Sunday Reflection

7th Sunday of Easter (28.05.17)

PRESENT .. BUT IN A DIFFERENT WAY
 
“Know that I am with you always to the very end of the age.”  (Matt 28.20) This final sentence from St. Matthew’s Gospel also concludes our Gospel for Ascension Sunday. There are many ways of ‘being present’. There is the physical, verbal or photo-generated presence. There is a way of ‘being present’ through mementos that can be substantial like a building or small like a ring, a set of rosary beads or a something written. The absence of a physical presence attracts us to tactile objects as a source of comfort. In the strict sense of the word tactile, there is nothing to physically connect us to the Resurrected Jesus and yet he fulfils his promise.
 
The Ascension of Jesus is an apt moment to refresh our understanding of the Church’s teaching on Jesus’ dual natures, a God and as Man.

When, in the fullness of time, God the Son became Incarnate as Man in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, he simultaneously continued as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. The Church teaches this as the unique mystery of the One Person, Jesus Christ, possessing two natures, the nature of God and the nature of Man. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) explains it in these words:
“479 At the time appointed by God, the only Son of the Father, the eternal Word, that is, the Word and substantial Image of the Father, became incarnate; without losing his divine nature he has assumed human nature.”
“481 Jesus Christ possesses two natures, one divine and the other human, not confused, but united in the one person of God's Son.”
“482 Christ, being true God and true man, has a human intellect and will, perfectly attuned and subject to his divine intellect and divine will, which he has in common with the Father and the Holy Spirit.”
 
For want of a better expression, there is a type of duality to be associated with Jesus’ Ascension. The Incarnate Son of God-made-Man, now Resurrected and Ascended, is humanly present with the Father and the Holy Spirit in the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Prior to the Incarnation, Jesus’ humanity was real but potential in that it had not taken shape and form on earth. The previously potential human person of God-made-Man becomes the actual human person fused with the Divine in the mystery that the Church describes as Jesus having two natures in one person.

St. Paul, in his letter to the Church at Colossae, writes in reference to Jesus:
“He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the Church; He is the beginning and firstborn from among the dead, so that in all things he may have pre-eminence. For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him …” (1:17-19)
 
Jesus’ dying confirms his humanity, but the sting of his dying could not touch his Divine Nature. In his dying on the Cross, Jesus did away with the everlasting character of death so as to make death a thing of time, not of eternity. (Pope St. Leo the Great ‘The Cross of Christ’) His Resurrection and Ascension confirm his Divinity. The nature of Man and the nature of God are equally present in the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. So Jesus in Ascending to the Father and the Holy Spirit raises a truly human being to a closeness with God that allows humans to address God as ‘Father’ because God has adopted us as his daughters and sons in Jesus who is our Brother. Jesus is the natural Son of God. Humans are the adopted children of God.
 
The previously visible, audible and touchable Jesus, God-made-Man, is no longer physically present in this world. Yet he remains present in his Word and in the Eucharist. At liturgical gatherings of Christ’s Body on earth, the community of the Baptised, his Word is proclaimed. Each proclamation ends with the Acclamation: ‘The Word of the Lord” which invites the response: “Thanks be to God.” Or, in the case of the Gospel: “The Gospel of the Lord” with the response, “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.”  The community acclaims Jesus as present and nourishing them with his Word.

The importance of the Ministry of Reading is so often not appreciated. People are called upon to proclaim God’s living Word to the community without any preparation! Inevitably this can lead to uninspiring responses from the assembled community. Compare the vibrancy of the liturgical responses that are heard in local churches with, for example the responses experienced at Lourdes and Fatima with international pilgrims speaking various languages but with hearts alive and full. Yet, whether it is in a local church or an international pilgrimage centre, it is the living God speaking to us and through us!
 
At the Consecration of the bread and wine, the celebrant, speaking in the Person of Christ, holds up the blessed bread and wine: “Take this all of you and eat it … drink from it:  This is My Body given up for you  … My Blood … poured out for you and for many so that sins may be forgiven.”

The emphatic ‘This is …” underlines the on-going presence among us of the Ascended One.
At the time of Holy Communion, the celebrant repeats the emphatic statement: “This is the Lamb of God ….” The intended recipients respond: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof….”

With these words the Baptised Body of Christ on earth proclaim their faith in the coming among them and within them of their Resurrected and Ascended Lord.
 
For the Baptised believer this is fulfilment of the words of the prophet Isaiah who lived eight centuries before the birth of Christ: “For since the world began, no ear has heard and no eye has seen a God like you, who works for those who wait for him!” (64:4)

St. Paul, a former persecutor of Christians who became a convert Pharisee never met Christ on earth, yet he reiterated Isaiah’s words to his embryonic Church community in Corinth adding:  “But God has revealed it to us by the Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God …” (1 Cor 2:8)
 
Rather than pondering what the eleven Apostles saw at the Ascension, we might be better employed preparing for next Sunday’s celebration of ‘Corpus Christi’ – the Body of Christ. We could profitably reflect on the dialogue in which we participate as Communicants – “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter …” In our hearts do we sufficiently believe the words our lips utter? Do we believe that this is the real presence of Christ come within us, the Christ of Bethlehem, Calvary, the Resurrection and the Ascension?

Matthew’s Gospel for the Ascension (28:16-20) addressed to the Eleven is intended for all the Baptised who, by that Sacrament, share in the Priesthood of Christ:
“All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And know, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

St. Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthian community, lays it on the line in chapter 4:2-13
“God in his mercy has given us this work to do, and so we do not become discouraged. We put aside all secret and shameful deeds; we do not act with deceit, nor do we falsify the word of God. In the full light of truth we live in God's sight and try to commend ourselves to everyone's good conscience.
Yet we who have this spiritual treasure are like common clay pots, in order to show that the supreme power belongs to God, not to us. We are often troubled, but not crushed; sometimes in doubt, but never in despair; there are many enemies, but we are never without a friend; and though badly hurt at times, we are not destroyed. At all times we carry in our mortal bodies the death of Jesus, so that his life also may be seen in our bodies. Throughout our lives we are always in danger of death for Jesus' sake, in order that his life may be seen in this mortal body of ours.  This means that death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
The scripture says, “I spoke because I believed.” In the same spirit of faith we also speak because we believe.”
 
Like the Apostles, we must face the very real and dispiriting events of our times, the circumstances that cannot and should not be ignored.

As a person of wisdom said: ‘Hope begins just after we have reached our limit’.
 

6th Sunday of Easter (21.05.17)

Obedience – a Christian’s security in a threatening world
 
It is the quality of St. John’s obedience to God that his love for Jesus reveals. Christlike love, choosing to live in obedience to God or seeking the wholesome wellbeing of another, is the focus of Jesus’ teaching on this 6th Sunday of Easter (John 14: 15-21). The Methodist Biblical scholar Charles Kingsley Barrett (1917-2011) commented that St. John ‘never allowed (his) love (for Jesus) to devolve into a sentiment or emotion. Its expression is always moral and is revealed in obedience." Over the course of history there have been numerous proclamations about love. What continues to be in short supply is the practice of the virtues of obedience and love in relation to God’s Commandments. The evidence for this is a world, our world, where interpersonal/international relationships are bordering on chaos. People speak of love while simultaneously causing pain and heartbreak to those whom they have promised to love and/or obey. As seen through Jesus’ teaching, loving another truly is uncompromisingly demanding and is only possible through obedience to a higher authority namely, God.
 
Jesus speaks of the relationship between love and obedience in the first line of this Sunday’s extract from John (14:15) "If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” A person’s love for Jesus is defined by that person’s obedience to Jesus’ words; not some of his words, or our personal interpretation of his words, but the truth his words contain, and which are expounded by his Church, as it relates to human life and activity, in its totality, on this earth. This is the love that is uncompromisingly demanding.

There was an occasion when a woman, in the crowd gathered around Jesus probably herself a mother, spoke freely:
 “As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said, “Blessed is the womb that bore You, and blessed are the breasts that nursed You.”
But Jesus replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”… (Luke 11:27-28)

Many would agree that a picture of a mother, clearly cherishing her baby in arms, is the quintessence of love. The woman, in Luke’s Gospel, who addressed her remark to Jesus, was saying, in effect, ‘what an inexpressible depth of love your mother, who carried you and nourished you, shared with you and you with her’. Jesus’ response must have been greeted with a stunned silence for he said, in effect: that ‘an even greater depth of love is shown by those who hear the Word of God and live it uncompromisingly through loving obedience.’

Jesus’ teaching reveals that it is a truly selfless love that empowers faithful and wholehearted obedience to God. In other words, obedience to God cannot be instilled by discipline or fear because these could produce an excess of servility that is not love or, at least, not the love that Jesus is commending. Nor can authentic obedience to God be nurtured through the competition or reward schemes that were practised in many a Catholic school under the guise of ‘fund raising’ and ‘gold stars’! Those who may recall such methods are unlikely to applaud them now. ‘Rescuing’ Christians formed, or perhaps the word should be deformed, under such regimes can be the work of a lifetime.
 
The first sentence from the Second Reading for this Sunday (1 Peter 3:15) reiterates Jesus’ teaching: “Beloved:  Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.”

Here’s the challenge! Right now, as I am, can I truthfully say: “Jesus Christ is the Lord of my heart”? Isn’t it more likely to be the case that my heart is divided by multiple and unequal allegiances? Despite the words of prayer praising God that are uttered by my lips, my heart is riddled with forever-competing appetites and distractions purposefully strewn there by Satan? Some, like mothers with young children and a husband to care for, or carers for the elderly or the sick, love Christ through the love and care that occupies their hearts unceasingly. 

Apprentice soldiers, for example, are trained to be unquestioningly and instantaneously obedient as a form of discipline. Researchers, who handle dangerous and potentially lethal substances, are trained to obey a tested set of strictly to-be-adhered-to rules for the safety of all. The same can be said about practitioners of medicine and the law and so forth. Why is it, then, that we are so resistant to accept a Divine governance, based on love, when it comes to exercising control over our hearts?

Might one explanation be that it was Eve and Adam’s hearts that were infiltrated both subtly and violently by Satan? (Genesis 3: 1-7) Their wound of weakness has contaminated all successive human life bar one, namely, that of Mary, the Immaculate Mother of God-made-Man.
 
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that cardiovascular diseases (CVD) are the leading cause of death, globally. This is true in all areas of the world except Africa. It is estimated that 90% of CVD is preventable. Yet people, frequently exposed to repetitive adverts nationwide alerting everyone to the dangers of heart diseases that can cripple and eventually kill, continue to smoke, drink, eat to excess, and so forth. Heart disease kills more people that any other ailment, so we are told.

A parallel can be drawn between hearts that are physically diseased and those that are spiritually injured:-
The WHO, working with many other agencies, draws peoples’ attention to the preventable but increasingly prevalent heart diseases capturing people of all ages, especially in the so-called developed world.

The GOSPELS, working through all the Christian Churches, draw peoples’ attention to the preventable but increasingly prevalent disobedience that detaches human hearts, of all ages, from God’s love, especially in the so-called developed world.

Satan has had millennia to practise his skills as a deceiver. One of his many skills is the implantation of doubt. It worked a treat on Eve – “Did God really say that you were not to eat from any of the trees in the garden? (Gen 3:1) The serpent (Satan) knew exactly what God had said to Adam and Eve. He employs misquotation as a deliberate tactic towards the disablement of our will too! Satan infers some false unreasonableness in God’s will that plays to our all too human sense of what we might consider ‘fair play’ – “…. not to eat from any of the trees…” whereas God had specified just one tree from which Eve and Adam were not to eat.
 
To return to that challenge! Right now, as I am, can I truthfully say: “Jesus Christ is the Lord of my heart”? I might be watching a spellbinding sunset over some distant hills or where the sea blends with the sky. Yes, in such circumstances it is easier to praise God with all my heart. But what if I were deeply worried or facing pain or some trial that really scared me? Would I still say: “Jesus Christ is the Lord of my heart”? Would I trust him as the pain or the stress increased and as I realized my helplessness?

As his executioners nailed the scourged, bleeding, torn, thorn-crowned body of Jesus to the Cross on which he would slowly suffocate in increasing pain, Jesus prayed: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” (Luke 23.34) That epitomizes Jesus sanctifying His heavenly Father as Lord of his human heart. Jesus exemplifies the ideal of obedience founded on love so that you and I may find the courage for our next, even if initially faltering, step. Our relationship with God through Christ is life’s greatest value.
 

5th Sunday of Easter (14.05.17)

Most of us manage through the day without being bothered by the question of life itself.  It can take all our time and energy merely to cope with what the day brings.
                                                           
Nevertheless, there comes a time when we are forced to pause, because something happens that throws our routine into question – like the sudden death of someone very close to us, leaving a huge gap in our lives, and many questions in our mind.   Things we took for granted, and ventures we thought important fade into insignificance against the reality of loss.

In such a void, we can feel abandoned, alone, without direction, without purpose, friendless, and even homeless.  Here we might pause a moment to reflect on “homelessness”
 
To be homeless is not just to have nowhere to go, but to be unwanted by anybody.
 
It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of a good home – which is not just a house!
It is to have close ties and relationships with other people, where we are accepted as we are, and feel that we belong.  Those who have some experience of homelessness can fully appreciate the benefits of a good home.
To be without faith is to be homeless in the deepest sense of all.
Without faith life is ultimately meaningless.  It is like a journey that leads nowhere.
                                               
In today’s scripture readings Jesus shows us the way by which we must travel to the fullness of God. He says:- “I am the way, the truth and the Life. No one can come to the Father except through me”.  Only when we are united with Him can we reach the Father.
 
Jesus is the Truth.  The truth is not a theory, it is a person.  Jesus is the truth about God, as He is the truth about humanity.  The One who walked the roads of Palestine, and ate with sinners is God’s gift of His true self to us.
 
Jesus is the LIFE – as John announced at the beginning of his gospel:-
“Through Him all things came to be, not one thing had its being except through Him.  All that came to be had life in Him”    Our very life is a gift from God.
 
The  disciples soon learn, when Jesus is no longer amongst them, that there are no ready answers to everything in this life.  They have to work together to discern the way forward.
Jesus trusts His followers through the ages, to face the confusion and complexity of the world.
Looking to Jesus as the way, the truth and the life does not solve every question effortlessly.
Clearly, He wants us to put our Faith to work.
 
Lord Jesus Christ, you said to your friends the night before you died:-
 
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Trust in God still and trust in Me”.
 
Help us in the midst of all anxieties and uncertainties to go on trusting in you and in the Father, so that in time we may enjoy the peace and unity of your kingdom, where you live forever and ever.
  

4th Sunday of Easter (07.05.17)

The Human Gate
 
These days sophisticated electronic devices control entry and exit for both people and animals. In Jesus’ era shepherds were the human gates. The role of the Good Shepherd, exemplified by Jesus, features in St John’s Gospel (10:1-10) for the 4th Sunday of Easter.

In the UK drystone walling or hedgerows define our gated grazing land. Once the animals are within the field, the shepherd/farmer is free for other work. Not so for the shepherds of Palestine in Jesus’ day.

The concept of the Good Shepherd is woven into the language and imagery of the Bible. On Palestine’s rough stony ground, no flock of sheep ever grazed without the constant accompaniment of a vigilant shepherd who was never off-duty and whose life was hard. Finding food for the sheep was difficult. With no protecting walls or hedges the animals were in constant threat of injury. Thieves and robbers also abounded, as did wolves and other predatory animals.
 
Sir George Adam Smith FBA (1856 –1942) a Scottish theologian, Professor of the Old Testament at Aberdeen University, Semitic scholar and explorer of Palestine, wrote about the Palestinian shepherd:
"On some high moor, across which at night the hyenas howl, when you meet him, sleepless, far-sighted, weather-beaten, leaning on his staff, and looking out over his scattered sheep, every one of them on his heart, you understand why the shepherd of Judaea sprang to the front in his people's history; why they gave his name to their king, and made him the symbol of providence; why Christ took him as the type of self-sacrifice."
  
The Palestinian shepherd’s equipment was very simple. He had his ‘scrip’, an animal-skin bag with his food, unleavened bread, dried fruit, olives and hard cheese. He had his sling. A Palestinian shepherd, it is claimed, "could sling a stone at a hair and not miss". The shepherd’s sling was a weapon of offence and defence. There were no sheep dogs so when a shepherd wished to call back a straying sheep, he fitted a stone into his sling and landed it just in front of the animal's nose as a warning to turn back. He had his staff to defend himself and his flock against marauding beasts and robbers. He had shepherd's crook with which he could catch and pull to him any sheep that was straying.

Dusk comes quickly in Mediterranean lands. Temporary sheepfolds, roughly made out of briars, give the sheep some protection for a night. Each shepherd would hold his rod across the entrance, quite close to the ground. The sheep had to pass under it, one by one, (Ezekiel 20:37; Leviticus 27:32) thus affording the shepherd a quick examination to check if any animal had sustained an injury during that day.
 
The relationship between sheep and shepherd in Palestine is different from the UK.  Here, sheep are kept for meat. In Palestine, they were kept for their wool that provided clothing and much more. Palestinian sheep were with their shepherd for years. He knew each by name. A Palestinian shepherd walked in front and his sheep followed … mostly!

Palestinian sheep know and ‘understand’ their shepherd's voice. They will never respond to the voice of a stranger. H. V. Morton FRSL (1892–1979), a journalist and pioneering travel writer from Lancashire, has a wonderful description of the way in which a Palestinian shepherd talks to the sheep. "Sometimes he talks to them in a loud sing-song voice, using a weird language unlike anything I have ever heard in my life. The first time I heard this sheep and goat language I was on the hills at the back of Jericho. A herd of goats had descended into a valley and was mounting the slope of an opposite hill. The shepherd turned round and saw some of his goats had remained behind to devour a rich patch of scrub. Lifting his voice, he spoke to the goats in a language that Pan must have spoken on the mountains of Greece. It was uncanny because there was nothing human about it. No sooner had the shepherd spoken than an answering bleat shivered over the herd, and one or two of the animals turned their heads in his direction. But they did not obey him. The shepherd then called out one word, and gave a laughing kind of whinny. Immediately a goat with a bell round his neck stopped eating, left the herd, trotted down the hill, across the valley, and up the opposite slopes. The man, accompanied by this animal, walked on and disappeared round a ledge of rock. Very soon a panic spread among the herd. They forgot to eat. They looked up for the shepherd. He was not to be seen. They became conscious that the leading goat with the bell at his neck was no longer with them. From the distance came the strange laughing call of the shepherd. At the sound the entire herd stampeded into the hollow and leapt up the hill after him" (H. V. Morton, ‘In the Steps of the Master’).

W. M. Thomson in ‘The Land and the Book’ has the same story to tell. "The shepherd calls sharply from time to time, to remind them of his presence. They know his voice, and follow on; but, if a stranger calls, they stop short, lift up their heads in alarm, and if the unrecognized call is repeated, they turn and flee, because they know not the voice of a stranger. I have made the experiment repeatedly." That is exactly the picture St. John portrays.
 
To draw the deepest blessing from Jesus’ Good News this Sunday we require an appreciation of the relevant history. Without the foregoing background on Palestinian shepherding much of the Gospel’s nuance remains hidden. Our contemporary localized picture of farming, via BBC 1’s ‘Countryfile’ and suchlike programmes, will not reveal the depth in the picture Jesus is painting. It is also helpful to recall that, though there would have been fulltime shepherds, all young Palestinians - including the young Jesus – would have learnt and practised, many times over the years, all the skills of safeguarding and shepherding sheep and goats. Caring for their animals’ welfare was a community activity not just an owner’s duty.
 
Once the sheep were settled in their overnight temporary enclosure, the shepherd would eat some of the sparse provision he had brought in his scrip and drink from his skin of watered wine. Finally he would lay down across the entrance to the sheep enclosure. He himself would be the gate, literally! Jesus used language and concepts that spoke equally to the unlettered and the better educated. He spoke their language because He was their Shepherd. He knew their names. They knew his voice even when, at times, they chose to ignore it.

Today, Jesus speaks our language – the language our hearts find it hard to face; the language of our ‘shadow’ from which we try to hide so as not to have to deal with it. But such procrastination will not work. What we have buried will not stay hidden. Look up Matthew 10:26-28:
“So do not be afraid of them. For nothing is concealed that will not be uncovered, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the housetops. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.…”

It is because he loves us so deeply and cares for us so unceasingly that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, stretches himself across the threshold of our life day by day and remains there even if we choose to trample on him.
 

3rd Sunday of Easter (30.04.17)

ONE INSTANCE AMONG MANY
 
The two Emmaus-bound disciples were, quite likely, not alone. Luke describes the Emmaus couple, perhaps a husband and wife, in his Gospel for the 3rd Sunday of Easter (24:13-35).
 
There would have been many people heading out of Jerusalem after the Passover Festival. Among them would have been the distressed for whom the sight of the crucified Jesus was utterly disheartening and demoralising. Among them would have been people whom Jesus had healed from spiritual as well as physical disablement, plus their many relatives and friends. Jesus, The Risen Good Shepherd – “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (John 10:11) – would have made himself known to his beleaguered disciples, and not only on the Emmaus pathway, putting new heart into those who were open to receive his encouragement.

In the days and weeks following his Resurrection we will never know, while we are on earth, how many disabled-in-faith and hope disciples Jesus rescued. For sure, the Emmaus event was just one rescue among many. We can be sure that, on each of those occasions, Jesus would have tailored his approach to the particular needs of the people involved. He would have couched his approach and restorative message in a language and a style best suited to heal and restore faith. It would be hard to imagine Jesus employing doctrinaire statements of deep theology in such circumstances.
 
Our Baptismal community, the Catholic Church, is experiencing an Emmaus period. For a significant number, their ‘Emmaus’ experience began with Pope St John XXlll when he called the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church (1962–65). Pope John XXIII announced the Council on Jan. 25, 1959. He saw it as a means of spiritual renewal for the Church and as an occasion for Christians separated from Rome to join in a search for reunion.
 
For other Emmaus-like travellers it was the on-going effects of the two World Wars. Pope Francis has commented that a third world war has already begun, unlike the first two. This time it is found within the continuously erupting more localized conflicts affecting virtually all nations to a greater or lesser degree. These conflicts claim many lives while blighting others. For some their ‘Emmaus’ journey is a day while, for others, it is a lifetime. The ‘Risen Good Shepherd’ continues to reach out to all the distressed.

There is a picture on my wall of a prematurely aged Mrs. Poobalachandran Vadana, a Hindu woman of Tamil extraction. Through conflict in Sri Lanka she has lost her husband, and children, as well as her home. She and many like her are displaced not for a period of time but for a lifetime!  In September 2013, the Sri Lankan Government declared that there was not one displaced person in its territory. After the announcement, the Government advised international agencies to pack up and leave. There were no more people for them to assist, it said.

The ‘Risen Good Shepherd’ continues to reach out even to those who do not appreciate the significance of the distress that has engulfed them. Among them, the people so swamped by this materialistic, hedonistic world that they would neither recognise nor welcome, if they did, the companionship of the Risen Good Shepherd still bearing the open wounds of his suffering for them.
 
From among the millions of his adopted-through-Baptism sisters and brothers, the Risen Jesus seeks collaborator ‘Good Shepherds’ for, as he himself has said: “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into His harvest. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.…” (Luke 10:2-3) Many may not be seen in church buildings – at least with any regularity – but nevertheless they belong within His Church.

You find these Baptismally commissioned people, the actually Baptised, volunteering alongside others whose Baptism is ‘by a desire’ of which they have not, as yet, formally become aware. Among such volunteers would be those working with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International (Doctors Without Borders), CAFOD, Survive, Aid to the Church in Need. But, equally included, would be people caring for their elderly and incapacitated relatives, parents struggling to do what is right for their children, teachers who consciously try to offer their pupils an ‘Emmaus’ moment – opening their eyes to a hitherto unseen reality.
It is helpful to recall Jesus’ response to a concerned and much loved disciple, John: John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone else driving out demons in Your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not accompany us.” But Jesus replied, “Do not stop him. No one who performs a miracle in My name can turn around and speak evil of Me.… (Mark 9: 38-39)
 
The Emmaus incident reveals a Risen Lord who continues to have the ability to make sense of things that confuse and distress others and cause doubt. When people allow the Risen Lord to accompany them, the meaning of life becomes clear, darkness become light. An author made one of his characters say: “I never knew what life meant until I saw it in your eyes”. Especially in bewildering times it is only through the Risen Jesus that we are able to learn what life means.
 
The Emmaus incident also speaks to us of the courtesy of Jesus. When the couple had reached their home in Emmaus Jesus behaved as though he needed to continue his journey. Just as he would never have forced himself on them, he does not force himself on those whom he lovingly longs to carry back to the fold. God has given us a gift at once great and yet fraught, the gift of free will. We are free to allow the Risen Lord to enter our lives each day or to pass on.
 
Elizabeth Rebecca Ward (1880-1978) was a prolific English writer of popular verse, religious works, and works for children. She wrote under the penname of Fay Inchfawn.

In Such an Hour
A poem by Fay Inchfawn
Sometimes, when everything goes wrong:
When days are short, and nights are long;
When wash-day brings so dull a sky
That not a single thing will dry.
And when the kitchen chimney smokes,
And when there's naught so "queer" as folks!
When friends deplore my faded youth,
And when the baby cuts a tooth.
While John, the baby last but one,
Clings round my skirts till day is done;
When fat, good-tempered Jane is glum,
And butcher's man forgets to come.
 
Sometimes, I say, on days like these,
I get a sudden gleam of bliss.
"Not on some sunny day of ease,
He'll come . . but on a day like this!"
And, in the twinkling of an eye,
These tiresome things will all go by!
 
And, 'tis a curious thing, but Jane
Is sure, just then, to smile again;
Or, out the truant sun will peep,
And both the babies fall asleep.
The fire burns up with roar sublime,
And butcher's man is just in time.
And oh! My feeble faith grows strong
Sometimes, when everything goes wrong!
 

2nd Sunday of Easter (23.04.17)

Sin – A Powerful Three-Letter Word
 
It would be fascinating to compare the very early followers of Jesus with the Christians of 4th century AD or later. During the intervening period significant changes had occurred within the community of believers founded by Jesus Christ. His followers had spread far and wide as they fled from persecutors of ‘The Way’, the name by which  Christianity was first know. Then Gentile converts began to outnumber Jewish converts. The Gospel, that had been initially orally transmitted, was written down as the original Apostles and disciples died. New languages were embraced as knowledge of The Way spread and this involved translations. The words of one language do not always transfer easily into another. Even within a language, over a passage of time, words undergo a change of meaning. Older speakers of English will ascribe a meaning to the English word ‘wicked’ that is completely at variance with what a 21st century English youth will understand by the same word.
 
St. John’s Gospel (20:19-31) for this 2nd Sunday of Easter (Low Sunday) may contain an illustration of the complexities that have always and continue to simmer throughout Scriptural translation. The particular passage is:
“Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And when he had said this, Jesus breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (John 20:21-23)

Jesus was conferring on his Apostles their primary mandate to be ministers of his Divine forgiveness.
 
Perhaps you have heard of Sr. Sandra Schneiders, a Religious of The Immaculate Heart of Mary and a world-renowned Scripture scholar and lecturer. In her book, ‘Jesus Risen in Our Midst’, Sr. Schneiders points out that we are accustomed to translations that misinterpret this verse by adding a word not found in the original Greek text of the second part of Jesus’ command.

Jesus commissioned his disciples to forgive sins, but when he talked about retaining or holding on, the word “sin” is not mentioned in the Greek text. Jesus commissions the Apostles to minister his forgiveness of sin as they have seen and heard him do in his three years of public ministry. Sr. Schneiders suggests that Jesus was encouraging his Apostles to stay in touch with the person still distanced from Christ by sin.  They were to focus on “retaining”, or holding on to, people rather than focusing on their sins. She suggests that to ‘retain’ the sin of another is to hold another’s sin as a form of control, of leverage, over the sinner. She believes that, not only is there no evidence for such an attitude, but that there is positive evidence to the contrary in Jesus’ teaching and action.

John’s Gospel extract for this Sunday (20:19-31) goes on to recall not only the Apostle Thomas’ refusal to believe but also his pre-conditions if he were to believe in Jesus’ Resurrection. Far from refusing Thomas’ pre-conditions, Jesus demonstrates the lengths he is willing to go to embrace the estranged Apostle. In other words, Jesus holds, retains, Thomas within the bond of brotherhood rather than excluding him from it. If Thomas’ refusal to believe in Jesus’ Resurrection were a sin, Jesus, far from ‘retaining’ his sin went the proverbial ‘extra mile’ to embrace Thomas thereby effecting his full restoration within the fold.
 
Sr. Schneiders offer no comment as to how the translation from the original Greek appears to introduce a word not found in that particular section of the Greek text. But, for the sake of argument, let us suppose that those, long ago, who were concerned with this particular translation believed that, as Jesus was actually giving his Apostles his power to forgive sin, he must surely also be giving them the power to retain sin. This would be putting a benign interpretation on a translational question mark.

There could be another interpretation. To confer on the Church Christ’s power not only to forgive sin but also to refuse forgiveness gives the Church a power and a control akin to that of a secular ruler.

It may be useful here to recall that members of ‘The Way’ had been designated a pariah group until the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (306-337 AD). Constantine enacted administrative, financial, social, and military reforms to strengthen his empire. He also played a significant role in the organisation and structure of the fledgling Christian Church. With his support, the Edict of Milan in 313 AD decreed the acceptance of previously persecuted Christians throughout his Empire. It was Constantine, not the then Pope, for example, who called the Church Council of Nicaea in 325 AD that gave us the Nicene Creed still being proclaimed in our churches each Sunday.
 
In the Constantine era Church leaders began to adapt some of the organizational and command structures of Constantine’s Empire in their governance of the Church. For example, the so called ‘Donation of Constantine’ bestowed on the See of Peter "power, and dignity of glory, and vigour, and honour imperial", and "supremacy as well over the four principal sees, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Constantinople, as also over all the churches of God in the whole earth". The Donation (later accepted as fraudulent) was widely accepted at the time and used to validate Papal temporal power in the Middle Ages. The synchronism that emerged between Empire and Church beginning with Constantine had enduring negative consequences, and perhaps some limited positive ones, that still reverberate in the Church of the 21st century!

Too close a confluence between the secular and the ecclesiastical is unhealthy with issues of overarching power and control as well as of politics. Believers such as translators, for example, may have been influenced to make ‘adjustments’, such as that identified by Sr. Schneiders. The power of even a single word should not be underestimated especially in relation to Scripture.
 
Power and fear were the tools Emperors used to govern their subjects. These same tools were adapted by church leaders – no doubt initially with the best of intentions – to govern the flock of God given into their care. The threefold mandate the Risen Jesus gave to the repentant and reconciled Peter was “Feed” my lambs, “Shepherd” my sheep, “Feed” my sheep. (John 21: 15-17) At no stage did Jesus endorse the use of power and/or of fear. Jesus did encourage people to ‘fear the Lord’ but in the sense that we must have respect for God which is distinct from a servile fear. Jesus is always near, his enduring love is not a threat but an invitation to allow us to be fed and shepherded by him.
 

Easter Sunday (16.04.17)

The Truth Is Inexhaustible

A syllogism, they tell us, is a form of reasoning in which a conclusion is drawn from two given propositions. So, for example, we can say with reason:  God is inexhaustible since nothing exists without God; Jesus, the Son of God made Man, defines himself as The Truth; therefore, The Truth is inexhaustible. I’m not sure if this is a syllogism but I’m inclined to think so. In any case who is going to doubt that The Truth – with the definite article indicating Truth in its entirety - is inexhaustible. The more we discover about ourselves and our world, the more we discover how much we do not understand!

This brings us comfort when we attempt to plumb the depth of our major Christian festival, Easter. Superficially, at least, the Resurrection of Jesus has been subjected to examination since it happened. Is there anything left to be said? Well, yes! Each individual gifted with faith in Jesus Christ enters and lives in a personal relationship with the Lord, in the midst of a worldwide community. Each personal relationship is just that, personal and unique. It may bear resemblance to other like relationships but there is no carbon copy, just as there is no carbon copy of you or me.  One of the joys of a personal relationship is that it is forever undergoing renewal through the living and life-giving bond of love. What I may find new in my relationship with Jesus, you may consider ‘old hat’, so to speak, and vice versa. Our individual relationship with Jesus is entirely unique.

In St. John’s Gospel for this Easter Sunday (20: 1-9) are insights that will touch the heart of some and not others. One such insight concerns the burial linen in which the body of Jesus had been hurriedly wrapped. The journey from Calvary to the borrowed tomb had to be completed before the beginning of Sabbath that late (Good) Friday afternoon. Nevertheless there was the customary Jewish decorum to be observed regarding the burial cloths and the face veil.

It was customary for Palestinians, in those days, to visit the tomb of a loved one for the three days after the body had been laid to rest. This was based on the belief that, for this period, the spirit of the deceased remained near the body before departing when decay made the face unrecognizable. Because (Holy) Saturday was the Sabbath nobody moved. So the Gospel scene opens in the predawn of day three, Sunday, the first day of God’s new creation, the first day of the Jewish week when daily life could be resumed. Mary of Magdala, driven by her deep love for Jesus, was the first to arrive at the tomb. She discovered that Jesus’ body was not there. Her response was to find Peter.

Her choice of Peter tells us that he was still the acknowledged leader of the Apostles. Peter’s cowardly denial of Jesus on Maundy Thursday night at the High Priest’s House would have been widely retold yet Peter remained the leader. Despite instances of Peter’s weakness and instability there must have been something outstanding about a contrite man who could face his fellow Apostles despite his enormous act of disloyalty. Have we previously considered this? A person’s momentary weaknesses should not blind us to their overall moral strength and stature. Jesus, later, chose Peter for the leadership of the infant Church. His successor is the Bishop of Rome today.
 
Responding to Mary of Magdala’s alarm about the missing body, Peter and John ran to the tomb. John tells us that, having arrived at the tomb earlier than Peter, he had looked in but not entered. John deferred to Peter who was the first to enter the empty tomb on that Easter Day. Our contemporary age is not known for people showing deference to one another. By his deferential behaviour John not only recognised Jesus’ prior choice of Peter for leadership but also, even more tellingly, it showed that John did not judge Peter for his denial of the Lord they had both chosen to serve. There’s a lesson here for us. How rashly we can jump to judgement when we are not called to judge!
 
John followed Peter into the empty tomb. Both apostles would have noticed the burial linens that had bound the body of Jesus and the veil that would have been placed on his face. The condition of the burial linen and also its placement imprinted itself so strongly on John that he was, much later, to make specific mention of it in his Gospel.

Had Jesus’ body been stolen, as Mary of Magdala had originally thought, the robbers would surely have taken the linen with the body as time would have been of the essence? Had robbers not taken the burial linen they would not have spent time arranging it but simply left it on the floor. Have we considered what it could mean that the burial linen and face veil were undisturbed and still lying in their folds?

One possible explanation for the condition of the grave-clothes is that Jesus’ Resurrected Body had, as it were, passed through them. After his death on the Cross, Jesus would never again be among us in mortal, that is limited, flesh. He showed himself, in his immortal flesh, to the frightened Apostles in the Upper Room on that first Easter Day. They saw, with their own eyes and touched with their own hands, how Jesus’ Resurrected Body could pass through solid material objects like walls and locked doors. (John 20:19-21)

Very early on Easter Day, at the empty tomb, the significance of the condition and position of Jesus’ burial linen must have entered John’s consciousness and soul so deeply that John would incorporate it in his own Gospel. It was in that borrowed tomb that John first believed that Jesus had risen!
 
The synergy between Jesus and John allowed John to identify himself in his Gospel as ‘the beloved disciple’ rather than by the use of his name. Love allowed John’s eyes to read the signs in that borrowed tomb and his mind and heart aided his acceptance. We hear, in the Gospel, how Mary’s great love for Jesus brought her to be the first at the tomb. Yet it was John, the beloved disciple, who was the first Apostle to believe in Jesus’ Resurrection. The first human to believe in Jesus’ Resurrection would have been his Mother, Mary. She had always believed. This why, perhaps, the Gospels make no mention of the Resurrected Jesus appearing to his Mother. There is a passage in Deuteronomy (29:1-6) that is appropriate and illuminative:
“These are the terms of the covenant the Lord commanded Moses to make with the Israelites in Moab, in addition to the covenant he had made with them at Horeb.
Moses summoned all the Israelites and said to them:
Your eyes have seen all that the Lord did in Egypt to Pharaoh, to all his officials and to all his land. With your own eyes you saw those great trials, those signs and great wonders. But to this day the Lord has not given you a mind that understands or eyes that see or ears that hear. Yet the Lord says, “During the forty years that I led you through the wilderness, your clothes did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet. You ate no bread and drank no wine or other fermented drink. I did this so that you might know that I am the Lord your God.”
 
It may help to draw a parallel. We cannot interpret the thoughts of another unless, between that person and our self, there is a bond of empathy. Orchestral musicians are able to sense, for instance, when their conductor is wholly in sympathy with the music of the composer whose work they are playing and, equally, when this is not the case without a word being spoken.

Love is that great interpreter that can grasp the truth when the intellect is left groping and uncertain. A young unknown artist once showed the respected French artist Paul Gustave Dore his painting of Jesus and asked for Dore’s verdict. After some time, Dore answered: “You don’t love him (Jesus), or you would paint him differently.” How true it is that we can neither understand Jesus ourselves, nor help others understand him, without loving him with our heart, mind and will. We can misinterpret the mystery of the Cross by seeing it only through the prism of death and humiliation rather than for what it is, when we look through the eyes of faith, namely glorification.
 

Palm Sunday (09.04.17)

Holy Week, which begins today, is the greatest week in the Church’s year.
 
It is made holy by the death of Christ, the Good Shepherd, who died for his flock.
 
He died to atone for sin, and since we are all sinners, each of us can truthfully say that we had a hand in his death.  Jesus Christ, the sinless one, suffered the shame and agony of the Cross, that we might die to sin and rise to a new life of holiness and grace.
 
The Cross of Jesus stands at the centre of the Christian story as the sign of the lengths Love will go to in its passion for others. Should we ever feel unloved, we have only to look at the figure on the Cross, and reflect on the fact that, in spite of our sins and failings, God loves us unconditionally, so much so that He willingly  endured and suffered torture and death, out of his Love for each one of us.
 
Let us now reflect on those who had some part in putting Christ to death, and instead of condemning them straight away, perhaps look deeper and see how we also  could be capable of some such evil, but for the grace of God.
 
The Pharisees were austere, religious men, who devoted all their energy to doing good and the study of God’s law, but they were absolutely convinced of their own rightness, and could be capable of the most appalling evil.
 
Caiphas who was perhaps thinking mainly of religious orthodoxy, and how easily people get led astray by false messiahs.  The Church saw heretics burn at the stake – believing it was doing service to the gospel.
 
Pilate was probably thinking of his high office and the preservation of law and order at a time of great unrest.  He knew that Christ was innocent, but he feared that trouble would ensue if he did not give the religious leaders what they wanted.  He was also thinking about his own job.
 
Judas -  most likely he was now a disappointed, disillusioned man.  But even this character, so maligned down the ages, came to recognise and condemn the evil he had done, and simply despaired.
 
Peter:  here we have a man who is weak and cowardly, but afterwards repented and shed tears over his denials.
 
The soldiers  were simply carrying out orders...taking no responsibility for their actions.
 
The crowd  got really carried away, not knowing what exactly was happening, but joined in anyway.
 
Holy Week is not a week for throwing stones, but rather an opportunity to look at our own commitment to truth and justice, and our loyalty to Christ and his Gospel.
 
Christ shows us that the only way to overcome evil is by good, just as the only way to overcome darkness is by light.
 
Through His resurrection, Christ’s light shone even more brilliantly than before, and it can never be extinguished again.
 
Father, grant that through the death and resurrection of your Son, we may be able to die to our sins and rise to new life, through the same Christ our Lord.   Amen.
 

5th Sunday of Lent (02.04.17)

 “Preach the Gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words.”
 
On a spring morning, a colleague and I were having a break at an outdoor coffee shop in a setting of natural beauty. From where we sat we could see an expansive lake and well cared for gardens. The setting was quiet and calm. At a nearby table, sat a young woman quietly reading her Bible. It was evident that she was absorbed in the text, occasionally looking up to consider what she had read. She never said a word, but her profile revealed both her heart and her priorities. To those who happened to glance in her direction at that coffee shop she gave a gentle, positive, silent witness for God.
 
Reading St John’s Gospel (11:1-45) for this 5th Sunday of Lent brought to mind that coffee shop and the woman reading her Bible. St. John focuses on Lazarus. Like that woman, Lazarus is a powerful yet silent witness for God. He belongs to that exclusive group of significant Gospel characters who speak by silence. Another, even more famous, member of that same group is Jesus’ foster-father, Joseph.

Speaking by silence may, at first sight, appear as a conundrum but consider these words from the Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch. (1450-1516):
Yielding your all to the Saviour
And letting His love flow through you
Makes even your silent witness
A witness of what God can do”.
or these
“Preach the Gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words.”
(Attributed to St. Francis of Assisi)
 
The Gospels do not contain a single word that Lazarus spoke and only one thing that he did namely, to shuffle out of his tomb at the command of Jesus. His silence has not prevented knowledge of him from passing generation to generation into this present day. Nor is he the only Lazarus to make such a silent journey. Whom, do you imagine, the other silent Lazarus might be?

Jesus names him Lazarus in his parable in Luke 16: 19-31. This Lazarus is the injured beggar at the rich man’s gate (“ .. the dogs even came and licked his sores ...”). Has he disappeared off our radar in much the same way that being so busy and preoccupied prevents us seeing and hearing the most vulnerable and most easily overlooked who are not necessarily the most obvious? What if part of our discipline, for what remains of Lent, would be to stop and take notice … just once a day? How would it affect us if we were to reach out, just once a day, to someone we might normally fail to notice? It might change us! Implemented widely, it would change our world. Pope Francis places such challenges before us almost daily. In these last few days Pope Francis has asked if we reach for our Bible as frequently as we check our mobile phone?
 
Comments about Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary of Bethany, have to be speculative in the main. What we see is a brother willing to safeguard his apparently unmarried, possibly widowed, possibly orphaned sisters. In that distant society unmarried or widowed women would have been defenceless without the protection of a near male relative.  Moreover, Jesus being their friend and a visitor to their home, reveals something of the spirituality of their shared life in Bethany. Since no mention is made of Lazarus’ wife it is possible that he had foregone his right to a family of his own. The key is Jesus’ being, as it were, ‘at home’ in their company. What setting, do you imagine, Jesus would choose in which to relax?
 
Then the unthinkable happens! Lazarus dies. Over many years of pastoral activity as a priest I recall deeply bereaved people, faced with the unexpected death of a loved one, saying something like: “You know, Father, he/she went to Mass during the week as well as on Sundays!” It was almost as though they were experiencing, in their unexpected bereavement, a contradiction between sharing regularly in the Mass and dying. The Mass is the enactment of the ultimate self-offering that Jesus made of himself, on our behalf, on Calvary. By sharing in the Mass we are recommitting our self to the Calvary route at a date, time and place unknown and to sharing in His Resurrection.

The sisters’ reaction to their brother’s death and Jesus’ eventual arrival is as distinct as it was on another occasion. Then, too, Mary appeared reflective and Martha outspoken (Luke 10: 38-39). This Sunday John’s Gospel extract shows us Jesus encouraging Martha as she struggles to grow in faith. He points to the way but cannot make the journey either for her or for us when we also experience a tension between life here and faith. Maybe the clue is in their brother’s name, Lazarus means ‘God helps’.
 
It’s a fair assumption that Martha and Mary would have been overjoyed to have their brother, Lazarus, restored to them after his four days buried. This was his rising to life-continuing not life-made-new. It was resumption not resurrection with a capital ‘R’. Not to put too fine a point on it, if Lazarus had been arthritic before dying then he would still be arthritic!

There are no indications as to the brother and his sisters’ expectations. Did they realise that Lazarus’ restoration to life would have consequences? John (12:11) makes it clear that the chief priests determined to kill the resuscitated Lazarus as well as Jesus –“since it was on Lazarus’ account that many of the Jews were leaving them (the chief priests) and believing in Jesus.”
 
It is understandable if, hearing this Gospel extract, we empathize with the sisters in their loss. But it does raise the question about whether we are sufficiently alert to the implications of what we ask from God. Are we truly praying for the wellbeing of the other or our own comforting? It asks an unquantifiable love for a wife or husband, a son or a daughter, a brother or a sister to give the partner, parent or sibling the freedom to go to God when life here is evidently completing. How comforting must it be for the almost exhausted to hear or sense that their loved ones love them enough to will them into God’s arms.
 
Each silent Lazarus calls us to witness for Christ
with our life as well as your lips.
 

4th Sunday of Lent (26.03.17)

ANOINTING
 
How often have you been the recipient of an anointing? An equally fair question would be – how often have you anointed other people? It would not be surprising were the questions to cause initial puzzlement and no ready response! Outside of religious circles ‘anointing’ is not a word in common usage in the secular world. 

Yet anointing – understood as the willingness to bring a benefit to another as opposed to harm – is happening widely and continuously. Any one of our senses can be involved in anointing. For example, our sense of smell may detect the presence of a noxious substance that another cannot sense. Our eyes can radiate a greeting that helps bring calm. Our sense of touch can not only support but also reassure. These, and so many more frequent events, can be termed ‘anointing’ if we understand the word in its widest sense.
 
God’s Word for us this 4th Sunday of Lent has anointing as a common theme. The first Reading tells of God’s prophet Samuel being sent to anoint David as King of Israel (Samuel 16:1,6-7,10-13); St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (5:8-14) tells how the coming of Christ (The Anointed One) brought light to the darkness; and Jesus, in John’s Gospel (9:1-41) anoints a blind man with a mixture of saliva and dust.

For some people, the word anointing has religious overtones. But its multiple applications range from religion to the beauty and health industry. Anointing has a distinguished history. For example, the Hebrew people recognised anointing as God’s way of confirming his choice of a person. Aaron was anointed high priest. Both Saul and David were anointed as kings of Israel, at God’s prompting, by the prophet Samuel. The titles ‘Messiah’ and ‘The Christ’ in Hebrew and Greek translate as ‘The Anointed One’. 

In ancient Israel, a host would have anointed the face of a guest on their arrival with perfumed oil to help their recovery from the sun and wind of the journey. Servants would have washed the guests’ feet from dust and sand. St. Luke (7:45-46) recalls Jesus publicly declaiming his host Simon’s lack of courtesy: “And turning to the woman, Jesus said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your house, you did not give Me water for My feet, but she wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not greet Me with a kiss, but she has not stopped kissing My feet since I arrived. You did not anoint My head with oil, but she has anointed My feet with perfume.…”.
 
For Christians, the Sacrament of Baptism introduces them to anointing as a sacred action with eternal consequences. Maybe this is the time to ask what keepsakes of your Baptism do you still have? More senior Christians may have photographs and possibly a garment. The more recently Baptised will likely have videos and photos of a family party. The more apposite question for a Baptised person of any age is – ‘What do you treasure in your heart concerning your first anointing by the Holy Spirit?’

If your Baptismal anointing occurred when you were a newborn then your memory will be dependent upon what your parents, Godparents and family told you. If there has been supportive nurturing of your relationship with Jesus at home and in school, you may have a rich vein of memories on which to call. An adult, coming to Baptism, has her or his own personal memory. Our Baptismal memory, should we have one, will influence our daily relationship with Jesus. 

Practising Jews begin each day with a prayer from the Book of Deuteronomy (6:4-9). The Jew is to remember that he or she is God’s chosen. The same can be said for the Baptised woman or man.
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God; the Lord is one.
And you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your means.
And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart.
And you shall teach them to your children and speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up.”
 
The Deuteronomy text is grounded in family life. The parents are to ‘love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your means’.  By the example of their own lifestyle they affirm their children’s spiritual heritage. God looks to them to be the first teachers of their children in the ways of faith: “you shall teach them (God’s words) to your children and speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up.” 
The Book of Deuteronomy dates back to 1400 BC (before the birth Christ). Its insistence on prayer and formation threading through the whole day is as valid for 21st century Christians as it was for the early Israelites. 
The prevailing breakdown in the transmission of faith from generation to generation can be traced to the breakdown in the integrity of family life. 

Spiritual or Sacred Anointing is more than the application of Chrism at Baptism, Confirmation and priestly and episcopal Ordination. God spiritually anoints all who choose to read or hear read His Word. Notice the emphasis - choose to read or hear. There’s no such thing as a haphazard encounter with God’s anointing Word. Whether we realise it or not there is deep within us a thirst that only God’s Word can satisfy.  God proffers his Word constantly but never compels our attention. 
 
Jesus as a child would have been continuously anointed, as it were, by the words of his mother and foster-father, Joseph. Their daily family prayer celebrated in Jesus’ hearing was an expression of their own relationship with God. The late Michael Paul Gallagher SJ wrote: “if faith is not an experience of encounter, we have little to reflect on except the words of others … and they will ring hollow unless touched by personal fire”. (‘Into Extra Time’ DLT)

Mary would have spoken to Jesus of the events surrounding his conception. We can imagine Mary telling Jesus of his visit, while still in her womb, to Elizabeth who was herself pregnant with John-the-Baptiser. Jesus would have been anointed daily with the communion of love that bonded Mary and Joseph. The prevailing current breakdown in the transmission of faith from generation to generation can be traced to the breakdown in the integrity of family life. 
 
Are today’s parents aware of how their words and actions, especially within the home, are anointing their offspring, whatever their age? Equally, are the ‘children’ sufficiently aware of how their attitudes and behaviour are anointing their parents, especially in their old age?
 
Anointing is associated with consecration inferring a solemn dedication to a special religious service or purpose. British monarchs are anointed to be of service to their people. Catholic priests and bishops are anointed to be of service to the faithful and the wider community in the name of Jesus. As a matter of information, Deacons are not anointed at their Ordination. Persons, places or things can be anointed. A chalice, for example, is anointed for exclusive use in the Sacrifice of the Mass.
For Christians, the anointing of a person signifies their association with God, their consecration to God by which they become holy by being associated with the Sacredness of God.

On the occasion of being Baptised, a person is anointed ‘priest, prophet and king’. Each Baptised person shares in the priesthood of the laity – the ability to make an offering to God of their life, of prayer, of dedication as a parent, teacher, nurse, carer and so forth. Each Baptised shares the prophetic role of speaking truthfully about the present time in relation to God’s declared will. Each Baptised is called, through adoption, to share in the kingship of Christ – who came not be served but to serve and to give his life for others.

In English, the antonym for consecrate is desecrate. As Baptism is accepted as the consecration of a person to God, the deliberate non-fulfillment of Baptismal promises can be nothing other than a desecration. 

Have I, this day, been sufficiently aware of how I have anointed the people with whom I have shared my life.
 

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.