Sunday Reflection

3rd Sunday of Advent (17.12.17)

The incompleteness of a mumbled ‘Sorry’.

Over-usage has devalued some English words. For example, what does the mumbled word “sorry!” communicate today? In the hustle of city life ‘sorry!’ may often cross people’s lips as they weave through the crowds. Do people mean what they say or has an over usage of the word rendered it almost meaningless? Behavioural evidence would point to such words being spoken without meaning because people’s behaviour has not changed.

For people who believe in God, genuine contrition involves elements of both the heart and the soul. A grace-infused soul is sensitive to what maybe an injustice to another, who is also made in God’s imagine and likeness. A respectfulness of heart would wish to make amends for any hurt shown in the eyes or response of someone wronged.
 
This 3rd Sunday of Advent our Gospel extract comes from the Evangelist, St. John (1:6-8,19-28). He tells how the preaching and teaching of his namesake, the Baptiser, had met with two quite distinct responses, from within his own people, when he proclaimed:
"I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, 'make straight the way of the Lord,'" as Isaiah the prophet said.”
 
 John called himself a ‘voice’ in the desert. His chosen ‘pulpit’ was indeed the desert yet not too far from the River Jordan. However, could the desert to which John the Baptiser referred have been the spiritual desert in the hearts and souls of so many of his fellow Jews? While there would have been loud, and abusive voices ranged against him, John’s voice would have been heard, despite the barrage of opposition, because ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail’ (Matt.16:18).

A parent can hear their child’s cry among a sea of crying voices, so too a spiritually impoverished soul can hear the Truth of God’s call among all the false noise in this world. John the Baptiser was filled from his mother’s womb with God’s Spirit:
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth herself was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!…” (Luke 1:41-42)
 
John’s proclamation drew the attention and attrition of those Jews who respected The Truth.
 
 But John the Baptiser’s notoriety had become sufficiently disturbing for Jerusalem’s Jewish leadership to have sent investigators. These questioned the Baptiser about his authority for preaching and teaching knowing that he had no leadership endorsement.
 
The Truth, spoken from a graced heart and soul, has a resonance that calls forth a response in others. The words of Pope Francis, for example, are likely to find acceptance where the words of some political leaders do not. John the Baptist’s preaching produced such a dual effect. On the one hand, a genuine contriteness of heart in many ordinary Jews and, on the other, an active hostility from the Jewish leadership at that time coupled with a wariness from the Roman authorities. The same pattern would emerge when Jesus of Nazareth began his ministry after King Herod had murdered John the Baptiser.

 It would have taken courage and a sure belief in God for those Jewish men and women to show a public positive response to John’s preaching. They knew their religious leaders exercised power. Ordinary Jews could have found themselves ostracised, treated as outcasts, if the synagogue leadership maligned them.

Therefore, those Jews who went ‘the extra mile’ in making visible their contrition, by having John pour River Jordan water over them, truly gave evidence of the depth of their contrition and commitment.
 
Contrition involves more than saying the words ‘I am sorry’. Contrition remains incomplete where it is not evidenced by proportionate amendment and a realistic commitment to avoid that sinful situation for the future. Our words of contrition need confirmation that is expressive of our newly re-graced state of heart and soul. So, for example, in our nightly examination of conscience we could bring to mind people whom we may have hurt by word or thought and pray for them. So, too, should somebody have been impoverished by our behaviour, we should endeavour to make good their loss and, if that cannot be done, make a donation to charity comparable to the injury.
 
 The Jerusalem Jewish leadership, further agitated by the support John received from the people, continued questioning John. John gave them this answer:
"I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie."

 John’s reference to “one among you whom you do not recognise ..” would have instantly alerted a people brought up on God’s promise of a Messiah and this despite their own infidelity to God’s Covenant. However, their mental picture was of a powerful, warrior-like leader able to free his people from oppression. An unkempt man, even one with a powerful voice, clad in animal skins and surviving on locusts and wild honey, arriving out of the desert did not fit their preconception.  Nevertheless, John’s message was alive with the Truth that the hearts and souls of contrite Jews detected and, as a consequence, he won their respect.

Their political compromises rendered the Jewish leaders unable to hear The Truth in John’s words. For them, John posed a worrying threat of destabilisation to their web of tenuous links with the Roman authority.
 
 The Truth (God) and Satan, the father of lies, are in diametric opposition. Satan fears the fullness of The Truth that he knows he cannot overpower. Though aware that his time and his and our world of exile, is drawing towards its end, he still relentlessly seeks to despoil God of human souls.

 Satan has shown himself highly skilled in personalising the temptations he sets before us because he knows our weaknesses. We, in truth, know how successful he can be. But Satan is keenly aware that the human soul can hear the call of The Truth over and above whatever barrage of noise he can assemble.
 
 Christians have been brought up on the promise of Christ’s return as King and Judge at the end of the world. At that general judgement of all humanity, (John 5:28-29) each of us will see The Truth and, in the light of that Truth, be aware of the consequences of the personal choices we have made throughout our lives. At that point, whatever in our life is unresolved or incomplete remains so, eternally. The time of amendment will have ended. Therefore, all believers need, on a daily basis, to practice contrition in word and deed in order to be beneficiaries, eternally, of Christ’s Reconciliation.

Would we, had we been among the Jews listening to John the Baptist, have remained standing on the river bank mumbling ‘sorry’? Or would we have joined those of faith and convincing contrition who stepped into the clear water of the Jordan? How we live our faith today is indicative of how we might have behaved then!
 

2nd Sunday of Advent (10.12.17)

Comfort in Uncertainty 
 
St Mark opens his Gospel with the coming of John the Baptiser. The opening verses (1:1-8) form our Gospel for this 2nd Sunday of Advent. Mark does not record Jesus’ infancy years. John (the Baptiser) came out of the desert clad in a garment of camel hair and eating locusts and wild honey. Clearly, there was nothing conventional about him.
 
At that time, life for the Jews, under a punishingly unrelenting Roman regime, was hard and filled with uncertainty. The world of that era, and this, is a world of inescapable uncertainty. Life’s unpredictability is not conquered by diaries, schedules or even the latest in medical advancement all of which can be nullified in a heartbeat or the lack of one.  
 
It is not surprising that the Jews, at the time of John the Baptiser, were drawn to him. He would have provided a colourful distraction from the pain of their repetitive daily subjugation. But whatever drew the Jews to John in the first place, they stayed. They were captivated by what he had to say more than by his appearance. His preaching resonated with their deepest desire, an end to uncertainty with the arrival of the promised Messiah.
 
In John’s call to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, the Jews heard the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. 
“As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.’” (Luke 3: 3-6)
 
Over the decades many would-be messianic figures had appeared. Initially the Jews paid some attention but then lost interest not finding the truth they were searching for. John the Baptiser was different. His cry ‘in the wilderness’ resonated with a comfort they longed for in the barrenness of their lives, which was more than an absence of food and security. They knew they had fractured their covenant with God. John’s words were filled with a compelling conviction and sincerity.
 
John’s chosen setting of the Judean wilderness would have been remarkable for one thing, its silence! The phrase “In the desert” is capable of several interpretations. If we focus on the element of silence, a desert is a place of profound silence – apart from the times of sandstorms. In a true desert there are no trees or bushes to noisily challenge the wind, no leaves to rustle, no animals to create sounds. In such a desert, it is possible for a person to be recollected. 
 
Could this explain how those who travelled out of the villages and towns to hear John the Baptiser were, indeed, able to hear him without distraction? Freed from competitive noise, people would not have had to struggle to hear John. The silence enabled them to focus their attention without distraction. And, in that silence, they were able to discern and respond to the truth John brought them? 
Recently, Pope Francis remarked with sadness, that when celebrating Mass, in St. Peter’s Basilica or out in the enormous piazza or at any large gathering, he, inviting the congregation to “Lift up your hearts”, sees so many raised mobiles! He lamented the number of people in the congregation who were more intent on taking photos than in participating in the spiritual aspect of the Mass.
 
The oppressed Jews of Jesus’ era were well experienced in daily, even hourly, uncertainty. Yet, despite this, they retained an inner ability to identify a genuine call of God when it came. For this to be so, they must have held on to a sense of faith and prayer in which they found comfort in the midst of the direness of their uncertainties.

Despite the unusual appearance of this desert-dwelling man, they heard, in his words, God’s call to them to seek forgiveness for their sins. As Mark tells us: “People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him (John) and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.”
 
Our first Reading, this Advent Sunday, is from the prophet Isaiah (40:1-5,9-11). He was God’s prophet eight centuries before the birth of Jesus and his cousin, John. Isaiah announced God’s comfort for his afflicted people:
“In the desert prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!” … “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
 
By contrast with John ‘in the wilderness’, Jesus preached in towns and villages amidst noise and bustle as well as the vocal opposition of Scribes and Pharisees who feared the loss of their political power. The first trial of Jesus by the Sanhedrin would have been a raucous setting. The second public trial before Pilate would have been even noisier and the people subject to violent intimidation. Could this explain how, in just five days, the crowds who had welcomed Jesus with ‘Hosannas’ as he approached Jerusalem (Palm Sunday – John 12:12-19) had been persuaded to cry ‘Crucify him’ (Good Friday – John 19:6). The Truth had been overwhelmed, temporarily, by the noise of falsehood, politics and self-interest.
 
Most of us lack the opportunity to withdraw to a monastery or a retreat centre. So, it becomes the more important to recall that an inner stillness is possible even in the midst of a bustling, noisy city, a railway carriage, a bus or a bus stop, or even a plane. Someone, in a railway station café, once asked me what I was reading on my tablet. I replied, “I’m praying the Psalms”. “The what”, they replied. The conversation continued until the questioner’s train was due! 

Sometimes, those who live alone may not appreciate as much as they might, their opportunity for a prayer-filled stillness in which to celebrate God’s presence with them in that place! When they do, their prayer reaches out, beyond the confines of their location, to embrace all whom they choose to include whether they live nearby or far, far away. 
 
Advent calls us to prepare to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of our Redeemer, Jesus the Christ. Most people find themselves trapped in a cycle of feverish, enforced conviviality, at an exorbitant cost, that manages to obscure the heart of the Christian festival, the birth of God-made-Man for our Salvation. If we make time, each day, to be still, to meditate perhaps using a Reading from the Mass of the day we, as Isaiah prophesied, will be comforted.
 
God’s comfort – that inner peace -  is not easily found in this world. To find it, we, like the people of the Judean countryside and the inhabitants of Jerusalem more than two thousand years ago, need time to withdraw from the noise and razzmatazz. We would need to create a still-centre within ourselves. Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel (6:5-6) tells us, 
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. Truly I tell you, they already have their reward. 
But when you pray go into your inner room, shut your door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. And your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
 
With stillness and wordless prayer in our daily life, even for short periods, our soul can breathe. Like those ‘Wise Visitors’ of Epiphany fame we would be progressing towards our eternal home with the one gift that would bring joy to our King and Lord on the anniversary of his birth among us – a prayerful, loving stillness.
 

1st Sunday of Advent (03.12.17)

LIFE IN THE SHADOW OF ETERNITY
 
Do you recall how the total eclipse of the sun, earlier this year, created worldwide interest? How many people, would you think, are aware that day by day we all live in the shadow of eternity? When asked about the coming end of the world, Jesus clearly stated–
“No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Matthew 24:35-36)
  
In the 8th century BC, God called Isaiah to be his prophet. A prophet’s role was to make clear to his contemporaries God’s assessment of their current behaviour, not their future. His people’s lack of faith and their Covenantal infidelity frequently displeased God. Consequently, the messages delivered through successive prophets were often admonishments. As a result, many prophets were persecuted and murdered by their own as people resisted God’s call for reconciliation.

The Eternal Father’s final prophet is his Only Begotten Son, Jesus the Christ, God-made-Man. Jesus, by his Incarnation, completed God’s revelation to us of all that is necessary for our salvation. Henceforth, the Baptised would find, in the life, teaching, suffering, death and Resurrection of Jesus, and the teaching of his Church, the true path of discipleship leading to eternal happiness.

Human knowledge has made enormous advances, undiscovered at the time of Jesus, in science and technology. Nevertheless, it is in Jesus’ teaching that humanity will discover the timeless core principles enabling all ages to discern the just and beneficial distribution of all new knowledge in a way that is safe for both humanity and the environment.

In other words, Jesus’ teaching on justice, truth, brotherhood and stewardship enables us, provided that we follow it faithfully, to be in communion with God and with one another in a world at peace.

Currently, we see that human behaviour, by and large, disregards the teaching of Jesus and that of his Church. Peoples’ all-consuming preoccupation with constant self-satisfaction results in a selfish ignoring of the core reality that we live ‘in the shadow of eternity’. Even eclipses of the sun and moon fail to prompt many to ‘read the signs of the times’. Jesus challenged the people of his day (Luke 12:54-56) and surely would challenge us:
Then Jesus said to the crowds,
 “As soon as you see a cloud rising in the west, you say, ‘A shower is coming,’ and that is what happens.  And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It will be hot,’ and it is. 
You hypocrites! You know how to interpret what appears on the earth and in the sky. Why is it that you do not know how to interpret the present time?…”
 
An extract from the prophet Isaiah, from 8th century BC, is read this 1st Sunday of Advent (63:16-17,19. 64:2-7). The very contemporariness of what we hear is our wake-up call given the current state of the world.

Surely it is not by chance or accident that we hear Isaiah’s words in 2017? The compilers of the Lectionary in the 1970s would not have known the state of our 21st century world. Can we not say, then, that it is by Divine providence that we are given Isaiah’s words to contemplate when our world is so unsettled and filled with fermenting disharmony and anger?

The Isaiah extract begins with him interceding with God.
“You, Lord, are our father, our redeemer you are named forever. Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage.”

These words make a most appropriate daily prayer of intercession for the Baptised of this time. Are they reflective of our daily prayer? Or is our focus locked on the here and now of life’s many demands, aspirations, inconveniences and problems? Though many search for wood to touch when speaking of the future it is out of superstition not intercession through the wood of Christ’s Cross. As it was with Isaiah’s contemporaries, many today have wandered from their Christian heritage and become disorientated and lost in a world of deception and confusion where the rich become richer and the poor become poorer.
 
Isaiah continues his plea to God:
 “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as they had not heard of from of old.”
“Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people, all our good deeds are like polluted rags; we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.”
“There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses him or herself to cling to you; for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt.”

Opinions are divided about climate change. From a Christian perspective the massive storms and rainfall in one area and, simultaneously, equally massive droughts in the other areas must cause us to question the effectiveness of our stewardship of the environment. The mass migration of war-ravaged, sick, homeless and starving peoples, the epidemics, the social deconstruction and so much more should be causing people to question whether, by reneging again on our covenant with God in the Sacrament of Baptism, we have disengaged from Divine protection.
 
This First Sunday of Advent presents us with an opportunity to reconsider the quality and depth of our personal commitment to Jesus.  The start of a new Church year is itself a challenge for us to break from a repetitive and perhaps insufficiently conscious commitment to deeper prayer and more realistic penance for our world that has allowed itself to become so infiltrated by Satan.
Our Isaiahan extract concludes:
“Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways!
Yet, O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands”.
 
December is upon us. What is the predominant focus? Is it preparing for Christmas festivities, parties and presents or is it that this First Sunday of Advent marks a new Christian year? Will we live to see it through; will the world? Do we see Advent as a God-given opportunity to take stock, making Isaiah’s words our own and acting accordingly? Or, has the relentless mantra of December’s countdown of ‘shopping days to Christmas’ already taken over, yet again?

St. Paul in his New Testament letter to the Romans (12:1-2) has this plea:
“I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

We know that Christ the King will return but there is no reason for fearful or hysterical expectation. We must live so that it does not matter when Christ returns, every day must be fit for him. All life is a preparation to meet our King.
 

Christ the King (26.10.17)

Looking To The Future
 
We spend much of our thoughtful hours looking forward. Anticipation and planning is a semi-continuous conscious or subconscious activity that we find attractive in the main. A dental appointment may not compare with going on an exploratory journey into the unknown but the former may prove its worth in the course of an expedition! Looking forward may also re-motivate our flagging will and energy to cope with a present that is not particularly palatable or fulfilling. Looking forward enables us to visualise what, we believe, is to come such as an anticipated vacation.
 
Jesus calls us to look forward to being with his Father, who has become our Father through the grace of Baptismal adoption. Jesus described the scene in Matthew 25:31-46 – our Gospel text for this last Sunday of the Church year, the climatic Feast of Christ the King:
 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take for your inheritance the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink …..”
 
Were we to be asked, “Have you seen Jesus Christ?”, our reaction might be wariness about the sanity of our questioner or their intention. Had we sufficient depth of faith and presence of mind, the response of a Baptised person would be, “I see you and in you I see Jesus Christ because each person is made in God’s image and likeness.” Sadly, such a response is more likely to be the result of prayerful hindsight than at the moment of encounter!
 
In our Gospel text for today, Jesus sets the scene for the General Judgement that will accompany the end of the world. He tells his disciples:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 
 
Countless artists, over the centuries, have attempted to capture in various mediums their interpretations of this scene. Michelangelo’s ceilings in the Sistine Chapel and Graham Sutherland’s tapestry at Coventry Cathedral may come to mind.
 
But rather than rely on the work of others, why not take the opportunity of this Sunday to visualise your own concept of how you might recognise Christ in his Glory? You do not need artistic skills with brush, chisel or needle etc. You have within you the grace of God who formed you in your mother’s womb. God’s grace, in collaboration with your spiritual imagination, is sufficient for you to visualize a picture to accompany Jesus’ words:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.”
 
There is a major hurdle to be overcome before we can begin! Because we know ourselves to be sinful, we find it hard to ‘look forward’ to God because we fear we will not be prepared. Satan, as the author of evil, actively cultivates our reluctance to ‘look forward’ to God. He strives to hold us captive to our past (and maybe our present) of selfish and destructive false pleasures whose legacy is seemingly an inescapable remorse. Satan uses our failings to taunt us with a seemingly inescapable remorse.
 
This is why we need the surety of God’s merciful forgiveness through the Sacraments, especially the Sacrament of Reconciliation, to disarm Satan. As a wise and holy person once said, “When Satan comes to taunt me with my failings I tell him I don’t have them anymore! I gave them to God!”
 
Jesus tells us, in Matthew’s Gospel, that when he returns as Christ the King:
“he will sit upon his glorious throne ..”
 
Please try to visualize for yourself, just now, that throne. Think of its dimensions, its texture, its captivating beauty none of which will detract from the awesome, indescribable majesty of God-made-Man seated upon it. Only you will know the images that flood your mind. Undoubtedly our experiences of royalty and glory will colour our imagination. But will they be an accurate guide?
 
May I share my image of the glorious throne of Christ the King? It is one that has stayed with me over years. I see a wooden cross. Its proportion not dissimilar to the cross of Calvary on which Jesus was once nailed for our salvation. But now, the wood is no longer dead and its bark no longer discoloured by the blood of his and the countless other men and women who there met their death.
 
The wood of Jesus’ Cross is now no longer the symbol of death but of life. It proclaims before all creation that Satan has been conquered and the sins of confessing and repentant sinners absolved.
 
St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:55-57, states:  
“Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
 
 Now that wood is alive, vibrant with branches and verdant shoots. It holds the glorious Risen Body of our Lord and King but with gentle strength not nails. From Christ the King life and light, of an unearthly quality, flow through the revived tree continuously enlivening all the assembly – all who have ever lived, however briefly or lengthily, upon this earth. In this assembly ageism is no more. There is a oneness of being, common to all, that reflects us in our maturity. The unswerving focus for all is Christ our King.
 
 Our focus is totally captivated by the quality of light that reveals to us Christ our King. Light is the element most associated with Jesus. The same light that Peter, James and John reported seeing on the mountain top of the Transfiguration. (Matthew 17:1–8; Mark 9:2–8; Luke 9:28–36.  And Peter also refers to it in his Second Letter 1:16–18.)
 
On most occasions, it is by means of external illumination that a subject is highlighted. If the translucent nature of the subject matter allows, there may be internal light as well. In the Transfiguration, the light that captivated the Apostles came entirely from within Jesus’ own body and transfigured him. (Transfiguration – a complete change where a human body becomes an indescribably beautiful spiritual entity.) The power and majesty of God was revealed within Jesus and enveloped his whole being. The effect was beyond the vocabulary of the Apostles. This quality and strength of light, such as we have never experienced, will accompany the revelation of Christ in his glory and remain with us for eternity.
 
Person to person recognition involves the use of remembered features. Our encountering of Christ the King on Judgement Day will resurrect for us all that we were ever able to glimpse of him as holy, good and true – through His Word, through places of pilgrimage, through prayer and meditation and through the faces, the multiple faces, of our fellow human beings as well as through the fulfilment of our Baptismal calling in daily life. These glimpses enable us to live with the sure knowledge that, as we came from God, we will find our true home in him.
 
The ‘Letter to the Romans’ offers this helpful appreciation (11:33-36)
“Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways!
For who can know the Lord’s thoughts? Who knows enough to give him advice? And who has given him so much that he (the Lord) needs to pay it back?”
For everything comes from him and exists by his power and is intended for his glory. All glory to him forever! Amen.”
 
One could go on, but perhaps the foregoing has helped set you up for your own journey of visualisation. May you have a blessed day.
 

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (19.11.17)

WHEN RELIGIOUS TRUTH BECOMES PARALYSED
 
God is Truth, God is Living (John 14:6.), therefore, The Truth is a living entity. But is this how many view The Truth namely, as full of the life of the Holy Spirit? Or do people think of the Truth as a composite of broadly accepted static, unchanging, established facts? For example, we know that 2+2 = 4 as a matter of fact and pay no attention to the deductive thought process that is a) particular to humans and b) indicative of a rational analytical process continually searching for a deeper understanding of the Truth.
 
Truth is both inexhaustible and unfathomable for us. Truth does not change but our understanding of it is always changing. The closer we draw to God, the more Truth reveals itself to us. The further we drift from God, the less able we are to grasp the Truth.
 
Matthew (25:14-30) provides the Gospel for this 33rd Sunday in which Jesus teaches through ‘The Parable of the Talents’. The ‘useless’ servant hid his master’s coin instead of using it profitably. His master asked why he didn’t bank it? In an era when the UK’s interest rates have been near zero for years, the master’s question to his ‘useless’ servant may sound quite at odds with contemporary reality. This parable has multiple lessons for us that are not connected with finance.
 
Clearly, the ‘Parable of the Talents’ is intended to draw attention to the unprofitable or ‘useless’ servant. Jesus had employed multiple parables in an attempt to bring the Scribes and Pharisees to face up to their shortcomings as the spiritual leaders of their people. In Jesus’ eye, the ‘useless’ servant epitomises their wicked and lazy attitude in respect of God’s Law and the Truth encompassed by it:
So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant and gather where I did not scatter? Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have got it back with interest on my return?”
 
The ‘useless’ servant believed he could secure his place in his master’s house by being able to hand back the one talent exactly as he had received it, in ‘mint’ condition because it had never been used. The Scribes and Pharisees regarded the Law as something dead, static and incapable of growth. Their aim was to preserve it, like a fossil, in the exact formulation in which it had been given to Moses by God. To the Scribes and Pharisees any growth in the understanding of the Law, resulting from human growth and development, was anathema.
 
Generations of Scribes and Pharisees, from the 3rd century BC, had constructed a protective fence of 613 ‘mitzvot’, ‘interpretations’, that were intended to enable God’s people to know how to live God’s Commandments. This manmade and frankly impossible maze of regulations allowed the Scribes and Pharisees licence and leeway in interpreting how to approach the observance of the Law and simultaneously allowed them to claim that the Law itself remained unaltered. In Matthew 23:13 we read how Jesus found fault with this thinking:
 “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let in those who wish to enter.”
 
The Scribes and Pharisees had, by the manipulative procedures of their 613 insuperable preconditions, made it virtually impossible for the ordinary Jew to follow God’s Law. The Parable of ‘The Talents’ teaches how God laments shut minds and devious hearts.
 
In giving us the Commandments God set down a template, a bottom line, a starting point for his creation. Having uniquely gifted us with intelligence and grace, God knew we would hunger for knowledge and search for the Truth. Divine providence had provided humanity, made in God’s image and likeness, with a sure start from which to search for the Truth.
 
God never asks us to show abilities we do not have. He does ask that we use, to the full, the abilities with which he has gifted us. People are not equal in talent, but we can all be equal in effort. The Parable of the Talents teaches that whatever talent a person has, be it little or great, it must be used, first of all, in the service of God. Moreover, we are freed to choose to combine our human talents for the good of all. The role of the Body of Christ on earth, the community of the Baptised under the leadership of the Vicar of Christ (the Pope), is to enable all on our shared pilgrimage to eternal salvation.
 
The parable tells us that the two servants who had done well and multiplied their talents were commended and then given greater responsibility. Idleness or relaxation does not feature in the Divine economy. Jesus underlines the virtue of humble service for the common good in Luke 17:7-10:
“Will any one of you who has a servant] ploughing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’?  Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’?  Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”
 
The ‘useless’ servant, in the parable, who was punished was the one who did not try. He didn’t lose his one talent, he just did nothing with it! Any effort to increase his talent, even one that had failed and lost him the talent, would have been better than doing nothing at all. The condemnation of the ‘useless’ servant was because he would not even try to use it for the common good.
 
This is a Sunday when each Baptised person would do well to examine his/her conscience as to what she/he has done with the talent(s) he/she has been given. The appropriate follow-up to that question would be – ‘what more should I be doing with the talent(s) I have been given?’
 
The temptation that ensnared the ‘useless’ servant in the parable ensnares many people. “I have so little talent, what on earth can I do with it?”, people complain, “It’s not worth my trying for the little that I can contribute.”
Matthew 13:31-32 has one answer:
Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field.  Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
 
The mustard seed is tiny but when linked with God’s good creation …. it grows! So, too, with seemingly tiny talents!
 

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (12.11.17)

Bridesmaids Lead The Way

Bridesmaids are forever associated with weddings. However, the role of a 21st century bridesmaid would bear little resemblance to the role of bridesmaids at the time of Jesus. St. Matthew is unique among the Gospel writers for recording Jesus’ ‘Wedding Parable’ (25:1-13) which is our focus for this 32nd Sunday of the year.
 
To appreciate the teaching in Jesus’ parable, we need to step out of our 21st century and into that of the 1st century AD. We also need to adopt a Jewish mindset. It would be helpful to remember that in the 1st century AD schedules and timings, such as we have today, would not have existed. The only timing with relative precision would mark the start and conclusion of the weekly Sabbath.
 
 In the Jewish culture of that era a wedding was always preceded by a betrothal. But even before a betrothal the respective parents, who had in all likelihood negotiated the prospective union, would have reached an agreement, to their mutual satisfaction, on all matters concerning the marriage. During the period of betrothal, the couple would have continued to live with their respective families. Contact would have been limited and always supervised. After maybe a year of betrothal, in which a bride-to-be had the opportunity to step out of the arranged marriage, a wedding festival would be agreed. It would likely last a whole week and involve local communities as well as the families.
 
 A prospective bridegroom, accompanied by his attendants, would walk from his home village to the home village of his betrothed. There, there would be a celebration of welcome. Then the prospective groom would lead his wife-to-be back to his village and his family home where she would be accepted as his wife. She would also be attentive to the wishes of her mother-in-law whose ‘word’ was obeyed.
 
 Jesus places his parable at the point where a future husband is journeying from his village to that of his betrothed in order to escort her back to his home.
 
 Very likely a prospective bridegroom and his party would frequently interrupt their journey to greet neighbours and friends along the way. In that era weddings were not scheduled events with precise dates and hours. They were rooted in a commitment to the continuity of the Jewish people. Marriage was viewed as the race’s life-blood, its continuity, with the emphasis on children for a people who, in addition to believing they were God’s chosen, had known religious persecution. Childless Jewish homes are a cause for sorrow.
 
In Jesus’ time the crucial function of a bridesmaid was to light the way for an incoming bridegroom enabling him and his companions to securely reach his prospective bride’s family home. Because people would have travelled on foot and mostly after sundown, light-bearing bridesmaids were a necessity. The bride’s village would have had lookouts posted to watch for the approach of the bridegroom. Hospitality was and remains a seriously important aspect of Middle Eastern culture.
 
In the hearing of or reading of this Gospel extract our 21st century mindset may lead us to be critical of those bridesmaids who had oil. Their unwillingness to share oil with those who had run out might promote feelings of indignation. It may help if we, unsettled by our 21st century mindset, remind ourselves that those bridesmaids would have seen their first responsibility as the provision of light. So, for them, being a bearer of ‘light’ was their prime vocation and it is from their perspective that we must approach this parable’s teaching. The ‘wise bridesmaids’, with their oil and oil reserves, clearly understood their prime vocation to be light bearers. The ‘foolish bridesmaids’ displayed a certain carelessness. They had speculated, unwisely, on a bridegroom’s prompt arrival despite knowing their peoples’ customary behaviour.
 
Jesus’ parable implies that had the ‘wise bridesmaids’ shared their oil reserves, then both the ‘wise’ and the ‘foolish’ would have been unable to fulfil their prime vocation namely, to give light at the crucial point of the arrival of the bridegroom and his party. Neither group would have fulfilled their prime vocation.
 
Jesus wants his disciples to learn that, in committing themselves to him, they were signing up to uphold, as their prime vocation, the promotion and establishment of his teaching. He was indicating that the first responsibility for each was their personal fulfilment of their calling. They were bound by a collective responsibility but it was secondary to their primary individual commitment.
 
Jesus’ teaching upheld the decision of the ‘wise bridesmaids’ who believed they were not free to invert their priorities. In like manner, no Christian person may invert their Baptismal priority – to love God with all their heart, mind and soul – by placing love for a neighbour ahead of their love for God.
 
It is possible to uphold God’s first Commandment by showing an unselfish and altruistic love for one’s neighbour when that neighbour’s life is threatened. A classic example is found in the life of Fr. Saint Maximillian Kolbe who, in Nazi Germany, volunteered to die in the place of a fellow Holocaust victim who had a wife and children. 
“This is My commandment, that you love one another as I loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you.…” (John 15:12-14)
 
At first reading, the Matthew extract may appear to Western 21st century minds as a harsh teaching. The continuity of the Faith to which our Baptism commits us, calls each Baptised person to place her or his Baptismal promise ahead of any other consideration, no matter how socially persuading or economically enticing it may appear. The cost of any compromise is too high when it jeopardises the primacy of our vocation to love God.
 
In contemporary Western culture we see evidence that Baptismal promises, in which we are to give primacy to God and thereby reflect his light to the world, have been supplanted by careless compromises, by an addiction to endless novelty and an insatiable appetite for things amusing and often deceptively dangerous when contrasted with eternal life with God.
 
Someone once said there are certain things that cannot be borrowed:
-         A relationship with God.
-         The spiritual credibility of another. 
-         A character.
 
St. Luke records Jesus’ teaching about being ready for his return:
“Be dressed for service and keep your lamps burning, as though you were waiting for your master to return from the wedding feast. Then you will be ready to open the door and let him in the moment he arrives and knocks.  The servants who are ready and waiting for his return will be rewarded. I tell you the truth, he himself will seat them, put on an apron, and serve them as they sit and eat!  He may come in the middle of the night or just before dawn. But whenever he comes, he will reward the servants who are ready.” (12:35-38) 
 

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (05.11.17)

THE DECEPTION OF HOLLOWNESS  
 
Pope St. John XXIII is still remembered for the warmth of his smile. He was born, on 25 November 1881, in the northern Italian village of Sotto il Monte. The village’s title translates as - ‘Under the mountain’. Baptised as Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, he grew up to be one of the most loved and influential popes in recent history. The ‘downsizing’ he initiated in the Catholic Church began changes that still continue.
 
His papacy began, to make a play on the name of his village, ‘under a mountain’ of inherited protocol reaching back to the Roman Emperor Constantine’s influence when he converted to Catholicism. One of John XXlll’s objectives was, as he himself said to: “Throw open the windows of the church and let the fresh air of the Spirit blow through.” The principal way he effected this was to call the Second Council of the Vatican and make it Ecumenical.
 
In St Matthew’s Gospel for this is 31st Sunday (23:1-12), Jesus does not mince his words about the behaviour of the scribes and Pharisees of his day and their self-glorification. Clearly, the problems Pope John XXlll faced were not new. Nor, as it turned out, was the resistance of those ‘insiders’ who had come to believe that the existence of the Catholic Church depended upon them and their adherence to protocols and hierarchy.

In the remainder of chapter 23 Jesus admonishes the scribes and Pharisees by publicly calling them ‘hypocrites!’ no fewer than six times! In his seventh indictment of them, Jesus calls them ‘blind guides’! On each occasion Jesus makes plain to them the specific area of their failure in leadership (23:13-32). Jesus’ words revealed the rottenness he saw in their hearts beneath the affluent ornateness of their attire.
 
Since Pope St John XXlll, five Popes have stood in the shoes of Peter the Fisherman, the latest being Pope Francis. Each has been charged with implementing the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that John XXlll called and which began on 11th October 1962. Fifty-five years may seem a long time but in terms of Conciliar history and the implementation of Conciliar teaching, throughout the worldwide Church, it is but a moment. A century is the accepted period for the whole Church to embrace changes that inevitably flow from a Council and the process is not without periods of discomfort and even dissent.
 
The extract from the prophet Malachi in this Sunday’s First Reading (1:14-2:2, 8-10) seems challengingly appropriate especially for the peoples of Western Europe whose connectivity with their Christian heritage has become so weakened - “You have turned aside from The Way, and have caused many to falter by your instruction; you have made void the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts.” Our lands are not short of historic places for the worship of God now visited by tourists but no longer filled with God-worshipping communities. The many church buildings can be compared to the sumptuous robes of the Pharisees, where appearance disguised their spiritual hollowness.
 
It would appear in our day, tragically, that no Christian entity is without its share of blame involving the abuse of young people. But the abused are not limited to young people nor is abuse confined to sexual activity. The abuse of power, position and influence within the Christian Church is just as prevalent and can be as damaging. The role of a prophet, we might need to be reminded, is not to foretell the future but to reveal God’s judgement on our present – “I, therefore, have made you contemptible and base before all the people, since you do not keep my ways, but show partiality in your decisions.” There is no denying that the Catholic Church has been shown wanting in many countries.
 
Our extract from Malachi began –
And now, O priests, this commandment is for you:
If you do not listen, if you do not lay it to heart,
to give glory to my name, says the Lord of hosts,
I will send a curse upon you and of your blessing I will make a curse.”

 
Again, the media spotlight is directed to the clergy, and not without justification. But it would wrong to exclude all Baptised lay people.  Because, by virtue of Baptism each Christian shares in the priesthood of Christ. After the Baptismal water was poured over our forehead, the celebrant anointed us with the Oil of Chrism (the oil of Consecration) saying: “God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has freed you from sin, given you a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and welcomed you into his holy people. He now anoints you with the Chrism of Salvation. As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet and King, so may you live always as a member of his body, sharing everlasting life.”   
 
Therefore, all the Baptised, not just the clerical component, share in the worldwide Church's missionary activity. All, therefore, share responsibility for the multiple forms of abuse that have infected the whole body of the Church in every age. In addition, each Baptised member has a ministry, in her/his own right, in whichever form of apostolate it is that God has called them.
 
 An indication of awareness of culpability is how often we individually and specifically pray, and in other ways do penance, not only for the victims of abuse but also for the abusers, that they may cease their abusing and seek God’s forgiveness? Do we even hear such a prayer repeated sufficiently in our church services?
 
 The presence of God’s Holy Spirit will protect God’s people, we believe, from being taught falsehood and thereby led astray from the Faith by sinful shepherds, clerical or lay. This is why, Jesus, in the Matthew extract, tells us:
 "The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.  Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice.”
 
Because God guarantees the freedom of our conscience and will he will not allow his faithful to be led, by corrupt shepherds, into any falsehood that will endanger our faith and eternal salvation. But God cannot prevent self-harm coming to those of his faithful who freely choose to distance themselves by turning aside from his Word-made-Flesh. A gold or silver cross hanging around the neck is no more than an ornament if Christ is not resident in each heart and soul.
 

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (29.10.17)

Identifying The Truth

People, when asking questions, reveal much about themselves. Jesus’ questioner in Matthew’s Gospel for the 30th Sunday (22:34-40) is a case in point. Jesus’ previous questioners demonstrated, either individually or collectively, a depth of antagonism as in last Sunday’s Gospel (Matt: 22:15-22). Their aggressive intentions may likely have revealed themselves in an insincerity of tone or manner, or both! Posture would also have played a part in revealing their irritation. A questioner may try to disguise his or her true feelings behind a smile or a false humility. Jesus had quickly become well experienced in reading the less obvious dispositions of many interrogators.
 
Several of our senses are involved whenever we listen with full attention. In addition to our hearing, our eyes look at and, in a sense, into the person posing the question. Our sense of smell may contribute to an overall evaluation of the questioner. Our sense of touch may be involved. Touch can be an informative means of communication telling us about our questioner’s disposition. These multiple points of information can happen simultaneously or over a short period of time. Either way, they should help us determine the manner of our response.

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Matthew tells us how a question from a Pharisee and scholar of the (Jewish) Law probed Jesus’ authenticity. Jesus’ response was entirely different from his previous encounter with the combined forces of Pharisees and Herodians whom he addressed as “You hypocrites!” To this questioner Jesus said:
"You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments."

Imagine how you would read aloud Jesus’ response for the benefit of your listeners. You surely wouldn’t shout or employ a stern voice and manner, would you? Jesus must have inwardly rejoiced that here was a genuine question from a genuine believer and moderated his response in word and in his manner accordingly.

Jesus was appealing to his questioner’s faith and religious knowledge. As in the case of Jesus, his questioner had been immersed since his infancy in the beliefs and culture of his people. Both would have lived their faith through their home and family relationships as well as with their synagogue communities. There was a wholeness to their lives that was deeply embedded in their relationship with God. For Jesus, the relationship with his heavenly Father was unique. For the young Pharisee and future scholar of the Law the path was through prayer and study.

Now, grown to adulthood and despite being strangers, the faith Jesus and the Pharisee valued and shared enabled them to communicate at a level those around were unable to appreciate or understand. Their faith united them, in a relatively short time, with one another at a level deeper than word and despite the hostilities of their surroundings.

The Pharisee and scholar of the Law heard not only the words that Jesus spoke to him but the truthfulness of the encouragement that Jesus offered as well as the love with which he communicated his teaching. The Pharisee did not ask for further clarification nor did he attempt to endorse what Jesus had said – as another Pharisee had once done (Mark 12:32) Moreover this Pharisee had addressed Jesus as “Teacher” and had done so without any hint of sarcasm or hypocrisy despite the hostile environment around him.

This particular communion of minds and hearts may not have lasted long, but it hadn’t needed to. Jesus had combined two Commandments from the Torah and in so doing had underlined the principles that govern the enactment of all the Commandments.

The first Commandment Jesus quoted (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) is an integral part of the Shema, the prayer a faithful Jew makes at the start of each day. Jesus then added a second Commandment giving it equal status with the first. Quoting Leviticus (19:18), Jesus said, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” The Book of Leviticus explains the love of neighbour as ‘right relationship’ which, for the Jew, is the meaning of justice.

Jesus had given a teaching full of incontrovertible Truth. His questioner was both satisfied and full of admiration. This ‘Teacher’ had given an equality of status to two of the Commandments and made them pivotal in the living of all the Commandments.  
 
From the writings of the time it is clear that there was constant controversy among scholars of the Law as to which of the 613 commandments of the Torah should be prioritized since no one could be expected to observe all 613 commandments. The two Commandments Jesus linked are at the core of all his teaching. The love of God and the love of one’s neighbour as oneself are the interpretive key to the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus ‘cements’ his teaching in the last sentence of Matthew’s extract for this Sunday: “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments."
 
Given the controversies that bedevil our world today and the incessant aggravation that stalks our streets, it is worth noting that the deep communion of minds and hearts between Jesus and the Pharisee, who was a scholar of the Law, took place in an aggressively charged setting.

Believing communicant Christians need to identify one another and draw strength from their oneness in faith. On the shop floor, in the office or staffroom Christians need not be in isolation. Nearby, even hidden within a controversial setting, can be another or others with whom there is a Baptismal link waiting to be made. Our Baptism calls us to be proactive in searching for other members of our Baptismal family – especially those who may have succumbed to weariness and fatigue.

This last Sunday of October has long been called “Reformation Sunday” by Protestant denominations. The Catholic Church, too, has shared in this the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We thank God for the progress already made in the long and winding path of Reconciliation and Mutual Understanding between the various Christian communities, especially since the Second Vatican Council.

It is important that Catholic Christians pay attention to this significant commemoration.  Firstly, to confess that, realistically, some of the Catholic Church’s own behaviour, at the time, contributed to it. And, secondly, to relaunch our prayer and work for Christian Unity.

Successive Popes since Pope John XXlll have said, without exception, that praying and working for Christian Unity is not an optional extra for the Catholic family. This Sunday’s Readings offer us an excellent opportunity to expound on what unites us as Christians by helping us focus on the essential aspects of discipleship and being willing to let go of whatever is not crucial or essential to Christian living.
 

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (22.10.17)

“You Hypocrites!”
 
Jesus is not a name-caller without reason. In this, as in each instance, he is motivated by the Truth. Matthew (22:15-22) provides our Gospel extract for this 29th.Sunday.
 
 The Pharisees were perhaps reeling from the impact of the three parables that Jesus had addressed to them in public revealing the mis-directedness of their faith.  In their anger, they concentrated their efforts to entrap Jesus hoping thereby to discredit him in the eyes of the people.

 The Pharisees’ depth of determination explains their collaboration, in this instance, with their bitter rivals the Herodians. Whereas the Pharisees claimed to be the supremely orthodox followers of Judaism, the Herodians, who equally were Jews, were the political agents of the Roman puppet-king Herod, king of Galilee, and were, like him, subservient to Rome.

In those days, as now, taxation was loathed. In Palestine the more so because, as an occupied territory, taxation was governed by the Roman Empire. For the Jew, the burning question was: "Is it lawful, under Jewish law, to pay tribute to Rome?"

The Roman Empire exacted three regular taxes. A ground tax; the payment to the government of one tenth of the grain, and one fifth of the oil and wine each produced; this tax was paid partly in kind, and partly in money. Then there was income tax. This amounted to one percent of a person’s income. And finally, a poll tax that had to be paid by every male person from the age of fourteen to the age of sixty-five, and by every female person from the age of twelve to sixty-five. It amounted to one denarius. It was what Jesus called the tribute coin being the equivalent of about 4p. Bear in mind that, in those days, 3p was the usual day's wage for a working-man.

It was the Poll Tax in which the Pharisees and Herodians chose to set their entrapment question. It posed Jesus a very real dilemma. If he said that it was unlawful to pay it, they would promptly report him to the Romans for promoting sedition and his arrest would follow. If Jesus said that it was lawful to pay the tax, he would stand discredited in the eyes of his own people. The Jews resented all the Roman taxes. But they resented the Poll Tax even more for religious reasons. For the Jews, God was their only king; their nation was a theocracy. Therefore, to pay tax to an earthly king was to insult God. The more orthodox of the Jews insisted that any tax paid to a foreign king was religiously offensive to God. The Pharisees and Herodians believed that whichever way Jesus answered their contrived question, he would lay himself open to a serious accusation.
 
By way of background it may be useful to remember that one of the first acts of each successive Roman Emperor, on gaining power, was to issue his own coinage as evidence of the reality of his authority. This official coinage was held to be the property of the Emperor. In asking his questioners to show him a denarius coin, Jesus was inviting them to condemn themselves.

Under Jewish law no orthodox Jew was allowed to carry anything of an idolatrous nature, including coinage because it bore the image of the Emperor. By providing Jesus with a denarius the orthodox Pharisees and their less orthodox Herodians showed themselves to be ‘unclean’ before the assembled people. It was for this reason, among others, that Jesus addressed them as: “You hypocrites!” They were themselves infringing the very Law with which they hoped to entrap Jesus!

Jesus asked his interrogators whose image the coin, that they had provided, bore? They answered: “Caesar’s”. Jesus then delivered his judgement, still quoted widely today – “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar; and to God what belongs to God."

His interrogators’ hypocrisy had been defeated by The Truth speaking truth. Undiluted truth is the answer that cannot be gainsaid. Matthew tells us that on this occasion Jesus’ questioners were silenced and surprised and: “they left him alone and went away”. Truth is timeless and never goes out of date though it is always under devious attack from Satan and many fall victim to falsehood he confects.
 
Christians hold a double citizenship. They are citizens of the country of their domicile. This citizenship places them under a debt of obligation to act responsibly; failure to be upright earthly citizens is also a failure in Christian duty to God as well as to fellow citizens.

Christians are also ‘citizens’ of heaven. There are matters of religion and principle when the Christian’s responsibility to God takes precedence over their civil citizenship. It may well be that the two citizenships will never clash; they do not need to.

A Christian convinced that a particular principle is the will of God must uphold it even at the cost of her or his life. Equally, if a Christian is convinced that a civil law is against the will of God, they must resist it in all lawful ways and take no part in it. Where the boundaries between the two duties lie, Jesus does not say. That is for a person’s own informed conscience to test.

A Christian has the obligation to inform his/her conscience with a continuous updating that involves the grace of the Holy Spirit received through the Sacraments, an effective appreciation of the legitimate and authoritative teaching of The Church and the person’s own daily prayer. An informed conscience is a living entity. Unless it is continuously and correctly informed it is unreliable, subject to the infiltration of evil and therefore less fit for purpose that it should be.
 
The truth that Jesus lays down in this incident is how to determine to be, at one and the same time, a faithful citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven and a true citizen of the country of one’s domicile. As St. Peter said, "Fear God. Honour the emperor", God comes first. ( 1 Peter 2:17 ).
 

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.”
 (Jeremiah 1:5)

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)

‘Previously’

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 and 3rd 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.