Sunday Reflection

12th Sunday in Ordinary Time (25.06.17)

 “Fear no one.”   “Do not be afraid.

Jesus’ use of the imperative underlines the non-negotiability of his statement. The imperative opens the Matthew Gospel extract for the 12th Sunday (10:26). Jesus’ teaching, to his Twelve Apostles, underlines the truth that fear is a crippling and permanent feature of human life on this earth.
 
Previously in the Garden of Eden, also known as Paradise, our first parents knew no fear. From Genesis 3:8 we can deduce that God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden and they were unafraid either of God or of each other in their nakedness. The bedevilment of fear originates with Satan who deftly and successfully used it to invade the free will of our first parents.
 
Their original breaking of God’s commandment made them Eden’s exiles. It incarcerated them in Satan’s kingdom and subjected them and their successors, including us, to the ravages of multi-faceted fear. Currently, our world can be truly frightening. At so many levels there is the promotion of deliberate disharmony bringing a fear-induced disintegration of society affecting both families and nations. For example, the upheavals of the Trump administration in the USA, plus the number of European countries with very divided views on the EU, migration, control of borders etc. It is unsurprising that people may choose not to take stock of the reality. Among those who do, many hold up their hands in despair. Yet, our world does not have to be like this.
 
Jesus would never lay a commandment upon us without granting us freedom of access to the grace necessary for fulfilling it. It is our responsibility to make, daily, a prayer based application for the grace which we need as a support for our willed choice. Yesterday’s prayer does not serve tomorrow! As Sr. Mary Xavier’s hymn expresses it: “Lord, for tomorrow and its needs I do not pray; keep me, my God, from stain of sin, just for today.” The natural antidote to fear is an inner wholeness. Pope emeritus Benedict XVl expresses it thus: “Only if truth and love are in agreement can humanity be happy: only truth makes us free.”  
 
Jesus, God’s only begotten Son-made-Man, offers a true sense of direction and purpose in this Sunday’s Gospel (Matt: 10:26-33):
Jesus said to the Twelve:
Fear no one ….…. do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Hell.”
 
But are people listening in this 21st. century? Are we, who in real time hear the Gospel being proclaimed, truly listening? If all the Baptised were truly listening and responding would there not be an irresistible surge of unified purposefulness that would impact upon political decisions at governmental level because, in true democracies, the public vote holds the power.
 
As love and truth are not in agreement humanity lacks true happiness. Consequently, lacking a true sense of direction and purpose, public opinion is tossed around in the maelstrom of international and national political uncertainty perpetually stirred up by the, at times, irresponsibility shown by some instant communication outlets. Yet, our world does not have to be like this.
 
A committed Christian must love the world enough, despite its violence, to want it to be as God intended. She or he must be willing to ‘step up to the plate’. The receiving of Holy Communion is also a proclamation of willingness to step into and be prophetically active in the space where the world’s chosen way of acting contradicts the Gospel and proclaim: ‘It should not be like this. It doesn’t have to be like this.’
 
The prophet Jeremiah, in today’s First Reading (20:10-13), laments the negativity he constantly met among his own people when he spoke God’s message to them. Jeremiah’s words strongly resemble the hostility believers in God encounter in our 21st century. As Pope Francis has pointed out – ‘in the Church’s history there have never been more martyrs than there are today’. Very recently in China the authorities held another Catholic bishop under house arrest without cause. They wanted to prevent the bishop celebrating the Mass of Chrism with his priests and people in Holy Week. Without the bishop there could be no Mass of Chrism, itself a celebration of Sacramental union with the universal Church at the local level. He was but one among many more Catholic bishops in China who are actively prevented from fulfilling their ministry of service and leadership.
 
Martyrdom knows many forms other than the spilling of blood. There is much evidence of masked hostility towards Christianity in Western Europe. It breaks surface from time to time with media sensationalism about the wearing of a crucifix or the saying of a prayer in public. But the real hostility goes on at a much deeper level where, for example, the natural careers of breadwinners are derailed because of their religious affiliation. 
 
One cannot be a committed and active Christian, within the spiritual desert that is Western Europe, without that desert impacting on one’s life in some way. This desert-impact becomes the place of encounter. It was soon after Jesus had been Baptised than the Spirit led him into the desert of the Judean wilderness and he encountered Satan. It was Jesus’ moment of commitment and consecration. Satan’s temptations presented Jesus with alternative ways of, apparently, accomplishing his messianic mission. Jesus rejects each temptation because it is either testing God or rejecting God. Underlying each temptation was the lure of blasphemy because the temptations were focused on the glorification of Jesus not on his commitment to his heavenly Father. (Matthew 4:1-11)
 
The Son of God-made-Man, faced with the diabolical power of Satan, repeatedly asserts the absolute sovereignty of God and his own dependence upon God alone. In the desert, at the outset of his public ministry, and again, three years later, in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest, Jesus gave us a masterclass in how to harmonise truth and love when he demonstrated true Sonship and fidelity (John 18: 1-11)
 
Fear might induce us to fly from a world of such corruption and disfiguration. By instructing us to “Fear no one” and not to be afraid, Jesus is encouraging us to follow in his footsteps, to engage with the world which is in the grip of Satan (1 John 5:19). We are to make our Baptismal journey as a pilgrimage for the world in which the Holy Spirit will bring us to a deeper generosity of service. The Spirit will show us how to be a source of true life in the man-made desert of our affluent society.
 
There were some remarkable television programmes over recent weeks revealing how deserts, far from being sterile places, were inhabited by many living creatures not immediately obvious to the human eye. Desert dwellers, be they human or non-human, have to learn how to live on the edge of survival in a vastness that can only be truly known by God.
 

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time (18.06.17)

‘Find the ideal gift for First Holy Communion’  
 
The First Holy Communion (FHC) season is in full swing. Advertisements offer everything for ‘the day’, including professional organisers to set up the day for you with outfits, hairdressing, limousines and party venues, if you can afford it! Even for the average family a FHC event can be uncomfortable for the family budget.
 
Contrast, if you will, a fairly usual FHC 2017 AD occasion with the original event when Jesus instituted The Eucharist. Jesus gathered his disciples in an Upper Room at their Passover meal in Jerusalem around 30 AD, which we refer to as The Mass of the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday evening. There are more similarities than you might imagine.
 “On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”
So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.” (Mark 14:12-15)
 
Planning is a factor common to both occasions, 30AD and 2017AD. Jerusalem, at the time of Jesus, was always crowded for major religious festivals with space at a premium. Clearly Jesus had booked in advance that Upper Room, even to identifying the guide who would lead his disciples to the location. It was evidently a location out of the public eye. Jesus would not want to engage with publicity. He had spent three years preparing people not ‘things’. Those he had chosen to invite as apostles and disciples – and who had accepted even to the ‘leaving of everything’ (Matt 19:27) - had received personal teaching and formation as they accompanied Jesus on his missionary journey. They would be the foundation members of his Church – his visible Body on earth - to continue his mission after his Ascension.
 
Jerusalem in 30 AD. was a garrisoned Jewish city under a cruel military curfew. The Roman Governor and Army feared an uprising with so many Jews gathered for the festival. The Pharisees and Jewish political leaders were caught between a volatile public and a messianic figure in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Pharisee High Priest, Caiaphas, shows his political colours in John’s Gospel:
But one of them (the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council), named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (11:49-50)
 
The Pharisees had a twofold reason for their opposition to Jesus. They feared losing their power and control over the Jewish people because of Jesus’ teaching and miracles. They also feared that Jesus might upset their carefully engineered and delicately maintained political balance with the all-powerful Roman authorities. Jesus’ disciples, aware of all this tension, were understandably nervous whereas Jesus was calm.
 
Our 2017 AD. society is also ‘garrisoned’ but by Twitter, Facebook and the world of instant communication. The dictats of ‘mobile rule’ have proven to be as cruel as were the politics in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day. Politicians today are caught between a volatile public and the vast, unelected, financial and employment powers of multinationals that undermine democratically elected governments. Market forces rule and even a FHC is not exempt, it too is squeezed to extract financial profit.
 
Parents, relatives and Godparents want everything to be perfect for their First Holy Communicant. Sadly, the emphasis is on the ‘thing’ part of everything. Material components such as outfits and hairdressing appointments are given high priority. The spiritual preparation of the FHC child and his/her awareness of a personal relationship with Jesus is utterly overshadowed. Too often, the First Holy Communicant’s nearest and dearest have lost their own personal contact with Jesus in all but a mythical way.  As the proverb has it:  No one can give what he or she does not have!
 
Jesus instituted The Eucharist – the first ever ‘Holy Communion’ - at the Passover (Last Supper) discipleship gathering that was far from perfect, despite his dedicated and prolonged input and guidance. Among those at table, whom Jesus would nourish with his own Body and Blood, was the apostle who would betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver (Judas); the potential leader of the Apostolic College who would publicly deny knowing Jesus three times out of fear (Peter); one Gospel-recorded apostle (Thomas) who initially refused to believe in Jesus’ Resurrection and quite likely he was not alone in doing so; two unnamed disciples who would ‘lose their faith’ and head back to their home village of Emmaus; plus the remainder who within hours, were to run away when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. The apostle, John, was the sole exception. He would stay close to Jesus’ mother when Jesus was crucified. These were the very first ‘First Holy Communicants’ to whom Jesus had dedicated three years of his life. Everything wasn’t perfect nor was everyone!
 
In the dim and distant, there was a school of thought among Catholics in the UK that you went to ‘Reconciliation’ (Confession) on a Saturday evening so as to be free from sin to receive Holy Communion early on Sunday morning, early, because Holy Communion was only distributed to the faithful at the early Masses. Only the celebrant received Holy Communion at the Sung High Mass later in the morning. If this makes you amazed you should know that this is just one dimension of the changes that have occurred in my lifetime and I am now 75 years of age. To be free of sin we have to die and rise again in Jesus. In the interim, Satan attempts to ensnare us along the periphery of our daily life as waves ripple along the sides of a small boat in a big sea. Often, seawater manages to make some ingress and has to be bailed out! It will be thus until we arrive at the shore of eternity.  Meanwhile, in this land of exile, we are constantly threatened by sin because, here, Satan remains free to attack us until the day God calls time and Satan is banished for eternity.
 
The members of the original Apostolic College (the Apostles) and the Disciples were not saints. They were recovering sinners, still subject to lapsation, in whom Jesus saw potential saints. He was willing to forgive them over and over, rebuilding their faith and commitment on the fragmented foundation of their latest lapse making use of their plea for forgiveness, their firm purpose of amendment and their love for him. Peter spoke for many: “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not just seven times, but seventy times seven times! (Matt  18:21)  70x7 = 490; 70x490 = 3,430 etc. The incalculability of the final number is the lesson Jesus taught Peter.
 
When we gather to celebrate The Eucharist, whether as First Holy Communicants or battle-honed and battle-weary long-term members of the Body of Christ, we must truly acknowledge that we are, above all else, recovering sinners. Note, not recovered, as if the job were done, but still recovering because we are only a breath away from lapsation. When we draw our last breath it will be as a recovering sinner, please God. The Eucharist is our food for the journey, our healing on the journey and our destiny.
“Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my (poorly kept) roof, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”
 

The Most Holy Trinity (11.06.17)

The feast of the Holy Trinity is one of the principal mysteries of religion, so it is not an easy task to try and explain or indeed understand it.  Nevertheless, our Faith requires us to believe it.
 
 I always remember how my parish priest at the time gave his explanation of it, which made sense to me, and now I pass it on to others, hoping they will get the same inspiration.
 
He said:-  “ The Holy Trinity comprises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit....three persons in one God.  The mystery is that God is Father, Son and Spirit.

I am a priest, a son, and a brother – and yet I am one and the same person, whichever title people know me as.  I too am three in one”.
     
It would not be helpful to delve deeply into this mystery, because deep theological study of it would rather confuse the matter even more.

When a pond is still, you can see into it.   Even if you cannot see right down to the bottom of it, you can see something of what is contained in its depths.   But once you begin to stir things up, everything disappears and the picture is more baffling than before.
 
Voltaire said: “It is natural to admit the existence of God as soon as one opens one’s eyes” Yet many look and see nothing.  They listen and hear nothing.
                                               
We have to be attuned to hear and see God.  This calls for great openness and sensitivity.
                                               
The best thing a Christian can do is to look at the Gospels, and see how God spoke about this mystery and lived it.
                                               
He spoke about God as a merciful and forgiving Father.
                                               
He spoke about himself as the Son of this Father.   By seeking to do the will of his Father at all times, he showed us how a child of God should live.  The will of the Father was that he should bring us the good news of salvation.

But it was the Holy Spirit who commissioned him for this work:  He said: “The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me.  He sent me to bring good news to the poor.”
 
We are dealing with a great mystery here.   We think of God as our Father, who loves us deeply.  It is from Him that we come, and it is to Him that our lives flow like a brook to the sea.
                                               
We think of Jesus – the Son of God - as our Brother, who leads us to the Father’s House.
                                               
We think of the Holy Spirit as the one who helps us to live like Jesus, and who binds us together as brothers and sisters in a community of love.
 
Like fish in the sea and birds in the air – this becomes the very atmosphere in which a Christian prays and lives.
 
How often do we call upon the Holy Spirit,  perhaps not realising it...how about  every time we pronounce :-
                               
     “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”
    or “ Glory be to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
 
The following quote written by an inmate on the wall of a concentration camp is also revealing:-
 
“I BELIEVE IN THE SUN, EVEN WHEN IT’S NOT SHINING.
I BELIEVE IN LOVE EVEN WHEN I DON’T FEEL IT.
I BELIEVE IN GOD EVEN WHEN HE IS SILENT”

Pentecost (04.06.17)

Interactive cellular activity, which begins with life, is common to all living matter. The cellular structure of each body is being constantly renewed. Individual cells have a finite life span and as they die off most are replaced. The human body has between 50 and 75 trillion cells. Red blood cells live for about four months while white blood cells average more than a year. Skin cells live about two to three weeks while colon cells last only four days. Brain cells last a lifetime but neurons in the cerebral cortex, for example, are not replaced when they die.
 
The international community of the Baptised is the cellular structure that is the body of the Church on earth. It is made up of unique individuals each gifted with life for a specific period. Each member is drawn to love God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit who has made himself known through Jesus Christ. Equally, each is called to demonstrate their love by helping others achieve their goal of loving God through obedience to his Commandments. This Spirit promoted interactive-harmony makes real and visible the Body of Christ on earth.

Christ’s earthly body continues to be threatened with violence and persecution. The words the Risen Jesus left with the Eleven in Galilee at his Ascension – “I will be with you all days, even to the end of time”(Matt 28:20)are coupled with his previous promise to Peter also in Matthew (16:18):  “Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.” That the powers of hell will not, ultimately, conquer does not mean that the Church will not experience horrendous pain, in varied places and times, until the end of the world as we know it.

By way of example, you may not have read these recent words of the Pope’s Representative in Syria: “Six years after the start of the Civil War the country is in a bloodbath – a situation so desperate it leaves you with the impression of being in hell. I do not know how else to describe these atrocities. I always say, whoever does not believe in hell, just come to Syria and you will see the might of hell” Cardinal Mario Zenari told ‘CAN News’ on March 30. By contrast, the problems of the Church in the UK shrink to insignificance – inconvenient Mass times, shortage of priests, delays for funerals and such like.
 
One problem with feast days is that, unthinkingly, we set limits to them in our accustomed time slots of segmented twenty-four hours periods. The Church highlights the Day of Pentecost to draw attention to the fortifying activity of the Holy Spirit of God that actually continues 24 x 7 x 52. Were Pentecost not to be continuous, the Church would not exist and we would be the unbaptized, trapped in our self-created exile.

St. Paul in 1 Corinthians writes: But God has composed the body and has given greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its members should have mutual concern for one another.…
If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it …  Now you are the body of Christ, and each of you is a member of it.…” (12:24-27)

The physical human body coordinates its cell structure to assist any one part of the body that is injured or not functioning. So, in conditions of extreme cold, the body draws its blood inwards to protect core organs. As a consequence, extremities like feet and hands can feel the cold intensely. 

News of our sisters and brothers being actively persecuted and murdered in the Middle East should motive us, in the relatively unscathed Western Church, to make more than financial donations, necessary though these are. The impact of voluntary self-mortification, for example, assists us in aligning our mental and spiritual awareness with a reminder of the oppressive suffering of our sisters and brothers are experiencing in other parts of the world. Self-mortification also acts as a form of intercession with God on their behalf. This is the interactive ‘cell to cell’, Baptised-to-Baptised, activity that our Baptismal vows call for and which is enabled by the Holy Spirit in the continuous Pentecost that is our life on earth right now. Because we have no idea of how long the ‘now’ will last, it is important that we make the most of each present moment.
 
Pope Francis is frequently heard asking for the prayer of the crowds who come to visit him or that he visits on his missionary journeys. Francis began his ministry, on the night of his election as Pope, by asking the assembled people in St. Peter’s Square to silently pray for him right there and then. He bowed his head in silence while they did so. As a Jesuit, a priest, a bishop and now as the Pope, Francis is crystal clear as to how much he believes himself to be in need of the daily prayer of all his sisters and brothers in the Church. That we pray for the current Pope at each Mass is indicative of the demands of his leadership role.

A Pentecost moment is precious for its capacity to remind us that we are living cells within the Body of Christ on earth through our Baptism. Our living relationship with all the baptised is a ‘two-way street’. We contribute our daily prayer and witness and we daily draw support for our battle to remain faithful to God.
 
Pentecost is a state of being not a moment in time. It is the Baptised person choosing to live, with a moment-to-moment consciousness, in the relationship that this Sacrament confers. In this it could be compared with, for example, the relationship between a husband and wife in the Sacrament of Matrimony. Whether they are in the same room or separated by a geographical distance, they are united in an exclusive bond of love that is the presence of the Holy Spirit in each. “Idealism!” – some might call out disparagingly. And yes, it is an ideal but an achievable one thanks to the gift of Pentecost – not a moment, but a state of being.
 
Were the Baptised members of the Church in the western world to become fully alive to the potential presence of the Holy Spirit within them, how different would be the impact of European Christianity on its host societies? The Second Vatican Council’s document ‘Gaudium et Spes’ (Ch.3) has this challenge:
(37). “Sacred scripture teaches humankind what has also been confirmed by centuries of experience, namely, that the great advantages of human progress bring with them grave temptations: the hierarchy of values has been disordered, good and evil intermingle, and every person and group are interested only in their own affairs, not in those of others.

The whole of human history has been the story of dour combat with the powers of evil stretching as our Lord tells us, from the very dawn of history until the last day. Finding themselves in the battlefield, men and women have to struggle to do what is right, and it is at great cost to themselves, and aided by God's grace, that they succeed in achieving their own inner integrity.”

Christ, to whom all power in heaven and on earth has been given, is forever at work in the hearts of those women and men who welcome Him through the indwelling of his Spirit.

What St. Paul wrote to the Romans is applicable to us who live in the continuousness of Pentecost:
“Do not be conformed to this world” (12.12)

Jeremiah, the prophet, proclaimed in 600BC words that have value today: (6:16)
Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads and search for the good path; that way choose and walk in it for there you will find rest for your soul.
 

7th Sunday of Easter (28.05.17)

PRESENT .. BUT IN A DIFFERENT WAY
 
“Know that I am with you always to the very end of the age.”  (Matt 28.20) This final sentence from St. Matthew’s Gospel also concludes our Gospel for Ascension Sunday. There are many ways of ‘being present’. There is the physical, verbal or photo-generated presence. There is a way of ‘being present’ through mementos that can be substantial like a building or small like a ring, a set of rosary beads or a something written. The absence of a physical presence attracts us to tactile objects as a source of comfort. In the strict sense of the word tactile, there is nothing to physically connect us to the Resurrected Jesus and yet he fulfils his promise.
 
The Ascension of Jesus is an apt moment to refresh our understanding of the Church’s teaching on Jesus’ dual natures, a God and as Man.

When, in the fullness of time, God the Son became Incarnate as Man in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, he simultaneously continued as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. The Church teaches this as the unique mystery of the One Person, Jesus Christ, possessing two natures, the nature of God and the nature of Man. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) explains it in these words:
“479 At the time appointed by God, the only Son of the Father, the eternal Word, that is, the Word and substantial Image of the Father, became incarnate; without losing his divine nature he has assumed human nature.”
“481 Jesus Christ possesses two natures, one divine and the other human, not confused, but united in the one person of God's Son.”
“482 Christ, being true God and true man, has a human intellect and will, perfectly attuned and subject to his divine intellect and divine will, which he has in common with the Father and the Holy Spirit.”
 
For want of a better expression, there is a type of duality to be associated with Jesus’ Ascension. The Incarnate Son of God-made-Man, now Resurrected and Ascended, is humanly present with the Father and the Holy Spirit in the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Prior to the Incarnation, Jesus’ humanity was real but potential in that it had not taken shape and form on earth. The previously potential human person of God-made-Man becomes the actual human person fused with the Divine in the mystery that the Church describes as Jesus having two natures in one person.

St. Paul, in his letter to the Church at Colossae, writes in reference to Jesus:
“He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the Church; He is the beginning and firstborn from among the dead, so that in all things he may have pre-eminence. For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him …” (1:17-19)
 
Jesus’ dying confirms his humanity, but the sting of his dying could not touch his Divine Nature. In his dying on the Cross, Jesus did away with the everlasting character of death so as to make death a thing of time, not of eternity. (Pope St. Leo the Great ‘The Cross of Christ’) His Resurrection and Ascension confirm his Divinity. The nature of Man and the nature of God are equally present in the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. So Jesus in Ascending to the Father and the Holy Spirit raises a truly human being to a closeness with God that allows humans to address God as ‘Father’ because God has adopted us as his daughters and sons in Jesus who is our Brother. Jesus is the natural Son of God. Humans are the adopted children of God.
 
The previously visible, audible and touchable Jesus, God-made-Man, is no longer physically present in this world. Yet he remains present in his Word and in the Eucharist. At liturgical gatherings of Christ’s Body on earth, the community of the Baptised, his Word is proclaimed. Each proclamation ends with the Acclamation: ‘The Word of the Lord” which invites the response: “Thanks be to God.” Or, in the case of the Gospel: “The Gospel of the Lord” with the response, “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.”  The community acclaims Jesus as present and nourishing them with his Word.

The importance of the Ministry of Reading is so often not appreciated. People are called upon to proclaim God’s living Word to the community without any preparation! Inevitably this can lead to uninspiring responses from the assembled community. Compare the vibrancy of the liturgical responses that are heard in local churches with, for example the responses experienced at Lourdes and Fatima with international pilgrims speaking various languages but with hearts alive and full. Yet, whether it is in a local church or an international pilgrimage centre, it is the living God speaking to us and through us!
 
At the Consecration of the bread and wine, the celebrant, speaking in the Person of Christ, holds up the blessed bread and wine: “Take this all of you and eat it … drink from it:  This is My Body given up for you  … My Blood … poured out for you and for many so that sins may be forgiven.”

The emphatic ‘This is …” underlines the on-going presence among us of the Ascended One.
At the time of Holy Communion, the celebrant repeats the emphatic statement: “This is the Lamb of God ….” The intended recipients respond: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof….”

With these words the Baptised Body of Christ on earth proclaim their faith in the coming among them and within them of their Resurrected and Ascended Lord.
 
For the Baptised believer this is fulfilment of the words of the prophet Isaiah who lived eight centuries before the birth of Christ: “For since the world began, no ear has heard and no eye has seen a God like you, who works for those who wait for him!” (64:4)

St. Paul, a former persecutor of Christians who became a convert Pharisee never met Christ on earth, yet he reiterated Isaiah’s words to his embryonic Church community in Corinth adding:  “But God has revealed it to us by the Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God …” (1 Cor 2:8)
 
Rather than pondering what the eleven Apostles saw at the Ascension, we might be better employed preparing for next Sunday’s celebration of ‘Corpus Christi’ – the Body of Christ. We could profitably reflect on the dialogue in which we participate as Communicants – “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter …” In our hearts do we sufficiently believe the words our lips utter? Do we believe that this is the real presence of Christ come within us, the Christ of Bethlehem, Calvary, the Resurrection and the Ascension?

Matthew’s Gospel for the Ascension (28:16-20) addressed to the Eleven is intended for all the Baptised who, by that Sacrament, share in the Priesthood of Christ:
“All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And know, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

St. Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthian community, lays it on the line in chapter 4:2-13
“God in his mercy has given us this work to do, and so we do not become discouraged. We put aside all secret and shameful deeds; we do not act with deceit, nor do we falsify the word of God. In the full light of truth we live in God's sight and try to commend ourselves to everyone's good conscience.
Yet we who have this spiritual treasure are like common clay pots, in order to show that the supreme power belongs to God, not to us. We are often troubled, but not crushed; sometimes in doubt, but never in despair; there are many enemies, but we are never without a friend; and though badly hurt at times, we are not destroyed. At all times we carry in our mortal bodies the death of Jesus, so that his life also may be seen in our bodies. Throughout our lives we are always in danger of death for Jesus' sake, in order that his life may be seen in this mortal body of ours.  This means that death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
The scripture says, “I spoke because I believed.” In the same spirit of faith we also speak because we believe.”
 
Like the Apostles, we must face the very real and dispiriting events of our times, the circumstances that cannot and should not be ignored.

As a person of wisdom said: ‘Hope begins just after we have reached our limit’.
 

6th Sunday of Easter (21.05.17)

Obedience – a Christian’s security in a threatening world
 
It is the quality of St. John’s obedience to God that his love for Jesus reveals. Christlike love, choosing to live in obedience to God or seeking the wholesome wellbeing of another, is the focus of Jesus’ teaching on this 6th Sunday of Easter (John 14: 15-21). The Methodist Biblical scholar Charles Kingsley Barrett (1917-2011) commented that St. John ‘never allowed (his) love (for Jesus) to devolve into a sentiment or emotion. Its expression is always moral and is revealed in obedience." Over the course of history there have been numerous proclamations about love. What continues to be in short supply is the practice of the virtues of obedience and love in relation to God’s Commandments. The evidence for this is a world, our world, where interpersonal/international relationships are bordering on chaos. People speak of love while simultaneously causing pain and heartbreak to those whom they have promised to love and/or obey. As seen through Jesus’ teaching, loving another truly is uncompromisingly demanding and is only possible through obedience to a higher authority namely, God.
 
Jesus speaks of the relationship between love and obedience in the first line of this Sunday’s extract from John (14:15) "If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” A person’s love for Jesus is defined by that person’s obedience to Jesus’ words; not some of his words, or our personal interpretation of his words, but the truth his words contain, and which are expounded by his Church, as it relates to human life and activity, in its totality, on this earth. This is the love that is uncompromisingly demanding.

There was an occasion when a woman, in the crowd gathered around Jesus probably herself a mother, spoke freely:
 “As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said, “Blessed is the womb that bore You, and blessed are the breasts that nursed You.”
But Jesus replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”… (Luke 11:27-28)

Many would agree that a picture of a mother, clearly cherishing her baby in arms, is the quintessence of love. The woman, in Luke’s Gospel, who addressed her remark to Jesus, was saying, in effect, ‘what an inexpressible depth of love your mother, who carried you and nourished you, shared with you and you with her’. Jesus’ response must have been greeted with a stunned silence for he said, in effect: that ‘an even greater depth of love is shown by those who hear the Word of God and live it uncompromisingly through loving obedience.’

Jesus’ teaching reveals that it is a truly selfless love that empowers faithful and wholehearted obedience to God. In other words, obedience to God cannot be instilled by discipline or fear because these could produce an excess of servility that is not love or, at least, not the love that Jesus is commending. Nor can authentic obedience to God be nurtured through the competition or reward schemes that were practised in many a Catholic school under the guise of ‘fund raising’ and ‘gold stars’! Those who may recall such methods are unlikely to applaud them now. ‘Rescuing’ Christians formed, or perhaps the word should be deformed, under such regimes can be the work of a lifetime.
 
The first sentence from the Second Reading for this Sunday (1 Peter 3:15) reiterates Jesus’ teaching: “Beloved:  Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.”

Here’s the challenge! Right now, as I am, can I truthfully say: “Jesus Christ is the Lord of my heart”? Isn’t it more likely to be the case that my heart is divided by multiple and unequal allegiances? Despite the words of prayer praising God that are uttered by my lips, my heart is riddled with forever-competing appetites and distractions purposefully strewn there by Satan? Some, like mothers with young children and a husband to care for, or carers for the elderly or the sick, love Christ through the love and care that occupies their hearts unceasingly. 

Apprentice soldiers, for example, are trained to be unquestioningly and instantaneously obedient as a form of discipline. Researchers, who handle dangerous and potentially lethal substances, are trained to obey a tested set of strictly to-be-adhered-to rules for the safety of all. The same can be said about practitioners of medicine and the law and so forth. Why is it, then, that we are so resistant to accept a Divine governance, based on love, when it comes to exercising control over our hearts?

Might one explanation be that it was Eve and Adam’s hearts that were infiltrated both subtly and violently by Satan? (Genesis 3: 1-7) Their wound of weakness has contaminated all successive human life bar one, namely, that of Mary, the Immaculate Mother of God-made-Man.
 
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that cardiovascular diseases (CVD) are the leading cause of death, globally. This is true in all areas of the world except Africa. It is estimated that 90% of CVD is preventable. Yet people, frequently exposed to repetitive adverts nationwide alerting everyone to the dangers of heart diseases that can cripple and eventually kill, continue to smoke, drink, eat to excess, and so forth. Heart disease kills more people that any other ailment, so we are told.

A parallel can be drawn between hearts that are physically diseased and those that are spiritually injured:-
The WHO, working with many other agencies, draws peoples’ attention to the preventable but increasingly prevalent heart diseases capturing people of all ages, especially in the so-called developed world.

The GOSPELS, working through all the Christian Churches, draw peoples’ attention to the preventable but increasingly prevalent disobedience that detaches human hearts, of all ages, from God’s love, especially in the so-called developed world.

Satan has had millennia to practise his skills as a deceiver. One of his many skills is the implantation of doubt. It worked a treat on Eve – “Did God really say that you were not to eat from any of the trees in the garden? (Gen 3:1) The serpent (Satan) knew exactly what God had said to Adam and Eve. He employs misquotation as a deliberate tactic towards the disablement of our will too! Satan infers some false unreasonableness in God’s will that plays to our all too human sense of what we might consider ‘fair play’ – “…. not to eat from any of the trees…” whereas God had specified just one tree from which Eve and Adam were not to eat.
 
To return to that challenge! Right now, as I am, can I truthfully say: “Jesus Christ is the Lord of my heart”? I might be watching a spellbinding sunset over some distant hills or where the sea blends with the sky. Yes, in such circumstances it is easier to praise God with all my heart. But what if I were deeply worried or facing pain or some trial that really scared me? Would I still say: “Jesus Christ is the Lord of my heart”? Would I trust him as the pain or the stress increased and as I realized my helplessness?

As his executioners nailed the scourged, bleeding, torn, thorn-crowned body of Jesus to the Cross on which he would slowly suffocate in increasing pain, Jesus prayed: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” (Luke 23.34) That epitomizes Jesus sanctifying His heavenly Father as Lord of his human heart. Jesus exemplifies the ideal of obedience founded on love so that you and I may find the courage for our next, even if initially faltering, step. Our relationship with God through Christ is life’s greatest value.
 

5th Sunday of Easter (14.05.17)

Most of us manage through the day without being bothered by the question of life itself.  It can take all our time and energy merely to cope with what the day brings.
                                                           
Nevertheless, there comes a time when we are forced to pause, because something happens that throws our routine into question – like the sudden death of someone very close to us, leaving a huge gap in our lives, and many questions in our mind.   Things we took for granted, and ventures we thought important fade into insignificance against the reality of loss.

In such a void, we can feel abandoned, alone, without direction, without purpose, friendless, and even homeless.  Here we might pause a moment to reflect on “homelessness”
 
To be homeless is not just to have nowhere to go, but to be unwanted by anybody.
 
It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of a good home – which is not just a house!
It is to have close ties and relationships with other people, where we are accepted as we are, and feel that we belong.  Those who have some experience of homelessness can fully appreciate the benefits of a good home.
To be without faith is to be homeless in the deepest sense of all.
Without faith life is ultimately meaningless.  It is like a journey that leads nowhere.
                                               
In today’s scripture readings Jesus shows us the way by which we must travel to the fullness of God. He says:- “I am the way, the truth and the Life. No one can come to the Father except through me”.  Only when we are united with Him can we reach the Father.
 
Jesus is the Truth.  The truth is not a theory, it is a person.  Jesus is the truth about God, as He is the truth about humanity.  The One who walked the roads of Palestine, and ate with sinners is God’s gift of His true self to us.
 
Jesus is the LIFE – as John announced at the beginning of his gospel:-
“Through Him all things came to be, not one thing had its being except through Him.  All that came to be had life in Him”    Our very life is a gift from God.
 
The  disciples soon learn, when Jesus is no longer amongst them, that there are no ready answers to everything in this life.  They have to work together to discern the way forward.
Jesus trusts His followers through the ages, to face the confusion and complexity of the world.
Looking to Jesus as the way, the truth and the life does not solve every question effortlessly.
Clearly, He wants us to put our Faith to work.
 
Lord Jesus Christ, you said to your friends the night before you died:-
 
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Trust in God still and trust in Me”.
 
Help us in the midst of all anxieties and uncertainties to go on trusting in you and in the Father, so that in time we may enjoy the peace and unity of your kingdom, where you live forever and ever.
  

4th Sunday of Easter (07.05.17)

The Human Gate
 
These days sophisticated electronic devices control entry and exit for both people and animals. In Jesus’ era shepherds were the human gates. The role of the Good Shepherd, exemplified by Jesus, features in St John’s Gospel (10:1-10) for the 4th Sunday of Easter.

In the UK drystone walling or hedgerows define our gated grazing land. Once the animals are within the field, the shepherd/farmer is free for other work. Not so for the shepherds of Palestine in Jesus’ day.

The concept of the Good Shepherd is woven into the language and imagery of the Bible. On Palestine’s rough stony ground, no flock of sheep ever grazed without the constant accompaniment of a vigilant shepherd who was never off-duty and whose life was hard. Finding food for the sheep was difficult. With no protecting walls or hedges the animals were in constant threat of injury. Thieves and robbers also abounded, as did wolves and other predatory animals.
 
Sir George Adam Smith FBA (1856 –1942) a Scottish theologian, Professor of the Old Testament at Aberdeen University, Semitic scholar and explorer of Palestine, wrote about the Palestinian shepherd:
"On some high moor, across which at night the hyenas howl, when you meet him, sleepless, far-sighted, weather-beaten, leaning on his staff, and looking out over his scattered sheep, every one of them on his heart, you understand why the shepherd of Judaea sprang to the front in his people's history; why they gave his name to their king, and made him the symbol of providence; why Christ took him as the type of self-sacrifice."
  
The Palestinian shepherd’s equipment was very simple. He had his ‘scrip’, an animal-skin bag with his food, unleavened bread, dried fruit, olives and hard cheese. He had his sling. A Palestinian shepherd, it is claimed, "could sling a stone at a hair and not miss". The shepherd’s sling was a weapon of offence and defence. There were no sheep dogs so when a shepherd wished to call back a straying sheep, he fitted a stone into his sling and landed it just in front of the animal's nose as a warning to turn back. He had his staff to defend himself and his flock against marauding beasts and robbers. He had shepherd's crook with which he could catch and pull to him any sheep that was straying.

Dusk comes quickly in Mediterranean lands. Temporary sheepfolds, roughly made out of briars, give the sheep some protection for a night. Each shepherd would hold his rod across the entrance, quite close to the ground. The sheep had to pass under it, one by one, (Ezekiel 20:37; Leviticus 27:32) thus affording the shepherd a quick examination to check if any animal had sustained an injury during that day.
 
The relationship between sheep and shepherd in Palestine is different from the UK.  Here, sheep are kept for meat. In Palestine, they were kept for their wool that provided clothing and much more. Palestinian sheep were with their shepherd for years. He knew each by name. A Palestinian shepherd walked in front and his sheep followed … mostly!

Palestinian sheep know and ‘understand’ their shepherd's voice. They will never respond to the voice of a stranger. H. V. Morton FRSL (1892–1979), a journalist and pioneering travel writer from Lancashire, has a wonderful description of the way in which a Palestinian shepherd talks to the sheep. "Sometimes he talks to them in a loud sing-song voice, using a weird language unlike anything I have ever heard in my life. The first time I heard this sheep and goat language I was on the hills at the back of Jericho. A herd of goats had descended into a valley and was mounting the slope of an opposite hill. The shepherd turned round and saw some of his goats had remained behind to devour a rich patch of scrub. Lifting his voice, he spoke to the goats in a language that Pan must have spoken on the mountains of Greece. It was uncanny because there was nothing human about it. No sooner had the shepherd spoken than an answering bleat shivered over the herd, and one or two of the animals turned their heads in his direction. But they did not obey him. The shepherd then called out one word, and gave a laughing kind of whinny. Immediately a goat with a bell round his neck stopped eating, left the herd, trotted down the hill, across the valley, and up the opposite slopes. The man, accompanied by this animal, walked on and disappeared round a ledge of rock. Very soon a panic spread among the herd. They forgot to eat. They looked up for the shepherd. He was not to be seen. They became conscious that the leading goat with the bell at his neck was no longer with them. From the distance came the strange laughing call of the shepherd. At the sound the entire herd stampeded into the hollow and leapt up the hill after him" (H. V. Morton, ‘In the Steps of the Master’).

W. M. Thomson in ‘The Land and the Book’ has the same story to tell. "The shepherd calls sharply from time to time, to remind them of his presence. They know his voice, and follow on; but, if a stranger calls, they stop short, lift up their heads in alarm, and if the unrecognized call is repeated, they turn and flee, because they know not the voice of a stranger. I have made the experiment repeatedly." That is exactly the picture St. John portrays.
 
To draw the deepest blessing from Jesus’ Good News this Sunday we require an appreciation of the relevant history. Without the foregoing background on Palestinian shepherding much of the Gospel’s nuance remains hidden. Our contemporary localized picture of farming, via BBC 1’s ‘Countryfile’ and suchlike programmes, will not reveal the depth in the picture Jesus is painting. It is also helpful to recall that, though there would have been fulltime shepherds, all young Palestinians - including the young Jesus – would have learnt and practised, many times over the years, all the skills of safeguarding and shepherding sheep and goats. Caring for their animals’ welfare was a community activity not just an owner’s duty.
 
Once the sheep were settled in their overnight temporary enclosure, the shepherd would eat some of the sparse provision he had brought in his scrip and drink from his skin of watered wine. Finally he would lay down across the entrance to the sheep enclosure. He himself would be the gate, literally! Jesus used language and concepts that spoke equally to the unlettered and the better educated. He spoke their language because He was their Shepherd. He knew their names. They knew his voice even when, at times, they chose to ignore it.

Today, Jesus speaks our language – the language our hearts find it hard to face; the language of our ‘shadow’ from which we try to hide so as not to have to deal with it. But such procrastination will not work. What we have buried will not stay hidden. Look up Matthew 10:26-28:
“So do not be afraid of them. For nothing is concealed that will not be uncovered, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the housetops. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.…”

It is because he loves us so deeply and cares for us so unceasingly that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, stretches himself across the threshold of our life day by day and remains there even if we choose to trample on him.
 

3rd Sunday of Easter (30.04.17)

ONE INSTANCE AMONG MANY
 
The two Emmaus-bound disciples were, quite likely, not alone. Luke describes the Emmaus couple, perhaps a husband and wife, in his Gospel for the 3rd Sunday of Easter (24:13-35).
 
There would have been many people heading out of Jerusalem after the Passover Festival. Among them would have been the distressed for whom the sight of the crucified Jesus was utterly disheartening and demoralising. Among them would have been people whom Jesus had healed from spiritual as well as physical disablement, plus their many relatives and friends. Jesus, The Risen Good Shepherd – “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (John 10:11) – would have made himself known to his beleaguered disciples, and not only on the Emmaus pathway, putting new heart into those who were open to receive his encouragement.

In the days and weeks following his Resurrection we will never know, while we are on earth, how many disabled-in-faith and hope disciples Jesus rescued. For sure, the Emmaus event was just one rescue among many. We can be sure that, on each of those occasions, Jesus would have tailored his approach to the particular needs of the people involved. He would have couched his approach and restorative message in a language and a style best suited to heal and restore faith. It would be hard to imagine Jesus employing doctrinaire statements of deep theology in such circumstances.
 
Our Baptismal community, the Catholic Church, is experiencing an Emmaus period. For a significant number, their ‘Emmaus’ experience began with Pope St John XXlll when he called the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church (1962–65). Pope John XXIII announced the Council on Jan. 25, 1959. He saw it as a means of spiritual renewal for the Church and as an occasion for Christians separated from Rome to join in a search for reunion.
 
For other Emmaus-like travellers it was the on-going effects of the two World Wars. Pope Francis has commented that a third world war has already begun, unlike the first two. This time it is found within the continuously erupting more localized conflicts affecting virtually all nations to a greater or lesser degree. These conflicts claim many lives while blighting others. For some their ‘Emmaus’ journey is a day while, for others, it is a lifetime. The ‘Risen Good Shepherd’ continues to reach out to all the distressed.

There is a picture on my wall of a prematurely aged Mrs. Poobalachandran Vadana, a Hindu woman of Tamil extraction. Through conflict in Sri Lanka she has lost her husband, and children, as well as her home. She and many like her are displaced not for a period of time but for a lifetime!  In September 2013, the Sri Lankan Government declared that there was not one displaced person in its territory. After the announcement, the Government advised international agencies to pack up and leave. There were no more people for them to assist, it said.

The ‘Risen Good Shepherd’ continues to reach out even to those who do not appreciate the significance of the distress that has engulfed them. Among them, the people so swamped by this materialistic, hedonistic world that they would neither recognise nor welcome, if they did, the companionship of the Risen Good Shepherd still bearing the open wounds of his suffering for them.
 
From among the millions of his adopted-through-Baptism sisters and brothers, the Risen Jesus seeks collaborator ‘Good Shepherds’ for, as he himself has said: “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into His harvest. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.…” (Luke 10:2-3) Many may not be seen in church buildings – at least with any regularity – but nevertheless they belong within His Church.

You find these Baptismally commissioned people, the actually Baptised, volunteering alongside others whose Baptism is ‘by a desire’ of which they have not, as yet, formally become aware. Among such volunteers would be those working with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International (Doctors Without Borders), CAFOD, Survive, Aid to the Church in Need. But, equally included, would be people caring for their elderly and incapacitated relatives, parents struggling to do what is right for their children, teachers who consciously try to offer their pupils an ‘Emmaus’ moment – opening their eyes to a hitherto unseen reality.
It is helpful to recall Jesus’ response to a concerned and much loved disciple, John: John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone else driving out demons in Your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not accompany us.” But Jesus replied, “Do not stop him. No one who performs a miracle in My name can turn around and speak evil of Me.… (Mark 9: 38-39)
 
The Emmaus incident reveals a Risen Lord who continues to have the ability to make sense of things that confuse and distress others and cause doubt. When people allow the Risen Lord to accompany them, the meaning of life becomes clear, darkness become light. An author made one of his characters say: “I never knew what life meant until I saw it in your eyes”. Especially in bewildering times it is only through the Risen Jesus that we are able to learn what life means.
 
The Emmaus incident also speaks to us of the courtesy of Jesus. When the couple had reached their home in Emmaus Jesus behaved as though he needed to continue his journey. Just as he would never have forced himself on them, he does not force himself on those whom he lovingly longs to carry back to the fold. God has given us a gift at once great and yet fraught, the gift of free will. We are free to allow the Risen Lord to enter our lives each day or to pass on.
 
Elizabeth Rebecca Ward (1880-1978) was a prolific English writer of popular verse, religious works, and works for children. She wrote under the penname of Fay Inchfawn.

In Such an Hour
A poem by Fay Inchfawn
Sometimes, when everything goes wrong:
When days are short, and nights are long;
When wash-day brings so dull a sky
That not a single thing will dry.
And when the kitchen chimney smokes,
And when there's naught so "queer" as folks!
When friends deplore my faded youth,
And when the baby cuts a tooth.
While John, the baby last but one,
Clings round my skirts till day is done;
When fat, good-tempered Jane is glum,
And butcher's man forgets to come.
 
Sometimes, I say, on days like these,
I get a sudden gleam of bliss.
"Not on some sunny day of ease,
He'll come . . but on a day like this!"
And, in the twinkling of an eye,
These tiresome things will all go by!
 
And, 'tis a curious thing, but Jane
Is sure, just then, to smile again;
Or, out the truant sun will peep,
And both the babies fall asleep.
The fire burns up with roar sublime,
And butcher's man is just in time.
And oh! My feeble faith grows strong
Sometimes, when everything goes wrong!
 

2nd Sunday of Easter (23.04.17)

Sin – A Powerful Three-Letter Word
 
It would be fascinating to compare the very early followers of Jesus with the Christians of 4th century AD or later. During the intervening period significant changes had occurred within the community of believers founded by Jesus Christ. His followers had spread far and wide as they fled from persecutors of ‘The Way’, the name by which  Christianity was first know. Then Gentile converts began to outnumber Jewish converts. The Gospel, that had been initially orally transmitted, was written down as the original Apostles and disciples died. New languages were embraced as knowledge of The Way spread and this involved translations. The words of one language do not always transfer easily into another. Even within a language, over a passage of time, words undergo a change of meaning. Older speakers of English will ascribe a meaning to the English word ‘wicked’ that is completely at variance with what a 21st century English youth will understand by the same word.
 
St. John’s Gospel (20:19-31) for this 2nd Sunday of Easter (Low Sunday) may contain an illustration of the complexities that have always and continue to simmer throughout Scriptural translation. The particular passage is:
“Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And when he had said this, Jesus breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (John 20:21-23)

Jesus was conferring on his Apostles their primary mandate to be ministers of his Divine forgiveness.
 
Perhaps you have heard of Sr. Sandra Schneiders, a Religious of The Immaculate Heart of Mary and a world-renowned Scripture scholar and lecturer. In her book, ‘Jesus Risen in Our Midst’, Sr. Schneiders points out that we are accustomed to translations that misinterpret this verse by adding a word not found in the original Greek text of the second part of Jesus’ command.

Jesus commissioned his disciples to forgive sins, but when he talked about retaining or holding on, the word “sin” is not mentioned in the Greek text. Jesus commissions the Apostles to minister his forgiveness of sin as they have seen and heard him do in his three years of public ministry. Sr. Schneiders suggests that Jesus was encouraging his Apostles to stay in touch with the person still distanced from Christ by sin.  They were to focus on “retaining”, or holding on to, people rather than focusing on their sins. She suggests that to ‘retain’ the sin of another is to hold another’s sin as a form of control, of leverage, over the sinner. She believes that, not only is there no evidence for such an attitude, but that there is positive evidence to the contrary in Jesus’ teaching and action.

John’s Gospel extract for this Sunday (20:19-31) goes on to recall not only the Apostle Thomas’ refusal to believe but also his pre-conditions if he were to believe in Jesus’ Resurrection. Far from refusing Thomas’ pre-conditions, Jesus demonstrates the lengths he is willing to go to embrace the estranged Apostle. In other words, Jesus holds, retains, Thomas within the bond of brotherhood rather than excluding him from it. If Thomas’ refusal to believe in Jesus’ Resurrection were a sin, Jesus, far from ‘retaining’ his sin went the proverbial ‘extra mile’ to embrace Thomas thereby effecting his full restoration within the fold.
 
Sr. Schneiders offer no comment as to how the translation from the original Greek appears to introduce a word not found in that particular section of the Greek text. But, for the sake of argument, let us suppose that those, long ago, who were concerned with this particular translation believed that, as Jesus was actually giving his Apostles his power to forgive sin, he must surely also be giving them the power to retain sin. This would be putting a benign interpretation on a translational question mark.

There could be another interpretation. To confer on the Church Christ’s power not only to forgive sin but also to refuse forgiveness gives the Church a power and a control akin to that of a secular ruler.

It may be useful here to recall that members of ‘The Way’ had been designated a pariah group until the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (306-337 AD). Constantine enacted administrative, financial, social, and military reforms to strengthen his empire. He also played a significant role in the organisation and structure of the fledgling Christian Church. With his support, the Edict of Milan in 313 AD decreed the acceptance of previously persecuted Christians throughout his Empire. It was Constantine, not the then Pope, for example, who called the Church Council of Nicaea in 325 AD that gave us the Nicene Creed still being proclaimed in our churches each Sunday.
 
In the Constantine era Church leaders began to adapt some of the organizational and command structures of Constantine’s Empire in their governance of the Church. For example, the so called ‘Donation of Constantine’ bestowed on the See of Peter "power, and dignity of glory, and vigour, and honour imperial", and "supremacy as well over the four principal sees, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Constantinople, as also over all the churches of God in the whole earth". The Donation (later accepted as fraudulent) was widely accepted at the time and used to validate Papal temporal power in the Middle Ages. The synchronism that emerged between Empire and Church beginning with Constantine had enduring negative consequences, and perhaps some limited positive ones, that still reverberate in the Church of the 21st century!

Too close a confluence between the secular and the ecclesiastical is unhealthy with issues of overarching power and control as well as of politics. Believers such as translators, for example, may have been influenced to make ‘adjustments’, such as that identified by Sr. Schneiders. The power of even a single word should not be underestimated especially in relation to Scripture.
 
Power and fear were the tools Emperors used to govern their subjects. These same tools were adapted by church leaders – no doubt initially with the best of intentions – to govern the flock of God given into their care. The threefold mandate the Risen Jesus gave to the repentant and reconciled Peter was “Feed” my lambs, “Shepherd” my sheep, “Feed” my sheep. (John 21: 15-17) At no stage did Jesus endorse the use of power and/or of fear. Jesus did encourage people to ‘fear the Lord’ but in the sense that we must have respect for God which is distinct from a servile fear. Jesus is always near, his enduring love is not a threat but an invitation to allow us to be fed and shepherded by him.
 

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.