Sunday Reflection

5th Sunday of Easter (29.04.18)

VINICULTURE WITH A DIFFERENCE
 
The vine is part and parcel of Jewish imagery.  A bunch of grapes is the accepted symbol of Israel because grapes were the fruit of the reconnoitre the Israelites made of the land Canaan in response to God’s command issued through Moses. God was to gift Canaan to the remnant of Israelites at the end of their forty years journey in the desert. (Book of Numbers 13:17-24)
 ‘…. Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan … Now the time was the time of the first ripe grapes. …  they came to the valley of Eshcol and cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes; and they carried it on a pole …’
 
Jesus – in John’s Gospel for the 5th Sunday after Easter (15:1-8) - focuses his disciples’ attention on the vine. He draws an analogy between it and himself. His disciples, being Jews, were already well versed in the vine’s symbolism for their people. But now Jesus was uplifting that symbolism to a new height. Henceforth, it would embrace a living, personal relationship with God through the person of God-made-Man, Jesus the Christ.
 
 Just as God had previously prepared his remnant people, after their centuries of captivity in Egypt and their forty-year trek through the Sinai, for the land where he would settle them, so, ‘in the fullness of time’, he prepares us for eternity. St. Paul expounds the phrase in his letter to the Galatians (4:4-7)
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons (and daughters). And because you are sons (and daughters), God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son (or daughter), and if a son (or daughter), then an heir through God.”
 
 
In viniculture grafting has a long and successful history in developing new varieties of vine and therefore of grapes. Much of the acclaimed wine now coming from the ‘new world’ resulted from European vine cuttings being grafted on to new-world stems that supplied the life-giving sap.

Archaeological evidence of wine has been found in China circa  7000 BC, Georgia circa 6000 BC, Iran circa  5000 BC, Greece circa  4500 BC and Sicily circa  4000 BC. The oldest evidence of wine production has been found in Armenia circa  4100 BC. Presently, there are over 10,000 varieties of wine grapes.

Our grandparents and great grandparents would be flabbergasted to learn that the Wine Standards Board reports that, in England, there are just over 450 wine producing vineyards. The largest of these are in Surrey and Kent. The most northerly commercially producing vineyard is in Yorkshire. Welsh vineyards date back to Roman times. Currently, there are 22 operational vineyards in the Principality.
 
Jesus says he is the true vine. Truth is the ‘sap’ flowing through this Divine vine. In identifying himself as the ‘true vine’ Jesus is distancing himself from the ‘vineyard of Israel’ that had run wild. The prophet Jeremiah tells the people of his time that they have turned into ‘a degenerate and wild vine’(Jer. 2:21) A people who claimed Jewish descent but who no longer drew their sustenance from the One True God. They were Jews in name and external practice only. The parallel today is the incalculable number of people, particularly in Europe, who, though Baptised as infants and who attended Catholic and other Christian schools, have effectively become detached from the Vine of Christ or, as Jeremiah expressed it, have ‘run wild’. A vine deprived of sap becomes infected, withers and dies.
 
Jesus is saying of himself: ‘It is I who am the true vine.” Claiming to be ‘Catholic’ because of an infant Baptism will not save us if, presently, we do not have an intimate, living, communion with Jesus, the true vine of God. Jesus lays it down that neither Jewish blood nor Christian Baptism brings salvation but only a living faith in him. External qualifications cannot set a person at rights with God; only a daily, living, loving and attentive relationship with Jesus the Christ can do that.
 
In drawing his word picture of the vine, Jesus knew his words would be heard and understood, but not necessarily appreciated. The vine was grown all over Palestine, as it still is. It is a labour-intensive plant which needs a great deal of attention if it is to produce the best fruit. Needing light and air, it is raised off the ground on terraces. The ground itself has to be free from weeds and damaging insects. Weeds will not be found in successful vineyards!

When the conditions are right, the vine grows luxuriantly. But drastic pruning is necessary, for it will creep over the ground at speed. A young vine is not allowed to fruit for the first three years and each year is cut drastically back to develop and conserve its life and energy. When mature, it is pruned in December and January. It bears two kinds of branches, one that bears fruit and one that does not.  Branches that do not bear fruit are pruned-out so that they do not waste the plant's precious sap. Jesus knew that a vine cannot produce its best harvest without drastic and skilful  pruning.

Jesus says his followers are like that. Some are fruit-bearing branches of himself; others are useless because they bear no fruit. Who was Jesus thinking of when he spoke of the fruitless branches? Was He thinking of Jews and Christians for whom faith has become no more than a label without practice, words without deeds? Was he was thinking of Christians who became apostates, who, having heard and accepted His message, then fell in with tempting falsehoods, becoming traitors to the Lord?

Jesus is speaking words not so much of condemnation as of a call to the spiritual resuscitation he alone can offer. It is a resuscitation that will need continuous self-administered ‘pruning’ as well as that of Divine origin. When there is that collaborative ‘pruning’, to which Jesus refers in his analogy of his role as the vine and ourselves as the branches, the harvest will indeed be plentiful as willed by our heavenly Father, the vinedresser.
 
The Prophet Isaiah put these words of God before his beleaguered people suffering because of their own infidelity:
“On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
    a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
    the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
    the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away

 the tears from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
    from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.”

(25:6-9)

The mountain referred to is symbolised by Jerusalem, chosen by God as the focus for the great assembly. From all approaches there is an ascent to the geographical city indicating the uphill nature of the pilgrimage of faith to which all the Baptised and, indeed, all peoples are called. In this ascent the Baptised are enabled to lift up their hearts and eyes in hope because they are engrafted on to Christ, the True Vine.
 

4th Sunday of Easter (22.04.18)

The Carillion Shepherds
 
A mindset is composed of repeated memories and impressive experiences. If we see a picture of a weather-beaten person with a crooked staff and a sheep dog it will likely prompt thoughts of a shepherd minding sheep. Asked to select an appropriate background setting for a shepherd many would select a rolling pastureland. Would they be correct? The answer is, maybe! But shepherding embraces so much more than minding sheep.
 
The word shepherd is, nevertheless, correctly associated with the care of sheep, but it is not an exclusive usage. Jesus was not a shepherd in our understanding of the word.  In his youth, he, along with all the young boys of the village, probably shared in minding the communal sheep. Yet in John’s Gospel extract for this 4th Sunday post Easter (10:11-18) Jesus explicitly calls himself “The Good Shepherd”.

The character of the pastoral shepherd is woven into the language and imagery of the Bible. It could hardly be otherwise as the central part of Judaea, of Jesus’ day, was an extensive plateau of rough, stony ground not suited to agriculture and barely adequate for foraging sheep. Jesus frequently employed the word shepherd, when explaining his vocation because everyone would understand the word’s significance.
 
 
‘Carillon’ is a word associated with a melodious peal of bells. ‘Carillion’, differentiated by an extra ‘i’, will live long in peoples’ memories for the discord it has caused.  The company, ‘Carillion’, is the latest in a succession of multi-faceted businesses, with very high numbers of employees, that have cascaded into receivership threatening serious unemployment which, in turn, threatens the wellbeing of its employees’ families. The ‘good shepherds’ of any public enterprise are the members of its Board of Directors and their management support staff. How did Carillion’s good shepherds fail so markedly? It’s a question that will echo while awaiting an explanation.
 
Meanwhile, 21st century worshippers continue to link the word ‘shepherd’, as heard in John’s Gospel for this 4th Sunday (10:11-18), to meadowland dotted with placidly foraging animals accompanied by a human with a hooked staff and a dog. All we need to lull us into inattention is appropriately soothing ‘interval’ music! We rarely broaden our understanding of shepherds to include parents, older siblings, relatives and friends. Nor do we associate shepherding with homes, educational establishments, democratically elected parliaments, as well as boardrooms and the NHS. Shepherds are to be found in any location where people exercise responsibility for their fellow human beings.
 
Clearly, the quality of shepherding in Jesus’ day varied significantly, as he identified in his teaching. Jesus went further. He not only defined what constitutes good shepherding but he laid claim to being, himself, the benchmark ‘Good Shepherd’ for all time. We live in an evolving world where the challenges to Jesus’ good shepherding standards multiply daily. Jesus calls his disciples to uphold and promote his standards even when their lives are threatened.
 
Christian discipleship, lived in this world of self-imposed exile, cannot avoid the negativity of an all-consuming greed, the many failures in compassion and a seemingly unrestrictive appetite for violence. A truly Christlike good shepherd of the 21st century should expect to be unremittingly under pressure to compromise, to turn a blind eye, to betray the principles to which he or she has made a commitment through their Baptismal promise.
 
You may recall that back in January this year a wolf, in the UK, escaped from captivity. It captured national attention until it was recaptured and returned to its enclosure. There have been, and continue to be, wolf-like predators in the corridors of power for decades, even centuries. Most often, such UK predators, far from causing alarm, are lauded with Life Peerages, Knighthoods, Honours and golden handshakes.
 
Jesus draws the distinction between a good shepherd and a hired shepherd. The former gives of himself, in the care of those he is to lead, up to and including the sacrifice of his own life. In 2017, there were 27 verified cases, worldwide, where Catholic clergy were murdered for their Christlike ‘good shepherding’. In truth, the number is believed to be higher but cannot be proven. There will have been hundreds of Catholic laywomen and men whose deaths or processes of dying resulted from their loyalty to Jesus in the professing of their faith. By comparison, how free we are, though not without distraction, to utter the words of the Creed at Sunday Mass.
 
Jesus declares: No one takes it (my life) from me, but I lay it down of my own free will.” “This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.”
 
Not only our Christian forebears faced martyrdom. Our contemporaries are doing so today for their loyalty to Christ, the Good Shepherd. There are numerous countries and hidden locations where the persecution of Christians is the norm. These martyrs, in laying down their lives, deny their murderers any sense of victory. One Eastern persecutor, it is reported, claimed that he could not continue his murderous activity because, as he explained, “my victims forgive me as I kill them”. Jesus prayed, as they nailed him to the Cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
 
Every gathering of the Baptised anywhere in the world is an assembly of actual and potential shepherds. Jesus, through St. John’s Gospel, calls us to refocus on The One Good Shepherd; to ask pardon for shepherding failures in the past week or longer; to identify where reparation is necessary and to instigate that reconciliation process without delay.
 
The delightful ‘Countryfile’ landscapes that fill our screens each Sunday evening, the awe-inspiring photographs that fill the annual ‘Countryfile’ calendar, are good to the eye and healing to the mind. But, as disciples of The Good Shepherd, we know that we must be nourished by what we hear and receive through God’s Word if, daily, our aim is to imitate The Good Shepherd at home, at work or at recreation. In this way we are to pick up again not the staff with the crooked top, but the cross that our Good Shepherd asks us to bear with him in our homes, in offices, laboratories, hospitals, care homes, educational establishments as well as in boardrooms.

In our Father’s universal family there are no hired hands. As The Good Shepherd loves all without exception, the Baptised, as his apprentice-shepherds, aim to follow in his footsteps irrespective of the cost.
 

3rd Sunday of Easter (15.04.18)

A Peaceful Confrontation
 
The title almost sounds a contradiction! The experience of recent decades has accustomed us to link confrontation with militant hostility. It need not be so. From the moment of his Resurrection, Jesus engaged in a seemingly continuous peaceful confrontation with the dysfunctional remnant of his apostolic college. The process of encouraging people to ‘face the facts’ sometimes demands tough love.
 
In his post-Resurrection appearances, Jesus’ salutation was invariably “Peace with you”. It was not a conventional phrase, as we might use in liturgy today. Jesus was confronting the Evil of fear and foreboding that had paralysed his chosen collaborators following his Passion, Crucifixion and Death. We need to interpret Jesus’ greeting - “Peace with you” – as we interpret his response to Peter’s exclamation when Jesus had foretold of his coming Passion and Death. Peter had said: “This (meaning Jesus’ Passion) must not happen to you, Lord!”. On that occasion, too, Jesus was forthright – “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matt.16:23)
 
 
People are not always aware or, if aware, are insufficiently alert to the subtle encroachment of the opportunistic paralysing fear Satan can manipulate. When our reservoir of sustaining grace is at a low ebb because our participation in Mass, Sacramental life and prayer has fagged, then we place ourselves at risk.

The first Readings for post Easter Sundays come largely from ‘The Acts of the Apostles’. They relate, as their title suggests, the ‘missionary’ activity of Jesus’ chosen eleven remaining Apostles. It is important for us to note that, originally, in the seven-week period we call Easter to Pentecost, the Apostles and disciples were in hiding. They had succumbed to Satan’s capitalizing on their fear and apprehension at his ability to engineer Jesus’ suffering and death by Crucifixion. They had lost sight of Jesus’ prophecy of Resurrection. In their three years of apostolic formation, as they accompanied their Lord on his missionary journeys, the Apostles had witnessed the countless occasions when Jesus had driven Satan out of peoples’ paralysed lives. Could it be that, on Calvary, Satan had triumphed?

There were the words of utter dejection of the two disciples hurrying away from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Explaining to the Risen Lord, their travelling companion, whom at that point they did not recognise, they said:   “…. our own hope had been that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel”. (Luke 24:21)
 
“Where was God?” is a cry sometimes heard when a seemingly unmanageable disaster overwhelms us. It may be that God had indeed been banished! If not by peoples’ deliberate choice, then by people allowing their faith to be drained away. All relationships require daily nourishment – “Give us this day our daily bread”. With sparse or no nourishment, the quality of relationship suffers and begins to disintegrate. We hear some couples, whose relationship ended in divorce, say: ‘We just drifted apart’. Did they work, daily, at sustaining their relationship? All relationships, if they are to survive, need resolution through peaceful confrontation. It is the tough love of durability and commitment, the close attention to one another, that sustains relationships by being ever willing and able to offer the healing of a compassionate love.
 
In our personal one-to-one relationship with God, whom do we consider has worked more tirelessly, waited more patiently, forgiven more generously, loved more deeply, accompanied more faithfully – God or each of us? In the process of loving us, Jesus will have used many different approaches. At times he will have abruptly confronted us, as he did Peter, to waken us to a reality we had not seen. On other occasions, he will have listened patiently to our negativity, as he listened to the two on the Road to Emmaus. And, as then, if we had given him the invitation, he would have revealed himself to us through the Eucharist. He has wept with us at the loss of loved ones, as he wept at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus.

In other words, we will find, if we look with eyes of faith, replications in our own relationship with him of most of the Gospel incidents depicting Jesus’ pastoral care of others. What we read in the Gospels is not dead history. It is the revelation of how God is loving us now irrespective of whether or not we are participating in that love. But the unending love Jesus has for us remains ineffective until we open, to him, our fractured hearts and invite him in.
 
The power of Evil to overlay, in the human mind and heart, God’s revealed love and compassion for humanity was evident in Jerusalem on the day of Jesus’ Resurrection. This Satanic ability has not lessened in the succeeding centuries but, rather, has extended across the world as knowledge of the Faith has spread. In a 21st. century Europe of increasing secularisation the seemingly insurmountable volume of negativity in the daily news, reflecting all manner of violence being done to God’s creation, threatens believers’ ability to hold on to the Good News. It was the same for the remaining Apostles hiding in the Upper Room.
 
The Good News is under siege by Satan today as it was in the Upper Room on the Day or Resurrection. Jesus calls his community to reflect a Christlike holiness and wholeness as the only sure defence against Evil. When, individually, we allow our faith to languish and fail, we are undermining the whole Body of Christ.

The Risen Lord’s Body carried the imprint of the physical wounds he had suffered. Wounded as we are, by our own infidelities, and carrying the weakness of those wounds, the Risen Lord nevertheless continues to call us to reconciliation and discipleship, as he called the Eleven in their weakness. If we have the will and the love to respond to his call then, like Peter in the First Reading for this 3rd Sunday after Easter (Acts 3:13-15,17-19), we too can give voice to the Holy Spirit. Seeing and hearing us in our grace-replenished repentant state will encourage others to turn to the Risen Lord. The only way in which Evil can be overcome is by our standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Risen Lord in a confrontational encounter with Satan.

As Peter wrote:
 “So, humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honour.  Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you.” (1 Peter 5: 5-7)
 

2nd Sunday of Easter (08.04.18)

The Guide of Guides
 
A knowledgeable guide, gifted with communication skills, can enthuse the less experienced. A non-expert’s appreciation of, say, a Titian or Rembrandt landscape can be enhanced by such a guide. The skill of a good art guide is in effortlessly helping others visualise what inspired the artist including not only the subject but also, in the case of a landscape, the location with its surrounding flora and fauna. Such background helps to build a person’s appreciation of a painting in a way that an unaccompanied viewing may not. Of course, we cannot see through the artist’s eyes but we can be led to see more of what those eyes captured in oil on canvas.
 
God has gifted his adopted daughters and sons with the Guide of guides, his Holy Spirit, through the Sacraments of Initiation – Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. The first two are received once in perpetuity, the third is, literally, “our daily bread”. God is equally present in His Word, the Scriptures. Whenever we read or have read to us God’s Word, we are invited to be in communion with Christ the Word, through the Holy Spirit, just as when we receive The Eucharist.

The Spirit is not only the most knowledgeable and gifted of communicators but also the bearer of God’s abiding and merciful love. What better guide could we have? We have no need to make an appointment, to queue or to pay for the inestimable privilege of having God’s Holy Spirit as our one-to-one guide. And yet, many of the Baptised appear to lack in depth appreciation of the magnificence of God’s gift.
 
Take, for example, the dialogue between the proclaimer and congregation that introduces the celebration of the Gospel at liturgical celebrations.
“The Lord be with you. And with your spirit.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to -----
Glory to you, Lord.”

By participating in this dialogue we are asking a triple blessing. The proclaimer traces the Sign of the Cross on the page of the relevant Gospel text and then on their forehead, lips and heart. Meanwhile, the congregation gives accompaniment by tracing the Sign of the Cross on their own foreheads, lips and heart. The words and actions combine in a prayer shared by all.
We are asking God:
  1. to enlighten our inadequate understanding and appreciation of what we are about to hear (the signing of the Cross on our foreheads);
  2. to enable us to promote the Truth of the Gospel in whatever we say not only in the liturgy but throughout the day (the signing of the Cross on our lips); and
  3. to show God’s love for his people by our own loving disposition for all peoples (the signing of the Cross on our hearts).
Only God can know how consciously the members of a congregation enter into this prayer. Each individual’s level of deliberate consciousness, on each occasion of prayer, is what sets the limit for the participation of the Holy Spirit in that believer’s life. God cannot force his presence where He is not consciously welcomed. The pre-Gospel dialogue-prayer is completed in seconds but its effects reverberate for much longer. This is true for all prayer. However, inattentive repetition of words can so easily nullify prayer. Imagine how alert we would be were we to know that this pre-Gospel prayer-dialogue would be our last moments on earth!
  
The Word of God, we hear read at Mass, was composed nearly two thousand years ago. While we know something of the overall history of that time, we have no personal experience of the particular circumstances then prevailing. The Holy Land that can be visited today has changed dramatically  since the time of Jesus and the Apostles. John wrote his first letter towards the end of the 1st century AD. An extract from his letter (5:1-6) is the 2nd Reading for this Second Sunday after Easter.
It is thought that John, the author of the Fourth Gospel, composed his letters in support of his Gospel because, even at that early stage of the Church, there were disagreements about beliefs. Those who listen, in our 21st century, to these few extracted lines will likely be unaware of the accompanying background of that time. Yet without such knowledge how are we to contextualise the excerpt we hear?

St. John wrote, both his Gospel and his letters, for his Christian communities mainly composed of Jewish converts, dispersed through persecution. There were at that time, in the words of the late Scripture Scholar Raymond E. Brown, “life and death struggles” in these communities (‘The Epistles of John’ Doubleday, New York 1982). There were two conflicting interpretations of the role of Jesus. There were differences about the ethical demands of the Christian life, the Holy Spirit and eschatology. One group held to the deposit of faith as it had been handed down to them. The other group refused to accept the Incarnation of Jesus as the Son of God-made-Man. John referred to this second group as “Anti-Christ” offering his contemporaries criteria for recognizing and refuting their errors. In the end, this second group seceded from the Church.
 
In the extract from John’s letter we hear this Sunday, John is calling on his communities to further their faith in the Divinity of Jesus as The Christ by keeping his commandments to love one another. John had previously pointed out that anyone who claims to love God but who hates their brother or sister is a liar.
 
As Raymond E. Brown has pointed out – “… it has become fashionable to affirm that what is demanded (by faith) is not belief in an intellectual truth about Jesus but belief in a person with whom one enters into a relationship.” Without denying this, Brown also insists that there is an intellectual aspect in the Johannine challenge to believe. Each of us must know and understand Jesus correctly in order to have a salvific relationship with him. In other words, we must accept and believe Jesus’ own definition of himself as God Incarnate, the only-begotten Son of the Father.
 
When properly focused on the Word of God, the Baptised, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, are invited to perceive more than is possible with purely human eyes. This perception is something distinct from a person’s intellectual capacity through education. The Baptised see with eyes of faith. Christians believe that the Gospels, the Apostolic Letters and the Acts of the Apostles have dual authorship, one human and the other Divine namely, the Holy Spirit.  Like the Evangelist John, the Baptised see through the indwelling of the Spirit.

This is not a skill that can be learnt, it is a gift of God to those who sincerely love him. St. Basil the Great (330-379 AD) was one of the giants of the early Church. He was responsible for the victory of Nicene orthodoxy over Arianism in the Byzantine East, and the denunciation of Arianism at the Council of Constantinople. Basil wrote:
“Love of God is not something that can be taught. We did not learn from someone else how to rejoice in light or want to live, or to love our parents or guardians. It is the same – perhaps even more so – with our love for God: it does not come by another’s teaching. As soon as a human being comes to be, a power of reason is implanted in us like a seed, containing within it the ability and the need to love. When the school of God’s law admits this power of reason, it cultivates it gently, skilfully nurtures it, and with God’s help beings it to perfection.
Since we received a command to love God, we possess from the first moment of our existence an innate power and ability to love. The proof of this is not to be sought outside of ourselves, but each one can learn this from him or herself. It is natural for us to want that which is good and pleasing to the eye, even though at first different things seem beautiful and good to different people. In the same way, we love what is related to us or near to us, though we have not been taught to do so.”

Now we can read the first sentence from our 1John extract for this Sunday (5:1) with new understanding of what was driving the author.
“Beloved:
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God - and everyone who loves the Father loves also the One begotten by him.”
 
Stillness, silence and an openness to God are the necessary predispositions if we wish to be guided by the Guide of all guides.
 

Easter Sunday (01.04.18)

“‘tis only the splendour of light hideth thee”
 
What events, in the known earthly life of Jesus, shed light on his Resurrection? You might care to pause at this point before reading on. Reflection on the Gospel passages that come to mind is, in a real sense, wordless prayer because it is an expression of your desire to know Jesus more intimately.
 
St. Jerome, the respected Doctor of the Catholic Church and Biblical scholar born around 342 A.D., promotes the reverse argument. He said that ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ. For this reason, Jerome urges all Christians to recognize that the regular reading of the Bible, perhaps in a local group, is a necessity not an optional extra.  
 
Easter Day, commemorating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, is the most important Christian Celebration in the liturgical year. What we know of the actual event is limited. The substantial stone that sealed Jesus’ tomb was mysteriously moved. The soldiers on duty at the tomb ran away. Mary of Magdala mistook the Resurrected Jesus for a gardener. Peter and John investigated the empty tomb and found, folded, the burial garments that had bound the body of Jesus.

On the evening of the Day of his Resurrection, Jesus appeared to two disheartened disciples who were escaping to Emmaus. Simultaneously, he appeared, despite barricaded doors, in the hideout of his apostles. Scripture tells, too, that Jesus invited the Apostles to touch him thereby ensuring for themselves that he is real. He asked for food and ate what they gave him. Subsequently, Jesus invited Thomas to trace with his finger the wounds that his crucifixion had left on his resurrected body.
 
These Scripturally recorded happenings give us a word picture of events coinciding with Jesus’ Resurrection but they do not tell us of his own disposition and outlook when he opened his eyes and, presumably, took his first breath. Perhaps, in your reflective, meditative pause, you recalled Jesus’ Transfiguration on the mountaintop in the presence of Peter, James and John?

The Evangelists Matthew (17:1-6), Mark (9:1-8), Luke (9:28-36) and John (1:14) each recall the event. In addition, Matthew (17:9) recalls Jesus specific instruction to the three as they descended the mountain: “Tell no one about this vision until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.”
 
People sometimes presume that Jesus had chosen Peter, James and John to share his mountaintop experience to help prepare them, and through them others, for his Passion and Death on the Cross which he had begun to speak about. But Jesus, in his instructions to Peter, James and John, did not say ““Tell no one about this vision until the Son of Man has died”. He said: “……. until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.” So, is Jesus linking his Transfiguration to his Resurrection?
 
A Christian poet once wrote:
"Jesus did not give us dead words for us to salt away in little tins (or big ones), for us to preserve in rancid oil....
He gave us living words that can only be kept alive in us, weak creatures of flesh. We are to keep these uttered words of the Son of God alive in time, passing them from one generation to the next, feeding them with loving belief and trust that they may be heard through ages of ages".
 
Because we have no experience of resurrection, of a life that is beyond death, we are trapped into thoughts of an extended version of human life as we know it. But this is not resurrection. It is a resumption of life here on earth.  We speak about people ‘being brought back to life’ through medical intervention and care. ‘Being brought back to life’ is an accurate description for they resume their human life as it was before they, as it were, ‘died’. They are the same age, their eyes are the same colour, their physical condition relates to their previous medical records.
 
The Evangelists’ description of Peter, James and John’s experience of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop demonstrates something entirely different. The three Apostles did not have a vocabulary with which to grasp and express that to which their souls, minds, eyes and hearts were exposed. It was beyond their experience. One of the participants, Peter, makes reference to it in his Second Letter (1:16-18):
For, we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honour and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him (Jesus) on the sacred mountain.”
 
Matthew tells us in the opening lines of chapter 17: “Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his clothes became as dazzling as light.” Such was the quality of the light that emanated from Jesus that the three Apostles had to shield their eyes. This indescribable light came from within Jesus. It radiated out from his inner-self transforming his clothing. This perfect, Divine luminescence was revealed from within Jesus’ human nature as the sinless person of God-made-Man.
 
The Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop was the precursor to His ultimate and eternal Transfiguration on what we celebrate as Easter Sunday. At his Resurrection, the luminescent beauty of God-made-Man continued to carry the visible wounds of the price he paid for our salvation.
 
Our hope and our faith, founded on our covenantal Baptism, rests in Jesus’ Resurrection transfiguration which is at the heart of Easter Day and commemorated on every other Sunday through the year. Sunday Mass, for Catholics, is a heaven-sent invitation to renew our relationship with Jesus and, simultaneously, with one another. The need for this reconciliation becomes more urgent as our faith and hope in Jesus’ resurrection becomes increasingly under siege in today’s secular society.
 
God the Father’s words to Jesus, at his baptism by John in the Jordan river, are also the words with which he longs to embrace us: “You are my beloved child with whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11) Many will have no first-hand knowledge of their Baptism as infants, but many will have memories of their First Holy Communion, First Reconciliation and Confirmation. How differently our day would begin if our first thought upon waking were to be: ‘I am Baptised. I am my heavenly Father’s beloved child”. It would surely make a difference to the way we live our lives; the way we treat others; the way we treat ourselves. We experience many small, but not insignificant, resurrections on the way to our ultimate Resurrection, please God, into eternity.
 
Some of the lyrics of Walter Chalmers Smith’s well-known hymn, sung to a traditional Welsh melody, underline this unknown light of Transfiguration.
 
“Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.
Most blessed, most glorious, the ancient of days. Almighty, victorious, they great name we praise.
Great Father of Glory, pure Father of Light thine angels adore thee, all veiling their sight; all laud we would render, O help us to see: ‘tis only the splendour of light hideth thee.”
 

Palm Sunday (25.03.18)

Human Fickleness 

People’s attitudes are fickle. Palm Sunday is the gateway into a week of profoundly altering attitudes. The cries of “Hosanna”, voiced by the crowds that welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem, lasted just five days. They were replaced by shouts of “Crucify him! His blood be upon us and upon our children”.

The regular citizenry of Jerusalem would have been greatly increased with incomers who had arrived for the celebration of the major Jewish festival of Passover. The Roman Army would have increased their garrison strength well aware that among the incomers would have been dissenting Jews eager to seize the opportunity to foment a revolt. Jesus and his out-of-town assorted companions would have known they were stepping into a political cauldron, always fermenting, but seriously on edge at festival times. No Jew would have been unaware of the troubled history of Jerusalem from both aspects, religion and politics. It was then, as it remains now, an unholy mix.
 
People, generally, find correction more difficult to accept than congratulations because an acknowledgement of culpability is often a pre-requirement for the acceptance of correction. People, at that time, were willing to listen to Jesus and make him welcome for the signs and wonders he worked. But Jesus also experienced how popular opinion could turn against him when his teaching brought chastisement and challenge. Even the people of Nazareth, where he had been brought up, turned against Jesus when he challenged them (Luke 4: 14-30)
 
Palm Sunday is the threshold of the holiest week in the Christian calendar. As the week unfolds, Christians will be led through the full gamut of human emotions from the “Hosannas” of Palm-Passion Sunday to the shouts of “Crucify him!” on Good Friday.

The noise of our cities and towns, the interminable barrage of broadcast media, can simulate the general hubbub of a crowded Jerusalem two thousand years ago. What differentiates people then and now is that, today, Europeans are less religiously involved and alert. Then, there was a five-day lapse between ‘Hosanna’ and ‘Crucify’. That same volatility from acceptance to rejection happens much faster in our time. How long is it after Sunday Mass before family in-fighting resumes; how long before language and behaviour return to ‘secular street’?

What accounts for the shifting mood from acceptance to rejection, for a holy name used in prayer to become, once again, an expletive? It would appear that the answer lies within the human heart. Though created for greatness, yet, gifted with freedom of choice, it is also capable of grievous words and works. We might readily see ourselves among those who lined the road to Jerusalem acclaiming and welcoming Jesus. But who among us could be certain that we would not have been a voice among that Good Friday crowd calling for Jesus’ death? There is no scriptural proof, but isn’t it possible that Jesus may have recognised faces among those who welcomed him and, five days, later condemned and spat at him? It is hard to imagine that people who, earlier, had come to Jesus seeking help and healing could have allowed themselves to be turned against him. But isn’t it exactly this that we find ourselves doing when we allow ‘secular street’ to flow, unrestrictedly, through our daily lives?

Palm Sunday and Good Friday are the only days in the Christian year when we hear read, in its entirety, ‘The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ’. The events we commemorate this week invite us to consider the fickleness of the human heart, including our own, and to recall the frequent Lenten admonition:
As it has been said: “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as you did in the rebellion.”    (Hebrews 3:15)

Entering these days Holy Week, in contriteness of hearts, sometimes sadly faint and fickle, we are called to build a firmer faith. Being faithful to the Christian challenge necessitates hearing words of correction as well as of encouragement and comfort. Only a listening, contrite and humble heart can acknowledge its share of responsibility for the Cross of Christ. Only a welcoming, contrite and humble heart is able to gratefully rejoice in the Resurrection of Jesus. The latter is not possible without the former. Such is the message of this week and the daily challenge of Christian discipleship.
 
It is said that once a schoolboy was asked what parts of speech are ‘my’ and ‘mine’. He answered - more truthfully than he understood - that they were aggressive pronouns. It is all too true that in 21st century the idea of service is in danger of getting lost. So many people are working only for what they can get. They may well become rich, but one thing is certain--they will not necessarily be loved, and love is the true wealth of life. 

Empires established by force have vanished from the face of the earth, leaving only a memory which with the years becomes ever fainter. But the empire of Christ, founded upon his Cross, continues to hold sway. 
 

5th Sunday of Lent (18.03.18)

A Heart Divinely Transplanted
 
Dr. Christiaan Barnard is universally known for performing the world’s first transplant of a human heart. That was fifty years ago! Much, much earlier, in fact six centuries before the birth of Christ, God prompted his prophet Ezekiel to make this announcement to the Chosen People:
   Moreover, (God said) I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27)
 
Through Ezekiel, God revealed the ultimate in catastrophes that can befall the human heart – it can become ‘deadened’, and become like stone, hard and unyielding. While continuing to function as the essential muscular organ pumping blood through the blood vessels of our circulatory system, the heart in the Ezekiel extract has evidently become devoid of love and, in that sense, it has turned to stone! This is why the phrase ‘a heart of stone’ is so arresting and, when applied to a person, so condemnatory.
The heart is universally recognised, metaphorically, as the core of our being. We are made in the imagine and likeness of God and the human heart represents the source of that creative love. It is the universal symbol used to express love. The human heart symbolises where love is recognised and received and also from where love is shared with others.
 
God’s much loved and cherished people, in their actions and attitude, had offended against his first Covenant with them, the Sinaitic Covenant. Jeremiah interpreted his people’s defeat and subsequent deportation to slavery as a just punishment, which they had brought upon themselves, for their sins. Jeremiah lamented that, his own people, the Israelites, rather than show contrition, had continued to let their hearts remain hardened (turned to stone) and unresponsive to God’s love.

That God was willing to enter into a new covenant tells of God’s undiminished love and also of his power and willingness to heal and resuscitate his people. God’s earlier covenant, mediated by Moses, had been hewn on tablets of stone. This new covenant would be written by God in the human heart – “and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh”. God’s new covenant was to be integrated within the seat of the human intellect and will.

This new covenant would not be shouldered as a heavy burden or a freedom-stifling yoke but as a personal commitment, knowingly and deliberately embraced by each person. God’s new covenant was to be characterised by mercy, because sins would be forgiven, and by a knowledge of God. God’s ‘forgiveness’ was to bring a total amnesty from sin and its consequences. ‘Knowledge’ in the scriptural sense implies a relationship of personal intimacy and profound communion. All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the Lord, for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.” (verse 34)
 
There have been enormous advances in medical knowledge concerning the resuscitation and function of the human heart as an essential muscular organ of the body. Meanwhile, over the same period, the spiritual care of the human heart has deteriorated. Unbridled secularity increasingly suffocates the flow of Divine love “to our governing, decision-making, value- judgement centre wherein is our emotional thermostat and our consciousness controller – all of which constitute the human heart” according to authors James Harris, Miles Jones and Jerome Ross in ‘Proclamation, Lent’ (1966)

At each celebration of The Eucharist those gathered remember and experience their ‘knowledge’ of God and the merciful forgiveness of sin obtained for us by Jesus through his life, death and Resurrection as proclaimed by Jeremiah in our First Reading this 5th Sunday of Lent.

While, as believers, we have confidence that God will never rescind his Divine covenant (Psalm 89:34; Romans 11:29-31), we also need continual awareness of our propensity for sin. The season of Lent is an opportune period for appraising the quality of our daily response to our Baptismal promises. Many check their pulse and take their blood pressure on a daily basis. How many, by contrast, practise a daily ‘examination of conscience’, as a form of night prayer, to connect with the continuous gift of essential grace which God makes available for the restoration of holiness and the integrity of our eternal relationship with our heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit?

Three times in this Sunday’s Psalm Response we say or sing: “Create a clean heart in me, O God.” Are these rote words or are we expressing a really heartfelt prayer of intercession?
 
In John’s Gospel excerpt for this Sunday we hear Jesus announcing:
"The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (verse 23)
Jesus then voiced his heartfelt prayer to his heavenly Father – his heart being full of the Holy Spirit:
"I am troubled now. Yet what should I say? 'Father, save me from this hour?' But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name."
In response, the voice of his heavenly Father answers:
"I have glorified it and will glorify it again."
 
Whenever we are troubled or uncertain and more especially when we are preparing to be called to our eternal home, it is good to be reminded of our destiny, to be with God. While we have no expectation of hearing ‘a voice from heaven’ at such a moment, from within the human voices that we can hear, there may well be one speaking on behalf of our heavenly Father, even without realising it.
Whether we are addressing God in the midst of the community or when accompanying one individual at a crucial time in their life, it is vital that we mean what we say for then the audibility of our faith will help sustain that other or those others. This ‘audibility of faith’ is only possible when we have allowed God to have replaced our heart of stone with a heart of flesh.
 

4th Sunday of Lent (11.03.18)

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it”.  

This familiar adage seems an appropriate heading for this 4th Sunday of Lent. In our 1st Reading, from the 2nd Book of Chronicles 36:14-16,19-23, the unnamed Levite author was writing about 540 BC. He traces his people’s infidelity in their relationship with God.

His inventory might prompt us, hearing his words in the 21st century Lenten, to recognise a mirror image of our era; perhaps even of own personal and communal shortcomings in our relationship with God. It’s a challenging, not inappropriate, text for the season of Lent.

The Chronicler’s significant contribution to our liturgy is his reminder that “early and often did the Lord God send messengers to the people out of deep compassion for them”                (2 Chronicles 36:15)

As believers, we discover new hope in this statement because, until the end of the world, God will continue making loving, merciful overtures towards us sinners, “early and often”. God’s ultimate overture is the coming among us of Jesus the Christ, the incarnate Son of God, who suffered, was crucified and rose in victory over sin and death.
 
This Sunday’s second reading, from Ephesians (2:4-10), and the Gospel from John (3:14-21) focus our attention on the mystery of salvation as God’s continuing gift to sinners. This gift is presented to us in the shape of a cross that is central to the Christian faith. In addition to being the physical instrument of Jesus’ death, the wooden crossed beams have theological significance. They represent the contradiction found in human behaviour. For example, God loves all peoples fully, impartially and unconditionally. We, by comparison, measure out our love to God and to those we find lovable who will reciprocate the favour; or to those we consider worthy of our affection.

God forgives all peoples freely and fully when they seek reconciliation. If we find ourselves measuring out our reconciliation by holding on to grudges and memories of past hurts then our giving does not begin to replicate what we receive from the Lord. Whereas God is always ready to listen to us, our enemy tempts us to build silent walls of indifference that may make others feel bothersome or marginalised. God has shown us that his concerns are for people who are poor, lost, exiles, homeless, hungry, sick and abandoned. We can be generous with donations to charities and thoughtful in prayer when we are prompted to remember these sisters and brothers in need. Yet it remains essential for us to use as a ‘measuring rod’ our belief that God not only became incarnate but incarnated himself into abject poverty in order to draw near to the very ones we may be tempted to keep at a safe distance.
  • Could it be that these are among the very messengers that our compassionate God sends to us, early and often?
  • Could it be that the ones whom we see as side-tracked on salvation’s path are the living signposts God has placed on our way to guide us?
  • At this midpoint in Lent is God’s Word alerting us to do more than just observe these living signposts as his messengers?
  • Is the Lord asking us to rectify in our lives the contradictions that contributed to his Cross?
God had sent messengers, early and often, throughout the course of his relationship with his Chosen People, with whom the Baptised are linked through their Divine brother, the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. God’s sole motivation throughout is divine love.
Now ascended to heaven, our Resurrected Saviour in communion with his heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit, continues to send us his messengers early and often. Have we paused to consider whom these messengers may be?

Well, Matthew closes his Gospel with the final directive of the Risen Lord to his Eleven Apostles: (28:16-20)
The Commissioning of the Disciples
“ Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
 
We can focus on the words “I am with you always, to the end of the age”. Each time a believer Baptises a consenting adult or an infant, with its parent’s consent, by pouring the water and saying the words “I Baptise you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, God is commissioning a messenger. In each and every Baptised person God is continuing to fulfil his Divine promise, as recorded in our 2 Chronicles reading: 

early and often did the Lord God send messengers to the people out of deep compassion for them”
Is this how we, the Baptised, interpret our life? In this ‘divine sending’ are we recognising our primary vocation? Do we see ourselves as the Baptised embodiment of the Lord’s “deep compassion”?
 
If asked “Do you know where the church is?” would we give directions to a building? Or, would we say, “Well, I am a Baptised Christian and, as such, I am a member of Jesus’ body on earth that is The Church. May I be of assistance to you?”

If we happened to be wearing a visible cross in wood or precious metal, a questioner would have validity in questioning us. But would our response be valid if it were just directions to a building? Indeed, would our wearing of a visible ornamental cross be a contradiction, a stumbling block that merited Jesus’ condemnation?
“Jesus said to His disciples,
‘It is inevitable that stumbling blocks will come, but woe to the one through whom they come.’” (Luke 17:1)
 
A Crucifix is distinct from a plain Cross. A Crucifix bears the representation of Christ’s crucified Body on it. Both have a place in our life as the Baptised provided that what we wear or venerate is validated by how we live. The Crucifix is a visual reminder of the depth of our Saviour’s love and compassion for us. The plain Cross is, as someone once said, a reminder that Jesus is asking us to pick up and journey with the Cross, to become a ‘crucified’ early and often as his messenger.

“To support one another in the things of the Holy Spirit is the true sign of good will between brethren, of loving kinship and sincere affection.” (St. John Chrysostom – 344-407AD - Archbishop of Constantinople, a prominent Doctor of the Church and the greatest preacher ever heard in a Christian pulpit at that time.)
 

3rd Sunday of Lent (04.03.18)

Uncompromising
 
In matters of life and death there’s no room for compromise. Compromise is defined as ‘an intermediate state between conflicting alternatives reached by mutual concession’. Another definition of compromise is – ‘the expedient acceptance of standards that are lower than is desirable’. Both definitions identify the acceptance, albeit a temporary one, of a solution which would merit the description sub-standard. Compromise has a slipperiness about it that is unsettling and yet it is daily in-play across the globe from boardroom to bedroom.
 
The 1st Reading, on this 3rd Sunday of Lent, is from the Book of Exodus. God delivers an uncompromising set of rules, of commandments, to his pilgrim people. We are the descendants and inheritors of those who originally received the Commandments. The world has changed greatly over the intervening centuries. The greatest change being the coming on earth of God-made-Man who, by his death and resurrection, has rescued us from the consequence of Satan’s death-dealing temptation of our first parents. It was the plausibility of Evil’s compromise that our founding parents bought into and thereby blighted the entirety of humanity.
 
 
The Fall, as described in Genesis 3: 1-6
 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
 “No! You will not die!” the serpent said to the woman, “for God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
 
Our loving God gave his chosen people, including us, the Commandments as a ‘handrail’ in the uncertain terrain of our exile. Time and time again the Israelites, our ancestors in faith, complained about the repetitive requirements of their desert pilgrimage of reparation from slavery in Egypt to the promised land under the leadership of Moses. God promised them a covenant:
“Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: 
 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”
 So, Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the Lord had commanded him to speak. The people all responded together, “We will do everything the Lord has said.” So, Moses brought their answer back to the Lord.”
 
In other words, in providing the Commandments, God was not acting capriciously but in a loving and caring manner. He did not want his people, then or now, to fall by the wayside nor be picked-off by a death-dealing Satan. Parents who put reins on their small toddlers recognise they are needed to help the little ones learn how to stand upright, to walk without forever falling over and injuring themselves.
History tells us that the Israelites failed to live up to their word. They did not continue to fulfil their promise to: “do everything the Lord has said”. The same can be said about many Baptised people today who either lack knowledge of their Baptismal promises or have ceased to live by them or who continually compromise them.
 
God’s word is forever because it is the Word of Truth. His Commandments are as valid for us today as they were for the Israelites in the desert. The prevalent danger is that so many today regard God’s Commandments as ‘old hat’, fit for the museum, as something from antiquity. What need, people ask, have we 21st century master entrepreneurs for Commandments when we are on the threshold of capturing and applying artificial intelligence, AI, to complete tasks we now consider menial?

As island people, the UK recognises that its lifeline is its shipping. A faulty course setting at the outset of a voyage can take a vessel way off course and into all manner of danger. Even an accurate course setting at the outset has to be continuously checked. The hidden power of the restless deep sea can also carry a vessel astray.

Maybe, on this Lenten Sunday, we should sit quietly with the Exodus 20: 1-17 extract and ponder it. In an extended ‘examination of conscience’ we could compare our daily life with God’s precepts. Soon enough, for sure, we’ll hear ourselves defending the compromises we’ve come to accept as ‘the norm’, even to the point of according them justification, “everyone does it”, “everybody says it”.
 
Jesus, in the Gospel extract John 2:13-25, acts without compromise:
Jesus found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the moneychangers seated there. He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the moneychangers and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”

At the time of Jesus, there was only one Temple. Today there are an enormous number of dedicated church buildings. Have you considered that Jesus never asked his disciples to construct a single building for the purpose of the worship of his heavenly Father. Jesus showed how a person’s daily life, rather than a place or a building, was for the worship of God. In our 21st century Europe there are countless superfluous buildings, once constructed for the worship of God, but now serving as homes, factories, restaurants etc. By comparison, there are shrinking number of people whose personal daily life is a worship of God both at work and at home.
 
The challenge of the Scripture for this Lenten Sunday is enormously demanding. Just consider, if the parochial clergy suddenly had no buildings to manage and maintain, would they know how to fill their day?

Imagine a vibrant Christianity without basilicas, cathedrals and even churches, as we know them! It’s not difficult to do when so many former religious buildings are now restaurants and bars, factories, homes, gymnasiums and so on. Jesus never asked any of his disciples to erect a building. In fact, when he was asked where he lived, Jesus invited his questioners to accompany him on a journey – “…. the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:580
 
The Christian worship of God began in the homes of Christians where each person lived, to the best of their ability, the teaching of Jesus and his Apostles and there, too, celebrated the Eucharist. Catholics have known such times in the era of Henry Vlll and Elizabeth l although it’s maybe not PC to make mention of them today in this context. But then, it was probably not PC for Jesus to drive the commercial interests of his day out of his Father’s house with a whip!
 
Lent can be an uncomfortable time for those who engage with the Scriptures. But it can be an uncomfortableness that resolves, step by step, into peace of mind and soul and joy of heart here as well as in heaven:
“In the same way, I tell you that there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who do not need to repent.”  (Luke 15:7)
 

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.