Sunday Reflection

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

A Taster for the Eternal Banquet
 
At a first glance, this Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 13:22-30) may have a jarring effect. Do Jesus’ words have an ominous ring to them?
“Keep on striving to enter through the narrow door … Once the master of the house has risen and locked the door, you may find yourself knocking on the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ but the master will reply, ‘I do not know where you come from. Away from me all you wicked people!’”
Interestingly, in Matthew 19:23-24, Jesus makes reference to another narrow opening. 
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again, I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Is there a correlation between the two? Both teachings share a reference to the narrowness of a point of entry.
 
The ‘eye of the needle’ refers to the narrow gap in a town/city perimeter wall that permitted access for a camel. All baggage had to be removed for the camel to pass through the aperture in the wall. The lengthy process allowed the authorities to examine in detail whatever each camel was carrying and apply the appropriate taxes.
 
In Luke 13:22, this Sunday’s Gospel, a reader, making a casual or first glance, might assume that it is God who makes the aperture narrow, but there is no indication of this being so. Each aperture is evidently sufficient for the opening to do what it was intended for; namely, to admit a single person or a camel.
Jesus had previously, in Luke’s Gospel, been teaching in various towns and villages while making his way to Jerusalem. His theme, latterly, had been ‘The Kingdom of God’. This gave rise to a questioner asking: “Lord, are those to be saved few in number?”  It was this question that prompted Jesus’ response about the narrow door. It is likely that the questioner would have been a Jew and he would have assumed that the Kingdom of God was for the Jews and that Gentiles would be shut out.
Jesus’ response: “Strive your hardest to enter….” May have shocked both the questioner and the crowd. For, far from playing the numbers game, Jesus made it clear that a person’s ethnicity was no guarantee of entry to the Kingdom. Passage through the ‘narrow door’, entry into the Kingdom, would be for those who have struggled along the pilgrim path of faith.
The word strive has its origin in the word ‘strife’ and is associated with the word ‘agony’. The struggle for entry would be so intense that it could be thought of as an agony of the soul and the spirit. As has been said before, Christian Baptism is no more a guarantee of passage through the ‘narrow door’ than is Jewishness. The only finality in the Christian life is at the point of death. Until then, each is called to be going forward with purposeful continuity towards the ‘narrow door’, otherwise, of necessity, each person will be retreating from it.
 
 
Jesus anticipates the Jewish crowd’s defence:
“We ate and drank in your company, you taught in our streets …”
Just as it is incorrect to presume that ethnicity is a guarantor of admission through the ‘narrow door’, it is equally incorrect for the Baptised to believe that membership of a Christian civilisation, country or family is sufficient without personal fidelity to one’s Baptismal promises. For, a Baptised person, merely living in a Christian family or country, does not necessarily make one a practising Christian. Though benefitting from their Christian background, a Baptised person cannot presume to benefit from the Christian capital that others have built up by their lives of committed fidelity. How often the goodness of saintly grandparents/parents, national saints and patronal saints are falsely assumed to be the automatic inheritance of grandchildren and children. So much depends on what the descendant, personally, has done to preserve and develop their inherited faith not only for her/himself but also for their kith and kin. None of us can live on inherited goodness.
 
There will be surprises beyond the ‘narrow door’. Those acclaimed with the title ‘celebrity’ by this world may not find it the same in the next. Those who have been unnoticed, cast to the periphery or undervalued in this world, may find themselves acclaimed in the next. For the Israelites of Jesus’ day as for religious leaders today, cultivating a desire for the fulfilment of God’s promises is a challenge when it impinges on presumed privilege and primacy and, one might add, clericalism.
 
 
It could be that those locked out and knocking for admittance have a problem they refuse to recognise. They think they deserve admittance but the banquet they seek is not what is happening beyond the ‘narrow door’. The door is locked against them because their type of banquet does not exist in heaven. Exclusivity was their previous route to entitlement, but at this ‘narrow door’ it cuts no ice.
If, as they claim, they had heard Jesus, they had not listened and taken to heart his words, nor did they participate in the communion of self-giving. As the extract from the Letter to the Hebrews that we hear today, (12:5-7,11-13), reminds us, growing into the person God is calling us to be can be a painful process. The Kingdom of God is a banquet that we will enjoy only to the extent that we have aligned our love with God’s love here on earth and committed ourselves to making what God offers, our desire. In the parable of the wedding feast, Jesus reminds us: “For many are invited, but not all are chosen”. (Matt.22:14)
 
Perhaps the challenge at the ‘narrow door’, the problem of the crowded point of entry, is less to do with the size of the crowd and more to do with size of individuals’ egos. The people who pass through the ‘narrow point of entry’ without difficulty will have demonstrated personal strength of faith by trusting the Word of their Host. They will have brought no baggage other than their unbounded hope in their Host’s mercy. That hope will have bred patience. Their open-hearted love will have engendered an ability to enjoy, as well as enabling, the company of less strong companions.  By their presence, they will have transformed the approach to the ‘narrow point of entry’ into a taster for the banquet that awaits beyond the door.

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

A String of Pearls
 
People place a high value on a string of flawless, natural, graduated pearls. The Hebrew word for preaching, charaz, means ‘stringing pearls’. Luke’s chapter 12, from which we have an excerpt for this 20th Sunday of the Year, could be described as a collection of some of Jesus’ verbal pearls. While he gave them no particular order or connectedness, we can look at some of his teachings from the entire chapter.
We are to avoid hypocrisy which is another word for insincerity.
We are to be fearless, because one person’s power over another is limited to this life. One person may take the life of another, but not their soul. Matthew (10:28) records Jesus’ warning about fearing the one (Satan) who can destroy both body and soul in hell. Also, we are to be fearless because God’s care of us is highly detailed. Again, from Matthew (10:29): “Can you not buy two sparrows for a penny? And yet not one falls to the ground without your Father knowing. Why, every hair on your head has been counted.”
We are to beware of the unforgivable sin, the sin against the Holy Spirit. Those who heard Jesus speak about the Holy Spirit, at this stage in his ministry, had the understanding of the Spirit that was common among the Jews. A Jew who witnessed the manifestly good work of God and then described it as evil, was closing his/her heart to God. Perhaps, in our time, there are instances where there have been the unjust suppression of dissenting voices both within the Church and within the wider society. In Matthew (12:31) Jesus says: “And so I tell you, every human sin and blasphemy will be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.”
Jews understood God’s Spirit as the bringer of Truth to people and as the enabler who made it possible for people to grasp God’s Truth. There’s the old adage ‘use it or lose it’. By repeatedly rejecting God’s Spirit, and repeatedly choosing our own will, we can become impervious to God’s Spirit. As a consequence, we see evil as good and good as evil. A classic example would be the Scribes and the Pharisees who had so blinded and deafened themselves to God that when he came amongst them, they called him the devil.
Why is there an unforgiveable sin? Because when a person no longer recognises and seeks that which is good, when goodness no longer holds any appeal to them, they are unable to repent. It is not God that disbars them, they disbar themselves.
 
Jesus’ ‘string of pearls’ also identifies the virtue of loyalty which has no earthly reward but does have the welcoming words of our Saviour to greet us in heaven: “Come. Blessed of my Father …” (Matt.25:34).
Jesus’s ‘pearls’ also confirm the role of the Holy Spirit as the permanent advocate of those who accept Jesus as God-made-Man and commit themselves to follow his teaching.
 
 
Those who were learning to accept Jesus as the Messiah, the promised One, still held to the idea of a conquering king whose presence would usher in a golden age. Quite likely, one of Jesus’ ‘pearls’ would have come as a bleak shock; namely, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were blazing already!’  (Today’s Gospel)
For the Jews, fire is almost always a symbol of judgement. They were hearing Jesus say that the advent of his kingdom would herald a time of judgement. The element of judgement runs through the teaching of Jesus, much like the cord that strings together the pearls. However much people may wish to ignore the element of judgement, it remains unalterably present. Of course, the Jews were firmly of the belief that God would judge them by one standard and all other nations by another. This was tantamount to saying that being Jewish would bring its own absolution. Shades of this mentality were also found in Catholicism, when the reception of the Sacrament of Baptism was thought to be sufficient for eternal salvation.
 
 
Jesus continues: “There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!”
The implication of this passive voice of the verb to be baptised has, in its original Greek, the implication of a person being wholly submerged, totally entombed beneath the waves. Were we to give Luke’s words a modern translation, the result might be to have Jesus saying: ‘I have a terrible experience through which I must pass; and life is full of tension until I pass through it and emerge triumphantly from it’.
For Jesus, Calvary’s Cross was the permanent backdrop to his life on earth. By contrast, the Jewish backdrop was of victorious, avenging armies and flying banners.
Jesus’ coming inevitably brought division:
“Do you suppose that I am here to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division ...”
It is said that the division it caused was one of the major reasons why the Romans hated Christianity. It divided families. Over and over again a family member had to decide whether they loved kith and kin better then Jesus Christ. The essence of Christianity is that loyalty to Christ has to take precedence over the dearest loyalties of this earth. A man must be prepared to count as loss all earthly things for the privilege of belonging to Jesus Christ. 
 
Some scholars have suggested that Luke 12:49-50, which form part of today’s Gospel, are a glimpse into the soul of Jesus. By describing his mission in terms of fire and division, Jesus made it clear that there could be no neutrality regarding his words and works. He knew that the challenging character of his teaching would meet with growing opposition and hostility on the part of those who refused to accept the truth.
 
So, when next your eye alights upon a string of flawless, natural, graduated pearls, perhaps pause for thought beyond their natural beauty or monetary value.

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

What Are We To Do?
 
What, today, is expected of the Baptised?  What should we be doing in this lengthy interim between the appearances of Jesus? The questions date back to the beginning of Christianity. The answers, then, remain true today as we work for the realization of God’s Kingdom among us now by being faithful, vigilant and prepared.
The Baptised’s only hope for upholding faithfulness, vigilance and preparedness is by being in prayerful communion with Jesus, through whom God is revealed. It is Jesus who announced the kingdom and our salvation. Only in a determined turning to Jesus will humanity find The Truth, the reason for our being, and the motivation we all need to continue believing, hoping and reaching out in love and compassion to all.
 
 
This act of turning to Jesus announces that we are on a quest without which we lose our way, becoming vulnerable to the temptations of the anti-Christ. Despite roadblocks, dead ends and deceptive detours on the questing road, continuance towards Jesus is a non-negotiable aspect of Christian discipleship. This conviction is reflected in the letter to the Hebrews, an excerpt from which comprises our 2nd. Reading for this 19th. Sunday.
Hebrews was addressed to a people already growing weary of waiting and watching for Jesus’s return. As early as 80 AD., many of the Baptised were considering a return to their Jewish roots. Still others were drawn to Judaism as a way to save themselves from imperial persecution. Hebrews makes an extended and eloquent argument in favour of the uniqueness of Jesus, his person, his priesthood and his sacrifice. Hebrews cites the example of Abraham, whose faith in God moved him to launch out into unknown and unmapped territory while believing that he and his barren wife, Sarah, might have a child. He chose to believe that, eventually, his descendants would outnumber the stars in the sky and the sands on the seashore. Then, when asked by God to do so, Abraham proved willing to offer in sacrifice his only son.
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), renowned Danish existentialist philosopher, theologian, poet, social critic and religious author, has suggested that Abraham proved he was ready to respond willingly and completely to God because: he left one thing behind and took one thing with him. He left his earthly understanding behind and took faith with him. Otherwise he would never have gone forth
 (Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, Plough Publishing 1999).
 
 
Hebrews also references Abraham, whose faith went far beyond logic and common sense.  Abraham trusted God more than his own reasoning and, for that faith, is revered as a ‘father of faith’ by Christians, Jews and followers of Islam. This Hebrews extract is part of a longer section on faith and endurance (11:1-12:13). It is not intended as a definition of faith, though theologians in the early and medieval Church considered it so. Rather, the author of Hebrews intended this extract to be a description of faith. Verse 1 offers a description of the believer’s subjective attitude toward God. Characterized by realization and conviction, the faith of the true believer is quite similar to that eager and trusting expectation later defined as hope.
A healthy balance of assurance (something not yet present but which is awaited with confidence) and conviction (something which, while a present reality, is knowable only by faith) enables believers to maintain a balance of faith that interacts with grace which Kierkegaard chose to call the “leap of faith” (op. cit.). For Abraham, that meant surrendering his will, his logic and his hope to God. He could have argued his case before the Lord, but he did not. Instead, he acquiesced in God’s will, despite his lack of full understanding. With assurance regarding the future and conviction in the present, we are called to follow Abraham’s lead, leaving behind all our fears, preconceived ideas and all else that may hinder authentic faith. Only then can we allow God to act and, through us, become a more recognizable presence in our world.
 
The extract from Luke’s Gospel for this Sunday (12:32-40) eavesdrops on Jesus‘ ongoing formation of his disciples and therefore our formation. He urged them to cultivate a faith like that of Abraham living as people prepared for God rather than living in fear of what may or may not happen.
Jesus always invites his own to be detached from earthly possessions, rather than trying to find in them fulfilment and false security. A willed detachment from this world’s goods is a necessary stepping stone in providing for poor people. The two parables concerning the relationship between a master and his servants underscores the readiness Jesus expects of his disciples in showing a duty of care that is an identifying characteristic of their lives. We are to be good stewards and care for others by not neglecting their needs.
Jesus wishes his disciples to treasure poor people seeing in them an opportunity to find, know and love him. Poor people embody Christ and in serving them we serve the One for whom we wait and watch; in whose coming we place our hope and trust.
 
 
We know neither the day nor the hour when Jesus shall return or when he will call us to himself, so each of us must live as if that day is today. We are also to remember that — in all we are and in all we do — we are not alone. Our God dwells not only with us but, provided we make him welcome, within us. We are also surrounded and supported by our fellow Baptised here on earth, and those who have gone ahead of us. On the strength of this communion, we become who we are called to be; namely, the Church that spans earth and heaven. Each time we come together to celebrate the Eucharist as a community, we remember our story, celebrate the exodus of Jesus from death to life and rejoice in the Truth that, by his death and Resurrection, Jesus has pioneered the way for acknowledge him as God-made-Man.
 
 
By mentally adopting Jesus’ words to; “Gird your loins and light your lamps” (v. 35) we show willingness to embrace the Passover that awaits us (Exod 13:11). We are to follow Jesus through death to Resurrection.
For the Christians of the late first Christian century, today’s Gospel underscored the certainty of Jesus’ return and counselled them to be watchful and prepared. As the interim between Jesus’ advents has stretched into 20 centuries, the call to exercise responsible stewardship has not diminished. We cannot become insensitive or indifferent. Rather, we are to continue to see and serve Jesus in people who are poor and/or persecuted. We are to continue feeding him in the hungry, clothing him in the naked, healing him in the sick and welcoming him in the lost and the lonely. This is what we are meant to be doing. It is the authentic preparation that will help us to recognize him when he comes.
Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. (Luke 12:43).

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Mortality and Immortality
 
Mortality is the state of being subject to death. Immortality is the state of being gifted with eternal life. When made by God, humankind was gifted with eternal life. In choosing to disobey God, humanity exchanged immortality for mortality, a state of exile from God, which is where we, who are alive on earth, find themselves today.
It is not only people who are subject to mortality. In this land of exile, nothing lasts for ever. Everything, including humanity, is in a state of change, perhaps the more usual word is evolution. But evolution has not and cannot deliver us from the physical decay that we have brought upon ourselves; namely, mortality, our being subject to death.
 
Before the Incarnation, the coming of Jesus as God-made-Man, each person born completed their physical lifespan, then died and entered an eternity that was apart from God. In other words, the rift between God and humanity, caused by human disobedience, had yet to be healed by Jesus.
Because God loves us perfectly, His love is not changed by our behaviour. When we are distant, He longs for our return and seeks us as our Good Shepherd. But the rift humanity had caused was problematic in that in God there is no death, for God is Life. The kingdom of death is the kingdom of Satan. 
Therefore, God had to become human to enter humanity’s entrapment in death in order to effect humanity’s redemption from death. The mission the Father entrusted to his Only Begotten Son, Jesus of Nazareth, was to become like us in all things but personal sin; to experience mortal life; to suffer; to die and to rise from death and, in that rising, to overcome death and break its hold over God’s beloved humanity. Not only had Jesus to take on our fallen human nature with all its sin, but he had to subsume us into himself that we, too, need no longer fear death because, in Jesus, we would rise as his adopted sisters and brothers.
 
Set against the unlimited and incomprehensibly magnanimous background of our heavenly Father’s love for us, how puny appear the progress we make in our apportioned time of exile here in the vale of tears. This 18th Sunday’s First Reading from Ecclesiastes (1:2; 2:21-23) expresses it as vanity:
“Vanity of vanities, the Preacher, the Son of David, says. Vanity of vanities. All is vanity!”
“For so it is that a man who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by a man who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What has a man from all the toil and strain with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of pain, and his work is a vexation; even in the night his mind does not rest. This also is vanity.”
 
Jesus’ Gospel parable about the foolish rich man comes from Luke (12:13-21) with a warning against storing up treasure on earth. As the old adage tells us: There are no pockets in a shroud!
 
But the gem for this Sunday Scriptural reflection comes from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians (3:1-5, 9-11):
Paul writes: “Since you have been brought back to true life with Christ, you must look for the things that are in heaven, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand. Let your thoughts be on heavenly things, not on the things that are on this earth, because you have died, and now the life you have is hidden with Christ in God. But when Christ is revealed – and he is your life – you too will be revealed in all your glory with him.”
 
Jesus, the human person nailed to Calvary’s Cross, died and entered death as God-in-Man. Thus, was God-in-Man able to conquer death and free those entrapped by death since Adam and Eve.
 
As it was for Adam and Eve so it is for us. At each conscious moment we are faced with a choice. Is our goal success in this perilously-poised time-limited world of exile or are we responding to St. Paul’s encouragement? He says: (Through Baptism) “You have stripped off your old behaviour with your old self, and you have put on a new self which will progress towards true knowledge the more it is renewed in the image of its Creator (God)…”
 
Nothing on this earth is made to last forever …..  here.

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Is (Your) Prayer Attractive ?
 
Rote learning was for many their introduction to prayer. Was it a mistake perhaps? There may have been words of praise and sometimes prizes for word and repetition accuracy but did this method make prayer attractive and an integrated part of a child’s life? What is it that makes prayer attractive? The answer is love. Not the word but the inner love in the teacher for Christ that becomes evident when he or she is speaking about prayer. Looking back at the teachers we remember, was it not those with a deep personal connection to their subject who conveyed that love along with the information and thus enabled their pupils to retain most readily, as well as value, the teaching imparted?
 
What does the extract from Luke’s Gospel (11:1-13) for this 17th Sunday, convey to us? The place is not named, evidently Luke did not regard the location as significant. What appears to be important, when Jesus prays, is his evident and demonstrable affinity with his heavenly Father. Jesus’ disciples clearly recalled something similar when John the Baptist prayed. Both Jesus and John, having grown up as Jews, would have been immersed in Jewish prayer forms from childhood. In the absence of books and given the expensiveness of scrolls, the psalms would have been learnt by heart. But surely, once again, so much would have depended upon their teacher’s love for God. Elizabeth and Zachariah, the parents of John were themselves deeply committed to God. The sinless Mary was God the Father’s choice for the Incarnation of his Son. Together with her husband Joseph, she was chosen to be the foundational guide for Jesus’ formation. Love would be the keynote in both homes, love for God and love for one another. On this firm foundation would have been built knowledge of their nation’s relationship with God since the time of Abraham and their many historic ancestors.
 
Abraham features in the first Reading for this Sunday (Genesis 18:20-32). Was the founding father of the world’s three great religions praying or just bargaining with God? In our commerce-driven 21st century, this Genesis extract may sound to some as the equivalent of an online or market battle because, so often, our values are thought of in commercial terms.
Whereas, what we are reading is Abraham, the prayerful supplicant, appealing to the forgiveness that he knows to be the characteristic of God in his love for his creation. Only one who has him/herself been forgiven by God can know something of the depth of that Divine love.
Abraham knew there were no truly just people on earth. Had there been, why would God have made Abraham and his descendants his Chosen? It was God’s purpose that his Only Begotten Son, the intended Redeemer of humanity, would be established in this world through his chosen race. Abraham was prayerfully communicating with God about the promised Just One, Jesus, whose promised coming could not happen if there were none to be redeemed.
 
We live in the era of the Redemption bought by Jesus, our Saviour. Now, it is Jesus not Abraham who intercedes for humanity. Our Intercessor, whom we nailed to a tree, is still working for the salvation of everyone, even those who deny his existence. “Oh”, people might say, “if only we could see Jesus at prayer, everyone would be converted.” The same was said to Jesus in his life among us when people called for him to give ‘signs’. Even on Calvary, when Jesus was nailed on the Cross, some said “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Christ of God”. (Luke 23:35)
Had people then listened with their hearts they might have heard the Crucified One forgiving a criminal crucified with him, forgiving those who crucified Him and caring for his Mother and beloved disciple by giving them into each other’s care. Besides Mary, Jesus’ Mother, John and the other women, there was one man listening with his heart on Calvary as Jesus slowly and painfully died. He was the Centurion, a Gentile, who after the death of Jesus said publicly of Jesus,
“Truly, this was the Son of God.” (Mark 15:39)
If the world at large listened, today, with their hearts to the Baptised, and all who believe in Jesus, what might they hear?
 
Would they hear us wonder continuously how much Jesus loves us in that he enabled the most wonderful exchange with us. Through us, He died; through Him, we have the hope of life. Of ourselves, we had no power. Nor did God-made-Man, without becoming human like us in all things but sin, have of himself the power to die. The death and Resurrection of Jesus should be our greatest hope and reason for celebration. In taking upon himself the death he found in us, Jesus has faithfully promised to give us a share in his life. Such a gift we cannot receive from any other source but Jesus.
Are our family, friends and colleagues aware of the fearless and open proclamation we joyfully make of Christ as the One crucified for us because He loves us? Do we pray not in formulaic and trite phrases but in our own words that actually reveals to others our love for Jesus of Nazareth? A love that is at one and the same time respectful and grateful.
Could you imagine some from your circle of contacts asking you to teach them to pray? How would you respond? Would your first inclination be to send then to the priest? But you are their priest in that moment. They have seen or heard something in you that has given them the confidence to ask for your spiritual guidance. Resist the temptation to pass them to another, whom they don’t know, or to give them a ‘Simple Prayer Book’ that you have had on the shelf for years. Instead, reach down into your heart and share what you have there for Christ that prompted their enquiry in the first place.
 
God of mercy and goodness, when Christ called out to you in torment, you heard him and gave him victory over death because of his love for you. We already know the affection you have for us; fill us with your love for others that we may proclaim you more lovingly among our family, friends and colleagues and so help them to celebrate you as they see us doing.

 

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.’”
 

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

“The quality of vision is not strained;
 It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.”

Please forgive the plagiarising of Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice’ (Act IV, Scene I). True prescience, a gift of the Holy Spirit, enables the Baptised person, with a firm faith and a commitment to love God, to discern more of the limitless depth in God’s revelation.
 
The Scripture extracts for this 14th Sunday come from Isaiah (66:10-14), Paul (Galatians 6:1418) and Luke (10: 1-12, 17-20) Each, in their individual and time-distanced roles of prophet, apostle, evangelist, shares with us aspects of the individual revelation each received so long ago; revelations which they perceived both as relevant to their time and having a bearing on the future. Isaiah was relaying God’s message of hope for his chosen people whose repeated infidelity had brought them deportation and enslavement. Paul, from a distinguished Jewish background, reinforces the collegial decision that baptism is the point of entry into the Body of Christ, not circumcision. Luke recalls Jesus’ instructions as to how missionaries were to conduct themselves.
 
What neither Isaiah, nor Paul nor Luke could have known was how future Christians, in each era over the centuries and living in completely distinct circumstances, would be able to find support and encouragement for their journey of faith by drawing upon these ancient writings. How true, then, the words of Paul in his letter to the Hebrews: “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.” (12:4)
 
God’s Word pulses with his life but is that how it is perceived in our communities today? Is that how we receive the Word when we hear it read or when we, as the reader, proclaim the Word? The essence of loving God, for each Baptised person, is in bringing his Word alive both within themselves and for those with whom they share life’s journey. In other words, we are to have the Word enthroned in our hearts so that, being continuously conscious of its living presence, we welcome the Word’s guidance in daily life. To this end, Matthew (22:34-40), Mark (12: 28-31) and Luke each recall how a lawyer stood up to question Jesus:
“Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.[a] “Teacher,” the lawyer said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” And Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” (Luke 10: 25-28)
 
To love God with all our mind and with all our strength is an act of the will requiring constant reapplication. It is not like a switch that we turn on and forget. The partners in the Sacrament of Matrimony need to give fresh expression, daily, to the love they have committed to one another, “till death do us part”. Unless that love is continuously re-expressed it is as alive and as vibrant as the Creator intended. So, too, our love for God.
So, too, God’s love for us. Were God not to love us, even for an instant, we would cease to exist. So, the taking of my next breath, the next beat of my heart, proves to me that God loves me. We can amplify this to embrace God’s creative will for the world in which we live. All that exists is because God wills it. While this is not a new revelation it is an aspect of the Truth of which sight can be lost among all that is deceptively dazzling and supposedly new.
So, God’s Word this Sunday is not only for each recipient but also for those whom each recipient will accompany in their daily life now as well as in the future. God’s word is alive and active; its ‘bbd’ (best before date) is the end of the world. God’s Word living within us may prompt a thought that is incorporated in an essay, a lecture, a composition, a painting or sculpture, an email, a telephone conversation or a decision that may become life-changing for that person or for another.
It therefore becomes of significant importance how we each needs to predispose ourselves to receive God’s Word. For example, the dedicated concert or opera aficionado will have researched, beforehand, the history of the piece he or she is to hear and possibly have a copy of the score to hand during the performance. By contrast, it is all too true that we, as the Baptised and adopted of God, can assemble with casualness and a lack of preparation to receive his word which has within it The Word of Life. At the present time, Satan appears to have won the attention of the majority of peoples with his deafening noises that attempt to drown out the call of the Spirit of God. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the era when the Soviet Communists blocked transmission of the Free World’s radio broadcasts to the nations imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain.
 
How each person, who is open to receiving the Word of God, pays attention to it and receives it this Sunday, either directly, or through the medium of a family member, friend or work colleague, can be life-changing. The realisation that, as the Baptised, we are each part of this network of The Word of Life, which is God’s love, and must surely have an impact on the quality of our preparation to listen as well as the quality of attention we give in our actual listening.
 
Grandparents are more engaged with childminding these days. What a golden opportunity they have to read God’s Word to those in their care. The grandparents’ own love for what they are reading will reach the depths of those young minds and hearts as much as the words they speak. The embedded Word of God will come to life in God’s good time, maybe when the grandparents have gone to God. Equally, with so many people living longer but often with diminished sight, hearing, speech and movement, there is an increased need to bring God’s Word to them. What is crucial is the genuine holiness of the bearer of the Word.
 
How vital it is for the Baptised to be aware that, at Mass and on other occasions when the Word of God is celebrated, their presence will enable the Spirit to imbue them so that they, in their turn, will be willing bearers of the Good News for others.

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)

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Is (Your) Prayer Attractive ?
 
Rote learning was for many their introduction to prayer. Was it a mistake perhaps? There may have been words of praise and sometimes prizes for word and repetition accuracy but did this method make prayer attractive and an integrated part of a child’s life? What is it that makes prayer attractive? The answer is love. Not the word but the inner love in the teacher for Christ that becomes evident when he or she is speaking about prayer. Looking back at the teachers we remember, was it not those with a deep personal connection to their subject who conveyed that love along with the information and thus enabled their pupils to retain most readily, as well as value, the teaching imparted?
 
What does the extract from Luke’s Gospel (11:1-13) for this 17th Sunday, convey to us? The place is not named, evidently Luke did not regard the location as significant. What appears to be important, when Jesus prays, is his evident and demonstrable affinity with his heavenly Father. Jesus’ disciples clearly recalled something similar when John the Baptist prayed. Both Jesus and John, having grown up as Jews, would have been immersed in Jewish prayer forms from childhood. In the absence of books and given the expensiveness of scrolls, the psalms would have been learnt by heart. But surely, once again, so much would have depended upon their teacher’s love for God. Elizabeth and Zachariah, the parents of John were themselves deeply committed to God. The sinless Mary was God the Father’s choice for the Incarnation of his Son. Together with her husband Joseph, she was chosen to be the foundational guide for Jesus’ formation. Love would be the keynote in both homes, love for God and love for one another. On this firm foundation would have been built knowledge of their nation’s relationship with God since the time of Abraham and their many historic ancestors.
 
Abraham features in the first Reading for this Sunday (Genesis 18:20-32). Was the founding father of the world’s three great religions praying or just bargaining with God? In our commerce-driven 21st century, this Genesis extract may sound to some as the equivalent of an online or market battle because, so often, our values are thought of in commercial terms.
Whereas, what we are reading is Abraham, the prayerful supplicant, appealing to the forgiveness that he knows to be the characteristic of God in his love for his creation. Only one who has him/herself been forgiven by God can know something of the depth of that Divine love.
Abraham knew there were no truly just people on earth. Had there been, why would God have made Abraham and his descendants his Chosen? It was God’s purpose that his Only Begotten Son, the intended Redeemer of humanity, would be established in this world through his chosen race. Abraham was prayerfully communicating with God about the promised Just One, Jesus, whose promised coming could not happen if there were none to be redeemed.
 
We live in the era of the Redemption bought by Jesus, our Saviour. Now, it is Jesus not Abraham who intercedes for humanity. Our Intercessor, whom we nailed to a tree, is still working for the salvation of everyone, even those who deny his existence. “Oh”, people might say, “if only we could see Jesus at prayer, everyone would be converted.” The same was said to Jesus in his life among us when people called for him to give ‘signs’. Even on Calvary, when Jesus was nailed on the Cross, some said “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Christ of God”. (Luke 23:35)
Had people then listened with their hearts they might have heard the Crucified One forgiving a criminal crucified with him, forgiving those who crucified Him and caring for his Mother and beloved disciple by giving them into each other’s care. Besides Mary, Jesus’ Mother, John and the other women, there was one man listening with his heart on Calvary as Jesus slowly and painfully died. He was the Centurion, a Gentile, who after the death of Jesus said publicly of Jesus,
“Truly, this was the Son of God.” (Mark 15:39)
If the world at large listened, today, with their hearts to the Baptised, and all who believe in Jesus, what might they hear?
 
Would they hear us wonder continuously how much Jesus loves us in that he enabled the most wonderful exchange with us. Through us, He died; through Him, we have the hope of life. Of ourselves, we had no power. Nor did God-made-Man, without becoming human like us in all things but sin, have of himself the power to die. The death and Resurrection of Jesus should be our greatest hope and reason for celebration. In taking upon himself the death he found in us, Jesus has faithfully promised to give us a share in his life. Such a gift we cannot receive from any other source but Jesus.
Are our family, friends and colleagues aware of the fearless and open proclamation we joyfully make of Christ as the One crucified for us because He loves us? Do we pray not in formulaic and trite phrases but in our own words that actually reveals to others our love for Jesus of Nazareth? A love that is at one and the same time respectful and grateful.
Could you imagine some from your circle of contacts asking you to teach them to pray? How would you respond? Would your first inclination be to send then to the priest? But you are their priest in that moment. They have seen or heard something in you that has given them the confidence to ask for your spiritual guidance. Resist the temptation to pass them to another, whom they don’t know, or to give them a ‘Simple Prayer Book’ that you have had on the shelf for years. Instead, reach down into your heart and share what you have there for Christ that prompted their enquiry in the first place.
 
God of mercy and goodness, when Christ called out to you in torment, you heard him and gave him victory over death because of his love for you. We already know the affection you have for us; fill us with your love for others that we may proclaim you more lovingly among our family, friends and colleagues and so help them to celebrate you as they see us doing.

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.’”
 

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Influential Neighbours.
 
How aware are we of the influence our neighbours have on us? In case anyone is tempted to answer, “I don’t have neighbours”, we should be clear. Everyone has neighbours, even if they are geographically distant. Nobody, in our world, lives in total isolation irrespective of how they may try to be distant from other human beings. At the very least, we have all had sight of other humans and so we know we are not alone. So, was the lawyer, who posed the question to Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, for this 15th Sunday (10:25-37): “And who is my neighbour?”, just being lawyer-like and playing with words?
Judaism has multiple laws concerning inter-personal contacts. Jesus answered the lawyer by telling a parable. The priest and the Levite, in the parable, may appear to us as downright inhuman. They ignored the injured victim as they ‘passed by on the other side’. But were both, as Jews, observing a higher Law, as they saw it? Contact with an unknown victim of assault would have rendered them ‘unclean’, as defined by Jewish religious law. Had they assisted the victim they would have made themselves unclean and therefore exiled from the community. The Samaritan, unrecognised by Jews and therefore already regarded as an outcast, chose to come to the aid of the victim by treating him as his neighbour and with remarkable generosity. Jesus tells the law-conscious lawyer to do likewise. Luke does not tell us how Jesus’ teaching was received by the lawyer. Save to say, the habits of a lifetime are not quickly dispensed with.
 
 
So, how influenced are we by our neighbours, whether we recognise it or not? Neighbours’ behaviour, real of perceived; neighbours’ attitudes and beliefs, factual or imagined, exert influence over our own attitudes and responses to people and situations. People often appraise themselves as superior to their neighbours – do you recall the old phrase: ‘tuppence halfpenny looking down on tuppence’, in old money of course. Then there are neighbours who ‘rub along together’, meaning that, while they may not be close friends, they accept each other for better or for worse and so influence each other that way. There are neighbours with whom there is neither mutual recognition nor verbal communication, these too influence each other, because, despite the absence of communication or even mute aggression, there always remains observation and therefore influence. Sometimes, the neighbourly experience is delicate and beneficial to all parties; at other times, it is harsh and jarring. Either way, our neighbours play a part in honing us as people in much the same way as incessant wind or dripping water can wear away the hardest of materials.
 
Jesus gave new emphasis to an existing Jewish Law when he combined the second with the first Commandment. In Matthew’s Gospel we read how a Sadducee, an expert in the Law of Moses, was prompted to ask Jesus:
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second resembles it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  (22:36-40) We find similar texts in Mark 12: 28-31; Luke 10: 25-28; John 13:34-35.
St John tells of Jesus teaching (13:34): “I give you a new commandment. Love one another as I have loved you.” The ‘newness’ referenced by Jesus was not the substance of the Commandment, which already existed in the Mosaic Law, but the stipulation: “You must love one another …. just as I have loved you.”
Jesus gives the First and Second Commandments parity of importance while retaining their preference as listed namely, the First and then the Second. In other words, these first two Commandments are not interchangeable. Pre-eminently, we are called to love God first and foremost, but we cannot love God without loving our neighbour, as Jesus loves us. To lend emphasis to his teaching, Jesus adds: “It is by your love for one another, that everyone will recognise you as my disciples.” (John 13:35)
 
 
 
Sometimes we choose our neighbours but most often they are chosen for us by circumstances - queuing at the airport, the supermarket or the bus stop or being a patient in hospital or the GP’s surgery. Our neighbours may be momentary, provisional or more permanent. Whatever the length of their connectedness, they all classify as neighbours and are influential.
How do we assess our neighbour whether he, she, they be temporary or permanent? Whole ranks of prejudice (pre-judgement) surface from our memories. We are so used to allowing our prejudices free reign that we often do not realise just how prejudicial we have become. A classic Biblical prejudice concerns Nazareth (John 1:43-46)
“Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip.
 
Neighbourly influences are so compacted that we cannot always identify the sources of our feelings and opinions. This, of course, is quite perfect for the neighbour who, while shunning publicity, devours our attention if we allow him unfettered influence. This neighbour is invisible to the eye because he prefers to dwell, not alongside us, but within us. His name is Satan, the spirit of Evil.
Thankfully, we have been blessed with the Spirit of God through Jesus of Nazareth. He, too, is unseen by the eye and he, too, longs for our invitation to make his home in us and protect us from the Evil One.
It could be said that our closest neighbours on earth, irrespective of where we live, are God and Satan. Only one truly does love us and longs for our love in return. The half-dead man lying, discarded, on the rough path from Jerusalem to Jericho was indeed blessed to be found by the outcast Samaritan. The priest and Levite will have to answer for themselves as will we if, when the moment comes, we allow ourselves to be preoccupied by prejudice.

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)

33rd Sunday In Ordinary Time

WHAT WILL IDENTIFY YOU AT THE JUDGEMENT?
 
This is the penultimate Sunday of the Church Year. Mark’s Gospel extract (13:24-32) focuses on the ‘end of time’ as we know it. The whole of Mark’s Chapter 13 makes thought-provoking reading. At the ‘end of time’ all man-made identities creating social distinctions and division will disappear. The identities received from God, on the other hand, will remain.
 
Each person’s unique identity owes its origin to our being made in the imagine and likeness of God. No one is duplicated. As we grow up, our unique identity may become overlaid by ever-changing clothing, make-up, badges, uniforms, possessions and behaviour. Through it all our likeness to God our Creator remains, though it may be hidden at times.
 
As human beings we come into this world as God’s creation. Christians believe that, through Baptism, God has initiated a revolutionary, eternal change in his relationship with his human creation. God has allowed his human creation, irrespective of tribe or people, to become His adopted daughters and sons by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Through this Sacrament, God makes each of the Baptised a brother or sister of His Only-Begotten Son, the Jewish man, Jesus of Nazareth.
 
For Catholics, each freely received successive celebration of a Sacrament enhances the presence of God’s spirit. This increase in God’s indwelling is to fortify our personal relationship with God. It also enables us to stand four-square with Christ our Saviour in His continuing battle, in this world, with the cunning power of Satan. As is testified by the history of the worldwide community of the Baptised, The Church, many have followed our Saviour’s path to death through persecution. An even greater number endure a bloodless, but still painful persecution, of interminable length.
 
For a non-Jew, Mark 13 is difficult to fathom, referencing, as it does, so much of Jewish history and thought. But then, that should not be wholly unfamiliar territory for the Baptised who have become the sisters and brothers of Jesus the Jew who is God-made-Man.  It may be helpful to reiterate here some fundamental distinctions between Jews and Christians who form the two original streams of people called by God.
For Jews, Jesus is a holy Jewish man. Jews do not accept Jesus of Nazareth as the Incarnate Son of God-made-Man. Therefore, they continue to await the Messiah’s promised ‘Coming’. For this reason, continuity is at the heart of Judaism. Their unconquerable optimism that they are God’s ‘Chosen’ has enabled them to survive horrendous persecution down the centuries.
 
Anglo-Saxon Gentiles consign history to archives. For the majority it is ‘The Past’ and, as such, quite distinct from ‘The Present’. 
For Jews, their ‘history’ is for them their ‘present’. It lives in them today. Jews, alive today, are the living expression of their ‘history’ with which they are very familiar. When a Jew speaks about the Holocaust, for example, he/she is mentally and spiritually living that experience in the present moment. When you visit Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, you will recognise this to be so.
So, too, each Sabbath Eve meal (Friday at sunset) is a sacred family gathering in which each member lives, here and now, the experience of their captured enslaved forebears whom Moses was to lead from Egypt to the promised land. Gathered to share their Sabbath eve ‘Passover’ meal, each Jewish family is doing more than remembering, they are making real and continuing the turmoil of that ‘journey of promise’ awaiting the ‘Passover’ that is the coming of the Messiah. This is the strength of the individual Jew and the entirety of Jewish identity.
 
There is a connection here for Catholic Christians. Sunday Mass is the gathering of God’s Baptised family whether it be a congregation of two or more than half a million. Each is called to renew their individual adoption by God through absorbing The Word of God and receiving The Word-made-Flesh. At the celebration of Mass, Jesus, our Lord and Brother, links each Catholic Christian present with two thousand years of Baptised forebears whose pilgrim steps we are walking in today, through circumstantially very different times. But also, through our communion with Jesus the Jew, Catholic Christians are linked to his Jewish antecedents including, of course, his Jewish Mother, Mary. I wonder how often we identify that linkage in our prayer even, when praying the Psalms particularly, we are making use of a Jewish form of prayer which Jesus would have known by heart and used!
 
This makes me ponder my Catholic identity. As a Catholic am I, at the time of Holy Communion, sufficiently aware of being united with Jesus the Jew who is the Christ? Am I consciously willing myself to be one with Him in His continuing self-sacrifice for the redemption of the world, for Jew and Gentile? Does Holy Communion unite me, as it should, with my suffering, imprisoned, persecuted brothers and sisters, Jews and fellow Christians, struggling to be faithful in this ‘Vale of Tears’? Am I motivated by receiving Holy Communion to become more actively engaged with corporal works of mercy and of the promotion of justice? Am I conscious of Jesus’ outreach to his fellow Jews … am I concerned for them as my sisters and brothers?
Or, is my thanksgiving after Communion over concerned with me, my agenda and my needs?
 
Mark’s chapter 13 shows Jesus making use of much that would have been familiar to his fellow Jews then or now but which is unlikely to be familiar to contemporary Christians. Mark 13 benefits from being read against a Jewish mindset and that does not come easily to a Gentile. ‘Listening in depth’ to the Gospels involves a lifetime of prayer to the Holy Spirit. It is impossible to switch meaningfully into such an in-depth listening mode for a few minutes at Sunday Mass.
Do we spend sufficient time dwelling on the implication of our affiliation to and identification with the Jew who is Jesus Christ, God’s Incarnate Son? Do Gentile Christians somehow identify with Jesus minus his Jewish background? A Jewish mindset can only be grown from the inside, from our hearts. In our prayer, do we ever ask Jesus to help us understand his Jewishness? It is not something that can be taken on board, like a fact of impersonal history. Nor can this short article supply what is needed but it may help point a reader in the right direction.
 
Mark 13 gives Christians much food for thought about, what we refer to as, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ as King and Judge of the world. We know today, sadly, that many non-Jews, and not a few Christians, disregard this revelation.
 
Jews and Christians share a belief that God will break into the Evil- induced chaos of this world, at a point we do not know, ending time as we know it and bringing about an entirely new order namely, eternity.
Jews and Christians share belief in the prophet Joel’s disturbing descriptions of the ‘Day of the Lord’ (Ch.2&3) that tell of that day of God’s intervention. We share belief there will be times of terror and chaos when the world, as it is known, will be shaken to its foundations.
 
Where we differ is that, for Christians, the Messiah has already come, 2000 years ago, in the Person of Jesus the Christ. Therefore, God’s return as King and Judge in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth will be, for Christians, the Second Coming of God-made-Man. Christians celebrate this article of our Faith next week on the last Sunday of the Church year, the Feast of Christ the King.
 
The Jews believe that the advent of God will be the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham and that, in this new order, they would occupy the place assigned to the Chosen People.
  
From the time of Jesus up to our present, Jews and Christians have walked parallel, semi-complimentary yet also vastly distinctive paths as we share God’s creation. The complementarity of our paths is to be found in that both Jew and Christian share belief in the visible coming amongst us of God. The distinctive difference between our paths lies in the gulf of belief that, for Christians, the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth is the Only-Begotten Son of God made Man; whereas, for the Jews, the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth is a man of God and probably the most famous Jew who has ever lived.
For Christians, God is among us and working in our world through his adopted daughters and sons, the Baptised, who are Jesus’ brothers and sisters.
For Jews, God has yet to break into our world. So, for Christians, the present year is 2018 Anno Domini (the Year of the Lord) when God-made-Man came among us. It’s a sad sign of our growing secularism that many have jettisoned ‘AD’ for ‘CE” (the Common Era).
For Jews, this is the year 5,778 which they regard as the number of years since the start of Creation.
 
Will the Jewish and Christians paths converge? Well, for certain there will be a convergence when God calls the world to order, but prior to that we can but pray for one another. It is said that when Judaism accepts the Divine Nature of Jesus of Nazareth, Mark’s chapter 13 will be fulfilled.
 
The question posed in the title above is: ‘What will identify you at the Judgement?’ The answer, for Christians, will lie in how loyal and dedicated each has been in acknowledging and responding to the Son of God’s call in John’s Gospel (15.4) “Make your home in me, as I make mine in you.”
Our Jewish brothers and sisters will answer for themselves.
May Jesus, their brother in race and ours by adoption, bring us both to his heavenly Father.
 
 
1645
 

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.