Sunday Reflection

8th Sunday of Ordinary Time (26.02.17)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7th Sunday of Ordinary Time (19.02.17)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6th Sunday of Ordinary Time (12.02.17)

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

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

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

5th Sunday of Ordinary Time (05.02.17)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The God I know 

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

4th Sunday of Ordinary Time (29.01.17)

An Absence Of Meaning Has Consequences
 
The title ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ is widely recognised. Jesus’ teaching in the ‘The Sermon’ is less well recalled. The text is found in Matthew 5:1-12 with an abbreviated version in Luke 6:20-23. The Matthew version forms the Gospel for the 4th Sunday of the Year.

Though called ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ there are compelling reasons for thinking it is more than a single sermon. Consider, for one thing, the depth of its content. There is far too much material for one sermon! An exit poll at the door of a Catholic church this Sunday would reveal the depth of a congregation’s confusion. People would struggle to recall, accurately, Jesus’ listing of those he calls ‘Blessed’, let alone what he promised each would receive!

By way of explanation, some Scripture commentators suggest that Jesus took twelve of his Disciples, now named ‘Apostles’, aside for what might be called a period of extended ‘in-service’ training. These commentators believe Matthew 5:1-12 to be the distillation of that extensive teaching period. This is good news for those who, this Sunday, may be struggling to recall details of the Gospel extract.
 
There is a further point. Sunday Mass lasts about one hour. In that hour the words heard are largely unidentifiable with the words that constitute the vocabulary used by most people in their daily life and work. It’s as if, for one hour in a week, Mass-goers are exposed to what has almost become a ‘foreign’ language. The concepts expressed no longer sit comfortably alongside daily secular living. Previously there was a linkage between home, school, work and church. Nowadays, the majority of people have lost the church connection.

Most people entering a church will arrive from a background of noise and constant activity where intentional silence is unpractised. The concept of stillness being the enabler of reflection and prayer is diminishing. Even in church silence is too infrequently used as an aid to people being able to absorb the meaning of what they have heard.

Jesus emphasised the need for silence by taking his novice Apostles aside for some rest and recuperation. Mark 6:31 recalls: Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, Jesus said to them (his Apostles), "Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest." By reducing their audible and visual distractions Jesus enabled them to give him their undivided attention. In those days, of course, there was none of the electronic wizardry that, today, ‘rules’ us 24x7! Life for Jesus’ generation moved relatively slowly.
 
People often declare, “I don’t know where the time goes!’ Each week is made up of 168 hours. Sleep accounts for approximately 49 hours per week leaving 119 hours to cover home, work, relaxation and church. Churchgoers give, on average, one hour per week to communal worship. Of the remaining 118 hours how much is directly linked to their spiritual life? In the one-hour v the 118 hours there is a strong bias favouring secular interests. The potential discordance of this disconnect, between the spiritual and secular lives, becomes more apparent when we examine the behavioural and language content surrounding us over the 118 hours. The influence of the language, morals and overall behaviour washing over society in those 118 hours is increasingly markedly different from the influence of the hour spent in church! This makes it increasingly difficult for the Baptised to uphold their spiritual life on a daily basis. Many struggle to do so against immensely unfavourable and inescapable odds that come with work, environment and the endless seductive advertising. With Satanic subtlety the Devil attempts to wear down the faithfulness of the faithful. One of his tactics is isolation.

Think, for a moment, about football and its fans. They enjoy daily chats about football with family, work colleagues and friends. Football related items feature daily in the press, throughout the media and in every news briefing. When fans gather for the weekly match they bring their wealth of continuously updated interest and knowledge to share with others. Equally, the post-match chatter goes on for days and is bolstered by the media’s news and views.

By contrast, the 21st century practising Christian cuts an isolated, almost lonely, figure. Walking into church is more than stepping apart from the hubbub of daily life. For the majority who do so it is entering an increasingly ‘other’ experience unrelated to and unknown by the majority of those with whom believers share their 118 hrs. Moreover, the Sunday churchgoer physically entering a sacred space cannot as easily disengage from a secular mindset. In previous decades, the walk to church may have helped allow for that mental adjustment. Nowadays, the car ride to church is often rushed, noisy and, by some, resented.

In our 21st century those who make time to attend church really need a pre-church adjustment period to mentally disengage from the compulsiveness of their secular surroundings. It is essential for God’s Word to be profoundly absorbed and assimilated as sustenance over the coming six days. To achieve this in an hour is unreal unless people’s minds and hearts are freed up to retain and develop the spiritual nourishment. Moreover, Baptism brings the commitment to proclaim God’s Word among those with whom the Baptised share each week’s remaining 118 hours. As any teacher knows only too well, you cannot satisfactorily teach what you have not first made your own.
 
Eventually those who had been with Jesus on ‘The Mount’ would have returned to their homes, families and work colleagues. They would have related their experience of Jesus. Their shared belief in God would have provided the common ground where those who had stayed at home were able to catch something of the enthusiasm of those who had journeyed to be with Jesus. The citizenry of 21st century Europe clearly does not benefit from a religious commonality.
 
There is a further difficulty. Christmas 2016 is still recent enough to be remembered, but remembered for what? We were tired of carols by November. Cards and presents dominated along with parties and alcohol; people had all the trappings of the feast without the reason for it. A crib may have been seen but was its significance understood? An absence of meaning has consequences.

It is difficult to re-evangelise. Where once the faith was gifted and then let go of, it is incredibly difficult to, as it were, resuscitate. The process involves a personal exorcism through the Sacraments of Reconciliation, the Eucharist, prayer and the recognition and cessation of sinful activity. It is important to remember that where Christ has been abandoned, the Devil moves in. In the human soul there is never a vacuum.

Jesus, in his public ministry, worked to grow the spirituality of his people. His message, built on his heavenly Father’s previous authentic revelation, corrected the corruptions to which that revelation had been subjected. His people still held to their belief in God and on that Jesus built but not in the way that was expected. The anticipated Messiah was foreseen as a successful warrior able to restore the depressed nation of Israel. In John 1:45 we read: Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the One Moses wrote about in the Law, the One whom the prophets foretold—Jesus of Nazareth….” “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip.
 
There is a much more shallow retention of belief in God among the European nations of the 21st century. Practising Christians are circumspect about opening discussions among family, friends and colleagues about their faith. Yet, that is what we are called to do. What is Jesus hoping we will bring of him to the people we meet over the next 118 hrs.?

3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (22.01.17)

CROSSROADS

Crossroads feature in our lives from early years. As we learn to crawl do we crawl to the right or to the left? Little ones don’t know their right from their left but still face a choice at a ‘crossroads’! An adult’s physical crossroads may be taxing but are as nothing compared with the spiritual, emotional and psychological choices at crossroads that are continually multiplying and changing, as we grow older. At some crossroads we hardly make a pause, at others procrastination rules.
 
Matthew, in his Gospel extract for the 3rd Sunday (4:12-23), appears to place Jesus, newly baptised by his cousin John the Baptist but not yet publicly preaching, at a crossroads. Jesus had learnt that John had been imprisoned by King Herod at the instigation of Herodias. She was Herod’s brother’s wife with whom Herod was living. John had publicly denounced Herodias as an adulteress. Matthew tells us that when Jesus heard of John’s imprisonment “he withdrew to Galilee”.

Jewish families were close-knit units. Jesus would surely have felt the pull to visit his imprisoned cousin, John. Instead Jesus chooses to leave Nazareth and move to Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Might Jesus have recalled the words of the prophet Jeremiah (6: 16) from earlier centuries?
Thus says the Lord God,
“Halt at the crossroads and look,
search for the ancient paths.
Where the good way is, walk in it;
and you will find rest for your souls.

 
In just four words, “he (Jesus) withdrew to Galilee”, Matthew lays out for us Jesus’ teaching-in-action. Galilee is his home territory where he spent his adolescence years with his Mother and Joseph, his foster-Father (Luke 2:41-55). In his Nazareth home Jesus had space and time for prayer and reflection to prepare for the next onslaught of ‘crossroads’. How do we prepare for life’s ‘crossroads’? Do we seek time with Jesus? Do we have a familiar place where we make time to pray each day? Without such preparation the choices awaiting us at the ‘crossroads’ can be lethal.
A helpful checklist for Christians preparing for life’s daily ‘crossroads’ might include this brief prayer cum checklist: -
Lord, help me discern which way to choose that helps me uphold my commitments to you.
At each of life's 'crossroads' may I be primarily aware of whichever of the following are applicable to me:
- the Baptismal Vows that I renew each Easter and each Sunday.
- the Sacramental wedding band I am wearing.
- the voluntary vow(s) that bind me as member of a Lay Institute.
- the voluntary vows that bind me to a Religious community.
- the voluntary vows that bind me as a Deacon / Priest / Bishop.
There will be other personal commitments to be brought into focus, too, such as the wider family, the local community as well as employer/employee responsibilities.
 
At Nazareth, Jesus most probably had unsolicited advice aplenty from those who believed he should have visited the imprisoned cousin, John, as a priority. Were some of Jesus’ relatives scandalized that he chose not to do so? Did they view his choice to move from Nazareth to Capernaum as escapism? How would his Mother have felt? She had been close to John’s late mother, Elizabeth. Had Mary perhaps become John’s surrogate mother after Elizabeth’s death? John the Baptiser had no brothers or sisters though, probably, many cousins.

Presuming that Joseph had, by this stage, died, Mary would have remembered Jesus’ response when she and Joseph had challenged him at the Temple in Jerusalem. (Luke 2:48-50)
“When Mary and Joseph saw Jesus, they were astonished. “Child, why have You done this to us?” His mother asked. “Joseph and I have been anxiously searching for You.” “Why were you looking for Me? Jesus asked, “Did you not know that I must be in My Father’s house?” But they (Mary and Joseph) did not understand the statement He was making .…”
 
At the human, family level Jesus’ primary impulse might well have been to visit John in prison. But the whole purpose of ‘withdrawing to Galilee’ was to re-immerse himself in that deeply spiritual location he knew as ‘home’ with Mary – full of grace – and the memory of Joseph – the Divinely designated foster-father of God-made-Man. Centuries later Pope Paul Vl was to underline the unique importance of Christian home life in the transmission of the Faith. In his reflective time at Nazareth, Jesus may have tempered his primary impulse to bring it into accord with the will of his Heavenly Father. As earlier in Jerusalem, when he was twelve, and later in his ministry upon hearing of the death of his friend Lazarus, Jesus, ‘at the crossroad’, chose to enact his heavenly Father’s will over what may have been his impulse. In this, too, Jesus offers us his life as an example.
 
The four words from Matthew’s Gospel - “he (Jesus) withdrew to Galilee” – might fruitfully challenge us to review if, in our life, there is an established, tested procedure for encountering ‘crossroads’. They are places of temptation where Satan will try to persuade us to replace God’s will by our own will! This will surely occur once we are beyond what is called ‘the age of reason’. This is the name given to that time in human life when we are capable of assuming moral responsibility. This natural development in our human maturation process occurs at about the age of seven. The use of our critical faculty, which assists in making life’s choices after consideration of the various possibilities, may come at a younger or older age.

A ‘new year’s resolution’ worth keeping might be a monthly check of the reliability of our pre-crossroads preparedness through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This could be coupled with a daily examination of conscience before we go to bed.
 
Scripture reveals how Jesus had to put aside the call of his particular family in favour of his yet-to-be-adopted family of humanity. One significant occasion was when his Mother and close relatives called for Jesus, now engaged in his public ministry, to join them. Jesus made use of the moment to explain to his audience how his family embraced all peoples: (Luke 8:19-21) “Then Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see Him, but they were unable to reach Him because of the crowd. He was told, “Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see You.” But He replied, “My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and carry it out.”…
 
2017 is still in its infancy. Yet already we will have made many choices at ‘crossroad’ moments. Some will have been of our own making. Others will have been presented to us by circumstances beyond our control. Even when this is the case, some choice as to our response is usually present. We can be sure that, in this land of exile, God’s enemy and ours, Satan, will make effective use of any ill-preparedness on our part for the choices facing us at ‘crossroads’.

In earlier centuries, when Christianity was widely embraced, people were not afraid to speak about their faith knowing that it was shared by those who listened to them. Today’s Europe is very different. For example, internationally recognised sports stars face choices that, literally, touch their soul! Their commercial agents advise them against making a public ‘Sign of The Cross’ when they have won a victory because their sponsors fear a negative reaction from the public at the event, as well the millions watching on TV. From their grandmother’s knee they may have grown up blessing themselves with the ‘Sign of The Cross’. Now, suddenly, there’s a price amounting to millions to be paid for making a ‘Sign of The Cross’ in public. “Just wait,” their agent pleads, “until your are ‘off-camera’, back in the dressing room. Then you can bless yourself as often as you like!” If compromise wins the day, the moment to give public witness to God is lost. At a less grand level, are we prepared to make the Sign of Cross and give thanks to God for our food before eating whether at home or outside? 
 
We have witnessed one of the least reputable elections in the history of the United States. In 2017 elections are due in several major counties within the EU. In the UK there is the unfathomable dilemma over Article 50 and Britain’s leave-taking of the EU. There will be ‘crossroads’ a-plenty at all levels. How we react in public depends upon how we react within the privacy of our personal relationship with God. God is 100% pro us. How reliable is our commitment to God?
 
No one reads the Word of God in a vacuum. We read or hear it read in our continuously evolving personal and global world. God encourages us to be aware of the ‘signs of the times’ when we are reading and praying His Word. Our generation’s ‘bookends’ are Church history, especially the documents ‘Gaudium et Spes’ and ‘Lumen Gentium’ of the Second Vatican Council, and Jesus’ prophecies for the End of Time. This triptych, trifocal, evaluation of the Good News in the here and now helps us contextualise God’s Word for us. It also brings a much-needed perspective from which to view the present. Perspective is the true understanding of the relative importance of something. The attention-sapping power of instant electronic communication can easily bring about a blinkered, disordered, view of the present - with a consequent loss of perspective - limited to what is seen and heard through a palm-held electronic screen.
 
Jesus launched his public ministry from Capernaum, as we hear in the main part of this Sunday’s Gospel. Wherever we are in life at this moment, we are not there by accident or fate. Rather, where and how we are results from our choices made in response to God’s loving invitation and Satan’s temptation. If you will allow the analogy, God’s invitation and Satan’s temptation are the bookends of our free will in each moment of life.
 

2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time (15.01.17)

“I didn’t know you had it in you.”

An experienced senior officer once addressed these words to a mild-mannered, semi-introverted junior. The recipient had achieved ‘top recruit’ status in a gruelling SAS (Special Air Services) entry course. Few who knew the twenty something expected him to succeed where the dropout rate hovers around 80%. Every entry course relentlessly tests an applicant’s core because the life of each SAS soldier depends on his own and his comrade’s core strengths. In a different context parents, too, can be surprised at what emerges as one or other of their offspring reveals talents or abilities, combined with strengths of character, which had previously not been visible.
 
By contrast, we never surprise God, our Father. He knows us through and through, loves us to perfection, and is always respectful of the freewill with which he has endowed us. God makes use of invitation and encouragement but waits at the boundary of our personal choice. Forcing the premature enactment of a person’s latent talent, particularly if using external pressure, can be disastrous for the individual at the time as well as for their future.  There is also the matter of breaching a person’s free will.
 
Whom did John (the Baptiser) see in the crowd, gathered at the River Jordan, his cousin Jesus of Nazareth or The Messiah? Matthew chapter 3 tells us:
‘In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” It was of John that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said:
“A voice of one crying out in the desert,
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’”
At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins….
I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire….
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?”
Jesus said to John in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John allowed him.
After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened [for him], and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove [and] coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
 
John would have known Jesus over the years of their childhood and adolescence. Jewish families were large and well integrated, the more so because they survived under a harsh regime of Roman subjugation. There are also unconfirmed stories that Jesus and John may have spent some time, in their formative years, at the ancient monastic settlement of Qumran where the Judean wilderness abuts the Dead Sea.

If true, such stories confirm a truth we do recognise namely, that being in another person’s company does not necessarily reveal all that there is to be known about that person. The Spirit of God descending like a dove on the waterlogged head of Jesus, as he surfaced from his total-immersion baptism, would have been a revelation to John as well as a moment of confirmation for Jesus. It’s possible that God’s words, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” were only audible to Jesus and John in their inner selves – as once, previously, they had ‘inter-acted’ from within the wombs of their respective mothers. (Luke 1:41)
 
In the Gospel for this 2nd Sunday of the Year, St. John recalls John the Baptiser’s words when he encountered Jesus subsequent to his baptism. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. He is the one of whom I said, ‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me. I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel.” (1.29) John, the Evangelist, quotes John, the Baptiser: “I did not know him” (Jesus) yet clearly the two were known to each other but John had not fully known Jesus.
 
Among many human foibles is our ability to ‘pigeon-hole’ others. We categorise people in an over-restrictive way for a variety of reasons. We may even resist subsequent evidence that should prompt a change or update in our previous categorisation, presuming it would have been proper for us to have made the initial categorisation (Luke 6:37). Is this Sunday’s Gospel inviting us to review, in this year when Pope Francis is calling for all people to show mercy, any inflexibility we may show towards some people? Ancient unforgiven hurts remain unhealed until we forgive. It may also be necessary for us to seek pardon for the harm that our lengthy unwillingness to forgive may have caused others. Then there is the additional question as to whether we have infected others with our prejudices?

Nobody is beyond redemption while there is breath in their body. In Wisdom 11:21 ff. we read:
“For it is always in your power (Lord) to show great strength, and who can withstand the might of your arm? Because the whole world before you is like a speck that tips the scales, and like a drop of morning dew that falls on the ground.
But you are merciful to all, for you can do all things, and you overlook people’s sins, so that they may repent. For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made, for you would not have made anything if you had hated it. How would anything have endured if you had not willed it?
Or how would anything not called forth by you have been preserved?
You spare all things, for they are yours, O Lord, you who love the living. For your immortal spirit is in all things. Therefore you correct little by little those who trespass, and you remind and warn them of the things through which they sin, so that they may be freed from wickedness and put their trust in you, O Lord.”
 
Invariably, being prone to pride, we more readily see negativity in others rather than positivity. In so doing, we are judging them and, by implication, telling God how he should judge them!  St. Luke (6: 36-38) gives us the ingredients for our prayer:
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.”…
 

The Epiphany (08.01.17)

FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY
 
Today we hear once again the story of the three wise men, who embarked on a long and hazardous journey from a far country to pay homage to the Christ Child, while the Jewish leaders rejected Him.
 
This feast of the Epiphany exemplifies the abolishment of the barrier between Jews and Gentiles.
Old Simeon in the temple glimpsed this truth when he said of the Christ Child:  “Here is a light that will enlighten the pagans and be the glory of your people Israel.” 
 
Throughout the gospels we hear how Christ reaches out not only to His own people, but also to the Samaritans, the Canaanites, to all kinds of rejects:  lepers, tax collectors, sinners of every description, even to members of the army of occupation –not however without meeting with stiff opposition! 
 
He greatly angered the Jewish leaders when He said that the Kingdom would be thrown open to the Gentiles “like  a tree in which all the birds of the air can find a home”
 
So, today’s feast is universal and for us all – signalling an end to any kind of monopoly on God’s grace and favour.
 
We can learn a lot from the wise men about strength and courage in our practice of the faith, when we consider how they overcame many obstacles and dangers on the way, resisting the temptation to give up and turn back, but resolutely pressing forward to achieve their goal – to find and worship their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ - and then gladly presenting their generous gifts in recognition of this Infant King.
 
Like those wise men, we too must continue unflinchingly in search of Christ until we meet Him face to face in the Father’s Kingdom. 
 
We are told that the Magi were led to Christ by the light of a bright star.  
Often, however, it is not through an experience of light but of darkness that we discover Christ.
 
While we cannot see the stars in the bright light of day, but rather in the darkness of the night, and the darker the night the brighter they shine; the stars continue to shine even when we cannot see them.
 
So too, the Lord’s Light is always there, even if sometimes it is hidden from us by clouds – clouds of confusion, distraction, disbelief.
 
Just as ships at sea need a lighthouse beacon to guide them to port, everyone needs a star to follow.
 
Christ the Lord is our unfailing, everlasting  Star – always there to guide us safely through the stormy waters,  until the lights of the Eternal Port appear on the horizon, and we joyfully take that last leap in Faith into the welcoming, loving, all-merciful  arms of our Father in heaven.
 

Solemnity of Mary Mother of God (01.01.17)

Mary, The Channel Leading To The Confluence
 
Many cities worldwide celebrate ‘New Year’s Day’. On December 31st. thousands gather to celebrate the countdown to midnight. In Madrid, for example, as the clock in La Puerta del Sol strikes midnight the custom is to eat one grape for each strike! In central London enormous firework displays from moored barges on the Thames draw thousands of people at midnight! We are absorbed with the passage of time – seconds, minutes, hours. If you see a person look at their wristwatch, wait a second and then ask, “Can you tell me the time, please?” The majority will immediately, and quite automatically, look, again, at their wristwatch before telling you the time!
 
Contrastingly, Catholics and other Christians focus their 1st January celebration on timelessness! On New Year’s Day Catholics honour Mary, the Mother of God-made-Man. With God there is no past or future, God is the eternal ‘now’. In Exodus 3:14 God says of himself - "I AM WHO AM”. Readers sometimes inadvertently insert an ‘I’ when reading this passage aloud, to make the text read, ‘I am who I am’. It is as if the concept of unchanging permanence is so foreign to us that only a change in text will satisfy our disquieted understanding.

Heaven has no clocks just the eternal present. In 2 Peter 3:8, we read: Beloved, do not let this one thing escape your notice: “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.”’  In Hebrews 13:8, we read: – “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.The Gospels record multiple examples where those who listened to Jesus struggled with the concept of unchanging permanence. A prime example would be found in Luke 20: 27-39:

Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.  Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless.  The second and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children.  Finally, the woman died too.  Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”
 Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.  But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”
 
On a day when so many are mesmerized by the movement of time, it is challenging to spend time contemplating the unchanging timelessness of eternity. In this life we are limited in our understanding by the accumulative effects of the inherited as well as the personal distance that we have placed between our self and God. God’s grace affords a believer sufficient insight to enable belief in what is, presently, beyond his or her comprehension. No human can explain the nature of God. Every human is free to choose to believe in God, to dedicate their life, as well as the lives of others entrusted to their care, to Him.

In the person of Mary there begins the confluencing of the finite and infinite worlds through the indwelling of Jesus, God-made-Man. In Mary, who is without sin, the confluence is perfected in the Incarnation. In us, sin-damaged lesser mortals, the confluence fluctuates throughout our earthly life. Many of the recognised saints of the Church were gifted with insights of the Divine, as we can be too if we allow God, through prayer and the Sacraments, to be  regularly part of our daily lives.

Mary, in her time on earth, was subject to time, as are we all; the succession of day and night, months and years. What we may glimpse, but not properly comprehend in this life, is how Mary’s Immaculate Conception, her being without sin from the first moments of life in her mother’s womb, enabled her to experience simultaneously both the finite and the infinite. She would, for example, experience discord and disunity as do we but, unlike us, Mary would simultaneously have had an in-depth awareness of a life that was totally harmonious and unified in God. Simeon’s sword-in-the-soul pain for Mary was her exposure to the constant violence found in earthly life because it is our place of self-imposed exile from God. Mary could contrast this with her awareness of the permanent peace, unity and love of heaven.

Today people may imagine Simeon’s prediction of a sword piercing her soul (Luke 2:35) as applicable to Mary when she stood at the foot of the Cross upon which her Son was crucified. Truly, that pain must have been for her a non-physical crucifixion. But Mary had personally experienced a level of discordance since her conception, without inherited sin, in her mother’s womb. That painful discordance would only have intensified post birth and remained with her, relentlessly, throughout her life. Our inherited and personal sin diminishes our spiritual sensitivity. Each of us is desensitized to a different degree, dependent upon our culpability, to the appalling disunity, disharmony and brokenness of human nature that, made in God’s image and likeness, has been so defaced by sin. Haven’t TV audiences become desensitized to foul language? In our shopping malls are we offended by the frequent usage of once prohibited vulgar slang that is now commonly used to express annoyance, contempt or impatience.
 
So on a New Year’s Eve and Day how necessary it is that we gather with Mary, the still centre of life. With her we collectively bear the pain of exile for the sake of all our brothers and sisters on this planet. With her help we can hope to glimpse the world promised by her Son that alone makes sense of our earthly pilgrimage of faith on each and every day that is new because it has not been granted to us previously.
 
The Memorare
Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary,
that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help, or sought your intercession, was left unaided.
Inspired by this confidence,
I fly unto you, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother.
To thee do I come, before you I stand, sinful and sorrowful.
O Mother of the Word Incarnate,
despise not my petitions,
but in your mercy, hear and answer me.
Amen
 

Christmas Day (25.12.16)

We Are Never Still

Christmas Day falling on a Sunday is rather unusual. Would you remember when it last fell on a Sunday? Well, it was in 2011. Christmas Day will fall on a Sunday in 2022 and 2033. 

Perhaps, more unusual, is the absence, in Scripture, of any reference by Jesus to Bethlehem as his place of birth. Christian greeting cards feature crib scenes and stables but Jesus makes no reference. In fact, he does the opposite, Matthew (8:20) and Luke (9.58) recall his saying: “Foxes have dens, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.”
 
When we are asked where we come from we generally name the place of our birth. The naming of the place locates us and underlines our claim to belong. Jesus makes no reference and we might wonder why?

Could it be that Jesus is always, since his conception through the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb, on a journey? No sooner had Mary given her consent to becoming the mother of the Messiah than she is on a difficult and demanding journey to assist her cousin, Elizabeth, now six months into her pregnancy with John (the Baptiser). After a three month respite, which allows for Mary’s presence at John’s birth, she is travelling again back to Nazareth. No sooner has she returned than a Roman edict requires all Jews to register in their tribal land. Joseph, being of David’s tribe, heads on a journey to Bethlehem with his now clearly pregnant wife, Mary. (See the script for the 4th Sunday of Advent 18 December)
 
At Bethlehem Mary gives birth in circumstances that probably resemble many of the refugee camps that we have become too accustomed to seeing and hearing about today. The exploring Magi come and go, Herod poses a murderous threat and Joseph, Mary and Jesus flee to Egypt. There, it seems likely, that they were itinerants going wherever Joseph could find work.

Eventually, Joseph was prompted by God to return to his native land, to Nazareth. The external journeys of the itinerant Holy Family had come to an end but now began the inner journeys of Mary and Joseph. One is outstandingly recorded in the Gospels namely, Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem when he was twelve years old. Incidentally, Scripture gives the impression that this was an annual pilgrimage for the Holy Family. At twelve years of age, Jesus was just one year away from his bar mitzvah. According to Jewish law, at the age of thirteen a boy is no longer considered a minor and is responsible to fulfil all the Torah's commandments. The term “bar mitzvah” literally means “son of the mitzvah,” or one who is obligated to mitzvah observance.

Scripture records Jesus’ visit at twelve years of age, with his mother and foster-father, as a moment of great significance. A fraught Mary and Joseph, who had lost sight of him for three days, asked: “Child, why have You done this to us?” “Why were you looking for Me?, Jesus replied, “Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” But they did not understand the statement He was making.”

Though the Holy Family’s recorded physical journeys became less -  Then Jesus returned to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. And his mother stored all these things in her heart.” (Luke 2:51) – their inner journeys of faith continued.
 
So, where are you spending Christmas 2016?

If you are revisiting the place of your physical upbringing you may also be near where you were spiritually reborn through Baptism, the church in which your faith journey began. If so, this may be a good moment to take stock of where you are in that faith journey. Are you static or actively engaged with God? Static is not a good place to be because one is never still. In all our relationships, but especially our foundational relationship with God whose image and likeness we bear, no one is ever static! In this life we are forever in motion moving either towards God or towards Satan. Waking or sleeping, this is our daily battleground while we are on earth.

We can never recapture time that is passed nor anticipate future time. We have only the present moment and Christmas may be the moment to re-engage with our Baptismal promises. Remember, protracted indecision or protracted procrastination is a decision! It is a negative decision that moves us away from Jesus’ invitation.
 
May your Christmas be a time of blessing and recommitment to Him who has committed His life to you.
 

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.