Sunday Reflection

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)

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.

3rd Sunday of Lent (19.03.17)

Believers hold that God’s creation is a finely tuned network of interdependent relationships. Human beings are the high point of God’s creation bearing his image and likeness. In addition humans have the unique distinction of being gifted with the intelligence to rationalise and exercise free will. These unique gifts are to be used with care and creativity in the stewarding of God’s interdependent creation. Too often humanity has seen the earth and its resources as commodities for its own use, exploitation or destruction. We have too often failed to see creation as a community to which we belong.
Thirst is a common experience as frequent and individual as the number of people on the planet at any given moment. The primary antidote to thirst is drinkable water but this is not readily available, at minimal cost, to everyone. Thirst is at the heart of the Gospel for this 3rd Sunday of Lent (John: 4:5-42). It features the Jewish Jesus’ face-to-face encounter with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.
A human being can survive for three weeks without food but for only three days without water. How is it possible to justify the construction and manning of a ‘space-station’ while people are dying of thirst on earth? The six-letter word ‘thirst’ is capable of multi-layer interpretation but only if we stop to think about it. There is so much for which human beings thirst, besides a thirst-quenching drink.

We have a deep thirst for peace within our world and within our life. We have an equal thirst for justice, for love, for harmony between peoples. Humanity, in the course of history, has so damaged God’s finely tuned network of interdependent relationships that people have almost lost hope for its restoration. They deeply thirst for such a restoration without recognising that they are allowing themselves to be constantly ‘bought off’ by false distractions cleverly displayed by the power of Evil. The ‘distractions’ are numerous but often include the corruption of power, money, drugs, alcohol etc. 

Jesus, in John’s Gospel extract, says to the Samaritan: “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink, ‘ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

The Samaritan woman hears Jesus’ words literally and answers: “Sir, you do not even have a bucket and the cistern is deep; where then can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this cistern and drank from it himself with his children and his flocks?”

With loving patience Jesus attempts to lead the woman to a previously untapped realisation of the depth of her thirst: “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” The woman continues, understandably, to interpret Jesus’ words literally. There was a well, with drinking water, actually within the nearby town of Sychar where Jesus’ companions had gone to buy food. Had the Samaritan woman, because of her reputation, been prevented from using the town well by other women who resented her? Why else would she come all the way out of the town to Jacob’s well and at the midday and hottest hour?
Our experience of ‘thirst’ has multiple levels some of which we may be tempted to ignore for a long time. Our soul has an abiding thirst for God that only Jesus Christ can satisfy. In this land of exile, this territory of the Evil One, the soul’s pathway is strewn with the spiritual equivalent of IED’s. 
A person suffering thirst divests himself or herself of whatever makes them hot and uncomfortable. A spiritually thirsty person may be tempted by one of Satan’s ‘quick fixes’ – going into church, even attending Mass, saying a prayer, being generous towards others.  These, and such like, are good things in themselves but their very infrequency will not quench deep spiritual needs. People suffering from deep spiritual thirst have to be willing to divest themselves of whatever baggage Satan is using to entrap them or slow them down. People say that good habits are hard to form. It is equally true to say that bad habits are hard to break!
Jesus, in his on-going conversation with the Samaritan woman, enables her to revisit her own, perhaps long-buried, spirituality until, finally, she says: 
“I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Christ; when he comes, he will tell us everything”.
At this point Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one speaking with you.” 
Try to imagine, if you will, the impact of Jesus’ words: “I am he, the one speaking with you.” That John halts the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at this point is perhaps telling us of a silence in which words would be impossible and inadequate. Was this the moment at which a nameless Samaritan woman found her spiritual thirst truly quenched?
“Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Christ?” The first instinct of the spiritually ‘thirst-quenched’ Samaritan woman was to share her discovery with the very townsfolk who had driven her out. She was compelled to share her revitalized faith! The Christian life is based on the twin pillars of discovery and communication. No discovery is complete until the desire to share Christ fills our hearts; and we cannot communicate Christ to others until we have discovered him, quenched out thirst in him, for ourselves.

Does this Lenten Sunday bring us an invitation to explore the deeper thirst in our own life? Are we willing to give time to imagining our self sitting near Jesus and engaging in a similar conversation that is personal to us? What challenges might Jesus lay before us in a demonstration of his love? 

2nd Sunday of Lent (12.03.16)

In today’s Gospel we hear the story of Jesus becoming radiant and aglow as He is recognised by God as “My Son, the Chosen One”, while others are still questioning and wondering who is really is.
Some say “this is Joseph’s son, surely”.
Others are not so sure.  They ask “Who is this who commands the waves?”
Most people admit that Jesus us more than meets the eye.
Jesus Himself keeps probing them when He asks:  “Who do people say that I am?”  “Who do you say I am?”   The responses vary as to whether He is one of the prophets come back, like Elijah, or maybe he is the Messiah who will have victory without suffering, leading them all unscathed into the Promise Land.
 All this happened as He was on His way to Jerusalem - there to undergo a horrifically violent death. 
In His humanity He recoiled from what was ahead, and needed the reassurance of His heavenly Father in order to face this ordeal, so He went apart with three of His disciples and climbed Mount Tabor to pray for strength and enlightenment.
While he was thus in earnest prayer to His Father He was favoured by a marvellous experience.
He heard His Father’s voice loud and clear exclaiming:-
You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
In that moment the darkness lifted and life was transformed with meaning.  His face shone radiantly with joy.  His disciples saw what had happened and were enthralled by it.  As He came down the mountain he was able to face that bleak future with faith, hope and love, convinced that the future was in the Hands and Will of His Father, and that His Father loved Him.  That was all that mattered .
At times life can become very dark for all of us.  It is in those moments that we need to experience our own Tabors.  We need to understand the true meaning of our pain and sacrifices.  True love gives them meaning – the love and support of our friends.
At times, they can do little to help except to stay by our side as the disciples stayed with Christ on the mountain.
It is in the life, death and resurrection of Christ that we discover the real meaning of our own lives and deaths, if we are prepared to follow Him along the road to Jerusalem.
What does it take to transfigure me!     What would it take to transfigure the people I know! 
Who calls my name in love!     Whose name do I call in love!
Yes, God asks us to transfigure each other by the power of God’s  love  in us.
We are all called daily to the ministry of Transfiguration.
LORD, You have given us a vision of the meaning of who we are.
With faith in You we can transform even the darkest moments into moments of light and beauty,
For You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.   Amen

1st Sunday of Lent (05.03.17)

Temptation In Abundance
Many would agree that our world is awash with temptation. Temptation exists because God has gifted humanity with freedom of choice, thereby distinguishing us from all his other creation. Necessarily contiguous with the gift is God’s inherent guarantee of an equilibrium within which humanity is truly free from coercion, truly free to rationalise and to choose. The Letter to the Romans (5:20) expresses it thus: But as people sinned more and more, (thereby choosing to align themselves with Evil) God's wonderful grace became more abundant.” God’s grace remains available even if, previously, we have chosen to discard it. Thus, in our life in this world, we are never without access to the equilibrium of counterbalance.
God and the Devil are at war in what we call ‘our’ world; this place of our self-imposed exile subsequent to humanity’s Original Sin. The eventual outcome of this daily battle is already settled by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
“When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come to pass: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55)

Meanwhile, our individual lifespan on earth is a time of testing. As St. John, in his First Letter (5:19), states: “We are well aware that we are from God, and that the whole world is in the power of the Evil One.”

Temptation, as a time of testing, relates directly with our capacity for choice. Historically temptation is linked with negativity, with what is contrary to God’s will. Each time we pray the ‘Our Father’ we say: “Lead us not into temptation … ” What do the majority of people understand by these words?

Our repeated failure to be faithful in loving God reveals the venom and duplicity with which Satan attempts to undermine us. We have every reason to seek God’s help! ‘Lead us not into temptation’ might more helpfully be understood were the translation to run something like – ‘heavenly Father, help us not to be beguiled and enchanted into making choices against your love and your will’.

There’s a painting somewhere of a youngster being drawn away by a parental hand from something that has captured the child’s attention. The child, though complying with the parental wish, continues to look back at whatever captured his or her fascination in the first place. We are not children! God will offer his hand, so to speak, but we have to respond affirmatively with our whole being. There’s no place for  - “I am coming…. but…” For us it has to be a whole ‘Yes’ or else it is a whole ‘No’.  
Jesus said: “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’
Anything more comes from the evil one”. (Matthew 5:37)

Our ‘yes’ to God has to be our whole-hearted intention ‘to be delivered from Evil’ even though, in particular instances, we may be struggling to assemble, let alone hold together, every fibre of our being. The Lord reads the intentions of our hearts, irrespective of what our lips may be pronouncing. If there is a discrepancy between what we say and what we will, the discrepancy prevents the Lord responding to us as he would wish to. The discrepancy is a compromise that leaves open a way for Satan.
Matthew’s Gospel (4:1-11) for this 1st Sunday of Lent tells how Jesus, following his baptism by John-the-Baptiser and his heavenly Father’s public acclamation of him (Matt. 3:17 and Mark 1:11), is guided into the desert by the Holy Spirit.

The word ‘temptation’ deserves to be explored. The Greek for ‘to tempt’ is peirazein. It implies being immersed in a ‘time of testing’ rather than being led astray. Temptation is a ‘time of testing’ of our declaration to love God above everyone and everything.

Daily life is full of multiple temptations that test our commitments ranging from dietary resolutions to Sacramental Vows. The grace of Baptism protects the Baptised’s inclination to love God, in whose image and likeness each is made. This inclination does not infringe our free choice. It prompts our search for a compatible wholesomeness of being that can only and uniquely be found in God. Baptismal grace requires continual replenishment and reinforcement over the course of our earthly pilgrimage. In just the same way, a married couple need to frequently express their love for one another in word and gesture.

Do we, as the Baptised members of Jesus, his adopted sisters and brothers, really acknowledge ourselves to be God’s committed ‘foot-soldiers’? Do we voluntarily, on a daily basis, engage with the Holy Spirit and offer ourselves to be ‘deployed’ against the forces of Evil?  This is what is at the heart of the word ‘temptation’.
Matthew does not give us any detail of Jesus’ forty-day fast. Almost automatically when we hear the word ‘fast’ our thoughts shift to food, drink and other pleasures. An alternative word for ‘fast’ might be ‘focus’. By a process of fasting, the setting aside of non-essentials, we can refine our focus and our will in the service of the Lord as we promised, or others did in our name, when we were Baptised.

We applaud the achievements of top-flight sportspersons. Do we understand that the price of their performance on the court, the track, the pitch or in the pool is an unrelenting commitment to focus … for years? Their goal is a gold medal. Our goal is to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Jesus not for forty days but every day that we breathe the polluted air of this world.

Jesus’ forty-day fast had one objective namely, the refining of his focus. He had to eliminate everything superfluous that did not immediately concern his heavenly Father’s will.  Following his Baptism in the Jordan, Jesus’ focus was Calvary. Satan offered Jesus less arduous but false routes. Satan does the same to us. His snares are filled with the ‘quicksand’ of compromise to snuff out our will to love God.
Satan will not take issue with us as we fiddle with our usual Lenten ‘penances’ – sugar, chocolate, biscuits, the cinema and so on. He will certainly take issue with us if we make our Lenten 2017 a renewed daily focus on engaging with our Baptismal commitment to be Christ’s foot-soldiers in the battle with Evil. Wherever we are - home, workplace, supermarket, recreational facility – our daily focus is to make Christ present to others in the way we speak and interact.

This extract from the Letter to the Hebrews (12: 1-4) may help boost our will to ‘re-enlist’ with Christ this Lent:
The Example of Jesus:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”

8th Sunday of Ordinary Time (26.02.17)

“No one can be a slave to two masters.”
This title gives us Jesus’ opening words in the Gospel extract for the 8th Sunday (Matthew 6:24)

Without being in any way flippant, there may be those who, hearing these words, smile wryly. Those holding down two or more jobs, to make ends meet, have at least two masters! The consequence could be that Jesus’ words are not being heard as he intended us to hear them. 

The Greek word ‘douleuein’ means to be a slave to. The Greek word ‘kurios’ denotes absolute ownership. So Jesus’ words, when translated from the Greek, become: “No one can be a slave to two owners.” 

In Jesus’ day, too, slavery existed. A slave was not a person but a thing, a living tool. A slave had absolutely no rights; the owner could treat his slave exactly as he liked because every moment of a slave’s life belonged to his owner. A slave had no moment of time to call his or her own. There were good owners who cared for their slaves and bad owners who didn’t.
Today, employers do not own their workforce. Employees have rights as well as obligations. They can withdraw their labour if they choose to do so. They are contracted to work for set periods ensuring that they have free time for their families and themselves. Employment law safeguards the rights of both employees and employers. In a democratic society nobody can be forced into work.
Likewise, nobody can be forced into being Baptised. When a person chooses to be Baptised that person is willingly committing their whole life, here and hereafter, to God. Note, this commitment does not equate with a contract of engagement defined by hours, days, weeks etc.  It is an individual’s freely chosen surrender of their whole life to God, without reservation. On his part, God adopts us as the brothers and sisters of his only Begotten Son who gave His all including his own life for our redemption. For this reason, a person Baptised as an infant must choose to ratify or not that decision, previously made for them, when they become more self-determining. The generosity and depth of the parents love for God will hopefully find expression in the free choice made by the siblings.

There’s a reflection of this surrender of self in the words that unite a man and woman in the Sacrament of Matrimony: “To have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.” In death, the Baptised find an infinite and eternal closeness with God.
In no other place in the Bible is this exclusivity of relationship, humanity with God and God with humanity, more clearly set forth. A reflection of what we hear this Sunday from Matthew can also be found in Luke 16:13. 

The question proposed by Matthew’s Gospel extract is: are 21st century Christians sufficiently aware of the depth of their commitment to God which they voluntarily take on through Baptism?

Has this unique and exclusive commitment and relationship been infiltrated by some semblance of secular and commercial employment? There’s a cartoon showing a Catholic leaving church after Mass with a bubble thought saying: ‘That’s me in the clear for another seven days!’ It’s as if Baptismal commitment is something to be ‘done’ once a week!
Jesus’ words: “No one can be a slave to two owners.” should challenge us this Sunday by provoking the question, ‘In my Baptismal commitment am I consciously and willingly surrendering, without reservation, my whole life to God, day be day, moment by moment? Is this consciousness directing my choices in how I am living right now?

Baptismal commitment means that God has the first call upon me day and night. He equally gives himself to me in a like commitment. Therefore, the first question for the Baptised person is always, "What does God wish me to do?" 
In reality, this is not the thinking of many today who are more inclined to ask, “What do I want to do?” or “What does my partner want me to do?” So many infant’s Baptisms remain locked in a long gone infancy because individual parents have failed to ratify and live their own Baptism commitments as adults.
Expressed baldly, a Christian has no time-off from being a Christian. There is no time when he or she can set aside their commitment to Christ and act as if they were ‘off-duty’. Being a Christian is a whole-life commitment. A partial or a spasmodic service of God is not compatible with God’s love for us or our Baptismal commitment to Him. 
Jesus continues his teaching to say, "You cannot serve God and mammon." Mammon was a Hebrew word for material possessions. Then it did not have the adverse connotations it has today. The ancient Rabbis had a saying, "Let the mammon of thy neighbour be as dear to thee as thine own." 

The word mammon originally meant ‘to entrust’. Mammon was what was entrusted to someone you trusted to be kept safe. Over the years mammon came to mean not what was entrusted but something in which a person put their trust. Mammon, spelled with a capital ‘M’, became an idol for property, possessions and power and came to be thought of as a god.

The history of the word mammon shows how material possessions have usurped a place that they were never meant to occupy. As God’s creation we called to trust in Him alone. If people put their trust in material things they are dispensing with God.

Scripture is often misquoted. Scripture does not say: "Money is the root of all evil." What it says is: "The love of money is the root of all evil" (1 Timothy 6:10). Love is the special gift we share with God because it is all that we have to give that is not already His. The love we have for one another is the extension of our love for him because each of us is made in His image and likeness.
This reflection has got no further than the first five lines of this Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 6:24-34) and the editorial knife is poised! It makes clear that we 21st century Christians need to cherish God’s Word to us, to give ourselves time to contemplate it not just when in church but at home. We need God’s Word to hold at bay the onrush of the tide of secularism in its myriad and deceptive forms. If we don’t do so we will lose the meaning of the Truth God puts before us for our eternal salvation.

7th Sunday of Ordinary Time (19.02.17)

Buried under each day’s particular and varied demands are our ideals. In the course of our life we connect with particular experiences or discover epiphany moments through reading or study. Such events can coalesce, over time, resulting in an adoption of ideals that offer replenishment and revitalization when the daily drudgery wears us down. 

Ideals fire the heart and the imagination. They can uplift not only our spirits but, through us, animate others. We’ve only to think of the universally recognised leadership given by Sir Ernest Shackleton the early 20th century polar explorer, Sir Edmund Hilary who on May 29, 1953 set foot on the 29,028-foot (8,848-metre) summit of Everest with a Nepalese Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay.  More recently, Sir Mo Farah and Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill will have inspired many to take up athletics. Every century provides countless more examples. 

Over the centuries Christianity has provided countless individuals and groups whose heroic defence of their Faith, to the point of death in many cases, has inspired and continues to inspire upcoming Christians and would-be Christians.

Christian ideals enable us to see above and beyond the humdrum, the repetitious, and identify a goal that resonates with our highest hopes and desires. God, our Creator, calls us to be holy. This ultimately means that we are called to be caught-up in and by love. The 7th Sunday’s First Reading from the Book of Leviticus (19:1-2) sets the scene:
“The Lord said to Moses,
“Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.”
How are we to live so as to be holy as God is holy? In times past believers were taught that obeying God’s laws brought holiness. Unfortunately, and at the same time understandably, people became caught up in the legal aspects of God’s Law forgetting that being law-abiding was not the ideal. The ideal is to love God and obeying God’s commandments is the means to that end, not the end in itself. A banister is an aid to climbing the stairs not the essence of the journey.

Genesis tells us that God created us in his own divine image. God is a Trinity of Love not a legal entity. That we are created in God’s image means that we have potential and the highest expression of that potential is holiness. In this Sunday’s Gospel (Matt 5: 38-48) Jesus uses the word ‘perfect’ instead of ‘holy’. Could it be that a major problem for humanity has been in the way we have interpreted holiness and Godlike perfection. 

As human beings we naturally imitate what we admire. If our vision is limited to the here and now, to the material, tangible world, we will see what others acclaim as desirable and want it for ourselves. Satan has endlessly repeated, with great success, his devilish trick with the apple! He is a past-master at deceiving us into a false belief that the yawning emptiness at our core, a hunger always seeking satisfaction, can be satisfied materially. It impels us to look outside of ourselves. Why else do we wear our sports-team’s colours or aim for the car or clothes that express somebody else’s (but not God’s) values? Before we know it we are on the pathway to idolatry. If we think of idolatry as a pagan ritual, as ancients bowing before a totem, then we are way off beam. Every choice we make says something about what we worship. 
In less than two weeks it will be Ash Wednesday! The First Reading (Leviticus 19:1-2,17-18) and the Gospel (Matthew 5:38-48) for this Sunday present us with a checklist by which we can re-align the values we are currently employing day by day. If the notion of preparing for Lent is foreign to you, then this is indeed a wake-up call! “I would if I had remembered, but I didn’t … so I haven’t” is not a statement we want to be making when we come face to face with God. Who can you imagine undertaking a six-week journey – thirteen-week if you include the onward journey from Easter to Pentecost – without an itinerary let alone an objective?

An absence of forward planning could be saying that Lent is not important, something more to be ‘got through on the nod’ than lived. Too many fall back on the peripherals of ‘Ash’ on Wednesday, ‘fish’ on Fridays with ‘Hot Cross Buns’ on Good Friday as if such minor items were the essentials of Lent. People are tempted into the trap of ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’. The execution of a physical act (doing), such as having blessed ash placed on our forehead, is more easily accomplished than choosing to live 24x7 (being) with truth and justice for the love of God. God commanded Moses to say: “Be holy” (First Reading) not ‘do’ things that are not in themselves holy. Matthew, in the Gospel, recalls Jesus as saying: “So be perfect …” not ‘do’ something perfectly. For example, looking reflectively for ways to, each day, being a spouse, a parent, a teacher or carer is engaging with a state of ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’.
As disciples of Jesus Christ, we believe that Christian ideals resonate with what is at the core of our being God’s creation. Their innate truthfulness allows us to believe in them and to find them attractive. Experience teaches that these ideals are rarely realisable while we remain pilgrims in exile. Nevertheless, the truth preached by Jesus captures our aspiration while we continue our struggle to bring is teaching into our hearts and lives

Pope Francis said: “When the Lord calls us to be saints, he does not call us to something hard or sad ... Not at all! It is an invitation to share His joy, to live and offer every moment of our lives with joy, at the same time making it a gift of love for the people around us” (Vatican Radio, 11/19/2014).  Jesus showed the powerlessness of all forms of inhumanity by proving that life prevails: he rose from the dead and his cross has become a symbol of life. But as St Paul admits, Jesus’ message seems foolish to the world. 
In his landmark work ‘What's Wrong with the World’ G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) wrote:  “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

6th Sunday of Ordinary Time (12.02.17)

What do we understand by “Sin”?!
Many of us, when we examine our conscience, rarely look at our internal sins, but concentrate mainly on our external ones – our words and our deeds.  

Christ teaches us that we can sin even if we never commit a single external act.   We can sin in our thoughts, desires, attitudes, or motives.

Sin comes from within.
We hear in today’s Gospel how Christ sees the heart, and how He saw through the outward show of those  considered to be “models of perfection”  when he pronounced: 
“ Unless your virtue goes deeper than that of the  Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.”   
He points out that it is possible to avoid committing murder, perjury, adultery, and yet we can sin seriously against the fifth, sixth and eighth  commandments.  We could keep the letter of the law, and yet fail woefully where the spirit is concerned.
Sin and virtue are essentially matters of the mind and heart.  Sin comes from inside, although it may be triggered off by something outside us.  We don’t have to go as far as to act – to seriously want it is enough.
For a moment consider the implication of our old resentments, our jealousies, our angers, our suspicions, or even our hidden intentions.  An unworthy motive could spoil the best of good deeds.
Yes, we could appear scrupulously authentic on the outside – as did the Pharisees – but beware lest our motives and intentions are not as “squeaky clean”! 
Darkness of the heart is the blackest night of all.
A heavy heart is the most wearisome burden.
A cold-hearted person is like a fireplace without a fire.
The heart is like a well-spring – all our thoughts, words and deeds flow from there.
Our actions flow from within, like water from a hidden spring.   Let us make sure to keep that spring free from pollution....a life-long assignment though it be!
Christ’s words:   “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”
Father, grant us the courage to look beneath the surface of our lives in order to face the secret pride, hidden resentments and sinful desires that lurk there, and in your gentle mercy guide our wayward hearts, for we know that of ourselves we are incapable of change.  We ask this through Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

5th Sunday of Ordinary Time (05.02.17)

The Invisible Presence
Salt enhances flavour and light brings hope. (This Sunday’s Gospel Matt 5:13-16) Jesus was skilled in his choice and use of words. He spoke from the heart, a heart filled with wisdom and love. Salt, in addition to its attributes as a flavour enhancer and preservative, was a common metaphor for wisdom. So, by inference, ‘tasteless salt’ amounted to foolishness.

Light was a commonly used symbol for God’s Word – “Your word is a lamp to my feet, a light to my path” (Psalm 119). Light was used to denote God – “The Lord is my light and my salvation”  (Psalm 27).

Jesus uses salt and light to teach that the persecuted and blessed disciples are an extension of God’s presence in the world, a presence that can never be hidden or extinguished. St. Maximus the Confessor was a Christian monk, theologian, and scholar. In his early life Maximus was a civil servant. He died in AD 662.

Maximus wrote: ‘The Word of God, born once in the flesh, is always willing to be born spiritually in those who desire him. In these he is born as an infant as he fashions himself in them by means of their virtues. He reveals himself to the extent that he knows someone is capable of receiving him. He diminishes the revelation of his glory not out of selfishness but because he recognises the capacity and resources of those who desire to know him. Yet, in the transcendence of mystery, he always remains invisible to all.’ Salt becomes invisible as it enhances and preserves.

God makes his grace – his invisible but real presence within us – available in response to our petition. God’s response to us will always respect the ‘freedom of will’ he has granted us and our capacity to assimilate his grace. God will never allow our free will to be overpowered by either his grace or Satan’s unscrupulous manipulation.

Unlike salt, grace is renewable. The only limit on renewal is the time allotted to us in this world and the disposition of our will at each moment of our life here. Grace’s life-enablement alters in sync with the fluctuations of our free will. Living in this self-imposed ‘land of exile’ it is never easy to keep our will locked-on to a constant love for God, as well we know. Our sincere ‘morning offering’ declaration may not even make it past breakfast, let alone the midday ‘Angelus’!

That our protestations, in word and gesture, of our love for God remain only partly fulfilled derives from the infestation of original sin.  This remains a potent force in the armoury Satan brings to bear on our every waking moment.
Our eyes are too frequently confronted, in the street as on TV, by the ‘cast’ the Prophet Isaiah assembles in this Sunday’s First Reading - Isaiah 58:7-10.  Isaiah lists, the hungry; the oppressed; the homeless; the naked; and our relatives. It is undeniably true that the frequency of our over-exposure to such a ‘cast’ reduces our capacity, perhaps too our willingness, to see Christ in each person.

We do see a Serb or a Syrian, among many nationalities, representing the hungry; the Rohingya representing, again among many nationalities, the oppressed; the 5,000 people in Ireland who are homeless just now; the 2,744 people who slept rough on any one night in the UK in 2014 also representing the homeless. If we accept naked as ‘vulnerable’ there are currently 52,000 children on the UK’s ‘at risk’ registers with a further 159,000 cases pending investigation. No figures are available for abandoned relatives but so many are plainly in sight in our hospitals and care homes.

The burning question this Sunday’s Readings put before us is – do we see the Invisible but Real Presence of Christ in each face? The question brings to mind an arresting piece of writing by the Jesuit Jacques Couture, SJ (1929-1995).

The God I know 

The God I know
Rests in the shadow of my house.
Each day he begs a bit of rice
And even more, a gaze of love, a welcoming face.
The God I know was born on straw
And died on wood.
And since a certain Easter morning
Here and there wanders in the world,
Mingling with the anonymous crowd,
The unimportant, the undesirable.
I see him silhouetted in the neighbourhood streets.
He tries to disappear, barely lets himself be seen,
And nine times out of ten he isn't recognized...
The God I know is powerless, silent
Terribly embarrassing.
He keeps me from peaceful sleep.
He haunts my quiet nights.
He says he's hungry, thirsty, naked,
A stranger, a prisoner.
He yells from the gutter,
Moans in his abandonment, rejected.
Without shame he spreads out his fleshless bones, his broken body.
I thought I heard his voice the other day:
"I am still there, I've never left you.
Oh, do not let me die of hunger,
Do not let me spend another roofless night, without warmth.
Do not leave me under oppression,
Suffer injustice, take blows, be tortured.
I need you Today, this evening, now!
I knock at the door and there is no answer.
It's cold, I'm alone, there's no one to help me
To get back up, to tend my wounds..."
The God I know is called Jesus Christ.
He rests in the shadow of my house...
What does God’s holiness look like? It looks like God’s never-ending outreach to rebellious humanity in which God puts himself at the service of the most destitute.

18th Sunday of Ordinary Time (03.08.14)


Glacier explorers are always alert to the death-dealing danger of hidden, deep crevasses. These bottomless chasms have claimed countless lives over the centuries. A parallel can be drawn with the Church in Western Europe today. A chasm has opened up between the three Scripture readings at Sunday Mass and people’s weekday life. A homilist, unless truly charismatic, has an impossible task!

Just consider - entering a church for Sunday Mass - worshippers come from their electronically all-embracing 21st. century life to a setting, value system and vocabulary that has become, especially for upcoming generations, alien! Fewer and fewer young people speak ‘Christian’, which means having a mindset and a vocabulary resonating with Christian empathy!

Popular TV series insert ‘Previously’ segments before new episodes, even when just days apart, to help viewers’ recall. A combination of the visual and verbal triggers the memory, enabling the new segment to sit seamlessly with the habitual viewer.

Tragically, there’s no ‘Previously’ for congregations participating at Sunday Mass. Many have a six-day chasm of utterly different involvement with no meaningful remembrance of God’s Word from the previous Sunday. Moreover, the Sunday Scripture readings do not always ‘follow on’.

Through his prophet, Jeremiah, God addressed these words to his Old Testament people at a similar time of disconnect (14: 17-21)

“Therefore you shall say this word to them:
‘Let my eyes flow with tears night and day,

And let them not cease;

For the virgin daughter of my people
has been broken with a mighty stroke, with a very severe blow.
If I go out to the field,
then I behold, those slain with the sword!
And if I enter the city,
then behold, those sick from famine!

Yes, both prophet and priest ply their trade throughout the land and have no knowledge.’”

An exception is this Saturday and Sunday, 2nd 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.