Sunday Reflection

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time (24.02.19)

Vade Mecum
   
The two words are a Latinised version of our word ‘Handbook’. But then, the English word handbook is not as expressive as the two Latin words. A ‘vade mecum’ implies a trusted, reliable and proven, source of information enabling a person to achieve their hoped-for outcome from a journey into the unknown. People continue to use the phrase ‘vade mecum’ to describe how they treasure the source of the guidance they have received. When someone hands you their Bible and the leather binding is well patinated, the page crispness has lessened and their gold edging is worn, you know immediately that this is a well-used and revered source of inspiration.
 
The Book of Samuel (1st Reading for the 7th Sunday) describes a further incident in King Saul’s jealous pursuit of the increasingly popular and younger, David. Unchecked jealousy, is a relationship killer that has crippled humanity from the days of the exiled Adam and Eve up to our own time. In the era of Saul and David there were no books. Revealed wisdom, handed on verbally by successive generations, was stored in the heart because it was regarded as sacred. Can what has pride of place in many 21st century people’s hearts be designated as sacred?
 
Though David caught his persecutor asleep, he refused to take advantage of the situation and allow Saul to be killed because David recognised in Saul ‘the Lord’s anointed’. David had consulted his heart’s ‘vade mecum’. Today, worldwide, many would recognise Pope Francis as ‘the Lord’s anointed’. He, on the other hand and consulting daily his ‘vade mecum’, would recognise those who sleep rough around the Vatican, begging on its streets, as ‘the Lord’s anointed’. In response, Francis has set up medical and care centres, tucked beneath Bernini’s gigantic and majestic colonnades, for these destitute ‘anointed of the Lord’.

God’s Word-made-Flesh, Jesus the Christ, has continued to pour his own ‘vade mecum’ into the hearts of the Baptised through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. There is no situation that can confront us, as the Lord’s anointed, for which we will not find a Christlike response if we are familiar with the treasures of his Divine gift. The Baptised, who value and live daily their adoption as the sisters and brothers of Jesus and adopted children of the Father, have Jesus’ vade mecum as their constant companion. The Baptised who have packed away or put aside Jesus’ ‘vade mecum’ from their hearts are like those with a Bible on their bookshelf in mint condition, as on the day it was published, but unopened.
 
‘Lectio Divina’, another Latin term meaning ‘divine reading’, describes a reading of Scripture in which we gradually let go of our own agenda. Instead, we open ourselves to what God is longing for us to hear. In the 12th century, a Carthusian monk called Guigo, described what, for him, were the essential stages of Lectio Divina. Nowadays, there are various ways of practicing Lectio Divina, either individually or in groups, but Guigo's description remains fundamental.
 
Guigo's first stage is the ‘lectio’, the ‘reading’.
Finding a quiet and familiar corner, we sit and try to empty our over-active minds and imaginations. Initially, until we become accustomed to the process, this learning of stillness takes most of the time we have allocated for the Lectio Divina.   
When we are mentally stilled, we read The Word of God, slowly and reflectively. Next, we pause for a few moments so that the Word begins to sink into us. Think of pouring water on the surface of dry soil in a pot with a plant dying of drought. The secret is to pour only a little water and then pause, allowing time for the soil to slowly become absorptive. Then repeat the exercise as often as necessary until the soil is sufficiently moist. If we pour too much water at the start, it just runs of the surface, spills and the roots remain dry! Any passage of Scripture can be used for this way of prayer but short passages are recommended.

The second stage is ‘meditatio’ (reflection) where we invite God to help us take from the passage what He wishes to give us.  

The third stage is ‘oratio’ (response) where we set aside our thinking and calculating thereby allowing our hearts to speak openly to God reflecting what, in the passage of the Word of God, has struck us.

The fourth stage of Lectio Divina is ‘contemplatio’ (rest) where we let go of our own ideas, plans and meditations, our holy words and thoughts. Instead, we, as it were, allow the Word of God to hold us. We listen, at the deepest level of our being, to God who speaks within us with a still small voice. As we listen, we are gradually enlightened from within.
 
Over time, this process of Lectio Divina will have an effect on the way we live. The way we live is the true test of the authenticity of our prayer and it should become evident in our daily lives.
 
These stages of Lectio Divina are not fixed rules of procedure but simply guidelines as to how the prayer normally develops. Its natural development is towards greater simplicity, with us doing less thinking and more listening. How much time should be given to each stage depends very much on whether it is used individually or in a group.
 
The practice of Lectio Divina as a way of praying the Scriptures has been a fruitful source of growing in relationship with Christ for many centuries and in our own day is being rediscovered by many individuals and groups. The Word of God is alive and active and will transform each of us if we open ourselves to receive what God chooses to give us.
 
For the uninitiated there may be a question about what Scripture to choose. The Gospels hold a preeminent place. A personal favourite is John’s Gospel being so location centred enabling the reader to visualise where Jesus was. There are also many dramatic conversations instanced. The ‘summation’ with which John introduces his Gospel could be transferred to the end, if a reader so wished.
 
‘Lectio Divina’, our daily reading of Scripture, expresses our love for our heavenly Father. The more we contemplate the treasure, the more the treasure reveals itself to us. It is like a masterly musical score or painting, the more we listen or view the more we understand what the composer or painter wished to reveal to us
 
(With thanks to the Carmelites for information about Guigo)

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time (17.02.19)

No Man’s Land / Blessings and Woes
 
‘Contrast’ is one theme that threads through the 6th Sunday’s Scripture extracts. The prophet Jeremiah (1st Reading) contrasts those who trust in themselves with those who trust in God. St. Paul (2nd Reading) contrasts those whose vision is limited to the here and now with those who believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the Gospel, Jesus contrasts those who bring blessings with those who bring curses.
 
Most people have heard of the phrase ‘No Man’s Land’. It describes ribbons of land that divide and contrast hugely different regimes of power. A long established contemporary political example is the ‘DMZ’ (demilitarised zone) that has separated North and South Korea since 1953. The Korean ‘DMZ’, 160 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, forcibly divides one people. But no ‘DMZ’ is a barrier to Evil.
 
Mythology contains many falsehoods about supposed protection from Satan, for those who continue to believe in Evil. Some wear a gold cross as a protection. Others continue to hang up garlic. A commonly heard misconception is: ‘I don’t do anything wrong’. Hospital chaplains tell of the clusters of ‘miraculous medals’ attached to a patient’s pillow in the belief that they will bring about that patient’s recovery. Just as a physical ‘DMZ’ or the wearing of a ‘holy’ symbol may give the impression of a secure barrier, we know in our hearts, it is not. Our defence against Evil is nothing we wear or have near to hand. A person’s only defence is the vitality of their heartfelt and lived faith in Jesus, which cannot be conjured up in a moment. The religious furniture of our churches may be a comforting sight but they cannot substitute for faith.
 
It may be helpful to reflect that contrasting opposites, in the physical world, actually touch one another without the intervention of any type of ‘DMZ’. For example, an oasis in an arid desert. Look at the Egyptian capital of Cairo. It is the world’s 15th largest metropolitan area. Yet it is encapsulated, on its landward fronts, by the enormity of the Saharan desert. You can, as it were, step off the edge of city life and into the sand-dunes.
 
The analogy of the cheek by jowl existence of an oasis in a desert also aptly identifies the daily dilemma for Christians in this earthly exile. While the Son of God walked on this earth there was no ‘DMZ’ between Jesus and Satan. The battle between them was unceasingly very close. At every breath of his earthly journey, Jesus would have been intensely aware of the devilish closeness of his, and our, implacable nemesis. The encounters we read of in the Gospels (e.g. Herod’s murder of the Innocents Matt: 2:16;  Satan’s temptation of Jesus Matt. 4:1-11;  Peter’s rebuke of Jesus Matt.16:22-23) are but snippets of the incessant battle that reached from Bethlehem to Calvary and which continues today in Christ’s Body on earth, the community of the Baptised. For, as St John tells us, this world is in the power of the Evil One (1 John 5:19)

Some members of our Christian family, who face daily physical persecution, quickly learn to distinguish fellow Christians from persecutors. Christians faced with neighbourly indifferentism have a significantly more difficult task. For, lurking beneath that indifference, could be a potential persecutor. Committed Christians, in the UK, are more likely to be faced with apparent indifference than with out and out persecution, at least for the moment.
 
But the constant proximity of apparent indifferentism can be injurious to the Christian. It can weaken and undermine the spiritual commitment of the Baptised. This is the more true when both share the same living space. No one can forcibly take God’s love and grace from the Baptised, as Jesus said:
“The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life; they will never be lost and no one will ever steal them from my hand.” (John 10:27-28)

But besieged Christians can be induced to relinquish their thirst for God’s sustenance, his grace, substituting for it the abundance of false life that is so prevalent in an ever more secular Europe. Christians need one another to sustain an ever- watchful alertness faced, as we are, with rampant Evil. God’s Word is our light.

The Letter to the Hebrews (4:12-13) tells us:
“For the Word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.”
If the Word of God penetrates soul and spirit and divides marrow from the bone, then it is as well for us to remember that the Evil One will have similar access, while we abide in this land of exile. For Satan not to have such access would upset the equilibrium God promised for our free will. God wants us to love him because we choose, freely, to do so.
It is helpful to remember always that, in this world, love is not a state of perfect being. We think of the word love as a verb. But it is also an active noun, like the word struggle. To love God, as He calls us to do, is to struggle to be like God as we have seen God express Himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Shadowing our every effort to love God will be our nemesis. This battle, in which there is no ‘DMZ’, was initiated with our Baptism and it continues until our last breath when, please God, we can say “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit”.

Someone said, “I hope I remember the words when I am dying.” A fellow Christian and good friend responded, “My friend, those words of Psalm 36 prayed by Jesus as he breathed his last, have been on your lips daily throughout your life. You know them by heart.”

Each moment of each day is sacred because in it we make a choice. There is no ‘DMZ’, no middle ground, God and Satan are before us and the choice is ours.
 

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (10.02.19)

The Purgation of Sin
 
For those with long memories the word ‘purge’ can recall past horrors. People associate ‘purges’ with dictators like Stalin and Hitler. But that is only one, albeit tragic and frightening, association for the word. A purgation is essentially a cleansing or purification process. People book into ‘health farms’ for a purgatorial constitutional cleansing to restore and promote their bodily health and physical wellbeing.

Someone once said that ‘a cleansing of the soul’ is the single most loving and powerful act of service you can perform for the wellbeing of all life on earth. How does a ‘cleansing of the soul’ differ from a purgatorial constitutional cleansing? The Catholic Church teaches that Baptism endows us with Divine adoption and, in so doing, frees us from whatever sin, or none in the case of an infant, may have accumulated up to that point. Baptism readies us, as it were, for our purgatorial journey of life on earth as a prelude to, please God, our life with Him in the eternity of heaven.

Why should we consider our life on earth to be purgatorial? Because, though freed from Original sin at Baptism, we are born into a sin-polluted world. All humanity inherits the weakness of sin which results from the disobedience of our first parents. The sole exception is Mary, The Immaculate Mother of God-made-Man. Jesus, her Son, who though without sin, took to himself our human nature with all its accumulated sinfulness. His mission was to make amends to his Father on our behalf. A ‘restitution’ that we were unable to make. Thereby Jesus enabled us to be reconciled with his heavenly Father.

Baptism also brings us the new enhancement of adoption. Being Jesus’ adopted sisters and brothers, we are called to join him in his continuing mission to reconcile humanity with God and with one another. The former being impossible without the latter. The process of purgation is the making of amends, the making of restitution, for whatever humanity has chosen to do, or omit doing, that has offended God and harmed our brothers and sisters. Whenever we offend God we injure our brothers and sisters too, for we are one Body. As St. Paul wrote to his beloved Corinthians:
“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.” (1 Cor.12:26)
Jesus called us to this mission of restitution when he said: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)
Jesus emphasises how we are to love one another with his words: “As I have loved you” which is the less quoted part of the text. Jesus’ pilgrimage of purgation led him to Calvary and the Cross. Countless of his adoptees, over the centuries since and continuing in our day, have experienced death through suffering and persecution. We call them martyrs for their faith.

The First Reading for this 5th Sunday, reminds us that the nearer we grow towards God the more we become aware of our own sinfulness. The testaments of the Saints emphasise this truth repeatedly. Isaiah’s words have found an echo in the lives of believers, uninterruptedly, right up to our own day:
 “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (6:1-2,3-8)

Conversely, the greater distance we move from God the less aware of our sinfulness. Satan schemes to keep us, recovering sinners that we are, as distanced from Jesus Christ as possible. He sells us the falsehood that because we are sinners, we are not able to approach God. The life of Jesus tells us the complete opposite. He forever associated and continues to associate with sinners. Today he does so through us, his Baptised family of recovering sinners. Jesus calls sinners repeatedly to himself and heals each who accepts his healing. It is appropriate to recall that even up to his last breath on Calvary’s Cross, Jesus healed one of those crucified with him while the other, as far as we know, refused his healing.

The only qualification we need for receiving God’s healing love is in accepting ourselves as being recovering sinners. Isaiah’s acceptance of his ‘purging’ gave him the confidence to offer himself to God.  
“Then one of the seraphim flew to me, holding an ember that he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with it, and said, “See, now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.” 

Do we too easily fail to implement the intended effect of God’s healing? When we receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation we are given a penance, usually in the form of a prayer. But is that, truly, the making of amends? The implementation of the ‘firm purpose of amendment’ begins with the absolution we receive in the Sacrament but it should continue with each breath we take thereafter. This should lead us to willingly collaborate with God, like Isaiah, in offering ourselves to Him for missioning. Satan will do his best to delay and distract us from making any such offering.

Every single sinner whom Jesus healed, he missioned or, if you prefer, commissioned to preach the Gospel. We do not know how or if each lived out his or her vocation. That is not our primary concern. Our mission, our Baptismal vocation, is to live each day for God and for others. It is in persevering as ‘recovering sinners’ that we make amends to God and to those whom we may have failed.

Baptism also calls us to collaborate with Jesus in making amends to His Father, who is also our Father, for the destructive sin that is rampant in this world. Neither age, nor state of health, nor location or financial situation are barriers preventing us from joining Jesus in his and our mission to the world. As Jesus reminds us:
 “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” (John 5:17)
  Purgation is a painstaking, laborious work of collaboration with the Holy Spirit in the struggle for souls who have inhaled the excesses of our world that is in the grip of Satan: 
“We are well aware that we are from God and the whole world is in the power of the Evil One.” (1John 5:19)
The spiritual pilgrimage of purgation is the making good of what belongs to God that has been willfully damaged by humanity.

In this Sunday’s Gospel (5:1-11) Luke tell us of Peter, faced with a daytime catch of fish that defied all that was known about fishing, echoing Isaiah’s words:
“Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
Despite his very public weaknesses, Jesus called the repentant Peter, the fisherman, to a very specific ministry. In effect, Jesus called Peter to deputize for him.
“You are Peter and, on this rock, I will build my Church …” (Matt.16:18)
Despite our many imperfections, each Baptised person is called to deputize for Jesus, not as the Pope, but as the accompanist, in Christ’s Name, for whomsoever the Baptised is linked with on a day by day basis. If you flinch at the seeming restriction of ‘each Baptised person’, Jesus reminds us in Matthew’s Gospel (22:14): “Many are called but few are chosen”. Everyone is called but only those who offer a truthful and loving response, however fragile, are eligible to be chosen.

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (03.02.19)

Home Truths
 
Centuries ago God’s choice identified a nomadic Middle-Eastern desert-dwelling tribe. God settled his tribe, the Israelites, under the leadership of Abraham, the founding father of the covenant between God and his chosen. Through Abraham, God revealed to the Israelites their mission. They were to promulgate knowledge of the Messiah promised by God. God’s Messiah, his only-begotten Son become man, would be an Israelite. Over time the Israelites morphed into the people now known as Jews. They spread all over the globe and, in so doing, disseminated knowledge of the Messiah they had been promised who would be one of their own. In this sense the Jews have been successful in fulfilling their mission to share widely knowledge of God’s promised Messiah. But, in rejecting belief in the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth as that Messiah, the Son of God made Man, they have denied themselves, up to the present time, access to the salvation that God had promised them. Jesus himself felt the pain of their refusal to acknowledge him, as Luke recalls in 19:41-44:
As Jesus approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”
  
In choosing the Jews to be his people, God did not institute a superior race. He did not make the Jews special in a hierarchical sense. It was they who, over time, ascribed to themselves a superiority that was to manifest itself in behavioural attitudes which brought them enemies and persecutions. Jews globally are not renowned for their integration with local communities. They live, at least the orthodox among them, by a different calendar and mindset. It is really only in financial, legal and commercial professions that the Jews have integrated and then only to shore up their position. Ecumenism as understood among the Christians is not practised by the Jews.
 
On his first return visit to his Nazareth synagogue Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2), as we recalled last Sunday. The opening words with which he then began his address to the congregation were well received. We read them, again, today, this 4th Sunday of the Year (Luke 4:21)
“Today this Scripture passage
is fulfilled in your hearing.”

With the hindsight of centuries, it would be fair for us to say that the Nazarian Jews who heard Jesus did not comprehend the truth being revealed by his words. Nevertheless, their appreciation abruptly changed to condemnation when Jesus went on to explain and exemplify that he, whom many of them would have watched grow up in their midst, was announcing himself as the living embodiment of the promise, that he was the Messiah. But what they knew of Jesus did not tally with what had come to be their expectation of the Messiah; namely, the restoration of their sovereignty as a people by military might. Jesus brought not a great army of liberation from Roman domination but a ragtag and bobtail group of followers.
 
Jesus gave them the hard-to-swallow examples from the prophets Elijah and Elisha in an attempt to exemplify for them how far his own people, the Jews, had distanced themselves from God.

God has sent Elijah, as his agent of relief, not to one of the many starving Jewish widows in a time of famine but to a Sidonian widow in Zarephath. And, though there were many Jewish lepers at that time, Elisha had been directed to be God’s agent of healing for a Syrian called Naaman.

The implication that it was the covenantal unfaithfulness of Jesus’ own people, the Jews, that made it impossible for God to come to their relief, was too much for the assembled Nazarenes. Moreover, they would have resented Jesus’ complimentary words regarding the Gentiles. By this stage in their ethnic development the Jews were so sure of their superiority as God’s chosen, that they utterly despised all Gentiles whom they regarded as fuel for the fires of hell.

Their indignation would have been compounded by such an unwelcome message being delivered by, in their eyes, a whippersnapper from their home town. They wanted rid of Jesus and were prepared for violence. But, as Jesus would say on other occasions, it was not his hour. He left them with their unsatisfied fury.
 
Notice how, in verse 16, Luke tells us: “Jesus came to Nazareth where he had been brought up, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day as he usually did.”

It may be helpful to realise that, in the synagogues of Jesus’ day, there would surely have been many practices and behavioural anomalies with which he would have been in radical disagreement and which grated on him. Yet, he went each Sabbath! The worship of the synagogues might have been far from perfect but Jesus never omitted joining himself to God’s worshipping people on God’s Day. Is there a message here for those Baptised who have given up church attendance?

For some, visits to the Holy Land – effectively Israel – are marred by the superior attitude displayed by some Jews in the country they call their own. I make no defence for such behaviour. However, I was reminded by a Rabbi friend that he, on his first visit to Israel, discovered that, as he walked along Jerusalem’s streets he was not feeling his customary need to be ‘looking over his shoulder’, for the first time in his life. It was a comment that made me think.

The teaching of the Second Vatican Council makes clear that we, Christians, are Baptismally obligated to pray for our Jewish brothers and sisters. We cannot seek oneness with the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, if we are not willing to seek communion with his Jewish brothers and sisters despite their current refusal to believe in his Divinity.
 
Jesus is the complete antithesis of superiority and exclusivity. St. Paul invites his Philippian converts to adopt the mind of Christ Jesus:
“Who, being in the form of God,
did not count equality with God something to be grasped.
But He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,     becoming as human beings are;
and being in every way like a human being,
He was humbler yet,
even to accepting death, death on a cross.”
(Philippians 2:6-8)
 
Aware of our constant need to ensure we are not ‘taking a splinter out of our neighbour’s eye while ignoring the plank in our own’ (Matt.7:5), this Sunday’s Gospel may prompt us to review how lovingly we are fulfilling God’s adoption of us … today!

3rd Sunday In Ordinary Time

The Future Is Now
 
Where we grow up provides sustainable lasting memories. The Gospels indicate that Nazareth was Jesus’ home for his youthful and formative years.
 
The Gospel extract for this 3rd Sunday of the Year comes from Luke 1:1-4 and 4:14-21. In the late Henry Wansbrough OSB’s ‘New Jerusalem Bible’, Jesus is described as having “the power of the Spirit in him” (4:14) for his first return visit to Nazareth after his baptism by cousin John the Baptiser.
Luke’s use of the phrase - “the power of the Spirit in him” – is so revealing. What Jesus chose to do and say, not only during this visit to Nazareth but thereafter throughout his public life, was the expression of his total communion with his heavenly Father - “This is my Son with whom I am well pleased” (Matt.3:17) - empowered through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Luke tells us that Jesus, when in Nazareth, went to the synagogue on the Sabbath as was his custom. There the youthful Jesus would be remembered but the adult Jesus would be unknown. Sabbath visitors at the synagogue would have been invited to read the Scripture. Jesus was now a visitor, having long since ceased to be a resident. He was handed the Scroll of the prophet Isaiah in which Jesus found the passage:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord..” (61:1-2)
 
As was customary, Jesus sat down and prepared to address the congregation. Would the congregation’s expectations have been coloured by their historic memories of Jesus or by reports that may have reached them from other places where he had interacted with people? In all likelihood the synagogue congregation would not have anticipated Jesus’ reported opening words:
“This Scripture text is being fulfilled today even while you are listening.” (4:21)
 
Those present who remembered the youthful Jesus would have recalled him as a conveyor of hope among his people who were daily under siege by violence, hunger and fear. They would have heard how Jesus, emerging into Jewish adulthood at twelve years of age celebrating his bar mitzva in Jerusalem, had remained in the Temple. When his Mother and foster-Father, who had searched Jerusalem for him for three days, eventually found him, he told them “Did you not realise that I must be about my Father’s business?’ (Luke 2:49)
Perhaps that Sabbath’s synagogue congregation remembered the youthful Jesus as an idealist who had refused to let the brutality of the military occupiers and the connivance of his own religious leaders crush his hope and his trust in God. His opening words to them in the Nazareth synagogue that Sabbath did more than covey hope, they revealed to them that he was, himself, the Divine promise personified!
Luke tells us (4:22) “And Jesus won the approval of all, and they were astonished by the gracious words that came from his lips.”
However, we are bound to wonder whether that ancient congregation had grasped the depths of Jesus’ revelatory statement? For that matter, how many, hearing his opening statement read aloud this Sunday, would grasp sufficiently of its depths?
 
Back then, in that Nazareth synagogue, the hesitations began to surface. “They (the people) said: ‘This is Joseph’s son surely?” In other words, how could this boy become man be other than as we remember him? It is characteristic of fallen human nature that we are slow, even reluctant, to accept the manifestation of holiness in those with whom we have shared, or currently share, the path of life. Is this because we are more apt to see the imagined faults of others before acknowledging their virtues – lest their virtues reflect adversely on ourselves?
 
The clarity in Jesus’ statement - “This Scripture text is being fulfilled today even while you are listening.” – tells us that he clearly a) knows who he is b) understands the primary focus of his mission and c) is fully committed to the mission his heavenly Father has entrusted to him.
Jesus’ chosen Isaiah text (61:1-2) makes, for the Baptised, an appropriate Morning Prayer:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord...”
We could amend Jesus’ opening synagogue statement to conclude our morning prayer saying something along the lines of:
May the Lord in his love and mercy help me to fulfil this Scripture text today to the best of my ability.
This format for our morning offering enables us to affirm daily a) our being, unworthy though we are, an adopted member of the family of God b) that our mission is to love God and our neighbour as our self and c) to reassert our commitment to this primary objective, despite our numerous failures at implementation.
 
Luke describes Jesus as having “the power of the Spirit in him. Each person Baptised is sealed with that same “power of the Spirit”. The evidence is visible in the lives of so many thousands of women and men, young as well as old, who chose wholehearted collaboration with God’s Holy Spirit, rather than a compromise in order to save their earthly lives. There is no day that passes when the history of Christianity in our islands does not provide us with knowledge of saints remembered by name as well as countless more whose individual names have not come down to us. It is a tragedy that ‘All Saints Day’, November 1st, has become obscured in recent decades by a commercial malevolent interest in Halloween on 31st October.
 
Today’s Gospel invites us, as the Baptised, to actively share in “the power of the Spirit”? Have we the conviction of our faith to live each God-given day in active engagement with Jesus’ opening statement in the Nazareth synagogue? - “This Scripture text is being fulfilled today……...”
It is true that actions speak louder than words but it is equally true that the Word of God-made-Man, living in us, continues to give us the focus for our choice of action.
As St. Paul wrote to his beloved Corinthian community: “You are God’s building… Everyone doing the building must work carefully. For the foundation, nobody can lay any other than the one that has already been laid, that is Jesus Christ.” (3:9-11)

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Less Obvious Signs
 
The small town of Cana, in Galilee, is easily missed. In Biblical times it owed its existence and prosperity to a strategic oasis at the confluence of several prosperous trading routes. It did not have, nor has, any architectural or historical claim to fame. In today’s language, Cana would have been classed as a ‘pit stop’ on a tourist route. However, it is the place of Jesus’ first recorded miracle. John’s Gospel for this 2nd. Sunday of the Church year (2:1-11) records the event.
In Cana, today, a small shrine, looked after by the Franciscans of the Holy Land, is thought to have been the location for the wedding, attended by the Mother of Jesus. John’s “Jesus and his companions had also been invited” (2:2) carries the inference that Jesus was not the centre of attention.
 
John tells us that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a named guest at the Cana wedding. At the behest of his mother, Jesus came to the rescue of the embarrassed bride and groom. He caused water to become fine wine. Folklore tales of this miracle abound. Sadly, most have become completely detached from their Biblical source. This is true of many common gestures and invocations.
People, for example, unhesitatingly touch wood (or what they assume to be wood) when speaking. Few have any idea of why they make the gesture other than other family members or friends did so. Even the Baptised are sometimes stunned when you explain that the gesture of ‘touching wood’ originated with people of faith invoking God’s blessing on their deepest desires by seeking to link them to The Wood of Christ’s Cross.
Such moments of explanation – and they take but a moment or two - enable us to fulfil our Baptismal promise to “go and teach all nations”. Jesus gave explanations to his companions thereby inviting them to do the same. See Luke 7:24-27 or Matthew 11:7-9.
 
Explaining the origin of common gestures and invocations may help other pilgrims on life’s path recover what they had not even realised had been lost or stolen! It can be unsettling to discover how Satan, with devilish stealth, can steadily weaken an unwary Baptised’s relationship with Jesus Christ until, finally, only the outer shell of words and gestures remain. Satan literally steals the heart out of a person’s faith reducing words and actions to unthought-through rote expressions with no real content of faith in and love for Christ.
 
Jesus was continually alert to momentary opportunities for disseminating the Good News even in painful circumstances - see John 18: 28-40 / Luke 21: 1-4. When lengthier accompaniment was needed - as on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) – Jesus willingly gave it. We, too, given the opportunity can enlighten our fellow travellers perhaps helping to rekindle a doused faith. Such Christlike alertness requires us to be in daily communion with the Holy Spirit.
 
It would be understandable were we to focus on the ‘water becoming fine wine’ element of this Sunday’s Gospel. But John the Evangelist has woven so much more into his text.
Notice how John never presents Mary by name. Instead he refers to her here and throughout his Gospel as ‘the Mother of Jesus’. Could it be that John sees Mary’s role as more symbolic than personal? John tells us that the Mother of Jesus was already at the (Cana) wedding before her Son and his companions arrived. The inference being that their inclusion was due to Jesus’ Mother being a named guest. Is this John’s way of underlining how Mary, herself representing the Old Covenant, is also the harbinger of the New Covenant manifested in the appearance on earth of God-made-Man in the person of her Son, Jesus?
 
Maybe these points will support our reflection. They are, in part, based on the writings of J. Mateos y Juan Barreto, “El Evangelio de Juan”, Ediciones Chrstiandad, Madrid. 1979.
  • It is the Mother of Jesus, according to John, who sees that the supply of wine is exhausted. Having cast her as a representative of the faithful Israel, is John indicating that the Old Covenant has run its prescribed course?
  • John tells us how the Mother of Jesus turns to her Divine Son and presents the couple’s predicament but proffers no solution. Our prayers of intercession often appear to be telling God what we need him to do. Are we being reminded that it is sufficient to bring before God the world’s needs, as well as own, as we see them?
  • John tells us that there were six water jars, one short of the Biblical number of completeness namely, seven. Is he indicating the incompleteness of the Old Covenant while perhaps prompting us to consider if our fulfilment of our own Baptismal promises has slipped or even been derailed?
  • John describes the water jars as being made of stone. Amphorae would normally be of earthenware. Is John suggesting that our hearts, too, can become stone-like? – see Ezekiel 36:26.
  • The less-than-full jars held water for purification as laid down in the Old Testament. Is the emphasis on water purification a sign of the fragility of people’s relationship with God stemming from a fixation with the Law and the human unworthiness it proved? (see Romans ch.7)
  • Is Cana the unremarkable setting in which the incompleteness of the Old Covenant meets with the first public evidence of the New Covenant? For sure, this shortage-plagued wedding feast was not the celebration for which people longed.
 
In recording the interaction between Jesus and his Mother, John continues to weave his teaching into the story. Jesus address his Mother as “Woman”.
There are just three women in the Gospel whom Jesus addresses using the word ‘Woman’ – (1) Mary, his Mother, (John 2:4 and 19:26), (2) the Samaritan at the well (John 4:21) and (3) Mary Magdalene (John 20:13)
Respectively, they could represent (1) Israel as the faithful spouse; (2) the unfaithful Israel called to embrace conversion and (3) the people of the New Covenant - the Baptised as the spouse of the Risen Christ.
 
Jesus’ response to his Mother’s unspoken request was: “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.”
Jesus made it clear that while he had not come to revitalise the Old Covenant, his “hour” for the implementation of the new order had not yet arrived. By her response, his Mother fulfilled her prophetical role by turning to the servants and telling them: “Do whatever he tells you.” In the Mother of Jesus’ words can we hear a reflection of Israel’s much earlier promise to God? “Everything the Lord has said we will do!” (Exodus 19:8)
 
John tells us, Jesus then initiated the first of his many ‘signs’ by which he would bring his mission to completion on the Cross on Calvary (John 19:30) At Cana, it was the generous provision of fine wine. On Calvary, it was the most generous provision of his life for our salvation.
 
Perhaps some of the foregoing may help you formulate an appropriate response when you next hear a reference to a ‘water into wine’ moment.

Baptism of the Lord

Baptism As An Expedition
 
Baptism is, sadly, thought of by many as a one-off event. Whereas, in fact, Baptism is ‘the gateway to life in the Holy Spirit and the door which gives access to the other Sacraments’. (Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) Chapter 1 1213) The Baptism of a child is the unique launchpad for that child’s lifelong Sacramental programme of accompaniment and support to a mature, fully-fledged, lifelong communion with the Body of Christ on earth, the Church.

The key figures, in the Baptism of a child, are parents. They give the essential and irreplaceable Baptismal accompaniment and support day in, day out. Giving this Baptismal accompaniment to their Baptised siblings also enables parents, en route, to recalibrate, as it were, their own Sacramental formation. Often the language they remember describing Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Communion will have developed just as ‘The Penny Catechism’ has been replaced by the CCC. While essential truths remain unchanged and unchangeable, the way in which that truth is expressed may be quite different. Parents find the vocabulary provided by their memory no longer corresponds with the vocabulary their siblings bring home from their Catholic school or parochial catechetical classes.

So, while it is true that parents are the first teachers of their children, it is equally true that their children will lead the parents in an essential updating of their religious beliefs. Nowhere could this have been more dramatically experienced than in the household of the Holy Family. Mary and Joseph would have shared all the history of their Jewish heritage with Jesus, backed up by the local synagogue instruction for all young Jews. For his part, Jesus would have continued to introduce his mother and foster-father to wholly new experiences of the Divine that had begun with the Annunciation. So, while they walked with him through his infancy and childhood, he ‘walked with them’ through their initiation into Christianity though, at the time, they would not have known it as such.
 
 ‘The Baptism of the Lord’, today’s Feast, is liturgically pigeonholed into a single event. It gives us little insight to the background through which Jesus had made his way to John the Baptiser at the Jordan. For Jesus his baptism marked a milestone in his transition from childhood, through youth, to young man and finally adulthood. Previously, he had lived a private life. Henceforth, he would live a very public, if short, life. Jesus would have prepared his mother for this milestone (presuming his foster-father Joseph to have died by this time). 

Jesus, now in his late twenties, presented himself to his cousin, John the Baptiser, in the river Jordan along with many fellow Jews each coming for the ‘baptism of repentance’. Jesus, being without sin, had nothing of which to repent. In fact, his was a Baptism in reverse. For the other Jews, their ‘baptism of repentance’ was divestment from their previous sins. For Jesus, ‘baptism’ marked his willingness to take upon himself the accumulative sin not only of his fellow Jews but of all humanity, past, present and future. Jesus was being Baptised into his unique vocation to be the Saviour of the World.

Little wonder then that John the Baptiser was hesitant and in need of Jesus’ encouragement: Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.” Then John consented.”  (Matt. 3:13-17)
 
All John’s hesitation would have been instantaneously alleviated by the Divine manifestation that came upon Jesus as he rose from the water. Mark’s Gospel extract for today’s feast (1:7-11) gives us the bare bones of that stupendous event. Jesus had freely chosen to acquiesce in his heavenly Father’s will. That acquiescence consequently allowed God the Father to confirm His Only Begotten Son’s unique vocation. Little wonder then that John’s Gospel (3:30) recalls John the Baptiser’s later statement: “He (Jesus) must become greater; I must become less.
 
The Annunciation had brought a Baptismal-type experience to Mary. A Baptismal experience, rather than a Baptism, because Mary, being without sin, has no need of Baptism. Mary accepts God the Father’s invitation to a unique expression of communion with Him by becoming the mother of Jesus, his Only-Begotten Son, God-made-Man. Traditional Catholic belief holds that Mary had previously chosen to forego the prospect of motherhood wishing to give God her whole life. This is a major decision for any woman but especially for a Jewess as Jews believe that the Messiah will be born of a Jewess. Jewish women, therefore, willingly embrace motherhood. Beginning at the annunciation Mary embarked on the long process of theological adjustment through which she came to appreciate how, with God, all things are possible. ‘Baptismal’ grace flowed into Mary initiating, within her, the Incarnation of God. A ‘Baptismal’ like process that would be revealed to her and Joseph in the milestones of her Divine Son’s journey for Life. It may be helpful to re-read Luke 1:40-45 paying to particular attention to Mary’s answer to Gabriel: ‘You see before you the Lord’s servant, let it be done to me as you have said.”  
 
Jesus accompanied his mother to her ‘Confirmation’ – her complete acknowledgement of being adopted by God - through her dialogue with her cousin, Elizabeth, and the interaction between Jesus, in Mary’s womb, and John the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb - Luke 1:40-45.

The lifelong aspect of their commitment came to Mary, and her husband Joseph, when they presented the eight-day old Jesus to God at the Temple. As Mary and Joseph brought Jesus in, Simeon and Anna identified him:
Jesus’ foster-father and mother marvelled at what Simeon said about him. Simeon’s prayer, the ‘Nunc Dimittis’, forms part of the daily Night Prayer of the Church.  

“Then Simeon blessed them (Joseph and Mary) and said to Mary, his mother: 
“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Many a parent knows both the joy and the pain of parenting as, for example, when Baptised siblings walk away from a life of faith. In Mary’s case that sword was soon to arrive at the threats to her Infant’s life that caused the family to flee to Egypt.
 
 
Mary’s on-going adjustment in understanding and accepting her role as Mother of the Messiah - her and Joseph’s ‘Baptismal’ journey – continued until Jesus reached the age of twelve. We know it as ‘The Finding of Jesus in the Temple’. Luke (2:41-50) tells us the story.  Jesus’ twelfth birthday marked his coming of age – his bar mitzvah. He was now regarded as an adult. When his family and companions left Jerusalem for Nazareth, Jesus, unknown to Mary and Joseph, remained in the Temple.  
After a three-day search, Joseph and Mary finally found him in The Temple dialoguing with the elders and teachers who were amazed at his wisdom.
When Mary and Joseph saw Jesus, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? We have been anxiously searching for you.”
“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Did you not know I had to be in my Father’s house?”
But they did not understand what he was saying to them.”
(Luke 2:48-50) Luke adds (2:51) that Jesus returned to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph and “lived under their authority”.
 
For sure, Mary and Joseph (were Joseph still alive at the time) would have been well prepared by Jesus for his pending decision to have cousin John the Baptiser (Luke 3: 21-22) commission his public life and mission with all the world-reshaping consequences that were to flow from it over those next few years.
 
However many years may have passed since your Baptism, perhaps you might like to consider reflecting on the rolling programme that, with hindsight, marks out your own Baptismal pilgrimage? And perhaps reflect, if memory allows, how your parents accompanied you.

The Epiphany of the Lord

Commitment
 
Many ‘New Year resolutions’ lack persevering personal commitment. Without it, any resolution is doomed to fail. Commitment is costly in terms of faith, personal discipline, trust and conviction. A person’s commitment to God will inevitably bring them the added pressure of Satan’s tireless opposition. He specialises in the undermining art of compromise to weaken a person’s faith in God. Jesus exemplifies for us how our commitment, supported by the Holy Spirit, can triumph over compromise – see Luke 4:1-13.
 
At the outset of each new freely-chosen venture that has God at its core expect Satan to test your resolve from every angle. We know from personal experience how Satan’s temptations can be thoroughly uncomfortable. They should not be feared for they can, with God’s grace, not only be withstood but actually deepen our sense of faith and trust in God’s presence.
 
The Epiphany, which we celebrate today, commemorates some men of means, possibly unconnected, who set out on journeys without an identified destination. Traditionally, Christians call them ‘The Wise Men’ (Matt. 2). But how wise, in the worldly sense of the word, would it have been for each to commit himself to such an unknown? Commitment is generally founded upon layered trust with a generous dose of experience. In the Epiphany, we have no clue about the previous trust and experience of these Wise Men other than their being mesmerized by a significant star.
 
Only the barest outline of detail remains about why these ‘Wise Men’, from the East, were individually enthralled by a particular star. There is no certainty about their names, their number or their ethnic origin. All we can deduce is that these astrologically alert Easterners must have had an unusually strong sense of commitment to undertake such journeys. Having embarked on their expeditions into the unknown, guided by the same star, it is presumed their paths converged. One benefit would have been a renewal of impetus for their newly combined expedition.
 
The distinct lack of recorded detail about these ‘Wise Travellers’ has allowed much mythology about them to accumulate. There is no Biblical record of their receiving inspiration, individually or collectively.  There is just the brilliance of one particular star. Lengthy and arduous might best describe the daily conditions of their journey. They may possibly have set out long before Jesus was conceived, let alone born.
They would have gained knowledge from the peoples through whose territory they passed as well as imparting their own knowledge. This cross-fertilization of knowledge, ideas and beliefs is akin to a form of pre-evangelisation. St. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, mentions something similar in Ch.3:7-9:
Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”
 
Perhaps along the way, they had contact with believing diasporan Jews who shared their expectation of a Messiah. How else are we to explain the Wise Travellers’ question when they eventually reached Jerusalem as recorded in Matthew? (2:1-2):
“Where is the infant king of the Jews? We saw his star as it arose and have come to do him homage.”
 
Every day, each Baptised person has not just the opportunity, but also the vocational responsibility, to, as it were, cross-fertilize by sharing their Baptismal grace with their companions at home, in work or in recreation. This is best achieved by sharing in gentle and small ways the essential gifts of Christ our brother namely, mutual love and forgiveness. Christians who trust in The Truth, who is Jesus, become themselves communicators of God’s gifts for others by their presence.
 
Before Jesus, God spoke through his prophets to his Chosen People. Other peoples took guidance from the elements and in particular the stars in the heavens. In the era of The Wise Men, the night sky was infinitely more clearly visible that it is for us living in our highly illuminated conurbations. The word, Epiphany, now sadly stripped of its Divine connotations, has been subsumed into our language to describe any awakening or realisation.
 
The strength of our commitment does not, of itself, negate effects of apprehension and caution with which the unknown confronts us. No matter how well we have prepared, or been prepared, the potentially destabilising element of the unknown remains alive throughout any period of commitment, which includes the entirety of our life on earth.
Our personal circumstances are subject to change, voluntary or imposed. The same is true for those for whom we have taken on a responsibility. Therefore, our daily renewal of commitment requires our informed and willed consent. Changes in health, employment and environment, for example, can happen without warning and have repercussive consequences.
For this reason, our commitment to daily as well as lifetime choices and decisions needs to be confirmed at the outset of each new day. If our daily Morning Offering has become a perfunctory prayer rattled off while we are starting our daily early morning routine, then perhaps we need to stop and take stock. It is God our Father to whom we are speaking! A symbolic nod or gesture will not suffice.
 
Commitment should not be confused with completion. Jesus re-committed himself to his heavenly Father’s will at his Baptism by John in the Jordan having previously committed himself on the occasion of his bar mitzvah in the Temple in Jerusalem aged 12. On that occasion, Jesus said to his Mother and foster-Father: “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49)
The completion of Jesus’ commitment came only briefly before he breathed his last on the Cross on Calvary: “It is accomplished.” (John 19: 30)
 
While the details of our daily Christian pilgrimage are unknown and unpredictable until they occur, our destiny has been well identified by Jesus. Christian discipleship rarely offers a black and white agenda or clearly mapped-out path. It does require daily trust in God’s guiding hand and, on our part, a courageous and loving heart.

The Holy Family

The Invisible Christmas Gift
 
Christmas’ indispensable ingredients cannot be bought, borrowed or even stolen! They are love and respect. They can only be found in the soul and heart of each person and result from God’s love and respect for us.  Their presence within us should influence a person’s outlook as well as underpinning one person’s response to another.
Love and respect held together the material poverty of the Bethlehem original crib for the migrant family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Jesus’ Mother and Foster-Father would have experienced the love and respect that underpinned their relationship in their utterly truthful interaction more than in any words they shared. Their mutual love and respect permeated not only them but their surroundings giving a unique validation to Jesus’ later teaching “that where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matt.18:20)
 
A humble crib became a place of profound peace and joy. In the midst of poverty, hunger, political repression, as well as displacement, two hearts, securely bonded by love and respect, nursed a new-born displaying all the beguiling charm, as well as the demanding cries, of a tiny infant thrust into a challenging and strange world. The profound peace and joy flowing out of their mutual love despite their weariness, and no doubt their fears with so many cares and unknowns, identified them to shepherds and foreigners alike.
Shepherds and wealthy foreigners occupied earthly space at opposite ends of the human spectrum. They had nothing in common save their humanity. They would likely never encounter one another. Yet both were unlikely partners in identifying a visually unremarkable poor couple with a baby. We might be tempted to put a little too much emphasis on a star and choirs of heavenly angels, real though they appear to be, treating them as we would a 21st century satnav. They were not. We know of coves where the wind has, over time, so sculptured the rock, that it produces organ-like melodies. Likewise, shooting stars still captivate us. Shepherds and wealthy foreigners alike, along with Simeon and Anna, and, previously, Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist, and God alone knows how many more, responded to the wonderfully real but quite intangible yet powerful love and respect that bonded this family distinguishing it from so many. As people tend to say, when words are inadequate, “you just know”.
 
What do folk carry away from reunions of family and friends at this time of the year? There will be the gifts as well as ingested food and drink. The gifts will probably fade with time until they find long term seclusion in ‘the loft’! Maybe some will become profitable discoveries for future generations! Gyms and keep-fit programmes may be undertaken to delete, not without difficulty, the ‘delicious’, which should not have been indulged in!
But, what invisible yet lasting gift will your relatives, friends and neighbours, carry from your home after a Christmas or New Year visit? Or, perhaps the question should be, what invisible yet beneficially lasting gift would you wish for them as a result of spending time in your company?
Would the weary or inadequate feel supported rather than judged; the spiritually impoverished, perhaps wounded, be offered accompaniment to find healing in the Lord?  Though Christ is at the heart of Christmas celebrations, He can be all too invisible in those celebrating. Would those whose personal hopes had suffered repeated setbacks be encouraged to re-construct their personal aspirations, using the values evident in the lives of your family?
 
 
As was said at the start, Christmas’ indispensable ingredients cannot be bought, borrowed or even stolen! They are love and respect. If you are blessed with them, be grateful. More than that, allow the Holy Spirit to reveal through you what, for the Christian, Christmas is all about. That, both those who visit you and those whom you visit will be inspired without, perhaps, a word being spoken. The Gospels of the Christmas feast record only the silence of Joseph and Mary – maybe the infant cried – but shepherds and wealthy travellers were enriched in ways they had never dreamed of and, in turn, quite likely enriched others.
 
The following reading from Ecclesiasticus is from today’s Feast. It may prove difficult for those who have experienced abuse, in one form or another, from a parent or parents. Sadly, there are too many who have suffered and continue to suffer. With this in mind, we can recall Jesus’ words that underpin all Scripture:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  (John 13:34-35)
 
 “God sets a father in honour over his children; a mother's authority he confirms over her sons. Whoever honours their father atones for sins, and preserves themselves from them. When they pray, they are heard; they store up riches who revere their mother. Whoever honours their father is gladdened by children, and, when they pray, are heard. Whoever reveres their father will live a long life; those who obey their father bring comfort to their mother.”
(Ecclesiasticus 3:2-6 – First Reading for this Feast)
 
 
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33rd Sunday In Ordinary Time

WHAT WILL IDENTIFY YOU AT THE JUDGEMENT?
 
This is the penultimate Sunday of the Church Year. Mark’s Gospel extract (13:24-32) focuses on the ‘end of time’ as we know it. The whole of Mark’s Chapter 13 makes thought-provoking reading. At the ‘end of time’ all man-made identities creating social distinctions and division will disappear. The identities received from God, on the other hand, will remain.
 
Each person’s unique identity owes its origin to our being made in the imagine and likeness of God. No one is duplicated. As we grow up, our unique identity may become overlaid by ever-changing clothing, make-up, badges, uniforms, possessions and behaviour. Through it all our likeness to God our Creator remains, though it may be hidden at times.
 
As human beings we come into this world as God’s creation. Christians believe that, through Baptism, God has initiated a revolutionary, eternal change in his relationship with his human creation. God has allowed his human creation, irrespective of tribe or people, to become His adopted daughters and sons by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Through this Sacrament, God makes each of the Baptised a brother or sister of His Only-Begotten Son, the Jewish man, Jesus of Nazareth.
 
For Catholics, each freely received successive celebration of a Sacrament enhances the presence of God’s spirit. This increase in God’s indwelling is to fortify our personal relationship with God. It also enables us to stand four-square with Christ our Saviour in His continuing battle, in this world, with the cunning power of Satan. As is testified by the history of the worldwide community of the Baptised, The Church, many have followed our Saviour’s path to death through persecution. An even greater number endure a bloodless, but still painful persecution, of interminable length.
 
For a non-Jew, Mark 13 is difficult to fathom, referencing, as it does, so much of Jewish history and thought. But then, that should not be wholly unfamiliar territory for the Baptised who have become the sisters and brothers of Jesus the Jew who is God-made-Man.  It may be helpful to reiterate here some fundamental distinctions between Jews and Christians who form the two original streams of people called by God.
For Jews, Jesus is a holy Jewish man. Jews do not accept Jesus of Nazareth as the Incarnate Son of God-made-Man. Therefore, they continue to await the Messiah’s promised ‘Coming’. For this reason, continuity is at the heart of Judaism. Their unconquerable optimism that they are God’s ‘Chosen’ has enabled them to survive horrendous persecution down the centuries.
 
Anglo-Saxon Gentiles consign history to archives. For the majority it is ‘The Past’ and, as such, quite distinct from ‘The Present’. 
For Jews, their ‘history’ is for them their ‘present’. It lives in them today. Jews, alive today, are the living expression of their ‘history’ with which they are very familiar. When a Jew speaks about the Holocaust, for example, he/she is mentally and spiritually living that experience in the present moment. When you visit Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, you will recognise this to be so.
So, too, each Sabbath Eve meal (Friday at sunset) is a sacred family gathering in which each member lives, here and now, the experience of their captured enslaved forebears whom Moses was to lead from Egypt to the promised land. Gathered to share their Sabbath eve ‘Passover’ meal, each Jewish family is doing more than remembering, they are making real and continuing the turmoil of that ‘journey of promise’ awaiting the ‘Passover’ that is the coming of the Messiah. This is the strength of the individual Jew and the entirety of Jewish identity.
 
There is a connection here for Catholic Christians. Sunday Mass is the gathering of God’s Baptised family whether it be a congregation of two or more than half a million. Each is called to renew their individual adoption by God through absorbing The Word of God and receiving The Word-made-Flesh. At the celebration of Mass, Jesus, our Lord and Brother, links each Catholic Christian present with two thousand years of Baptised forebears whose pilgrim steps we are walking in today, through circumstantially very different times. But also, through our communion with Jesus the Jew, Catholic Christians are linked to his Jewish antecedents including, of course, his Jewish Mother, Mary. I wonder how often we identify that linkage in our prayer even, when praying the Psalms particularly, we are making use of a Jewish form of prayer which Jesus would have known by heart and used!
 
This makes me ponder my Catholic identity. As a Catholic am I, at the time of Holy Communion, sufficiently aware of being united with Jesus the Jew who is the Christ? Am I consciously willing myself to be one with Him in His continuing self-sacrifice for the redemption of the world, for Jew and Gentile? Does Holy Communion unite me, as it should, with my suffering, imprisoned, persecuted brothers and sisters, Jews and fellow Christians, struggling to be faithful in this ‘Vale of Tears’? Am I motivated by receiving Holy Communion to become more actively engaged with corporal works of mercy and of the promotion of justice? Am I conscious of Jesus’ outreach to his fellow Jews … am I concerned for them as my sisters and brothers?
Or, is my thanksgiving after Communion over concerned with me, my agenda and my needs?
 
Mark’s chapter 13 shows Jesus making use of much that would have been familiar to his fellow Jews then or now but which is unlikely to be familiar to contemporary Christians. Mark 13 benefits from being read against a Jewish mindset and that does not come easily to a Gentile. ‘Listening in depth’ to the Gospels involves a lifetime of prayer to the Holy Spirit. It is impossible to switch meaningfully into such an in-depth listening mode for a few minutes at Sunday Mass.
Do we spend sufficient time dwelling on the implication of our affiliation to and identification with the Jew who is Jesus Christ, God’s Incarnate Son? Do Gentile Christians somehow identify with Jesus minus his Jewish background? A Jewish mindset can only be grown from the inside, from our hearts. In our prayer, do we ever ask Jesus to help us understand his Jewishness? It is not something that can be taken on board, like a fact of impersonal history. Nor can this short article supply what is needed but it may help point a reader in the right direction.
 
Mark 13 gives Christians much food for thought about, what we refer to as, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ as King and Judge of the world. We know today, sadly, that many non-Jews, and not a few Christians, disregard this revelation.
 
Jews and Christians share a belief that God will break into the Evil- induced chaos of this world, at a point we do not know, ending time as we know it and bringing about an entirely new order namely, eternity.
Jews and Christians share belief in the prophet Joel’s disturbing descriptions of the ‘Day of the Lord’ (Ch.2&3) that tell of that day of God’s intervention. We share belief there will be times of terror and chaos when the world, as it is known, will be shaken to its foundations.
 
Where we differ is that, for Christians, the Messiah has already come, 2000 years ago, in the Person of Jesus the Christ. Therefore, God’s return as King and Judge in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth will be, for Christians, the Second Coming of God-made-Man. Christians celebrate this article of our Faith next week on the last Sunday of the Church year, the Feast of Christ the King.
 
The Jews believe that the advent of God will be the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham and that, in this new order, they would occupy the place assigned to the Chosen People.
  
From the time of Jesus up to our present, Jews and Christians have walked parallel, semi-complimentary yet also vastly distinctive paths as we share God’s creation. The complementarity of our paths is to be found in that both Jew and Christian share belief in the visible coming amongst us of God. The distinctive difference between our paths lies in the gulf of belief that, for Christians, the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth is the Only-Begotten Son of God made Man; whereas, for the Jews, the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth is a man of God and probably the most famous Jew who has ever lived.
For Christians, God is among us and working in our world through his adopted daughters and sons, the Baptised, who are Jesus’ brothers and sisters.
For Jews, God has yet to break into our world. So, for Christians, the present year is 2018 Anno Domini (the Year of the Lord) when God-made-Man came among us. It’s a sad sign of our growing secularism that many have jettisoned ‘AD’ for ‘CE” (the Common Era).
For Jews, this is the year 5,778 which they regard as the number of years since the start of Creation.
 
Will the Jewish and Christians paths converge? Well, for certain there will be a convergence when God calls the world to order, but prior to that we can but pray for one another. It is said that when Judaism accepts the Divine Nature of Jesus of Nazareth, Mark’s chapter 13 will be fulfilled.
 
The question posed in the title above is: ‘What will identify you at the Judgement?’ The answer, for Christians, will lie in how loyal and dedicated each has been in acknowledging and responding to the Son of God’s call in John’s Gospel (15.4) “Make your home in me, as I make mine in you.”
Our Jewish brothers and sisters will answer for themselves.
May Jesus, their brother in race and ours by adoption, bring us both to his heavenly Father.
 
 
1645
 

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.