Sunday Reflection

2nd Sunday of Lent (25.02.18)

Mountain tops can be metaphorical too!  
 
Mountain tops have a special appeal for some. This 2nd Sunday of Lent our 1st Reading and Gospel relate mountain top experiences with religious significance. Those with no access to an actual mountain top can, with practice, create a metaphorical mountain top of silence and stillness within themselves, even in the midst of noise and distractions.  

Lent is an extended period inviting us to do just this by reducing the intrusiveness of life’s daily hustle and bustle. A digital switch-off enables us to have time for reflection and quiet prayer. Being silent and still is a good place to recall that God is God and I am not God. It allows us to review our priorities, to realign our relationship with God and with each other.
 
God is at once inscrutable and yet willing to be known, intimately, in the person of His Son, Jesus the Christ. Lent calls the Baptised to reconnect, at a deeper level, with this foundational Christian truth because we live now in a secular age. These forty days call us both to surrender to the mystery of God and to place our trust in Him, even when we are surrounded by multiple voices telling us to do otherwise.
 
In the Genesis reading (22:1-2, 9, 10-13, 15-18) we hear how Abraham – whom we honour as our father in faith - was told by God to prepare to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. To contemporary readers this is shocking. Yet, many now accept, without shock, the ever-growing number of direct abortions and euthanasia killings. Have Europeans become selectively blasé?

It is perhaps worth recalling that, sadly, it was not uncommon among the ancient Near Eastern civilizations to sacrifice children by fire to pagan gods. This was the practice of the Canaanites, the Amorites, and the Mari.  

At the time of the prophet Elisha (800 B.C.), a Moabite king, who was losing a war, burned his son on the city walls (2 Kgs 3:27) asking the god Molech to grant him (the King) victory. Child sacrifice was strictly forbidden among the Israelites (Lev 20:2-5), yet there were low points in Israel’s history when some of its kings resorted to this pagan practice (2 Kgs 16:3; 17:17; 21:6).
Abraham’s journey to the mountain God had identified, with an unsuspecting and much-loved Isaac, must surely have filled Abraham with dread. The hard lesson, for us, is that Baptism calls us to be willing to open ourselves with faith and trust to God whose ways cannot be fathomed. Abraham had made his commitment to follow God’s will and so had set out.
 
The Genesis author writes, God put Abraham to the test”. Some may find the translation disquieting. It could be read as though God was putting Abraham through some training, drill or exercise. God loves us too much to treat us as raw recruits who have to be knocked into shape. As our loving heavenly Father, God is fully aware that in our land of exile, where, as 1 John 5:19 tells us: We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one”, our faith, not infrequently, will be ‘taken to the wire’ by Satan.

As Pope Francis said last July, “The line between good and evil runs through the centre of each person’s heart”.  While God our Father will never allow Satan to break us against our will, God is constantly encouraging us to develop our faith in Him, on a daily basis, so that we may not allow our wills to be broken down, to collapse, through our lack of preparedness. In this Genesis reading we see how God was inviting Abraham to discover, for himself, the depth of his faith in God so that he (Abraham) could not be surprised and caught unaware by a cunningly malicious Satan.

Like Abraham, we have already been at many a ‘faith crossroads’. Maybe, for some of us, these crossroads have taken us ‘to the wire’. The countless fleeing war, persecution and devastation come to mind. Yet who is to say what the future holds for us? For sure, the wickedness of Satan should never be underestimated. There is a line in the Book of Jeremiah (6:16) that we would do well to keep in mind every day:
‘This is what the Lord says:
“Stand at the crossroads and look;
    pray to know the ancient paths,
 where the good way is -

then walk in it
    and you will find rest for your souls.”

 
 
As anyone who has climbed mountains or hills knows well, cloud can descend and envelope you with amazing speed. In the Old Testament the appearance of a cloud, known in Hebrew as a shekinah, was a traditional symbol of the divine presence. The Hebrew word shekinah means the dwelling place or settling of God’s presence. The word shekinah does not appear in the Bible, but the concept clearly does. The Jewish rabbis coined this extra-biblical expression. On their extended journey from Egypt to the promised land, the Old Testament tells how God revealed his presence to his chosen people, on multiple occasions, in a cloud.
 
St. Mark tells us in today’s Gospel (9:2-10) that a cloud enveloped Peter, James and John on the mountain top to which Jesus had led them. As if to affirm the fact that this truly was a theophany, a cloud appeared. The voice heard from the cloud identified Jesus as the Son of God and called upon the disciples to “listen to Him”.

Peter, James and John’s experience was at once awe inspiring and terrifying. It also compelled them to attempt to prolong the experience – Peter said to Jesus: "Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."

But mountain top experiences, in this life, are not permanent. They are pauses when we are invited to step aside and recover a distorted or fractured Baptismal perspective that cannot be rectified in the midst of our daily hassle. Psalm 46.10 expresses it: “Pause awhile and know that I am God”.
 
Jesus commanded Peter, James and John to remain silent about their mountain top experience until after: “… the Son of Man had risen from the dead”.

St. Josemaria Escriva, in his spiritual guidebook called ‘The Way’, recommends us to be silent about the details of our personal interaction with God through the Holy Spirit. He believes we should only speak of such intimate details when it is essential for the spiritual health of another.

What God reveals to a person is, at least initially, for the benefit of that person who may, subsequently and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, disseminate some or all of the revelation for the benefit of others. Moreover, considerable time, reflection and patience may be required for a person to adequately comprehend what God has shared with her or him. St. Paul’s was clearly an exception. Under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit, his conversion was accomplished in just three days.
 
The value of Abraham’s obedience was his willingness to give back to God the most precious gift he had ever received, Isaac. Every one of us has an Isaac, someone or something without whom or which we think we could not go on. Are we willing to surrender our Isaac to God?
 
The value of Peter, James and John’s silence as they came down from the mountain was their willingness to trust what Jesus had said and what God had spoken from the cloud. To show such trust, while still coping with a massively undeveloped understanding, is real faith.
 
It takes courage, commitment and determination to climb a mountain whether it be a geophysical reality, the conquering of a deeply embedded fear, a sense of shame or the opening of the heart and soul to the Divine Presence. During Lent’s forty days we, the Baptised, can be of support to one another as we struggle to connect with the grace of our personal vocation.
 

1st Sunday of Lent (18.02.18)

With Whom Do You Have A Covenant?
 
Maybe the question in the title is not one you are likely to be asked. But, were someone to ask you, would you know what answer to give? At the very least, would it cause you to pause reflectively because of the unfamiliarity of the word covenant?

A theological covenant defines a relationship of commitment between God and his people. Initially, God established a covenant with our first parents, Adam and Eve. Later, after they had ruptured that covenant, God chose the Jewish people, represented principally by Abraham, Moses and David, at different stages of that people’s history. Subsequently, through his Only Begotten Son-made-Man, Jesus the Jew, God extended his relationship of commitment to embrace all peoples through the Christian Sacrament of Baptism.

The Bible identifies four major Divine Covenants –

The Adamitic - God’s covenant with Adam - Genesis 2:18-23. It is to be noted that Adam and Eve’s breaking of this covenant ends God’s initial Economy of Salvation.

The Abrahamitic - is God’s second major covenant (Genesis 26; 28:12; 39:9) It partially restores the initial relations that existed between God and humanity before these were fractured by our first parents and dates from the 19th or 18th century BC.

The Sinaitic – wherein God raises up Moses commanding him to bring his people from Egyptian bondage and lead them to Mt. Sinai. At Sinai, God fulfilled His promise to Abraham (Genesis 12.3). On Sinai, God promises intimate familiarity - (“I will make my dwelling among you. I will not reject you. I will walk among you as surely as I am God. I will be your God and you will be my people.” (Leviticus 23:3-13).

The Covenant made with humanity through the Person of Jesus Christ, God-made-Man is the final Divine Covenant which will lead, Christians believe, to God calling time on this world. It is available to all peoples. It offers the greatest possible familiarity with God through our being adopted by Him as his daughters and sons.
 
St. Paul, writing to the new Christian community at Ephesus, says: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups (Jew and Gentile) one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” (2:13-16)
  
In this 21st century, European Christians live in testing times. Christian thinking and values, once upheld by many in these parts, are largely ignored. In such worsening anti-religious circumstances a committed Christian has to, as it were, dig deeper to find the where-with-all to remain faithful to her or his Baptismal promises, the bedrock of their personal covenant with God.
 
God’s Covenant with Noah and his descendants (Genesis (9:8-15) is highlighted in the first reading for this 1st Sunday of Lent. It prompts a hopefully helpful reflection on God’s unfolding covenants with humanity.

God’s creation of humanity, made in his own image and likeness and endowed with free will, is His loving and free gift. However, God’s continuing outreach to humanity, that had estranged itself from Him, takes the form of multiple covenants each one building on the previous.

The purpose of Divine Covenants is to redirect humanity to God for the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth as a prelude to the revelation of Eternity. In contemporary European society, the available evidence would point to the advancement of the kingdom of Evil, not of God. This is by default of people putting aside their Baptismal promises. The death and Resurrection of Jesus assures believers that Satan will, finally, be defeated. Nevertheless, humanity, by continuing its dalliance with Evil, is ensuring a painfully distressing pilgrimage to that world-ending event.

God’s covenants, at inception, are personal before they embrace a people. A personal covenant, whether it be with God or another person under God’s Law, is a living as well as life-giving relationship. In other words, it is capable of adapting to changing circumstances provided that its foundational principles are not compromised.

Jews, through circumcision and bar mitzvah, confirm their personal covenantal relationship with God. Christians, through the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist confirm their individual covenantal relationship with God. These individual covenantal relationships are foundational to any other covenantal relationships a Christian or a Jew may enter into in the course of their life.

So, it stands to reason that if a Baptised Christian or a fully-fledged Jew chooses to disavow their covenant with God, or allow it to become little more than a piece of paper or a cine film, that person cannot avoid some form of spiritual and moral destabilisation. Spiritual destabilisation becomes the more likely when the pervading atmosphere, in which many live, is not just markedly secular but antagonistically anti-religion.
 
So, it becomes even more important for the Covenanted believer to reconnect with God by prayer at the start of each day. This ‘morning offering’ prayer enables the covenanted believer to recall their daily goal namely, the acceptance of Christ’s invitation that they make their home in Him and thus allow Him to make his home in them. By this daily ‘morning offering’ the believer affirms his or her willingness to continue their ongoing transformation into the likeness of God that they bear.
 
It also reminds Catholics that Baptismal grace invests them with a share in the intercession Christ, by his Priesthood, offer to his heavenly Father. At their Baptism, each is anointed with the holy Oil of Chrism (Consecration) as this prayer is offered: “God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has freed you from sin, given you a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and welcomed you into his holy people. He now anoints you with the Chrism of Salvation. As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet and King, so may you live always as a member of his body, sharing everlasting life.”   

For both the Christian and the Jew, prayer, at the start of and throughout each day, is essential as a bulwark against the unremitting onslaught of Evil that stalks our world.
 
St. Paul, writing to the new Christian community at Ephesus, says: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups (Jew and Gentile) one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” (2:13-16)
 
We are the latest in a long line of covenanted believers. May we be strengthened by those who have walked this path ahead of us and may we help strengthen those who now walk it with us, wherever they may be.
 

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time (11.02.18)

Contagion!
 
Contagion is a word laden with overtones of illness. These days, it is commonly associated with such deadly infections as, for example, Ebola. But it would be unfair to limit the word contagion in this negative way for it has a wider embrace. It is quite legitimate to use the word contagion to describe an upturn of honesty or justice especially where both were previously absent or severely compromised.

Equally, the morally strengthening and life-enhancing transmission of God’s grace from one person to another can be described as contagious. People have this experience, at an international level, at pilgrimage centres such as Lourdes and Fatima. A contagious experience of God’s presence can also happen on a much smaller scale, as Jesus said:
“For where two or three gather together in My name, there am I with them.” (Matt.18:20)
 
 People also speak about ‘contagious laughter’ where just one or more person can communicate an infectious enjoyment to a huge assembly. Audiences regularly pay to attend the performances of artists whose professionalism brings contagious delight through sport, theatre or the concert hall.
 
The biological contagion of leprosy features in both the First Reading and the Gospel of this 6th Sunday. In the ancient world leprosy was a much-feared contagious infection with no known cure. The incidence of leprosy in Europe is much less today thanks to antibiotics though it is still quite prevalent in parts of Africa. Leprosy is a long-term disease, lasting between five and twenty years, that deforms the human body. Thankfully, victims of leprosy under treatment are no longer contagious, as they once were.
 
The scriptural highlighting of leprosy this Sunday allows us to reflect that there are many forms of non-biological contagion that increasingly deform the human person in our 21st century. In addition to war, starvation, malnutrition and the lack of clean water, there’s the contagion of plausible theories of evolution, for example, that bypass the Creator God capturing the minds of the gullible and the spiritually depleted. Then there’s the contagion of insufficiently restricted advertising which drives the unwary to excesses that cripple not only financially but also morally, physically and spiritually. Contagious concupiscence pours from TV screens, radio and print media entrapping and corrupting the likeness to God with which people are born. Jesus sounded the alert about the power of Evil that threatens the soul as well as the body:
Do not be afraid  of those who kill the body
but cannot kill the soul.
Instead, fear the One who can kill
both body and soul in Hell.”  (Matt.10:28)
 
The word contagion originates from the Latin – ‘con’ meaning ‘with’ and ‘tangere’ meaning ‘to touch’. The active believing Baptised effect good contagion when who we are and how we live ‘touches’ others to their benefit, here and hereafter! When we assemble to celebrate as the visible Body of Christ on earth, the Church, our corporate enthusiasm, devotion and commitment to our Redeemer, Jesus the Christ, should be revitalised by our reception of the Word of God and the Sacrament of Eucharist.

Then we, as revivified disciples of Christ, should leave church to positively embrace the world carrying His joy in our hearts to share with all we will meet during the day.

The tactility of Jesus confirmed his willingness to reach out even when the protocol of the day forbade it. As we read in Mark’s Gospel for this Sunday – Ch.1:40-45:
“A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, "If you wish, you can make me clean." Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, "I do will it. Be made clean."
 
All humanity carries the inherited contagion of sin, even those we honour as Saints. Only Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is without sin. In some people, the contagion of sin is semi-dormant, present but less active, being held in check by their religious commitment, practice and prayer. In many, many more the contagion of sin is rampant because people, having succumbed to the temptations of Satan, have lost their communion with Jesus Christ.

Mark doesn’t explain how the leper chose to approach Jesus. For sure, he had heard about Jesus from somebody. We, as his Baptised disciples, are the emissaries the Lord sends. Pope Francis, a master of the metaphor, repeatedly describes the Church of today as a "field hospital". He said: "I see the church as a field hospital in a battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if they have high cholesterol or about the level of their blood sugars! You have to heal their wounds.” (2013)

On another occasion, the Pope said: “People, who have done evil and know it, live with a constant unease that denies them peace." He continued: "Vanity is like an osteoporosis of the soul: the bones seem good from the outside, but on the inside, they are all ruined." 
 
Speaking about the attractive power of mercy, Pope Francis said that when people in need sense a merciful person is passing by, they will reach out. They are attracted by mercy's capacity to stop when so many walk-on by; to kneel when a certain rheumatism of the soul keeps many from bending down; to touch wounded flesh when a preference for everything to be sterile, prevails.
The Pope identified another medical contagion afflicting souls as "spiritual Alzheimer" a condition that renders some people incapable of remembering God's love and mercy for them. A clear sign of having the condition is being unable to show mercy to others.
 
We are the ones the Lord looks to for the ‘triaging’ of so many who are suffering from spiritual depletion without being aware of its deadly effect. If they accept our help, they can develop the faith and trust to approach Jesus and say, as did the leper, "If you wish, you can make me clean".

Christians are not saved by avoiding evil as much as they are by engaging in the promotion of all that Jesus lived and taught.
The active Baptised Christian is called to serve, daily, in the ‘field hospital Church’ engaged in the war against Evil. There, each makes full use of her or his gifts of the Holy Spirit. When we constantly employ God’s gifts to us, on behalf of others, he increases his gifts to us. The inroads of Evil are checked.

A line from the Psalm for this Sunday’s Mass encourages us:
“Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, you just;
exult, all you upright of heart.”
 

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (04.02.18)

Jesus Gives Suffering A New Meaning
 
People, generally, do not welcome suffering. Yet, through its multiple manifestations, suffering embraces all humanity. The Scripture for this 5th Sunday may invite believers to view suffering from Jesus’ perspective.

In view of where this meditation hopes to lead, it may be useful to clarify, from a spiritual perspective, the Christian view of suffering. Initially, in the ‘Garden of Eden’, with the perfect harmony between God and his creation, suffering was unknown. Satan, in successfully tempting our first parents to disobey God, caused them not only exile from Eden but also caused them a simultaneous and continuous experience of suffering. If there is truth in the statement that, in order to fully appreciate what we have received, we have to be the sole cause of its loss and be aware our self-inflicted loss is irremediable, then Eve and Adam’s sense of suffering must have been incalculable, utterly decimating and forever increasing throughout their lives. By their own choice, our forebears suffered the devastating loss of familiarity with God which they had previously enjoyed uninterruptedly.

Since we have never experienced familiarity with God, we cannot know, except in theory, the suffering of a self-inflicted loss of such Divine familiarity. For Adam and Eve their suffering would have been inescapable. It would have tormented their every waking moment and stalked their repose. It fragmented their personal relationship – Adam lost little time in blaming Eve when challenged by God:
And God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?" The man (Adam) said, "The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate." (Genesis 3:11-12) 
It decimated their family. Cain, their firstborn and the tiller of soil, jealously murdered his brother Abel, the shepherd. (Genesis ch.4)
 
So, suffering began, and remains for the majority, synonymous with punishment that is sometimes self-inflicted and, on other occasions, is inflicted upon us, justly or unjustly, by someone other than our self. Our originating parents were not punished by God, as is often thought to be the case. They punished themselves by their deliberate choice of disobedience. People, when in pain of one form or another, maybe search for a culprit because they are refusing to acknowledge themselves as the culprit.

Humanity attempts to nullify or escape blame for suffering’s uncomfortableness irrespective of its origin, be that an external source or self-generation. The 21st century secularised humanity refuses to acknowledge suffering as an inescapable legacy of our post ‘Eden’ world. We have learnt how to deaden its pain, at least temporarily. We have become adept, when the opportunity presents itself, at laying the blame for our suffering on someone or something other than ourselves. Satan, the author of untruth, strongly supports all our attempts at disavowal.

Satan has deceived humanity-in-exile into believing that life on earth should not involve suffering; that it is an aberration. Suffering does indeed result from an aberration namely, the disobedience of our first parents! Because this original aberration is no longer commonly believed may explain why we rarely hear used– or even use ourselves – the word ‘atonement’.
 
The Oxford dictionary defines atonement as: ‘the making of reparation for a wrong or an injury’. Before an individual or a nation can make atonement, there must first be an acknowledgement of culpability, of responsibility, to some degree, for the faults or wrongs in question. If a nation denies culpability for its sinfulness – or fails to acknowledge that sin exists - at either individual or collective level, then it is denying the need for atonement.

We can divide the word ‘atonement’ into ‘at one-ment’. Humanity’s core hunger is for an ‘at oneness’ relationship with its Creator and Life-Sustainer, God. No other ‘at oneness’ available to humanity can be compared with this hunger. Without this foundational ‘at oneness’ with God all human-to-human relationship remains incomplete and precariously unstable because it is defenceless against the wiles of Satan.
 
 The tenets of Christianity place love for and belief in God at the very summit of faith. Christian worship expresses this relationship in countless formulae spoken by believers both individually and collectively. Gathered for Sunday Mass, in response to God’s Commandment, ‘Keep holy the Sabbath’, English speaking Catholics may pray: “I confess to almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and in my words; in what I have done and in what I have failed to do …”
 
But how many, regularly at Mass, are conscious that in praying the ‘I confess’ they are making not just a public ‘confession’ but also a public willed act of atonement (a one-to-one with God) and an act of expiation not only on their own behalf but on behalf of all humanity?
 
The collectively spoken words unite not just the worshippers, they further express a desire for communion with the worldwide community of believers who have already lived or will ever come to life here on earth. The question that then arises is how many Catholics consciously understand and appreciate The Mass, in which they are sharing, as the pinnacle of all ‘atonement’ because it is being made “through Him, with Him and in Him” by God-made-Man on behalf of humanity?
 
Calvary, and all that that word signifies, is being enacted today as often as Mass is being validly celebrated. Those consciously present are being invited to actively participate with Christ, in the offering He continues to make to His Heavenly Father, by the offering of their whole life, not just their words, but also their sufferings and their joys. Jesus teaches us: “If anyone would come after me, let that person deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) Atonement through suffering is implicit in Christian discipleship.
 
‘Yom Kippur’, is the annual Jewish day for communal and personal atonement for sin. For practising Jews, it is the holiest day of their religious year. We have no equivalent day in the Catholic Church. Ash Wednesday, Lent, Good Friday, Advent and even the restyled ‘Friday’ abstinence have lost much of their significance even among believers. Most contemporary Europeans no longer know the religious significance of these days or periods.
 
Jesus, the Son of God, became Man, and willingly chose to offer his life in atonement for the entirety of humanity’s sinfulness. In so doing, Jesus is demonstrating to humanity the incalculable depth of his heavenly Father’s love for us. The use of the present tense – ‘is’ – is intentional. Jesus’ self-sacrifice continues today at the Consecration of each celebration of the Eucharist. A lapsed Catholic once said to me, “The Mass is boring! It’s always the same!” How can the living, loving self-sacrifice of God-made-Man for each and every one of us be described as ‘boring’? I asked the lapsed Catholic if that was how he regarded his wife’s daily proclamation of her love for him, a love that cannot be compared to God’s love for us? Even should a priest, presiding at the Altar, be incomprehensible and shambolic we, who form the congregation, are called to look with the eyes of faith beyond the obvious and see Jesus-the-Christ on Calvary expiating the continuing sin that afflicts this world now!

Moreover, if we are in communion with Jesus then we too, ‘through Him, with Him and in Him’, are able to unite our contrition for personal sin and the sin of the world (to which we have contributed) and whatever pains, sufferings and discomforts we may have, in support of Christ’s expiating self-sacrifice. It is our choice to be united with Jesus in his act of atonement which, apart from Him, we would be incapable of making.

Though not all believers sufficiently appreciate the fact, to be a part of the Body of Christ on earth – and that is what we are through Baptism – is to become co-expiators with Christ who is the Head of the Body. Where and how the Head is, the Body follows. By embracing ‘Life in Christ’ on earth we are embracing a daunting and demanding ‘Calvarific’ pilgrimage of following in the footsteps of our Saviour. The pathway of each is personal and particular and cannot be compared with any other save that of Jesus Himself.
To be a part of the Body of Christ in heaven is eternal peace, joy and incomprehensible fulfilment.

Yet unless we are united with the Body of Christ on earth in atonement and expiation, not notionally or spasmodically, but wholeheartedly on a daily basis in spite of our failings, we will not be recognised by the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep.
 
Through a process of loving and patient submission to the Will of God, we try to allow the Holy Spirit, as we go about our daily lives, to lead us, at times, into the depths of the mystery of suffering for the sake of others as well as ourselves. With such a disposition, suffering, far from being an end in itself, becomes the pathway from this place of exile to our true home in heaven.
 

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (28.01.18)

Authenticity
 
All interaction between people involves a search for authenticity, implicitly if not explicitly. We prefer to associate with people with whom we have authentic interaction. We distance ourselves, when we can, from those who disturb us by their lack of authenticity, shallowness and even lies. In our communications with others we search for the virtues we aspire to.

In all interaction, words are probably the most frequently scrutinised. Audible words from physically speakers are the most revealing. An audience scrutinises a speaker’s tone of voice, body-language, eye-contact etc. to help determine the authenticity of their message. But there is more. St. Jerome, a revered scholar of Scripture, expresses it this way:
“It is more than the air vibrating with the human voice that reaches the ears of a believing audience. It is God, speaking within a prophet’s soul, who communicates with the soul of each listening believer.” (Commentary on Isaiah)

More than 1,500 yrs. before the Birth of The Messiah, the Jews heard Moses reveal God’s message. They had to choose whether or not to believe Moses, not only in the moment, but for the remainder of their lives.
 
The Scripture extracts for this 4th Sunday - Deuteronomy (18:15-20); St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians (7:32-35) and St. Mark’s Gospel (1:21-28) – touch on distinctive aspects of authenticity.

God inspires Moses with a message for the Jews of coming generations – this Sunday’s 1st Reading (Deuteronomy 18:15-20) -  
"A prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise up for you from among your own kin; to him you shall listen.”

The Jews honour Moses as the most important prophet in Judaism until, as Christians believe, God raised up his only-begotten Son, Jesus of Nazareth, who brought to completion God’s prophecies. St. Jerome (347-420 AD) gives 1592 BC as the date for Moses’ birth. So, the proof of the authenticity of Moses’ prophetical words only became clear for Christians 1,500 years after Moses had spoken! The Jewish people, who do not believe in the Divine nature of Jesus of Nazareth, are still awaiting the appearance of their Messiah defined by Moses as:
"A prophet like me will the Lord, your God,
 raise up for you…”

Our measurement of time differs from that of God as St. Peter, in his 2nd Letter, reminds us:
“But, do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.”

For Judaism, the Messianic era has yet to begin. For Christians, it is already more than 2000 years old. When we pray for our Jewish brothers and sisters – who are the elder branch of God’s chosen family – we are praying that they will come to believe in the authenticity of one of their own, Jesus the Christ, as their Messiah.
 
St. Paul (2nd Reading), in his first letter to his Philippian converts to Christianity, is promoting a call that is even more demanding than the marital mutual love between humans namely, our love for God. If we have the mindset of Christ, together with the grace of the Holy Spirit, then, whether we are married or unmarried, we will reflect the self-sacrificing love Jesus showed us in his life on earth.
St. Paul amplified this point in an earlier section of his Philippian letter (2:1-8)
“In your minds, you must be the same as Christ Jesus:
His state was Divine
yet he did not cling to his equality with God
but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave,
and became as all human beings are.
He was humbler yet even to accepting death,
death on a cross.”

What the heart treasures the mind seeks to implement. Jesus translated into action the love he bore for us in his heart by willingly going to Calvary. As many of the Baptised know from personal experience there are innumerable forms of crucifixion, with a small ‘c’ and not entailing wood and nails, to which we are called in the course of our lifelong Baptismal journey. When our visible lives mirror the words we speak in the Creed then we can authentically call ourselves Christians.
 
Jesus, in the extract from Mark’s Gospel (1:21-28) for this 4th Sunday, is back in Capernaum where he was known. Mark tells us he went to the synagogue on the sabbath and taught there:
The people were amazed at his teaching
 because Jesus taught them as one who had authority,
not like the Scribes, the teachers of the law.”

For those not familiar with the local Jewish synagogue of Jesus’ day it is worth noting that the synagogue was first and foremost a place of teaching. The role of local synagogues was considerable because Mosaic law states that wherever there are ten Jewish families there must be a synagogue.

A synagogue Ruler was empowered to invite any competent person to give the address on what had been read from God’s Word. This enabled Jesus to open his ministry in local synagogues because he became known as a man with a message.
Jesus’s teaching differed from that of the Scribes. When Jesus spoke, he did so with a personal authority “But I say ….” By contrast, no Scribe would take personal responsibility for what he said. For the ordinary Jew, Jesus when he spoke, was like a breeze from heaven. There was the credible finality of his voice, the voice of God. God-fearing Jews discerned the authenticity of Jesus’ words which he backed up with deeds, as we hear in Mark’s Gospel for this Sunday.

At his baptism by John in the River Jordan, Jesus, and those near, had heard the endorsement of his heavenly Father –
“As soon as Jesus was baptized, He came up out of the water. Suddenly the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and resting on Him. And a voice from heaven said: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:17)

At our Baptism, too, the endorsement of our heavenly Father would have been discernible for those with ‘ears to hear’ through a graced soul and ‘eyes to see’ through a believing heart because, as Jesus has said:
“I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous ones who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:6)

And we are all born as sinners into a world of sin! It is good to thank God daily for the gift of Baptism. In addition, we should ask ourselves, as we review our day, if our communication and behaviour has been an authentic response to that gift.
 

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (21.01.18)

The Call
 
Some parents call/talk to their prenatal child. They believe their future child will thereby be helped to recognise their voices. Mary, the Mother of God-made-Man, interacted with the future John the Baptiser, then in Elizabeth’s womb, through the gift of the Holy Spirit. St. Luke recalls Elizabeth responding to Mary’s greeting (1:44)
 For as soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, 
the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 
Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord’s word to her will be fulfilled.”
 
The three Scripture Readings for this 3rd Sunday of the Year reflect the different ways in which God calls to us, his much loved and adopted family. His call predates our conception and is the lifeline of the eternal love without which we are adrift.
 In Isaiah 49:15-16 we read:
“Does a woman forget her baby at the breast, or fail to cherish the child of her womb, yet even if these forget, I will never forget you. See I have branded you on the palms of my hands.”
 
And in Jeremiah 1:5 we read:
"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, And before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations."
 
Once born, an infant learns to recognise the voices of its parents and, little by little, the voices of other relatives. This very early stage in their child’s life can be pure joy for parents because of the love, trust and infant sense of wellbeing with which their child responds to their voices.

However, this period of bliss is short-lived. All too soon the developing infant is exposed to the calls from people other than parents and siblings. There are the extended family, child-minders, nursery attendants, neighbours and then the floodgates open of school life but also of the internet! Parental voices are still recognised but now have to withstand ever increasing competition – as does God’s call of eternal love.
 
It is never too early for parents to help their child begin to learn about God’s call. Baptism is the gateway through which parents enable their infant to learn of the Holy Spirit. It is their means of building the eternal relationship that God has always had with their child. Many unpredictable factors will influence their infant as it grows into an adult. Nevertheless, the child that is encouraged by its parents to share some of the time they give each day to God will have a head start in building his or her own personal relationship with their heavenly Father.
 
The infant is also beginning to discover the wonder of choice. A parental voice calls the child’s name when the infant is fully occupied playing with a favourite toy. Whereas previously the child’s response to a parental call would have been more or less instantaneous, now there may be a delay. The child is learning about choice. Parents may respond by introducing small tasty temptations of food or drink to win their child’s collaboration. While the parent may forget the moment, the child does not!

Ideally, the bond of mutual love will motivate an offspring to collaborate with parents but that love has to be ‘a two-way street’, as they say. These days it’s not uncommon to see a child, in a push chair propelled by a parent, being completely ignored because the parent is chatting on a mobile! Being present is not the same as being engaged.
 
In former times, there was a regularity and rhythm to life that the ‘24x7’ fractious lifestyle of the post- war years has seen disappear.

That former predictability acted as something of a secure backdrop helping to cushion life’s unexpected events. Where, previously, home was a secure sanctuary, it has become for so many children something akin to a battlefield where the main protagonists are the parents, one of whom may not even share the house. 
The reverberations of a fractured homelife ripple out to relatives. Close relatives would have been expected to show support for parental decisions when interacting with children, whether the parents are present or not. When this influence is disrupted by parental break-up children lose the continuity of influence shown by a variety of faces. The child may wonder why the call of the heavenly Father is no longer heard by all the family.

God’s will is that his call to each should be echoed by all and given expression by speech and behaviour both individual and corporate. Whereas, today, so many children live surrounded by discord in one form or another that it has become the norm! Much popular television daily relays unending stories of discord, betrayal and disharmony to our homes to be watched by children of all ages.

This Sunday’s 1st Reading tells of a nervous prophet Jonah preaching God’s warning to the citizens of Nineveh (Jonah 3:1-5,10):
"Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed…”
To Jonah’s surprise the citizenry listened, believed and repented and were spared by God.

Likewise, St. Paul, 2nd Reading, warns his small Corinthian Christian community (7:29-31)
“…. the time is running out….
The world in its present form is passing away.”
Jesus, in St. Mark’s Gospel (1:14-20) begins his public ministry by proclaiming:
"This is the time of fulfilment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel."

The Scriptures are gifted by God to instruct us how to recalibrate our daily lives. Sunday Mass may be the only time in the week that many a person hears God’s word. On the other six days, we are pummelled by a world adrift from God and it is all too easy to lose our moorings!

The Readings for this 3rd Sunday are as much a commentary on 2018 as they were a commentary on the pre-Christian era (Jonah) and the early Christian era of Jesus followed by Paul, when they were first proclaimed. God’s Word calls us to his unblemished Truth in our self-imposed exile. Our first parents would have heard it, initially, without distraction. Then Evil came calling and the rest is, as they say, history except that in this instance the history is now the present. 

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (14.01.18)

Graced Encounter
 
How many people would recognise a moment of graced encounter? Indeed, would the words ‘graced encounter’ have meaning for many people? A graced encounter might be described as a positive (blessed) experience that occurs in a meeting, between two or more persons, that is greater than the sum of the individuals involved and which the participants may not necessarily be able to explain. It is a gift from God and reminds us of the time Jesus said: “For where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matt.18:20)
 
Both the First Reading and the Gospel, for this 2nd Sunday of the Year, provide examples of graced encounters.
The First Reading this Sunday (1 Samuel 3:3-10,19) shows how both teacher and pupil make progress in identifying the graced encounters God offers. Eli, a Jewish High Priest, had become the tutor of the young prophet-to-be Samuel.

The implied synchronism between the voice of God and that of Eli, as understood by the young Samuel, is significant. Samuel hears his name being called and presumes the call came from Eli. As Samuel was to learn, he could hear God’s will being voiced by his mentor, an indication of Eli’s own unreserved dedication to God. Three times, Samuel heard his name being called and each time ran to his teacher. On each occasion Eli denied calling the boy and sent him back. Finally, Eli, understanding that the call the young Samuel heard came from God, instructed his young pupil to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening”.
 
What lessons might there be for us in this passage? Well, for one thing both Eli and Samuel exemplify how, for humans, our life here on earth is a continuous schooling in the ways of God. Graduation is reserved for eternity. Clearly, Eli loved God profoundly. For only a person of faithful religious commitment can recognise and welcome a moment of graced encounter. Eli, high priest though he was, was comfortable with his on-going spiritual formation.

In our 21st century, it is both illuminative and encouraging when Pope Francis has no hesitation in declaring himself to be a recovering sinner, as are we all. Can we identify with Eli in the midst of our own journey to God? Are we willing to be God’s visible and audible signposts for others, despite our shortcomings, on our own pilgrimage of faith? Equally, if we have benefitted from Hannah and Eli-like persons in our life have we remembered to thank God for them?
 
Hannah, Samuel’s mother, gave her child his name in thanksgiving because, in her childlessness, she had prayed to God for a son. Moreover, Hannah had promised God that, were she to be granted a son, the child would be dedicated to God. For his part, the young Samuel evidences the influence of grace in his response to his mother and his teacher. Trust in God was to be the hallmark of his life both as a prophet and as a leader of Israel.

What a contrast this makes with our 21st century world of unrestricted individualism and selfishness. There have been, and continue to be, stupendous advances in both pre and postnatal health and in the care of the elderly. Yet society’s dismissive attitude to life, as evidenced by direct abortion, ‘designer’ babies and euthanasia, is such an affront to God, the giver of life.
How many believing parents, like Hannah, are willing to offer their Baptised child to God? How many react positively when a sibling announces that she or he wishes to serve God in a religious setting?
 
The extract from John’s Gospel for this Sunday (1:35-42) identifies three living ‘signposts’ of graced encounters. John the Baptiser, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter and Simon Peter himself. Signposts are, as we appreciate, waystations along the route. If they are authentic they should point the way to, but not be confused with, the terminus.

John the Baptiser declares himself willing to fulfil his vocation in this passage from the Gospel of John (3:30):
“The friend of the bridegroom stands by and listens for him, and is overjoyed to hear the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. 
He (Jesus)must increase and I must decrease.
The One who comes from above is above all. The one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks as one from the earth. The One who comes from heaven is above all.…”
 
The evidence for Andrew’s vibrant faith was the close attention he paid to John the Baptist. When John identified the Lamb of God, Andrew, and his unnamed companion, did not hesitate in following Jesus.

In today’s digital culture of the instantaneous, with its   plethora of claims, discerning true from false is challenging. The evil of deliberate deception is rife and, for many, costly. Evil abounded in the time of Jesus, too. Andrew’s ability to discern the truth, in the midst of counterfeit voices, and his commitment to it identifies the depth of his own spirituality.

With the new year still relatively young, now may be a good moment to ask ourselves how consciously attuned we are to the discernment of the Truth in our daily life? And whether we are sufficiently alert to the counterfeit, subtly convincing falsehoods, that daily bombard us? Do we engage with the Word of God on a daily basis for even a fraction of the time we engage with the word of the world? Are our companions in life, by observing and hearing us as they share our company, being encouraged to identify and follow the Lamb of God for themselves or are we leading them away from God?
 
Andrew, St. John’s Gospel tells us, having been pointed in the direction of Jesus, “first found his own brother Simon and told him, ‘We have found the Messiah, the Christ. Then he (Andrew) brought Simon to Jesus”.

How willing are we to accommodate the spiritual needs of another? Especially, if the other’s needs threaten our schedule or our finance or our comfort? There’s a cost to being a living signpost. Pope Francis has spoken about the ‘conversion of the feet’, by which he meant our choosing to move out of our comfort zone. When he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina, the then Cardinal Bergoglio used to take the underground railway to stand with his priests who were defending the poorest of the poor in the barrios against the torments of the moneylenders and local mafia. The Archbishop of Buenos Aires knew the poor people would never come to him in the city, so he made ‘the conversion of his feet’ and went to show solidarity with them where they existed on the periphery, out of sight and forgotten. It is a habit he has brought to the Vatican!
 
Some whom Jesus approached, as well as some who approached Jesus, found the cost of being living signposts too high! Jesus willingly became the signpost of signposts on Calvary in giving his life for us.
You might find it helpful to look up any or all of the following:
Matthew 10:37-39 / Mark 10:21 / Luke 9:61-62 / Luke 18:22-23 / Luke 9:59-60 /
 
On earth, the ultimate in graced encounters for Baptised believers is our communion with the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. With the single word – ‘Amen’ – we acknowledge this Divine intimacy that remains so far beyond our ability to appreciate it. We need to express our one-word response, ‘Amen’, with gentle humility and love.
 
In a recent programme called ‘A Culture of Encounter’ on BBC Radio 4, the presenter said: “We maybe more connected digitally than ever before but we are, in so many ways, strangers to each other.” If you are Baptised, you have the Holy Spirit within you to effect a ‘graced encounter’ today, though it may require ‘a conversion of feet’!

The Epiphany (07.01.18)

Impulse Driven – But Who Supplies the Impulse?
 
An impulse can describe a change made suddenly and without forethought. It can also describe a change made gently over an extended period of time. We probably apply the word impulse more frequently to the former than the latter description. Perhaps the journey of the wise foreigners to Bethlehem, celebrated at The Epiphany, resulted from a gentler impulse.
 
If we strip away centuries of myths that have attached themselves to the story of the ‘Magi’, what are we left with? An unknown number of wealthy, powerful foreigners, of unknown ethnic origins, who were free to travel. Were they known to each other or did each act independently? Did they commence their journeys simultaneously or were their journeys staggered over years? Did each begin his journey with a set goal or was their collective final objective the result of an unintended confluence on their individual paths?
 
The ‘Magi’ serve to remind us that God’s ways are not our ways! From disparate people God can draw a purposeful unit and unity of which no human could conceive. In the story of the Magi is there, perhaps, a reflection of The Christian Church?
 
The Christian Church is called the Body of Christ on earth. Just as a human body is made up of many distinctive yet interdependent parts, so too is The Church. An individual’s health and wellbeing is best served when his/her many parts, each fulfilling their intended purpose, collaborate for the good of the whole person. So, too, with the corporate entity of the Baptised, the Christian Church.
 
 St. Paul makes the point:
“Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body….” 
“But in fact, God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be….”
“As it is, there are many parts, but one body.”
(1 Corinthians 12:15)
 
Christians believe they are on a journey to a confluence of physical, mental and spiritual completion called Eternity. Although this journey is entirely individual, one person’s pathway need not be a cause of impairment for another if we follow the teaching of Christ. In fact, on our individual pathway each will both share and accumulate experience through interaction with others. Some experiences will enhance the natural gifts with which each is endowed by God, our creator. Others will test our Baptismal commitment. The gifts of each will be needed for the well-being of another or ourselves at significant moments. There is a potential parallel here with the traditional gifts which The Magi individually carried significant gifts for the infant Jesus that would span his time on earth.


People familiar with the story of The Magi will know of the star that guided them. A single star can be seen simultaneously by people in places geographically far apart. So, the Magi may have set out from very different locations. The light of a star is best seen when the earth is in darkness. The pre-Christian world was a dark place physically and more especially spiritually. Because of artificial illumination our 21st world is no longer a physically dark place but it remains so spiritually.
 
Scripture offers no insights about the individual journeys of The Magi. For sure, they will have had encounters en-route that will have tested their resolve in the furtherance of their initial impetus. It would seem that The Magi, at some point made contact with one another. The light quality of the star was evidently sufficient to draw them to journey on together. Through collaboration they discovered that they shared the same objective.

So, too, each Baptised person has many encounters on the road of life. Some will be beneficial and bring a blessing. Others will be potentially injurious either mentally, spiritually or physically or all three. Jesus made it quite clear that to be his disciples we would have to take up our Cross in order to follow him. The impetus that sustained the Magi on their journeys was, at heart, a burning desire for the unique illumination that is The Truth. A Christian’s Baptismal formation and development, through a combination of home-life and Christian school, is intended to enable each to retain their grace-filled Baptismal impetus to reach for The Truth even in adverse circumstances. For sure, individual Christians need one another for the completion of life’s pilgrimage.
 
We live in the era Christians call AD – Anno Domini, the year of the Lord. Incidentally, have you noticed how often AD is now replaced by CE – Common Era? The light of Christ is present in our world but is more and more obscured by His and our enemy, Satan. Among Satan’s destructive activity has been the fragmentation of the Body of Christ proving that our world is still held in the power of an evil darkness. (1 John 5:19) People who recognise and accept the Light of Christ urgently need to come together, as did the Magi, and make visible a reunited Body of Christ on earth. The fostering of Ecumenism is not an optional extra for Christians. True ecumenical collaboration carries the light of Christ to the darkest places of our world namely, the souls of many individuals where, presently, Satan rules.
 
The ‘Our Father’ is, for now at least, a commonly known prayer. Therein lies the problem. Do we pay sufficient attention to the meaning of the words they speak? Take, for example, the phrase from the ‘Our Father’- ‘Deliver us from Evil’. Are we asking for deliverance from some bodily pain or financial stress or the difficult neighbour? Are we praying, in other words for our self? Or, are we praying for the world that so badly needs peace? Both are legitimate intentions but are we missing something?

The phrase ‘Deliver us from Evil’ is a confession that we are already subjects of the Evil One. But is that what people understand? People are more likely to be praying for some future deliverance from evil and failing to be aware that human nature has already been captured by the Evil One. The deliverance for which we pray is from the evil that already has us in its clutches. We have many images of Jesus – the Good Shepherd, the man of prayer, the healer. But do we pray to Jesus - The Exorcist?

In the synagogue, there was a man possessed by a demon, an impure spirit. He cried out at the top of his voice, “Go away! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
 “Be quiet!” Jesus said sternly. “Come out of him!” Then the demon threw the man down before them all and came out without injuring him.” (Luke 4:33-35)
Some may feel uncomfortable addressing Jesus as ‘The Exorcist’ – they can be sure of the full support of Satan.
 
The Magi fulfilled the required diplomatic protocols and visited King Herod. Did they sense they were in the presence of a king of darkness? We know they were guided to avoid Herod on their return journey. A soul in communion with Jesus Christ, accepting the impulse of the Holy Spirit, will have a ‘sixth sense’ of the presence of Evil. This must be so because, when confronted by temptation, we have reached a moment of decision - to proceed or to retreat. Either a line will be crossed when we detach our self from the Lord or we will hold back. Such moments are frequent because we are exiles living in Satan’s kingdom.

The impact of encountering the Infant Son of God-made-Man was an experience greater than the star for ‘The Light of the World’ penetrates the soul as well as captivating the eyes. We, like The Magi, have access to the Son of God-made-Man. The impetus of the Holy Spirit remains within us, thank God, but we need a constant spiritual alertness as Satan is the king of duplicity. May your Light, Lord, protect us in our daily struggle against evil.
 

The Holy Family (31.12.17)

The Importance Of Footings
 
Footings are critical to a building’s endurance and longevity. Yet purchasers hardly ever see the footings of buildings in which they invest. Instead, they trust the reports of structural engineers and surveyors. Likewise, people living or working in a building give little thought to the footings buried deep in the ground, unless the building develops structural faults.
 
The ‘footings’ of family life vary from nation to nation and era to era. In some cultures, child brides are the accepted norm whereas in other countries marriage is delayed until the 30s or 40s, if it happens at all.

In Western Europe, where Christianity has suffered an implosion, it would appear that the ‘footings’ of Christian marriage have become dangerously threatened. For both Jews and Catholics, what is called ‘marrying out’ is now the norm. In earlier times, a Catholic man or woman would have been encouraged to look for compatibility in faith as a foundational requirement of a lifelong relationship. Often a mother’s first question to their son or daughter on being presented with a new boy/girlfriend would have been ‘Is she/he a Catholic?’
 
As recently as the 1940s and 50s, a Pastoral Letter from the Bishops of England and Wales reminding Catholics approaching a marital age that they should seek a Catholic as a future partner, was read on at least one Sunday of the year. Dispensations for mixed marriage were hard to obtain and quite rarely granted by local bishops. The pastoral hope was that by bringing together two practising Catholics, the future of the Catholic Church would be secured in them and their children.

Who could have foreseen the massive impact of two population-decimating world wars in close order that changed many previous ‘norms’ along with decisive changes re the role of women in society? The Pastoral Letter, referred to earlier, quietly disappeared. Yet the granting of dispensations for ‘marrying out’ remained the exception rather than the norm. Over time many UK Catholics re-appraised their views on some of the Church’s teaching regarding matrimony.
 
The construction industry has seen the development of many new types of footings. But the need for ‘footings’, as such, remains unchanged. In recent decades family life has suffered increasingly from relationship instability this has impacted most upon the children caught by separation and divorce. It was never guaranteed that parental oneness of faith would ensure the permanence of a relationship. But as a fundamental ingredient of wider footings a husband and wife’s oneness of religious commitment might well enable that home to be ‘founded on rock’ and ‘not on sand’.

As Jesus taught (Matt.7: 24-27)
 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.  And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
 
As a community, a Church, how often are we regularly praying, both publicly and privately, for married couples, those approaching marriage and for parents? The role of parents in ensuring that their homelife nurtures the ‘footings of faith’ is as vital as structural ‘footings’ are to a building. Often, today, parents are heard saying: “I want my children brought up as Catholics.” Might such a statement be revealing a parent’s lack of confidence in the strength of his or her own faith for the demands of teaching their own children? The parish and school community needs to respond positively. For it is essential for parents to remain fully engaged with the faith development of their offspring. No Catholic school, whatever its calibre, can replace the ‘footings of faith’ that the homelife of faith-filled parents can provide. There are many faith-filled parents who successively raise committed Catholics whose education has been in non-religious schools. Sadly, there are many Baptised Catholic children who, when they leave a Catholic education system, effectively leave the Church of their Baptism because their homelife never provided them with the requisite ‘footings of a lived and valued faith’.
 
Parents pray that their children will have children but what motivates that prayer? It may be because the parents, having themselves experienced the rewards of parenting, wish that same joy for their own children. But parents’ desire for grandchildren must first take into consideration the marital wellbeing of their daughter/son and their son/daughter-in-law. The arrival of grandchildren should be an unconditional blessing.

Joseph, the foster-father of Jesus, and Mary his Mother were evidently committed and practising Jews. They would surely never have dreamt that their humble origins would be the ‘footings’ chosen by God the Father for the Incarnation of his only-begotten Son, Jesus the Christ, God-made-Man. It is said that all Jewish women, believing in the promised Messiah, wished for such a motherhood but most probably felt that their circumstances ruled them out. Mary believed she had ruled herself out by her promise of virginity.

How mistaken she was. For, with God all things are possible:
“Again, I tell you,” Jesus said, “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
“When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished and asked, ‘Who then can be saved?’
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” … (Matt:19:24-26)
 
Holiness cannot be bartered, won or manufactured. It is the free gift of God to a soul struggling to love him despite the punishing ordeal of a self-imposed exile. The lovingly combined commitment of a faith-filled husband and wife is the ‘footings’ of the Church. We know this through the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
 

4th Sunday of Advent (24.12.17)

Your Home As A Crib
 
Christmas Eve 2017 being a Sunday means there’s no 4th week of Advent! Two adjoining ‘Holydays of Obligation’ create many logistical problems for both home and church schedules.  
 
The Gospel for the 4th Sunday of Advent is from Luke and tells of the Annunciation. But it’s this Sunday’s first reading, from the 2nd Book of Samuel (7:1-5,8-12,14,16), telling of King David’s attempt to build a house for the Lord that prompted this reflection. David’s laudable concern was that the Ark of the Covenant, God’s presence among his people, was housed in a tent while his palace was made of cedar.

David consulted the prophet Nathan who, at first, encouraged him to proceed. But God had other plans and Nathan was subsequently sent to update David – “Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in?” We know that it was God’s will that David’s son King Solomon would construct the Lord’s Temple. David’s task was to gather all the materials needed.
 
Christmas should be a period of construction or maybe reconstruction not of buildings but of relationships, particularly within families and religious communities at the parochial as well as institutional level. Christians have traditionally had a miniature Crib at home to mark the Birthday of their Redeemer.

A living Crib would be even better. Then it would be so different for visiting family and friends. They would experience being welcomed into the living Crib of your home. There would be no dressing up or allocation of roles. What would be evident, to all who visited over Christmas, would be your family’s shared endeavour to respect, love and value one another. Were a visitor to comment, it would be sufficient to say “we jointly decided to be a ‘living crib’ as well as having the traditional miniature replica of a Bethlehem cave”.
 
This tale may help you to visualise what is possible. There was once a monastery where the monks were so embittered towards one another that no new recruits came to join them and they were slowly dying out. The abbot was at his wits end trying to foster peace and forgiveness. One day, the abbot having been told of a wise and gracious hermit living some distance away, decided to consult him. The hermit listened to the abbot’s endless tales of woe. When the abbot was finally exhausted, the hermit went to his table and began to write. After a short while the hermit folded the paper, sealed it in an envelope and gave to the abbot saying: “Please go back to your monastery and, when you next call your monks to an assembly, open the envelope and let each monk read for himself, in silence, what I have written. Please make no announcements or admit any other business. Close the assembly and let each monk return to his duties.”

The abbot did as the hermit had asked. At the next assembly of the community he produced the hermit’s envelope and explained that each was to read in silence what the hermit had written. The abbot opened the envelope and read what was written on the paper inside. He then passed the page to the monk next to him. In silence, each monk received and read the page which eventually came back to the abbot. The assembly was closed in silence and monastic life continued.
 
There was no visible sign of change but the few outsiders who came to the monastery commented among themselves how the atmosphere there began to change. More heard about the change and visited. Slowly and quietly the life of the monastery began to come alive again. Applicants, few at first, arrived and asked to join. The aged community was beginning to be rejuvenated.

One day, the local bishop, who had long since despaired of reconciling the quarrelsome monks, called. He too had heard how things had changed. He asked the abbot if he might read what the hermit had written and the abbot handed the page to the bishop who read:

“The Christ you seek already lives among you.”
Each monk, after reading the hermit’s words, had begun looking at his neighbour in a different light. The accumulative long term effect renewed the religious commitment of each and of the whole community. More than that, the people of the whole area around the monastery began to breath in the atmosphere which permeated from the monastery walls and peace was enjoyed.
 
May your home be a living Crib and not only over Christmas.

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.