Sunday Reflection

Palm Sunday

Narrowing the Focus

Palm Sunday is one of the two days each year (the other being Good Friday) when congregations have the opportunity of participating in the reading of the entire ‘Passion of Jesus Christ’. This participation is meant to be a blessed occasion not a physical endurance test. Whether we stand or sit, these two participations are an opportunity to exercise the collective prayer of listening, but with the heart.

It is difficult to hold in one’s mind and heart a composite picture of the entire Passion event as related, for example, in Matthew’s Gospel this Sunday (26:14-27: 66).  Narrowing the focus to concentrate on one or two particular aspects gives us time for a more detailed examination of Jesus’ disposition and, if he speaks, his words in each particular situation. We can invite the Holy Spirit to open up our understanding and appreciation and thereby deepen our relationship with our Lord in the suffering he willingly and lovingly undertook for our salvation.

Another idea might be to compare the differences we find between the Evangelists’ accounts of the same incident.  For example, St. John, in his account of the Last Supper (13:21-31), tells us that Jesus had become troubled and then announced:
“One of you will betray me”
and later:
“as soon as Judas had taken the piece of bread he went out.”
St. John then adds one three-word very-telling sentence:
“Night had fallen”.

We might see St. John’s use of these three words to mark a seismic change in Jesus’ behaviour. Up to this point in his public ministry, Jesus has been the great initiator. He had been the One who forgave, healed, called, sent, announced, denounced. From this point on Jesus initiates nothing. The words, “Night had fallen”, seem to announce an all-enveloping darkness in which Evil appeared to triumph. Jesus surrendered himself to the events he knew must follow and through which he would fulfil his heavenly Father’s will. The short sentence, when reflected upon, opens up one’s appreciation of the profound obedience of the Man, Jesus, who is also the Son of God. This would lead, naturally, to an overview of how, in our own life, we implement those words from the ‘Our Father’ – “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth”.

Another example might involve the centurion who was present on Calvary the day that Jesus died (Mark 15:39 and Matt: 27:54):
“And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way Jesus breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39)
Can you imagine that centurion’s surprise to hear himself utter such words? He had picked up his duty rota that day and found he was in charge of the execution detail, probably not one of his preferred options. There were three to be executed that Friday afternoon! There would likely have been the usual delays plus, this day, the presence of some Pharisees who harangued one of those to be executed. The name Jesus may not have held particular significance for the centurion.
The Gospels do not detail the struggle of a scourged and thorn-crowned Jesus, now loaded with the cross beam of his own cross, to climb to the top of Calvary save that a passer-by, Simon, was forced to help Him carry the wooden beam (Luke 23:26). The surmise is that the Pharisees feared Jesus dying on the way whereas they needed his crucifixion for their own political ends.
Luke 23 gives us an insight as to what transpired when Jesus reached the summit. However, there is no indication of what might have brought the public and spontaneous proclamation of faith from the centurion.

Perhaps you may wish to select other passages from the Passion of Jesus Christ, one for each day of Holy Week. If you could spend a moment reading it several times during the day, you would give yourself time to enter, as it were, into the scene you are reading. You could imagine yourself personally present within whatever is happening as one of the crowd, or one of the soldiers, or as someone accompanying Mary, Jesus’ Mother or even as a pharisee. As you reflect, invite the Holy Spirit to break open for you the meaning of what you are contemplating. This is an age-old method of praying, without the saying of words, called Lectio Divina. If you have a mobile you could download the passage for each day so that you have it in hand, literally.

Should someone ask what you are reading, tell them. Witness to Jesus by offering to explain what Holy Week means to you.

5th Sunday of Lent

Recognising our Boundaries

Initiative can be a valuable characteristic in a human being. The Latin origin of the word is ‘initium’ meaning ‘beginning’. For Christians, God is the sole, unique Initiator. He is the Originator of all that is, including humanity. Therefore, when we, his creation, plan to show initiative our proposals should always respect God’s uniqueness by not superseding the boundaries he has revealed. On this 5th Sunday of Lent, God’s Word helps us to appreciate this truth – Ezekiel (37:12-14); Romans (8:8-18) and the Gospel of John (11:1-45) – as also does the Responsorial Psalm 129.

In earlier and more Christian times, people added the words “God willing” when voicing proposals that would have a potential impact on life, such as making a hazardous journey. Today, such acknowledgement of God’s prime position has all but disappeared from general conversation. There is a false sense of independence; humanity is regarded as the height of known authority. Our ancestors lived in a world where the boundaries between the material and the spiritual were permeable; where the immanent world made frequent contact with the transcendent. Today, human beings are becoming ever more detached from a living relationship with God. It stands to reason that without belief in the Divine there is no belief in the demonic; for it to be otherwise there would be a frightening imbalance. This leaves us with a world with no ordered meaning.

How should God’s Word impact on congregations this Sunday, with respect to his authority, when, through Ezekiel, they hear?
“O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel.
I have promised, and I will do it, says the Lord.”
Surely, the implication of God’s message through Ezekiel is that humanity had, and has, allowed itself to be enveloped by the darkness of evil represented by the word ‘graves’. It is God’s intention to bring his beloved creation to resurrection by overcoming the death that has captured it.
Scripture has always required a reflective consideration if it is to be properly received. This is even more true today when the Scriptural extracts heard in church are even more removed from peoples’ experience of daily life. Are church goers ready to set aside the necessary time to be without their instant communication in order to appreciate the Scripture they hear? God’s Word is all too easily drowned out. Undoubtedly, those who believe in God’s Word will need help is discerning how they are to apply his message in their 21st century life.

God is without beginning or end and, as The Book of Revelation makes clear, so is his Word:
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” (1:8)
The Truth of God’s Word is what is important, not its archaeological date stamp. Readings, such as that from Ezekiel this Sunday, offer us a span of understanding. Ezekiel, possibly born around 622BC, died in 570 BC., was from the priestly class and acknowledged as a prophet of God. He, along with his people, was taken captive by the Babylonians to Babylon for an exile that lasted possibly 70 years.
So, Ezekiel’s prophecy:
“Thus says the Lord God: I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel.”
is to be understood as God freeing his people from their ‘entombment’ of enforced deportation and captivity in Babylon. This was a predicament they had brought upon themselves when they abandoned God’s covenant.
Those who are aware of the historical plight of God’s chosen, in the era of Ezekiel, might see a parallel with the current disengagement of Christians from The Church in Europe. Undoubtedly, many and varied factors have contributed to this demise. But when the Baptised, throughout Europe, choose not to gather to celebrate the Lord’s Day, it is the universal believing community that is weakened. This increases the ability of Evil to infiltrate individuals, families and communities.

So, all believers should be heartened by the second part of the Ezekiel extract this Sunday:
“I will put my spirit in you that you may live, and I will settle you upon your land; thus you shall know that I am the Lord. I have promised, and I will do it, says the Lord.”
Do we, daily, seek afresh the infusion of God’s Spirit to enable us to reach out to the baptised among family, friends, neighbours and colleagues who may have become distanced from the community into which they were Baptised? To do so would be so much more real than the traditional Lenten engagement with sugar, chocolate and alcohol.
Moreover, we can expand this purposeful engagement with the Holy Spirit beyond Easter into the journey to Pentecost. God’s Spirit in this era has brought us to live in a Europe, and for that matter, a world, in which we can so easily be lulled into a sense of helplessness over the slackening-off of the Baptised’s commitment to Jesus. So much more is asked of us than to be passive spectators.

Disappointment can become a disablement miring our spiritual life especially when our earnest prayer appears to be unanswered. Is there a sense of this in the life of Jesus’ friends this Sunday?  Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, dies.  Today’s substantial extract from St. John (11:1-45) provides an expansive view with multiple aspects upon which to reflect.
It would be understandable were Martha and Mary’s interaction with Jesus, their family’s friend, tinged with disappointment. The Evangelist’s account almost portrays the tension between the sisters’ faith and disappointment. Most of us will have experienced similar tensions in the course of our faith journey.
Retrospectively, Lent could provide an appropriate period for us to see things from God’s perspective. How often might we have given God cause to be disappointed with us? We will not always have reciprocated his merciful and forgiving generosity. Yet he has never and will never forsake us. Is it one of the blessings of older age to appreciate how lovingly God has treated us despite our ungracious behaviour towards him? There are innumerable prayer formats that contain words, to the effect, that we will be united with our Saviour in heaven. I find myself thinking that is a big ask, considering the persistent failings that dogged my younger years.
It was Pope St. John Paul ll who said: “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”

As with Joseph, Jesus’ foster-father, no words of Lazarus are recorded in the Gospels. His silence speaks of a profound fidelity. For sure, Lazarus would have known the Jewish leaders had him marked out to be killed because, as St John tells us:
“Many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in Jesus.”
In these six weeks of Lent has our fidelity to Jesus prompted a development of faith in another? There’s still time and not only in Holy Week but in the longer journey to Pentecost.


Palm Sunday

Narrowing the Focus

Palm Sunday is one of the two days each year (the other being Good Friday) when congregations have the opportunity of participating in the reading of the entire ‘Passion of Jesus Christ’. This participation is meant to be a blessed occasion not a physical endurance test. Whether we stand or sit, these two participations are an opportunity to exercise the collective prayer of listening, but with the heart.

It is difficult to hold in one’s mind and heart a composite picture of the entire Passion event as related, for example, in Matthew’s Gospel this Sunday (26:14-27: 66).  Narrowing the focus to concentrate on one or two particular aspects gives us time for a more detailed examination of Jesus’ disposition and, if he speaks, his words in each particular situation. We can invite the Holy Spirit to open up our understanding and appreciation and thereby deepen our relationship with our Lord in the suffering he willingly and lovingly undertook for our salvation.

Another idea might be to compare the differences we find between the Evangelists’ accounts of the same incident.  For example, St. John, in his account of the Last Supper (13:21-31), tells us that Jesus had become troubled and then announced:
“One of you will betray me”
and later:
“as soon as Judas had taken the piece of bread he went out.”
St. John then adds one three-word very-telling sentence:
“Night had fallen”.

We might see St. John’s use of these three words to mark a seismic change in Jesus’ behaviour. Up to this point in his public ministry, Jesus has been the great initiator. He had been the One who forgave, healed, called, sent, announced, denounced. From this point on Jesus initiates nothing. The words, “Night had fallen”, seem to announce an all-enveloping darkness in which Evil appeared to triumph. Jesus surrendered himself to the events he knew must follow and through which he would fulfil his heavenly Father’s will. The short sentence, when reflected upon, opens up one’s appreciation of the profound obedience of the Man, Jesus, who is also the Son of God. This would lead, naturally, to an overview of how, in our own life, we implement those words from the ‘Our Father’ – “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth”.

Another example might involve the centurion who was present on Calvary the day that Jesus died (Mark 15:39 and Matt: 27:54):
“And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way Jesus breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39)
Can you imagine that centurion’s surprise to hear himself utter such words? He had picked up his duty rota that day and found he was in charge of the execution detail, probably not one of his preferred options. There were three to be executed that Friday afternoon! There would likely have been the usual delays plus, this day, the presence of some Pharisees who harangued one of those to be executed. The name Jesus may not have held particular significance for the centurion.
The Gospels do not detail the struggle of a scourged and thorn-crowned Jesus, now loaded with the cross beam of his own cross, to climb to the top of Calvary save that a passer-by, Simon, was forced to help Him carry the wooden beam (Luke 23:26). The surmise is that the Pharisees feared Jesus dying on the way whereas they needed his crucifixion for their own political ends.
Luke 23 gives us an insight as to what transpired when Jesus reached the summit. However, there is no indication of what might have brought the public and spontaneous proclamation of faith from the centurion.

Perhaps you may wish to select other passages from the Passion of Jesus Christ, one for each day of Holy Week. If you could spend a moment reading it several times during the day, you would give yourself time to enter, as it were, into the scene you are reading. You could imagine yourself personally present within whatever is happening as one of the crowd, or one of the soldiers, or as someone accompanying Mary, Jesus’ Mother or even as a pharisee. As you reflect, invite the Holy Spirit to break open for you the meaning of what you are contemplating. This is an age-old method of praying, without the saying of words, called Lectio Divina. If you have a mobile you could download the passage for each day so that you have it in hand, literally.

Should someone ask what you are reading, tell them. Witness to Jesus by offering to explain what Holy Week means to you.

4th Sunday of lent

Eating With Our Eyes

They say the British ‘eat with their eyes’. Many of us choose our food as much by what we see as by appeals to memory, to our prevailing appetite or even to our proclaimed diet. There is precedent. It was through her eyes that Eve was first ensnared and before she ensnared Adam. This 4th Sunday of Lent’s First Reading from the Book of Samuel (16:1,6-7,10-13) describes how his judgement was sight-based.
The prophet had been sent by God on a mission to identify and anoint, as king-to-be, one of the sons of Jesse. In addition to being a prosperous Bethlehemite of note, Jesse is remembered by the Jews as the father of Israel’s most famous king, David. He is important in Christianity because Jesse is mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy which he receives when Joseph names his new-born foster-son.

Of Jesse’s eight sons, only seven are present when Samuel arrived. The youngest was out minding the sheep. One by one, the seven young men were presented. Samuel thought the eldest, Eliab, the most suitable because of his stature and looks. However, God said to Samuel:
"Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart"
God’s choice favoured the youngest son, David who, having been summoned, is duly anointed. Eventually, David grew to become Israel’s greatest king.

Whereas we judge by appearance, God looks into the heart. Our eyes capture millions of images. Unless we are careful, some will imprint themselves on our soul and not necessarily to our benefit. The weeks of Lent present us with an opportunity to reappraise how effective is our visual ‘gatekeeping’. Do we ask the Holy Spirit to guide us in the use of our eyes, as well as our speech and hearing? We all know how difficult it can be to erase an image that has seared our soul, mind and heart.
Are we sufficiently disciplined in the use of our eyes? Jesus’ teaching is forthright as well as uncompromising:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  (Matthew 5:27-28)
Ill-disciplined eyes can bring corruption to soul and heart, as King David himself was to discover (2 Samuel 11)


For the observant reader, John’s Gospel extract for this Sunday (9:1-41) has multiple points that could be of help on our Lenten journey. Notice, for example, that it is Jesus who brought the uncomplaining and unsighted man to the attention of his disciples. More usually, it is an impaired person, or his or her associates, or even the disciples who draw Jesus’ attention and involvement. 
This Lent, might you invite the Holy Spirit to lead you to a person or persons in need, near or far, whom you might help? It will never be more than an invitation as God never compels. 

In Jesus’ day, because of prolonged malnutrition and persecution, many Jews will have suffered from birth defects. The poor, so afflicted, were categorised as ‘sinners’ or the children of sinners and treated as outcasts. Jesus’ preoccupation with this unnamed unsighted man prompts a question from his disciples:
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Jesus overturned the commonly held belief that disability was linked with sin by replying:
“Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.”

Such prejudicial condemnation was common even among the thinking elite, such as the Pharisees. Deeply ingrained prejudice remains uncommonly difficult to shed. People, today, would deny being prejudicial and yet the daily media is full of words and actions fully deserving of that label.
What a journey – a true pilgrimage in the old sense of the word - the blind man found himself on without even asking for Jesus’ help! However, he first of all accepted Jesus’ ministrations and then stumbled to reach the Pool of Siloam. As an outcast and someone ‘unclean’, he would not receive much help. Jews, who traditionally made three pilgrimages a year to Jerusalem, had the practice of immersing themselves in the freshwater Siloam Pool before descending the stone pathway to the Temple.

Lent could be a fruitful period to examine if we still carry, in our hidden depths, unfounded prejudices that contradict Jesus’ teaching. Not a few are troubled by an unrevealed anxiety that a personal affliction or disability, or one afflicting someone close, is a punishment from God for sin. God does not punish us for our sinfulness. Our sin brings its own punishment namely, it separates us from God to some degree. The entire human is disabled because all, save for Mary the Mother of Jesus, are sinners. To redeem us from our spiritual self-inflicted disability, partly inherited and partly of our own making, from which we could not escape is the reason God became Man in the person of Jesus.

In this Gospel extract, the Jewish religious leaders at the time of Jesus show themselves prejudicially blind. They, in turn, corrupted the citizenry. Their collective blindness occupies the major portion of this Gospel extract. Notice how there is no rejoicing over the man’s healing. The Pharisees condemned both the healing and the healer for infringing the sabbath law. St. Luke (13.15) and (14.5) tells of Jesus’ challenges to the Pharisees and their teaching: “Beware the leaven of the Pharisees”.

With his sight restored, the healed man, who had never seen Jesus and would have been unable to identify him, became the Pharisees’ target. His parents were afraid support him:
“We know that this is our son and that he was born blind. We do not know how he sees now, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him, he is of age; he can speak for himself.”
The parental response is indicative of the widespread fear, among ordinary Jews, of the Pharisees’ power to make you an outcast from the synagogue and all that goes with it. An outcast Jew in an occupied country would have found no mercy from the Romans. So, the healed man’s behaviour shows remarkable courage and fortitude. Jesus finds the healed man and identifies himself as his healer.

The history of Christianity is layered with the names of the Baptised who were unafraid to broadcast their allegiance to Jesus in the face of severe cruelty and a painful death. On our Lenten journey, we are invited to accompany Jesus, our Saviour, on his road to Calvary. Is there sufficient evidence in our accompaniment that would merit our names being added to those of our martyred forebears?


3rd Sunday of Lent

Not all Water is Drinkable

People in the developed world take their drinking water for granted. Consumerism has turned drinking water into a vast and profitable industry. However, there are numerous regions of the world without drinkable water. Not all are in Africa. Here are just two ‘local’ examples, the migrant camps across the Channel and along various European coastlines and numerous Palestinian villages in prosperous Israel.

For us, the daily action of filling a glass with drinkable water is second nature. We do it without thinking and probably without counting our blessings. What is our awareness of the increasing rarity, globally, of this essential for life? If you are thinking 'why should the writer continually refer to drinkable water', the answer is that not all ground water is safe to drink. Too many people have access only to contaminated water much of which is caused, at least in part, by man.

Water is the focus for the First of this 3rd Sunday of Lent’s Scripture extracts (Exodus (17:3-7) and   also in the Gospel of St John (4:5-42).
In the First Reading from Exodus, we read how the Israelites complained when, on their repatriation trek through the desert from Egypt to the promised land, there was a water shortage. Put to the test, their trust in God was found to be shallow.
Shortages of commodities essential for life inevitably cause a panic that spreads like wildfire. God had told Moses:
“Strike the rock, and the water will flow from it for the people to drink.”
No one, not even Moses, is immune from the temptation to doubt God when faced with a panicked people. Did Moses’ faith in God falter, even momentarily? (Exodus 17:2)
The Exodus extract, read this Sunday, is slightly different from that in the Book of Numbers which implies that one strike would be sufficient. However, the text tells us that Moses struck the rock twice! As a result, God said to Moses:
“Because you did not trust in me enough to honour me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.”
(Numbers 20:12-13)

One strike or two? In a like situation, might not we have struck the rock possibly more than twice? There is a lesson in trust here. Trusting God is not the same as trusting one another. Human to human trust is fallible because humans are frail. God is not fallible; his word is sure and utterly dependable. So, while, with us, one strike or two might appear insignificant, no detail given by God can ever be insignificant. God speaks The Truth which can be neither multiplied nor reduced, neither contracted nor expanded. Our calling, our vocation, is to try to live a continuous, voluntary internal and external enactment of the Will of God just as it is revealed by God. God’s will does not admit of human adjustment.

Were we to draw a comparison with ourselves in the 21st century, there are numerous instances where, individually as well as nationally, we have ‘interpreted’ rather than enacted God’s Will in the matter of Life and the Environment. As a result, some potential catastrophes are already ‘knocking on our door’. For example, not all developments in eugenics accord with the Christian code of ethics and morality, let alone on those of future generations.

Last century, because oil producers deliberately cut back production, there were numerous oil shortages and resultant hefty price rises. Research in other fields has identified alternative sources of power such as gas, windfarms and solar panels.
This century, the world could be facing a global shortage of drinking water for which there are neither alternatives nor adequate reserves. It is accepted that, while a person can survive for weeks without food, three days is the limit for survival without drinking water. Will it be the scarcity of drinkable water rather than oil, war, disease or global warming that brings humanity to its knees?


Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in Samaria (today’s Gospel from John 4:5-42) reminds us that God reaches out through the unexpected as much as through the expected. Jesus, in his day, was often found in the company of outsiders, public sinners and poor people. 
The unnamed Samaritan woman who encountered Jesus at Jacob’s well had no idea of his identity apart from his features identifying him as a Jew. She was amazed. He, a Jew, was in Samaria a land that most Jews would refuse to enter. More than that, Jesus for her help to obtain drinkable water. That the woman unhesitatingly responded tells us that Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, spoke to her in a manner that must have assuaged her multiple fears and given her confidence.
More than that, the Samaritan woman herself, uninvited, became his ambassador to her local town. Can you imagine it? In the midst of the community that despised and rejected her, people stopped, listened and, responding to her, not only approached Jesus themselves but came to believe in him. That day truly living water flowed and all who had an appetite for it were fully replenished.

People sometimes tell of ‘lighting many candles in church’. But such actions, good though they may be in themselves, need the underpinning of a living faith in God and a will to serve Him as He determines. Jesus said nothing about lighting candles. He did say, “Be holy!”. 
The holiness referred to is our daily attempt – and often it is no more than an attempt - to voluntarily and continuously embrace God’s Will with a love that excludes everything that is not His will.
How long had that Samaritan woman been thirsting for ‘living water’ in the desert of her life? How long had Sychar, that Samaritan town, and its population been ostracised by the Jews?
God’s adoption of us, at our Baptism, is solely because He loves us. We have not nor ever can merit his love. It is God’s wholly gratuitous gift.  Recognising the gift, would not we, like the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, want to tell others of our great fortune.



2nd Sunday of Lent

Appreciating the Unexpected

Mountain tops hold fascination for many people. Some are content to view them from a respectful distance; others see them as a challenge to be conquered, yet others find them precious locations of stillness and silence, when the wind abates. This 2nd Sunday of Lent we read St. Matthew’s account (17:1-9) of the incident known as ‘The Transfiguration of Jesus’. It is possible that the mountain in question Mt. Hermon had, somewhat like today’s Mt. Teide in Tenerife, a microclimate capable of causing a ‘cloud-cap’ to form or disappear, over the summit, in a relatively short period of time.


Peter, James and John, like their companion Apostles, had lived their Jewish religion throughout their lives. In addition to its being their inherited faith, it was their way of taking a stand against the Roman invaders. The Apostles’ journey of transition, of transfiguration, from their deeply embedded Jewishness, strongly bounded by the Law of Moses, to embracing the new Covenant being revealed to them by the Jew whom they knew as Jesus of Nazareth was still very much in its infancy. They may not, in fact, have realised that the process had even begun.

While the cloud on Mt. Hermon’s summit may not have surprised Peter, James and John, what would have surprised them was the cloud’s luminosity and mysteriousness reflecting the light emanating from Jesus and enveloping Moses and Elijah. Clouds normally obscure light which is the disorientating effect feared by hill and mountain climbers.
The appearance of this ‘luminous cloud’ would have prompted the Apostles to recall their people’s history. Gentiles do not always appreciate that Jews experience their history in the present, in the ‘now’ of this moment. When Jews gather on a Friday evening to celebrate Passover, it is for them not a historical commemoration but the actual enactment of the actual Passover. Roman Catholics can appreciate that Jewish perspective. For them, the Consecration at Mass is the making real here and now of the redeeming presence of Jesus, as The Christ, through the action of the ordained priest.
For Peter, James and John, that ‘luminous cloud’ represented the ‘Shechinah’ which, for the Jews, was nothing less than the ‘Glory of God’ present among his chosen people. The Book of Exodus tells of numerous occasions when ‘a pillar of cloud’ was God’s way of announcing his presence to his people. See, for examples, Exodus 13:21; 34: 5; 40:34.

Perhaps we are prompted to recall personal occasions, now more identifiable and intelligible with hindsight, when we were captivated, without full appreciation, by something we were allowed to perceive, visually or internally. Maybe the recollection relates to a visit to a shrine or being on a pilgrimage which, bringing together people of faith, gave us an experience of a ‘communion of faith’ that was truly exceptional. Such historical recollections can, at a later stage in our lives, be appropriate for when, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, our faith-journey/pilgrimage is in need of Divine illumination as we struggle to find our way in a world still embattled with Evil.


When we make time for reflection, we may find our Baptismal journey ‘peppered’ with illuminatingly inexplicable revelations contained in something as simple as a word, a gesture or a look. Equally, it could be through accumulative moments of experience lasting months or even years. People whose company we share, perhaps briefly, can leave a lasting, beneficial memory. Others, whom we know as companions through employment, recreation or neighbourhood-living for long periods of time, can be little more than shadows, until a particular incident.
Unpremeditated circumstances can bring to our attention, or draw from us, what, previously, we had either never considered or dismissed out of hand. Such happenings can be transfiguring moments because, in some way, they offer us the opportunity to initiate, or continue to develop, a change that had already begun in us, but we had let go of, for some reason. Full recognition of the significance of such occasions may be immediate, staggered or long delayed. The important thing is for us to draw the benefit from the awareness as and when it occurs.
For Jesus, the spiritual significance of the Mount of Transfiguration was on a par with what occurred at his Baptism by John in the River Jordan – see Matthew 3:13. Moses, regarded as the greatest teacher of God’s Law, and Elijah, regarded as the greatest of God’s prophets, came to Jesus as he was contemplating the culmination of his missionary life, his ultimate journey to Jerusalem. The presence of Moses and Elijah, confirmed to Jesus that his personal history embraced all history, Jewish and Gentile and that he should continue to Jerusalem and to Calvary.

The three Apostles’ journey up the mountain would likely have been overshadowed by their memory of Jesus’ earlier insistence, when speaking to the whole group, that suffering and death awaited him (Matt.16:24-26). Did the three climb in fear that Jesus would make more bleak announcements? For Peter, James and John, their summit encounter with a wondrously luminous cloud must have dispelled the darkness that might have previously enveloped them. It would have revived memories of God’s protective presence with his people. Characteristically, Peter, the man of activity, wanted to prolong the experience. He had no desire to return to the cacophony of daily life:
“Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”


Relatively few people are blessed with a quality of voice that turns heads when they speak. The attractive timbre and clarity of their voice draws attention without effort. They have what the BBC might define as a perfect voice for broadcasting. Try to imagine, if you can, the bodiless voice of the Father that came from that luminous cloud; the quality and depth of reassurance, of engagement, filled with pure love. The voice of Jesus’ heavenly Father endorsing his only-begotten Son as he set out to walk the way of the Cross would have been long remembered:
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”


Surely, it would have been a relief, a blessing, when Jesus told Peter, James and John not to speak, for the time being, of what they had heard and seen at the summit. How could they speak, sensibly, about an experience that had overwhelmed them, leaving them struggling for comprehension?

Peter, James and John’s struggle to comprehend would have continued long after; especially Jesus’ words about:
“The Son of Man being raised from the dead”
though
“among themselves they discussed what
‘rising from the dead’ could mean.” (Mark 9:10)

Those with experience of moments of spiritual intimacy, of serenity, of peace of soul, of God’s nearness, will have some understanding of what ‘Transfiguration’ could be. Such moments are given to us to rebalance our will and our love for God in order that we may continue the ministry to which God has called us as husbands and wives, as parents, as children, teachers, religious and ordained ministers but also as the sick, the wounded and the abused. The Transfiguration and other such encounters with God can give us hope and joy during the more common mundane moments of everyday life.





1st Sunday of Lent

A Key Word for Lent

We are already at day five of Lent 2020! For Christians, a key word associated with Lent is ‘contrition’. Traditionally, we accept these six weeks as a period in which to rein in our sensory appetites, be more contrite for our unfaithfulness to God and to one another and so recalibrate our spiritual life. It is necessary to take care that Lent’s focus doesn’t become all about the intake of ‘sugar and alcohol’ rather than the rebuilding our relationship with Jesus. Lenten fasting is based on Jesus’ forty-day desert-fast – cf. this Sunday’s Gospel (Matt. 4.1-11).
Perhaps this is the moment to call to mind our countless Baptised brothers and sisters who, through no fault of their own, are deprived of the Sacraments not for days or months, but for years and decades because of persecution or the lack of ordained priests.

When we open ourselves to the created world in all its fragility, beauty and brokenness, we catch glimpses of God’s love manifest in the most hidden miracles of life that surround us every day. The attentive contemplation of creation will open our imagination to behold the loving face of our God which, in turn, can fill us with contrition for the innumerable ways we misuse the Creator’s gift of one another and of this world.
There is a little appreciated fact about the history of Catholicism in Japan that may challenge us. With the arrival of St. Francis Xavier in Japan (1549), the Catholic Church grew rapidly. However, those who ruled were displeased and responded with persecution. Tens of thousands of martyrs gave up their lives for their faith. Many Christian communities chose to go underground to preserve their faith. In 1644 the last remaining priest in Japan, Fr. Konishi Mansho, was martyred. Thereafter, priests were forbidden to enter the country for two centuries.
When French missionary priests once again set foot in Japan in 1865, more than two hundred years later, the successors of those underground Christians risked their lives to make contact, though they had ever met an ordained priest before. The underground Catholics showed Fr. Petitjean, one of the French missionaries, a ‘Manual on Contrition’, published in 1603. It gave a true and clear exposition of the theology of Divine forgiveness. The teaching in this Manual had sustained the spiritual life of generations of hidden Catholics. Here was proof that the faith itself had been handed down, through the families, over the generations.
A new persecution began in 1867 and Catholics who confessed their faith were exiled to remote areas of the country. Finally, in 1873 the Japanese Meiji government removed the prohibition against Catholics. Little by little those exiled, who had survived, were able to return to their homes.

This synopsis of the Catholic Church in Japan is filled with the memories of martyrs and life as an underground church. These Christians, who handed down their faith for seven generations without a priest, are appealing to us who are having difficulty today to hand down our faith even to the very next generation.

Jesus, having been baptised by John and confirmed in his mission by his heavenly Father, is led into the Judean wilderness by the Holy Spirit. The indications are that Satan approached Jesus at the end of his fast. Physically, Jesus may have been weakened but, as Satan was to discover, he remained spiritually strong through his dedicated daily prayer. At the conclusion of this particular battle of wills with Satan, Matthew tells us:
“The devil left him (Jesus) and the angels came and looked after him.”
Our Tempter, who takes no rest, watches to catch us when we are spiritually depleted and at risk. The six weeks of Lent, added to the four weeks of Advent, could serve us as a ten-week, essential and minimum, annual recalibration of our readiness because we are living, as exiles. Marvellous and wondrous though God’s good creation is, we are in Satan’s kingdom of Evil (1John 5:19).
The Jews of Jesus’ day had no option but to be reminded daily of at least one of the manifestations of Evil, crucifixion. Regarded as uniquely painful, the Romans used this form of killing as a visual deterrent. The chilling sight of ‘occupied’ crosses confronted travellers on commonly used pathways.


The avalanche of evil that advances against us on a daily basis is cleverly and disingenuously disguised. It is inevitable that our spiritual lives suffer from this bombardment unless we measurably seek to increase our closeness to Christ. The human race’s sensitivity to evil is further eroded, particularly in the developed world, which has allowed itself to be disabused of evil’s very existence, despite the evidence to the contrary. Disarmed and vulnerable, humanity has indeed become evil’s easy target.

Recovery first requires that we become aware of the precariousness of our wounded spirituality. Contriteness of heart leads us to seek forgiveness. For seven generations that ‘Manual of Contrition’ upheld the persecuted Catholics of Japan. This year, rather than placating ourselves by cutting back on ‘sugar or alcohol’, how about reconnecting with the Sacrament of Reconciliation by embracing ‘contrition’ in a whole new way? Beware! Evil’s tactic is not to directly oppose our good intention. Instead, the tempter encourages us to procrastinate the moment of implementation. We find ourselves saying, ‘we will …. but not just now”.

The important thing is to begin; then to continue with regularity. Pope Francis says openly that he receives the Sacrament of Reconciliation every two weeks and that he does so because he sees himself as a sinner. It is one of the most important statements he has made as the Pope and one of the least reported. Why might that be? Well, the Tempter will do all in his very considerable power to prevent or delay our accessing the Sacraments because they are God’s chosen channels of grace to help us combat Satan’s malevolence. For God’s grace not only heals, it also arms us for the unrelenting temptations that await to ensnare us until our last breath.

There have never been more physical-fitness centres, at least in Western Europe. Yet the citizenry cannot be said to be at peace. True wellbeing has three components – spiritual, mental and physical. Each needs to maximise its capability and each needs the other for that.

In today’s Second Reading, St. Paul addresses the Romans:
“Through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all people, inasmuch as all sinned.
For if, by the transgression of one person, death came to reign through that one person, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of justification come to reign in life through the one person, Jesus, the Christ.”







7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Disarming of Evil

“Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy…”, God said to Moses.
These are attention-arresting and challenging words.  They introduce our First Reading for this 7th Sunday from the Book of Leviticus (19:1-2,17-18) which dates back to the period 538 to 332 BC.
The urgent import of its message, far from being dimmed by repetition over the passage of time, is now ever more pressing. Choosing an extract from the Jewish Bible to open our Christian celebration of God’s Word also reminds us that our Baptism has incorporated us into the ‘whole community of Israel’ to whom God’s imperative command is addressed.

Each person born into this world faces an inescapable lifelong embattlement. Concomitant with the struggle of birth, infant viability and adult life, God calls us to reclaim the holiness with which He had endowed us, together with his image and likeness. That holiness was damaged by our forebears when they chose to listen to the Evil One. The poet Wendell Berry, born in 1934, wrote: “There are no un-sacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” Adapting his words, we can say: There are no un-sacred persons; there are only sacred persons and desecrated persons. God’s revealed purpose is the re-consecration of desecrated persons.

The Transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1–8, Mark 9:2–8 and Luke 9:28–36), commemorated annually on August 6th, is perhaps mistakenly thought of as a single event. Jesus prayed frequently to his heavenly Father without the apostles presence. On those intimate occasions, Jesus could have experienced transfiguration. Could the inclusion of one such occasion in the Gospels be to teach us that, through our transfiguration, Evil can be disarmed?
Do you recall any reference, when celebrating Jesus’ Transfiguration on August 6th, to the Baptised’s ongoing pilgrimage of transfiguration? For, by virtue of our Baptism, we are engaged upon a daily and lifelong battle to reclaim the innate holiness with which we were gifted, through the power of the Spirit. The battleground of this transfiguring reclamation is the cutting edge of life here on earth where God and Satan are conflicted.
In recent months, the media has featured remembrances of World wars, each with their dates of commencement and termination. On this earth, the war with Evil is ceaseless. The media often tags particularly horrific acts of death and injury with the word ‘Evil’, as if they are one-offs. Whereas, these horrific outbursts of evil are but momentary glimpses of the continuous battle Satan wages here, for this is his kingdom (1 John 5:19), against God’s elect.

At our Baptism, after the water was poured on our foreheads and the words were spoken, each of us was anointed on the crown of our head with the holy Oil of Chrism. The accompanying prayer has these words:
“God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has freed you from sin and given you a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit and welcomed you into his holy people. He now anoints you with the Chrism of salvation. As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet and King, so may you live always as a member of his body, sharing everlasting life.”

The words “As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet and King, so may you live always as a member of His body” tell us that the grace of Baptism enables our continuing transfiguration, if we willingly collaborate with the Holy Spirit. We share in Christ’s Priesthood by the daily offering we make of our self, as we live our vocation be it as spouse, parent, refuse collector, teacher etc, on behalf of humanity. We share in Christ’s Prophetical role by speaking the Truth, as taught by Jesus, to all people irrespective of the consequences. We share in Christ’s Kingly role by our commitment to servant-leadership both within our community and in wider society.
Jesus was engaged in bringing about our redemption from his conception to his last breath, thirty something years later. The Baptised are called to unite with Jesus, in a process of continuous transfiguration, for the salvation of humanity. Jesus’ battles with Satan, referenced throughout the Gospels for example in Luke (4:1-13), are to show us that we should expect nothing less.
 

Each new day calls us, as the Baptised, to renew, in our heart and soul, our deliberate choice to live these charisms of Christ, Priest, Prophet and King, in union with the Holy Spirit. As with Christ, the first pilgrim on this path of human transfiguration, we have no need of uniform or emblems. Neither have we need of ranks of superiority, for all are equal in the sight of God. As has been painfully shown in the history of the Church, both historical and contemporary, the true embracing of holiness has little to do with religious garb, clerical collars or episcopal mitres.
This Sunday’s Second Reading is an extract from St. Paul’s first letter to his Corinthian converts (3: 16ff.) in which he wrote:
“Brothers and sisters,
You are God’s building…. Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.”

The Incarnation of Jesus brought the holiness of God to desecrated human nature that, of itself, had no means of transfiguration. Like those first apostles and disciples, we too have to learn, through innumerable and costly mistakes, how to surrender our sinfulness to the One who:
“will transfigure these wretched bodies of ours into copies of His glorious body. He will do that by the same power with which He can subdue the whole universe.” (Philippians 3:21)
Individually, we are infinitesimally small in the great order of things. Nevertheless, we are individually important in God our Father’s mosaic of Life that is eternal.





6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Is It ‘Law’ or ‘Love?

‘Law’ can vie with ‘Love’. These two words may have centre-stage profile in a Christian’s memory. Dependent on age and circumstances, one of these words will have predominance. For older Catholics the resonance may be of (Church) ‘Law’. Commandments, Church laws and regulations could have been the inescapable order of the day in church, in the classroom and possibly in the home. Non-compliance retribution chilled many a child’s imagination.

How different an experience when one is guided in a more mature reading of the New Testament. Given time for reflective prayer, we can discover how Jesus unveils his heavenly Father’s will as a loving invitation rather than as a non-negotiable, imperative command. The father in Jesus’ parable of the ‘Prodigal son’ (Luke 15:11-32) epitomises our heavenly Father’s love for us, his adopted and much-loved family. In his teaching, Jesus does make use of the imperative – see Matt: 5:48 echoing Leviticus 19:2 – but more to underline the urgency of what he is saying. Our God is a God of patience and gentle persuasion who respects the human freedom with which he has gifted us. Nevertheless, Jesus does not deny that there would be consequences were people to marginalise or decline outright his heavenly Father’s invitation.

While the Ten Commandments are non-negotiable, their exposition, in the context of an ever-expanding human understanding and experience, is necessary. This is the on-going fulfilment to which Jesus alludes in the statement he makes to his disciples that opens our Gospel extract today (Matt: 5:17-37):
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfil” (Matt. 5:17)

Perhaps Jesus was confronted with a groundswell of opinion that it was time to, as the saying has it, ‘make a fresh start’. Jesus’ clarifying response is highly illuminative. Nothing that God had previously revealed ever becomes out of time, disposable or, for that matter, alterable; for every word of God is eternal. But God’s foundational words can be better understood, amplified and extended under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus himself engaged in the process of bringing his heavenly Father’s revelation to fulfilment. Jesus, after the Last Supper and when Judas had left, gives his apostles a new commandment (John 13:34):
“I give you a new commandment; love one another; just as I have loved you, you also must love one another.”
The ‘newness’ is in the specific just as I have loved you, you also must love one another. Jesus’ injunction reconstitutes and amplifies God’s foundational commandment adding new meaning in the light of Jesus’ impending death and Resurrection.

The Councils of the Church assembled under the authority of Peter and his Successors, the Popes, have highlighted times of teaching and clarification that are built on God’s groundwork, a linkage continuously highlighted. This process of amplification has never ceased during the 2000+ years of the Church, it continues today and will be on-going up to the end of time. The implementation of the most recent Ecumenical Church Council, Vatican 2, (1962/65) has yet to be fully developed and incorporated universally.

When Jesus forewarned his Apostles that his time with them was limited (John 13: 33-35) they became fearful. So Jesus told them:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me.  My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14: 1-4)
It was the Apostle, Thomas, who then asked Jesus:
“Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
Jesus answered,
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14: 5-6)
In these words, “I am The Way, The Truth and The Life”, Jesus affirmed the continuity of his unseen (post Ascension) presence within the Baptised through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit whom he would send to all who believe in Him and accept Him.

It is the unrestricted availability of the Holy Spirit – in today’s parlance 24/7 – that underpins the truth we read or hear read in today’s First Reading from Ecclesiasticus (15: 15-20):
“If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live; he has set before you fire and water to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand. Before you are life and death, good and evil, whichever you choose shall be given you”.

Some young friends recently came back from Fatima. They had gone, somewhat warily, as participants in a group to which they belong. On their return, I asked how they found the week at the Marian shrine? I was surprised to hear comments such as ‘the week went really quickly, ‘I’d expected to be bored, but I wasn’t’, ‘we were staying in a convent-hotel with simple food, but the nuns were fabulous’. The most telling comment was ‘It was amazing to be with a whole crowd of people (at the Shrine) whom we didn’t know and yet felt as if we did! There was an amazing sense of togetherness.’
In response to the acid-test question as to whether they would go again? The response of one was accepted by all: “Well, I’ve lots of other places on my ‘bucket-list’ I want to visit but who knows ... maybe’.

There’s a frightening complexity of distractions, material and experiential, on offer today with which we are unceasingly bombarded. One of the most effective ways of ‘silencing’ someone, in the sense of shutting down a person’s comprehensive ability to think, is to impose continuous ‘noise’. The internet can be a form of continuous ‘noise’, in the sense of an addiction, that can hold a person’s attention in jeopardy. Thank God, there are various Christian apps which offer help with prayer and reflection stimulation throughout the day. The Jesuit sponsored ‘Pray-As-You-Go’ for people on the move is highly recommended.

The author of Ecclesiasticus tells us to ‘stretch forth our hand’ and experience tells us how often we misjudge and are drawn, in our weakness, to choose what is incompatible with the Lord’s will – but is highly seductive. Maybe it would be helpful to make a copy of this Sunday’s First Reading (Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20) and put it on the bedside table or next to the mobile! Those opening words are so important: “If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you..” God offers us his Law as a handrail because he loves us.

 

The Presentation of the Lord

Our Life of Presentation

They looked like just another poor Jewish family. Joseph, Mary and the eight-day-old Jesus would have blended indistinguishably with others, similarly placed, thronging the Jerusalem Temple fulfilling the Mosaic Law requiring the circumcision of a male child eight days after the birth. Yet, in Mary’s arms lay God-made-Man.

Given the deep-seated belief among Jews that the Messiah would be born from within their nation, every Jewish child was, and continues to be, treasured. It might have been customary for elderly Jews to gather at the Temple to take delight in the new-born male infants being brought by their parents for circumcision. So, when Joseph and Mary brought Jesus into the Temple it would not have been surprising that they were greeted by Simeon and Anna and maybe other elderly Jews.
Luke tells how ‘Simeon took Jesus in his arms’. What did Simeon see in this child that made him unique? Could it have been the light of faith shining out of Jesus’ eyes? St. Matthew tells us (6:22-24): “The lamp of the body is the eye.” Evidently, when Simeon and Anna saw Jesus, as opposed to any other child, they saw in him the fulfilment of God’s promises for his people and Simeon proclaimed:
“Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.”
Each evening, the Church’s ‘Night Prayer’ recalls Simeon’s thanksgiving to God. All who participate are invited to make Simeon’s words their own.
The Simeon and Anna incident reminds us not to judge by appearances. Clearly, Mary and Joseph did not do so. Often, our eyes have shaped our response before we have heard the person before us speak. On this subject, God had words of wisdom for his prophet Samuel (1070 to 1012BC) whom he had sent to Bethlehem to identify and anoint Saul’s successor. Samuel, when he saw Jesse’s son Eliab, thought God’s intended one stood before him:
“But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

Apprehension may have turned to mystification when Simeon spoke further:
“Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted.”
For Mary and Joseph, mystery had become a pronounced companion since The Annunciation. Already, since Jesus’ birth, shepherds had unexpectedly visited. Now, in the Temple at Jesus’ circumcision, two most unlikely characters were bringing further revelations. And more was to come, for Simeon, addressing Mary, continued:
“And you yourself a sword will pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
We do not know how Mary interpreted these words but, for sure, her faith will have triumphed over fear. She, who had answered her cousin Elizabeth’s greeting with the prayer: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour ..”, would once again call on her reserve of faith.

On numerous occasions, and often when least expected, we are faced with circumstances for which we feel ourselves either inadequately or totally unprepared. God, on the other hand, is never unprepared. So we can turn to him with total confidence and trust and allow him to guide us along the path of what, to us, is the unknown. This is easy to say – or to write – but challenging to put into practice. Mary lived a life of loving obedience and is willing to help us with our inadequacies, if we ask.

Simeon and Anna were, from what we can discern, the first postulators of God-become-Man in the person of Jesus. Long before John the Baptiser appeared in the wilderness, they had made an open proclamation in the Temple and maybe more than once. Yet the sight and physical condition of Simeon and Anna would have been sufficient for many to discount whatever they might say.
Will we ever know the real message behind the opening words “Can you help me, please?” or the background behind the polystyrene cup upright on the pavement in front of the silent, seated and bedraggled person? To discover that, we have first to overcome our fear and/or annoyance and be prepared to give time to listen and pay attention. Somehow it is impossible to picture Mary and Joseph ignoring Simeon and Anna.

The life of a Baptised person is one of presentation. Our vocation is to be present to our fellow citizens in such a way that Christ can reach out through us. His reaching out may be through our disability as much as our ability; our prolonged illness as much as our Olympic fitness; our very ordinariness as much as our extraordinariness; our poverty, and even our humiliating inadequacy, as much as through our cleverness, brightness and prosperity.
St. Paul, in his first Letter to the Corinthians, presents a graphic word picture of his vocation, as he sees it, as a source of encouragement for the community he helped establish and which is very dear to him:
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.  I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”  (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

Simeon and Anna are not declared saints of the Church nor are they commemorated by statues or banners. Pilgrims visiting Jerusalem walk on the remnants of the very Temple where Simeon and Anna were the first humans, as far as we know, to proclaim that God had become Man. But I doubt if religious tour guides announce the fact or pilgrims themselves recall the part played by Simeon and Anna. Yet, year by year, for two thousand plus years, the Church has commemorated ‘The Presentation of Jesus’ with the focus, rightly, on Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Perhaps Simeon and Anna are exemplars the priesthood of the laity has no age limit. This is relevant for our era when grandparents, aunts and uncles are more than ever involved in caring for their grandchildren, nephews and nieces.  Surely St. Luke’s extensive coverage of what we know as ‘The Presentation’ is significant? It seems to underline Pope Francis’ ‘mission to the peripheries’.






16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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

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.