed and pride,
Lyric desire, sharp-sweet,
Laughing, even when denied,
And that empyreal flame
Whence all loves came.
Love's as fresh as spring,
Love is spring:
Bird-song hung in the air,
Cool smells in a wood,
Whispering 'Dare! Dare!'
To sap, to blood,
Telling 'Ease, safety, rest,
Are good; not best.'
Love's as hard as nails,
Love is nails:
Blunt, thick, hammered through
The medial nerves of One
Who, having made us, knew
The thing He had done,
seeing (with all that is)
Our cross, and His.
C.S. Lewis, Poems, (1964)
The themes that run consistently and persistently through Luke’s Gospel are those of forgiveness, mercy and love. Luke, and the other Gospel writers, present Jesus as the complete and utter human personification of God’s love. In today’s gospel, the words we hear from Jesus on his way to Calvary and from the Cross are an expression of totally selfless love:
To the disciples, when one of them took a sword and cut of the ear of the high priest’s servant, he said: “Leave off! That will do!” He refused to fight violence with violence. To the women on the roadside watching him struggle to his place of execution, he said: “Don’t weep for me, weep for yourselves and for your children.” For those who crucified him, he prayed: “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.” And to the criminal who supported him: “I promise you today you will be with me in paradise.” And all those directives, advice and prayers are for our benefit, too.
The readings of today are held up to us like a mirror which reflects to us the fickleness of our feelings, attitudes and actions. We all have the potential to swing from one extreme to the other, from palm-waving enthusiasm and adulation to the peer-pressure fuelled vindictiveness of: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” We may well recoil from the prospect of the latter, but today’s readings assure us that, even if we slip to that extent, the forgiveness and understanding of a merciful God await us.
Reflection on our own life experience teaches us that we can delude ourselves into acting as though we are messiahs, acting as though we can save others from visiting disaster and destruction on themselves and others. Alternatively, we can put on others such heavy expectations that we elevate them to the status of messiah. Even if we don’t go that far, there are times when we catch ourselves wanting others to live up to our expectations. When they don’t measure up, we can dismiss them and go in search of others in whom we see greater potential for delivering what we want. There are also moments in our lives when we can be drawn into crucifixion. They occur when we launch into demolishing the reputations of those we perceive as threats to us, of those we regard as competitors, of those on whom we look with jealousy and envy. Whenever we engage in stifling the life in others or blocking the life-giving actions of others, we are pursuing the way of crucifixion. The liturgy and readings of today and the next few weeks are a powerful reminder to us that we have a God who knows the rhythm of what we call the paschal mystery. Our God is one whose love and mercy for us is so powerfully expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. As we try to walk in the footsteps of Jesus as his disciples, we, too, experience the pattern of death and new life as circumstances deprive us of our hopes and aspirations and lead us through the pain of loss to claim new life and new hope.
The Jesus whom Luke presents in today’s gospel reading is entirely consistent with the Jesus who presents story after story illustrating the compassion, forgiveness, mercy and love of God. One after the other, the three parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost, prodigal son reinforce the message that God does not give up on us, however lost and alienated we may be. It is this same Jesus who invites us to imitate the compassion and selflessness of the Prodigal’s father and of the Samaritan who rescued the beaten traveller, with no thought of ritual contamination to himself. The point of all this, of course, is that we are invited to express those attitudes to everyone who comes into our life. We have no control over how they relate to us, what they feel about us or what they think of us, but it is our choice as to how we relate and respond to them.
Today’s gospel reading is an invitation to us to reflect on the extent to which our story resonates with the story of Jesus. We will always experience people and situations that threaten our integrity or the values and principles on which we want to base our lives. The extent to which our lives reflect the love, compassion and forgiveness that Jesus expressed as he was humiliated, degraded, tortured and executed is the extent to which our story coincides with his. Neither God nor Jesus expects us to do any of those things perfectly. However, Luke’s account of the last day in the life of Jesus asks us if we are courageous enough to reflect even a little of the selfless love that characterized Jesus’ life to the bitter end.
In one part of his letter to the Romans, Paul concludes one of his exhortations with: “Don’t let yourselves be mastered by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12, 21). Luke’s account of the passion of Jesus is the story of the triumph of mercy and goodness over jealousy, injustice and evil. Today we are asked if we can imitate Jesus in at least some small way.
Fifth Sunday of Lent
“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she replied. “Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus, “go away, and don’t sin any more.” John 8, 1-11
Scripture scholars have pointed out that the story of the woman caught in adultery is not included in the earliest manuscripts of John’s Gospel. In fact, it was added in the early part of the Third Century, when Christians were involved in heated argument as to whether there could be forgiveness of sin after baptism. While Tertullian, the early Christian scholar and writer from Carthage in Tunisia, was adamant that there was no forgiveness of sin after baptism, other scholars began to ask the question: “What would Jesus do?” That’s a question that has persisted through the centuries, and is often heard nowadays from people struggling with modern moral dilemmas. In the Third Century that question was answered by including in John’s Gospel the story about Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, which had been part of oral tradition from the time of the Apostles. The debate was a clear illustration that even the earliest Christians found it difficult to trust in Go’s unconditional forgiveness.
Christianity has been plagued by those whose only solution to immorality has been drastic action designed to discourage anyone inclined to repeat the immorality. Advocates of capital punishment belong to that group. And the Spanish Inquisition pursued such remedies with a vengeance. Jesus, however, promoted mercy and conversion of heart as the only effective and lasting answer. The blueprint for his approach is to be found in today’s gospel story.
Notice that his integrity demands that he does not gloss over the woman’s behaviour. He names it for the sin that it is, but he does not condemn the sinner. He urges her not to become trapped in guilt but to let go of her past and live her life with her heart renewed. If we don’t remember past mistakes and personal failures, we run the risk of repeating them. At the same time, it’s soul destroying to allow ourselves to become trapped by our past. Memory is an integral part of Jewish culture. The great rabbi Abraham Heschel made much of this when he said: “Much of what the Bible demands of us can be summed up in a single word: remember!” (Moral Grandeur & Spiritual Audacity, 1997). Remember in the sense of calling to mind the past and re-member in the sense of putting back together the broken pieces. Decades earlier, Heschel had written: “There is a collective memory of God in the human spirit, and it is this memory that is the main source of our faith” (The Holy Dimension, 1943). In today’s second reading, Paul remembers how he was once engaged in bitterly persecuting the early Christians. Remembering tells us something of our life journey, including both the good things we have done and experienced and the not so good. But we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of living in the past or being controlled by our past. In the gospel reading, we learn how Jesus rescued the woman whom the Pharisees wanted to condemn to death by stoning. He rescued her from being imprisoned by her shameful past, encouraging her to put back together the pieces of her broken life. Instead of shaming her further, he encouraged her to let go of the past and look to a future full of hope, reflecting in his treatment of her that she, too, shared in the “collective memory of God”.
The risk for the woman in the story was that she had a lot to live down. While those in the group that brought her to Jesus were pressured by him to reflect on their private sinfulness, she had the reputation of being a public sinner. She would have to live with gossip and the way that these Pharisees would continue to stare leeringly at her. She would have doubts as to whether her husband would forgive her. It was one thing to be assured by Jesus that God had forgiven her, but what about all her friends and neighbours? She ran the risk of being trapped in guilt. And that’s the risk we all face. Perhaps there are times when we wonder if we have been really forgiven by God for our past failures and infidelities. And most of us have probably met people who are wracked by scruples, unable to trust that God has forgiven them. One wonders what kind of God they have. And that prompts us to ask ourselves what kind of God we have. Do we believe that God loves us endlessly and unconditionally, no matter how broken our past lives have been?
Yet this story Is as much about the challenge Jesus puts to the Pharisees as it is about the forgiveness of the woman. Jesus is as aware of the seaminess of adultery as are the woman’s accusers. He does not deny the degradation of adultery or try to minimize it. But he does press the point that, before any of us wants to set about demanding that others change their evil ways, we must first change our own hearts. To make the kingdom of God a reality in the here and now, we need to develop both a lived conviction that God really does forgive us and a way of relating to others that is built on generous heartedness, forgiveness, mercy and compassion. There is nothing to be gained by comparing ourselves with those we judge to be sinners in order to give ourselves a self-satisfying pat on the back.
Robert Cormier, in his book entitled Table Talk: Beginning a conversation on the Gospel of Luke, tells the story of an old priest who often wondered about the difference between heaven and hell. One night he had a dream in which he experienced God telling him what that difference really was.
God showed him hell first, and he was stunned to see that there were no flames and no horned and pointy-tailed devils prodding others with forks. But there was a crowd of very angry people, all holding 10-foot-long wooden spoons and jostling one another as they struggled to get their spoons into large wooden bowls that were placed in the centre of picnic tables and filled to overflowing with food. But, when any of them managed to fill their spoons, they were not able to turn the spoons around and get them into their mouths. The frustration, the arguing and the bitterness were sheer hell! Then God gave the priest a look at heaven. He saw the same wooden tables and bowls and people with the same 10-foot-long wooden spoons. But there was no jostling and pushing. There was an atmosphere of real peace and contentment. Here the people were happily engaged in feeding one another.
Today’s gospel reading makes it clear that, if we are to confront the evils of the world in which we live, we have to start by confronting the evils within ourselves. We just won’t be able to life up the broken and the alienated until we realise that we, too, are broken and we, too, alienate ourselves from God and from our brothers and sisters. It is futile to think we can credibly pass judgement on others until we assess our own lives and seek the healing that God offers us. We have the capacity to create both heaven and hell in our own time and place. When we find within ourselves the willingness to feed one another from the bounty of God’s gifts to us, we will get a glimpse of heaven. Hell is nothing but the abundance of selfishness and the endless presence of bitterness and spiteful competition.
Today we are invited to put down our stones of indignation, bitterness and superiority and to look within ourselves at the place where good and evil meet and wrestle with one another. Any of us without sin can lead the stone-throwing.
Fourth Sunday of Lent
The tax collectors and sinners were all seeking the company of Jesus to hear what he had to say, and the Pharisees and scribes complained. “This man”, they said, “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So, he spoke this parable to them. Luke 15, 1-3, 11-32
We all know today’s gospel parable of The Prodigal Son so well that we can repeat it by heart in all its detail. So, as we pause once again to reflect on its significance for our lives, let’s keep in mind a saying to which many storytellers subscribe: “The story begins only when the teller stops talking.” I am confident that Jesus would have shared their view. So, what will this story evoke from you and me?
I want to suggest that the context in which Jesus first told this story is of equal importance to the story itself. Luke tells us that Jesus is among tax collectors and sinners, all eager to hear what he had to say. Meanwhile, the Pharisees and scribes were looking on, tut-tutting at the fact that Jesus was associating and even eating with the dregs of society, those detested for their depravity and corruption. However, by the time we get to the end of the parable we are left in no doubt that nobody earns entrance into God’s kingdom. It is all gift. And there is an additional message for all those among us who see themselves as upright, religious people. A heavy investment in religious knowledge and practice, however impressive it might look, is no proof that we have a healthy relationship with God. What we display on the outside is not always a good indication of what is going on in our hearts. Impeccable religious observance may be doing more for our own ego than for those around us. It may also be doing little to nourish our relationship with God.
So, I am suggesting that this parable is especially directed at the good religious onlookers who would not even think of mixing with the group of sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors close to Jesus, let alone eat with them. Now, let’s look at some of the characters in the story and the significance of their actions. We’ve already mentioned the educated, religious leaders who were the standard bearers of morality, law and religious observance. They were the ones with status, power and control in the society of the day. Then there are any number of public sinners - those already mentioned, but also the two brothers, and the pig farmer, representing those despicable people who prey on the vulnerable and who use their cunning to seduce them from their culture, their principles and the values they learned from their childhood. And there’s the father who not only breaks all the conventions and expectations of how fathers were supposed to act, but who contributes to the dissention between his two sons. And these characters all have their modern-day equivalents.
We all know from bitter experience that none of us is above sin. We all fail, and fall from grace in one way or another. We also know that we can be quick to identify those whose sin is public while we do our utmost to keep our sinfulness away from the public gaze. But among us there are many so-called religious people who are intent on hiding their sin and their human frailty. We now know from bitter experience that even the administrators of some religious institutions colluded in keeping hidden the sins of their leaders.
While today’s gospel reading opens with Luke identifying the two groups (public sinners and religious leaders) listening to Jesus, the parable itself begins with the very direct statement: “A man had two sons” - just like the two groups listening to Jesus’ story. And the story is apparently directed at the public sinners, as the religious leaders smugly look on. But as the story unfolds we come to see that the younger son is a public sinner and the elder a private sinner. It is true that the younger son sank to the depths of depravity and infidelity. By demanding his share of the inheritance, he effectively told his father that he wished he were dead. Interested only in himself, he rejected his father, his family, his Jewishness and his religious practice. In so doing, he earned the hatred of his brother. Moreover, his reasons for deciding to return home are based on self-interest. He calculates that he can get a job on his father’s estate, be paid a wage and be given his meals. He returns on his own terms. And his father bends over backwards to welcome him back and restore him to his former status. His father asks no questions as to why he has returned. He is simply overjoyed that his wayward son has come back.
But while the younger son left in a way that humiliated his father, and went on to pursue a scandalous life-style, the older one was never really at home for his father. It is clear that he, too, was just waiting for his father to die. He adopted a martyr complex, regarding himself as a servant who spent his time slaving away on the estate, but was resentful, totally selfish, and full of anger and passive aggression. When his father left the party and went outside to coax him to come in and join the celebration, the elder son angrily pushed him away and blamed him for being forgiving and indulgent. All he wanted was a private party for himself and his friends. If we put the two brothers side by side, we see that they are not very different, except that the older one is a private sinner who not only can’t see that he has done wrong but even interprets his behaviour as virtuous. As the elder brother in a Jewish family, he had a responsibility for both his younger brother and his father. It was his job to go searching for his little brother and his job to protect his father from being humiliated in front of all his friends and neighbours. The younger son turned his father into a public laughing-stock, and the older son couldn’t care less. The younger of the two, despite his callousness, irresponsibility and utter selfishness, eventually came home. And we are left wondering if the older one relented, stopped pouting, let go of his anger and came into the party and back into the family.
When all is said and done, this parable invites us to look into the mirror to see for ourselves with which of the two we identify.
In sitting among the tax collectors and public sinners, Jesus adopts the role of a truly responsible brother, prepared to reach out to his brothers and sisters who have strayed, to celebrate their return and, thereby, to hold God’s family together. In that sense we can say that Jesus becomes the parable of God. And therein lies the challenge to those of us who like to pride ourselves on our fidelity and regular religious practice. Have we yet discovered who God is and do we ever reach out in welcome to and acceptance of those who have apparently gone astray? The parable invites us to reach out in mercy and forgiveness to others, and also to come in and celebrate whenever those we might be inclined to avoid accept the mercy, forgiveness and unconditional love of God which we sometimes take for granted.
Finally, there is something about this parable which is ageless. The younger son does not really want a father and the older one does not want a brother. Their attitudes are alive and well in our contemporary world. We meet any number of people who want no one to answer to, who shun the commitment of close relationships, who refuse to be accountable to anyone, who see themselves above and beyond the law. They want to be unrestrained to pursue a lifestyle that ultimately leads them to self-destruct. In addition, there are those around us who want neither sister nor brother. They don’t want anyone who might make a claim on them. They are intolerant of difference, and slip with ease into racism, discrimination and religious bigotry. Can we find it within us to reach out to these too?
Third Sunday of Lent
At that time some people were there who told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices to God…A person had a fig tree planted in his orchard: ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So, cut it down. Why should I exhaust the soil?’ The gardener replied: ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilise it; it may bear fruit in the future.’ Luke 13, 1-9
At first sight, this gospel reading looks to be made up of two separate and unrelated sections. The first section outlines a discussion between Jesus and some people who wanted to talk about disasters and their causes. The second is a parable about a non-productive fig tree. Both sections are challenges to us to stop and look at the concept of God on which we base our thinking, our religious belief, and our way of conducting our lives.
The people who questioned Jesus about the moral standing of those who were executed by Pilate when they were at prayer and those who died when the tower they were building collapsed seemed to hold the belief that accidents and disasters were God’s way of punishing the wicked. That was a popularly held belief in Judaism at the time of Jesus. There are several stories in the Gospels which illustrate how physical disability was attributed to the sinfulness of the person with the disability or to his/her parents.
Is having people executed the way God’s view of them is expressed? Is God’s opinion of people demonstrated in the accidents that happen to them? Most of us are quick to point out that questions like this, to say the least, are grotesque.
A modern version of the questions put to Jesus would look something like this: Were the 43 people who died in the bridge collapse in Genoa last August all living in sin? Were the 50 people who died in yesterday’s flash flooding in Sentani, Papua Province of Indonesia being punished by God for their immorality?
We wonder what it is that motivates people to ask questions like this? What is their image of God? Even allowing that the people who confronted Jesus might well have been hoping that Pilate would add another Galilean (Jesus himself) to his list of victims or that Jesus, too, might have a building collapse on him, we still scratch our heads in puzzlement at people who go on living their lives as though the vindictive God they seem to believe in is not going to obliterate them when they themselves are less than perfect. Perhaps we might just have to be satisfied with the conclusion that the people who ask this kind of question are revealing how they would go about righting the world if they were God. Another interpretation is that we have among us people who, with the best of intentions, use this distorted view of God as a way of motivating others to change their ways. There is at least a hint of this in today’s second reading where we hear Paul telling the community in Corinth about some of their ancestors: “Most of them failed to please God, and their corpses littered the desert. These things all happened as warnings for us, not to have the wicked lusts for forbidden things that they had. You must never complain: some of them did, and they were killed by the Angel of Death.” That kind of motivational talk might have gotten Paul a role in a Parish Mission Team of the 1950s, but it certainly would not get him a job on the religious education staff of a Catholic school in 2019.
From Paul all the way up this present day, people have slipped into making faulty presuppositions about God. And most of us have probably met people whose God is a cross between a nit-picking bean-counter and Sherlock Holmes. They’re the kind of people who give religion a bad name.
In the 1970s and 80s, George McCauley S.J. taught theology and Religious Education at Fordham University. In a delightful piece about people’s various images of God, he wrote: “We all have our pet peeves in this matter: A god who whispers in ears. A god of special confidences and secret winks. A competitive god whose pastime is to take on all comers at spiritual arm-wrestling. A god whose chief concern is picking spiritual lint off people, telling them, like your least favourite aunt: ‘Don’t cross your legs. Sit up straight. Don’t be gawking out the window. Where’s your watch? Who was that you were just talking to?’ A god, finally, who stares into your eyes a lot.”
Whatever our current image of God might be, we can be sure that it will change in time. Moreover, we hope it will grow and develop. But it will take more than one Lent or one year for that to happen. Even after a lifetime, we will not be satisfied that we have the “right” image of God. Still, today’s readings put before us two (or even three) aspects of God which we have to try to hold in tension. The first reading from Exodus presents us with a God who is interested in social justice: “I have seen how cruelly my people are being treated in Egypt; I have heard them cry out to be rescued from their slave drivers. I know all about their sufferings” (Exodus 3, 7). And the gospel offers us both a God of action and a God of mercy: “Look, for three years I have been coming here looking for figs on this fig tree, and I haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it go on using up the soil?” (Luke 13, 7). Now there’s action for you. But immediately, we hear the gardener bargaining for a stay of violence: “Sir, leave it one more year and give me time to dig round it and manure it: it may bear fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down” (Luke 13, 8-9).
One of the characteristics of Jesus’ parables is that they leave us with uncertainty, looking for satisfying resolution. Yet, that is part of their value. They raise questions for us to ponder. Did the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son eventually join the party? What happened when the Samaritan returned to pay the bill for the injured stranger? Did the Samaritan return at all? And in this parable, was the gardener successful in making the fig tree productive, or did he just delay the inevitable? And that last question is significant, because we know that the fig tree will eventually die. Jesus did not say that death would not touch us. But he, the prophets before him and saints and religious leaders after him have reminded us of our social responsibilities: feeding the starving, providing clean water for all, addressing homelessness, protecting the vulnerable and abused, caring for the earth, working to prevent people-trafficking. What is alien to Jesus and the Gospel is sterility and non-productiveness. In this parable of the barren fig tree, we are reminded that death will come to us all but that, in the meantime, we have a responsibility to be productive with the lives and talents with which we have been blessed. If we heed the call of Lent to change our hearts (not just our actions), to allow ourselves to be transformed by the hope that God offers us, we will not stave off the chaos of suffering and death but open ourselves to the one who can nurture us, to the gardener who wants to bring us to blossom. We are the fig tree of the parable, given yet another chance to realise our productive potential.
Let’s not forget that this parable is also built on metaphor. The owner and the gardener are two faces of God - the face of justice and the face of mercy. As the parable unfolds, we listen to justice and mercy in dialogue. And the vineyard is a scriptural image for the people of Israel, and, by extension, for the people of God, the Church. If the extraordinary measures proposed by the gardener (mercy) fail, then Mercy will agree to abide by the verdict of Justice (the owner). There is no place in God’s kingdom for those who are irredeemably non-productive and sterile. We, the people of God are struggling with the destructive consequences of abuse within our community: the abuse of power, the failure to give recognition and voice to women and men in the pews, sexual abuse. Being the kind of people Jesus invites us to be - people whose productiveness is demonstrated in social action, compassion, welcoming the stranger and the outcast, healing the wounds of abuse - is the fruit for which he is looking. That fruit will be produced only through the severe measures that will bring to all of us a change of heart and the life that issues from that change of heart. Only we, the fig tree, will provide the end to this parable waiting to be completed.
Second Sunday of Lent
Jesus took with him Peter and John and James and went up the mountain to pray. As he prayed, the aspect of his face was changed and his clothing became brilliant as lightning. Luke 9, 28-36
As we grow older and wiser, we come to realise that where we stand influences what we see, and what we see influences what we say and do. One of the great paradoxes that emerged from the interpersonal engagements Jesus had in the course of his ministry was that the religious leaders who had two good eyes were blind to what they saw him doing, while those who were physically blind were able to see very clearly. Mystics in the Christian tradition, and, to my knowledge, in the Jewish and Islamic traditions, have spoken and written about seeing with “the third eye” – a way of seeing from the depths of one’s being or with what some of them refer to as “seeing with the soul”. Such seeing grows out of investing time in quiet and deep reflection. Whether or not we are practiced in deep reflection, we do know one thing to which modern psychology has drawn our attention: what and how we see has a significant impact on how we behave.
Just on thirty years ago, the American adult educator and businessman, Steve Covey published a book entitled The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Essentially, the book is an exploration of how we impact on other people. In giving us insights about ourselves, Covey opens up for us possible changes that might improve the ways in which we relate to, and communicate with, others. One of his stories offers a powerful insight into how and what we see can influence our thinking and acting. It’s a story of an experience he had one Sunday morning on the New York subway:
People in the section I was in were sitting quietly reading their newspapers or just dozing. At one stop, a man and his children got into our car and in next to no time the peace was shattered, and replaced by something resembling mayhem. The kids were yelling at one another as they ran around the carriage. Then they started throwing things and grabbing at people’s newspapers. While all this was happening, their father sat quietly next to me and did nothing to quell the riot. It was as though he didn’t register what was going on. I couldn’t believe that he was prepared to let his kinds run wild and not even try to intervene. I could see the annoyance on the faces of all the people around me. Finally, with all the restraint I could muster I turned to the man and said: “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you could control them just a little bit.” The man lifted his head as though he was coming into awareness for the first time since he and the children had got on. Then he turned to me and said: “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”
Covey shared what happened inside him: “Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? Suddenly I saw things differently. Because I saw differently, I felt differently. I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behaviour. My heart was filled with this man’s pain. Feelings of compassion and sympathy flowed freely. ‘Your wife just died? Oh, I’m so sorry! Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?”
For Covey, that was an experience of transfiguration, a moment of insight that turned him upside down and carried him through a very difficult situation. Are we any different? We, too, are given revelations of God in the ordinary events of our daily lives. Probably not every day, but if we don’t learn to see differently those revelations will pass us by.
Luke’s story of the Transfiguration begins with the simple statement: “Jesus took Peter, John and James up to the mountain to pray.” Mark and Matthew tell of Jesus taking Peter, John and James to pray with him in the garden of Gethsemane just before his arrest. And the preface of this Sunday’s mass provides an explanatory link between Jesus’ transfiguration in the presence of these three disciples and his having them accompany him during his agony in the garden: “He revealed his glory to strengthen them for the scandal of the cross.”
In commenting on these two experiences shared by Jesus with Peter, John and James, scripture scholar Bill Bausch notes that while the memory of the transfiguration was meant to bolster the three disciples when the going got tough, do the rest of us have only stories on which to rely when things are grim and when our faith is tested? The Steve Covey story demonstrates that our transfiguration experiences come to us wrapped up in the very ordinary, but there are times when we miss them because we are preoccupied with other things, or with ourselves. At other times, we catch up with them in hindsight, when we make time to reflect, and see them with our “third eye”.
One of my favourite writers is Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007), a deeply committed Christian who is probably best known for her young adults’ novel A Wrinkle in Time (completed in 1960, it was rejected by more than thirty publishers before it was finally accepted for publication two years later). However, her writing covered a broad spectrum, from reflection on some of the very prominent characters in the Old Testament, to children’s books, poetry and memoirs of her own life experiences. She also had some talent for theatre and met and later married, actor, Hugh Franklin when they both had parts in Chekhov’s play, The Cherry Orchard. The fourth volume of her memoirs (The Crosswicks Journals) is about her marriage with Hugh and carries the title Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage. L’Engle had plenty of opportunity to reflect of the way her love for Hugh grew and developed, for she nursed him through his long and painful dying of cancer of the urinary tract. This is part of what she had to say: “I do not think that death can take away the fact that Hugh and I are ‘we’ and ‘us’, a new creature born at the time of our marriage vows, which has grown along with us as our marriage has grown. Even during the times, inevitable in all marriages, when I have felt angry, or alienated, the instinctive ‘we’ remains…Our love has been anything but perfect and anything but static. Inevitably there have been times when one of us has outrun the other and has had to wait patiently for the other to catch up. There have been times when we have misunderstood each other, demanded too much of each other, been insensitive to the other’s needs. I do not believe there is any marriage where this does not happen. The growth of love is not a straight line, but a series of hills and valleys. I suspect that in every good marriage there are times when love seems to be over. Sometimes these desert lines are simply the only way to the next oasis, which is far more lush and beautiful after the desert crossing than it could possibly have been without it.” (from an article “The Instinctive ‘We’” by Dan Wakefield, New York Times, December 18, 1988) This is not just about a particular marriage, it’s about the journey we call life. What L’Engle describes is what I would call the “second transfiguration”. On the mountain, the three apostles witnessed Jesus’ first transfiguration, with lots of drama and dazzling splendour. His second transfiguration was his resurrection, described in subdued terms, because nobody witnessed it. But let’s not miss the significance of the whispering between Moses and Elijah, mentioned in today’s reading. They were pointing to the transfiguration that comes after Jesus and we have negotiated the tough struggles of life - disillusionment, disappointment, betrayal, deep pain, desertion, cynicism, bitterness, alienation, disease, loss of loved ones. God is in there somewhere, but so often we are not conscious of God’s presence and support. Jesus had to go through all these things on the way to his second transfiguration into glory. Along that way, he felt abandoned by God. And so do we, when we’re really down and troubled and hurting.
Today’s gospel story is about much more than a “sound and light” show. From time to time, we get a glimpse of the glory to come, but along the way we have to learn to shed whatever it is that holds us back. We have to struggle through the hills, the valleys and the deserts that life puts in our way. We have to remember that we are not alone as we travel that journey. But we have the support and encouragement of one another, of the community we call parish and church, the inspiration of the people like Madeleine L’Engle and Steve Covey, and the friendship and support of Jesus who’s been there ahead of us.
First Sunday of Lent
“If you are God’s Son, order this stone to turn into bread.” Luke 4, 1-13
Last year, Pope Francis startled lots of Catholics when he suggested that there was need to change one of the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”. He stated that this is really a poor translation of the original, pointing out that a loving God does not lead people into temptation just to see how they will cope. In making his comments, he referred to the opening verses of chapter 4 of both Matthew and Luke. This coming Sunday, the first of Lent, the gospel reading we hear starts with: “Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit…was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted.” Matthew’s Gospel has something similar: “Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the desert to be put to the test by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, after which he was hungry.” I am encouraged by Pope Francis’ comments, because I find both of these translations troublesome. I just don’t believe that God puts temptation in anybody’s way. Pope Francis went on to say that he would prefer a translation like: “Do not allow us to be led into temptation.” Scripture scholars have joined the discussion with alternatives like: “Do not let us give into temptation when we are tested” and “When Satan leads us into temptation, please, God, give us a hand”.
So now, let’s look a little more closely at the context of today’s gospel reading. Jesus had just been baptized by John in the Jordan and, as preparation for what he saw was his unfolding mission, he decided to spend time in prayer and reflection in the solitude of the desert, to work out for himself how he was going to go about doing the preaching and teaching he felt inspired to do. Luke and Matthew present him as doing much the same as two other giants of the Jewish tradition had done. In their encounters with God, both Moses and Elijah went without food and water for forty days. Moses spent forty days in the presence of God when the Ten Commandments were inscribed on stone tablets on Mt Sinai (Exodus 34, 28). Elijah also fasted for forty days and nights before journeying to Mt Horeb (another name for Mt Sinai) where he encountered God in a cave in the form of a gentle breeze (1Kings 19). However, consolation for Jesus arrived only after he had battled his way for forty days and nights through temptations to take shortcuts to reach quick and easy ways to achieve his goals. He was tempted to dodge the kind of struggles that the rest of humanity also has to deal with as they set out to be true to themselves and to live with integrity.
Having taken on the human condition, Jesus was tempted to avoid having to do things the normal human way. Luke is really saying that, just beneath the surface, Jesus was being tempted to expect God to collude with such a plan. And if God wouldn’t agree to doing things by magic, then Jesus just wouldn’t cooperate and would refuse to accept the limitations of being fully human. That was the nature of his temptation. Underlying all three temptations is the question as to whether a way of living and acting built on faith in God is really worth spending a life on. Jesus realized that he had been invited to take on the role of being the Messiah for his people, and here he was being tempted to win people over with magic, razzle dazzle and impressive, superman tactics.
Yet, the temptations that Jesus faced were, in essence, the very same things that tempt us. There are times in our lives when we catch ourselves wanting to control God. Some of us want God to work it so that we get the winning lotto ticket, a perfect husband for our favourite niece or a top grade in our university exams, even though we don’t do the necessary work.
The first temptation Jesus experienced is presented in terms of bread. In contemporary English slang, bread is the equivalent of money or a stockpile of material and intellectual capital to be used as an insurance policy just in case the kingdom of God doesn’t work out. Jesus was struggling with the temptation to base his appeal to the people he encountered on what in the way of security and material well-being he could offer them. We, too, can get so involved in accumulating money, security and gadgets that we erode our ability to trust in God as one who is both competent and willing to care for us. There are times when we can even slip into giving God advice and directions: “Be a bit gentler here; be more sensitive there. Watch that trouble looming up in the distance. Do you think you’ll be able to negotiate the sharp turn coming up?” At other times we try bargaining.
As for Jesus, he did overcome the first temptation by deciding that he would himself be bread and nourishment for people instead of trying to base his public ministry on hand-outs. He proceeded to nourish people with his presence, his encouragement, his wisdom, his concern, his fidelity and the challenges he put to them. He came to know that we all grow through affirmation, encouragement and healthy challenge. He did not set out to win the support of people through promises of material goods or by offering them shortcuts to success. In order to proceed along the path he chose, he knew that he had to place his trust first, foremost and entirely in God. I ask myself if I will ever grow to the point of trusting God to that extent.
The next two temptations were further attempts at undermining the trust Jesus had grown to place in God. While they are presented as offers by the devil, they were more likely considerations by Jesus in his mind about the benefits that might flow from doing deals with the corrupt and the powerful of his day. After all, they would get things done more speedily and effectively than those who might respond to Jesus’ appeal to base their actions on love, kindness, compassion and justice.
I find the third temptation a little more difficult to grasp. Jesus was invited to test out whether God really cared for him or would let him die if he were to throw himself off the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus probably knew nothing about gravity. But he knew enough to appreciate that jumping from a great height onto stone would be fatal, and that God was not in the business of letting down gently anyone stupid enough to jump off the roof of the Temple. However, I want to suggest that Jesus struggled with something more subtle than that. Preaching about what he understood as the kingdom of God - about justice, mercy, forgiving one’s enemies - was not something that would easily win him friends and supporters, especially in a very conservative and narrow-minded religious community that was the Jewish world of his time. Jesus must have been tempted to doubt whether God would really support him when the going got tough, when religious leaders might think of having him removed. And we know from the description of his arrest, torture and execution that such doubts plagued him right up to the time of his death.
I want to suggest that these are the kinds of doubts and temptations with which Jesus struggled in the solitude of the wilderness and at other times in his life. Moreover, I am convinced that we would be wrong to conclude that Jesus easily brushed aside these temptations. They hung around in his consciousness for forty days and nights. Trusting God was not something that came to him spontaneously and automatically. If that were the case, he would not have been tempted in the first place. So, when we find ourselves struggling with our faith and trust in God, we might get some consolation and comfort from knowing that Jesus has been there before us. And when we are tempted to be less than our true selves, we might think of praying: “Please, God, give us a hand.”
Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“In a shaken sieve the rubbish is left behind, so too, the defects of a person appear in his/her talk…Never praise others until you hear them talk; that’s the real test.” Sirach 27, 4-7
“Each of us speaks from our heart’s abundance…” Luke 6, 39-45
My reflection on today’s readings led me to a conclusion which is very obvious and not particularly profound: The best homilies I have ever heard are people! If I want to experience a good homily, the best thing I can do is to go around with my eyes and ears wide open, attentive to the extraordinarily good things that very ordinary people say and do.
So, there’s very little about Jesus’ words in today’s gospel that has a churchy or religious ring about it. Very simply, what he says boils down to a very uncomplicated message: “If you want to be taken seriously, cut out being hypocritical; stop finding fault with others as you go about masking your own, and judging others is not only unfair, it helps you to delude yourself.” This is a very appropriate segue into Lent, which starts with Ash Wednesday later this coming week. We do that with a story from Pastor, Bill Bausch:
A small cruise ship, caught up in a very violent storm, lost power, drifted onto rocks and quickly sank. Only two men survived the disaster. They clung to floating debris and were washed up on a deserted island. By the time they had completed a quick survey of the island, they realized from the barrenness of the place that there was no running water. They sat down, discussed their situation and decided that the worst thing they could do would be to panic. So, they drew up a simple plan of action: First, they agreed that they would pray for God’s help. Then they decided that they would each take responsibility for a much closer survey of the island, and took half the island each. Moreover, they reasoned that such a tactic doubled their chances of seeing a passing ship searching for them. But they would have to live apart on opposite sides of the island. As they separated, they promised one another that they would keep up their prayers.
The first man prayed for food. The very next morning, he came across a tree laden with fruit, and ate to his satisfaction. He did not alert his companion to his good fortune, who stayed on his barren side of the island. Then the first man started to feel lonely, so the next night he prayed for a wife. A few days later there was another storm and an even smaller boat was wrecked. The next morning the sole survivor, a woman, struggled ashore on the first man’s side of the island. Still, the second man had had no luck with anything. He kept waiting patiently for a ship to come into sight. And he kept praying. He had spent his time building a huge pile of dried wood which he intended to burn to attract the attention of any ship that came into view. Meanwhile, the first man and his companion set about praying for more food and for clothes to protect them from the sun. A couple of days later, a crate was washed up on their side of the island, and it contained plenty of food and clothing. The second man still had nothing. Finally, the first man prayed really hard for rescue to arrive. Three days later he awoke to see a ship anchored close by. He woke his companion and they headed out to the ship. As he climbed on board, his thoughts turned to the other man. Then he told himself that there was no point is going back for him. After all, since none of his prayers had been answered, he was clearly not worthy of God’s blessings. But as the ship was about to leave, the first man heard a booming voice from the heavens: “What about your friend on the other side of the island? Why are you abandoning him?”
“My blessings are mine”, replied the first man, “since I’m the one who prayed for them. Besides, all his prayers were clearly unanswered. He doesn’t deserve anything!”
“You are very mistaken”, the voice rebuked, “his prayer was answered. Indeed, he had only one prayer, and it was that all your prayers would be answered.”
That story fits in neatly with the stories collected in today’s gospel. It’s the kind of story Jesus would tell, then look at his audience quizzically and walk away, leaving them to reflect on how they might have judged others, hastily and wrongly.
A few years ago, a prominent English newspaper conducted a survey of its readers on their concerns for the future of the United Kingdom. This was well before Brexit was even on their radar. While there were lots of comments about the faltering economy, shrinking employment opportunities, terrorist threats, race riots and the pressure on the public health system, there were lots of surprising comments on the decline of morality, the disappearance of common decency, the collapse of values and the moral bankruptcy of many in public office. There was lament on the shift of focus from the common good to self-interest, from “us” to “me”, as one respondent expressed it. I suspect that a quick look at many of the so-called “developed” counties of our world would reveal that honesty, integrity, owning responsibility for one’s actions, compassion for refugees, respect for others, and speaking truthfully are becoming casualties very rapidly. Still, there is a ray of hope here and there to catch us by surprise. Those rays of hope are the people who turn out to be the best homilies. They nourish us until the next pleasant surprise appears.
I read recently on a website called, Chicken Soup for the Soul the story of an eleven-year-old, Rosalie Elliot, who was participating in a national spelling-bee in Washington. Rosalie was a softly spoken competitor from Florida and was asked to spell the word “avowal”. The judges were unable to hear whether she had spelt the last vowel as an “a” or an “e”. The judges replayed the tape several times but could still not decide what Rosalie had said. Finally, the chief judge put the question to Rosalie herself: Was the letter an “a” or an “e”? Unhesitatingly, Rosalie answered that she had misspelled the word, as she had used an “e”. She walked from the stage to a standing ovation. Centuries before Sophocles had said: “Rather fail by honour than succeed by fraud.” Jesus echoed that in today’s gospel.
We reveal who we are by what we say and do consistently. We can all say and do the wrong thing occasionally. We don’t need anyone else to tell us that. It’s the consistency of our word and action that truly reveals our integrity or its lack. In today’s first reading, the writer of Book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) probably described us very accurately when he pointed out that what we say shows us to the world as confused, honest, devious or shallow. As George McCauley wrote in a book entitled The Unfinished Image (Sadlier, N.Y. 1983): “There is a thread that leads from our speech to our secret selves. There are many windings and detours along the way. But one iron law remains in effect: it’s easier to see into a person who has his mouth open. Sirach got it right centuries before Jesus, and so, too, did Jesus in today’s gospel: ‘The mouth speaks what the heart is full of…’” (Luke 6, 45).
We leave the last word to the letter of James (not one of today’s readings) where we are given yet another perspective: “You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it has never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women made in God’s image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!” (James 3, 7-10)
Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate…Give, and there will be gifts for you…because the amount you measure is the amount you will be given back.” Luke 6, 27-38
The parents and teachers among us will all know the experience of teaching children to share. They will remember times when there was only one apple pie or one cream bun for two children to share. Their technique was to ask one child use a knife to divide the pie or bun into two and to invite the other child to have first pick. On rare occasions, one child might have said to the other: “You can have it all!” When we teach children about sharing, we are really giving them lessons about equity and unselfishness. Yet, a close look at today’s gospel reveals that Jesus is teaching everyone who would be his disciples to be prepared to say to others, even enemies: “You can have it all!”
To find an entry point into this gospel reading, I invite you to do your best to put to one side all the things you’ve ever learned about Jesus and all the images you have of him and your beliefs about him. Then, see if you can imagine yourself in the group gathered around him. Luke calls them “disciples”. Jesus would be dressed like all the other men in the group sitting down in front of him. And he would have the swarthy, bearded look of the Arab or Palestinian males we see these days on the streets of Jordan or Jerusalem and in airport terminals in the Middle East. If you are a woman in the group, you would be wearing a long, loose-fitting gown and have a head-scarf or khimar to protect you from the sun. And each of the men among you would have a keffiyeh on his head and be wearing a long flowing garment like a kaftan, maybe with a rope belt around the waist. And then you hear Jesus say something that leaves you totally stunned. And when you dare to look around, you see others shaking their heads in disbelief. Perhaps you’re thinking to yourself something like: “He’s got to be joking!” And you hear a murmur of incomprehension spread through the gathering. Maybe someone voices an objection or a protest. Some people in the group drift away, shaking their heads. Jesus has just said something that seemingly shocks to the core everyone who heard it. And you, too, are wondering if he has lost the plot. “After all, he’s asking us to do the impossible. I can cope with reaching out to family, friends and neighbours. But, who does he think he is, asking us to love Samaritans, and that crook at the market who sold me a donkey that turned out to be lame in the fetlock?” When the restlessness dissipated and Jesus finished talking, a deathly silence fell over the group. They were stunned into silence.
Now, let’s fast forward to today. Have you ever been courageous enough, after reading something in the Gospels, to say to yourself or to your local priest: “I can’t accept that. It’s codswallop!” Yet that would probably be more honest than giving notional assent and then sanitizing Jesus’ demands to stop them from unsettling you. If we were asked to give ourselves a mark for our Christianity, we might give ourselves a distinction on all the “I believes” listed in the Creed we recite at Mass. But I wonder what grade we would give ourselves for the way in which we live the Gospel with meaning and purpose? Many of us, I suspect, would fare much better on right belief than we would on right living. We could not even imagine ourselves ever denying the theological concept of the Trinity, but please don’t ask us when was the last time we prayed for the tradesman who swindled us or the neighbour who screamed obscenities at us.
Now, please don’t get me wrong. Right belief is something to be pursued, but lots of rules and regulations in the Catholic Church have been promoted as truth whereas they have been little more than directions to ensure that we all conformed to what some authorities dictated. As a consequence, the measure of authentic discipleship sometimes slipped into belief in and adherence to promulgated Church doctrines. Comforted by our conviction that we were holding onto right belief, we continued to name those who were clearly enemies of our Church and, rather than pray for them or seek to be reconciled with them, we even prayed that they would be obliterated in one fell swoop. We found comfort in our own little enclaves, supported those who belonged to our Church, harboured prejudices about refugees and foreigners, gave atheists and agnostics a wide berth and labelled those we feared as fundamentalists, extremists and terrorists. Engaging with them as fellow human beings, forgiving them, and praying for them did not fit into our agenda. We can look back in horror at the period we now call the Inquisition when those identified by Church authorities as witches or heretics were hunted down and executed by burning or hanging. Right belief was the measure of belonging. Tolerance and forgiveness of unbelievers were non-existent, so why waste time praying for them? This kind of persecution of those who “did not belong” led Oscar Wilde to reflect:
"He who would be free," says a fine thinker, "must not conform." And authority, by bribing people to conform, produces a very gross kind of overfed barbarism amongst us. With authority, punishment will pass away. This will be a great gain - a gain, in fact, of incalculable value. As one reads history, not in the expurgated editions written for schoolboys and passmen, but in the original authorities of each time, one is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted; and a community is infinitely more brutalised by the habitual employment of punishment than it is by the occasional occurrence of crime. (Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1891)
If we are really serious about calling ourselves disciples of Jesus, then we might have to begin by measuring the way we live by what Jesus proclaimed rather than by what we recite in the Creed at Mass each weekend. Would I have the courage to proclaim:
I commit to:
Really loving those I know are my enemies and doing good to those who hate me;
Blessing those who curse me and praying for those who treat me badly;
Turning the other cheek to anyone who slaps me;
Offering my shirt, as well, to anyone who steals my coat;
Lending to those in need without expecting repayment;
Giving to every beggar who asks me for something;
Refusing to judge anyone, no matter what others say about him or her;
Being merciful and compassionate in imitation of the God who loves me unconditionally?
A well-regarded American writer and educationist, Kent Keith, put all this another way when he wrote:
People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centred. Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.
The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.
People favour underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for underdogs anyway.
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway.
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Blessed are you who are poor: Yours is the kingdom of God…Alas for you who are rich: you are having your consolation now.” Luke 6, 17, 20-26
Matthew’s Gospel has a parallel to what we hear proclaimed in this coming Sunday’s gospel. The account in Matthew is referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. In contrast, Luke has Jesus deliver a sermon on a plain in which only four beatitudes are listed, and they are paralleled with four woes, which well-off people throughout history have mistakenly used as measures of success in life.
In the gospel reading for the third Sunday of Ordinary Time, we heard Jesus proclaiming to the people of his home town of Nazareth that his mission was “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and new sight to the blind, to free the downtrodden and to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour”. The four “beatitudes” at the start of today’s gospel are a more poetic rendition of his mission statement, and directed pointedly to the strugglers in his audience. His intention was to offer them a message of hope and encouragement. Then he directed a sterner message to those in the crowd who were smug, self-satisfied and comfortable. Clearly, he had summed up the audience in front of him and deliberately set about comforting the disturbed among them and disturbing the comfortable.
We know from experience, that our lives take lots of different turns. We have all known tough and difficult times and we have all experienced times of satisfaction and comfort. Consequently, there are times when we need to hear Jesus’ words of comfort and other times when our comfort and complacency need to be challenged. Implicit in Jesus’ words about the “four woes” is a message that we all have a serious social responsibility to reach out to the poor, the neglected and the alienated, especially when we have the means to assist them.
Of course, there is an additional message here for us about the way we speak to all the different people with whom we engage in the course of our day. Do we measure our words to fit what we think that others want to hear from us or are we prepared to say what our own integrity demands of us? How we say it is just as important as the content of our message. Therefore, we would do well to reflect on our readiness to speak the truth in love, especially when we realise that the truth of what we want to say might threaten or upset the person/s to whom our words are directed.
I suggest that it is not coincidental that Luke has Jesus speak this message of beatitudes and woes on a plain. I believe that Luke wanted to demonstrate that Jesus was one with the rest of humanity on the same level. In proclaiming the beatitudes, he was giving assurance to the poor, the forgotten and the discarded that they were not disregarded by God; rather, that God had a preference for them. His words of warning to those who were comfortably placed were a correction of a prevalent belief that wealth and good fortune were indicators of God’s favour. Any who did not subscribe to that belief seemed to think that all they had acquired had come to them as a result of their own efforts, and their efforts alone. It did not seem to occur to them that all their abilities were God-given gifts in the first place. Yet Jesus was quick to disabuse his audience of their misconceptions, pointing out that wealth so preoccupied those who had it that it often insulated them from the poor and marginalized, and desensitized them to their plight, in which they barely eked out an existence.
By debunking the prevailing idea of what constituted strength and success and elevating the lowly, the needy, those psychologically and physically imprisoned and those whose lives had been upended by loss and grief, Jesus acted as the great leveller. In so doing, he became God’s beatitude - a blessing to all, but especially to the downtrodden, in a society that gave preference to the rich and the successful. His words are a reminder to us that, whatever our status and circumstance, we are not overlooked by God, even if God’s way of noticing us is to give us a wake-up call. Nor are we meant to live only in the company of those who enjoy a similar status. We’re meant to interact with everyone around us, rich and poor alike. The level ground we share with everyone else is that we are all equal in worth and dignity, all beloved of a God in whose image we are created. We are not alone in our experiences, our needs and our losses, and we have an obligation not to leave our fellow human beings alone in theirs. And that’s the kernel of today’s gospel.
If it hasn’t struck us yet, another look at this gospel reading might help us to see that the list Luke’s Jesus gives of beatitudes and woes echoes the sentiments spelled out Mary’s Magnificat:
“He (the Lord) has pulled down princes from their thrones and raised high the lowly.
He has filled the starving with good things, sent the rich away empty.” Luke 1, 46-55
Let’s conclude with a Middle Eastern parable about priorities:
Once upon a time in the depth of winter, an eagle was searching the frozen landscape for food. It spotted on an ice-floe the carcass of a deer that had been left behind by a party of hunters. The eagle swooped down and set about satisfying its hunger. It became so consumed by what it was consuming, that it became deaf to the thundering sound of a waterfall in the distance. Just before the ice-floe was about to go crashing over the edge, the eagle sensed the danger and flapped its wings to make its escape. However, its claws had become frozen into the icy remains of the deer. The eagle met the same fate as the deer on which it was feasting.
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
After he had finished speaking to the crowds from Simon’s boat, Jesus said to Simon: “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch…Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” Luke 5, 1-11
This coming Sunday’s readings focus on the topic of vocation. The word itself is derived from the Latin vocare, meaning to call. Yet not too many of us have heard a voice calling us to the vocation we are currently living. We all have a vocation in life, and we were all blessed with the ability to discern and choose the path in life which we believe is the best fit for us, which we are convinced is the most authentic way of expressing the love in our heart, of being our true self.
Pursuing one’s vocation in life involves a succession of choices. We Christians believe that, in making those choices, we have available to us the guidance of God’s Spirit, who is constantly present to us, acting through our thoughts and feelings, through other people and through the created world around us. But we have to be prepared to open ourselves to the promptings of God’s Spirit who works through the ordinary events of our lives. Ultimately, however, it is left to us to choose the path in life we believe is most appropriate for us, even though we seek the guidance of God’s Spirit in making our choice and living it out day after day as it unfolds, sometimes in surprising ways. Still, the metaphor of vocation as call, with its deep foundation in Scripture and tradition, persists in influencing the way we understand and talk about the life choices we make.
Closely associated with the reality of vocation is the phenomenon we call “a religious experience”. Simply put, a religious experience is a conscious encounter with the divine. Many ordinary and not-so-ordinary people tell of such encounters in their lives. Normally, those occasions are infrequent. Some of those encounters are recorded in the Bible, and are generally described in terms of verbal exchanges, hearing a voice of invitation or a call. Sometimes they are described as dreams. Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, had several such dreams. Additionally, such encounters are often followed immediately by protests of unworthiness or not being fit or ready for the job, offered by those who have just heard the “call”. Moses, Jeremiah and Jonah fit into that category.
This Sunday’s first reading, which describes the call of Isaiah, contains all these features. The context of Isaiah’s religious experience is worthy of note. He lived at a time when the affairs of Israel were guided by King Uzziah, a good, wise and benevolent ruler who had come to the throne at the age of six and grew up to lead his people for more than fifty years. He had the foresight to strengthen the fortifications of Jerusalem to protect his people from invading armies. He also promoted agriculture as a practical way of providing food for the people, and had the common good as his principal focus. Eventually, however, he was stricken with leprosy and died. Isaiah came from a wealthy and highly respected family, all of whom were well connected with King Uzziah and his court. At the news of the king’s death, Isaiah went to the Temple to join all the people in prayer, as they expressed their grief. And it was there that he had a religious experience, in which he heard God inviting him to leave his comfortable life-style and devote himself to being God’s messenger to the people of Israel. Instinctively, his response was: “I’m not good enough. I have a history of criticizing others, of speaking nastily about them.” But God did not back off. The storyteller uses the symbol of Isaiah’s critical lips being purified by an angel carrying a burning coal from the altar of incense, situated in the Temple. Then God said: “If not you, Isaiah, who will undertake this job for me?” Then, to his own amazement, Isaiah heard himself saying: “Here I am, Lord; send me!” Whatever exactly happened for Isaiah in the Temple that day was so overwhelming that he sensed that God was not only in the Temple but everywhere: “All the earth is filled with God’s glory” (Isaiah 6, 3).
In the gospel reading, we hear Peter respond in similar fashion. His experience of fishing had taught him that big catches are very rare in the heat of the day. He had not long finished doing what all professional fishermen do - trawl during the night hours. Reluctantly, he humoured Jesus by dropping his nets in the middle of the day. When the unexpected happened and he netted more fish than he could cope with, he realized that he was in the presence of holiness, and not worthy to be there. His response was: “Please, Jesus, have nothing to do with me. I’m weak, fragile and sinful.” Jesus ignored his plea, told him not to be afraid, and gave him the even more difficult task of “catching people”. He extended the same invitation to Simon Peter’s fishing partners, James and John. And almost incredibly, all three accepted the invitation on the spot.
In the second reading of this Sunday, Paul makes only a passing reference to how an encounter with Jesus turned his life upside down: “Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me. For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15, 7-9). There are full accounts in Acts, chapters 9 and 22. But whatever happened on that road to Damascus changed his heart.
There is something the same and something different about the accounts of the faith journeys of these three Biblical giants. Their stories serve to highlight how every person’s faith journey is unique. God’s Spirit touches us in the particular circumstances of our particular lives. We can all look at our lives in retrospect and point to events and people who made a very significant impact on us. Our encounters with them led us to reflect on how we wanted to live our lives. It was through them that God’s Spirit was at work. But we had to choose whether or not we would respond and what shape our response would take. Moreover, every day we continue to make decisions that confirm and nourish that very first risky, yet courageous, decision we made to embrace the way of life we believed would be an authentic expression of ourselves, our gifts and the love in our heart. There have also been times when we have made decisions that have been less than authentic and nourishing. But with God’s help we dust ourselves off and readjust our compass.
What’s more, we discover that these decisions about choosing our vocation in life are not in step with the calendar. Nor are they made in accord with some rigid, lock-step process. They are influenced by our personality, our insights, our skill (or lack of it) in discerning, our courage, determination and flexibility, and any number of other factors and circumstances. Our experience also tells us that we don’t all grow, flourish and find our true fit at the same rate. But there is one constant, and that is a recognition that life demands change. By definition, to grow is to change, and the prospect of change sometimes frightens us, even paralyses us temporarily. But failure or unwillingness to change leads to atrophy and death. And we have all met people who are dead but not yet buried. Let’s hope and pray that we don’t meet such people when we look into the mirror. And let’s never lose sight of the dream Jesus has for us: “I have come that they may have life and have it in abundance” (John 10, 10). Are we brave enough to choose life?
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Set your hearts, then, on the more important gifts. Best of all, however is the following way…If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong…Love is patient, love is kind…” 1 Corinthians 12, 31-13, 13
“I tell you solemnly”, Jesus said, “no prophet is ever accepted in his own country…And in the prophet Elisha’s time there were many lepers in Israel, but none of these were cured except the Syrian, Naaman.” Luke 4, 21-30
Today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a text that is frequently heard at wedding ceremonies. As I reflected on it, I started to ask myself if the kind of love Paul described is actually possible. I wondered whether Paul was carried away with enthusiasm or even caught up in a rhapsody when he wrote it. We’ve all experienced love, but could anyone ever love with the completeness and intensity that Paul describes? Was Paul actually in touch with the reality of ordinary people doing their best to love those around them or was he trying to whip up his audience to rise to greater heights in their loving and caring for others?
We’ve all glimpsed different facets of the composite picture of love which Paul paints. We’ve seen those facets in the patience parents demonstrate in dealing with their teenage children. We’ve witnessed extraordinary acts of kindness by complete strangers on our streets or in buses and trains. We’ve known prominent leaders who wear their position and status very lightly. We’ve seen friends and acquaintances, unjustly ridiculed and publicly humiliated, bounce back without carrying grudges, with no focus on revenge. But is it possible for any of us to integrate all these admirable facets of love into our lived reality?
No matter how hard we try, we discover that there is something elusive about love. We do reasonably well for a while, and then we slip backwards. But despite our lapses, we pick ourselves up and try again. Yet, even with the best of intentions, we find it difficult to remain fully committed to loving everyone we encounter. Moreover, there will always be people who have been so disappointed in their efforts at loving that they will want to tell us that our efforts will come to nothing. Still, while we know from our own experience that the way of love can be fairly steep, we keep returning to renew our efforts, probably because the experience of our past successes has been uplifting and personally rewarding. Deep down, we know that we are made for love - for giving love and receiving love.
When we look at the troubled lives of some of the people around us, and then further afield, at places like Syria, Venezuela, Yemen and South Sudan, we wonder if the supply of available love is sufficient to meet the demand. We even ask ourselves if we can keep at it into our own old age. Yet we have the inspiration of people who have been faithful in their loving commitments over fifty, sixty or seventy years. Then, we can find consolation and encouragement in Paul’s observation that “love is eternal” (1 Corinthians 13, 8).
One surprising aspect of Paul’s rhapsody of love is that he fails to point out that love has need sometimes to put on a hard face. Today’s first reading gives us a very clear picture of tough love. In launching Jeremiah on his vocation as a prophet, God assures him that he is to be “a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass” to stand against kings, princes, priests and people who will resist his message. And in today’s gospel Jesus expresses tough love as he confronts the people of his own town because of their pettiness, small-mindedness and prejudice. They set aside God’s invitation to live lovingly by turning their attention to questioning his pedigree, his qualifications and his courage in speaking the truth. Speaking the truth in love can be a considerable challenge to personal integrity. Yet we all know that there are times when love demands that of us. Genuine love can draw us into the discomfort of confrontation. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that genuine confrontation means inviting the other person (or persons) to stand beside us, so that together we can look at whatever it is that is challenging, dividing or discomforting us. Those are the times when it’s necessary for us not to lose sight of God’s love for all of us.
In quoting Isaiah to the people gathered in the Synagogue of Nazareth (last Sunday’s gospel), Jesus made it clear that his love and concern were to be directed especially to the poor and downtrodden, to prisoners, to those alienated because of physical disability, and to those confined by psychological illness. By implication, he was telling his audience that they, too, had to get their hands dirtied in caring for all those whom society had alienated or discarded. Initially, they “were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (Luke 4, 22). But their admiration and amazement quickly turned to hostility when he referred to the way in which God, through the prophets Elijah and Elisha, had expressed a preference for a widow and a leper who were Gentiles and from countries hostile towards Israel.
What blinkered the people of Nazareth from seeing what Jesus was saying to them were their sense of entitlement and their fixed expectations of how the long-awaited Messiah should act. They simply could not envision a Messiah who was from their town, who looked and spoke like them, and who favoured the outcasts. They dreamed of a Messiah who would rid them of their Roman oppressors, one who would restore to them every comfort, luxury and security to which they believed they were entitled.
And isn’t it a sense of entitlement that can block our vision and feed our prejudices? Haven’t there been times when we have felt that we deserved a better deal from God? Haven’t we felt that our fidelity to Sunday Mass, our monetary support of our Church and our integrity and honesty should have protected us from illness, accident and the untimely deaths of those close to us? Have there not been times when we have compared ourselves to others whom we have categorized as only half-baked Christians, and concluded that we’ll be given preferential treatment at the time of final accountability?
Jesus took the risk of telling his own townspeople a few home truths, and they resented it.
Are we able to apply to ourselves the underlying message of what he dared to point out to the people of Nazareth? Can we see God’s love reflected in our encounters with the other very ordinary people with whom we rub shoulders each day? Are we able to imagine that those we regard as “unchurched” might have something to teach us, something to soften our hardness and even melt away our prejudices?
Let’s conclude with a delightful story from the Middle East: “Abou Adam was wealthy according to every earthly measure. At the same time, he did his best to become spiritually enriched as well. One night, he was roused from sleep by frightful stomping on his roof. Startled, he sat bold upright in bed and shouted: ‘Who’s there?’ ‘A friend’, answered a voice from the roof, ‘I’ve lost my camel.’ Disturbed by such stupidity, Abou called back: ‘You idiot! Why the devil are you looking for a camel on my roof?’ ‘You’re the idiot!’ came the reply. “What are you doing looking for God, lying on a golden bed, dressed in silk pyjamas?’”
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jesus unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me…” Then he began to speak to them: “Today this text is being fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 1, 1-4; 4, 14-21
Garrison Keillor is an American writer, storyteller and comedian who was host of a radio programme in Minnesota for 42 years before his contract was terminated in controversial circumstances in 2016. He comes from a family that had strong connections with the Plymouth Brethren but now describes himself as a member of the Episcopalian Church. One of his stories is to be found in a collection called Listening for God: A Reader but most are in the many books he wrote about the people of Lake Wobegon, a fictional town he created. He once stated that he was on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Among the many quotes attributed to him are the following: “One reads books in order to gain the privilege of living more than one life. People who don’t read are trapped in a mine shaft, even if they think the sun is shining.” and “It’s a shallow life that doesn’t give a person a few scars.” and “Computers can never completely replace humans. They may become capable of artificial intelligence, but they will never master real stupidity.” and “Thank you, God, for this good life and forgive us if we don’t love it enough.”
In one of his “Lake Wobegon” volumes entitled Leaving Home, he tells of a character who went to visit his home town after many years away. The frontispiece of the book carries a poem which begins:
One more spring in Minnesota,
To come upon Lake Wobegon.
Old town, I smell your coffee.
If I could see you one more time —
I can’t stay, you know, I left so long ago,
I’m just a stranger with memories of people I knew here.
We stand around looking at the ground.
You’re the stories I’ve told for years and years.
That yard, the tree - you climbed it once with me,
And we talked of cities that we’d live in someday.
I left, old friend, and now I’m back again,
Please say you missed me since I went away.
Today’s gospel reading describes Jesus’ return for a visit to his home town of Nazareth, after a considerable absence. There were people there who remembered him as a boy growing up. There were many who knew Mary and Joseph. But Jesus’ reputation had gone ahead of him, and the crowd gathered in the local synagogue had come to see for themselves if the rumours of him were true. So, here he was in the synagogue he had known from his infancy, and, in keeping with the courtesy extended to any visiting rabbi, whoever was in charge handed him the scroll they had been reading. It was from Isaiah. Jesus opened it and read: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, release to prisoners, and to announce a year of favour from the Lord.” Having finished reading, he sat down, thereby giving his audience the traditional sign that he was about to give an important teaching. But it was a teaching with which he completely startled them: “Today, this passage is being fulfilled even as you listen.” The people gathered in the synagogue were so accustomed to hearing promises and predictions about what would happen in the future that they could not even hear that Jesus was telling them that, as they sat there in front of him, God was actually breaking into their lives. And it’s that very message that is put to us today. Not tomorrow, not next week, next month or next year. God is present to us in everyone we encounter today, in everything that happens to us today, in every aspect of the created world that impinges on our senses today. And God is still present even if today turns out to be not quite what we anticipated.
Just imagine how different our world might be if Mozart had said: “I don’t write music”, or if Van Gogh had said: “I don’t paint irises”, or if Michelangelo had said: “I don’t do ceilings” or “I’m not going to waste my time chipping away at marble” and if Ruth had said: “I don’t fancy my mother-in-law” and if Florence Nightingale had said: “I don’t touch sick people”! The world would be the poorer, as it would if we were to repeatedly pass by people we would rather ignore and refuse to go to places to which we are invited but to which we would rather not go.
Gerald Jampolsky is an internationally recognized medical doctor, psychiatrist and adult educator. He founded a self-help group called Attitudinal Healing. It has spread to almost thirty countries, including Italy, Kenya, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, India and Argentina. He, himself, has written well over twenty books. Among them are best-sellers like Forgiveness, the Greatest Healer, Love is Letting Go of Fear, Aging with Attitude and Advice to Doctors & Other Big People from Kids. In Love is Letting Go of Fear, he wrote: “Have you ever given yourself the opportunity of going through just one day concentrating on totally accepting everyone and making no judgements?…Everything we think or say or do reacts on us like a boomerang coming back. When we send out judgements in the form of criticism, fury or other attack-thoughts, they come back to us. When we send out only love, it, too, comes back to us.”
If we were to release our creative talents, set aside our fears or carry out Gerald Jampolsky’s advice, we, too, could say: “This scripture is being fulfilled in your hearing.” How would we be seen by those who know us if we had a succession of days without judgement, without complaint and not bound by fear?
Those gathered to hear Jesus in the synagogue of Nazareth had him judged and categorized before he even opened his mouth. He was much too ordinary looking. He didn’t live up to the people’s expectations of what a prophet should look like, much less a Messiah. And, when they caught on to the real meaning of what he was saying, their disappointment turned to hostility. And there lies an important message for us. The Spirit of the Lord has been given to you and to me. We, through Baptism, are all anointed by God’s Spirit as prophets to proclaim in word and action the coming of the kingdom of God. And like Jesus and so many other prophets, we look like the ordinary people we are. Yet God is reflected in us and in the other ordinary people and things of our world.
But let’s think for a moment about the pressure Jesus must have felt to satisfy his home-town crowd, to deliver on their hopes, desires and expectations. Instead, he preached the simple, unembellished truth which disappointed and angered his audience. He held fast to the courage of his convictions and told them not only that he was the Messiah but outlined for them the kind of Messiah he would be. He was not prepared to sacrifice truth simply to please them. This last week, we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr, a man of courage, who, in imitation of Jesus, found the courage to speak the truth, knowing there was a price to be paid. We, too, are called to speak the truth in support of strangers, refugees and those treated unjustly, to do so with credibility, love and generosity, but without compromise.
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
The mother of Jesus said to him: “They have no wine.” Jesus said in reply: Woman, why turn to me? My hour has not come yet.” His mother said to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you.” John 2, 1-11
John’s Gospel is markedly different from those of Mark, Matthew and Luke in that it is densely written, loaded with symbols and carries multiple levels of meaning. For example, today’s account of Jesus changing water into wine is a symbol of what can happen to people who open themselves to the Spirit. They are renewed and transformed. On another level, we can read today’s gospel as a story of how Jesus can bring true joy into our lives, defeating gloom and sadness. We can also come to appreciate how Jesus, himself is “the best wine kept till now”. So we have to be ready to paddle around in all the symbols and metaphors.
This gospel reading also gives us an insight into the emotional side of Jesus: While he speaks fairly dismissively to his mother, it is clear that he is no stranger to a wedding celebration. Later in John’s Gospel, we learn how he wept at the death of his friend, Lazarus and eventually faced his own execution with fear and trepidation. John presents us with a Jesus who was a flesh and blood human being, not a divine puppet. In Jesus, divinity became fully human, thus lifting humanity to the level of the divine.
But let’s look at the remark made to Jesus by his mother: “They have no more wine.” Jesus clearly heard it as more than an observation. Effectively, his mother was asking: “Can you do something to save the newly weds from being embarrassed?” And his response seems like a blunt: “Please don’t push me. Don’t put on me expectations that I can’t meet right now.” But John is also using Mary’s remark as a metaphor or symbol for his audience, inviting them to ask if the energy, the vigour or the meaning has disappeared from their lives. And we are not just observers watching from the sidelines. We’re meant to be participants in the gospel reading, asking ourselves if the life, meaning and purpose have ebbed out of us. And if so, what might we do to have them charged up again? Of course, the suggestion is that we may need Jesus to breathe life back into whatever is dead in us.
Last week I referred to the message President Bush sent his wife on the morning of their 70th wedding anniversary (I should have named him as George H.W. Bush instead of giving him his son’s name). This week I want to refer to a man by the name of Lee Atwater. He was the campaign manager for George H.W. Bush during his bid for the presidency. Atwater was a self-educated, street-wise man who had earned a reputation for being ruthless in dealing with rival politicians, and hard-as-nails in just about all his relationships. He knew well the tactics of political campaigning, so he set about brushing aside and pushing into oblivion anyone who stood in the way of the campaign of the man he supported. Atwater openly admitted that his main tactic was to identify an opponent’s weakness and attack it relentlessly, irrespective of whether the weakness he identified was based in reality or invented by Atwater himself. He was probably the single, most influential person in getting George H.W. Bush into the White House in 1988. He once said to Bush during the campaign: “Your kinder, gentler approach is very nice, but it won’t win votes.”
However, in March 1990 with George Bush well settled in Washington D.C., Atwater suffered a seizure at a fundraising breakfast in support of a US Senator. He was diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer. And that changed his life so dramatically that he wrote letters of apology to political opponents whose reputations he had demolished. He found religion and converted to Catholicism, guided by a priest whom he had met during his hospitalization. He even gave an interview to Life magazine in 1991 in which he said: “My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood. The 1980s were about acquiring – acquiring wealth, power, prestige. I know. I acquired more wealth, power, and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. What power wouldn't I trade for a little more time with my family? What price wouldn't I pay for an evening with friends? It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime. I don't know who will lead us through the '90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul.” He could have said those words about almost any country and government in the present, so called, “developed” world. In recent months and years, Pope Frances has repeatedly stated that our world “is in desperate need of brotherhood”. It was through life-threatening illness that Lee Atwater grew into being the kind of man that he had not known before. It was by listening to his sickness that he blossomed into the man that he previously had not recognized. As the Augustinian priest and writer, Thomas a Kempis wrote centuries ago: “Sickness does not so much contribute to our frailty, but rather shows us who we really are” (The Imitation of Christ, circa 1427). In his sickness, Atwater discovered who he really was.
Could it be that today’s gospel reading is inviting us to listen to what our own frailty, brokenness and lack of centredness are asking of us? And many of the mystics reminded themselves and us that another name for listening is prayer. In time, the prayer of listening might lead us to take the risk of saying to Jesus: “You know, your mother was right. The wine of my life has been draining away. And I need your help to do something to stem the flow.”
So, there it is. Today’s gospel confronts us with a woman who knew what she was about. She had come to realise that her son didn’t do things by halves. As the story unfolds, we learn that his generosity converted more than 200 litres of water into fine wine. But picking up the levels of symbolism in John’s story of this wedding celebration in Cana, we have to hear that his mother’s words to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you”, are also directed to us. Lee Atwater came to hear those words and set about the work of reconciliation, of mending broken relationships, of bringing heart and brotherhood to the ordinary encounters of each day. A clear message of today’s gospel is that Jesus is ready and willing to touch the very ordinary of our daily lives and to make it sparkle. But just as he was invited to join in a wedding celebration in Cana, so, too, he has to get an invitation from each of us to come as a guest into our lives. Are we ready with the invitation?
The Baptism of Jesus
“You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you.” Luke 3, 15-16, 21-22
Just a few weeks ago, leaders from around the world gathered in Washington D.C. for a funeral service to honour George W. Bush, former President of the United States who died on 30th November last year at the age of 94. What many of the mourners did not know was that, when George was hospitalized for a brief period in January 2015, he sent a message to his wife on the morning of their 70th wedding anniversary: “Seventy years ago this very day, Barbara Pierce of Rye, New York, made me the happiest and luckiest man on earth.”
George and Barbara pledged themselves to each other in a commitment that changed and enriched both their lives. Yet there were probably times when they struggled, when they wondered if their commitment would last, when they questioned the values and principles that underpinned that commitment.
Today’s gospel reading brings to us an invitation to ponder why it was that Jesus chose to be baptized by John and to reflect on the meaning of our own commitment as baptized Catholics/Christians. There was a time when Christians were struggling to establish themselves as a community, in the face of bitter opposition and persecution, when baptism was understood as a serious, courageous, life-changing commitment, undertaken only after a long “apprenticeship”. That was an era in which Christians really had to stand in opposition to the dominant culture; a time when to be a Christian meant alienation from main-stream society; a time when the general populace ridiculed those who believed that we are all made in the image of God; a time when professing Christianity meant losing one’s job, being help up to public ridicule and reduced to having barely enough to survive. It was a time when two-thirds of the population were slaves and treated as the dregs of society. To become a Christian often meant relegation to the ranks of slaves.
Moreover, the teachings of Jesus were not exactly popular in the society of first century Palestine. Loving one’s enemies and praying for those intent on persecution didn’t quite capture the imagination of the general populace. And almost nobody believed that there was anything wrong with exposing unwanted babies to the elements. Christianity did not fit comfortably into a society that had very different social norms and traditions. As a result, anyone considering baptism had to undergo long and rigorous preparation and scrutiny in order to qualify for acceptance into the Christian community. Baptism was a very serious rite of passage.
In the first quarter of the 4th century, Christianity flourished, with the blessing of the Emperor Constantine, and became the “official” religion of much of the Roman Empire. The result was that it became domesticated, giving Christians status in society rather than public entry into a faith community. In time it became a private affair in which belief in teaching and doctrine found was given priority status ahead of practical, compassionate action done in imitation of Jesus. Christians began to look at baptism as initiation into society rather than as a challenging event that was meant to be life-changing for all who presented themselves for this most important of all the sacraments. In time the baptism ritual was stripped of many of its meaningful symbols. For instance, as part of the baptism ritual, the priest would place some salt on the tongue of the candidate as a reminder that he or she was to be “the salt of the earth”. That no longer happens. The sacrament was once administered in front of the whole community, after the candidate was interrogated about his/her lifestyle and her/his motives for seeking admission to the Christian community. Now, with the introduction of infant baptism, most children are baptized quietly, on a Sunday afternoon, when most parish members have gone home. The only ones to attend are the priest, the child’s parents and close friends and family members, some of whom take the role of God-parents. In recent times, the Church has designed a year-long program called The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) in an attempt to reclaim some of the lost meaning of baptism. Still, in the minds of some parents, a Baptism Certificate is seen as merely a ticket for their child to gain admission to a Catholic school. And there are still some parents, priests and bishops who seem to put more emphasis on knowledge of the Catechism than on living the Gospel on a daily basis.
Michael Corleone, the Mafia boss in the film The Godfather, knew the Catechism, and pledged “to renounce Satan and all his pomps” as he stood in the church asking baptism for his son while his henchmen were elsewhere gunning down his enemies. The hypocrisy of it all can be viewed in a 90 second YouTube clip entitled The Baptism Murders.
Still, by living true to our baptism, we make a commitment to live the life of Christ each day of our lives - at work, at study, in our family lives and in all our other activities. So many of us have been so anaesthetized by our secular culture that our sense of Christian commitment has been dulled. Our own baptismal commitment has lost much of its significance and the baptism of children in our immediate and extended families looks much like an excuse for a party rather than a reminder to all of us of our promise to live the Gospel of Jesus to the best of our ability.
Today’s gospel account of the Baptism of Jesus serves as a reminder to us that we, too, have been baptized and thereby have committed ourselves to live as Jesus would want us to live. But let’s also look at the detail of Jesus’ baptism by John. What is described is God’s commissioning of Jesus. With a clear anointing by God’s Spirit, Jesus was commissioned to bring justice, life and love to the world. While the voice from heaven was an expression God’s confirmation of Jesus’ mission and affectionate congratulations to him for what he was taking on, we need to look closely of what Jesus was actually doing when he let himself be baptized by John in the river. It was here that Jesus demonstrated that he had the courage and resolution for the job he sensed was ahead of him. He did that by expressing his readiness to identify with sinful, struggling, fragile humanity. His presenting himself to John was a statement in action of his willingness to identify with humanity’s hopes, needs and mortality. With eyes wide open, he accepted all the implications of incarnation - of living with a human body and rubbing shoulders with people whose lives had been broken by personal limitations and the circumstances and events of human existence.
It’s all too easy to slip into thinking that he had the assistance of his divine connections in taking on his very challenging mission, or that he had been blessed with much more talent and wisdom than the people among whom he lived. But the courage, determination and persistence he showed as he went about expressing his own integrity came at a personal cost. We are misguided if we try to convince ourselves that it was all easy for him. The voice from heaven affirming: “You are my beloved, my Son in whom I am well pleased”, is not some announcement of a deal between God and Jesus worked out previously in private. It is an expression of God’s admiration for Jesus’ courageous decision to identify fully with broken humanity. Any of us who dare to apply for a job in what Jesus started is expected to respond to the same question he faced: “Are you ready and willing to embrace your humanity, with all its implications, with faith, trust and love?” We, too, are God’s “beloved”. Our baptism identified us with Jesus, named us as children of the light and commission us to step into the world as sons and daughters of God. How ready are we?
Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem. “Where is the infant king of the Jews?”, they asked. We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” Matthew 2, 1-12
My own exploration into children’s literature has taught me that all stories are true, and that some actually happened. We human beings love to hear and tell stories. In fact, much of our daily conversation is taken up with storytelling that is coloured with our own embellishments and perceptions. In today’s gospel, we hear the story of the “three wise men” who came in search of the new-born Jesus. It occurs only in Matthew’s Gospel, and whether or not it is based on an actual event, it’s a story that Matthew used to tell all his readers something about themselves. So, it’s a story about us.
Over centuries, Matthew’s three travellers from the east have been presented in exotic dress and have had unusual names attributed to them – Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior, simply because they caught the imagination of people from one generation to the next. They are unlike most of us in culture and origin. They are very much like us in their human experience. Dissatisfied with their horoscopes and whatever other apparatus they used, these three astrologers (“some men who studied the stars”, Matthew 2, 1) set out to follow a star to something or somebody they hoped would satisfy their searching. They discovered the Christ child after a long and difficult search.
Isn’t this a search which we all must take? In Luke’s Gospel we read how the shepherds, discards of society, went to Bethlehem in search of a child they were told by angels they would find in a manger. In Matthew, we read how the educated and wealthy, the Magi, set out on a long and arduous search not knowing what they would find. The implication is that we, too, need to go in search of the only one who will ever satisfy us.
To emphasise his point, Matthew presents us with another set of wisdom figures in the persons of “the chief priests and teachers of the Law” (Matthew 2, 4). The arrival in Jerusalem of distinguished strangers from the east was news that was significant enough to be brought to the attention of King Herod, who, in turn, sought the wisdom of the Jewish religious leaders, asking them: “Where will the Messiah be born?” (Matthew 2, 4). While they had the answer, for they quoted to Herod the prophet Micah 5, 2: “The Lord says: ‘Bethlehem, Ephrathah, you are one of the smallest towns in Judah, but out of you I will bring a ruler for Israel, whose family line goes back to ancient times’”, they were no more interested in looking for a Messiah in Bethlehem than they were in flying to the moon. There was no connection between their heads and their hearts. Moreover, they were so full of their own importance that they were not able to take the risk of lowering themselves to go to Bethlehem to confirm what one of the prophets in their own tradition had pointed to. Had they taken that risk, they would have had to ignore what they found or make changes to the way they lived and the message they proclaimed. In contrast, the Magi took the double risk of long and dangerous journeying and the possibility of having to accept the consequences of life-changing discovery that inquiry sometimes demands.
Therein lies the challenge of today’s gospel reading. It pushes us to choose between two kinds of wisdom figures - those who hold onto the safety and comfort of certainty and those who risk journeying into the unknown in search of truth that might unsettle.
To which set of wise men do I choose to listen?
There is still more about this story of the Magi to which we can give our attention. Their arrival in Jerusalem caused something of a stir. They were different because of the way they dressed. They attracted the attention of the local people because they were strangers and outsiders.
Matthew’s story invites us to reflect on the way we treat outsiders. Do we keep such people at a distance because we believe they have no right to trespass into our space, to look for acceptance in our land? Do we ever acknowledge that they might bring different and better ways of living that put us to shame? Many of the outsiders who turn up on the borders of our country have been forced to flee from war, violence, and threats to their right to live in peace and freedom. Yet we can reject them as though they are nothing more than human waste. We can treat them as objects of fear rather than take the risk of treating them as our sisters and brothers in need of welcome.
While the people of Bethlehem looked at the newly-arrived Magi with curiosity, suspicion or fear born of prejudice, King Herod in Jerusalem was threatened by the news they brought. The very thought of the birth of a child who might one day challenge his position and power was enough to send him into a bloodthirsty rage. The plan Herod proceeded to put into place only demonstrates how we can let fear cripple our ability to think straight. To be afraid of a helpless child merely highlights the depth of Herod’s irrationality. His actions give me cause to reflect on the extent I allow fear to push aside my faith and hope in God.
Finally, the Magi were searchers for truth and further wisdom. Some commentators on Matthew’s Gospel suggest they were Zoroastrians, members of a religious group that originated in Persia. Zoroaster was a prophet who lived about six hundred years before Christ. Zoroastrianism is still flourishing in India, especially around Mumbai. The world-renowned, classical music conductor, Zubin Mehta, is a Zoroastrian. He founded the Mumbai Symphony Orchestra, has been musical director of the Montreal Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic orchestras and has been sought after to conduct in the great opera houses of the world. He is currently conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Zoroastrians as known for their intellectual and artistic pursuits and their generous outreach to the poor and disadvantaged. They believe that all good people are born under a light in heaven to guide them and that light appears as a star. The brighter the star, the more important is the person born under it. Matthew’s Magi, on their arrival in Jerusalem state the reason for their coming and what it was that guided them: “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? We have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2, 2)
We can identify with the Magi because we, like them, are searchers. We don’t have all the answers. We have questions about our faith and about the big issues in life like sickness, war, natural disasters, recession and death. We are terrified by modern-day, power-hungry Herods. We wonder how a loving God can seemingly allow evil and hatred to flourish. Yet we can take comfort from the example of the Magi who did not search alone, but found support in one another. We too find support and encouragement in the people who join us in our churches and communities week in and week out. With them, we listen, pray and search, and from them we get encouragement and comfort. Like them, we have the light of Christ to guide us. Just as the Magi finally found the one for whom they were searching, so, too, will we.
The Holy Family
Three days later, they found him in the Temple, sitting among the doctors, listening to them, and asking them questions…His parents were overcome when they saw him, and his mother said to him: “My child, why have you done this to us? See how worried your father and I have been, looking for you?” “Why were you looking for me?”, he replied, “Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs? …His mother stored all these things in her heart. Luke 2, 41-52
As I sat down to write this reflection, I found myself wondering if Jesus actually said the words attributed to him or if Luke put them into the mouth of Jesus in order to teach his community something about discipleship. Imagine, for a moment, how modern-day parents might respond if their adolescent son, missing for three days, turned up and told them that there was no need to be worried sick because he was busy “doing God’s work”. We would not be surprised if they were ready to wring his neck.
Yet, we would not be wrong if we were to conclude that all the anguish could have been avoided had either set of parents been told by their son, in advance, what he intended doing for three days.
I’m inclined to think that Luke put this story into his Gospel to parallel it with the events surrounding Jesus’ death. Just before he was killed, Jesus made a journey to the Temple in Jerusalem at Passover time. There he engaged in conflict with religious leaders. And he was missing in the tomb for three days before his resurrection.
Even though the adolescent Jesus’ explanation to Mary and Joseph looks to be somewhat insolent, he is actually correct in saying that they should have known that he was engaged in his Father’s affairs. After all, isn’t it true to say that we all have a responsibility to be involved in God’s affairs by living and acting in ways that reflect God’s love, care and compassion to everyone we encounter. It is God’s business to reach out to all those who are lonely, forgotten, neglected and alienated form a society that needs to care for them.
Nonetheless, this must have been a stressful moment for both Mary and Joseph who had been searching frantically for their missing son. Perhaps Luke was merely intent on only giving the headlines to his audience. So, there’s not even a hint of an apology from Jesus. All we are told is that Mary took time to understand what her challenging son had said, and to ponder it in her heart. While Luke puts the focus on Mary, there is nothing to suggest that Joseph, too, did not puzzle over the significance of what Jesus had said to him and Mary.
There’s a story told of a holy hermit who had given consolation and encouragement to a wealthy man who had lost his way in life and slipped into all kinds of addictive behaviours. When the wealthy man was fully rehabilitated, he expressed his appreciation to the hermit by presenting him with a beautifully illustrated and valuable copy of the Bible. The hermit placed the Bible on a stand in his hermitage for everyone who visited him to see. Some months later, a very sick traveller came to the hermit looking for help. It took the holy man many months to nurse his visitor back to health. Then, one day when the hermit was out looking after poor people in the district, his guest took the precious Bible and fled.
It turned out, however, that the man was arrested in connection with another crime and thrown into prison. Those who arrested him realized that the Bible in his possession had been stolen from the hermit, and they returned it. The hermit, however, went to the prison where the man was being held, forgave his one-time guest, and presented him with the precious Bible. The man still had to see out his prison term. That gave him time to reflect on his own life. When he was finally released, the first thing he did was to go back to the hermit and return the Bible. “You can keep it, my friend”, said the hermit. “If you sell it, you will get enough to make a fresh beginning in life.” “I don’t want the book, and I don’t want the money”, the man said. “All I want is whatever it is inside you that made you want to give it to me when you visited me in prison.”
Both Mary and the Bible thief found time to ponder things that happened in their lives. As a consequence, they changed. Clearly, there’s a message that reflection on the events of our lives can change us, too.
Mary and Joseph must have experienced intense fear throughout their three-day search. That’s the experience that every parent goes through when a child goes missing. Moreover, we all know that intense fear leaves an indelible mark on us, despite the relief that comes when the cause of our fear evaporates. We still imagine what could have happened, and the memories of what could have been stay with us for a long time. In a book entitled Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies (Loyola Press, Chicago 2003), the spiritual writer Brian Doyle observes that we can all learn something from the fearful experiences that come our way. He concludes that the only effective way through fear is love and the only lasting light to guide us when fear grips us is compassion. Now that’s something worthy of reflection!
I am reminded of Marianne Williamson’s remarks about fear in her book A Return to Love (1992). Williamson is an American writer and social activist, who co-founded the Peace Alliance, a group dedicated to working for world peace. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, in 2014 Williamson stated that “Each of us has a unique part to play in the healing of the world.” In A Return to Love, she describes what she had learned from the fear she had experienced in her own life:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us most. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And, as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
I wonder if that’s what Jesus glimpsed in the course of his exchange with the doctors in the Temple. Even though he was still an adolescent, maybe he discovered in his interaction with the Temple elders some of his potential, and then started to ask himself where developing his own potential to the full might lead him. That would have been enough to frighten any precocious twelve-year-old!
I suspect that the prospect of getting involved in God’s business of peace-making, forgiving, advocating for justice frightens us all. But knowing that Jesus walked that way first helps us to take the risk.
Fourth Sunday of Advent & Christmas
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice, saying: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…” Luke 1, 39-45
Christmas is almost upon us and as the fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas are separated by just one day, I’m going to depart from two separate reflections and combine them into one. That’s also expedient, because I’m pressured for time.
It struck me just last week that the drama we now know as the first Christmas event involved a very long list of characters. Just for a moment or two, let’s examine the cast in the same way as we might go through the Dramatis Personae before launching into the study of a Shakespearean play. The following all had a role leading up to and following the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem: the Angel Gabriel, Mary, Joseph, Zachariah, Elizabeth, John (the Baptist), Jesus, Simeon, Anna, Herod, along with those who had minor roles: shepherds, soldiers, an innkeeper, the Magi, Pharisees and Jewish Elders. And then there were all those who made up crowd scenes: people involved in the census, a Roman occupying force, Pharisees, Sadducees, Jews and Palestinians, Gentiles. There we have more than enough characters to make a play of five acts and numerous scenes.
In the course of what unfolded, most of those with prominent parts had their lives so shaken up that they were confronted with the possibility of very significant direction changes. Some embraced change with hesitation while others set aside a choice of living with integrity and uncertainty and, instead, opted for the comfort and security of what they knew and could manipulate to suit themselves. This latter group included Herod, a man who was seemingly so afraid of being toppled from power that he was threatened by babies, and all those guardians of religious law and orthodoxy - Pharisees, Sadducees & scribes - who used religion as a weapon of control.
In stark contrast to all these stood Mary, a mere slip of a girl on the edge of adulthood, whose faith and courage led her to utter the “yes” that took her into an unknown future, a “yes” that, in time, changed the history of the world. As Luke tells the story, Gabriel offered Mary no time to consider the proposition he put to her and no opportunity to reflect on the consequences of being asked to be a mother at a time in her life when she was only promised in marriage. In the background was Joseph, who, while expecting to be Mary’s husband, had to contend with dreams: the first in which he encountered an angel who convinced him to take Mary into his home even though he was not the father of the child she carried; the second in which he was directed to flee from the threat of violence with his new-found family into Egypt as refugees. Nobody in this drama more than Joseph had to step into darkness and uncertainty. His faith and courage shone bright as he complied with all that was asked of him.
Woven into the main plot is the sub-plot that involved Zachariah, Elizabeth, Anna and Simeon, all very elderly and all pillars of the temple. Simeon and Anna, devout to the core of their being, had lived into old age, frequenting the temple on a daily basis in the hope that one day they would encounter the long-awaited Messiah. Their faith and hope were rewarded. As they, in turn, nursed the child, they were so certain that their dreams were being fulfilled that their emotions overflowed into prophecy. We are not told the sequel to their experience, but in all likelihood their excitement would have been labelled as the ravings of the senile who had lost their minds. Zachariah and Elizabeth had to deal with the challenges of parenthood at a time when they were more suited to being great-grandparents. Just imagine a couple of eighty-year-olds having to learn how to clean, bathe and feed a first child. Their lives had to change quickly and dramatically. As John grew, developed and turned out to be eccentric in the extreme, they must have wondered if their efforts had been in vain. They, too, had been pushed by circumstances to step out into the uncertain and the unknown.
And then there is Jesus, the central character of this great drama. He had bridged the divide between divinity and humanity and, in time, embraced all the limitations of being human - the utter dependence of infancy, the adventure of childhood, the stresses of adolescence, the trial and error of learning a trade, the fear and hesitation of launching into public preaching, the hurt and humiliation of public ridicule, the embarrassment of being branded as a heretic by the guardians of religious orthodoxy and the ultimate failure of being executed as a political criminal. Along the way he crossed over multiple social barriers: he engaged with outcasts like tax-collectors and prostitutes; he touched the lepers, the blind, the diseased and crippled; he welcomed Samaritans, Greeks and other foreigners.
In an earlier reflection this year, I referred to people in Jewish history who “had found favour with God”, and to the pain, confusion and upheaval that had come to them as a consequence of such “favour”. Remember, there were Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Job and the mythical Jonah, and now, Mary and all the other lead players in this Christmas drama.
One of the main messages of Advent and Christmas is that we, too, have found favour with God. Jesus’ becoming one with humanity - the incarnation, God’s becoming flesh and blood - in an invitation to us to identify with him and to step into the unknown and the uncertain, to climb over obstacles and to cross borders in order to grow into our full potential, and to witness to the selflessness, love, generosity and forgiveness that Jesus demonstrated. That’s how we grow into being fully human.
Characters like Herod and the Jewish religious leaders were unable to move from the comfort, power and control in which they found satisfaction. As we relive the events celebrated in these final days of Advent, in the drama of Christmas and during the first weeks of the new year, we are invited to reflect on our unwillingness to cross from our comfort and false security into the new life to be discovered beyond the borders that restrict us. Just think for a moment of the restrictions we put on ourselves through our attachment to things like I-phones, tablets and laptops which block us from engaging face-to-face with family and friends in conversations that are life-giving. Reflect, too, on the hours we invest in being glued to television sets or computers as we watch football, golf, cricket or Netflix. These are the things that keep us locked in the safety of the known and prevent us from engaging with people on the edge of our society and with those strangers and refugees who have had the courage to step across the borders of the places they once called home.
Quiet reflection on the drama of this Christmas season is the entrance into opening ourselves to hearing how our God is inviting us to step beyond whatever is holding us back. To live Christmas meaningfully we will have to risk crossing boundaries, especially the ones we create for ourselves. As the African-American theologian and poet, Howard Thurman writes:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
H. Thurman, The Work of Christmas Begins
Third Sunday in Advent
“Sing and shout for joy, people of Israel! Rejoice with all your heart, Jerusalem!” Zephaniah 3, 14
The crowds asked John the Baptist: “What should we do?” He said to them in reply: “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” Luke 3, 10-18
In today’s gospel reading, we hear people from three different classes of society come to John and ask a question we have all asked or heard at some time or other: “What should we do?” They have all heard John preach and, seemingly, have been impressed by his message. With no ifs or buts, John tells them that, in their different circumstances, repentance means living decently, honestly and generously. To the ordinary people John points out that, if they have more than they need, they have an obligation to share with those who are less fortunate. He tells the tax collectors to stop ripping people off. Those in the military are urged to lay aside their bullying and to cease controlling ordinary people with threats.
While we probably have little contact with the taxation department and rarely engage with the police or the military, we have all anguished over challenging, real-life situations. “What do you think I should do?” a man says to his wife. “The young man next door has been charged with driving under the influence, and he has asked me to write a reference for him to present to the court. I’m not sure what I can write, or whether I want to write anything at all.”
“We paid a fortune to give our son what we thought was a good Catholic education, and now he tells us that he wants to marry his gay partner! What’s more, he wants his mother and me to attend the so-called wedding! What do you think we should do?”
“Our seventeen-year-old daughter asked us if her boy friend could come with us when we go for our annual holidays. When we told her that there are only three rooms in the house we have rented - one for Carmel and me, one for the two younger boys and one for her, she told us that she and the boy friend could share the third room. “After all, I’m an adult now!” she told me. “I don’t want to alienate her, so what should Carmel and I do?”
“Christmas is just around the corner, and we don’t want to spend a fortune on presents for the kids. They really don’t need anything. Instead, we’re thinking of giving the money to the local St Vincent de Paul group. But the kids mightn’t appreciate that. I wonder what we should do?”
When questions like the ones above unsettle us, we find ourselves going to the tried and true principles and values we use to guide our lives. Occasionally, we modify these principles and values as get new insights into morality, what it means to be truly human and what is involved in walking faithfully in the footsteps of Jesus. The conscience that guided me when I was sixteen years old has developed and matured in the last six decades. Nevertheless, I still ask myself what I should do when new questions and dilemmas arise. The people who encountered John the Baptist were challenged to look at their lives in the light of the message they heard John preach. So, they asked the kinds of question we continue to ask when we reflect on what happens around us and within us. We then try to be true to ourselves, our principles and our conscience. Yet we still search out the wisdom of those around us. What matters most, however, is the motivation that underlies the actions we end up taking. Those who came to John the Baptist seeking advice as to what to do had responded to his invitation to repentance. Actions motivated by fear or obligation fall short of those done out of generosity and respect for those they are intended to benefit. Surely, Jesus reminded us that generosity to others in need is best based on the respect we have for them, and the recognition that they are equal in dignity to us. Similarly, refusing to take advantage of others, treating them with courtesy, refraining from bullying them surely have to be based on the belief that they, too, are human beings worthy of respect and dignity, that they, too, are created in the image of God and reflect to us an image of the divine.
A wise friend of mine often gives the reminder: “Don’t ‘should’ on yourself!” I’m not exactly sure what he would make of the question put to John by all those who came asking how to bring their lives into harmony with the change of heart they experienced when they were baptized. What John effectively told them was: “Learn to love everybody you encounter, irrespective of his or her social status. It’s as simple as that.” Notice that John did not use “should” in any of his answers. And his message to us is no different.
The renowned Italian religious educators Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi, after decades of teaching young children (aged 3-12), noted that what distinguished them was their “profound capacity to relate to God.” In her writing, Dr Cavalletti described the child as “one who moves with ease in the world of the transcendent and delights in contact with God” (The Religious Potential of the Child, Liturgy Training Publications, 1992). Cavalletti went on to say that the Catholic Church in many places has made the mistake of waiting for children to reach the age of moral reasoning before engaging seriously in the child’s religious formation. As a consequence, “the child’s meeting with God is confused with moral problems”. It is only a small step from there to turn God into an exacting judge to be feared. Many Catholics, whose school education took place before the Second Vatican Council, still carry the scars from having been given a vision of God based on a very rigid understanding of morality. Cavalletti was quick to point out that “it is only in love, and not in fear, that one may have a moral life worthy of the name” (The Religious Potential of the Child, 6 to 12 Years Old: A Description of an Experience, Liturgy Training Publications, 2002).
Gloomy and fearful approaches to God have been around for a long time. Many of us may have survived religious education classes convinced that God is a bit of a killjoy. Lest we start feeling sorry for ourselves, centuries before the Christian Era, Homer wrote the Iliad in which he described the gods of his culture enjoying private jokes among themselves while mere mortals had to slave away at trying to survive. Centuries after the crucifixion of Jesus, Shakespeare ascribed to the Duke of Gloucester in King Lear these words: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport” (King Lear, Act 4, Sc1).
But today’s readings from Zechariah and Philippians speak of a God who comes to bring joy into our lives. We all know what joy is because we have all experienced it. In reality we don’t dwell on it sufficiently. Nobody really has to point out to a tax collector that he would feel less like a louse if he stopped robbing people who already have heavy loads to carry. And no one has to tell police and soldiers that they would be more at peace with themselves if they stopped taunting the weak and vulnerable. And none of us needs to be told that we would feel better about ourselves if we turned our attention to feeding hungry people on our streets or giving the shirt off our back to someone more needy. All three of today’s readings remind us that deep and lasting joy is tied to a generous heart. If we could only grow into the conviction that God really does have a generous heart towards us, no matter how messy our past, then we, in our turn, make generosity our special care.
Second Sunday in Advent
“I am sure that God, who began this good work in you, will carry it on until it is finished.” Philippians 1, 4-6, 8-11
John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Luke 3, 1-6
In his book Table Talk, Jay Cormier tells a charming story of a rather unusual man who used to frequent a large shopping mall in the weeks leading up to Christmas. While he had a somewhat glassy stare, there was a kindness and sincerity about him that attracted people rather than turning them away. He would position himself in the central part of the mall, near a fountain and set about stopping the passing shoppers, asking them why they were spending so much money on presents and food, or enquiring why they were so obsessed about what he called “this tinselled holiday“. At times he would offer comments like: “We like our Christmas with a lot of sugar, don’t we?”, “Christmas is about hope and love, and that can be a struggle, don’t you think?”, “Ever think of seeking forgiveness and reconciliation from family and friends who have become distant?”, “Why not let the spirit of the Christ Child embrace every season of the year?” Most of those whom he stopped nodded in agreement with him, as they put a tighter grip on their bags. Some even turned and went home, while others went and bought a toy or an item of clothing for a Christmas charity. Some admitted that they dropped into a nearby church for a quiet prayer. Sometimes, the man made derogatory comments about the tasteless decorations or the insipid, canned music being piped through the mall. At other times, he would stop the resident Santa and embarrass him by asking pointed questions about the real Christmas story. When he was not to be seen in the shopping mall, he could be found rummaging through the large rubbish bins outside in search of food discarded by the fast-food outlets inside.
Though this man was viewed as an eccentric, he wasn’t really harming anyone. However, the mall management decided that he had to be excluded on the grounds that he was “disturbing the Christmas spirit of shoppers”. Security officers were directed to escort him from the premises.
That story prompted me to ask where John the Baptist, the focus of today’s gospel reading, would seek out an audience if he were to make a return. I suspect that he would head for the places that attract the crowds. So,he would most likely favour large shopping centres, stand outside sporting venues and concert halls, and set up his loud-speaker in the parks where people come to walk. His appearance and dress would disturb, and his words would surely unsettle anyone who stopped to listen. Moreover, his message would be unpopular, for who wants to hear a call to repentance? The baptism he offered was all about calling people to a change of heart, to a conversion of spirit, and a change in attitude to life and to other people. In a very real sense John proclaimed what is the central message of Christmas - God coming among humanity in the person of Jesus, God becoming one of us out of love for human kind.
Yet, all too often, because of our busyness and preoccupation with things of little importance, we fail to recognise God present among us. We fail to make room for Jesus present for people like the ones in the mall, for those who look different, for those who have been alienated by society or forced to flee their homelands.
The very same Word that came to John in the desert is offered to us in the emptiness of our hearts. If we can welcome the Word, we will begin to act in ways that will open the way for Christ to be reborn once again in the places where we live and work.
Caryll Houselander was a laywoman, poet and mystic who lived in the UK during the first half of the 20th century. Her reflection on the Advent season is appropriate for us as we ponder the significance of these few weeks leading up to Christmas:
“When a woman is carrying a child, she develops a certain instinct of self-defence. It is not selfishness; it is not egoism. It is an absorption into the life within, a folding of self like a little tent around the child’s frailty, a God-like instinct to cherish and some day to bring forth the life. A closing upon it like the petals of a flower closing upon the dew that shines in its heart. This is precisely the attitude we must have to Christ, the Life within us, in the Advent of our contemplation. We could scrub the floor for a tired friend, or dress a wound for a patient in a hospital, or lay the table and wash up for the family; but we shall not do it in martyr spirit or with the worst spirit of self-congratulation, of feeling that we are making ourselves more perfect, more unselfish, more positively kind.
We shall do it for just one thing, that our hands make Christ’s hands in our life, that our service may let Christ serve through us, that our patience may bring Christ’s patience back to the world. By his own will Christ was dependent on Mary during ‘Advent’: he was absolutely helpless; he could go nowhere but where she chose to take him; he could not speak; her breathing was his breath; his heart beat in the beating of her heart. Today Christ is dependent on us. This dependence of Christ lays a great trust upon us. During this tender time of Advent we must carry him in our hearts to wherever he wants to go, and there are many places to which he may never go unless we take him.” (Caryll Houselander, The Reed of God, first published 1944, republished in 2006 by Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, Indiana)
Perhaps we could reawaken in our lives the true meaning of Advent by:
• Making room for God’s Spirit by taking time for quiet reflection
• Making room for the poor and needy through our generosity
• Making room for those we are distant from us by reaching out in reconciliation
• Making room for strangers and refugees by engaging them in conversation
• Making room for tolerance by encountering those we’re wary of
God has already begun a good work in us. Are we willing to let God work on the finishing touches?
In 2018, in the sixth year of the Pontificate of Francis, the second year of the Presidency of Donald Trump, at a time when Prime Minister May was negotiating a satisfactory Brexit deal, the Word of the Lord was spoken to…to you and me.
Are we able to hear it?
First Sunday of Advent
“Watch for this: The time is coming”—GOD’s Decree—"when I will keep the promise I made to the families of Israel and Judah. When that time comes, I will make a fresh and true shoot sprout from the David-Tree. He will run this country honestly and fairly. He will set things right. That’s when Judah will be secure and Jerusalem live in safety. The motto for the city will be, ‘GOD Has Set Things Right for Us’.” Jeremiah 33, 14-16
“Watch yourselves, or your hearts will be coarsened…with the cares of life…Stay awake, praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen.” Luke 21, 25-28, 34-36
As I read today’s gospel, I found myself wondering whether Jesus actually said the words that Luke attributes to him. Are they Luke’s words or Jesus’ words? We do know that, when Luke wrote his Gospel, there was much speculation in the early Christian community that Jesus’ return was imminent. So maybe they are Luke’s words. If the comments do belong to Jesus, we have to remember that he was a man of his time and culture, with human limitations and no divine prompting or inside help for interpreting the signs of his times.
When we look at the events going on in our world and the decisions adopted by those elected to guide their respective nations through difficult times and circumstances, we can understand why many ordinary and thoughtful citizens are throwing their hands up in horror or resorting to cynicism as a way of venting their disillusionment. Many others are expressing their frustration and disapproval through demonstrations and protests.
While there are many different ways of interpreting the signs of the times and responding with positive, negative or neutral action or comment, the message of Jesus is not to fall into concluding that the terror we see around us is a prelude to more terror. He urges us to call on our resources of hope and to look to liberation. Those resources and the source of that liberation are to be found in God.
Advent urges us to be wide awake and alert to the signs of our times so as not to miss the opportunities each day presents us for encountering the divine in the people and events all around us. If we can only see, we will notice unmistakable signs of God’s presence in the ordinary happenings of our daily lives. The clear message of today’s gospel is to not let ourselves be paralysed by fear of the sky falling in, the threats of war-mongers or the unpredictability of self-serving politicians. Rather, we are encouraged by Jesus to see every day of our lives as a gift from God and to share that gift with others.
Today’s gospel reading has a twin focus on endings and patient waiting. Shooting stars, the sun dimming and the moon no longer giving light are signs of an impending end to life and the created world. But such endings are really a prelude for something new to be born. That implies waiting patiently for the new to arrive. People in the 21st century have been conditioned to expect instant responses to all their needs. Waiting patiently is not exactly our strong point. We don’t relish being asked to be patient.
Thirty years ago, the Dutch-born spiritual writer Henri Nouwen published a diary entitled The Road to Daybreak. In his entry for Tuesday May 13, he wrote about what he called the battle for spiritual survival. He had not long returned to the United States after two years working among poor people in Peru. Despite their abject poverty, these people impressed Nouwen through the simplicity of their lives and their infectious happiness. There was a stark contrast between them and the people he encountered on his return to North America. This is what he wrote:
“What strikes me about being back in the United States is the full force of restlessness and the loneliness and the tension that holds so many people. The conversations I had today were about spiritual survival. Many of my friends feel overwhelmed by the many demands made on them. Few feel the inner peace and joy they so much desire. To celebrate life together, to be together in community, to simply enjoy the beauty of creation, the love of people and the goodness of God - these seem such far-away ideals. There seems to be a mountain of obstacles preventing people from being where their heart wants them to be. So painful to watch and experience! The astonishing thing is that the battle for survival has become so normal that few people believe that there can be a difference. Oh, how important is discipline, community, prayer, silence, caring presence, simple listening, adoration, and deep, lasting, faithful friendship. We all want it so much, and still the powers suggesting that it is all fantasy are enormous. But we have to replace the battle for power with the battle to create space for the spirit.” (Henri Nouwen, The Road to Daybreak, Doubleday, New York, 1988) Nouwen could have said the same about every “developed” country.
In her book To Dance with God, Gertrud Mueller Nelson writes: “Brewing, baking, simmering, fermenting, ripening, germinating, gestating are the processes of becoming, and they are symbolic states of being that belong in a life of value, necessary for transformation.” (Gertrud Mueller Nelson, To Dance with God, Paulist Press, N.Y. 1986) It’s no wonder, then, that Advent puts the focus on Mary, who not only had to make a difficult decision (“Let it be done to me according to your word”, Luke 1, 38) but had to wait patiently, like every mother, for her child to develop within her body.
To all intents and purposes, the season of Advent is almost dead. It is sandwiched between “Black Friday” bargain sales, which have spread like a contagion across the world, and the pre-Christmas frenzy of shopping for presents, putting up decorations, attending a succession of “Christmas drinks”. Advent has been swallowed up by commercialism and partying. We Christians need to make a conscious effort to reclaim Advent and Christmas. I suspect we will be successful only if we make time for quiet reflection with some of those people for whom the month leading up to the birth of Jesus was a time of darkness, questioning, doubt and uncertainty. Mary of Nazareth was familiar with giants in her tradition who had been “favoured” by God. She knew how Moses had baulked at God’s invitation: “Why not ask Aaron? He’s more eloquent than I am!” She had learned how Isaiah tried to excuse himself: “Remember, I stutter and stammer.” She was familiar with the story of Jonah who was so scared that he ran off in the other direction. And she would have been terrified by the gossip doing the rounds, and asking herself what was going on in the minds of her parents, the neighbours and Joseph. Yet she still found the courage to say “Yes”. Mary is a model for those of us who realise that we are being nudged to live our lives more deeply, to change behaviours that are stopping us from growing healthily, who want the satisfaction of making the courageous decisions we know we are being called to make, but who don’t want to pay the price.
And what about Joseph? I wonder if he ever felt as though he had been sidelined. Do you think he might have caught himself saying: “What exactly is going on around here? Whatever it is, I’m sure I’ll be the last one to find out!” I find it extraordinary that none of the Gospel writers attributes even one word to him. Those of us who feel overlooked, left out or forever perplexed and questioning might find some satisfaction in reflecting on Joseph. Spending time with Mary or Joseph over the next few weeks might help us put some meaning into Advent, but better still into our own lives.