3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
All life on earth is in transition. This transition has two very distinct applications. The first, applicable to all earthly life, is the continuously uninterruptible transitioning that ends with death. The ageing process is a good example. The second, unique to human beings, enables people to regulate their transitioning by the exercise of our God-given free will. An example would be two people freely choosing to marry one another.
Our Scripture extracts, for this 3rd Sunday of the year, are flavoured with a theme of transition.
The prophet Isaiah (8:23-9:3) uses figurative language. He speaks of unproductive land becoming productive; of people who walked in darkness seeing the light and of people being freed from the yoke (burden) they had collectively worn. These refer to Israel’s times of deportation and enslavement and then the Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt and their rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. All was in preparation for the coming of a child of royal line whom Christians recognise as Jesus, The Christ, the Messiah. This process of transition continues for our Jewish brothers and sisters, as they do not acknowledge Jesus as Divine, as the Son of God made Man.
Many generations, in the intervening centuries, have lived through punishing times with oppressive injustice and darkness. We, of the 20th and 21st centuries, are no exception. As did our forebears, we too have brought much misery on ourselves by choosing the light of falsehood in preference to The Light, God’s Holy Spirit. For some have chosen to supplant the Divine protocol with one of their own choice, seeded with greed for profit and power, which, with hindsight, is revealed for the costly ‘fools’ gold’ it is.
In the Isaiah extract we read the oft quoted passage:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
How many, consciously or subconsciously, have been successfully tempted to transition into the pervasive and powerfully captivating false light of the Evil One that unrestrictedly pours into countless homes and hearts through the media in its many forms.
The Baptised are called to walk in the light of the Divine Presence, an interior light visible in the lives of those who are in communion with God and know His peace, in a world that, increasingly, does not?
Isaiah’s words prompt the question, ‘By which light are we more easily and more frequently captivated?’ Hindsight may show us that, at times, we have chosen the ‘false light’. Please God we have been rescued – like the second child in the parable of ‘The Prodigal’ (Luke 15:11-32). It is always fitting to renew our thanksgiving and a good way of doing that is by reaching out to those whom we know are still trapped in that pervasive false light.
Today’s Gospel extract from Matthew (4:12-23), tells how John the Baptiser’s arrest by Herod prompted Jesus to move from Nazareth to the lakeside town of Capernaum in Galilee. In doing so, Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy (9:1):
“Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair will not go on forever. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali will be humbled, but there will be a time in the future when Galilee of the Gentiles, which lies along the road that runs between the Jordan and the sea, will be filled with glory.”
For Matthew, Jesus’ transition marks the beginning of his public ministry. As if to emphasise the point, Matthew tells of Jesus’ recruitment of two pairs of brothers Simon (whose name Jesus later changed to Peter) and Andrew and, then, James and John. That all four ‘immediately’ left their nets is symbolic of their willingness to transition, to leave their former way of life, and follow Jesus.
Not all Jesus’ invitations met with such a prompt response then (cf. Luke 9:61) or now. Faced with a shortage of ministerial priests, all the Baptised, who form the Priesthood of the Laity, are frequently encouraged to ‘pray for vocations’ to the ministerial priesthood. Is it made sufficiently clear that our intercessions to God are not for him to call candidates because God does this unceasingly, but rather that those whom he is calling may respond positively, generously and without delay? Equally, as has been amply shown in the course of the recent Amazonian Synod, the Church needs to review the conditions for selection/election of candidates for the ministerial priesthood currently in place.
When God calls, the call is made in perpetuity (i.e. it will never be rescinded) irrespective of our response. Baptism is God’s most significant call to human beings made, as we are, in his image and likeness. Infant Baptism deprives most of a personal knowledge of the graced moment. The process of Initiation involves three Sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation and The Eucharist. Together, they transition us from exiles into adoptees of our heavenly Father; which has the additional effect of making us the brothers and sisters of Jesus.
Recipients of the Sacraments of Initiation receive not only sanctifying grace but also a ‘character’, an indelible mark, in their souls by which they are conformed to Christ as priest, prophet and king. It might be understood more easily as an infused blueprint of the Divine. God invites the Baptised to build their lives, with the support of the Holy Spirit, on that blueprint.
It was the Second Vatican Council (1962/65) that gave fresh impetus to the vocation that is received through Baptism called ‘The priesthood of the laity’. The Council reminded the Baptised that their ‘priesthood of the laity’ differs in essence “and not only in degree” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, No. 10) from the ministerial priesthood; yet “the one is ordered to the other” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1547).
The ‘priesthood of the laity’ and the ‘ministerial priesthood’ share a common goal; namely, the holiness and consecration of all those Baptised. The late Dominican priest / theologian Jordan Aumann’s summary, in his book “On the Front Lines” (Alba House, 1990), may be helpful:
“The laity …. as baptized persons (sacramental aspect) are incorporated into Christ (Christian aspect) in becoming members of the Church (ecclesiological aspect) and therefore have the right and duty to participate actively in the mission of the Church (missionary aspect).
In addition, the laity, by reason of their Baptismal character, are committed to the renewal and sanctification of the temporal order of the world. Their vocation both calls them and enables them to sanctify the world from within, in other words by being living parts of it on a daily basis.”
The Baptised faithful, the priesthood of the laity, are the frontline troops, as it were. Their vocation, fulfilled through a holiness which is the intimacy of their personal relationship with God, is to transition into the Baptismal character they received when words were said and water was poured on their infant foreheads.
The ministerial priesthood, equally called to holiness, is the divinely intended means – through the Eucharist and the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Anointing - of guiding and supporting the Priesthood of the Laity in their mission to bring about the holiness and consecration of all the peoples among whom they live and work.
Seeing The Church from this perspective is challenging but necessary, demanding, for some a transition of some magnitude. Now the Pope’s title ‘Servant of the Servants of God’ makes sense for he shares in the ministry of all the faithful that of being called to a state of continuous transition as we respond daily to God’s personal call.
2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Lived experience greatly influences our personal points of view. A deeply ingrained, narrow and prolonged experience can foreclose the possibility of an objective viewpoint, in later life, that is open to embracing different understandings and new ideas. At times, the cry is heard that, “Mass is boring, it’s always the same”. The ‘sameness’ of the Mass, which for many expresses a theological belief and anchor of faith, has now become, for younger generations a cause of disaffection. They cease to participate in what is essential in the life of the Baptised.
The Israelites, whom Moses, at God’s behest, led to freedom from Egyptian slavery, made a similar complaint (Numbers 11:1-9). It is true that not every celebrant of the liturgy is gifted with theological insight, personality and a captivating voice. But God calls all, celebrants and congregations, to the life-pilgrimage to personal holiness which, for those who accept the vocation, is the unique and unquenchable attraction of true communion. The urgency in God’s daily call to us is the diminishing belief in Christianity across Europe. Our pressurised daily life makes it hard to set aside, at home, preparation time for Sunday Mass. Yet we need to allow the Spirit to lead us personally into a deeper fellowship, if we are to grow into one with Christ through sharing in the Mass.
Think, for a moment, how outstanding character actors, in Shakespearean plays for example, are likely to spend more time, during the average season, in the make-up and costume departments than on stage. They never walk off the street and on to the stage. ‘Getting into the character’, as it is referred to by some, is as important as is the on-stage enactment if they are to bring their character alive for the audience. For us, as the Baptised, to form the ‘body of Christ’ on earth, we need whatever preparation time we can make. Is it fair to our Baptised brothers and sisters for us to walk ‘off the street’ and ‘into Mass’ without at least some preparation in thought and prayer?
Preparation for participation in Mass calls for us to disconnect ourselves from manufactured noise and conversation. This is why pre-Mass conversations in church are so invasive. Pre-Mass silence provides an opportunity for us to read through the Scripture texts for the day before they are proclaimed to the assembly. The Word of God, that feeds our eyes, heart and mind, will still have to do battle with our previous preoccupations, that take so long to quieten, as well as current distractions. It may help for us to make our own our own the prayer made by the proclaimer of the Gospel:
“Cleanse my heart and my lips, O Lord, that I may worthily proclaim (read) your holy Gospel.”
The importance of giving God a freed-up space and sufficient time in which to nourish us with an understanding of his Word, despite the continuing distraction, cannot be overemphasised.
The time John the Baptiser spent preparing for his ministry in the desert appears, from all accounts, to clearly outweigh the length of his public preaching, baptising with water and indeed his earthly life. Yet, here we are, thousands of years later, annually celebrating his life and public testimony to Jesus with two major liturgical festivals (his birth and his martyrdom), not to mention his frequent appearance in the Gospels of which this Sunday’s Gospel (John 1:29-34) is a perfect example.
John the Baptiser, being Jesus’ cousin would have known Jesus from childhood. Jewish families were and are notoriously close-knit and commonly share the major religious and family festivals.
In our Gospel for today John the Baptiser, on seeing Jesus, proclaims:
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. He is the one of whom I said, ‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’”
And then, cousin John adds:
“I did not know him (Jesus), but the reason why I came baptising with water was that he might be made known to Israel.”
How are we to understand this apparent contradiction? Perhaps, it is no contradiction at all but rather a statement underlining how cousin John discovered, as we say, a whole new aspect to his cousin Jesus at his Baptism. John the Baptiser had previously been unaware that cousin Jesus was The Christ: “I did not know him (Jesus)…” As human beings, do we truly know one another even when we have been life-long or even frequent companions? Kith and kin can surprise us by the unexpected revelation of an authentic aspect of their character prompting us to comments such as ‘I never knew you had it in you’.
Unlike John the Baptiser, Jesus would have known his cousin through and through, just as Jesus knows us through and through, despite our subterfuge. John the Baptiser tells us how he had been forewarned:
“…. but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’”
We can only try to imagine John the Baptiser’s astonishment at the fulfilment of this revelation. He was baptising in the River Jordan when Jesus stood before him. You can read Matthew the Evangelists’ account for yourself – Matt: 3:13-17. Having baptised his cousin in the River Jordan, and with Jesus standing before him, John witnessed how the Holy Spirit came down and remained on Jesus while the voice of the heavenly Father was heard. Little wonder then that, thereafter, John the Baptiser is uncompromising in his public testimony:
“Now I have seen and testified that Jesus is the Son of God.”
John the Baptiser was not enacting a role, like an actor. He was living to the full his vocation which he had received from Jesus while still in the womb of his mother, Elizabeth (Luke 1:43-45). We, too, are recipients of God’s call initiated through our Baptism. The quality of the daily attention we give to God’s call is determined by our prayer and meditation on His Word. Like John the Baptiser we are called to give witness without knowing where, when or how. To use another theatrical role as an allegory, all the Baptised are John the Baptiser’s understudy. At unspecified times and situations, we will be invited to give witness to our faith in Jesus. How well prepared are we for God who tells us in this Sunday’s First Reading from Isaiah (49:6):
“I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
The Baptism of the Lord
Renewing Baptismal Vows
Celebrating ‘The Baptism of Jesus’ close to Christmas might mislead the unwary. In our era, Baptism is commonly associated with infants. Jesus was approximately thirty years of age when he stepped into the River Jordan to be Baptised by John the Baptiser.
How often do we, the Baptised, consciously, renew our Baptismal promises? There are two liturgical occasions for doing so, namely: at Sunday Mass, when we pray the Creed together and, on Easter Sunday, when the Creed itself is replaced by a congregational Renewal of Baptismal Vows.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the Sacrament of Baptism is received just once and, excluding adult converts, in a person’s infancy. The purpose and meaning of Baptism, as opposed to remembrances of accompanying festivities, is entrusted to parents, Godparents and family to be communicated to the new Church members as they mature. Sadly, this does not always happen. Birthdays are religiously celebrated but the anniversaries of Baptism are almost always overlooked. Which of us can easily recall the date and place of our Baptism? Yet, our Baptism is as significant as our birth.
The frequency of the Baptised signing themselves with the Sign of the Cross has diminished. The water at the church entrance was there to encourage us to reconnect with the pouring of water over our forehead at Baptism. By making the Sign of the Cross on ourselves with blessed water we recommit ourselves to God. But now, far fewer share regularly in church-based prayer and worship.
However, there are significant daily moments for us to consciously reconnect with Jesus who asks us repeatedly, as he once asked Peter: “Do your love me more than …” (John 21:15-17). Moments such as - the start of the day when offering our day to God our Father; before eating when we thank God for our food and for those who have prepared it; at the conclusion of our day when we might also reflect if, at times, we have failed to live by our Baptismal commitments.
Decades ago when ‘Oroglas’, an alternative to traditional glass for windows, was first invented it was marketed, accurately, as ‘stone proof’. However, over a remarkably few years its surface could be severely scratched by wind-driven particles of sand and grit that, by embedding themselves in its surface, reduced Oroglas’ transparency.
As committed Christians in Western Europe today, are we aware of the density of the continual bombardment of our senses by Evil’s temptations? Our eyes can so easily rest momentarily on sights that impact our base nature. Likewise, our ears can be impacted by words or sounds that can tempt us to make an ill-advised response. It is in such ‘hailstorm’ moments that we need to recall Jesus’ words: “Do your love me more than …” and respond, ‘I do’, adding: ‘In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’
There are some, athletes especially, who make the Sign of the Cross publicly before and after their competition. Sadly, there are also business agents who discourage their athletes from any such display of faith. They tell them their public ratings will suffer which will affect their income from advertising. It was, therefore, both refreshing and rare when tennis star Novak Djokovic, responding to a press challenge that he had financially helped a Greek Orthodox community in financial difficulties, said very clearly “I am a Christian first and foremost and then I am a sportsman”.
One wonders how frequently Jesus, throughout his childhood, adolescence and early manhood renewed the commitment to his heavenly Father that his Mother and foster-Father had made, on his behalf, when they had presented him in the Jerusalem Temple eight days after his birth. For Jews, as for Christians, there are recommended set pieces of daily prayer. The faithfulness to family prayer in Jesus’ home would have laid the foundations for his own personal prayerfulness. The faithfulness to family prayer in our homes is essential for the nurturing of prayer in the young.
These days, pollution not infrequently threatens the air quality of our major cities and industrial centres. It is not unusual to see citizens, in some countries, wearing breathing masks as they go about their daily life. We can draw a parallel with mountaineers. The lack of oxygen at the highest reaches demands that they carry bottles of oxygen in their packs. As Western Europe becomes increasingly secularised, the habit of personal prayer diminishes. It’s as if Evil is de-oxygenating, i.e. removing, the prayerfulness that once permeated the lives of our countrymen and women. Evil works, initially, slowly and maliciously hoping that we remain unaware of his inroads. The sound of church bells, for example, announcing the Angelus three times daily has largely ceased or has been drowned out by the ever-increasing noise or 21st century life. Cathedral bells are a tourist attraction rather than a call to communal prayer and praise of God.
Recently, a new Christian monastery was granted building permission in its reasonably remote location. One of the several conditions imposed by the local authority was that there should be no audible sound of the monastic daily routine that once would have been announced from a bell tower. Each member of this community now carries a personal electronic device to call them to communal prayer or activity. A technical advance, some might say; but the people of the locality are deprived of a reminder that, in their midst, are people praying for them.
As a Christian, you may be the only one in your group who makes the Sign of the Cross before eating. Your action may draw a question or even an adverse comment. It may even lead to you being excluded from some peoples’ company. Jesus frequently found people who chose to walk with him no more (John 6:64-66)
In our era Christians, like the mountaineers who triumph in reaching oxygen-deprived summits, need to carry within them an enriched commitment to both communal and personal prayer and worship. Even a ‘For Sale’ notice outside a former church can spark a prayer for the community, living and deceased, who had worshipped there; for those who had been Baptised there and whose fidelity has enabled our Baptism. The bells may be silenced but as we read in John’s Gospel of Jesus’ final entry to Jerusalem:
“When Jesus came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19:30-45)
The Epiphany (05.01.19)
The Pilgrimage that is Exploration
This Sunday we commemorate The Epiphany. St. Matthew, in Ch. 2:1-12, is the only Evangelist to record the Persian Magi’s visit to the Infant Jesus. Persia had long been associated with astrology. The ‘Magi’ had been searching for the person who would fulfil an ancient prophecy that had enthralled not only them but also their predecessors. These explorers evidently had the time and the means to undertake lengthy journeys.
Human beings are born explorers, as demonstrated by a healthy infant’s crawling agility. The characteristic is retained throughout life. Some people implement it more from a sedentary position, but many choose to make it a lifelong source of physical and mental activity and stimulation. Our immediate ancestors, let alone our ancient predecessors, would find our current speed and ease of travel, both in and beyond our known world, incomprehensible. Today’s youth have no hesitation in including space travel on their ‘bucket list’! By contrast, the ‘Visitation’, recalled in the second Joyful Mystery, would have taken Mary weeks of arduous walking in each direction!
One advantage of physically engaging in exploration is that it both dislocates and disconcerts us. The combination of stress, boredom (often of queuing) and expectation can reduce us to nervous wrecks, but it can also open us to experiencing ‘new things’, as well as causing us to see familiar things from a fresh and new perspective. Looking into a property online, for example, will never substitute for the ‘feel’ and smell you get when you physically journey around and spend time in a property.
Wise men from the East were famous for stargazing. Their stellar cartography helped them to navigate the ‘oceans’ of endless sands that made up the deserts. These same wise men hoped to discover where time and eternity might touch as the ancient prophecy had indicated when telling of a star (Apocalypse 22:16) that would rise out of Jacob. In their culture and ethos, such a star would have to be a very special person, a king perhaps.
The Magi’s long search for a king brought them to a child, not in a palace but sheltering in a cattle byre. Nor were they the first to discover him, common shepherds had already visited. The Magi were directed to return to their own lands by a different route and, unwittingly, they left a trail of grief and destruction behind them. We are not told of the effect the Magi’s protracted exploration had on them; nor if they found the re-entering of their own culture challenging. For sure, their expedition would have changed them.
The life-pilgrimage that Baptism initiates for each member of the Christian family is truly a testing form of exploration. At the outset, no one knows what their life will entail but, for sure, it will contain an element of Christ’s Cross. How we accept our cross in its various forms throughout our life is the measure of our commitment to and love for Jesus. Originally, pilgrimages were journeys of reparation for personal sin and the sin of the world made on foot. They have been an integral to Christian life since the time of Christ. The Gospels frequently tell of people who were sick or disabled being brought to Jesus for healing by relations, friends and neighbours (Matthew (9:1–8), Mark (2:1–12), and Luke (5:17–26). In some instances, Jesus calls such people personally (Mark 10:49).
Ironically, we humans do not have to travel to find Christ. He has already journeyed to find us. In addition to the gift of life, God has enriched us with the gift of his Holy Spirit. Therefore, the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit, dwells within those who open their hearts and will to God. Yet, we see so many of our fellow citizens preferring to search for the perishable ‘gold’ of this world and having no compunction in trampling others in its pursuit.
Around the portal of our free will are encamped the legions of Satan. They search for each and every moment of weakness or hesitation in our love for God, tempting us with momentary and damaging pleasure. In this world we will be under siege by Evil until God calls us to himself. Our defence is Jesus, God’s Living Word, who love creates us from moment to moment. The Incarnation of God’s Word in the birth of Jesus and his Epiphany has transformed our view of this world. Our on-going Baptismal expedition requires constant vigilance to make the required course corrections made necessary by the incessant and plausible false directions of Evil.
The Epiphany reveals Jesus the Christ as True God and True Man. He is The Way, The Truth and The Life. Other vistas of spurious earthly paradises tempt us, but only Christ and the gifts he has given us will satisfy us if we correct our vision.
So, whether we are physical explorers or make our journeys via the computer screen or via a book, we have a clear destination: eternity. We have, too, the means of getting there through the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity. Even in this life, our hearts and minds can become a Bethlehem where Christ is continually born through the grace of faith.
In 2019, BBC Earth produced a DVD entitled ‘The Planets’. The renown Professor Brian Cox presents a stunning series bringing to life, in a most remarkable way, the most memorable events in the history of the solar system to tell our current understanding of the thrilling story of all eight planets. For those who have faith in God, this DVD provides a fine, if unintentional, visual accompaniment to any contemplation of the ‘unknown’ of God’s creation.
As St. Peter writes in his second letter (2:19):
'Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the Morning Star rises in your hearts'.
The Holy Family
How are we to understand the words:
“God sets a father in honour over his children”?
The sentence appears in the 1st Reading for this Sunday after Christmas. The Book of Ecclesiasticus, dating from approximately 200 to 175 BC., is a collection of Holy Spirit-inspired wisdom literature enabling prayerful people to make progress in both faith and understanding.
The prerequisite for receiving true honour is, first, to give true honour. For, in giving true honour to another, we show love for the other’s creator, namely, God, the Father of us all. Therefore, it can be said that the giving of true honour to another is the very antithesis of all sycophantic or politically motivated behaviour. As St. John points out (1John 4:20):
“If someone says, “I love God,” but does not love another, that person is a liar; for if we do not love the people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?”
God is enabled to ‘set a father in honour over his children’ when a father, himself, lives a life of loving obedience to God. The word honour, in this context, can be understood as a person’s own demonstrable love, loyalty and selfless service to God, combined with integrity and moral courage. An adult Christian blessed with such a living, loving relationship with God must have completed a sustained apprenticeship reaching back to the grace received through the Sacraments of Initiation.
Matthew’s Gospel extract, for this commemoration of ‘The Holy Family’ (2:13-15), reveals Joseph, Mary’s husband and Jesus’ foster-father, as one whom God had clearly “set in honour” over this unique family. This is the second Gospel-recorded occasion when Joseph has been divinely prompted. The first, you will recall, was when Joseph was inspired to: “take Mary home as your wife” (Matt 1:18-22). These two Gospel-recorded incidents affirm Joseph’s holiness. His is clearly a man of faith, with a proven track record of love and filial obedience to God. This comes as no surprise for, surely, Mary would have chosen, as her companion in life, one who shared her faith in God.
It is at this point that we see the importance of a person’s first stage in life, namely, their childhood. Through parental education and the framework of a faith-inspired homelife, the essentials of belief in God, culture and integral values are communicated to offspring. Life is certainly not a long, quietly flowing river and Jesus’ life was no exception., Like each human, Jesus would have been engaged in a daily battle with impulses that would seek to divide him from his heavenly Father’s will by dragging him in a thousand and one directions. Jesus had constantly to make choices in the on-going battle with himself and his demons. These battles identified his path through life to his crucifixion on Calvary.
How frequently the adult Jesus must have had cause to thank his deceased foster-father for his words of wisdom and his exemplary behaviour. Through Joseph and Mary, Jesus learnt that the only way to find happiness in a true relationship with another is to choose to love the other, rather than oneself. For Jesus, it was in choosing the other (namely all the individuals who compose humanity) that his human and positive relationship with God, his heavenly Father, is inscribed; for both are one and the same. It is through the choice of learning to give oneself completely for the other that we enter into the dynamics of God’s creation.
Only in loving God do we find the transformation that moves us from servitude to the freedom to love without counting the cost. Thus we become readied for God to ‘set us in honour’.
4th Sunday in Advent
The Scripture for this 4th Sunday of Advent refers to God’s intervention in the regenerative process which he initiated. The prophet Isaiah (First Reading 7:10-14) and Matthew’s Gospel extract (1:18-24) tell of God’s additional regeneration, in the sense of his adding to, what he has already created. Theologically speaking the word ‘creation’ is uniquely applicable to God; as only God can create. We humans, as God’s empowered creation, discover ways of re-fashioning existent material. We believe that all presently existent matter, as well as all future scientific and technological development, is and will be the re-composition of what is already in existence in some form or other.
God, the author of life, has no beginning or end; therefore, life is continuous. All life on earth originates with God, including human life, and is in a continuous process of regeneration. According to researchers, the human body replaces itself with a largely new set of cells every seven to ten years. Some of our most important parts are revamped even more rapidly [source: Stanford University, Northrup]. Through our faith in God we, his human creation, believe ourselves to be at the heart of a Divinely initiated continuing process of regeneration that involves the spiritual, physical, material and ecological.
The Incarnation – God’s becoming Man (today’s Gospel) in the person of Jesus of Nazareth – is the zenith of God’s creation, that we know of. St. Paul, writing to the converts to Christianity in Colossae (3:1-11), makes the point:
“Since, then, you have been brought back (through Baptism) to true life with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory….
you have taken off your old self, with its practices, and have put on your new self, which is being renewed in the image and the knowledge and love of its Creator.
Here there are no Gentiles or Jews, no circumcised or uncircumcised, no barbarians, Scythians, slaves or free, but only Christ who is all, and is in all.”
The prospect of regeneration brings, in its wake, expectation. We have learnt that the planting and nurturing of a seed brings the expectation of new growth. Jesus, in his teaching, explained the Kingdom of Heaven in the parable of the ‘Growing Seed’ (Mark 4:26-29):
“Jesus also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
Thanks to the benefits of prolonged research we now know more of the regenerative process than did our ancestors. There is the expectation that our and successive generations will demonstrate, as a consequence, an advanced respectful and responsible attitude for the total care of humanity and all earth’s creatures. We are stewards, not masters. Such total care does not necessarily sit comfortably alongside a profits-led economy.
Throughout history, humanity has, up to the present, given thanks to a Superior Being, whom Christians and others identify as God, as being the originator of all regeneration. Sadly, harvest festivals have become more of a pageant than an act of thanksgiving to God. In the four weeks of Advent, we have been encouraged to give thanks to God for continuing his regeneration of ourselves and of our world, despite our frequent selfish misappropriation of his goodness. Clearly, not all the uses to which we put our reconstituted discoveries fit within the parameters of God’s providence and Law. Yet our heavenly Father continues to regenerate us because of his abiding love. A verse, in a hymn for the September 14th feast of the ‘Exaltation of the Cross’, has these words:
‘He, our Maker, deeply grieving
that the first-made Adam fell
when he ate the fruit forbidden
whose reward was death and hell,
marked e’en then this Tree
the ruin of the first tree to dispel.’
God sent his Son to take away the sin that continues to be generated in our world; a sin that so seriously and tragically impedes humanity’s true regeneration of its likeness to God. Jesus invites our willing and loving contribution not only in Advent and Lent but on every day of the year -
“Then Jesus said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
Contrition is not a ‘Christmas’ word is it? But our contriteness is what our Infant King most desires from us.
As the prospect of Christmas nears, the material and social expectations for so many become unreal, as well as unbearable, at the incessant drumbeat of the commercial and advertisement industries. How will you choose to thank God for his regeneration of you and yours this Christmas?
3rd Sunday in Advent
There’s More to a Desert Than Sand
At the mention of a desert, people’s imagination conjures up endless sand dunes. A desert is mentioned in both the First Reading (Isaiah 35:1-6,10) and the Gospel (Matthew 11:2-11) for this 3rd Sunday of Advent. There are, however, deserts without sand. If you look back at the 70s and 80s you will find evidence of ‘food deserts’ in European cities. Then, local small food shops had been put out of business by large, price-undercutting, out-of-town supermarkets. One unanticipated consequence was that semi-immobilised and housebound city dwellers were unable to buy nourishing food in their immediate locality. Elderly and long-term sick people were becoming seriously malnourished and, as a consequence, swelling the numbers in hospital A&E departments. Urban ‘food deserts’ were identified as the cause and the government of the day launched an investigation.
This century there’s evidence of the growth of ‘faith deserts’. They are reappearing in both Europe’s cities and countrysides. Their existence is camouflaged by the numerous churches, with their distinctive steeples, that still cover the landscape. But these buildings are now often used for secular purposes or have become tourist attractions. Those churches still welcoming worshippers have shrinking elderly congregations. Sunday, as the Lord’s Day, has long since been successfully subsumed by rampant commercialisation and consumerism. The spiritual malaise of a ‘faith desert’ is not new. In the Book of Wisdom, long associated with King Solomon (970-931BC), we read:
“The reasonings of mortals are unsure and our intentions unstable; for a perishable body presses down the soul, and this tent of clay weighs down the teeming mind.” (9:13-15)
When God became visible among us in the person of Jesus, many Jews had become used to observing the externals of their religious practice for political purposes. They were an occupied people struggling to retain their ethnic identity which was inseparable from their religious practice.
How many Christians today, including Catholics, have an insufficiently shallow appreciation of how their predecessors struggled to remain loyal to their Baptismal promises? For countless Catholics back then, the cost was not just their livelihood but their life itself. Are young Catholics in this 21st century aware that from the reign of Henry Vlll (1507-1545) there was progressive legislation prohibiting the practising of the Catholic Religion in Britain and Ireland? Are they aware that their Roman Catholics predecessors, over those centuries, were deprived of their vote, their right to hold public office and to own land?
It was not until 1766 that the Penal Laws, as they were called, began, very slowly, to be dismantled. Penal Laws, as the name implies, penalized those who lived by the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and imposed stringent civil disabilities on Catholics who did so. This protracted period of active persecution forced faithful Roman Catholics to hide and disguise their fidelity to Catholicism. Are we, the Roman Catholic community of this 21st century, sufficiently alive to the fact that our freedom of worship today is in no small part due to the blood shed by many of our predecessors, from that era, who suffered martyrdom in the centuries of persecution?
“I would never have known you were a Roman Catholic.” Sometimes this response greets the revelation by a Roman Catholic of his/her membership of the Catholic Church. The response, itself, could be said to pose a question; namely, has the Catholic friend, colleague, neighbour blended-in so well with society that his/her faith is invisible? But then, if our daily living of our Catholic faith is invisible, can we said to be fulfilling our Baptismal undertaking to promote the Gospel? Advent is an appropriate time for us, as the Baptised, to review what should be the visibility to our neighbour of our Christian faith in God.
Stalwarts setting out to cross a desert prepare with care. In addition to the appropriate training for physical fitness, there is the making of extensive preparations and the gathering of all manner of provisions. The same applies when Christians face a faith-desert. In the first place there is the need to recognise the faith-desert that exists. For the people of previous generations there had been an almost tangible sense of a national belief in God. Words and phrases such as ‘prayer’, ‘please God’, ‘God willing’ were regularly heard in general conversation. You rarely hear these words and phrases in use today, unless you happen to speak them. I recently said to a friend’s young child who was heading to bed “Good night ----- and God bless you.” The child, who knows me well enough as a family friend, looked mystified by those last four words – ‘and God bless you’. It was as if I had switched to speak in a foreign language. Yet that child is Baptised (as is the father) and attends a Catholic primary school.
The child’s mystification made me look around the living room. There was nothing in sight that would identify this as a Christian home or link this family with a larger believing community. I had not previously noted the absence of a crucifix. There were no Baptismal or First Holy Communion family photographs. It brought home to me that my friends and I, despite the frequency of our conversations, had never discussed the subject of faith in God. How successfully the inroads made by the faith-desert had obliterated so many external traces of this family being a family of faith.
By now you may have chosen your Christmas greeting cards. Do they convey your belief in the centrality of Christ to the celebration of Christmas to your family and friends? If not, should you be sending them? Your Baptism has gifted you with a Divine adoption. You are an adopted son or daughter of God your Father. Surely, your allegiance to God takes precedence over all other relationships? Your non-believing relatives and friends, knowing you, will recognise that you are a person of faith in God and your choice of greeting will not surprise them.
The devilment of living in a faith-desert is that it is all too easy to lose sight of the desert’s reality just because there are no sand dunes!
2nd Sunday in Advent
Have you ever encountered a ‘John the Baptist’? Surely, you would know if you have. Such a person would have had a commanding presence that would radiate spiritual wholeness, integrity and truth rather than physicality or secular power. You would find such a person incapable of intimidation or deceit and possessed of a degree of sincerity and gentleness that you would find disarming. Were you to encounter such a person, you might find yourself at a loss for words but you would not feel threatened. You might find yourself irresistibly drawn to spend more time in their company.
Traditionally, the 2nd Sunday of Advent’s Gospel highlights, Jesus’ cousin, the original John the Baptist (Matt 3:1-12). The other three Evangelists also tell of John the Baptist - Mark (1:1-8), Luke (3:1-18) and John (1:19-39). Jesus identifies his cousin in a singular manner:
“Truly I tell you, among those born of women, there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matt 11:11)
John the Baptist’s early life must have been surrounded with publicity, such as it was in those times. His father was a prominent Jewish Pharisee, Zechariah and equally his mother, Elizabeth, was of noteworthy descent in her own right. She was well beyond the age of child bearing. Zechariah’s nine-month dumbness, the result of his incredulity when told that he would be a father, was ended when he announced his son’s name and gave us the proclamation/prophecy known as the ‘Benedictus’ that is prayed daily as part of the Church’s ‘Morning Prayer’ (Luke 1:59-80).
If John the Baptist’s early life was surrounded by publicity it may help explain why he chose a life of desert solitude. He surely would have learnt from his father and mother all that pertained to the to the circumstances of his wholly unexpected birth. It is speculated that John and perhaps Jesus, for that matter, spent some formative years as members of the Essene community (a Jewish monastic sect of strict observance) based at Qumran located on a dry plateau near the north western shore of the Dead Sea. The Essene settlement was nearest to the Qumran caves – most likely hermit dwellings – set into in the sheer desert cliffs where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Perhaps it is no surprise that, when John the Baptist finally began preaching, he chose the Judean wilderness as his location. While it was John the Baptist’s clothing and diet that first caught peoples’ attention (Matt 3:4), it was his words that held their attention and led many to seek God’s forgiveness.
What are we to learn from the fact that both John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ hidden formative years far outstripped their years of public ministry? Our era has become one that lays emphasis on the exploitation, for nefarious reasons, of many forms of prodigy. The history of Christianity teaches us that human spiritual formation is a deep, and often lengthy, process that can only be hastened by martyrdom, as exemplified by both Jesus and John the Baptist.
Both Jesus and his cousin, John, would have been immersed throughout the early lives in the Jewish scriptures through both their home life and the formation they received through the synagogue. They would have witnessed both the true and the false implementation of their people’s scriptural heritage and made their personal choices accordingly.
Though we may not have encountered a replica ‘John the Baptist’, it is possible that we may have shared time with people who were ‘in the style of’ John the Baptist. How their lives impacted upon ours and how ours impacted upon theirs, only our individual memories can recall. It is important to engage in this process of recall for it highlights God’s providential provision for us over the course of our lives, even up to this very moment. Such hindsight also helps us recall our response to those moments of grace, both at the time and subsequently. The only time-restriction on these outpourings of God’s grace to us is the moment of our individual death or the end of the world. While we breathe and the world continues, it is never too late for us to pick up on or enlarge our response to God’s call.
Our ability to recall the good influence and blessed words of relatives, friends, confreres and benefactors, who themselves have perhaps long since gone to God, remains for us a moment of opportune grace for God never withdraws his word, his promise. We have only to ask the help of the Holy Spirit to lead us, even at the so-called eleventh hour.
John the Baptist was not without his own doubts and uncertainties. Hauled into prison by King Herod for criticising Herod’s morals, John sends messengers to Jesus:
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect someone else?’
Jesus answers the messengers: ‘Go back and tell John what you hear and see; the blind see again, and the lame walk, those suffering from virulent skin-diseases are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life and the good news is proclaimed to the poor; and blessed is anyone who does not find me a cause of falling.’” (Matt 11:2-6)
There is reassurance for John the Baptist in Jesus’ words and we know that John was soon to suffer martyrdom (Mark 6:17-29). Equally, there is reassurance for us in our own unsteadiness of faith when we read of John the Baptist’s struggles. As we head deeper into Advent, society’s secular pressures increase and people of faith find themselves more and more distracted and swept up by media and party pressure. It is at such points of intense pressure that Christians need to be able to call upon their spiritual reserves, as would John the Baptist have done. In the isolation of his prison and aware that his death was being planned, John the Baptist might well have recalled the words of his mother and father. They had framed for him not only his wonderous conception and birth but also the prophetic words of his father at his naming.
Might Advent 2019 provide adult believers with an opportunity to recall, for the benefit of their own children and relatives, their own early stepping-stones of faith? How vital it is for adults to communicate the value they place upon their inheritance of faith and to do so with enthusiasm and appreciation.
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Stillness of Sundays Long Passed
Do you remember when Sunday was a day dedicated to God? People kept Sunday distinct from the other weekdays because there was respect for God’s Third Commandment: "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy." For Muslims it was Friday, for Jews it was Saturday and for Christians it was Sunday. Shops and businesses were closed, there were no major sporting fixtures etc. Sunday was for the family and the wider Christian family. Assembling as a community to worship God was central to the day. It may seem another world but it was not all that long ago.
Today, Christians in the West live in countries where Sunday is no longer distinct. It is just another day of the weekend. The worship of God, where it happens, is fitted into a busy secular Sunday schedule. Gatherings, that once happened in church, are now found in physical fitness and shopping centres. The punitive effect on the quality and depth of peoples’ faith is evidenced not only in the emptiness of places of worship but also in the inner emptiness so many people experience.
Individually, people of faith are no longer able to draw spiritual nourishment from society as they once could. Therefore, believers perhaps should invest more of themselves and their time into nourishing and growing the faith with which they have been gifted, not only to remain faithful but also to be evangelists. Christians, whose only contact with God’s Word is in church, may find themselves insufficiently spiritually nourished to withstand the pressured secularity of daily life. The Word heard in church is a taster to whet the appetite. Thus encouraged, people can choose to invest time in discovering the full quote, scenario and background. Nourished by the fullness of The Word, believers should be encouraged to ask God how his Word affects not only them but this world. All this is real prayer and is of greater significance, dare one say, than the ‘saying of prayers’, because there is no better prayer than reading the Scriptures. Of course, local Scripture study groups, which of course can be ecumenical, are so important. Remember Jesus’ words: “Where two or more are gathered in my Name, there am I in the midst of them.”
It is always spiritually beneficial to remember, especially for the housebound and the hospitalised, that they are able to receive Christ in His Word in the very same way that they do in the Eucharist. Whenever and wherever we choose to put God at the forefront of our thoughts, we are praying.
The compilers of the Lectionary – the book of Scripture extracts used in the Liturgy – had the enormous task of collating extracts from both Testaments into focus in a way that would help us methodically explore God’s Word as we navigate the religious seasons of the year.
In certain eras of the past there would have been greater widespread familiarity with the Word of God within the community of the faithful. Peoples’ minds, less overwhelmed with stress which is the curse of today, were able to retain His Word by the grace of God’s Holy Spirit for a longer period of time. Today, that is no longer the case. Therefore, if worshippers are to benefit from the texts already chosen for a particular Sunday or major celebration, they might benefit by being encouraged to pray them beforehand, by their reading and research.
Tragically, nowadays, the incessant clamour of instant communication can easily obliterate God’s Word from our hearts and minds before it has had the opportunity to become embedded. Jesus’ parable of the sower comes to mind: “As the sower was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants.” (Matt.13: 1-9)
The Martha and Mary scenario in this Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 10:38-42) is a case in point. Where there exists, today, an apparent inequality of work, service and leisure, you may hear people describe it as a ‘Martha and Mary’ situation. People make use of the ‘Martha and Mary’ Biblical scenario without knowing its origin, its purpose and what it was intended to teach the folk of Jesus’ day. The cleverness of Satan is that he leaves a person with superficial, vague remnants of Biblical truth that have the effect of calming an alarmed conscience. A parallel could be drawn with an anti-flu injection. The patient receives a controlled dose of the virus to stimulate the body’s natural production of the appropriate antibody.
For sure, as Christians we need greater exposure to The Word if we are to breathe spiritually in this sin-polluted world. Likewise, we need more than the odd moment of prayer, of worship or of Sacramental involvement. The extracts of The Word, received in assemblies and often the seed ground for the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, can be become more fulfilling by supplementary reading and shared discussion, both of which can be an exercise in prayer. As the parable of The Sower makes clear, when The Word falls into good soil it will sprout securely and produce a crop for the Master and the household.
Sometimes our concept of prayer is too constrained. Martha and Mary were both praying but in demonstrably different ways; Martha through her physical work and Mary through her work of contemplation. Both were praying through their work. Martha may have momentarily lost sight of prayer being work and challenged her sister. It is good to recall that the prayer/work of each nourished the other. Martha’s physical ministrations, as an act of loving service, ensured that the household received the necessary physical sustenance. Mary’s prayer ministration ensured that the household would be able to share in the spiritual nourishment that she brought to their shared conversation at the table.
Jesus invited Martha to be less anxious because stress never comes from God but from the enemy. All will come to fulfilment in God’s good time which is of God’s determining, not ours. Psalm 75 reminds us: “We give thanks to you, God, we give thanks to you, as we call upon your name, as we recount your wonders. ‘At the appointed time, I shall dispense justice.’”
13th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Many Roman Catholics might hesitate to describe their Church as diverse. The world is resonant with variation, in culture, interpretation, tradition and expression. It would seem that these are not contemporaneous descriptions of the Catholic Church’s public image for some centuries. Yet, at the Church’s inception, its collaborative diversity was particularly evident in the Founding Fathers whom we are honouring, jointly, this day; namely, Saint Peter, local Jewish fisherman, husband and parent, and Saint Paul, educated, distinguished Pharisee and Citizen of Rome.
We know increasingly more about how the human body itself is an intricate conglomeration of non-identical and unequal parts with distinctly different functions. Yet, each plays a part in completing and fulfilling the role given by the creator namely, a healthy and functioning human person.
Diversity is the hallmark of the multitude of the components of the human body. Distinct as they are in so many ways, our many body parts nevertheless act in unison to keep us alive and well. The healthy human body has a unity without uniformity. This unity with diversity is as much a core ingredient of the Church on earth as it is for each of its members. St. Paul, in chapter 12 of his first letter to his Corinthian converts, lays out an overview that assures each person that their giftedness as individuals in no way detracts from their harmony when they act in concert. It could be said that having Paul’s chapter 12 as a blueprint, enables an appreciation of how the diversity within human nature is, by Divine intention, an integral part of the Church. The only caveat can be found in verse 3:
“Therefore, I tell you that nobody speaking by the spirit of God says, “Jesus be accursed.” And no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the holy Spirit.”
Therefore, each and every individual, within the Body that is the Church, is called to unite in a continuous, consistent and wholehearted acclamation that “Jesus is Lord”. The loyalty with which each responds to this call, the prime vocation of a human person, affects not only the individual but impacts too upon the holiness, the oneness spoken of by Jesus, of the whole body, the Church.
God mandated Moses: “Speak to the whole community of Israelites and say: ‘Be holy, for I, the Lord your God am holy.’” (Leviticus 19:2) At his Incarnation, Jesus became the ultimate personification of God’s holiness on earth in the human person. By our Baptism into Christ, each is grafted onto the community of Israelites called to live in holiness with The Holy One, who is God.
This is why, as Christians, we are called to what may be described as a double-fronted ecumenism. We reach out to our brothers and sisters in the family of the Chosen that they, as well as all our Gentile brothers and sisters, may unite with us in proclaiming: “Jesus is Lord”. This double-fronted ecumenism began with Peter and Paul who each received individual mandates directly from Jesus. Matthew 16:18 recalls Jesus’ mandating of Peter and Acts 9 and Galatians 1:11-12 recalls Jesus’ mandating of the Pharisee Saul, now become Paul the Apostle. Peter was to take knowledge of Christ to his fellow Jews. Paul was to do likewise but to the Gentile peoples.
So, in Jesus’ individual mandating of the unalike Peter and Paul, can be seen a unique and dramatic advancement in God’s unfolding plan for the restoration and healing of his Chosen people who are now to incorporate the Gentile nations. Thus, the prophesy of the shepherd-farmer Amos, somewhere between 783 and 743 BC, is fulfilled:
“After that I shall return to rebuild the tottering house of David; I shall make good the gaps in it and restore it. Then the rest of humanity, and all the nations over whom my Name has been pronounced, will look for the Lord, says the Lord who makes these things known from of old …” (Amos 9:11-12 - as quoted by the Apostle James in the Jerusalem meeting of the Apostles and Elders: Acts 15: 13-21)
Paul explains, in Galatians 2: 1-10, how a Church assembly at Jerusalem finally affirmed that the distinctive Apostolic missions of both Peter and Paul were fully in accord with the teaching of Jesus Christ. As Catholics, in the 21st century, we know well enough that the Church’s Conciliar teachings are not always easily accepted throughout the body of the Church. What was agreed in that Jerusalem meeting met with continuing opposition.
It may be helpful to recall that this new ecumenical emphasis was then being enacted and continues now to be enacted in this ‘vale of tears’, which is the kingdom of Evil. Christ’s enemy has lost no opportunity to undermine and cause distress and dissention within the Body of Christ on earth, the Church. Catholics, today, are experiencing a 21st century version of what our religious forebears experienced in the infant Church.
Pope Francis has made Lumen Gentium a central theme of his pontificate. He is calling the Church to follow Christ in his poverty and humility in order to bring the Good News to the poor.
One of the key portions of Lumen Gentium is its second chapter, with its declaration that the Church is "the People of God":
“At all times and in every race, God has given welcome to whosoever fears Him and does what is right. God, however, does not make people holy and save them merely as individuals, without bond or link between one another. Rather has it pleased Him to bring people together as one, a people which acknowledges Him in truth and serves Him in holiness [...] This was to be the new People of God. For those who believe in Christ, who are reborn not from a perishable but from an imperishable seed through the Word of the living God, not from the flesh but from water and the Holy Spirit, are finally established as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people ... who in times past were not a people, but are now the people of God.”
Pope Francis, in reaching out through interreligious dialogue and action demonstrates that the Catholic Church is open to all humanity.
Our understanding of our relationship with God, through the Church, is constantly evolving and there is more to come, maybe beyond our personal lifetime. It may be helpful to recall Peter’s teaching in his Second Letter:
‘But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’ (3:8-9)
19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (13.08.2017)
Danger Is Not Our Only Constant Companion
“Would Jesus have knowingly sent his disciples into danger?” A university student put this question in a Bible-share on this Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 14:22-33). Certainly a night crossing on the notoriously unpredictable Sea of Galilee would have its dangers.
Danger, specifically the unknown, is our constant companion. Since our first parents disobeyed God, thereby losing the peace and divine harmony of ‘The Garden of Eden’, humanity has been continuously endangered. The counterbalance to the presence of unknown danger is the declaration by God of his abiding love for us through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
St. John, in his first letter (5:19) makes it clear that, while we belong to God, our world of exile is in the power of Satan. It will continue so until the Risen Lord returns as King and Judge of the Universe. Then, finally and forever, Satan’s grip on the world will be broken.
The ultimate danger for humanity is the loss of heaven, eternity with God. All other dangers, even the life-threatening variety, are relative. Just as God did not write-off our disobedient first parents neither does he write-off their descendants. The ultimate proof of this is that God the Father sent his only Son into our dangerous world. He knew that Satan’s power over this world would not triumph even when it inflicted crucifixion on his Son, Jesus.
St. Paul made this point strongly in Romans 5.20 “But however much sin increased,
(God’s) grace was always greater; so that as sin’s reign brought death, so grace was to rule through the saving justice that leads to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Jesus knew the individual, as well as the collective, strengths of his disciples. Among them were experienced ‘Sea of Galilee’ fishermen. For them, sudden storms would have been nothing new. Matthew tells us that their boat was ‘battling with a strong headwind’, not sinking. There’s no mention of the disciples being in fear of the waves. Their terror came not from the storm but from the vision of Jesus walking on water. Sometimes in listening to the Gospel, as also at other times if our listening is distracted, we can insert our own preconceived interpretation on the words we hear. This can lead us to wrong conclusions and possibly faulty decisions.
Does this Gospel text challenge you and I to review and reassess the dangers, real or imaginary, we associate with our life? What do we see as the prime danger in our life? It should be any threat, from our self or from another, to our relationship with God. This always has to be our priority concern, even if the upholding of it costs our life here. The provenance for this assertion is the First Commandment –
"YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD
WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL,
AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND"(Catechism of the Catholic Church)
Unless we give the preservation of our living relationship with God our ultimate and unchanging priority in life, then all our other judgements and evaluations become suspect. They could then, adapting words from the cigarette packet, ‘seriously damage our eternal health’.
To be a loyal disciple, follower of Jesus in this world has always been and remains for many today, dangerous. Jesus himself said, “The birds of the air have nests and foxes have holes, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)
To the careerist Zebedee brothers, James and John, Jesus posed the question, “Can you drink of the cup of suffering of which I am to drink?”
(Mark 10:38 & Matthew 20:22) Their affirmative response, like Peter’s boast to Jesus (John 13:37) “I will lay down my life for you” had yet to pass the test of reality.
Our extract from Matthew’s Gospel offers us confirmation, as the actual event did for the disciples, that Jesus is always near, fully cognisant of what we are experiencing. Even the darkest of circumstances, symbolised by it being the fourth watch of the night 0300-0600 when Jesus appeared, cannot prevent the Light of Christ reaching us. Notice though that it is the disciples, in particular Peter, who engage Jesus not vice versa. Jesus never forces himself upon us. We have to invite him – as did the two utterly dispirited disciples on the ‘Road to Emmaus’ after Jesus’ crucifixion (Luke 24:13-35) “Stay with us, for it is towards evening and the day is now far spent.”
One of life’s tragic paradoxes is that while our media and billboards are packed with information to enhance and protect our life here on earth, there’s precious little to direct peoples’ attention to eternal life. That Jesus became visible to the disciples in their hour of need indicates that they had first, in their hearts and minds, individually and possibly collectively, turned to him.
In times of desperation people, in all languages, can be heard to invoke the name of ‘God’. Is it a prayer from a humbled and contrite source or has it become just another swear word? Only God and the individual know. That is what it comes down to in the end, the quality or otherwise of that one-to-one relationship which, for God, began even before we came into being in our mother’s womb.
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
The sinking Peter’s cry for help in our Matthew passage, “Lord, save me!” was from a humbled and contrite heart yet one, like our own, still being formed.
18th Sunday of Ordinary Time (03.08.14)
Glacier explorers are always alert to the death-dealing danger of hidden, deep crevasses. These bottomless chasms have claimed countless lives over the centuries. A parallel can be drawn with the Church in Western Europe today. A chasm has opened up between the three Scripture readings at Sunday Mass and people’s weekday life. A homilist, unless truly charismatic, has an impossible task!
Just consider - entering a church for Sunday Mass - worshippers come from their electronically all-embracing 21st. century life to a setting, value system and vocabulary that has become, especially for upcoming generations, alien! Fewer and fewer young people speak ‘Christian’, which means having a mindset and a vocabulary resonating with Christian empathy!
Popular TV series insert ‘Previously’ segments before new episodes, even when just days apart, to help viewers’ recall. A combination of the visual and verbal triggers the memory, enabling the new segment to sit seamlessly with the habitual viewer.
Tragically, there’s no ‘Previously’ for congregations participating at Sunday Mass. Many have a six-day chasm of utterly different involvement with no meaningful remembrance of God’s Word from the previous Sunday. Moreover, the Sunday Scripture readings do not always ‘follow on’.
Through his prophet, Jeremiah, God addressed these words to his Old Testament people at a similar time of disconnect (14: 17-21)
“Therefore you shall say this word to them:
‘Let my eyes flow with tears night and day,
And let them not cease;
For the virgin daughter of my people
has been broken with a mighty stroke, with a very severe blow.
If I go out to the field,
then I behold, those slain with the sword!
And if I enter the city,
then behold, those sick from famine!
Yes, both prophet and priest ply their trade throughout the land and have no knowledge.’”
An exception is this Saturday and Sunday, 2nd
August 2014. By coincidence, Matt 14: 1-12, the Gospel reading appointed for this Saturday, reveals the background that led to John the Baptist’s martyrdom. Multiple-murderer King Herod’s conscience proved to be his personal ‘previously’. Herod had beheaded John the Baptist rather than lose political face. Uncharacteristically this had disturbed him and he now believed Jesus to be the resurrected John the Baptist! A troubled conscience is, at least, a living conscience!
In Christian times, John the Baptist was a familiar name. The memory of a man clad in animal skins, eating locusts and wild honey and with a fearless preaching style, would have endured. People would have recalled tales of his birth, mission and martyrdom to some degree. A street poll today would likely turn up few, if any, who could identify John the Baptist.
For centuries, parents gave their children the names of revered Christians. The Christian history of places was reflected in their name. This treasure chest of our noteworthy Christian antecedents has been replaced in people’s memories by the names of sports personalities and briefly enduring celebrities.
As we experience the world from an armchair or computer console, we are bombarded with more information than we can comfortably store. Experienced TV producers understand all too well the ever-shortening attention and retention periods of the human mind. ‘Soap’ producers need to refocus every twelve to fifteen seconds if they wish to retain the attention of their viewers. Maybe this says as much about the poverty of content as the state of the human mind!
Popular ‘soaps’ have weekly multiple episodes with full ‘watch-back’ facility. Sunday Mass, by comparison, is a one-day-a-week verbal-only event for the inside of an hour with no changing scenes and one male voice with readers making brief appearances. In times past, Sunday Mass was the gathering place of the local community followed by particular family get-togethers. Now, Sunday Mass has become the optional, often missed, ‘add-on’ to a busy weekend.
The reality of the six-day chasm (Monday to Saturday) means that many Sunday Mass-attending Catholics are progressively unable to link up with the Scripture extracts they hear. For there to be the essential, Scriptural connectedness, people would need a considerable time of pre-Mass acclimatization. Where once, daily life and Christian life were one and the same, now they bear no resemblance.
World Cup footballers and other sports stars are taken to expensive acclimatization locations well in advance of their professional events to ensure their fitness and readiness for the contests. There needs to be comparable preparation provided for the average Catholic who does make it to Sunday Mass.
The disconnect, now entrapping the Catholic laity in particular, has grown surreptitiously like the hidden glacial chasm. Sadly and tragically those who trek to Sunday Mass, unlike their glacier exploring counterparts, are largely unaware of the danger they are in. God’s Word is our essential lifeline for spiritual nourishment and fortification in our daily battle with Satan’s hidden entrapments. Without God’s Word alive and active, daily, within our souls and hearts we are not only a danger to ourselves but also to our companions. Jesus’ warning in John 15:5 comes to mind:
“I am the vine, you are the branches;
those who abide in Me with Me in them, bear much fruit,
for apart from Me you can do nothing.”
Just today, the Bible Society sent me this appeal to support Bible literacy:
“We’re giving you the opportunity to help us teach more than half a million Chinese Christians to read the Bible.
Han Xiao Lang from China learnt to read when she was 34. She was one of the first to sign up to Bible Society literacy classes in 2009 and said, ‘After the class I felt more hopeful, I could appreciate the message of God for me. I found it easier to hear his voice…’ (Han Xiao Lang, now 38)”
While I’m glad to support the promotion of the Bible in China, I’m alarmingly aware how many of the UK Baptised are sleepwalking into a disconnect with their Christian heritage. Unlike us, the Chinese are hungry for God’s Word. Perhaps it is all too easy to condemn Herod the Murderer forgetting that his conscience was at least functioning.
Matthew 15:14 is an appropriate quote for the spiritually unseeing who fail to appreciate the chasms under their very noses!
"They are blind guides of the blind!
And if a blind person guides a blind person,
both will fall into a pit."
Peter said to Jesus, "Explain the parable to us."…
The Gospel for this Sunday (Matt 14: 13-21) reveals Jesus’ wish to grieve privately when given news of his cousin, John the Baptist’s, martyrdom. But the pressing needs of the living called so loudly to Jesus that he stepped away from his grief to answer their cries. Jesus picked up John the Baptist’s baton adding it to his own mandate to establish a Kingdom whose hallmark was to be communion with his heavenly Father in the care of one’s neighbour. The crucial element is the depth of our connectivity with God. The Christian veneer over much of modern day Europe is as deceptive as the glacier with its hidden crevasses. In Matthew 13:21 Jesus warns about superficial Christianity:
“But since they have no root, they last only a short time.
When trouble or persecution comes because of the Word,
they quickly fall away.”
Keeping to the glacial analogy, the last line could be amended to read, “they quickly fall victim to the crevasse”!
At Pentecost this year, Pope Francis spoke about the Christian disconnect:
“Christians without memory are not a true Christians: they are halfway along the road, imprisoned in the moment, who do not know how to value their history, who do not know how to read it or live it as a history of salvation. We, with the help of the Holy Spirit, are able to interpret the inner inspirations and events of life in the light of Jesus' words. And thus our knowledge of memory, the knowledge of the heart, that is a gift from the Spirit, grows in us”. (Vatican
8 June 2014)
In the popular quiz show ‘I want to be a millionaire’, the lifelines are often crucial. Our Baptismal life, when functioning well, makes us wonderful spiritual lifelines for our family, friends and colleagues.