Sunday Reflection

20h Sunday in Ordinary Time (19.08.18)

Actions Speak Louder Than Words
 
This 20th Sunday’s Gospel (John 6:51-59) presents us with difficulties. It uses a language and employs ideas that may appear strange to us. But, to those who heard them first-hand they presented ideas reaching back to the early days of the human race. 
In ancient times animals were sacrificed. They were seldom burned entire. Although the whole animal was offered to the deity only a portion was burned in sacrifice. The residual flesh was divided between officiating elders and the supplicants who, with their guests, then held a feast at the place of sacrifice.

Although only some of the flesh of the sacrifice was offered to the deity, it was believed that the deity had entered into the whole sacrifice. Therefore, the supplicants who ate the flesh believed they were eating the deity. So, those who had feasted believed that they left the gathering god-filled. That, through their sacrifice and sharing, something had happened and they had within them the dynamism of their deity.
 
The Jews of Jesus’ period believed they were God’s chosen. They strove and longed for a closeness with their one, true God revealed through Abraham, their and our ‘father in faith’ and Moses. They had an inherited memory of their predecessors’ varied experience of union with God often focusing on what was consumed. This was their background when they heard the teaching of Jesus, either directly or, later, recounted by John. John, in his Gospel, is not giving the actual words that Jesus spoke. John had been thinking, praying and preaching for seventy years about what he had heard Jesus say. So, what John has left us in his Gospel is the essential meaning of Jesus’ words and he has done this under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
 
Among human beings we believe that Jesus is unique in being, in the One Person, both God and Man. We believe that Jesus spoke only The Truth. What Jesus said or enacted was not a version, or a rendering, or a reflection or an understanding of The Truth. It was the whole and entire Truth and, as such, was way beyond peoples’ comprehension. We may like to think that we speak, write and enact the truth. In reality, the best reflection of The Truth that we, as the created of God, can speak, write or enact is our finite, sin-damaged and limited understanding. For God alone is The Truth – see John 14:6 – Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life …..” 
 
So, it follows that when we read Jesus’ teaching in the Scriptures we wonder at its in-depth meaning. We are no more capable of making an immediate, penetrating appreciation of The Truth any more than were those who heard Jesus first hand.

When Jesus embraced a human nature like ours with his Divinity it was ‘a first’. The whole, complete, in depth entirety of The Truth had previously not been spoken by a human. Those whom Jesus chose and commissioned spoke this Truth through the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven …. and they were bewildered, because each one heard them (the Apostles) speaking in his own language.”
(Acts 2:4-6)

The Apostles were enabled to communicate The Truth whilst still in a lifelong process of assimilating it themselves. Take, for example, Peter’s declaration in Acts 10:34: “The truth, I have now come to realise, is that God does not show favouritism ..”
 
Pope St. Gregory, reflecting on the Book of Job, comments that one effect of embracing The Truth is growth in humility, which (he says) ‘is itself is the mother and teacher of all virtues’. By putting The Truth into practice, more than through preaching about it, we grow in humility.
 
In his first letter Paul says to Timothy: “Command these things and teach them with all authority” (4:11) The authority, referred to by Paul, is not derived from status but from an active engagement with The Truth in an evident way of life. For Paul, “Teaching with authority’ means living something before preaching it – ‘actions speak louder than words’. If our speech is impeded by our conscience, our hearers will find it hard to trust what we say. As Jesus taught in Matt. 23:1-3: 
“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”
 
By contrast, Mark (1: 21) recalls how the people who heard Jesus speak: “were astonished at his teaching, because Jesus taught as one who had authority, not like their own scribes.” Jesus spoke with a unique authority because he was unimpeded by personal sin and spoke with an innocence found in only one other human namely, Mary, his Mother. (Reflections on Job by Pope St. Gregory)
 
Dawn proclaims that the night is over. But it does not immediately manifest the full brightness of the day. It gives a ‘beginning’ to the day that is still a mixture of light and darkness. All of us who look for The Truth in this life are like the dawn. Some of our actions are truly works of light but others are not free of the remnants of darkness. Paul does not say: ‘the night has gone and the day has come’. He says: “.. the night has passed and the day is approaching ..”  He is declaring that he is still ‘in the dawn’. Total darkness has ended but it is still before the rising of the sun.
 
The Church will be fully in daylight only when the darkness of sin is no longer mixed with it. It will be truly day when it shines with the perfect warmth of a light that comes from within. Peter, James and John were privileged to witness the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain top. But such was the brightness of the light that shone out from the Body of Jesus Christ that, not only did they fail to find words to describe it, they could not continue to look at it and buried their heads. Matthew (17:6-7):
“When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified.”
 
Jesus tells us, in this Sunday’s Gospel, that:
“Whoever east my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.”
In Jewish thought blood stands for life. In both Genesis (9:4) and Deuteronomy (15:23) the Jews were prohibited from eating meat with the blood still in it. Yet, here is Jesus introducing a major change. In telling his followers to drink his blood, he is teaching us to take his life into the very core of our hearts.

Just think how many people, worldwide, are only alive today because they received a blood transfusion.  By receiving blood or blood products from another into their circulation intravenously, they were enabled to replace vital lost components of their own blood. After receiving a transfusion people do not think of the transfused blood as a foreign body within them. The transfused blood becomes one with them.

In telling us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, Jesus is inviting us to nourish our hearts, souls and minds on his whole being, God and Man in one Person. He is calling us to a continuous communion with him, despite our unworthiness, that is a permanent state of being whether or not we have access to Mass and the Eucharist.

Jesus knew that his hearers then, as we today, would struggle to grow in understanding of his words when he spoke about how we were “to eat his Flesh and drink his Blood”. And yet, despite the struggle involved, some back then heard, as some today hear, in Jesus’ words a sufficiency of The Truth to enable a continuing pilgrimage of faith discovery.
Pope Benedict expressed it this way in June 2011:
“The Eucharist is like a beating heart giving life to the mystical Body of the Church – a social organisation entirely founded on its spiritual yet tangible bond with Christ.
Without the Eucharist the Church would simply cease to exist.
It is the Eucharist that makes a human community a mystery of communion, capable of bringing God to the world and the world to God.”

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (12.08.18)

Listening for Life
 
The five main senses of adult humans are finetuned sources of information. Our hearing filters millions of sounds even when we are asleep. The number we actively listen to is much smaller. The brain and the memory collaborate in the filtering and alert us to active listening as necessary. When we choose to actively listen all our senses contribute to whatever we have directed our focus.

There are people who have developed the gift of being able to participate in a particular conversation while, simultaneously being aware, of the subject matter of other nearby conversations and comments. Some have been known to combine this ability with lip-reading – a formidable combination indeed. The main motives for practising such a skill might be political, economic or commercial or all three!
 
The Gospel for this 19th Sunday is a further extract from John’s compacted account of Jesus’ teaching on his Real Presence in the Eucharist (John 6:41-51). Jesus’ comments to the crowd show he possessed a sophisticated, sensitive hearing motivated, solely, by his love for us. Jesus hears the murmuring within the crowd. He appreciates the difficulty they face in coming to terms with his teaching namely, that He himself is The Bread of Life. This, as with all Truth, is hard to grasp for any Baptised person who has allowed their graced ability to differentiate between The Truth and falsehood to be contaminated by Evil … and as we presently live in the kingdom of Evil (cf. 1John 5:19) we know all too well that this happens.
 
St. Paul (this Sunday’s 2nd Reading Ephesians 4:30 - 5:2) addresses his Ephesian converts:
“Brothers and sisters:
Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were sealed for the day of redemption.”
 
Paul is reminding them and us that, through the Sacraments of Initiation – Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation, the Holy Spirit is conferred on us not because we are deserving but because God loves us and wills to share Himself with us. The Baptised have been gifted with the ability to recognise The Truth. Unlike, for example, Pontius Pilate who, when judging Jesus, declared himself ignorant of The Truth:
“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
 “The Truth, what is that?” retorted Pilate.” (John 18:37-38)

The gifts of the Holy Spirit are for eternity whether or not, here, we actively participate with them or reject them. As the Baptised, we grieve the Holy Spirit when we ignore or reject the Spirit’s invitation to align our decisions and behaviour with The Truth of which we are sufficiently aware, even though we may have questions or doubts in our heart and mind.

We cannot deceive our conscience. Nor for all his power, can Satan deceive our conscience but he can persuade us to ignore a wilfully weakened conscience. Even so, we will know in our heart that we have walked away from The Truth and it is our walking away that grieves the Holy Spirit.
 
It is said that exceptional soloists and artists are born. They reveal their prodigious talent at an amazingly early age. Beethoven would be one example among many Such giftedness does not release them from the need to practise, to learn by their mistakes and to improve.  Saints, too, come into this category. Each Baptised person is a potential saint, gifted with the Holy Spirit, and able to hear The Truth resonate within. This is not the same as understanding The Truth. The process of understanding, for the majority, is a life-pilgrimage with Calvarific overtones. For some, the Calvarific overtones last a lifetime. St. Teresa of Avila spent decades of her religious life and work without any sense of God’s presence and nearness. She remained faithful to God in her life as a Carmelite despite an enduring and inescapable spiritual aridity. Such commitment must make many of us question how easily we surrender when discipleship is demanding.
 
John tells us:
“The Jews murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” and they said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? Then how can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
There’s a form of murmuring that is constructive, it’s really more descriptive of a struggling but heartfelt prayer of intercession. Mark’s Gospel (9:16-29) recalls this type of ‘murmuring’ that Jesus not only heard but sensitively listened to when he dialogued with the stricken father who had asked him:
 “A man in the crowd called out, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech….  I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”
Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”
“From childhood,” the father answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
 “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”
Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
“You deaf and mute spirit,” Jesus said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”
 
There is another form of murmuring that could be labelled destructive because it challenges and maybe has a touch of anger or resentment to it. Thomas the Apostle provides us with a famous example (John 20:24-28):
“Thomas said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his (Jesus’) hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Jesus came among them and said, “Peace be with you” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
 
Whenever and however we engage in murmuring, Jesus not only hears with sensitivity but he responds with Divine bounteous generosity. He knows full well that we are, for the present time, in this ‘vale of tears’, this place of exile, and he makes allowances. Thank God for his generous, sensitive and, above all, patient hearing and loving willingness to unscramble the, often self-confused, complexity of our lives.
 

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (05.08.18)

Searching For ……
 
A search, intentional or subconscious, is a response to a sense of incompleteness, that something is missing.  With hindsight, life can be viewed as a semi-continuous search that commences soon after birth. Some searches are of the moment, such as a search for food to quell hunger. Others may last while awaiting fulfilment, such as sporting quests, that nevertheless demand daily self-application. At other times, the ultimate objective of a search may only become clear when the person searching discovers that previously identified and achieved objectives, perhaps once considered as the goal to be achieved, actually fail to deliver the expected satisfaction. An example would be the acquisition of money.
 
This 18th Sunday’s First Reading (Exodus 16: 2-4, 12-15) tells of the disgruntlement that percolated amongst the Jews whom God had freed from slavery in Egypt. Moses had led them out of their repressive existence with some food for their desert trek. Once that food was exhausted, the grumbling began and much of it was vented at Moses. He, in turn, appealed to God. Today’s extract tells of the daily search that God required of his people.
 
Searches can be exhausting, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and Joseph, his foster-father, must have found their three-day search for the twelve-year-old Jesus triply exhausting (Luke 2: 42-48). The motivation that kept them searching was love, their love for Jesus, their love for God and their love for one another.
 
Love is not the only motivation for searching. Envy, pride, hatred, laziness and greed are just some of the other powerful motors that engage people in searches. In this Sunday’s Gospel (John 6:24-35) Jesus identified, for the crowds pursuing him, their true motivation for tracking him down. We are not told whether the crowd appreciated hearing that home-truth. But free, unrestricted, good quality bread must have played a part in the search by people whose daily life was trapped in poverty and shortages.
 
Jesus was not finding fault with the people for wanting more free, good bread. Rather, He was encouraging them to identify, for themselves, their true motivation. If they, then, were or we, now, are to reach out for the higher truth that Jesus identifies, there must be an acknowledgement that earlier motivations may have been inadequate. Untruth or partial or half-truth impedes a search for the Truth. Anything less than the Truth contaminates a person’s motives and the clarity of their vision. Contamination of vision is Satan’s preferred arena of deception where he, the ringmaster of falsehood, reigns … for now. One of the clearest and most poignant examples of this is the dialogue between Satan and an exhausted Jesus, in the wilderness – Matthew 4:1-11. If you had the time it would be good to read it meditatively, now.

Satan first plays on Jesus’ hunger: “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Hunger, felt in so many different and challenging ways, can fire our searches. Satan never denies that we have multifaceted hunger. His deception is to sell us short on satisfying our hungers. He seeks to undermine us by inveigling us to compromise with the Truth. Satan’s dialogue with Eve – Genesis 3:1-7 – is a classic example.

While we cannot turn stones into appetising bread, Satan knew that Jesus could do so. Though Matthew doesn’t tell us, I often think that, along with the words of temptation, Satan probably filled the arid emptiness of the desert with an overwhelming smell of warm, fresh from the wood-fired oven, handmade bread. Satan is an expert in manipulating every hunger we experience. He moulds his approach to resonate with the weaknesses that lurk within us and to which he knows we are so susceptible.
 
In Chapter 6 of his Gospel, St. John brings together all Jesus’ teaching on his Real Presence in The Eucharist. This is the second of five consecutive Sundays when we hear extracts from Chapter 6. The responses of the people to Jesus, at that time, shows us how mired in doubt and confusion the human conscience and heart can become when Evil is at work. If you have ever experienced quicksand or glutinous deep mud you will know how innocent it looks before you step in it. Then, with horrifying speed, you discover how treacherous it is, how it can hold you prisoner.
 
Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written: “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” What sign can you give that we may see and believe in you?’ the crowds asked Jesus.
Despite all that Moses had relayed of God’s word to the people on that ‘Passover’ pilgrimage, here were their successors, the people of Jesus’ day, understanding that it was Moses, not God directly, who had miraculously fed and watered their ancestors in the desert not once but daily and over a forty-year period. Satan does not contradict self-evident facts. He is, however, skilled in persuading the unwary, perhaps those who have allowed him to tempt them away from God to some degree, to view matters more from his (Satan’s) perspective than God’s.
So, when the crowds heard Jesus say:
 “My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
they responded: "Sir, give us this bread always."

To them, ‘Bread from heaven’ meant release from the arduous work of coaxing poor land to yield poor quality wheat for the backbreaking work of dough making and baking. Did they even hear Jesus’ response?:
"I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst."
 
Satan’s devilish cleverness lies in never denying what is evident. Instead, he clouds the evidence with palatable, dangerously deceptive falsehood as evidenced in the previously referred to dialogue between Satan and Eve in the Garden of Eden – Genesis 3:1-6.

Daily life in this land of exile involves a continuous search for the Truth. Our first parents, prior to their disobedience, had peacefully enjoyed the Truth that was Eden. Satan has turned the urgency and seriousness of many peoples’ daily search into a debilitating, potentially soul-destroying, game / competition for many. For countless more, who are labelled migrants, he has made each day’s terrifying search a matter of basic survival.
 
Nowadays, we make daily use of search engines on all internet devices. At the touch of a button or screen we can bring before us more information than the mind can comfortably absorb. This vast array is both dazzling and addictive. It can make surreptitious inroads into our free will tricking us into believing that we have to be connected to the internet without our having given a true measure of consent. We just pressed a button or we allowed someone else to do it for us!

In his day Jesus did not lose heart nor must we in ours. He foresaw that those who heard him, though as yet unprepared for the greater search that now awaited them, could be rescued from Satan’s deception. His mission was to make that rescue possible. Our mission, which we took on at our Baptism and affirmed at our Confirmation, is to support Jesus’ mission each day by searching how best to align our will with His.
“Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”
 

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (29.07.18)

Generosity - Infinite or Finite
 
The depth of selfless generosity shown to us can take our breath away. When such behaviour in another seems almost natural it can raise challenging questions within us as well as widen our horizons. For example, amongst the appalling events of the Holocaust are accounts of overwhelming generosity. One example, among many, can be found in the life and death of (St.) Maximilian Maria Kolbe (1894–1941), a Polish Franciscan friar who volunteered to die in a gas chamber in place of a stranger in the German death camp of Auschwitz. Had I been there, would that have been my choice?
 
The quality of generosity does not equate with the cash in one’s pocket, however much that may be. Jesus exemplifies it, to the probable amazement of his in-training disciples, in Luke 21:1-4:
 As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their superfluous wealth; but she in her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
Faith in depth, not fortune, is required if we are to be truly generous.

In other words, when our conscience promotes a generous impulse we have to guard against stopping to measure the cost in terms of the consequences for self. To measure the cost and the consequences for self is to risk diminishing the effect of that graced moment for both the recipient and for self. It was Maximilian Maria Kolbe’s depth of love for Christ that empowered his volunteering to die. For, in that gas chamber death was not instant. Fr Kolbe ministered to those with whom he was dying until he could do no more.
 
We also have to guard against being generous for our own greater glory. Again, Jesus exemplifies his teaching in Matthew 23:
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice …  They do all their deeds to be seen by others … they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honour at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.”
 
There is one commodity with which we may be gratuitously generous because it is not our own! I refer to the Grace of God. Baptism calls us to be both recipients and conduits of this infinite Divine resource. The more generous we are with God’s grace, the more he replenishes it within us. Neither the prophet Elisha, in this Sunday’s First Reading (2 Kings 4:43-44) nor Jesus in the Gospel - St. John (6: 1-15) – display any hesitation on being stupendously generous with God’s grace.

Whereas we, entrapped as we are within a system which requires us to have constant reference to quantitative numbers and measurements, focus more on the just twenty barley loaves (the earliest sprouting crop bringing relief to a hungry people) than on the 100 people needing nourishment. In the Gospel, we are more likely to home-in on the five barley loaves and two dried fish than the crowd of five thousand men - to say nothing of women and children – so therefore, upwards of ten thousand in all.
 
We are not living and acting through faith if, in our giving, we first measure and quantify our own needs and then determine what might be spare. God’s grace is never ours. Always, it belongs to God. We are merely custodians of God’s gratuitous generosity. If he wishes us to channel to others all that he has given to us, what right have we to, futilely, attempt to ‘cream some off’ for ourselves? If such action were acceptable then, quite possibly, Maximilian Maria Kolbe would never have chosen to walk to that gas chamber and countless thousands of martyrs, named as well as unknown, may not have witnessed to Jesus Christ by the laying down their lives in defence of His Truth and generosity.
 
This 16th. Sunday of the year marks the start of five successive Sundays when the Gospel extracts come from John’s chapter 6. You may be already aware that John, in his Gospel, gives no account of the Institution of the Eucharist, by Jesus, at the Last Supper. Instead, John’s focus at the Last Supper is on Jesus washing his disciples’ feet (John 13).
John reveals to us the fullness of Jesus’ teaching on his Real Presence in the Eucharist in chapter 6 of his Gospel – extracts from which are read this year in the Gospels from the 17th to the 21st Sunday inclusive. From John’s Gospel it is clear that the Institution of the Eucharist, by Jesus at the Last Supper, brought to completion the teaching he had been sharing with the twelve and the people over their years together.
 
What images do our memories hold of ‘The Last Supper”? Were we able, how would we draw the scene from our deeply entrenched images? More to the point, would we include the ‘foot washing’?  Were we to do so, would we give the foot washing an exposure equal to the table of the ‘Breaking of the Bread’? If our answer is ‘no’ or ‘I’m not sure, because I’ve never thought of that before’, what does such a response reveal? Occasionally, late medieval artists of ‘The Last Supper’ put a jug and basin the foreground of their paintings but only a fraction of viewers would have linked the narratives. Even fewer, probably, would make the connection today.

Memory is usually thought of as a matter of the mind but we always enact our deepest memories. We remember because we have repeated something over and over. What we do regularly becomes part of us. Foot washing, in Jesus’ day, was the work of a slave. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet to teach them what they were to do. Jesus was explicit in his instructions:
“Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:12-17)
St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe metaphorically washed the feet of those with whom he was going to die in the gas chamber; he washed the feet of the man whose life he saved that day; he washed the feet of the guards who ran that extermination camp. He must have been a habitually humble priest and a wonderfully effective conduit for God’s grace.
 
At the start of these five Sundays, when we are celebrating John’s Gospel chapter 6, might it be appropriate for us, as a mark of our personal gratitude to God for gifting us with such infinite grace in our daily lives, were we to ask ourselves if we have, metaphorically, washed another’s feet? It would be a challenging thought for us to reflect upon as we walk down the aisle to receive God’s infinite generosity that is The Eucharist – especially as some form of ‘foot washing’ does not feature in the Liturgy of the Mass.
 

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (22.07.18)

The Issue of Balance
 
We start, and often conclude, our earthly life with problems of physical balance. Between these two poles, we struggle daily with discerning our moral balance.
 
Discerning and holding to a moral balance in the unending daily skirmishes between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, effectively God and the Devil, is both difficult and demanding. Relatively speaking, allowing for an appropriate age/health range and with devoted application and training, we could probably climb Everest more easily! Everest remains unchanging, to the human eye. It is the unpredictable and sudden climatic changes enwrapping Everest that most endanger mountaineers.

God is forever and unchanging unlike Everest, which has a limited existence. Challenging God, for a God-prescribed period, is Evil, in the person of Satan. God, in the person of Jesus, God-made-Man, has alerted those seeking him that, like the climatic conditions enwrapping Everest, they will be subject to the unpredictability of Evil’s onslaughts throughout their faith-pilgrimage.
 
The impact of the utterances of God’s prophets can be compared to the changes in weather conditions that wrap themselves around Everest. Their purpose was to stop people in their ‘off-piste’ tracks by calling them back to God’s Covenantal pathway. Jeremiah, a 7th century BC prophet of God, authored The Book of Lamentations in the Hebrew Bible, often referred to by Christians as The Old Testament. The name Jeremiah means: ‘May the Lord be exalted’.
 
The announcement in church, “A Reading from the Prophet Jeremiah” may not spark the imagination and interest of many in Sunday congregations. But then not all in our assemblies are familiar with the books of The Old Testament. That so many lack an adequate Biblical background probably means that the First Reading (23:1-6) from Jeremiah will only be heard, at best, superficially on this 16th Sunday. So, what follows here are thoughts that, hopefully, will give a background to this Reading enabling contemporary congregations to draw important parallels with our world of the 21st. century. Such parallels may help worshippers come to realise why God is calling them to be his prophets here and now!  
 
Jeremiah is known as the ‘weeping prophet’ because, in his lifetime, he witnessed the destruction of the City of Jerusalem, the Jewish Holy Temple and suffered the deportation and enslavement of his people, including himself. Before all this upheaval erupted, God had mandated Jeremiah to warn the corrupted leaders of God’s people, Israel, to reform their behaviour.
 But corruption had established itself within those power-hungry leaders and corruption, like all evil when left unchecked, grows exponentially. The personal choices we freely make, that diminish God’s grace within us, enable Evil to blindside us and the devil is not one to let any opportunity pass.
 
 Jeremiah, who appears to have had a sensitive nature, was distressed both by his people’s disobedience and their apostasy. Though mild and timid by nature and inclined to melancholy, he was also devoutly religious and uncommonly bold and courageous in declaring God’s message. He maintained his courage when his proclamations were rejected by his people who then subjected him to hatred and physical persecution. Nevertheless, Jeremiah continued his denunciations and rebukes even of the upper echelons of his people. He was distressed by the evil he foresaw as well as that which he endured.
 
King Josiah (648-609 BC), a religious and upright leader, ruled Judah when Jeremiah began his prophetical ministry. Josiah’s attempts to bring about reforms were insufficient and ineffective. After Josiah’s death, wickedness had a resurgence and God’s Covenant was further ignored. Consequently, as Jeremiah had foreseen, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar captured and destroyed Jerusalem and The Temple. He deported the Israelites, including Jeremiah, into slavery. In his captivity, Jeremiah also foresaw how Babylon would finally fall and how a kingdom greater than all would arise in which there would be righteousness and peace.
 
So, despite experiencing the death agony of his people and the destruction of both his city and The Temple, Jeremiah remained a man of faith-based hope. He saw beyond the near future to a day when grace would manifest itself and God’s eternal purpose would be enacted. The Book of Jeremiah emphasizes the future glory of God’s kingdom which would endure.
 
Jeremiah made two significant contributions to the overall proclamation of God’s Truth, as understood in his day. Both remain relevant today. Firstly, that true religion is of the spiritual not the physical or political order and therefore it can never be national; and secondly, that true religion is essentially based within each single individual who bears personal responsibility for it (31:29-30). For religion to be a spiritual condition of each particular individual, the doctrine of personal responsibility is a logical necessity. These two teachings constituted a great step forward at the time.
 
There is a saying that ‘History repeats itself, but increases the cost each time’. Though the world of the 7th. Century BC was substantially smaller than that of our 21st. century AD, human beings then were nevertheless engaged in a struggle, remarkably similar to our own namely, to find a spiritual, moral, ethical and religious balance on their personal life-pilgrimage.

People, today too, are being called constantly by both good and evil, God and Satan. We are aware of how the sea is constantly pulled by the moon and the sun causing either high and low tides. The difference is that we are gifted with free will. We are free to choose to allow either God or Satan to influence and affect us. This tug-of-war is played out, daily, in the way we orientate our conscience and our will throughout the course of our life here on earth.

Perhaps the foregoing Jeremiah ‘background’ may prompt some to question whether they could do more than just lament the current state of the world? Prayer and fasting, by way of intercession, is within everyone’s reach. ‘Ramadan’ is now recognised, catered and prepared for throughout the world. Recognition and allowance for The Muslim holy month of fasting is made by non-Muslims too, for example, by those who employ Muslims. For non-Muslims, too, fasting can be a way of life but is it done to intercede before God or to lose weight? Others fast because of economic necessity but even involuntary fasting can be offered as a prayer of intercession as opposed to it being a cause of anger.
 
Jeremiah saw beyond the appalling suffering, that occupied so much of his life, to a time when grace would be manifested in human behaviour. He looked forward to the promised Messiah, Jesus the Christ. We, by contrast, live in the ‘Anno Domini’ era. The era that has knowledge of the Messiah. One quick question - do you use the abbreviations ‘BC’ and ‘AD’ or have you, perhaps unthinkingly, adopted the ‘BCE’ and ‘CE’ forms because “everyone else has”? ‘BC’ and ‘AD’ remind believers that we are living in the final epoch of this world in a way that ‘BCE’ (before the common era) and ‘CE’ (common era) do not. We surely need such reminders, mesmerised as we are by our technological prowess.

We have given up counting the number of wars raging over our planet. Some are fought with manufactured weapons that create all too visible casualties. Other ‘wars’ are fought with corruption, power-lust, chemicals, drugs, the internet and social media. Often the victims are faceless. Is our response to such violence to turn to another less disturbing and challenging TV channel. We could emulate Jeremiah. We too, if we choose, can look to the future. We are blessed to able to look through the eyes of The Prophet who brought us God’s final prophecy, completing all others, in the person of Himself –  He is Jesus the Christ?

The future for our fragmented and self-destructing world is a disturbing sight to behold unless we look through the eyes of Christ. In order to do this, we have to choose to become one with Him, in all aspects of his earthly life, who longs to be united with us.
 

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (15.07.18)

Jobbing Christians
 
Our heavenly Father has been called a ‘God of Surprises’ - a title author Gerard Hughes SJ chose for a book. Amos (760–755 BC) is upfront, in this Sunday’s First Reading, about being surprised that God chose him to be a prophet:
“I was no prophet, nor have I belonged to a company of prophets; I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores. 
The Lord took me from following the flock, and said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”
(1 Amos 7:12-15)
In Israel, religious leaders were drawn from established tribes or families. Jewish Levitical priests, for example, were chosen from descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses. The closer the lineage the more esteemed the priest in rank and privilege.
 
Was God, by his choice of Amos, breaking the mould or was He reinstating His original mould?  The Amos extract gives us the clue: “I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores.” The role of Amos can be likened to how Jesus, centuries later, would explain both his own role and the one He conferred upon his disciples. Interestingly, Amos is listed as one of twelve Minor Prophets.

By his own definition Amos defines himself as, what we might call, an ‘odd jobber’. That’s not to say he was unskilled. If total commitment can be classified as a skill then Amos was highly skilled. Likewise, Jesus spent many words defining his principle and unique vocation that of being the Good Shepherd sent by his heavenly Father. This vocation underpinned all Jesus’ activity on earth as God-made-Man:
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11) “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” (John 10:14)
By way of highlighting the difference, Jesus also defined a false shepherd:
 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, the hired man abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” (John 10:12-13)
 
Jesus never lost an opportunity to try and win back the Jewish priests and Pharisees from their flawed ministry among his chosen people: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside you are full of dead men’s bones and every impurity.” (Matt 23:27) Jesus used words in the same way that an artisan uses a blowtorch to strip back corruption that is disfiguring the purity of an article. The process is not without pain but the result is indeed beautiful to behold.

Amos’ home base was Tekoa, a small town south of Bethlehem in the then southern kingdom of Judah. He would have shepherded a rugged and hardy breed of sheep especially prized for their wool. As a jobbing shepherd, Amos would have depended upon the owners of flocks to hire him. Amos’ reputation for reliability, courage when faced with thieves or wolves, his skill with lambing ewes, his knowledge of seasonal pastures would have been all important for his livelihood.

Amos would have been an outdoors man, the very opposite of a bureaucrat, with that essential quality, identified by Pope Francis, namely, ‘the smell of the sheep’. He would have been a shepherd of commitment and calibre more than of lineage and privilege.
Despite the Church’s continuing, entrenched, ecclesial bureaucracy, initiated in the days of the converted Emperor Constantine (306-337 AD), God is still calling reliable, courageous, and pastoral shepherds with ‘the smell of the sheep’.  Women and men, young and old, healthy and sick, poor and well-to-do, educated and apparently uneducated. The Baptised are ‘jobbers’ not inheritors of position and power. At heart, we are called to be obedient and humbly malleable in the hands of our Father, God. We are to be found among dinner ladies and school caretakers, brain surgeons and cleaning staff, those sleeping rough and law enforcement agents. Our internal disposition, not our job title, is what is important if we are to be truly malleable in the hands of our Creator.
 
Amos also described himself as a ‘dresser of sycamores’. He had evidently mastered the art of “dressing” (v. 14) the sycamores indigenous to Judah. They produced a small fig-like fruit of poor quality that nevertheless was vital source of food for the poor. He knew how and at what point to pinch the fruit so that it would grow large enough to be worth eating. An outdoorsman and a migrant worker but more importantly a man of evident honesty and faith in God, Amos was God’s choice to preach repentance to the northern kingdom of Israel.

At that time Israel was enjoying, economically and politically, a period of peace and prosperity. Sadly, socially and religiously it was also a time of decadence and of total disregard for God’s Covenantal Commandments. The people ignored the dark war clouds of Assyria on the horizon. It all sounds remarkably contemporary!
 
Amos’ proclamations were as welcome as hailstones in June. Because his loyalty was to God alone, Amos denounced the sins of all, without respect for rank and privilege, and warned of divine retribution. Amaziah, a politically powerful priest from Beth-el (Amos 7:10–17) was the power behind the throne of King Jeroboam ll. Amaziah forbade Amos to prophesy against Israel and ordered him to leave the territory. Amaziah and his supporters, feared Amos’ championing of the poor and his identifying of the widespread injustices that were then practised. Walter Brueggeman, a widely respected American scholar of the Old Testament, says: “It is impossible to overstate the importance of the Book of Amos. The prophet Amos was the first to articulate the idea of an ethical monotheism; that is, Amos, proclaimed the rule of One God over all peoples, One God who had a moral purpose of justice for the whole world.”
 
As the Baptised do we consider ourselves sufficiently skilled to be listed as ‘jobbing Christians’, Jesus’ active disciples? Before shying away from such a prospect, take a look at Mark’s Gospel extract for this Sunday (Mark 6:7-13). Jesus is missioning the Twelve two by two. They are still pupils in the school of discipleship and far from graduation. They could take a walking stick, sandals and one tunic but no food, no sack or money. They were to proclaim the need for repentance; they were to exorcise, to heal and to anoint doing all in the Name of Jesus.

The Twelve were beginning their active cooperation with Jesus in his battle with Evil in all its manifestations. Mark, in telling us about this missioning, is pointing out that commitment, service and apostolic witness is possible even where perfect faith and mature understanding are not yet present. The Twelve, at this junction, were far from perfect servants but Jesus, nevertheless, sent them out in His Name.

If we are willing collaborators, Jesus will mission us in the same way confident that the grace of the Holy Spirit will be sufficient for us.
And so today, too, ‘jobbing Christians’ can be found in village halls, care-homes and day-nurseries as well as in biochemical laboratories and on the floor of the world’s Stock Exchanges. As ‘jobbing’ Christians, malleable in the hands of the Lord, we are called to continue our ministry in season and out, welcome or unwelcome. Our malleability in the hands of the Lord is essential and this means, for us, responding positively to God’s call by adopting a life of prayer and communion with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. St Paul spells this out for the Ephesians – and us - in his second letter (today’s 2nd Reading 1:3-14):
“In love God our Father destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favour of his will, for the praise of the glory of his grace that he granted us in the beloved.
In him we have redemption by his blood, the forgiveness of transgressions, in accord with the riches of grace that he lavished upon us.”

 

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (08.07.18)

Identifying the Baptised
 
What should identify an adult Baptised person? The Baptismal ritual provides the answer. Immediately after the Baptismal water is poured over the candidate’s forehead and the words ‘I Baptise you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy spirit’ are spoken, the minister pours the Oil of Chrism on the Baptised’s head saying:
"As Jesus was anointed priest, prophet, and king, so may you live always as a member of his body sharing everlasting life."
Therefore, the lives of Baptised adults should be predominantly characterised by their priestly, prophetical and kingly nature as they learn to walk in the footsteps of Jesus their Good Shepherd, their brother, who is The Christ. This requires the Baptised to live according to a certain discipline.
 
 
On this 14th Sunday the First Reading’s focuses attention on the Baptised’s role as a prophet. Ezekiel, the prophet who lived some 600 years before the birth of Christ, describes how he was called by God:
“As the Lord spoke to me, the spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard the one who was speaking say to me:
‘Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have revolted against me to this very day.
Hard of face and obstinate of heart are they to whom I am sending you. But you shall say to them:
Thus says the Lord God! And whether they heed or resist—for they are a rebellious house — they shall know that a prophet has been among them.’” (Ezekiel 2: 2-5)
 
As God promised, Ezekiel met with sustained opposition from the Jewish leadership and his fellow Jews when he challenged their betrayal of God’s Covenant. Consequently, Jerusalem was destroyed and its people, including Ezekiel, deported to Babylon as slaves.

The question for us, today, is will the citizenry of the 21st century “know that a prophet has been among them” because you and I have lived, walked and worked on the surface of this planet, have spoken of God’s Commandments and have exemplified them in our daily lives?
 
Fundamental to a Baptised’s prophetical role is the daily enactment of their priestly character. As the Baptised do we consciously share, daily, in the Priesthood of Jesus rather than participate in the cultural norms of our secular society? For example, is prayer evident in the way we live from that which forms in our hearts when we awake to a new day, to the morning offering and the public prayer before meals and so on through the day? Equally we can pray without words when we greet family members or friends, show respect for others and rejoice with them for their giftedness, when we make others feel valued and appreciated.
 
People associate Baptism with water but are likely less aware that, within the Baptismal ceremony, we are consecrated with the Oil of Chrism. It is this anointing, rather than the water, that confirms our sharing in the Priesthood of Christ. In an emergency a person is Baptised with just water and the Baptism is valid. But, should the Baptised person recover their health then the Baptismal Anointing must be celebrated. The Baptismal water symbolises our release from inherited and personal sin. The anointing with the Oil of Chrism is the seal of our unity with Christ.
 
By sharing in Christ’s Priesthood, the Baptised are enabled to make an offering acceptable to God. This offering can be on behalf of those near and dear, on behalf of those who are suffering, on behalf of the world. As Jesus offered Himself, so the Baptised, his adopted sisters and brothers, are called to do likewise. The offering we make may correspond to ‘the widow’s mite’ (Mark 12: 41-44), ‘the jar of ointment’ (Mark 14:3) or ‘Zacchaeus’ large re-imbursements’ (Luke 19:1-10). The offering we make may be of ourselves in, for example, the time we give to be present to others on a one-to-one basis or by participating in corporate works of charity. The size or constitutive value of our offerings are not what is important. God reads the quality of love in the heart of each Baptised person and their will to live at one with Christ.
 
St. Peter Chrysologus was Bishop of Ravenna from about 433 until his death in 450 AD. He is known as the ‘Doctor of Homilies’ for the concise but theologically rich reflections he delivered. These are his thoughts on the Priesthood of the Laity:
‘How marvellous is the priesthood of the Christian, for he/she is both the victim that is offered on their own behalf, and the priest who makes the offering. The Baptised do not need to go beyond themselves to seek what they are to immolate to God; the Baptised within themselves bring the sacrifice they are to offer God for themselves. The victim remains and the priest remains, always one and the same.

Immolated, the victim still lives: the priest who immolates cannot kill. Truly it is an amazing sacrifice in which a body is offered without being slain and blood is offered without being shed. This is why St. Paul can appeal to the Baptised: “I appeal to you by the mercy of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” (Romans 12:1) Christ really made his body a living sacrifice because, though killed, he continued to live. It is death itself that suffers the punishment. This is why death for the martyrs is actually a birth and their end a beginning. Each of us is called to be both a sacrifice to God and his priest.’

It is in the daily fulfilment of their priestly role that each Baptised person fulfils their prophetical role. This is the challenge for the Baptised in the 21st. century as it has been in each preceding year of the Lord. External apparel without the inner conviction and commitment is just window dressing. Such behaviour drew some of Jesus’ strongest criticism: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” (Matt. 23:27)
 
In a remarkable way it has taken a bishop - “with the smell of the sheep” as Pope Francis describes a true pastor - from the other side of the world to sit on Peter’s chair speaking and living the prophetical role of his priesthood in a recognizable way. Like Ezekiel he is far from popular with the Church’s powerful elite not only in the Vatican but also among those nations that have opted for a comfortable compromise between the demands of the Gospel and the wishes of society, all skillfully orchestrated by Satan.
In Pope Francis we know that we have a prophet among us. But … is he being heard? Are the Baptised, God’s prophets, amplifying his teaching and example? It is a hard and testing vocation to be Baptised.
 
Oh yes. The Baptised are also anointed as Kings but not to be like the royalty of this world. Our King is Christ and his throne the Cross of Calvary. As Jesus said to Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18: 36)
 
Lord, may your kingdom come,
Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (01.07.18)

Has Fear of Death Lessened?
 
A few decades ago death was not a conversation topic.  Nowadays funeral undertakers advertise on primetime TV. What has changed? Have proven advances in medicine and the management of illness and age lessened the overall fear of dying?
 
“God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.”  This uncompromising statement opens our First Reading from The Book of Wisdom (1:13-15; 2:23-24) for this 13th Sunday. The Book, called ‘The Wisdom of Solomon’, was written in Greek in Alexandria, Egypt, about fifty years before the Birth of Christ by a Jewish king renowned for his wisdom.
King Solomon addressed the Book to his diasporan Jewish co-religionists who, having suffered oppression and death in Egypt as slaves, were being lured away from their Covenantal commitments to God by the culture, science and religions of Alexandria. This Sunday’s extract from Wisdom concludes:
“For God created human being to be immortal, he made them an image of his own nature; Death came into the world only through the Devil’s envy, as those who belong to him find to their cost.” (2:22-24)
 
Death is a readily recognised word which remains, in essence, a mystery. Before we die, we will have experienced multiple minor deaths, such as the death of a marriage partner, breakdown of a friendship, etc. but nothing prefigures our personal, final death.
Death has accompanied humanity since our forebears disobeyed God. When God created and settled man in the fullness of Eden, he gave him a command: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:16-17) By disobeying God, our forebears contracted death and transmitted it to their progeny.
 
As King Solomon correctly recognised, there is no death in God. The death that awaits humanity, humanity brought upon itself. That death entrapped our forebears who lived before Christ. Christians believe that it was the God of Life who sent his only begotten Son, Jesus, to redeem humanity, his beloved creation, from their self-entrapment in death. Jesus, God-made-Man, allowed death to subsume his humanity by choosing to accept death on the Cross of Calvary. John’s Gospel (10:18) recalls Jesus’ teaching on this:
"No one has taken it (my Life) away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father."

From the very day of his Resurrection, Jesus worked unceasingly to kindle in his eleven Apostles and his disciples that his death was inseparable from his resurrection; that by his dying and rising he had defeated the power of death to entrap humanity.
Humanity’s release from death had to be effected by a human, like us in all things but sin, who, being God-made-Man and by freely choosing to accept death, was able to free his newly adopted sisters and brothers from death’s entrapment.
 
The vibrancy of our daily Baptism commitment determines how effectively we embody the continuing effects of Jesus’ Dying and Rising. This Baptismal vibrancy helps to strengthen a Christian’s freedom of choice in daily life. In this finite life the choices we make daily are indicative of where we hope to live in the Eternity of Life that awaits us when we pass through the gateway called death. In that Eternity of Life, we will reap what we have sown here in this time of choice:
“Do not delude yourself: God is not to be fooled; whatever someone sows, that is what they will reap. If their sowing is in the field of self-indulgence, then their harvest from it will be corruption; if their sowing is in the Spirit, then their harvest in the Spirit will be Eternal Life…. So then, as long as we have the opportunity, let all out actions be for the good of everybody, and especially for those who belong to the household of the faith.” (Galatians 6:6-10)
 
People are adversely affected by fears, many originate in our childhood. Fear eats away at our inner strength and moral integrity. Unsurprisingly, fear and confusion are weapons that Satan successfully employs in his continuous battle to influence our free will. The antidote to debilitating fear and/or confusion is faith in Jesus Christ. It is important to recall that God’s will is for our human free will to oscillate in an equilibrial void. In all conscious instances is our choice whether we love God by word or deed or not.

Our love for God is especially significant, and ultimately most valuable, when we step off, as it were, the pavement of knowledge, of relative certitude, and cast our self into the void relying solely on our faith. The act of consciously dying must, itself, be the ultimate stepping out in faith, if for no other reason, than that we have no prior experience on which to call.
Jesus himself gives us the example:
‘It was now about noon and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon because of an eclipse of the sun. Then the veil of the temple was torn down the middle. Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” and when he had said this, Jesus breathed his last.’    (Luke 23:44-46)
 
Prior to his utterance of those words, in his extreme agony on the Cross, Jesus had no personal experience of dying. Like us, he would have assisted at or been present at many deaths, possibly even that of his foster-father, Joseph. But no matter how many times we accompany others at the time of their dying, our personal death will always remain uniquely a new experience.
 
As Jesus experienced death as a prelude to his, and our, Resurrection so must we. The at times exaggerated panoply of modern funerals can betray a lack of awareness of the resurrection that awaits us and the eternal life of all the deceased. The ‘good send-off’ is surely to be counterbalanced by the intercession for a joyous arrival, please God.

I couldn’t help smiling at the following national advert:
‘Beat Rising Costs with a Prepaid Funeral Plan – Golden Charter - one of the UK's largest funeral plan providers - helps ensure peace of mind for you and your family. ... A prepaid funeral plan is an easy way to plan ahead and beat rising funeral costs, helping to save your family worry and expense.’
 
If you will pardon the intended pun - Rising costs for faithful Christians are the countless daily choices of loving obedience to God.
 

Birthday of St John the Baptist (24.06.18)

Religious Inheritance
 
Genetic inheritance is an established fact. A person’s religious inheritance is not always so identifiable. The Jewish people must rank among those most ancestrally conscious of their religious forebears; treasuring their deeply rooted ancestral faith in God, despite repeated persecution and their own failures.

Normally Sundays are reserved to God, but this Sunday the Church focuses on the birth of the Jew whom we know as John the Baptist. Jesus himself extols John’s role: I tell you, among those born of women, there is none there is none greater than John yet even the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:28)
 
For the Jew, lineage is significant. The extract of Luke’s Gospel read on this Sunday to mark John’s birth and naming includes the following:
When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said in reply, "No. He will be called John." But they answered her," There is no one among your relatives who has this name."
There is no detail of whom the ‘they’ was composed as in: When ‘they’ came on the eighth day ..” other than neighbours and relatives. Might one of the ‘they’ have been Elizabeth’s cousin from Nazareth, herself an expectant mother now three months into her pregnancy, called Mary? It would be reasonable to assume that Mary would have stayed for the birth of her cousin’s child, particularly after the powerful interaction between each child in the womb of their respective mothers at the mothers’ initial exchange of greetings (Luke 1:40-45).
 
The three months Mary, the young Jewish pregnant girl betrothed but as yet unmarried, spent in the household of her much older cousin must have been enormously supportive as well as educative as Mary became more comfortable with her miraculous confinement. Zechariah was unable to speak having been shocked into silence at the prospect of parenthood. Today, too, people can be rendered speechless by shock. But a silenced faith can speak loudly as the lives of many martyred saints continue to exemplify.
 
Mary would have known of Zechariah’s distinguished pedigree as a direct descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses. All male descendants of Aaron, estimated at some 20,000, were Jewish priests. Mary would have known that Elizabeth, too, was a direct descendant of Aaron. Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s marriage was ideal in terms of religious lineage except that they were childless. This would have rendered them as ‘wounded’ in the eyes of their community. Mary would have benefitted from the exemplary religious life led by her hosts whom, previously, she would have visited. She would have seen for herself the way in which they bore their pain of childlessness. Elizabeth’s pregnancy appears to have been news for Mary at The Annunciation. Understandably, Mary set out without delay to be with her cousin now ‘in her sixth month’.

Mary would have witnessed the naming of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son, John. Also, Zechariah’s recovery of speech and his proclamation of praise to God, ‘The Benedictus’, which forms part of the daily Prayer of the Church at Vespers. Supported by such exemplary holiness, Mary returned to Nazareth and thence to Bethlehem whilst continuing her own confinement.
 
This Sunday’s celebration of the birth and naming of John the Baptiser is a wondrous event in itself. When we place Mary, the mother-to-be of Jesus, in the frame, the surrounding events of John’s birth and naming take on even greater significance.
Each person’s birth is as unique as is each person. In each life, be it short or long, there are multiple defining moments mostly beginning with a person’s birth. John the Baptiser’s significant defining moments began before his natural conception with the announcement of his impending entry into the world and his naming.

Likewise, the Angel Gabriel, at the Annunciation, initiated the significant defining moments in the life of the Son of God-made-Man child whom God invited Mary to conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit. Gabriel also gave Mary’s future child his name, Jesus.
The significance of life’s defining moments may not be fully apparent in the moment of their occurrence, that may only be realised later over time. Also, an individual’s personal defining moments may continue to impact the lives of others not only during that person’s life but also subsequent to their death. For example, within the Christian and even wider community, the life of St. (Mother) Teresa of Calcutta continues to inspire people all over the world.
 
Jesus Christ, God Incarnate and the world’s most famous Jew, has adopted Christians, those Baptised in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, as his sisters and brothers be they, formerly, Jew or Gentile.
Jesus is our real ancestor. The closer we choose to draw ourselves to him the closer we will become enlivened with his religious imprint, his religious ‘gene’ as it were. Closeness to Jesus also brings us a closeness with his countless disciples over the past two thousand plus years as well as his disciples today.
 
We can visualise ancestors never met and never seen in photographs or paintings. We know them from what survives from their writings, their possessions, the places they lived and the work they did. So too with Jesus of Nazareth. We know Jesus through his Living Word, The Gospels, and the Books of the New Testament whose authorship we believe to be inspired by the Holy Spirit guiding their human authors. We know Jesus, too, through our Communion with him in the Eucharist: “Take this all of you and eat of it for this is my Body given which will be given up for you.”
 
Jesus’ Word and Life is imprinted on our life through the Baptism and Confirmation we receive. He calls us to be the living expression of himself in this damaged world, despite our status as recovering sinners. This is why Jesus longs for us to make it our priority to live each day expanding our memory of him and walking, albeit it falteringly, in his footsteps. The implementation of this call and invitation is summed up in the Ten Commandments. If these are not readily to mind then maybe this is a sign that we need to invite God to re-enter them in our hearts which may have become too stone-like! As Jesus teaches, the summary of the Ten is in the first two: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31) Refreshing our awareness of these Commandments on a daily basis – in full or in summary – will help us move more securely in the treacherous world of today. It will also enable us to reveal to others the depth of our spiritual lineage.
 

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.