Sunday Reflection

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (27.08.17)

SETTINGS
 
The choice of a setting can make or break an occasion. Proposals with the potential to alter the course of life, be it individual or collective, are influenced by the choice the setting for their revelation. For example, the setting chosen for making a proposal of marriage or celebrating a wedding anniversary is chosen with care. The settings in which heart-warming and life-celebratory events unfold are imprinted on the memory. Conversely, such details are usually unrecorded when people receive less favourable personal news, such as a difficult medical diagnosis. You could experiment by recalling the settings you remember for the significant or challenging events in your life.
 
Matthew’s Gospel extract for the 21st Sunday (16:13-20) tells how Jesus, knowing his time was running out and faced with the increasing active animosity of the Jewish authorities, took his disciples to Caesarea Philippi. These two semi-adjacent districts lay twenty-five miles from the Sea of Galilee and outside of the territory of the murderous Herod Antipas. Jesus needed a less stressful location than Jerusalem in which to teach the Twelve. There was much for them to learn from him in the short time available. But first, it would seem, Jesus had questions for the Twelve! Were there other reasons why Jesus chose the region of Caesarea Philippi?
 
This area was scattered with historic temples honouring the Syrian god Baal and other ancient pagan deities. Within this territory was a deep cave, claimed as the birthplace of the pagan god Pan, containing water said to be the source of the River Jordan. It was also the location for a glistening marble temple supporting the deification of the Caesars as an unsettling reminder of the established and greatly feared power of Rome.
 
Picture, if you will, in this setting of Caesarea Philippi, so full of the influence of earlier beliefs, the impact of the appearance of a homeless, penniless Galilean carpenter become itinerant preacher, with twelve quite ordinary male disciples. Jesus had deliberately placed himself in this unfavourable setting of historic association with pagan religions that had ensnared his people in earlier times. In this discordant setting Jesus chose to ask the Twelve for their verdict on him.
 
There were more favourable settings Jesus could have chosen for his questions. For example, the remote site where he had involved the Twelve with feeding the five thousand plus with two small loaves and two fish. Equally, he could have taken them by boat to where, on the Sea of Galilee, he had calmed their fears and the storm by a word.
 
The setting of Caesarea Philippi would not of itself support the Apostles in giving Jesus the answers he most desired. Caesarea Philippi would have prepared them for the antipathetic conditions they would henceforth encounter if they committed themselves to their Apostolic calling.
 
Jesus’ opening question should have given the Apostles a steer, one that they may have missed - “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  The Twelve replied openly and without hesitation: “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Jesus then made the question quite specific by asking: “But, you, whom do you say that I am?”

It’s not difficult to imagine how each fell silent.  An increasingly deep stillness spread person to person in the group. Eyes, previously lively and bright as an accompaniment to a genial conversation, would have dropped to the floor in the uncomfortable atmosphere. Each Apostle, faced with such a direct and compelling question from Jesus, would have needed time to collect his deepest thoughts in a setting that provided only contradictory memories.
 
Who, among us, faced with such a direct question would not take refuge in an embarrassed silence of recollection, particularly if we found the setting challenging? At such moments we can become acutely, painfully even, aware of the discordance between our words and our tendency to compromise!
 
Try imagining how Jesus appeared to his stilled and silent Apostles. His expression and manner would have been gentle and encouraging with no hint of condemnation or criticism. Did Jesus himself know how the silence would end? How testing a time was it for Jesus when, approaching the end time for his ministry on earth, he was actively looking to see who would respond to his call for volunteer missionaries?
 
Peter broke the silence. From all accounts Peter did not fumble or mumble but in a clear voice exclaimed: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  (Matt)  “You are the Christ.” (Mark 8.29). “You are the Christ of God.” (Luke 9.20). The word Messiah and the word Christ mean the same; the one is Hebrew and the other Greek for ‘The Anointed One’.
 
With the oppressive silence broken, Jesus rejoiced by thanking his heavenly Father for enabling Peter to make his public proclamation of Jesus as The Messiah, the Son of the Living God: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father”.
Peter’s proclamation provides food for thought:
1.     It makes clear that all pre-existent human categories were inadequate for describing Jesus as ‘God-made-Man’.
2.     It is doubtful that Peter could have given a theological explanation of what he meant when he said that Jesus was the Son of the Living God. His words were inspired by the Holy Spirit as Jesus’ response confirmed. What Peter did understand was that no merely human formula of words was capable of formatting a description of Jesus.
3.     This event in the early life of the Apostolic College tells us that each individual’s discovery of Jesus Christ has to be a personal journey.
4.     Our personal acknowledgement of Jesus can never be second-hand – “I was told …” “I am given to understand …” Jesus asks each of us individually and repeatedly: “Whom do you say that I am?”
 
In the daily life of the Baptised Christian will be numerous occasions when our loyalty to Jesus will be tested by the settings in which we find ourselves. Many such occasions will not be of our making. They will have the hallmark of Satan disguised under all manner of persuasive modern secularist thinking. For the committed Christian entrapment is everywhere. For some it stalks the streets under the flag of ISIS. For many more it lurks in the apparent obscurity of todays, so called,  ‘recreational’ activities that, in reality, are abuses of God’s gift of life. It isn’t Jesus who has led us into this conflict situation. We put ourselves here through the disobedience of our first parents now compounded by our own.
 
However, there will be some settings of singular importance – as you might say, ‘a matter of life and death’. They could be compared to the placing of The Twelve in Caesarea Philippi. Will we be overcome by the settings or, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, will we overcome their lure?  Our UK martyr forebears chose to surrender their lives in defence of Jesus, his teaching and his Church. We have even more faith-forebears, unrecorded by history but known to God, who surrendered their lives in a bloodless martyrdom to defend the same. Their successors accompany us on our pilgrimage of life today. People whom we may know personally, or know only by name, who value their faith in Jesus ahead of love, promotion and all manner of personal gain.
 
We are accompanied by martyrs in our world today. Women and men, even children, who choose to identify Jesus as they continue their cooperation with the grace of the Holy Spirit received at Baptism. They depend upon us, as we upon them, for accompaniment in the daily struggle? Together, our daily actions may speak louder than any words. This united impact may be subtle but persuasive, as our love for the Lord endures and our commitment holds true. We do not have to travel to find today’s equivalent of Caesarea Philippi. In Western Europe we are already living in it!
 
How do we reply to Jesus when, multiple times daily, he asks us personally: “Whom do you say I am?”
 

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (20.08.17)

THE HEALING POWER OF FAITH
 
A grieving mother’s vocalised disconsolation is unavoidably arresting. We may not be surprised that Jesus’ disciples interceded with him on behalf of the woman, but was their motivation entirely altruistic? “Give her what she wants,” they said to Jesus, “because she is shouting after us.” You can read Matthew’s account of the episode in the Gospel for the 20th Sunday (15:21-28).
 
Our 21st century world is overwhelmed with constantly increasing sounds of distress. Despite so many advances in science and technology the means of bringing lasting relief to those in distress escapes humanity. Which is not to say that relief is not available but rather that humanity has yet to avail itself of the pathway God is offering.
 
Matthew gives a ringside account of the behaviour of the unnamed disconsolate Canaanite mother. She vocalised her pain and in so doing caught Jesus’ attention. The land of Canaan, centred on Palestine, was situated at the crossroads of Egyptian, Mycenaean, Cretan and Mesopotamian cultures. The Canaanites were the original pre-Israelite inhabitants whose language was a form of ancient Hebrew that related to the Hebrew of the Old Testament as Chaucer’s English relates to modern English. Practising Jews would not enter Canaan territory nor have any contact with its people whom the Jews regarded as unclean. You may recall the amazement of a Canaanite woman at Joseph’s well when Jesus, a Jew, asked her for a drink of water (John 4:5-30).
 
It’s opportune to recall that many, long-term, distressed people endure pain or hardship without revealing their feelings. Jesus could discern when a person was in distress irrespective of their stoicism. In the same way that he could discern a person’s faith or their unawareness of their spiritual distress. Recall, for example, Matthew’s story of the long-suffering woman who, as it were, ‘pickpocketed’ her healing (9:21). Ill as she was, and therefore classifiably ‘unclean’ under Jewish Law, her faith motivated her to make a silent approach to Jesus. She believed that if she could just touch the fringe of his garment, she would be healed. Coming up behind him, surrounded as he was by crowds, many of whom would have momentary contact with him, she intentionally touched the hem of his garment and was instantly healed. Jesus, aware of the healing that had gone out of him, asked the dumbfounded crowd, “Who touched me?” The now healed woman owned up and was rewarded by Jesus addressing her as ‘Daughter’, the only woman Jesus addressed with that title.
 
Jesus was no stranger in the land of Canaan (Luke 9:51 and 17:11). Crowds even came from Tyre and Sidon, Gentile port cities north of Israel, to see and listen to Him (Mark 3:7-8). Jesus, a Jew, is conscious that his primary mission is to the Jews. (This Sunday’s Matthew Gospel 15:24) He nevertheless, ministered to the non-Jews who demonstrated faith in him.
 
Luke (10:13-14) and Matthew (11:20-24) tell of Jesus mentioning Tyre and Sidon. He compared them to the Jewish cities in which He had performed miracles. But those citizens had refused to repent and believe in him. Jesus berated his unbelieving fellow Jews saying that had Tyre and Sidon been given the same opportunity the citizenry would have turned from their wickedness and been saved:
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you.” (Luke 10:13-14)
 
It may also help to scene-set Jesus’ encounter with the unnamed but passionate Canaanite woman. Notice how she addressed Jesus: “Sir, Son of David, take pity on me.” The title “Son of David” is, in addition to being a statement of physical genealogy, a Messianic title. In referring to Jesus as the Son of David, people hailed him as the long-awaited Deliverer, the living fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies. Matthew’s first chapter gives the genealogical proof that Jesus, in His humanity, was a direct descendant of Abraham and David through Joseph, Jesus’ Foster-father. Jesus, by lineage, is a blood descendant of David through Mary. In Judaism Jewishness is inherited through the mother not the father.
 
Is there a sense of this mother’s fear of exhaustion that would have brought tragic consequences for her daughter? The mother explains: “My daughter is tormented by a devil.”
 
Humanity has a long conflicted history with Satan. Eve and Adam were his first conquest and he has had success with all their progeny save one, Mary the Immaculate Mother of God-made-Man. The open warfare between humanity, as the adopted children of God, and Satan has an unquantifiable number of battlefronts that relate to individuals or to individuals who, collectively, form a nation or a group. This on-going conflict is epitomised by the heartfelt outpouring of the Canaanite mother battling with Satan for the wellbeing of her daughter. Our brains are hotwired for hope because it is God who created us and who keeps us in being.
 
Jesus presents his imploring disciples with a conundrum: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” As on the occasion of the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus knew what he was going to do (John 6: 5-7). By this time the Canaanite woman had approached Jesus and was on her knees. The disciples were silent but the mother continued to be vocal: “Lord, help me.”  Jesus said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” To which the Canaanite mother responded: “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”
 
In those days yard-dogs lived rough with frugal nourishment, much like their oppressed owners. These were not the pampered pooches that compete at ‘Crufts’. Did Jesus take deliberate advantage of a scenario that had presented itself to allow a public display of his own people’s prejudices? A ‘foreign’ (Canaanite) woman demonstrated real faith in Jesus and revealed his own people’s shameful narrowness of heart and mind. The question is not who came first or who is more privileged, but through whom is God more able to work, at any given moment, for the good of all?
 
We can imagine Jesus’ commendation of the mother to have been heartfelt: “O woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”
 
Instantly, Satan’s hold over the beloved daughter was broken. Here’s a challenging thought to compliment a challenging Gospel. It is God’s Chosen People (originally the Jews but now extended to embrace Baptised Christians) who are called to be ‘the light to the world’.  For that to happen, there will need to be a worldwide reinvigoration of the personal faith of the Chosen peoples in which all accept Jesus as their Messiah. This is especially true for the Chosen peoples in Europe. Put another way, if Christians and Jews were to find a living unity in Jesus Christ, would there be an ISIS? What a cause for prayer!

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (13.08.2017)

Danger Is Not Our Only Constant Companion
 
“Would Jesus have knowingly sent his disciples into danger?” A university student put this question in a Bible-share on this Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 14:22-33). Certainly a night crossing on the notoriously unpredictable Sea of Galilee would have its dangers.

Danger, specifically the unknown, is our constant companion. Since our first parents disobeyed God, thereby losing the peace and divine harmony of ‘The Garden of Eden’, humanity has been continuously endangered. The counterbalance to the presence of unknown danger is the declaration by God of his abiding love for us through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

St. John, in his first letter (5:19) makes it clear that, while we belong to God, our world of exile is in the power of Satan. It will continue so until the Risen Lord returns as King and Judge of the Universe. Then, finally and forever, Satan’s grip on the world will be broken.

The ultimate danger for humanity is the loss of heaven, eternity with God. All other dangers, even the life-threatening variety, are relative. Just as God did not write-off our disobedient first parents neither does he write-off their descendants. The ultimate proof of this is that God the Father sent his only Son into our dangerous world. He knew that Satan’s power over this world would not triumph even when it inflicted crucifixion on his Son, Jesus.

St. Paul made this point strongly in Romans 5.20 “But however much sin increased, (God’s) grace was always greater; so that as sin’s reign brought death, so grace was to rule through the saving justice that leads to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Jesus knew the individual, as well as the collective, strengths of his disciples. Among them were experienced ‘Sea of Galilee’ fishermen. For them, sudden storms would have been nothing new. Matthew tells us that their boat was ‘battling with a strong headwind’, not sinking. There’s no mention of the disciples being in fear of the waves. Their terror came not from the storm but from the vision of Jesus walking on water. Sometimes in listening to the Gospel, as also at other times if our listening is distracted, we can insert our own preconceived interpretation on the words we hear. This can lead us to wrong conclusions and possibly faulty decisions.

Does this Gospel text challenge you and I to review and reassess the dangers, real or imaginary, we associate with our life? What do we see as the prime danger in our life? It should be any threat, from our self or from another, to our relationship with God. This always has to be our priority concern, even if the upholding of it costs our life here. The provenance for this assertion is the First Commandment – 

"YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD
WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL,
AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND"(Catechism of the Catholic Church)

Unless we give the preservation of our living relationship with God our ultimate and unchanging priority in life, then all our other judgements and evaluations become suspect. They could then, adapting words from the cigarette packet, ‘seriously damage our eternal health’.

To be a loyal disciple, follower of Jesus in this world has always been and remains for many today, dangerous.  Jesus himself said, “The birds of the air have nests and foxes have holes, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)

To the careerist Zebedee brothers, James and John, Jesus posed the question, “Can you drink of the cup of suffering of which I am to drink?” (Mark 10:38 & Matthew 20:22) Their affirmative response, like Peter’s boast to Jesus (John 13:37) “I will lay down my life for you” had yet to pass the test of reality.

Our extract from Matthew’s Gospel offers us confirmation, as the actual event did for the disciples, that Jesus is always near, fully cognisant of what we are experiencing. Even the darkest of circumstances, symbolised by it being the fourth watch of the night 0300-0600 when Jesus appeared, cannot prevent the Light of Christ reaching us. Notice though that it is the disciples, in particular Peter, who engage Jesus not vice versa. Jesus never forces himself upon us. We have to invite him – as did the two utterly dispirited disciples on the ‘Road to Emmaus’ after Jesus’ crucifixion (Luke 24:13-35) “Stay with us, for it is towards evening and the day is now far spent.”

One of life’s tragic paradoxes is that while our media and billboards are packed with information to enhance and protect our life here on earth, there’s precious little to direct peoples’ attention to eternal life. That Jesus became visible to the disciples in their hour of need indicates that they had first, in their hearts and minds, individually and possibly collectively, turned to him.

In times of desperation people, in all languages, can be heard to invoke the name of ‘God’. Is it a prayer from a humbled and contrite source or has it become just another swear word? Only God and the individual know. That is what it comes down to in the end, the quality or otherwise of that one-to-one relationship which, for God, began even before we came into being in our mother’s womb.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
 (Jeremiah 1:5)

The sinking Peter’s cry for help in our Matthew passage, “Lord, save me!” was from a humbled and contrite heart yet one, like our own, still being formed.
 

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (06.08.17)

Bereavement
 
Bereavement is associated in most people’s minds with death. Yet the word ‘bereavement’ has many other associations involving, to mention but three, dispossession, privation and trauma. Partners may experience ‘bereavement’ when a marriage breaks down.
 
Jesus may have expected that King Herod would make a martyr of his cousin John the Baptiser. That expectation would not have lessened the impact on Jesus of the loss of his close cousin when it came. Matthew’s Gospel extract for this 18th Sunday (14:13-21) tells how Jesus sought solitude on hearing of John’s savage death.
 
No matter how anticipated the death of a close relative, there’s a unique finality when it occurs. A life on earth is concluded. Nothing can be added to or subtracted from what constituted that person’s earthly existence. As Christ’s disciples, we believe that, by prayer and penance, we can intercede with God on behalf of those who have gone before us. In turn they can pray for us, but not for themselves. Some bereaved people seek a time of personal recuperation through solitude. Jesus, like many a parent with young children, like others with dependants of all ages, found achieving personal solitude almost impossible. Even in the solitariness of his Crucifixion he was harangued by one of those crucified with him and petitioned by the other while some hostile onlookers mocked him. (Luke 23:35-39)
 
Throughout his public ministry, the crowds would not let Jesus be alone. Their very presence served as a constant reminder of what Jesus, aged twelve, had said to his Mother and Foster-father: “that I must be about my Father’s business” (Luke 2:49) Jesus’ awareness of ‘his Father’s business’ speaks, to us, of the incalculably selfless love that binds the Father and the Son, so perfect as to be the Person of the Holy Spirit, the Third member of the Holy Trinity.
 
So, on reaching his hoped for seclusion, Jesus was faced with a crowd of sick-bearing pilgrims who had trekked to find him. Jesus set aside his own physical and emotional depletion when he saw the people. He cannot but respond to their needs. Initially those needs, Matthew tells us, concerned the people’s spiritual and physical health. Eventually the practicalities of food in such a remote spot became an issue. Five loaves and two fish were too little and too late for such a huge crowd. Matthew makes a point about there being grass. This tells us it was Spring as grass, in the heat of Palestine, has a short life. It also reminds us of God’s providential care. He has provided humanity with adequate sustenance provided that we care for and are just in distributing what we have been given to work with.
 
Once blessed and distributed, the five loaves and two fish fed the assembled thousands. There were even twelve baskets full of surplus food portions for subsequent use. God is abundantly generous. In countless homes over the centuries since, especially when resources have been scarce, the little there was became, unbelievably, enough for the many when love did the multiplying.
 
It is likely that Jesus and John the Baptiser would have exchanged thoughts and hopes, as well as the dangers facing them, over the years of their adolescence and early manhood. Each would have known the other’s mind and heart. The Gospel tell how Jesus, in Mary’s womb, ‘acknowledged’ or, we could say, ‘confirmed’ his cousin John in his future role of being his Precursor while still in the womb of his mother, Elizabeth. (Luke 1:39-45) John’s murder was a loss that would have wounded Jesus.
 
Bereavement may sometimes, hopefully, more frequently than not present the bereaved with real opportunities to generously amplify, in their own lives, the qualities they most valued and respected in the life of the departed. Jesus’ behaviour, subsequent to John the Baptiser’s death, demonstrated the point precisely. Prompted by the Holy Spirit, Jesus endured the forty day desert fast and the temptations of Satan before picking up the Baptist’s challenge and making it his own: “Repent for the Kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:14-15) Thus Jesus began his own unique ministry to reveal God’s love for us. A ministry that would lead him to Calvary and crucifixion as it has continuously lead so many of Jesus’ disciples to martyrdom down the centuries.
 
Giving continued expression, in our own life, to the qualities we have valued in those who have left this world is truly putting into practice God’s Commandment to “love our neighbour as our self” (Mark 12:31). Those who have gone to God are as much our neighbours as those accompanying us now here on earth. When we emulate the qualities we may have seen in the deceased we are, in a way, praying with them. Equally, such emulation extends to those now with us on earth, the influence of the goodness that those departed may once have brought to us. And so the life of the community continues to grow under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit
 
Jesus’ demonstrated how He was to be remembered when, in the Upper Room at the Last Supper, he said, “Do this in memory of Me” (Luke 22:19). The ‘this’ was his twofold action in that room – He washed the feet of his disciples, “I am here to serve not to be served” (Matt 20:28) and He gave them his Body and Blood in the form of bread and wine “Take this all of you …” (Matt 26:26). In the washing of their feet, Jesus evidenced a ‘church of service’. In the gift of his Body and Blood, Jesus evidenced how he would remain within his own who chose to live in Communion with him.
 
People, sometimes, imagine that Christians build churches as memorials to Jesus Christ in much the same way as people construct huge edifices over graves.  The physical church building is essentially a covered gathering place specifically set aside for the Baptised community to assemble as the visible Body of Christ on earth and, collectively, to worship God. Christ’s Church is His body, the Baptised on earth not a material structure of small or vast proportion. The Risen Christ is the head and the Baptised are his members who, together, form his visible body on earth. We need to remember that the early Christian church had no buildings. They assembled in open spaces where they could be free from persecution. Jesus never owned a building – “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58) nor did Jesus order the construction of buildings. Instead he gave his Apostles this mandate:
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt 28:19-20)
 
As someone commented, “The Church is what would be left if all its buildings and memorials disappeared.” For sure, the preponderance of church buildings can beguile people into believing that the Church is alive and well. Whereas, the real Church, the Baptised, continues in Western Europe at least to be more absent than present for collective worship within these dedicated buildings. Often pastors have little option but to become too preoccupied with the upkeep of buildings to the detriment of what should be their first task, the nourishment and growth of their congregations.
 
 
There are over 630 locations in Wales with names beginning with ‘Llan’. For example, Llandudno, associated with Saint Tudno, itself a well known and popular North Wales resort town. ‘Llan’, in ancient times, identified a small flat, accessible piece of land defined as sacred because Christians gathered on it to pray and worship God. It had no buildings. It was identified and respected solely by the way in which it was used by the Baptised when they assembled as The Church in that area. Christians are among many who walk over these, now buried, ancient Llans today completely unaware of their significance to them. Yet we are only Christian today because of the living Faith these early Christian forebears secured for us.  Will our successors be our faith-beneficiaries or simply inheritors of costly and burdensome buildings?
 
It is illuminative to read Pope Francis’ recollection on the Sunday after he returned from Fatima and the Canonisation of Francisco and Jacinta, two of the children of Fatima – 14th May 2017:
“From the beginning, when I remained a long time in silence in the Chapel of the Apparitions (at Fatima) accompanied by the prayerful silence of all the pilgrims, an atmosphere of recollection and contemplation was created in which several moments of prayer were held. And at the centre of everything was the Risen Lord, present in the midst of His People in the Word and in the Eucharist, present in the midst of so many sick, who are protagonists of the liturgical and pastoral life of Fatima, as of every Marian Shrine.”
 
Jesus often surprises us with what can be revealed when people are at the centre of our field of vision, for example – a widow and her two small coins! (Mark 12:42) Bereavement, that is associated with the passing of another, may well bring hurt, shock and tears. But their shadow will lift and be replaced, hopefully, by the remembrance and emulation of the goodness, and kindness of the departed. Jesus focused on people not regulations or grand memorials.
 

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (30.07.17)

The Parable – A Work In Progress
 
The Matthew Gospel for this 17th Sunday, like the two previous, features Jesus’ parables - 13:1-23 for the 15th.; 13:24-43 for the 16th.; and 13:44-52 for this 17th.
 
Christians, familiar with Jesus’ parables, may be less familiar with how the parable, a teaching tool, works. A parable is helpful when you want to change another’s whole frame of mind. People often resist making such a change. This is especially true when the mindset has been inherited, for example, through generations of how a family votes at a General Election. It’s notoriously hard to persuade a person to alter the way they process the knowledge they receive.
 
That Jesus chose to use parables in his teaching tells us what he wanted to accomplish in his earthly ministry. You may know the lovely story of a tourist, lost in the countryside, who asked a local for directions. The local thought for a moment and then said, “You cannot get there from here!” When Jesus, the teacher, makes use of a parable he is in fact saying, “You cannot get to where I am, and experience how God wishes to be present in your lives, unless you first of all change your frame of mind”.
 
Because Jesus’ parables called into question some of the then prevailing Jewish attitudes to God and life, his teaching unsettled peoples’ minds. He challenged people about their taken-for-granted way of viewing everything namely, “It’s the way it’s always been”. Some believe that Jesus’ parables contributed to his eventual crucifixion. Neither the Jewish nor the Roman authorities appreciated the way Jesus looked at what they regarded as reality. Those who empower people to choose a different frame of mind are often a threat to the status quo.
 
For example, Pope Francis is viewed as a threat by Church members who are wedded to their understanding of the, as they see it, more conservative outlook of Pope John Paul ll and Emeritus Pope Benedict XVl. These two Popes influenced the unfolding of the Second Vatican Council’s teaching, throughout the Church, over a combined period of thirty-five years. Views as to how the two Popes enabled this unfolding vary from Catholic to Catholic. Some are preoccupied with measuring the legitimacy of Pope Francis’ leadership in terms of his continuity or discontinuity with his German predecessor.  For the first time in living memory, Pope Francis’ predecessor is living in retirement in the same complex as the present Pope. This enables some to manufacture mischief to further their own aims. Recently Pope Francis, addressing a plenary session of the Vatican Secretariat for Communications, said:  “Let us resist the temptation of being attached to a glorious past; let’s all be team players in order to better respond to the new communication challenges posed by culture today without fear and without foreseeing apocalyptic scenarios.”
 
Jesus, throughout his public ministry, was building on his initial and foundational declaration: “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand.” (Matt 4:17) Jesus’ call alerts all to be aware of the nearness of God and his desire to work collaboratively with us in our daily lives. His presence is sheer gift. We cannot merit it or control it. God is present among us and we engage with him when we bring him our repentance.
 
Today people are less able to see the Kingdom of God among them because they allow themselves to be conditioned, to have their minds set, by culture and peer-group pressure. It is estimated that some people would need a 180-degree change in their value systems, in their mindset, to begin to experience how God’s Kingdom is interwoven with their world and everyone in it. For others the change required would be less but nevertheless a measured change of outlook.
 
Jesus, in the first two of his parables for this Sunday, the treasure buried in a field and the finding of a pearl of great beauty and value, assumes that people would be willing to sell all they had and, in today’s parlance, go into debt (which is covenanting their future) to acquire them. By implication Jesus was asking his audience – as he asks, again, this Sunday – were they, and are we, willing to exchange all we own for these treasures? If our answer is ‘yes’ then it follows that if we appreciate the eternal ‘treasure’ Christ is offering in the Kingdom of Heaven, we would willingly surrender what is truly personal to us, without causing injury to others such as family and immediate community. This is in fact what we profess when we pray The Creed though the familiarity of the words might shield us from a penetrative understanding.
 
It is incumbent on us to remember that this world, as St. John’s first letter tells us (5:19), is in the grip of Satan. The kingdom God does not, for now, annihilate all other kingdoms. Life remains complicated and we will have to continue our pilgrim way until our heavenly Father calls time and brings this world to an end.
 
Jesus explains this with another parable this 17th Sunday: The kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind. When it is full they haul it ashore and sit down to put what is good into buckets. What is bad they throw away. Thus it will be at the end of the age. The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them (the wicked) into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”
 
In other words, we are called to establish God’s kingdom in an ‘all -comers net’. We are not to wait to establish the faith until conditions are ‘perfect’. There is no such entity as a perfect Catholic parish or a perfect Catholic leader. We are to evangelize the world as we encounter it. Since we do not know when the ‘end of the world’ will come, we must fulfil our Baptismal promises in the daily battleground of good and evil.
 
Matthew, the repentant tax collector become Evangelist, finishes recording this series of parables with Jesus saying: “Every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.”  Which is exactly what Matthew did when Jesus called him from the Custom’s house. (Matt 9:9) Matthew will not have expunged the memory of his previous life and activity but made use of it to see Jesus’ invitation with a rarified clarity.
 

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (23.07.17)

Satan, The Master Tactician
 
Satan works tirelessly to lessen people’s awareness of his presence. He is a devilish master tactician as can be read in Matt. 4: 1-11 and Luke 4:1-13. These passages are commonly referred to as ‘the temptation of Christ’. It is worth a moment to reflect that the title may lead people, mistakenly, to liken Christ’s encounter with Satan to their own experience of temptation - an inward desire to commit sin. Christ’s human nature, unlike ours, is sinless. In the Judean wilderness, when his forty-day fast had depleted his physical strength, Jesus is exposed to Satan’s ploys of a plausible, less painful, but false way for Jesus to achieve his goals. In His rebuttal of Satan, Christ remained sinless. He therefore remained the perfect sacrifice, able to assimilate the entirety of humanity’s sin and make atonement for it on the Cross of Calvary.
 
In Matthew’s Gospel extract (13:24-43) for this 16th Sunday, Jesus reveals three distinct parables which, while carrying a message to three distinct groups namely, farmers, those with little or nothing and homemakers, can nevertheless be shared by everyone.
The profundity of The Truth in Jesus’ parables does not reveal itself to the half-hearted or casual reader or listener, or to the person ensnared by habitual sin. Satan’s tactic is always to divert us from The Truth by the substitution of false truth or a reduced truth, as he attempted with Jesus in the desert.
 
One of Jesus’ parables, this 16th Sunday, provides a classic example of Satan’s contemporary tactical approach to confusing and/or reducing our access to The Truth. Jesus’ parable tells of a farmer who grows wheat. One translation of the Bible gives us this:
“The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field.  While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off.”
Another translation gives us this:
24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
Another translates the same text as:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. 26 But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. 
 
The words highlighted are ‘weeds’ and ‘tares’. People will understand the generic term weed as encompassing the multitude of uninvited intruders that invade our gardens and cause us endless work! They may be less familiar with tares. 
The translation in The New Jerusalem Bible has this:
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everybody was asleep his enemy came, sowed darnel all among the wheat, and made off. When the new wheat sprouted and ripened, then the darnel appeared as well.”
The word highlighted, ‘darnel’, will be less well recognised and its import therefore overlooked.
 
It is fair to deduce that, at some unknown stage of editing these translations, those involved decided to substitute ‘weed’ for ‘darnel’ and ‘tare’. Maybe those who made the substitution had the idea to make the text more readily understandable for 21st century readers. To the casual observer or reader of the Gospel text it may not appear a matter of significance, but in fact it is.
 
‘Darnel’ is the noun that most authentically describes the activity of the farmer’s enemy that Jesus wanted to convey.  But it is not a noun in common usage today. An editor might well strike the word ‘darnel’ from the text and substitute the word ‘weed’ for pecuniary not literary reasons. Publishers employ editors to ensure a profitable return on the publisher’s investment. Therefore publishers want a text that appeals to the widest audience rather than one with specialist language that requires the reader to do some research. Satan’s ploy has worked! The substitution means The Truth is less evident to so many readers.
 
Darnel is a form of Eurasian ryegrass. You may well have one of its derivatives in your garden as it is commonly found. Jesus’ audiences worked the land. They feared darnel and with good cause. Jesus’ parables intentionally featured what was familiar to his audiences so that The Truth would be more readily anchored in their minds and hearts.
 
Bearded darnel, in its early stages of growth, so closely resembles wheat that it is impossible to distinguish one from another. By the time the darnel can be identified, that is when the new wheat has sprouted, the darnel’s roots will have entwined themselves with those of the wheat! Any attempt to pull the darnel out of the ground will bring the wheat out as well! Jesus in choosing the word ‘darnel’ is word-painting the darnel-sowing enemy as a calculating, malevolent and, ultimately, to be feared opponent. Jesus is describing Satan!
 
The wheat and the darnel had to be separated at harvest because the darnel grain is slightly poisonous and causes dizziness and sickness as well as being a narcotic. The time spent separating the wheat and the darnel after harvesting, as well as paying for the labour to do so, would have had serious implications for the livelihood of the landowner and his family.
 
Those who listened to Jesus when he spoke would have known the precise implications of his choice of the word ‘darnel’. Today, for many, the word would not register unless a homilist explained it.
 
The choice of the title for this article, ‘Satan, The Master Tactician’, is meant to alert us to Satan’s infiltration and manipulation of daily life in so many subtle ways. His aim is to reduce our spiritual sensitivity to The Truth. Substituting  ‘weed’ for ‘darnel’ becomes important if it obscures the depth of The Truth that Jesus wanted his audience then, and us in the 21st century, to grasp.
 
Your may have heard of a Scottish poet, novelist and translator called Edwin Muir. He wrote ‘One Foot In Eden’ in 1956. It’s a poem that permeates much of Muir’s work namely, ‘Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden’. Muir saw it as a journey repeated time and again throughout human life. ‘One Foot In Eden’ is included in the religious poetry for the Divine Office for Holy Week. It is a highly appropriate accompaniment for Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the darnel this Sunday.
“One foot in Eden still, I stand
And look across the other land.
The world’s great day is growing late,
Yet strange these fields that we have planted
So long with crops of love and hate.
Time’s handiworks by time are haunted,
And nothing now can separate
The corn and tares compactly grown.
The armorial weed in stillness bound
Above the stalk; these are our own.
Evil and good stand thick around
In the fields of charity and sin
Where we shall lead our harvest in.
Yet still from Eden springs the root
As clean as on the starting day.
Times takes the foliage and the fruit
And burns the archetypal leaf
To shapes of terror and of grief
Scattered along the winter way.
But famished field and blackened tree
Bear flowers in Eden never known.
Blossoms of grief and charity
Bloom in these darkened fields alone.
What had Eden ever to say
Of hope and faith and pity and love
Until was buried all its day
And memory found its treasure trove?
Strange blessings never in Paradise
Fall from these beclouded skies.
 
Edwin Muir
(1887-1959)
 
The parable of the wheat and darnel reminds us that though we are exiles in the kingdom of Evil, God, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, has taken root in our world. Through his suffering, death and Resurrection, Jesus has broken the hold that the Evil of Death had over us.
 
For as long as we live here there will be a daily battle between good and evil. The recent very painful history of the Manchester bombing of young people illustrates the evil of, so called, religious fanaticism. Our Church, let along society, has shown us how such destructive Evil can lurk, hidden for far too long, behind even the clerical collar and the bishop’s mitre. God help us for being so judgemental with our labels of ‘good’ and ’bad’ without being aware of all the facts. But think, too, of the loss that farmer would have suffered if the reapers had had their way and pulled out both darnel and wheat!
 
Like the reapers in Jesus’ parable we, too, must be alert to the every-changing ploys of The Master Tactician.
 

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (16.07.17)

At The Heart Of Jesus’ Parables Is Truth
 
An audience at a lecture can place differing interpretations on the speaker’s words. If we allow that the audience had an equality of opportunity to hear as well as an equality of age, background and audial capacity, how might such a difference in understanding be explained? One aspect for consideration might be each individual’s capacity to recognize and accept The Truth. As Christians we believe that each person has an innate ability to recognise and accept The Truth because we are God’s creation and He is The Truth. However, the voluntary disobedience of our first parents initiated an impairment of humanity’s at-oneness with The Truth namely, God. Over subsequent centuries that initial impairment has become the running battle ground between God and Satan in successive generations of God’s good creation. The Resurrection of Christ ensures that Satan can have no final victory but meanwhile he continuously attempts to undermine our personal relationship with God.
 
It is commonly supposed that ‘people only hear what they want to hear’. It is called ‘Selective hearing’. But is hearing the same as listening? Hearing, for those not suffering from audio impairment, is one of our five ‘automatic’ senses meaning that it is permanently in function.  Listening, on the other hand, is a personally directed focused and purposed use of our hearing.
 
The extract from Matthew’s Gospel for this 15th Sunday of the year (13:1-23) has a classic Jesus parable, the “Sower and the Seed”, and a question to Jesus from the disciples: “Why do you speak to them (the crowds) in parables?”
A parable is a story that invites the listener to stop and, centring their attention, enter into the word-picture being created by the speaker. When that speaker is God-made-Man what you hear is The Truth. For humans, The Truth is captivating because it resonates with who we are by virtue of being God’s creation. But The Truth has to be treated with respect. It will not reveal itself to those who treat it roughly or with indifference. It cannot be grasped or momentarily or hurriedly considered. It cannot be heard, let alone listened to, by people whose attention is multi-focused and therefore distracted.
 
Yet the Truth has the capacity to, as it were, arrest our thought but only if we are willing to surrender our whole heart and mind. A prime example of the power of The Truth is Saul the persecutor of members of ‘The Way’. This was the first title of the group who later became known as Christians. Saul, the powerful Pharisee who breathed threats and murder against the disciples of Jesus, was busily heading for Damascus and the next phase of his bloody purge. Suddenly he was on the ground instead of his horse and was sightless. (Acts of the Apostles 9: 1-9) The powerful Pharisee needed to be led by the hand into Damascus. What a contrast with the entry he had planned. Saul’s sightlessness continued for three days. His conversion from Saul to Paul was to last the remainder of his life before he was martyred for his faith in Jesus.
 
Were the people gathered around Jesus on the lakeside, as described in Matthew’s Gospel, hearing him or listening to him? There is no denying that they were in a unique situation to hear The Truth because Jesus, being The Truth speaks The Truth. No other person, save Mary, full of grace, the Mother of God-made-Man, would have an unimpaired affinity with The Truth.
 
Think, for a moment, of the variety of people gathered for Mass this Sunday. Are they hearing the proclamation of the Gospel, the Word of God brought alive for us, or listening to it? We know from experience how our attention can wander. Those who listen to, that is focus on, the Gospel, as opposed to hearing it being read, are likely to have a clearer recall of its content and meaning for them.
 
A person’s quality of listening is affected by many factors such as the decibel levels of surrounding or adjacent noise. Because people are not necessarily free to choose where they live and work, many have little option save to become acclimatized to a level of extraneous noise that works against focused listening. There are other extraneous noises that we do control such as the telephone, radio, TV and the like.
 
People living in a quiet rural setting know when a city family comes to visit. For the first few days the city family members sound as if they are shouting to one another, the children probably are! Then, slowly, their voice levels decrease as, subconsciously; they adjust to their less noise-prone environment and rediscover they do not need to shout in order to be heard!
 
A friend once spent a month in monastic silence where the only noises were the wind and wild animals. The day after the experience ended the friend was in a city centre. She described experiencing the overall noise as an assault not only on her ears but also her whole being.
 
External noises are not the only reason why people’s capacity to listen to God can be damaged. People, wherever they live, suffer from an accumulation of intermittent but disruptive internal ‘noise’. Internal noise has many components, among them greed, jealousy, anger, unruly competitiveness, the holding of grudges, an unwillingness to forgive and an unwillingness to accept forgiveness, a guilty conscience, a drifting away from communion with Jesus. These internal ‘noises’ are at Satan’s disposal. He uses them constantly particularly at those moments when the soul attempts to respond to a Divine invitation for wordless intimacy – a prayer that is more thought than word. Internal ‘noise’ can drive people to alcohol and drugs, for example, in an effort to find an escape. How many UK citizens are prescribed anti-depressants for daytime and sleeping tablets at night?
 
It is impossible to switch from an environment of noise, external or internal, to stillness and silence in an instant. People who choose, for example, an eight-day silent retreat are sometimes surprised to be invited to spend the first two days resting where they had expected times of concentrated prayer. Though the retreatant may have come into an atmosphere of silence, he or she will have brought their interior ‘noise’ with them. They need time to resolve that noise, as it were, to empty their minds. Remember times when, as a child, you closed your eyes and spun on the spot. Then, suddenly, you stopped spinning and opened your eyes. Your head was still gyrating and it was probably hard to find your balance.
 
Much the same happens when a person rushes into Mass late – having rushed from a home where so many jobs competed for attention – in a noisy car that was difficult to park because of a lack of space. There’s quite a poor chance that that person will be acclimatised to being in church, let alone prayer, before it’s time to leave! Then they may well be plagued with the feeling “I don’t know why I bother to go!”
 
Saul, a practising Jew, believed that in persecuting the Christians he was fulfilling God’s will. The Damascus Road experience was for Saul a moment of conversion not of initiation. Paul already believed in God but that belief had stumbled at the advent of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, as had the belief of many of his fellow Pharisees. For many contemporary already Baptised Western Europeans such an experience would be more a matter of re-connection than conversion. This is one measure of how significant a portion of Europe’s Christian heritage has been surrendered to the wiles of Satan.
 
Despite this tragic state of affairs, each person retains their innate likeness to God who made them in his image, Redeemed them and loves them deeply. The power of The Truth that ‘arrested’ Saul on the Damascus Rd. is also fully capable of ‘arresting’ not only a defaulting Christianity in Western Europe but also the population of the whole world. Saul was given the opportunity to listen to God and he accepted it by the grace of God. Jesus’ parables retain their capacity to ‘arrest’ people’s attention today. There continues to be a substantial quantity and variety of God’s Word filling the airwaves. But are people listening or even hearing? Jesus’ parables hold peoples’ attention when they sense the reader’s own conviction, love and reverence for The Truth in what she or he is proclaiming.
 

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (09.07.17)

At times we all find life difficult.  We become overburdened with problems and worries.

We can often use these as an excuse for not turning to Christ.
 
In today’s Gospel, Christ tells us to bring all our burdens to Him and He will give us comfort, peace and strength....
Come to Me all who labour and are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take up my yoke and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you’ll find rest for your souls.  Yes, my Yoke is easy and my burden light.
 
However, the virtues of humility and gentleness don’t seem to make much sense in the world of today.

It seems as though one has to throw one’s weight around in order to get on in this world.
 
Yet gentleness can be a form of strength.

Consider the hands of a mother or a surgeon – surely it is gentleness that counts, not brute force.
 
Where a heavy storm can break flowers, a gentle breeze and a ray of sunshine helps them to open up and grow.  So too with us – it is with gentleness that we can help others to open up and grow and develop.
 
How about humility then!   In today’s competitive world where we are told to “project yourself if you want to succeed” it could be seen as weakness; but far from it:
Loving humility is the foundation on which to build the house of the Spirit.
 
Humble people know that before God they are poor, weak and vulnerable; but they have Faith, Hope and   Trust in God, who can fill their emptiness and strengthen their weakness.

It is to the meek and humble of heart that Jesus promises peace of soul.
                                                                                                                       
Reflecting on the words of His promise, exhorting us to come to Him in all our troubles, He will not only sweeten out burdens, but will carry us when we remain weak, He will calm us when we are afraid , and He will help us to be compassionate towards others, and try to do unto them as He has done to us.
 
Let us pray:-
                  Slow me down Lord ............. ease my pounding heart;
                 quieten my racing mind ........ steady my hurried steps.
 
                  Remind me each day that there is more to life than increasing its speed.
                  Let me look into the branches of a towering oak tree,
                 And know that it grew tall and strong, because it grew slowly and well.
 
                 Slow me down, Lord.
                 Teach me to be gentle and humble of heart,
                  And thus I will find rest for my soul.                                             
                 

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (02.07.17)

“A Cup Of Cold Water”
 
For us, living with water-on-tap, a cup of cold water is no big thing. (Matt 10:42) However, in countries where daytime temperatures range to the upper 30 degrees, and where there’s no electricity, then maybe our appreciation of cold water would alter.

Pretty much the whole of Matthew’s chapter 10 - from which the extract for this 13th Sunday comes –is dedicated to Jesus’ ministerial formation of his chosen Apostles.  They will be his ambassadors and Jesus lays their future on the line for them:
–      There will be warfare. The ‘foe’ may well be within one’s own family. Great challenges divide people. The world is divided between those who accept Jesus Christ and those who do not.
–      There will be choice. Each person must choose between the closest ties on earth and loyalty to Jesus Christ. All inter-human loyalties must give way to loyalty to God.
–      There will be a cross. Galileans were all too familiar with the horrendous and inhuman Roman punishment of crucifixion. A Roman General, Varus, had crucified two thousand Jews when the nation had revolted against Roman rule. He positioned the crosses alongside well-used cart tracks and walkways. Committed Christians understand legitimate personal ambitions, careers and dreams may, from time to time, need to be surrendered to the Lord for the sake of the Gospel. The hallmark of the Christian is in living in fidelity to Christ in daily life. This, in a world where the cross is seen more as an adornment rather than a sign of commitment.  
–      There will be adventure. Jesus told his Apostles that those who found their life would lose it, and those who lost their life would find it. The Christian life does not promote a policy of personal safety-first. The only way to true happiness is to spend one’s life selflessly in serving others and in doing so discovering life here and hereafter.
 
If the foregoing appears too strenuous do not be disheartened. God loves us. He would never ask of us what we could not willingly give as he himself would provide us with any shortfall due to our limitedness.

Our Baptismal promise commits us to live an apostolic way of life. It is possible that in highlighting the frequently exemplary lives of Christians who, leaving home and country, took the Gospel to far off lands, we have undervalued the Christians living exemplary apostolic lives in our street! Christian parents struggle not only with their own faith commitment but also with raising children with faith in an atmosphere of oppressive secularism. This is as much ‘frontline’ as the missionary abroad. Equally, those who offer their lives in prayerful support of such ‘frontline’ brothers and sisters are truly apostolic.

We may not all, at first glance, be obvious examples of goodness and righteousness but our own personal struggle with weakness can lend support and encouragement to others in their personal spiritual pilgrimage. Our communion with Christ is not in the ‘chalking up’ of so called victories but in allowing the Lord to make use of our limitedness to enable others.

The nature and composition of the cross that Jesus invites each Baptised person to ‘take up’ (Matt 16:24) will vary in the course of our individual lives. In recognising our cross for what it is we will be enabled by the generosity of other Simons of Cyrene (Luke 23:26), as our ‘way of the cross’ itself offers support to other pilgrims.
Adventure, for the dedicated Christian, is a grace-enabled feat of commitment to love God that is so different from the thrill-seeking romp usually associated with the word.
 
Jesus concluded his briefing of the Apostles: “And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because the little one is a disciple — amen, I say to you, that person will surely not lose their reward."(Matt 10:42)

In the Middle East, once water is drawn to the surface from deep underground it rapidly loses its fresh, sharp, thirst-quenching coldness. This is the context we need to appreciate when we read Matthew’s Gospel extract.

A woman would draw the water from the well in the pre-dawn and then walk to her home balancing the earthenware pot of precious drinking water on her head. Once back at her simple adobe ‘home’ she might pour a beaker of still cold water. She would wrap the beaker to protect it from the heat and put it in some dark, cool space. In the course of the day as the sun climbed higher and the temperature soared, the woman might refresh herself with a few sips from the still cold water. This ‘cold’ water was her treasure. Imagine how reluctantly she would surrender it to another! She would provide the now tepid water from the larger pot for those of the family who asked. Her secret store remained her cold secret.

But then, unexpectedly, a beleaguered, exhausted and dehydrated fellow disciple came to her home seeking water, cold water! It would cost her to give up her preciously guarded store of cold water but she would do so for “one of these little ones”,  as Jesus describes his own.
 
Without clearing our mind, pausing in the rush of life and preparing to listen we have little chance of absorbing what Jesus is saying and doing. We also need the help of the Holy Spirit within our heart to aid our interpretation. For so many people the depths of the Gospel message remain beyond their reach. And if beyond their reach, then how can they inspire others with a love for the Son of God-made-Man!

When we give silence and time to reflect upon the Gospel it reveals itself like the precious treasure it is – like the beaker of cold carefully stored water. There may come a stranger whose need for spiritual refreshment demands that we draw on our hidden reserves for the love of God.
 

12th Sunday in Ordinary Time (25.06.17)

 “Fear no one.”   “Do not be afraid.

Jesus’ use of the imperative underlines the non-negotiability of his statement. The imperative opens the Matthew Gospel extract for the 12th Sunday (10:26). Jesus’ teaching, to his Twelve Apostles, underlines the truth that fear is a crippling and permanent feature of human life on this earth.
 
Previously in the Garden of Eden, also known as Paradise, our first parents knew no fear. From Genesis 3:8 we can deduce that God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden and they were unafraid either of God or of each other in their nakedness. The bedevilment of fear originates with Satan who deftly and successfully used it to invade the free will of our first parents.
 
Their original breaking of God’s commandment made them Eden’s exiles. It incarcerated them in Satan’s kingdom and subjected them and their successors, including us, to the ravages of multi-faceted fear. Currently, our world can be truly frightening. At so many levels there is the promotion of deliberate disharmony bringing a fear-induced disintegration of society affecting both families and nations. For example, the upheavals of the Trump administration in the USA, plus the number of European countries with very divided views on the EU, migration, control of borders etc. It is unsurprising that people may choose not to take stock of the reality. Among those who do, many hold up their hands in despair. Yet, our world does not have to be like this.
 
Jesus would never lay a commandment upon us without granting us freedom of access to the grace necessary for fulfilling it. It is our responsibility to make, daily, a prayer based application for the grace which we need as a support for our willed choice. Yesterday’s prayer does not serve tomorrow! As Sr. Mary Xavier’s hymn expresses it: “Lord, for tomorrow and its needs I do not pray; keep me, my God, from stain of sin, just for today.” The natural antidote to fear is an inner wholeness. Pope emeritus Benedict XVl expresses it thus: “Only if truth and love are in agreement can humanity be happy: only truth makes us free.”  
 
Jesus, God’s only begotten Son-made-Man, offers a true sense of direction and purpose in this Sunday’s Gospel (Matt: 10:26-33):
Jesus said to the Twelve:
Fear no one ….…. do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Hell.”
 
But are people listening in this 21st. century? Are we, who in real time hear the Gospel being proclaimed, truly listening? If all the Baptised were truly listening and responding would there not be an irresistible surge of unified purposefulness that would impact upon political decisions at governmental level because, in true democracies, the public vote holds the power.
 
As love and truth are not in agreement humanity lacks true happiness. Consequently, lacking a true sense of direction and purpose, public opinion is tossed around in the maelstrom of international and national political uncertainty perpetually stirred up by the, at times, irresponsibility shown by some instant communication outlets. Yet, our world does not have to be like this.
 
A committed Christian must love the world enough, despite its violence, to want it to be as God intended. She or he must be willing to ‘step up to the plate’. The receiving of Holy Communion is also a proclamation of willingness to step into and be prophetically active in the space where the world’s chosen way of acting contradicts the Gospel and proclaim: ‘It should not be like this. It doesn’t have to be like this.’
 
The prophet Jeremiah, in today’s First Reading (20:10-13), laments the negativity he constantly met among his own people when he spoke God’s message to them. Jeremiah’s words strongly resemble the hostility believers in God encounter in our 21st century. As Pope Francis has pointed out – ‘in the Church’s history there have never been more martyrs than there are today’. Very recently in China the authorities held another Catholic bishop under house arrest without cause. They wanted to prevent the bishop celebrating the Mass of Chrism with his priests and people in Holy Week. Without the bishop there could be no Mass of Chrism, itself a celebration of Sacramental union with the universal Church at the local level. He was but one among many more Catholic bishops in China who are actively prevented from fulfilling their ministry of service and leadership.
 
Martyrdom knows many forms other than the spilling of blood. There is much evidence of masked hostility towards Christianity in Western Europe. It breaks surface from time to time with media sensationalism about the wearing of a crucifix or the saying of a prayer in public. But the real hostility goes on at a much deeper level where, for example, the natural careers of breadwinners are derailed because of their religious affiliation. 
 
One cannot be a committed and active Christian, within the spiritual desert that is Western Europe, without that desert impacting on one’s life in some way. This desert-impact becomes the place of encounter. It was soon after Jesus had been Baptised than the Spirit led him into the desert of the Judean wilderness and he encountered Satan. It was Jesus’ moment of commitment and consecration. Satan’s temptations presented Jesus with alternative ways of, apparently, accomplishing his messianic mission. Jesus rejects each temptation because it is either testing God or rejecting God. Underlying each temptation was the lure of blasphemy because the temptations were focused on the glorification of Jesus not on his commitment to his heavenly Father. (Matthew 4:1-11)
 
The Son of God-made-Man, faced with the diabolical power of Satan, repeatedly asserts the absolute sovereignty of God and his own dependence upon God alone. In the desert, at the outset of his public ministry, and again, three years later, in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest, Jesus gave us a masterclass in how to harmonise truth and love when he demonstrated true Sonship and fidelity (John 18: 1-11)
 
Fear might induce us to fly from a world of such corruption and disfiguration. By instructing us to “Fear no one” and not to be afraid, Jesus is encouraging us to follow in his footsteps, to engage with the world which is in the grip of Satan (1 John 5:19). We are to make our Baptismal journey as a pilgrimage for the world in which the Holy Spirit will bring us to a deeper generosity of service. The Spirit will show us how to be a source of true life in the man-made desert of our affluent society.
 
There were some remarkable television programmes over recent weeks revealing how deserts, far from being sterile places, were inhabited by many living creatures not immediately obvious to the human eye. Desert dwellers, be they human or non-human, have to learn how to live on the edge of survival in a vastness that can only be truly known by God.
 

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.