Sunday Reflection

3rd Sunday in Advent

There’s More to a Desert Than Sand

At the mention of a desert, people’s imagination conjures up endless sand dunes. A desert is mentioned in both the First Reading (Isaiah 35:1-6,10) and the Gospel (Matthew 11:2-11) for this 3rd Sunday of Advent. There are, however, deserts without sand. If you look back at the 70s and 80s you will find evidence of ‘food deserts’ in European cities. Then, local small food shops had been put out of business by large, price-undercutting, out-of-town supermarkets. One unanticipated consequence was that semi-immobilised and housebound city dwellers were unable to buy nourishing food in their immediate locality. Elderly and long-term sick people were becoming seriously malnourished and, as a consequence, swelling the numbers in hospital A&E departments. Urban ‘food deserts’ were identified as the cause and the government of the day launched an investigation.

This century there’s evidence of the growth of ‘faith deserts’. They are reappearing in both Europe’s cities and countrysides. Their existence is camouflaged by the numerous churches, with their distinctive steeples, that still cover the landscape. But these buildings are now often used for secular purposes or have become tourist attractions. Those churches still welcoming worshippers have shrinking elderly congregations. Sunday, as the Lord’s Day, has long since been successfully subsumed by rampant commercialisation and consumerism. The spiritual malaise of a ‘faith desert’ is not new. In the Book of Wisdom, long associated with King Solomon (970-931BC), we read:
“The reasonings of mortals are unsure and our intentions unstable; for a perishable body presses down the soul, and this tent of clay weighs down the teeming mind.” (9:13-15)
When God became visible among us in the person of Jesus, many Jews had become used to observing the externals of their religious practice for political purposes. They were an occupied people struggling to retain their ethnic identity which was inseparable from their religious practice.

How many Christians today, including Catholics, have an insufficiently shallow appreciation of how their predecessors struggled to remain loyal to their Baptismal promises? For countless Catholics back then, the cost was not just their livelihood but their life itself. Are young Catholics in this 21st century aware that from the reign of Henry Vlll (1507-1545) there was progressive legislation prohibiting the practising of the Catholic Religion in Britain and Ireland? Are they aware that their Roman Catholics predecessors, over those centuries, were deprived of their vote, their right to hold public office and to own land?
It was not until 1766 that the Penal Laws, as they were called, began, very slowly, to be dismantled. Penal Laws, as the name implies, penalized those who lived by the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and imposed stringent civil disabilities on Catholics who did so. This protracted period of active persecution forced faithful Roman Catholics to hide and disguise their fidelity to Catholicism. Are we, the Roman Catholic community of this 21st century, sufficiently alive to the fact that our freedom of worship today is in no small part due to the blood shed by many of our predecessors, from that era, who suffered martyrdom in the centuries of persecution?


“I would never have known you were a Roman Catholic.” Sometimes this response greets the revelation by a Roman Catholic of his/her membership of the Catholic Church. The response, itself, could be said to pose a question; namely, has the Catholic friend, colleague, neighbour blended-in so well with society that his/her faith is invisible? But then, if our daily living of our Catholic faith is invisible, can we said to be fulfilling our Baptismal undertaking to promote the Gospel? Advent is an appropriate time for us, as the Baptised, to review what should be the visibility to our neighbour of our Christian faith in God.

Stalwarts setting out to cross a desert prepare with care. In addition to the appropriate training for physical fitness, there is the making of extensive preparations and the gathering of all manner of provisions. The same applies when Christians face a faith-desert. In the first place there is the need to recognise the faith-desert that exists. For the people of previous generations there had been an almost tangible sense of a national belief in God. Words and phrases such as ‘prayer’, ‘please God’, ‘God willing’ were regularly heard in general conversation. You rarely hear these words and phrases in use today, unless you happen to speak them. I recently said to a friend’s young child who was heading to bed “Good night ----- and God bless you.” The child, who knows me well enough as a family friend, looked mystified by those last four words – ‘and God bless you’. It was as if I had switched to speak in a foreign language. Yet that child is Baptised (as is the father) and attends a Catholic primary school.

The child’s mystification made me look around the living room. There was nothing in sight that would identify this as a Christian home or link this family with a larger believing community. I had not previously noted the absence of a crucifix. There were no Baptismal or First Holy Communion family photographs. It brought home to me that my friends and I, despite the frequency of our conversations, had never discussed the subject of faith in God. How successfully the inroads made by the faith-desert had obliterated so many external traces of this family being a family of faith.

By now you may have chosen your Christmas greeting cards. Do they convey your belief in the centrality of Christ to the celebration of Christmas to your family and friends? If not, should you be sending them? Your Baptism has gifted you with a Divine adoption. You are an adopted son or daughter of God your Father. Surely, your allegiance to God takes precedence over all other relationships? Your non-believing relatives and friends, knowing you, will recognise that you are a person of faith in God and your choice of greeting will not surprise them.
The devilment of living in a faith-desert is that it is all too easy to lose sight of the desert’s reality just because there are no sand dunes!

2nd Sunday in Advent

Memorable Encounters

Have you ever encountered a ‘John the Baptist’? Surely, you would know if you have. Such a person would have had a commanding presence that would radiate spiritual wholeness, integrity and truth rather than physicality or secular power. You would find such a person incapable of intimidation or deceit and possessed of a degree of sincerity and gentleness that you would find disarming. Were you to encounter such a person, you might find yourself at a loss for words but you would not feel threatened.  You might find yourself irresistibly drawn to spend more time in their company.

Traditionally, the 2nd Sunday of Advent’s Gospel highlights, Jesus’ cousin, the original John the Baptist (Matt 3:1-12). The other three Evangelists also tell of John the Baptist - Mark (1:1-8), Luke (3:1-18) and John (1:19-39). Jesus identifies his cousin in a singular manner:
“Truly I tell you, among those born of women, there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matt 11:11)


John the Baptist’s early life must have been surrounded with publicity, such as it was in those times. His father was a prominent Jewish Pharisee, Zechariah and equally his mother, Elizabeth, was of noteworthy descent in her own right. She was well beyond the age of child bearing. Zechariah’s nine-month dumbness, the result of his incredulity when told that he would be a father, was ended when he announced his son’s name and gave us the proclamation/prophecy known as the ‘Benedictus’ that is prayed daily as part of the Church’s ‘Morning Prayer’ (Luke 1:59-80).

If John the Baptist’s early life was surrounded by publicity it may help explain why he chose a life of desert solitude. He surely would have learnt from his father and mother all that pertained to the to the circumstances of his wholly unexpected birth. It is speculated that John and perhaps Jesus, for that matter, spent some formative years as members of the Essene community (a Jewish monastic sect of strict observance) based at Qumran located on a dry plateau near the north western shore of the Dead Sea. The Essene settlement was nearest to the Qumran caves – most likely hermit dwellings – set into in the sheer desert cliffs where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Perhaps it is no surprise that, when John the Baptist finally began preaching, he chose the Judean wilderness as his location. While it was John the Baptist’s clothing and diet that first caught peoples’ attention (Matt 3:4), it was his words that held their attention and led many to seek God’s forgiveness.


What are we to learn from the fact that both John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ hidden formative years far outstripped their years of public ministry? Our era has become one that lays emphasis on the exploitation, for nefarious reasons, of many forms of prodigy. The history of Christianity teaches us that human spiritual formation is a deep, and often lengthy, process that can only be hastened by martyrdom, as exemplified by both Jesus and John the Baptist.

Both Jesus and his cousin, John, would have been immersed throughout the early lives in the Jewish scriptures through both their home life and the formation they received through the synagogue. They would have witnessed both the true and the false implementation of their people’s scriptural heritage and made their personal choices accordingly.

Though we may not have encountered a replica ‘John the Baptist’, it is possible that we may have shared time with people who were ‘in the style of’ John the Baptist. How their lives impacted upon ours and how ours impacted upon theirs, only our individual memories can recall. It is important to engage in this process of recall for it highlights God’s providential provision for us over the course of our lives, even up to this very moment. Such hindsight also helps us recall our response to those moments of grace, both at the time and subsequently. The only time-restriction on these outpourings of God’s grace to us is the moment of our individual death or the end of the world. While we breathe and the world continues, it is never too late for us to pick up on or enlarge our response to God’s call.
Our ability to recall the good influence and blessed words of relatives, friends, confreres and benefactors, who themselves have perhaps long since gone to God, remains for us a moment of opportune grace for God never withdraws his word, his promise. We have only to ask the help of the Holy Spirit to lead us, even at the so-called eleventh hour.

John the Baptist was not without his own doubts and uncertainties. Hauled into prison by King Herod for criticising Herod’s morals, John sends messengers to Jesus:
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect someone else?’
Jesus answers the messengers: ‘Go back and tell John what you hear and see; the blind see again, and the lame walk, those suffering from virulent skin-diseases are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life and the good news is proclaimed to the poor; and blessed is anyone who does not find me a cause of falling.’” (Matt 11:2-6)

There is reassurance for John the Baptist in Jesus’ words and we know that John was soon to suffer martyrdom (Mark 6:17-29). Equally, there is reassurance for us in our own unsteadiness of faith when we read of John the Baptist’s struggles. As we head deeper into Advent, society’s secular pressures increase and people of faith find themselves more and more distracted and swept up by media and party pressure. It is at such points of intense pressure that Christians need to be able to call upon their spiritual reserves, as would John the Baptist have done. In the isolation of his prison and aware that his death was being planned, John the Baptist might well have recalled the words of his mother and father. They had framed for him not only his wonderous conception and birth but also the prophetic words of his father at his naming.

Might Advent 2019 provide adult believers with an opportunity to recall, for the benefit of their own children and relatives, their own early stepping-stones of faith? How vital it is for adults to communicate the value they place upon their inheritance of faith and to do so with enthusiasm and appreciation.

1st Sunday of Advent

The Call of Advent

Countless worldwide generations have lived through eras of terrifying experiences. In relatively recent times, in addition to the First and Second World Wars, there are names that open up visions of human suffering at unpremeditated depths, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, The Holocaust, Chernobyl. Overwhelmed by the enormity of what has been the previously unexperienced as well as unexpected, humanity is commonly reduced to silence. It is at such times that collective memories are searched for early warnings and prophecies that may not have been sufficiently appreciated. This Sunday, December 1st, the Christian Church begins a New Liturgical Year of remembering the highlights of God’s outreach to a self-exiled humanity. The Liturgical New Year always begins with a four-week introductory period named ‘Advent’.

As the name implies, ‘Advent’ invites us, as Scripture expresses it, to be people of ‘far-seeing eyes’. The title was first given to the Old Testament seer (prophet), Balaam son of Beor, (Book of Numbers 23 & 24). To be gifted with far-sightedness one needs first of all to learn to be still and, with humility, to place oneself in the presence of God. We can see a striking exemplar of this in the highly motivated Pharisee Saul on his way to persecute the Christians in Damascus. Thrown from his horse and deprived of sight, Saul is reduced to stillness and silence. Only then does Saul hears Jesus asking him “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts (9:5)

Is this Advent our time to wonder if, and for how long, Jesus has been calling our name? Perhaps the volume and intensity of distracting, even dis-edifying, noises with which we have allowed ourselves to be cocooned, have drowned out Jesus’ call, especially if our far-sightedness is limited by a media dedicated to instant self-gratification. Before the incident on the road to Damascus, Saul, a practising Pharisee, truly believed that he was fulfilling God’s will in persecuting this new sect called Christians. To what are we utterly committed and do our commitments align with God’s will? Do we regularly consult the Lord as to the appropriateness of our commitments and their alignment with our Baptismal promises? It is an appropriate task for Advent.

When making an introspective review of our life, it is advisable to seek the accompaniment of a wise spiritual counsellor. For sure, we will be commended to seek a daily time of stillness. But the process of becoming still takes both time and practice. Think of how long the ‘snow’ in the glass continues to move after you have stopped shaking it! When we are still, a more thorough examination of the present, through the lens of history, might reveal what is truly before us. We may also see the signs we have been given and hear the calls directed towards us that we previously failed to recognise or even chose to ignore.


This Sunday’s 1st Reading comes from the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, who lived eight centuries before the birth of Christ. He is the most quoted OT prophet in the New Testament. His prophecies are not confined to history nor are they time-restricted. They were appropriate for when they were spoken and they remain, in essence, appropriate today. God’s word, delivered by God or by his appointed prophet, is, by its very nature, living. Once made known, God’s word continues without end. Every utterance that God has addressed to the human race is in some manner available now, though its promulgation may have centuries ago. In our successive human eras of time, God’s word has a continuing relevance to the discovery of The Truth that may not be immediately evident especially to the self-distracted.

Part of this Sunday’s excerpt from Isaiah (2:1-5) is frequently used when interceding for peace and disarmament (2:4) but a segment, removed from its context, could be said to be being usurped. It is being made use of, even laudably, outside of the author’s original context. That overall context is God’s call to his covenant-breaking people to turn back to him for forgiveness and the strength to be obedient symbolised by the heights of a restored Jerusalem, more a heart-held concept than a geographical location. The process of turning back to God involves the will to transform weapons of war into agricultural implements that people may feed, not kill, one another. The process was proclaimed by God, through Isaiah, in the 8th century BC. This Advent is an appropriate moment to ask ourselves if yet, in the 21st century, humanity is any nearer seriously engaging with God’s declared process? The inevitable answer tells us that Isaiah’s prophecy still awaits serious fulfilment by the human race.


Today’s 2nd Reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans (13:11-14) dates from around AD 57/58. It is yet another call for Christians to “wake from sleep … for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed”.
For committed Christians there is a God-tailored Advent programme awaiting us:
“Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.”
So here is Paul, himself a convert, building on the foundations of Isaiah’s prophecy. But, have previous generations heard Paul and implemented his teaching? Is Paul being heard and collaborated with today, any more than was Isaiah in his day? Paul’s programme, quoted above, would find little acceptance in European society today preparing for another ‘binge’ Christmas.


So, we come to the Gospel for today (Matt 27:37-44). Jesus, in teaching his disciples, is also building on the foundations of the prophets. He is pleading for his followers to have the far-sightedness that flows from him into us when we open our hearts to his word:
“As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.
So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”

It is an Advent call that, plagiarizing Jesus’ words in another context (Matt 22:14), could read: ‘many are invited but few will accept’. How will you respond?


Christ the King

Have you ever dreamt about celebrating Christmas in Bethlehem, or Easter Sunday in Jerusalem? There are recognised geographical locations for many of the Gospel- identified events in the Bible. Four written Gospels are identified. Some who who visit the Holy Land, as pilgrims, speak of a ‘fifth’ gospel. It’s not one that is read. Rather it is experienced by the heart and soul of those who seek to walk in the footsteps’ of Jesus.

The Feast of Christ the King, celebrated this Sunday, 24th. Nov, traditionally brings the Christian Church’s liturgical year to a close. If you were invited to choose an identifiable location in which to celebrate this feast, what would be your choice?  Could you, in fact, identify a place? Might you, instead, search the Gospels for what, in the recorded life of Jesus, links with this feast?

Perhaps, as children, we just accepted the imagery of Christ the King that came our way via statues of the Infant of Prague, paintings and pageants which we watched or in which we took part etc? Now, in our adult lives, it is more appropriate that we examine in depth what the title ‘Christ the King’ means to us. For sure, there should be differences between childhood memories and our adult theological understanding but are we continuing to make that adjustment? Sometimes it maybe in the least likely circumstances that we find ourselves confronted by words and/or images that challenge our unthought-through and non-updated spirituality.


For example, the seven Canary Islands, sitting in the surging Atlantic Ocean 50 miles offshore from the vast Saharan desert, are a well-attested rest and recuperation destination.  Who might have thought to find a flower on these volcanic eruptions named after Jesus’ Crown of Thorns? The island of Tenerife is dominated by Mt. Teide, the highest point in Spain and the highest point, above sea level, in the islands of the Atlantic at 3,718 m. (12,198 ft.) On its lower slopes grow magnificent flora, some particular to the Canaries. One, Las Espinas del Senor, (‘the thorns of the Saviour’) is brought to mind as we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. (John 19:1)

With deep-green, moisture-retaining leather-like leaves, ‘the thorns of the Saviour’ – a name that reflects the long-standing Spanish Christian influence across the islands - are topped with multiple bright-red two-petal flowers with yellow stamens. Though they look delicate, they withstand the searing midday sun and a paucity of rain. In what can be, in the long dry season, a rather drab landscape the massed flowers of ‘the thorns of the Saviour’ bring a very welcome splash of colour. However, it is not the flowers but rather the unseen stems of the plant that give it its name. The thick and sturdy stems are closely packed with strong thorns well capable of lacerating unprotected skin as well as causing unpleasant infection. They also effectively shield the flowers from marauding lizards.

Today, sadly, people either hear or remember the name of the plant without making the association with Jesus. The barbaric treatment metered out to our scourged and bleeding Saviour was added to by the soldiers, on the first Good Friday, who made a terrifying circlet or crown of skull-piercing thorns that further mocked Jesus’ Kingship. The bound, mature stems of ‘the thorns of the Saviour’ would have caused horrendous cerebral suffering. Today, gardeners usually use double layered gloves when handling the plants.

The ‘Thorns of the Saviour’ flower year-round. So, in the midst of a late November Canarian Sunday’s warmth and relaxation, one’s eyes are drawn to nature’s own reminder that the Kingship of Christ was unlike any other. But, to be fully aware, one has to gently part the close-packed flowers and leaves with a stick to behold the horror of the dark thorns that lie just beneath and give the plant its name.

So often, in the busyness of modern life, our eyes skim only the surface of all that surrounds us. Ten consecutive seconds is regarded, in commercial terms, as a lengthy (and costly) exposure of a product to a prospective client via TV or billboard. On-line shopping pumps us up to choose quickly with little reminds that there are ‘only seven left at this price’. The times of gently perusing through markets and stores are not only much reduced, they are in the process of disappearing.
Inevitably we bring the same behaviour to church when we gather for Mass or perhaps when we are drawn to prayer. There’s a superficiality of approach that may feed the eye and ear but which probably short-changes the soul. To discover and develop an appreciation of the power of the thorns beneath the surface of ‘The thorns of the Saviour’, one has to stop and investigate … and that takes time. Meanwhile, the cavalcade will have moved on and we risk being left behind.

You could choose any one of the multiple components that make up the image of Christ the King – from Judas the betrayer’s kiss of greeting in the garden of Gethsemane, the apostles’ desertion of their Lord, the multiple humiliations and abuse of Jesus, through his mock trial before Pilate, his Way of the Cross, his Crucifixion, The Centurion’s acclamation, his words from the Cross, the spear in his side, his being laid in a borrowed tomb – it is all Christ the King.
Wherever you and I happened to be, stationary or in transit, if we use the eyes of our soul there will be signs a plenty to remind us that on this day, especially, but not only today, we are called to honour Christ our King, not by gazing on a plaster Infant of Prague or Sacred Heart, but in the very real human displacement that is all around us in shop doorways, derelict sites, adrift in unseaworthy craft.

Hans Urs von Balthasar writes in his book on the rosary, The Threefold Garland, that it is in Christ’s Passion that the meaning of Mary’s “yes” is fully revealed:
“Hers is a consent which is constantly being expanded wider and wider.
Here in the Passion – the heartland of his Kingship - she is being asked that, for the sake of God and that of man, she should say ‘yes’ to the unimaginable torture of her Child.”
As an alternate form of the “Hail Mary” expresses it:
‘Hail Mary, full of sorrows, the Crucified is with thee; tearful art thou amongst women, and tearful is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of the Crucified King, give tears to us, crucifiers of thy Son, now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.’

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

A Single Strand of Hair


The hair grown and discarded by our body, over a lifetime, is beyond our calculation. While this true for us, it does not apply to God. On three distinct occasions - Matt. 10:30; Luke 12:7 and 21:18. - Jesus articulates the specific value of a single strand of our hair. Our Gospel extract for this 33rd Sunday of the Year includes Luke 21.18:
“… but not a hair on your head will be destroyed.”
Why give such significance to something so miniscule as a strand-of-hair?


In recent decades, humanity has made many choices. Some of these have had the effect of bringing into being; a world of conscienceless, convenience disposability, that even embraces human life itself. This is clearly not God’s way. A strand-of-hair that, in earlier times through ignorance, may have been thought inconsequential, is now capable of revealing many intimate details of the person on whose body it grew. For example, a person’s unique DNA is but one secret contained in a strand of their hair. But a strand-of-hair can also reveal a person’s eating and drinking habits as well as their medicinal intake. A strand-of-hair can also indicate a person’s substance-using habits as well as the results of any ill-treatment they may have received when in the hands of others, over lengthy periods of time. Little wonder then that God says: “Why every hair on your head has been counted” (Matt: 10:30)


With God there is no convenience disposability, not even of a strand-of-hair. Everything that God causes to be has purpose and, at the final call, will be part of that universal assembly. It may not be in the form we once knew it, but it will be there. Humanity will discover its culpability of misappropriation of so much that it was permitted to discover; for example, the splitting of the atom which was harnessed for war, more than for the benefit of humanity. Human discoveries are so frequently double-edged and the temptation to follow a path tainted by greed can so easily trump true altruism.


The extract from the prophet Malachi, in today’s First Reading (3:19-20), offers an insight for the sharp-eyed reader:
“Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble,
and the day that is coming will set them on fire,
leaving them neither root nor branch,
says the Lord of hosts.”
Stubble is what is left in the field when the harvest has been brought to safety. God can only gather to safety those who have freely chosen him with fidelity, albeit a fidelity well-laced with contrition and Divine forgiveness.
“But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.” (Mal: 3:20)


Our Gospel extract for today (Luke 21:5-19): The Evangelist portrays Jesus standing in the Jerusalem Temple. Jesus is not overawed by its magnificence. We can imagine the impact of his words on his hearers –
"All that you see here -- the days will come
when there will not be left
one stone upon another stone
that will not be thrown down."
Just seventy years after the crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus the Romans, finally exasperated by the political bedlam caused by the Jews, raised the second Temple to the ground (and it has never been rebuilt).
Those with experience, or memory, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will appreciate what degree of harm man can do … and man is not God. But, fear not, God will see the harvest brought in to eternity before the stubble is burnt.


In Scripture, fire has multiple involvements, one of which was a moment of God’s intervention in our world for a specific purpose. The incident of ‘the burning bush’ (Exodus 3). Moses’ attention was caught by a bush that was on fire but not being consumed. It was on this occasion that God appointed Moses to lead his captured people out of slavery in Egypt.
Jesus, in Luke’s Gospel extract, speaks on wars and insurrections, earthquakes, famines and plagues. These are all currently present on our planet in various places. But the one single happening that affects everybody is climate change. If reputable and renowned astrophysicists, such as Professor Brian Cox of Manchester University, are to be believed the fire of all fires that could engulf our whole world would come from the sun. Is this among the “awesome sights and mighty signs (that) will come from the sky”, pace Jesus in today’s Gospel?

Medical terminology uses the phrase - a hairline fracture – to describe a minute break within a bone detectable only by X-ray. If the fractured parts are held together and the limb remains still, the fracture will, normally, heal. An unhealed hairline fracture not only weakens the affected limb but the fracture can allow the ingress of infection and bring further damage.
Perhaps we see our infractions of God’s law as minor – the equivalent of hairline fractures. It’s as well to remember that untreated fractures, minor or otherwise, either never heal or never heal properly. Then, when the limb is called to bear the weight it should be capable of bearing, it fails causing further and probably more serious damage to the whole body.
Jesus, in today’s Gospel, tells us not to prepare our defence when we encounter persecution for he will be with us to impart the wisdom we need. But surely, that pre-supposes, that we will have done whatever we could to keep our spiritual life free of fractures, even of the hairline variety.

Then, when the final persecution ends, “not a hair of your head will (have been) destroyed.’ Our only legitimate joy when, slowly, we unearth the delicate intricacies of God’s creation is that of wonder.
 

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Continuity


We, earthlings, are creatures encapsulated by successive uninterrupted contiguous (connected but separate) moments. Our life and activity is measured in nano-seconds, days, years, centuries. We are always in motion, even when asleep. For us, contiguous continuity is the only known way of life.

The contrast with the Divine could not be more different. God describes Himself as “I am, who am”. In the Book of Exodus (3:13-14) we read:

“Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
God said to Moses, “I am who am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

God’s self-definition helps us engage with a concept of continuity that is entirely foreign to us, namely, the unchanging and unchangeable; without beginning or end. Though beyond our experience, such a concept is not beyond our partial comprehension. We believe in it because it is God’s self-definition and we have faith in God’s word. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews (4:12) tells us:

”For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

So, continuity has one meaning when we speak of God and another when we speak about God’s creation.

God’s selection of the Israelites to be his chosen people is unalterable. In the same way, God’s adoption of us, at our Baptism, is irrevocable. Jews are God’s ‘chosen’ and the Baptised are God’s ‘adopted’. This remains so even when individual Jews or Christians publicly revoke their status as Jew or Christian.  There is perpetuity in the words and actions of the Divine.

Gifted, as we are, with free will each of us must choose, moment by successive moment, to re-engage with all that defines us spiritually, physically and socially. We do most of this, normally, by habit just as we breathe by habit. But, sometimes, the habitual – what we regard as ‘continuous’ - is challenged by ever-evolving circumstances. On such occasions, the depth of a person’s commitment can be tested up to and including the point of dying. The faith of many Christians has been tested by persecution that resulted in their suffering and death; the pre-eminent exemplar being the Son of God-made-Man, Jesus of Nazareth. Martyrdom has been a hallmark of God’s adopted family since the Fall.

The Scripture passages for this 32nd Sunday of the year each focus on the choice humans make that can be labelled as ‘continuity’.

The First Reading (2nd Book of the Maccabees 7:1-2,9-14) dates to about 161 BC. Its author, Jason of Cyrene, displays in the scenario of the seven brothers and their mother living the belief, prevalent at the time, that martyrdom was a valid expression of a Jewish person’s express wish to maintain their continuity of faith in the God of Abraham.
As today’s fragmented extract from Maccabees does not portray the full picture of this family’s martyrdom, may I commend the reading of the whole of chapter 7?
Notice how the mother is the ‘bedrock’ of her son’s fidelity and is, herself, the last to be martyred. This may help the reader appreciate the Jewish belief that, for them, the Saviour will be born through a Jewish mother. (Christians believe that this has already happened through the Jewess of Nazareth, Mary) Moreover, Jews believe that it is only through a Jewish mother that Jewishness can be inherited.

Family continuity has always been precious for the Jews. For this reason, ‘marrying out’ (‘mixed-marriage’, as it is known in the Catholic Church) is abhorrent among orthodox Jews. So, the scene is set for this Sunday’s extract from Luke’s Gospel (20:27-38).
Celibacy has no role in the Jewish religion. Jewish households always have room for children for they are the race’s future, its ‘continuity’ as God’s ‘chosen’. Even among non-practising Jews – that is those who do not often attend synagogue – there is a commitment both to their procreation and to the sustaining of those procreated. Jews limit the ‘continuity’ of their race to genetics. The process for Gentiles to become Jews – and to be accepted as such – is to say the least precarious. Though one synagogue may welcome a ‘convert’, the next may not do so.

The Sadducees, in the time of Jesus, did not believe in a resurrection. They set out to entrap Jesus. Their verbal semantics fail when Jesus explains that, in heaven, there is no marriage between humans. For, in heaven, each person is subsumed into the fullness of Christ, the head of the body of which Baptism has made us members.

For Christians, ‘continuity’ is the daily choice to live, practice and preach God’s Word by example as well as speech. Membership has no barriers of gender, race or location nor of language or custom provided that God’s Word and its injunctions are respected. ‘Continuity’ is effected through careful and protracted catechesis in both the individual home and the Christian school (the process of Christian Initiation) is confirmed by the grace of the Holy Spirit through the pouring of water, the saying of the words, and the anointing with the Oil of Chrism.

Because Christians, being preoccupied with many distractions like their fellow citizens, can take for granted their adoption into the Body of Christ, it may be helpful to read Psalm 77 making use of verse 12 as an introduction:
“I reflect on all that the Lord has done,
I ponder all his great deeds.”
In fact, do we ever, outside of worship, reflect on what God has done and is doing for us, for those of our community, our ancestors, our spiritual forebears? Moses laid great emphasis on his people remembering, generation after generation – the essence of ‘continuity’ - what God had done for them. They are to observe special days of celebration marking how, without God’s direct intervention, guidance, leadership and sustenance, they would be but forgotten slaves. For Christians, too, the historical relationship between us, today, and our forebears is not something to be carelessly acknowledged and then forgotten. It is a living relationship to be treasured and nurtured.

Without God, where would we be? Do we share with others our understanding of God’s redemption? Do we nurture our knowledge of God’s part in our people’s history by reading Scripture and reflecting, which is another word for prayer? Our generation has become dangerously ‘me’, ‘my’ and ‘instant’ orientated and where’s the ‘continuity’ there?

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jesus at home with the Poor
 

Jericho was, evidently, not Jesus’ intended destination. In today’s Gospel, Luke (19:1-10) tells us how Jesus “intended to pass through the town”. However, in the light of something unexpected, Jesus adjusted his plans for a greater good of another. This raises an interesting question. How willing are we to amend, adjust or even set aside our plans, even our most treasured ones, for the good of another?
 
Jesus’ attention was drawn to a tax-collector named Zacchaeus. He, being small in stature and wanting to see this ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ for himself, had climbed a sycomore (with an ‘o’ not an ‘a’). In the Mediterranean, the sycomore is a type of fruit-bearing wild fig tree. Luke does not tell us if it was the sharp-eyed local Jews who, loathing the Jew Zacchaeus for his collaboration with the Romans, had pointed out to Jesus the tree-climbing tax-collector in an effort to embarrass him. Since the wild fig-bearing tree grew readily in poor soil its nutritious and freely available fruit, was known as the ‘fruit of the poor’. The local Jews might well have raised their eyebrows at seeing one of the richest men in Jericho climb into ‘the tree of poor’.
 
Reading the Gospels, it becomes evident that Jesus had a history with fig-bearing sycomores. Being a member of a poor family, who would have acknowledged the nutritional value of freely-available figs, Jesus would naturally have utilized fig trees and their fruit as a teaching aid when speaking with the poor.
 
Here are three examples you will recognise:
 
The first is from Luke (13:6-9): “Jesus also spoke this parable: "A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, 'Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and have found none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?' "But the keeper of the vineyard answered and said to him, 'Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well and good. But if not, after that you can cut it down.' "
 
The second from Matthew (21:19) “And seeing a fig tree by the road, Jesus approached it but found nothing on it but leaves. Jesus said to it, ‘Let no fruit grow on you ever again.’ Immediately the fig tree withered away.”

The third comes from Mark (11:12-25) “The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing, in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it. On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple …..
 
When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city. In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”
“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly, I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore, I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
 
Each Gospel-related incident illuminates, in a particular way, the significance God gives to our adequate provisioning for poor and needy people.
 
Jesus had an eye for the well-being and the needs of the poor because he was one of them. More to the point, the poor could see in Jesus a reflection of themselves in his clothing, bearing and no doubt choice of food. Jesus walked from place to place. In their eyes, this helped make his articulation and teaching not just accessible but, more importantly, attractive.
In a similar way, it is possible to imagine Jesus quoting from The Book of Leviticus, one of the five foundational books of the (Jewish) Bible known as the Pentateuch, which was taken up almost entirely with legislation. This Book would have been quoted frequently, albeit selectively and self-advantageously, by Pharisees and Scribes. Whereas Jesus would highlight the less frequently preached parts of The Book of Leviticus, for example, 19:9-10:
 
“‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.”
Jesus’ attractive highlighting of texts that showed care for the poor would have allied him to widely different groups of people, in varied circumstances, who, nevertheless, shared an openness to, and love for, The Truth.
 
In Jericho, on this day of Jesus’ visit, there were many devout Jews who were scandalised by his behaviour. First, that Jesus would fraternise with a Jewish ‘fifth columnist’ who acted as a tax collector for the Romans. Secondly, that he would accept an invitation to dine at such a man’s house. And thirdly, that Jesus would dare to proclaim:

"Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost."

When Pope Francis declared:
 
‘The Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy’ – a period of prayer from 8th December 2015, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, to 20th November 2016, the Feast of Christ the King’
not a few Catholic hierarchs described as ‘scandalous’ the Pope’s decision to allow priests to grant absolution to those who had chosen to have an abortion.
 
James Keenan SJ, in his writings, says that Divine mercy is ‘scandalous’ precisely because it excludes no one. Keenan goes on to say: “I believe that mercy defines Catholicism. And I define mercy as one’s willingness to enter into the chaos of another.” This, in effect, is what Jesus did by becoming one like us in all things but sin. To quote James Keenan SJ, again, “the basic reason why mercy is at the heart of Catholicism is that Jesus commanded it.” Two Gospel texts exemplify how – ‘The Good Samaritan’ (Luke 10:29-37) and ‘The Last Judgement’ (Matt. 25:31-46)”
 
Everyone, save Mary Immaculate, stands in need of Divine forgiveness. As Christians, we need to practise mercy with abandon, without ever excluding anyone especially those who have become spiritually deprived for, as Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’.
 

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Many Forms of Prayer

Not everyone is gifted with mystical meditation. The word mysticism is derived from the Greek mystikos, which in early Christianity referred to the biblical, the liturgical and the spiritual or the contemplative. The biblical dimension refers to "hidden" or less obvious meanings within Scripture. 

More than a few do not find formal prayer overly attractive. Among the most widely known formal prayers are the ‘Our Father’ and the ‘Hail Mary’. The Nicene Creed is a prayer that formalises our universal belief as Christians. Formal prayer structures can be helpful in launching us into a time of prayer. 

Perhaps you have heard the delightful tale of the gifted gymnast with outstanding bodily contortions. The same man found himself quite hapless at prayer. So, when nobody was about, he used to go to the chapel and perform his gymnastic display for the Lord. It was his form of prayer.

There are countless believers, today, who pray through caring for children, for elderly and sick people, through farming, flower-arranging, weaving, woodwork, baking, and suchlike. We can turn whatever we are about, that is in harmony with the will of God, into prayer by an act of our will. But, and there is a ‘but’, prayer requires a conscious, deliberate, offering to God of what we are about on each occasion. Prayer cannot be conducted by a ‘standing order’, as it were.

The Scriptural readings for this 29th Sunday of the Year focus on the offering to God made under the general title of ‘prayer’, with an emphasis on perseverance.

Moses, Aaron and Hur, in the 1st Reading (Exodus 17:8-13), remind us that collaborative prayer is an attractive, strengthening resource when we are threatened by our individual weaknesses. Many forms of collaborative prayer make use of modern communications, bringing the encouragement of real-time visual as well as audio participation. This feature is especially beneficial for immobilised people, as a counter to the negative aspects of isolation, by allowing for family, community or congregational participation.

Today’s Exodus extract also involves the Israelites in a combative encounter. Adversarial combat, in one form or another, is something we all experience. Traditionally, Eve was the first victim of our adversary of adversaries, Satan, who aims to snare us by our weaknesses. How essential it is for us, like Moses, to identify and openly acknowledge our weaknesses. Perhaps, too often, we can be reluctant to do so, preferring ‘a brave face’ for the sake of our public image. Yet, unless we acknowledge that we are ‘recovering sinners’, beset by weakness, we are effectively telling God that ‘we can manage, thank you’, despite plentiful personal experiences to the contrary.

Earlier forms of catechetics often over-emphasised stalwart individualism in prayer, to the detriment perhaps of collaborative forms of prayer. Even when together in church, there could be an over-emphasis on our individual recitation as opposed to our communal participation. The ‘me and my’ took precedence even when we prayed the ‘our’ Father! 

How much of the legacy of that emphasis on individualism remains? Probably more than we care to admit. Do we truly value the promise of prayer gifted to us by a person of evident disability, as we would the same promise from, say, an enclosed religious? That is, presuming we understood what the disabled person wished to communicate to us.  Yet, who is to say which of the two is the more disabled? Do we value the prayer of people whom we may pity, despise, think less of, regard as outcasts? Jesus did. He listened and responded to each person, be they a Roman soldier, a thief, a Pharisee, a beggar, a scribe, an adulterer, a leprous outcast, a Samaritan, if, in that moment of one-to-oneness with him, they had a righteous disposition of heart.

What might constitute, in Jesus’ eyes, a righteous disposition of heart? St. Paul, in his 2nd Letter to Timothy (3:14-4:2), highlights a person’s constant, unswerving, patient commitment to proclaim God’s Word even in the midst of torment, as per the repentant thief crucified with Jesus (Luke 23:42). When pain or isolation reduces us to silence, it is possible, within our heart, to hallow God’s Word and this, in itself, is a form of prayer.

In today’s Gospel extract (Luke 18:1-8), Jesus’ parable tells of the righteousness of the powerless. A combination of personal persevering application and prayerful supplication brought the appellant the justice, to which her belief clung despite her treatment.

It is Jesus himself who gives us an extended list of the righteous in his Sermon on the Mount (Matt: 5:1-12):
The poor in spirit who, recognising their own spiritual poverty, appeal to God.
The gentle who ask God’s help in resisting the temptation of retaliation.
Those who mourn their spiritual poverty and grieve at their own negligence.
Those whose consuming appetite for universal righteousness is not intimidated by its widespread absence from the world.
Those who extend the mercy of God’s forgiveness to those who treat them unjustly and unmercifully.
Those who, acknowledging that their heart has been petrified, accept Jesus’ invitation to replace it with a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26)
Those who, being trapped in isolation and alienation, accept the Christ’s offer of reconciliation.
Those who, in the defence of righteousness, accept suffering and mistreatment for Jesus’ sake.

The phrase “I’m saying my prayers” may be an all-too-accurate description of the recitation of known-by-heart prayers. It is so easy to find that, while mouthing the words from memory, the mind is focused elsewhere. The Prayer of the Church, also known as The Divine Office, is now used by many lay-folk. It has long been a prayer of obligation for religious and clerics. Even when prayed on one’s own, it is possible to appreciate that, in multiple other locations, the same prayer is being expressed in a wide variety of languages. An even more enhanced appreciation of collaborative prayer comes when we mentally link with and welcome into our prayer those who, though now deprived of the means of collective participation in prayer through persecution or illness, would wish to join with us in their heart. A list of photographs and names is a good backdrop to have in times of prayer.
There are vacancies galore in which to emulate Aaron or Hur, who supported Moses in his prayer during the battle (First Reading), if we stop to think before we pray!
 

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Chains – Visible and Invisible
 
The wearing of chains carries signification. Dignitaries often wear chains of office to signify status. Convicted criminals sometimes wear ankle chains that also signify status. St. Paul was put in chains for preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In his 2nd letter to protégé Timothy (today’s Second Reading: 2:8-13), Paul writes:
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David: such is my gospel, for which I am suffering, even to the point of being chained, like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.”
Individuals freely choose to wear chains of precious or other metals as either a decoration or a declaration; for example, to claim membership or affiliation with an organisation. For St Paul, the manacles he was forced to wear for years were the badge of his Christian apostolate. Down the centuries, up to and including the present, countless women and men have followed his example by stoically bearing incarceration and torture rather than deny their allegiance to Jesus the Christ.    
 
Memories, too, can enchain us and cause torment. Seniority can bring a recall of behaviour and attitudes in earlier decades that, with hindsight, show a depth of selfishness and self-righteousness that an older and wiser person now finds embarrassing. Accumulated invisible memories can be persistent as well as unyielding. One suspects that Satan is surreptitiously behind many a memory-chain invasion of prayer time, especially. Such historic distractions can make a person feel unworthy to pray, to believe in Jesus, to share in the Mass. It is, therefore, important to grasp the truth that when God forgives us – in response to our prayer: “…  forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us …” - he never makes use of what he has forgiven to mock or belittles us. God has only compassion and love for us, even when we fail to love him. It is Satan who mocks us with our past when we choose to give time to prayer.

A holy person recommended an enquirer, who continuously felt undermined by Satan’s mockery, to confront the Devil.  “Say to Satan,” the holy person said, “All that you accuse me of, and which I do not deny in my past; all that you mock me for when I pray, I do not have anymore. I surrendered it all to Jesus and in return received his healing absolution.”
Whenever Satan rakes up the memories of earlier behaviour and dispositions – as he does – we must confront him with the truth that, when we surrender our failings to Jesus, he absorbs it into his suffering, Crucifixion and Death. Our sin is dissolved into the enormity of his love for us. The Risen Jesus calls us to take refuge in his wounded Body, in which we can find healing and redemption.
 
Our will to be one with Christ does not imply that we will be free of memories. We will need to pray “…  forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us …” while we draw breath. For the duration of our earthly life, we will not cease to be recovering sinners bearing the scars of our sinfulness, just as the Risen Jesus carries the wounds of his suffering, Crucifixion and Death. His wounds, and our status as recovering sinners, will be complete only when God calls all to judgement at the end of the world. Meanwhile, Satan will continuously attempt to undermine our belief in God’s forgiveness by re-presenting to us the fickleness from which we still suffer because we remain ‘recovering’, i.e. not yet recovered, sinners.

Disease, too, is an enmeshing contagion capable of capturing the incautious and the unwary. The First Reading and Gospel for this Sunday feature leprosy, which has afflicted humanity for thousands of years. In Jesus’ day, leprosy was widely feared because no antidote then existed. Stringently imposed segregation was the norm, at least for ordinary people. Evidently, Naaman’s elevated social position in Syria, and apparently in Israel, allowed him exceptional freedom of movement. Leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, is no longer common in the developed world but is not unknown.
 
It could be said that leprosy has an affinity with human sinfulness. Both are long-term debilitating infections. Initially, a person infected with leprosy might have no identifiable symptoms for anything between five and twenty years. When symptoms do develop, they may reveal themselves in a lack of ability to feel pain in the extremities due to the growth of a mass of vascular tissue. This in turn can lead to the loss of extremities due to repeated injuries or infection. The disease can also affect lungs and eyes. Leprosy, occurring more commonly among those living in poverty and lacking a proper diet and healthcare, is contagious, although extensive person-to-person contact is necessary.

Leprosy is curable with long-term multi-drug therapy provided free of charge by the WHO. In the past 20 years, 16 million people worldwide have been cured of leprosy. The average number of new cases per year is something over 200,000, predominantly found in sixteen identified countries, with India, China and Africa at the top of that list.  There are about 200 cases reported annually in the USA. World Leprosy Day was initiated in 1954 to draw attention to those bearing the long-term loss of limbs and sight due to leprosy.
 
Sinfulness, too, is contagious. From small beginnings, and left unchecked, it can grow exponentially by numbing the conscience of an individual, a tribe or a nation. Earlier this year, the free world celebrated the 75th anniversary of ‘D’ Day. People still wonder how Hitler succeeded in duping his followers to inflict the evil of Nazism on numerous victims in so many countries. The parallel with the wilful abandonment of the Ten Commandments and the norms of the Gospels by the free world is not only plain to see but terrifyingly frightening for those who see through the eyes of faith.

The innocent words of one of his female child slaves persuaded the mighty Syrian, Naaman, to put aside his highhanded dismissal of the prophet Elisha’s message. Naaman’s change of heart and compliance with the prophet’s instruction – ‘plunge yourself seven times into the river Jordan’ – brought him not only physical healing but faith in the God of Israel.
 
What innocent yet muted outpourings, inflicting death and/or profound suffering, in our 20/21st century are being largely ignored or even denied by society? Among those that readily come to mind are direct abortion, the deliberate ending of life, capital punishment, chemical or nuclear warfare, driving in a manner that threatens life. Are there, also, invisible, personal chains that impede our growth as disciples of Jesus?
 

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Whistleblowing

It is a loaded word with perhaps some unsettling overtones. A whistle-blower is a person who informs on another, or others, engaged in secret or illegal activity. ‘Whistleblowing’ happens for multiple reasons, some of which are genuinely altruistic and personally costly to those involved. Clearly, not all ‘whistleblowing’ events can be claimed as genuinely altruistic
‘It takes one to know one’ is an old adage that could preface this 25th Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 16: 1-13). Clearly, the denounced steward is an embezzler. But then his denouncers would appear to be, too, as they are shown to be willing to collaborate in his embezzlement for their own advantage. The steward’s employer or owner, if the steward were a slave, leaves himself open to be thought of as an embezzler, too, by appreciating the shrewdness of his employee/slave rather than criticizing him for his thieving.

God has gifted each person with a conscience. It is akin to our inner resemblance to God keeping a watchful alertness over all our intended actions and decisions because these affect not only us, individually, but the wider community too. So, our personal conscience could be likened to our personal inbuilt ‘whistle-blower’ not to inform on us to another but to give us personal advance knowledge of pending controversy resulting from our potential choices. That personal advance awareness may be momentary which is why we need to try to keep our mind and heart as free from interruptive temptation as possible. It being Satan’s speciality for distracting us from our Baptismal commitment.

Our whistle-blowing conscience has no executive power because God has granted us freedom of choice. It is, however, our responsibility to keep our conscience informed to help us formulate choices that are in accord with God’s will. If responded to positively, the conscience will expand its illuminative ability, thereby helping us to discover more authentically God our Creator will. Likewise, the more it is ignored, the conscience’s illuminative role diminishes. The quality of our spiritual life determines the delicacy and consistency of the conscience’s ability to alert us when, as a consequence of free choices, we move away from God. Is it possible to evaluate the quality of our spiritual life?
Well, consider this - were all Christians to engage more fully in the pursuit of The Truth and the implementation of real justice, our world would begin to resemble the kingdom to which Christ has called us:
“Jesus told them: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop — a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” (Matt. 13:1-9)

It is estimated that we all expend twenty times the amount of thought, time, money and effort on pleasure, hobbies and sport than we do on developing our personal gift of faith and our involvement in evangelisation. How often do we respond to our conscience ‘whistle-blower’ alerts when we make disproportionate allocations of our resources? Our true wealth consists not in what we squirrel away, but in what we give away especially to those in need. Possessions in themselves are not sinful, but they bring with them a great responsibility for undaunted altruism. Material possessions can be the cement of binding friendships that reveal the real, lasting, values of life – here and hereafter.

Effectively, Jesus is saying that in our limited tenure here on earth, we have custody not ownership. We are stewards of all that this world presents. No created thing here, by its very nature, can be permanently ours because we have no permanence here! Another adage comes to mind: There are no pockets in shrouds. On the other hand, if, please God, we reach heaven we will receive what is really and eternally our own. What we will be given will depend on how we exercised our stewardship of this world’s goods during our earthly life.


Jesus tells us that we cannot serve, with an equality of love and application, two masters. Yet nowadays, many working people have to hold down, of necessity, more than one employment in order to support family and dependents or, perhaps, to get a foot on the proverbial ‘housing ladder’. Not infrequently it is the multi-tasking person’s spiritual life that suffers. The abolition of Sunday as a day or rest did nothing to help. If you remember, initially an employee was theoretically allowed to decline Sunday work for religious reasons. Soon enough, any person making such a request could find themselves either out of work altogether or held back along the promotion trail. The introduction of Sunday trading was a clever ruse that played to Satan’s advantage.

So how does the dedicated Christian cope? Being consciously aware of the dilemma is a priority. It means we need to make every reasonable effort to maintain a Sacramental and prayer life in the midst of work. All employed people have allocated times for rest and eating etc. and there are multiple internet sites on phones and iPads that enable a person to have a ten or fifteen minutes of assisted prayer time, with the privacy of ear plugs. The Jesuits, for one example among many, run a highly beneficial and easy to access free service called ‘Pray As You Go’. So often people say, “I just don’t have the time!” That is the cue for the last conscience-prompted, ‘whistle-blown’ adage: ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way’ but, please God, it will be in the direction of the footsteps Christ has laid down for us.

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Stillness of Sundays Long Passed
 
Do you remember when Sunday was a day dedicated to God?  People kept Sunday distinct from the other weekdays because there was respect for God’s Third Commandment: "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy."  For Muslims it was Friday, for Jews it was Saturday and for Christians it was Sunday. Shops and businesses were closed, there were no major sporting fixtures etc. Sunday was for the family and the wider Christian family. Assembling as a community to worship God was central to the day. It may seem another world but it was not all that long ago.
 
Today, Christians in the West live in countries where Sunday is no longer distinct. It is just another day of the weekend. The worship of God, where it happens, is fitted into a busy secular Sunday schedule. Gatherings, that once happened in church, are now found in physical fitness and shopping centres. The punitive effect on the quality and depth of peoples’ faith is evidenced not only in the emptiness of places of worship but also in the inner emptiness so many people experience.
 
Individually, people of faith are no longer able to draw spiritual nourishment from society as they once could. Therefore, believers perhaps should invest more of themselves and their time into nourishing and growing the faith with which they have been gifted, not only to remain faithful but also to be evangelists. Christians, whose only contact with God’s Word is in church, may find themselves insufficiently spiritually nourished to withstand the pressured secularity of daily life. The Word heard in church is a taster to whet the appetite. Thus encouraged, people can choose to invest time in discovering the full quote, scenario and background. Nourished by the fullness of The Word, believers should be encouraged to ask God how his Word affects not only them but this world.  All this is real prayer and is of greater significance, dare one say, than the ‘saying of prayers’, because there is no better prayer than reading the Scriptures. Of course, local Scripture study groups, which of course can be ecumenical, are so important. Remember Jesus’ words: “Where two or more are gathered in my Name, there am I in the midst of them.”
 
It is always spiritually beneficial to remember, especially for the housebound and the hospitalised, that they are able to receive Christ in His Word in the very same way that they do in the Eucharist. Whenever and wherever we choose to put God at the forefront of our thoughts, we are praying.
 
The compilers of the Lectionary – the book of Scripture extracts used in the Liturgy – had the enormous task of collating extracts from both Testaments into focus in a way that would help us methodically explore God’s Word as we navigate the religious seasons of the year.
 
In certain eras of the past there would have been greater widespread familiarity with the Word of God within the community of the faithful. Peoples’ minds, less overwhelmed with stress which is the curse of today, were able to retain His Word by the grace of God’s Holy Spirit for a longer period of time. Today, that is no longer the case. Therefore, if worshippers are to benefit from the texts already chosen for a particular Sunday or major celebration, they might benefit by being encouraged to pray them beforehand, by their reading and research.
Tragically, nowadays, the incessant clamour of instant communication can easily obliterate God’s Word from our hearts and minds before it has had the opportunity to become embedded. Jesus’ parable of the sower comes to mind: “As the sower was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants.” (Matt.13: 1-9)
 
 
The Martha and Mary scenario in this Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 10:38-42) is a case in point. Where there exists, today, an apparent inequality of work, service and leisure, you may hear people describe it as a ‘Martha and Mary’ situation. People make use of the ‘Martha and Mary’ Biblical scenario without knowing its origin, its purpose and what it was intended to teach the folk of Jesus’ day. The cleverness of Satan is that he leaves a person with superficial, vague remnants of Biblical truth that have the effect of calming an alarmed conscience. A parallel could be drawn with an anti-flu injection. The patient receives a controlled dose of the virus to stimulate the body’s natural production of the appropriate antibody.
 
 
For sure, as Christians we need greater exposure to The Word if we are to breathe spiritually in this sin-polluted world. Likewise, we need more than the odd moment of prayer, of worship or of Sacramental involvement. The extracts of The Word, received in assemblies and often the seed ground for the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, can be become more fulfilling by supplementary reading and shared discussion, both of which can be an exercise in prayer. As the parable of The Sower makes clear, when The Word falls into good soil it will sprout securely and produce a crop for the Master and the household.
 
Sometimes our concept of prayer is too constrained. Martha and Mary were both praying but in demonstrably different ways; Martha through her physical work and Mary through her work of contemplation. Both were praying through their work. Martha may have momentarily lost sight of prayer being work and challenged her sister. It is good to recall that the prayer/work of each nourished the other. Martha’s physical ministrations, as an act of loving service, ensured that the household received the necessary physical sustenance. Mary’s prayer ministration ensured that the household would be able to share in the spiritual nourishment that she brought to their shared conversation at the table.
 
Jesus invited Martha to be less anxious because stress never comes from God but from the enemy. All will come to fulfilment in God’s good time which is of God’s determining, not ours. Psalm 75 reminds us: “We give thanks to you, God, we give thanks to you, as we call upon your name, as we recount your wonders. ‘At the appointed time, I shall dispense justice.’”
 

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Unified Diversity
 
Many Roman Catholics might hesitate to describe their Church as diverse. The world is resonant with variation, in culture, interpretation, tradition and expression. It would seem that these are not contemporaneous descriptions of the Catholic Church’s public image for some centuries. Yet, at the Church’s inception, its collaborative diversity was particularly evident in the Founding Fathers whom we are honouring, jointly, this day; namely, Saint Peter, local Jewish fisherman, husband and parent, and Saint Paul, educated, distinguished Pharisee and Citizen of Rome.
We know increasingly more about how the human body itself is an intricate conglomeration of non-identical and unequal parts with distinctly different functions. Yet, each plays a part in completing and fulfilling the role given by the creator namely, a healthy and functioning human person.
 
 
 
Diversity is the hallmark of the multitude of the components of the human body. Distinct as they are in so many ways, our many body parts nevertheless act in unison to keep us alive and well.  The healthy human body has a unity without uniformity. This unity with diversity is as much a core ingredient of the Church on earth as it is for each of its members. St. Paul, in chapter 12 of his first letter to his Corinthian converts, lays out an overview that assures each person that their giftedness as individuals in no way detracts from their harmony when they act in concert. It could be said that having Paul’s chapter 12 as a blueprint, enables an appreciation of how the diversity within human nature is, by Divine intention, an integral part of the Church. The only caveat can be found in verse 3:
Therefore, I tell you that nobody speaking by the spirit of God says, “Jesus be accursed.” And no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the holy Spirit.”
Therefore, each and every individual, within the Body that is the Church, is called to unite in a continuous, consistent and wholehearted acclamation that “Jesus is Lord”. The loyalty with which each responds to this call, the prime vocation of a human person, affects not only the individual but impacts too upon the holiness, the oneness spoken of by Jesus, of the whole body, the Church.
God mandated Moses: “Speak to the whole community of Israelites and say: ‘Be holy, for I, the Lord your God am holy.’” (Leviticus 19:2) At his Incarnation, Jesus became the ultimate personification of God’s holiness on earth in the human person. By our Baptism into Christ, each is grafted onto the community of Israelites called to live in holiness with The Holy One, who is God.
This is why, as Christians, we are called to what may be described as a double-fronted ecumenism. We reach out to our brothers and sisters in the family of the Chosen that they, as well as all our Gentile brothers and sisters, may unite with us in proclaiming: “Jesus is Lord”. This double-fronted ecumenism began with Peter and Paul who each received individual mandates directly from Jesus. Matthew 16:18 recalls Jesus’ mandating of Peter and Acts 9 and Galatians 1:11-12 recalls Jesus’ mandating of the Pharisee Saul, now become Paul the Apostle. Peter was to take knowledge of Christ to his fellow Jews. Paul was to do likewise but to the Gentile peoples.
So, in Jesus’ individual mandating of the unalike Peter and Paul, can be seen a unique and dramatic advancement in God’s unfolding plan for the restoration and healing of his Chosen people who are now to incorporate the Gentile nations. Thus, the prophesy of the shepherd-farmer Amos, somewhere between 783 and 743 BC, is fulfilled:
“After that I shall return to rebuild the tottering house of David; I shall make good the gaps in it and restore it. Then the rest of humanity, and all the nations over whom my Name has been pronounced, will look for the Lord, says the Lord who makes these things known from of old …” (Amos 9:11-12 - as quoted by the Apostle James in the Jerusalem meeting of the Apostles and Elders: Acts 15: 13-21)
Paul explains, in Galatians 2: 1-10, how a Church assembly at Jerusalem finally affirmed that the distinctive Apostolic missions of both Peter and Paul were fully in accord with the teaching of Jesus Christ. As Catholics, in the 21st century, we know well enough that the Church’s Conciliar teachings are not always easily accepted throughout the body of the Church. What was agreed in that Jerusalem meeting met with continuing opposition.
It may be helpful to recall that this new ecumenical emphasis was then being enacted and continues now to be enacted in this ‘vale of tears’, which is the kingdom of Evil. Christ’s enemy has lost no opportunity to undermine and cause distress and dissention within the Body of Christ on earth, the Church. Catholics, today, are experiencing a 21st century version of what our religious forebears experienced in the infant Church.
 
 
 
Pope Francis has made Lumen Gentium a central theme of his pontificate. He is calling the Church to follow Christ in his poverty and humility in order to bring the Good News to the poor.
One of the key portions of Lumen Gentium is its second chapter, with its declaration that the Church is "the People of God":
“At all times and in every race, God has given welcome to whosoever fears Him and does what is right. God, however, does not make people holy and save them merely as individuals, without bond or link between one another. Rather has it pleased Him to bring people together as one, a people which acknowledges Him in truth and serves Him in holiness [...] This was to be the new People of God. For those who believe in Christ, who are reborn not from a perishable but from an imperishable seed through the Word of the living God, not from the flesh but from water and the Holy Spirit, are finally established as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people ... who in times past were not a people, but are now the people of God.
 
Pope Francis, in reaching out through interreligious dialogue and action demonstrates that the Catholic Church is open to all humanity.
Our understanding of our relationship with God, through the Church, is constantly evolving and there is more to come, maybe beyond our personal lifetime. It may be helpful to recall Peter’s teaching in his Second Letter:
‘But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’ (3:8-9)

4th Sunday of Easter

What happens when you listen?
 
Spiritually deep-listening to God is a whole-body experience. It involves the coordination of the soul, in conjunction with all the senses, focusing exclusively on God. Deep-listening is distinctly different from casual hearing where we give low-level attention to a whole host of separate activities and noises. Only when a single focus attracts our whole fixed attention are we able to engage deep-listening.
 
The perfect exemplar of deep-listening is Mary. The profundity of Mary’s immaculate listening to God’s messenger, Gabriel, made real the Incarnation; the coming among us of the Son of God-made-Man. The committed and intense listening of multitudes of the Baptised, from all nations, over the past two thousand years has revealed the presence of God’s Holy Spirit dwelling in his adopted family of recovering sinners.
 
When faith inspires and sustains our deep-listening to God, our vision begins to change. We begin to see through, as opposed to with, the eyes of Christ. Little by little we learn to shed our culturally-imposed singularity of mind, presently embraced by much of the world, in favour of seeing ourselves as numbered amongst the multitude described by the excerpt from Revelation (7:9) that is our 2nd Reading for this Sunday:
“I, John, had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.
Then one of the elders said to me, “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
 
John’s vision is of a great and united community, rather than a gathering of individuals. The way of salvation, while requiring individual commitment, is not an exclusive ‘Jesus and me’ affair.  This great and united community, this ‘flock’, is brought together from multiple nations, races and languages without any loss of individual identity. The single source of unity, common to all, is the communal shouldering of the tribulation that makes us one with our Saviour God who, bearing the agony of Calvary, gave this great community everything it needs, including each other. On this 4th Sunday of Easter, the Scripture readings invite us to reconsider our identity, taking care to root out any tendencies to self-sufficiency. Instead, Jesus encourages us to live in solidarity with Him and with one another. In the Gospel for this day (John 10: 27-30), Jesus tells us:
“My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me.”
Our simple, yet profound, assignment is to deeply-listen to the voice of the Shepherd and to follow him. It is a life-giving assignment that draws the Baptised into an amazingly multifaceted world of relationships.
 
Pope Francis tells us that a committed deep-listening to God “commits us to serving others ... learning to find Jesus in the faces of others, in their voices, in their pleas” (“The Joy of the Gospel” 91). Clearly, the will to immerse ourselves in deep-listening to the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd, involves a deep-listening to the voices of others, especially those who need us as well as those from whom we can learn.
 
 
The whole of the Book of Revelation invites us to look forward to Christ’s final victory. At the same time, we are to take into account the sufferings that will mark the entire journey. In the Book of Revelation, John speaks of the great multitude who have ‘washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb’, and the Second Vatican Council’s ‘Gaudium et Spes’ addresses “the entire human family, seen in its total environment ... bearing the marks of its painful laborious effort, its triumphs and failures” (Gaudium et Spes 2). Revelation describes human-kind’s destiny as a joyful celebration of life that no longer knows hunger or thirst because it has found the One who alone can satisfy all human longing.
 
 
In Revelation, we learn that the whole community will be shepherded by God who will lead it to springs of water and wipe away every tear. ‘Gaudium et Spes’ describes human destiny as the ‘familial solidarity that results from being guided by the Holy Spirit and giving living witness to Christ, who does not judge, but saves, who serves rather than is served’. (Gaudium et Spes 3).
Both Revelation and ‘Gaudium et Spes’ offer us a dream of what can be. Both are realistic in admitting that our road to God’s future passes through laborious effort, through contradiction and suffering. Both also affirm that getting to our destiny is possible not because we are so strong and visionary, but because that is where God is leading everyone who is willing to go there. There is no time more appropriate than the Easter season for us to pause and allow God’s dream to inspire us, as it did the author of Revelation and those who wrote the documents of The Second Vatican Council.
 
 
Jesus’ sheep learned to recognize him and his work; they know how he calls them and what he hopes both for them and from them. They are also watchful. They yearn to hear his voice at any given moment. They realize that every moment is indeed given to them through him.
This Sunday’s Scriptural extracts combine to offer us a practical mysticism, a way of life that is deeply involved in the events of each day and highly attuned to the grace offered in every moment. The extract from the Acts of the Apostles reminds us that our Christian vision needs to be expressed in terms that ordinary folks can understand, even though many will decline to do so. The Book of Revelation and John’s Gospel invite us to dream, to take the path of mysticism, to remember the Word we have heard and to imagine our destiny, as we move in both joy and sorrow toward the glory to be revealed.
 
 
Considering that God has imbued all humans with characteristics including counsel, creativity, understanding, wisdom, and the knowledge of the difference between good and evil, how is it that we are not living in Utopia? One explanation is that God also gave us free will so that we might choose the Divine will … or not. Sadly, it is true that some do seem to purposefully and consciously choose evil.
But surely it is more common for people not to make any choice at all? We seem to have lost the will — free or otherwise — to choose what is best for us. Access to knowledge has never been more available, yet we skim over the top, preferring sound bites and a never-ending longing for newness rather than deeply-listening to the Creator who sustains us. Ours has become a culture of distraction promoted by the abundance of Evil. If only people would stop to consider, in depth, the evidence. It is only when we deeply-listen that we lose ourselves and experience the Divine.
 
God of my heart, live in me and calm my mind that I may deeply-listen to You and then choose what is good.

4th Sunday of Lent

Parental Heartache
 
For the parents, the loss of a child is a pain like none other. St. Luke is the only Evangelist to record three of Jesus’ parables on the subject of loss. This 4th Sunday of Lent we read the best recognised of the three, remembered under the title ‘The Prodigal Son’ (vv.15: 1-3, 11-32). In this context ‘prodigal’ carries the meaning of a recklessly wasteful use of inherited resources followed by a contrition.
In the main, Jesus’ teaching parables are complete. He describes the scene, the ensuing action and delivers the conclusion. But the ‘The Prodigal Son’ parable is different. Despite the eventual return of the second son, the prodigal, Jesus leaves the parable open-ended. Not only does the elder son’s antipathy towards his younger brother remain unresolved, it appears to worsen. Then, the elder son turns his venom upon his parents. It is a cliff-hanger of an ending.
 
This ‘Prodigal Son’ parable is much depicted in paintings and essays. Rembrandt’s interpretation in oil on canvas probably stands head and shoulders above other artistic interpretations. A feature unique to Rembrandt is his portrayal of the father’s hands resting on the bowed back of his returned prodigal. Rembrandt gave the father one male and one female hand thereby deliberately including the boys’ mother. Rembrandt drew attention to the fact that, in Jesus’ era and for long after, women were without independent status, personal identity and power.
 
Since commentaries often give a detailed examination of the Prodigal Son, it may be refreshing to broaden the focus. The parents represent God the Father who, in creating us [male and female] in his own image and likeness, has endowed each of us with an equality of dignity and purpose. Another word to describe this endowment is vocation. Created by the Almighty, we each carry within us God’s personal invitation to understand that our vocation is not a choice we have to make, but our answer to His proposal that we will find in the words of his Son, Jesus Christ. The Prodigal, isolated in the foreign pigsty – the epitome of shame for a Jew – remembered his parents’ (God’s) lifelong forgiveness that he had repeatedly experienced in his early life. By contrast his elder brother did not consider himself in need of forgiveness – he had kept the Law!
 
Human parents pass on to their offspring genes that considerably influence the life decisions made by their offspring of either the first or subsequent generations. We can ask what was the prime endowment passed on by these parents to their two sons in Jesus’ parable entitled, ‘The Prodigal’? A tempting answer would be land but is that the correct answer?
Is the earth we inhabit God’s prime endowment to us? A Divine endowment is forever, literally. Our earth, as we now know only too well, has no permanence. Neither, apparently, does anything in the cosmos. Surely, the prime endowment we have received from God is our likeness to Him and its hallmark is Divine forgiveness.
 
 
The parents (God), in the first place, showed their sons the quality of respect for the law of God. Having chosen to retire, the father had no alternative but to accede to his younger son’s request for one third of the estate. It may have broken the parents’ hearts to divide their much-loved land that the boy’s father would have received as a cherished inheritance, but it was the Law.
 
Secondly, the parents showed their sons the quality of love. The parents had evidently lived this quality themselves and in doing so would have demonstrated it continuously to their sons and their household. In Jesus’ parable there is no trace of parental recrimination towards the elder son when his younger brother leaves home. The parental love for the elder son is shown in the father’s words: ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.’”
It would appear that the elder son remained as unmoved by his parents’ suffering at the loss of their younger son as he was unforgiving towards his brother.
The younger son’s actions and words speak for themselves.
 
 
Thirdly, the parents showed their sons the quality of forgiveness. A continuous exemplification of forgiveness must have been both visible and audible in the parental behaviour. How else could the prodigal son have been so sure that he would be completely forgiven and reconciled. Had he not been certain he would never have said:
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’
 
St. Luke’s words paint a clear picture of the parental heartache: “While he (the prodigal son) was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.”
You can only hope to catch sight of someone or something for whom or for which you are committed to searching for specifically and continuously. The recognition is as much of the heart as of the head.
Note the earlier parable of the ‘lost sheep’ in chapter 15: 4-7.
Both the sons were the cause of the parental heartache. The Prodigal recognized that he was a recovering sinner. The elder son had yet to do so. Parental love continued to be extended to both.
 
 
 
God’s prime disposition towards each and every person whom he creates, in his own image and likeness, is forgiveness. When God invites us individually to our specific vocation it is not because we are without fault or even perfectly suited to it. Each vocation is a gift enshrined in Divine forgiveness because we can only come to him as sinners. We are invited to understand that our vocation is nor a choice we have to make, but our answer to Christ’s proposal that we recognise our need of his forgiveness and actively seek it. This journey, like that of the Prodigal, can be lengthy and arduous.
The Prodigal, at his homecoming, must have sensed his being forgiven, being ‘re-birthed’, was way beyond anything he had expected. It is his belief in Divine forgiveness that allows Pope Francis to repeatedly call himself a sinner. “Pray for me, please, I am a sinner.”  The Pope recognizes himself as a recovering sinner. He urges us to share his vision because this is how we will remain until our last breath.  
 
The elder sibling’s attitude towards his younger sibling, whom he sees as a miscreant, is one of God’s works in progress. Is there here a reflection of the divide between Jew and Gentile?
Jesus calls his Christian ‘prodigal’ adoptees to share in this on-going mission of repatriation through the teaching of the Second Council of the Vatican and subsequent Papal teachings. As Christians we are encouraged to pray for our elder brothers and sisters, the Jews, on to whom we have been grafted in and through the Person of God-made-Man, Jesus Christ, the Jew.
 
Faith and prayer embolden our hope in an era when, once again, there are worrying signs of the growth of widespread anti-Semitism. But, do we believe and pray with the same personal and deep faith that kept a mother and father, whose pain is incalculable, searching through rivers of tears that channelled the worn skin of their face as seen in the Rembrandt portrait?

3rd Sunday of Lent

The Effects of Spiritual Disorientation
Disorientation is a scary experience. It’s causes can be internal or external, neurological or circumstantial. Either way, disorientation is a cause of suffering. Dementia, for example, is a chronic progressive disorder of the mental process. Equally, a person trapped in a snow blizzard, a sandstorm or a total blackout can be suddenly and life-threateningly disorientated, as well as frightened.
There is also spiritual disorientation which Satan puts to much use. Unlike the sudden snow blizzard or sudden darkness, the Satanic initiated disorientation infiltrates a person slowly and progressively. Satan disguises his infiltration of spiritual disorientation by bombarding an individual’s senses with excesses of continuously stimulating and captivating momentary distractions and delights. This has been happening in Western Europe for decades. The result, for an unaware Christian, can easily be an increasing disorientation resulting in a lapsation. Lapsed Christians do not feel out of place in a society that is itself disorientated. A society no longer drawing on its Christian heritage for moral guidance becomes more and more secular.
An example of modern secular mentality is the ease with which people have assumed for themselves God’s prerogative of judgement and authority. People now block, erase and reject on Facebook and Twitter etc anyone or anything that does not share their outlook and current belief. A 2018 UK survey commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust found that one in five of those questioned did not believe the Holocaust happened. 
 
It is not that God refuses to share his prerogative with us. The prophet Jeremiah relays God’s message:
“I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them upon their minds. I will be their God and they will be my people” (31:33)
It is that in the Satanically induced disorientation affecting Western society many people, including Church people, have less daily awareness of God and God’s Word-made-Flesh. Wherever a ‘faith-gap’ opens up in a person’s’ life, Satan occupies it.
 
 
Christianity is anchored in God who has revealed Himself, in these last times, through Jesus, His only-begotten Son-made-Man. Jesus defined Himself as the one reference point underpinning all reality when he answered ‘doubting’ Thomas: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
For thousands of years The Truth has been accepted by thinking people as an objective feature of our world. It is external to us. We neither invented nor discovered it. Objective Truth is what should ground everyone’s thinking and decision making.
Tragically, many people today in our disorientated modern secular society choose to believe that Truth is what an individual decides. Even the number of Christians, who believe moral truths are unchanging and unchangeable, is shrinking because of Evil’s ability to disorientate them through the pressures of society’s shifting culture. Satan has persuaded many people that Truth is relative to the prevailing circumstances.
 
 
 
God’s Word for this 3rd Sunday of Lent presents three scenarios that could be said to share a theme of our need to be always alert and of the consequences of not being. There is an Evil-induced spiritual disorientation forever lurking whose purpose is human entrapment.
 In the 1st Reading (Exodus 3:1-8, 13-15) a youthful Moses is told by God:
“I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers, so I know well what they are suffering.”
Despite promising to do so, the people of Israel had failed, collectively, to uphold the covenant they had entered into with God. This failure brought them a lengthy suffering and enslavement in Egypt. The Jews had become generationally disorientated in failing to appreciate that, by reducing to external conformity their observance of the Covenant, they had succumbed to Evil.
 
The educated one-time Pharisee, Saul, now Baptised and renamed Paul, was all too aware of the effects of ancestral disorientation. This explains why, in the 2nd Reading, we hear Paul address his young Corinthian converts to Christianity: (10:1-6, 10-12)
“I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all of them were baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea….  These things happened as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil things, as they did….  whoever thinks they are standing secure should take care not to fall.”
 
In the Gospel extract from St. Luke (13:1-9) Jesus calls his people to repentance as a necessary step to escape the effects of Satan’s disorientation:
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? They were not! I tell you. No; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did!”
 
Jesus was aware that if his people continued their political intrigues, plottings and rebellions, they were committing national suicide. Their seeking of an earthly kingdom while rejecting the Kingdom of God could only have one outcome. After Jesus’ Death and Resurrection, this is precisely what happened. In AD 70, Roman patience finally ran out. The Roman army obliterated both Jerusalem and its people – see Luke 21:6, 24.
 
 
There is a paradox that links the deliberate choice of sin with subsequent suffering. While it cannot be said that individual sin and suffering are inevitably connected, it can be said that communal/national sin and suffering are connected. The nation that deliberately chooses to engage in sinful ways will suffer the consequences of its choice. Jesus did not mince his words in today’s Gospel: But I tell you, if you (the nation) do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”
In the case of the individual, it is different. Individuals, being part of a community, can be caught up in their nation’s activity and its consequences which they neither willed nor caused but were without power to halt. Where such individuals manifestly rejected their nation’s choice and did their best to persuade others to do likewise, they, as individuals, will not be held to account by God.
It is always unwise to automatically attribute an individual’s personal suffering to their sin. It is always safe to say that a nation that rebels against God will inherit disaster.
 
 
God shares with each of us his concerns for all his people. Our informed consciences are alerted through daily prayer. There will be ‘burning’ issues calling for our attention and engagement. There will be people we see at spiritual risk as well as in need of physical shelter. There will be seemingly unproductive situations absorbing precious time and energy. And when we feel ‘enough is enough’ we hear the Lord of all gardeners/carers plead for us to continue “one year more”.
The bringing alive of the Gospel message depends on the spiritual capacity of Christians today to collectively discern, under the leadership of Pope Francis, God’s action as it continues to unfold through the reiteration of the central spiritual questions of our age.
 
 
If we could just sense the treasure there is in participating in the Mass, in the Eucharist, then perhaps even a lame homily, a poor liturgy, a faulty choir or distracting neighbours would not diminish our sense of the presence of the sacred or our joy in recognising the depth of love God has for each of us. The Evil One is fully capable of using even distractions to further our disorientation, even when we are in church.
It is vital for us to remain alert and on guard against the Evil One’s surreptitious infiltration of spiritual disorientation. As St. Peter, in his first letter to all Christians, wrote: “Keep sober and alert, because you enemy the devil is on the prowl … looking for someone to devour.” (5:8)

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (13.08.2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18th Sunday of Ordinary Time (03.08.14)

‘Previously’

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

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

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

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

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

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

And let them not cease;


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


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

An exception is this Saturday and Sunday, 2nd and 3rd August 2014. By coincidence, Matt 14: 1-12, the Gospel reading appointed for this Saturday, reveals the background that led to John the Baptist’s martyrdom. Multiple-murderer King Herod’s conscience proved to be his personal ‘previously’. Herod had beheaded John the Baptist rather than lose political face. Uncharacteristically this had disturbed him and he now believed Jesus to be the resurrected John the Baptist! A troubled conscience is, at least, a living conscience!

In Christian times, John the Baptist was a familiar name. The memory of a man clad in animal skins, eating locusts and wild honey and with a fearless preaching style, would have endured. People would have recalled tales of his birth, mission and martyrdom to some degree. A street poll today would likely turn up few, if any, who could identify John the Baptist.

For centuries, parents gave their children the names of revered Christians. The Christian history of places was reflected in their name. This treasure chest of our noteworthy Christian antecedents has been replaced in people’s memories by the names of sports personalities and briefly enduring celebrities.

As we experience the world from an armchair or computer console, we are bombarded with more information than we can comfortably store. Experienced TV producers understand all too well the ever-shortening attention and retention periods of the human mind. ‘Soap’ producers need to refocus every twelve to fifteen seconds if they wish to retain the attention of their viewers. Maybe this says as much about the poverty of content as the state of the human mind!

Popular ‘soaps’ have weekly multiple episodes with full ‘watch-back’ facility. Sunday Mass, by comparison, is a one-day-a-week verbal-only event for the inside of an hour with no changing scenes and one male voice with readers making brief appearances. In times past, Sunday Mass was the gathering place of the local community followed by particular family get-togethers. Now, Sunday Mass has become the optional, often missed, ‘add-on’ to a busy weekend.

The reality of the six-day chasm (Monday to Saturday) means that many Sunday Mass-attending Catholics are progressively unable to link up with the Scripture extracts they hear. For there to be the essential, Scriptural connectedness, people would need a considerable time of pre-Mass acclimatization. Where once, daily life and Christian life were one and the same, now they bear no resemblance.

World Cup footballers and other sports stars are taken to expensive acclimatization locations well in advance of their professional events to ensure their fitness and readiness for the contests. There needs to be comparable preparation provided for the average Catholic who does make it to Sunday Mass.

The disconnect, now entrapping the Catholic laity in particular, has grown surreptitiously like the hidden glacial chasm. Sadly and tragically those who trek to Sunday Mass, unlike their glacier exploring counterparts, are largely unaware of the danger they are in. God’s Word is our essential lifeline for spiritual nourishment and fortification in our daily battle with Satan’s hidden entrapments. Without God’s Word alive and active, daily, within our souls and hearts we are not only a danger to ourselves but also to our companions. Jesus’ warning in John 15:5 comes to mind:

“I am the vine, you are the branches;
those who abide in Me with Me in them, bear much fruit,
for apart from Me you can do nothing.”

Just today, the Bible Society sent me this appeal to support Bible literacy:

“We’re giving you the opportunity to help us teach more than half a million Chinese Christians to read the Bible. 

Han Xiao Lang from China learnt to read when she was 34. She was one of the first to sign up to Bible Society literacy classes in 2009 and said, ‘After the class I felt more hopeful, I could appreciate the message of God for me. I found it easier to hear his voice…’ (Han Xiao Lang, now 38)”


While I’m glad to support the promotion of the Bible in China, I’m alarmingly aware how many of the UK Baptised are sleepwalking into a disconnect with their Christian heritage. Unlike us, the Chinese are hungry for God’s Word. Perhaps it is all too easy to condemn Herod the Murderer forgetting that his conscience was at least functioning.

Matthew 15:14 is an appropriate quote for the spiritually unseeing who fail to appreciate the chasms under their very noses!

"They are blind guides of the blind!
And if a blind person guides a blind person,
both will fall into a pit."
Peter said to Jesus, "Explain the parable to us."…

The Gospel for this Sunday (Matt 14: 13-21) reveals Jesus’ wish to grieve privately when given news of his cousin, John the Baptist’s, martyrdom. But the pressing needs of the living called so loudly to Jesus that he stepped away from his grief to answer their cries. Jesus picked up John the Baptist’s baton adding it to his own mandate to establish a Kingdom whose hallmark was to be communion with his heavenly Father in the care of one’s neighbour. The crucial element is the depth of our connectivity with God. The Christian veneer over much of modern day Europe is as deceptive as the glacier with its hidden crevasses. In Matthew 13:21 Jesus warns about superficial Christianity:

“But since they have no root, they last only a short time.
When trouble or persecution comes because of the Word,
 they quickly fall away.”

Keeping to the glacial analogy, the last line could be amended to read, “they quickly fall victim to the crevasse”!

At Pentecost this year, Pope Francis spoke about the Christian disconnect:

“Christians without memory are not a true Christians: they are halfway along the road, imprisoned in the moment, who do not know how to value their history, who do not know how to read it or live it as a history of salvation. We, with the help of the Holy Spirit, are able to interpret the inner inspirations and events of life in the light of Jesus' words. And thus our knowledge of memory, the knowledge of the heart, that is a gift from the Spirit, grows in us”.   (Vatican 8 June 2014)

In the popular quiz show ‘I want to be a millionaire’, the lifelines are often crucial. Our Baptismal life, when functioning well, makes us wonderful spiritual lifelines for our family, friends and colleagues.