Sunday Reflection

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (24.09.17)

"But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first”
(Matt.19.30)

 
Almost no tourists and few pilgrims ever witness it. As dawn breaks over the city of Jerusalem, the area just outside the Jaffa Gate becomes a hubbub of activity. As you watch the parable, spoken by Jesus 2,000 yrs. previously, is brought to life in our 21st. century. This is no theatrical presentation, it is real, daily life, except for the Sabbath, in the city of perpetual tension, the meeting place of the three great religions of the world. Matthew recalls Jesus’ teaching for us (20:1-16) on the 25th Sunday of the Year.
 
Palestinian men, each carrying the tools of their trade, some water and a snack, jostle for position. Jewish landowners and contractors arrive in their pick-up trucks and drive slowly through the expansive area. They haggle briefly with the day-labourers before making their selection. Those hired climb into the open back of the trucks and so begins another day of work. There are no contracts, no union representatives, but the Jerusalem police are present in numbers should they be needed. A careful scrutiny of the archways high above the Jaffa Gate may even reveal some IDF (Israeli Defence Force) soldiers with telescopic rifles. If you substitute mules and donkeys for pickup trucks and clad everyone in the garb of Jesus’ day and nothing much would have changed in two centuries. Instead of the IDF there would have been Roman mercenary soldiers.
 
People in the UK listening to the parable in 2017 may imagine Jesus describing an imaginary situation. Far from it! In fact, in the post 2nd World War major port cities of the UK, a similar scene was enacted daily at dock gates. Day-labourers queued from before dawn hoping to be picked to discharge cargoes from the endless stream of incoming merchant ships. Often it was a case of a day’s work only ‘if your face fitted’. To be unsuccessful in finding a day’s work in the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day, or the port city of Liverpool in the 20th century, meant hardship for all the family.
 
The truth of this parable goes to the very heart of the Christian Faith. There was a warning for Jesus’ disciples in his parable. It was as if he were saying to them: ‘You have the great privilege of becoming members of the Christian assembly from its inception. Later, others will come and you must not claim any honour because you were Christian before them. Every individual, no matter at what stage of their life they commit to Christ, is equally precious to God.
 
There are cradle Christians who develop a ‘proprietorial’ attitude towards their faith. Some resent, what they describe as, ‘11th Hour or deathbed converts’. They also resent the intrusion of a new generation whose outlook differs from theirs. In the Christian family seniority does not necessarily infer honour. Jesus’ disciples asked him who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven: Jesus called a little child to him, and placed the child among them.  And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matt.18:2-5)
 
The parable also has a warning for the Jews who, conscious of being God’s ‘chosen people’ looked down upon Gentiles. The founding members of the Christian Church were all Jews who attempted to dictate that Gentiles could only become Christians if they first became Jews. “In God’s economy,” someone said, “there is no such thing as a most favoured nation clause.” It may be that long-established Christian communities, in say Western Europe, may well have to learn from younger Christian communities in other parts of the world.
 
This parable has lessons for today. The ‘comfort of God’ is extended to any person irrespective of at what state or stage of life that person commits them self to Christ. There is a saying: ‘Some enter the Kingdom in an hour; others hardly enter it in a lifetime’.
 
We live at a time of unprecedented migration often occasioned by dire circumstances of persecution and hunger. Unemployment caused by an absence of opportunity follows the migrants in all their wanderings. In the marketplace described by Jesus men stood waiting because no one had hired them. We do not know whether it was his compassion or the threat of imminent rain that prompted the landlord to take on more workers. Was he personally aware how continuous enforced unemployment can be utterly demoralising? This parable states implicitly two great truths at the very heart of Christianity -  everyone has a right to work and the right of every working person is to receive a just and living wage.  A ‘wage’ is not necessarily money. It may be a person’s contribution to the running, say, of a home and family or a communal enterprise such as a farm.
 
The love with which we serve matters more than the amount we give. We are called to give our all. We can neither earn nor merit the grace God gives us. God’s grace is not pay, nor is it a reward, it is pure gift.

This brings us to the supreme lesson of the parable. The spirit in which our work is contributed is more important than the work itself. The landlord, in the parable, entered into a contract with the first workers -  a day’s work for a day’s pay. Those who were taken on later -  especially the last comers – had no contract. All they wanted was the chance to work that they might feed their family. They trusted themselves to the landlord who knew the circumstances.

A person’s depth of commitment to Christianity maybe questionable if their first concern is material remuneration. Even Peter asked Jesus: “What about us, Lord, who have left everything to follow you?” Jesus’s response was to paint a word-picture of the joy of the Kingdom of Heaven where the first will be last and the last will be first.
 

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (17.09.17)

Ruled By Numbers
 
Numbers have always had a prominent place in our lives. As very small children we may been talked to count our tiny fingers and toes. We would certainly have learned our numerical position among our siblings and probably our wider family.
 
Catholics, of a certain age, will likely remember their religious life being ruled by numbers. When, for example, you were expected to go to Confession at least every two weeks. When you had to fast from food and drink (except water) from the preceding midnight if you intended to receive Holy Communion the following morning. Fast days were regulated by numbers. Depending on your teacher, you may have been told to eat no more than 4 ounces of food at breakfast and 6 ounces at supper. One meatless meal was allowed in the day. 21st century Catholics may think such measures to be unbelievable, but then 20th century Catholics found it hard to believe that their forebears had been expected to fast every day throughout Lent.

Of course, there were (as there still are) the casuists. For example, some believed in measuring out 4 ounces of, say, dry porridge oats.  By adding the water after weighing the oats, a more substantial breakfast was enjoyed!  The same casuistic reasoning was applied to dried vegetables!

Whenever mathematics hold sway in the living out of our faith, it would be fair to say that we had, to a worrying extent, lost our way.  St Peter, about whom we read in St Matthew’s Gospel for this 24th Sunday (18:21-35), quite likely felt that he was being magnanimous when he asked Jesus: “How often must I forgive my brother(sister)? As many as seven times?"

As a practising Jew, Peter would have been taught from his earliest years that he was required, under Jewish law, to forgive a person who sinned against him three times. (See the Book of Amos chapters 1 and 3) By asking Jesus if he should grant forgiveness seven times, Peter was doubling the required legal number for granting forgiveness to another and adding one! Once again, Jesus’s response would most likely have caught Peter by surprise: "I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”

More than a few scriptural scholars would contest the Jerusalem Bible translation. Instead of “seventy-seven” they believe that Jesus had said: “seventy times seven”. This would bring a total beyond comprehension – 70x7=490; 490x7=3430 and so on.  In other words, Jesus was indicating that, for him, forgiveness was unlimited. And if it was for him, then it will be so for his heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit. In other words, God is a Trinity of compassion and forgiveness when we, made in his image and likeness, open your heart and genuinely seek his forgiveness.

The Catholic Church’s preoccupation with numbers was particularly evident in the Sacrament of Reconciliation -  formerly called “Confession”.  The penitent was expected to state the time lapse since their last reception of the sacrament.  Individual sins where to be identified with a number corresponding to the number of commissions. In most cases the penance imposed by the priest was a set number of prayers such as the ‘Our Father’ and/or ‘Hail Mary’. Judaism’s preoccupation with numerical regulations found continuity in the structures of governance within the Roman Catholic Church!

The impulse to measure by numerical quantity is ingrained in our nature. It could be argued that without numeracy everyday life would become impossible. It could equally be argued that the Church, by incorporating the dominance of numeracy in its rules and regulations, strayed away from the example Jesus set.  There is no evidence in the Gospels that Jesus used numeracy to determine how we should implement his teaching except by way of being generous. Jesus used multiplication to demonstrate that as God is generous so must we practice that virtue. In Matthew’s Gospel (5:40-42) we read: “…if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well; and if someone forces you to go one mile, go two with him. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.…” You may or may not be aware that in Jesus’ day a Roman soldier had the authority to make a Jew carry his burden for one mile.

Jesus emphasises his answer to Peter with a powerful parable exemplifying God’s generosity (18:23-35). It teaches a lesson – running through the entire New Testament – that we must forgive if we are to receive God’s forgiveness. "Blessed are the merciful," said Jesus, "for they shall obtain mercy" (Matt.5:7) As soon as Jesus had taught his chosen band his own prayer - the ‘Our Father’ - he directed their focus to one petition in particular namely, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”.  Jesus explained: "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matt. 6:14-15).

Why this should be so is shown in the parable for this Sunday. Look at the contrast between the two debts. The first servant owed his master 10,000 talents. One talent in today’s money would approximately equal £240. Therefore, 10,000 talents would equate today to almost 2½ million pounds Sterling. The size of this servant’s debt becomes even more clear when you consider that the total annual budget for the province of Galilee, a wealthy province, was only 300 talents. By contrast, the debt of the fellow-servant was a mere trifle! 100 denarii would be less than £5.

Nothing that Jesus calls us to forgive can even remotely compare to all that our heavenly Father is willing to forgive us. His forgiveness of us is conditional upon our forgiveness of others.  We have been promised forgiveness for a debt that is beyond all repayment. The human race has brought about the death of God’s only Son and unless we forgive others we have no hope of finding mercy.

The ease with which we pray the ‘Our Father’ is born of constant repetition. It is a good thing that we have ready access to that prayer. However, if the words pass our lips with inadequate consideration then we are in danger of foregoing God’s forgiveness through a lack of attention to the specifics of God’s words. Did the penances that we were given in confession – say the ‘Our Father’ 10 times, for example -  really encourage our understanding of the prayer of Jesus?

The twin themes of mercy and forgiveness have found constant expression in both the spoken and written words of Pope Francis.  He is God’s emissary to a generation that sadly reflects the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“You will listen and listen again, but not understand,
See and see again, but not perceive.
For the heart of this nation has grown coarse.”
(Isaiah 6:9-10)
 This coarseness of heart is not medical but spiritual. The health of the human heart is affected by both internal and external factors -  for example: the clogging of the arteries or the lack of bodily exercise.

Spiritual coarseness of heart occurs when there is an absence of God’s grace. This occurs not because God refuses us his grace when we choose not to accept it. At first, this refusal of grace can be through procrastination – “Oh, I will get round to prayer etc later”.  Meanwhile, Satan edges ever closer to cleverly withdrawing us from God’s grace.

The remedy is in our own hands.  Jesus patiently and lovingly awaits us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
 

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (10.09.17)

Today we reflect on the pros and cons of speaking out.
 
In the Gospel Matthew talks about the duty of a Christian to correct an erring brother or sister.
But there is a way of doing this.
 
The advice is straightforward:-  “If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone, between your two selves.”
Interestingly, the Gospel says that the offended party, not the offending one should seek reconciliation.
 
It counsels personal intervention and honest confrontation.
It encourages members of the Christian community to straighten things out with each other privately,
If that is at all possible.
 
As Fr. Denis McBride puts it so well: “Christians  ought to deal with each other candidly and personally ... no anonymous complaints to the Authorities ...no whisper campaigns...the purpose of confronting another
is not to humiliate but to be reconciled.”
 
If the offender repents, forgiveness must be warm and without limits or conditions.  Surely this is not too much to expect from one who is conscious of one’s own failings, and who has experienced God’s forgiveness.
 
If he proves intransigent and refuses to see the light, what then?
We could seek advice from some wise and trusted person, and if this does not work, we could consult a wider group of responsible people.
 
However, the whole aim of the exercise is not to score points against my brother, but to help be reconciled
with him.   As Christ Himself emphasises (CF Matthew 5: 23-24) to seek reconciliation is more important than to offer sacrifice.
 
Yes, reconciliation is not easy, and needs humility, just as practising Christianity in other ways is also difficult.  
 
To speak out means to speak for God.  Hence to remain silent when it could be interpreted as giving approval for wrong-doing is in itself wrong.
 
Paul tells us in today’s second reading that -  Love is the one thing that cannot hurt your neighbour.
If love faces the real, it cannot avoid facing conflict.
Where silence would permit greater division in a community, love must do something.
 
As Edmund Burke noted: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
 
Today’s Gospel then is very challenging.
 
So, when expressing our hurt, it is important to be aware of the listener, who may also have issues to be resolved, and needs a compassionate listening ear.
 
There must be “give and take” in any confrontation.

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (03.09.17)

Ingrained Habits and Attitudes

How aware are we of deeply ingrained habits and attitudes? They may have become so enmeshed with our personality that we hardly realise the extent of the influence they bring to bear on our attitudes and daily decision-making. It may be only when we are unexpectedly challenged on an issue to which we have a deep attachment, that we become aware of how ingrained that attachment has become! Elections for either local or national government offices are a prime example. Religious affiliations, for a long time, used to be as ingrained as political affiliations but many believe this is no longer true.
 
 St Peter, in Matthew’s Gospel for the 22nd Sunday of the year (16: 21-27), gives us a first-class example. Just previously, responding to Peter’s Holy Spirit inspired proclamation of faith in his Divinity, Jesus had nominated Peter as the principal foundational member of the Apostolic College. When, later, Jesus startles his apostles by foretelling his approaching suffering, death and resurrection, Peter’s Jewish and deeply ingrained understanding of the promised Messiah takes over: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you,” Peter quietly says to Jesus.
The explosive nature of Jesus’ response: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as do human beings” must have taken Peter by surprise and he falls silent.
 
The Jewish people are characteristically deeply aware of their history. Despite their previous experience of centuries of deportation and enslavement by other nations and, more recently, their subjugation by the Roman Army, the Jewish people still believed that God would keep his promise to their father Abraham. They believed that God would send a mighty warrior to lead them to the freedom they desired. That God-sent warrior would be their Messiah. This precious belief had handed on from generation to generation despite almost continuous persecution and terror.

Jesus was not asking his newly gathered disciples to make some minor adjustment to their inherited understanding of God’s promise. He was challenging them to completely rewrite their understanding. Peter was not alone in finding this challenge difficult to comprehend. No matter how often Jesus repeated his teaching: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me … whoever wishes to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for my sake will find it”, his words were met with bafflement and disbelief.

Are we, in the late 20th and early 21st century, seeing a minor refection of this incomprehension in the Catholic Church today? When Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, the Church adopted his monarchical structure of governance. While empires and rulers have come and gone, the Catholic church has been the last absolute monarchy not only in the West but pretty much anywhere else in the world. Now, Roman Catholicism’s monarchical structure is imploding, a process that has been under way for some decades.
 
 Catholics continue to believe that The Truth, invested in his Church by Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, remains whole and entire. What Catholics question is the manner of the Church’s presentation of this Revealed Truth, together with its consequent directives, to both believers and non-believers.

The election of the first-ever Jesuit pope is for many Catholics, throughout the world, a providential moment. Pope Francis is clearly allowing the crumbling of the present form of governance and organisational structure of the Catholic Church to continue. He clearly believes that it does not faithfully reflect the model of ecclesial life found in the New Testament and recorded in the early centuries of the Christian Church.

In his 2013 apostolic exhortation ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ (The Joy of The Gospel), Pope Francis seeks to implement the principles and methods for his vision and his blueprint for  the renewal and reform of the Church. Francis is laying the foundations for the reformation of the government of the Church. The theologian and journalist Fr Thomas Reese S.J. has listed what he considers to be Pope Francis’ five great achievements:
1.  The Pope evangelises by emphasising compassion and mercy.
2.   He allows open discussion and debate in the Church. It is hard to exaggerate how extraordinary this is.
3.   He has moved the discussion of moral issues away from rules to discernment, relying on God’s grace in the lives of imperfect people.
4.   He has raised environmental issues to a central place in the Catholic faith.
5.   He has begun to reform the Curial structures of the Church. He is trying to change the attitude of all the clergy, especially that of bishops, that they are not princes but servants – as Jesus came to serve and not to be served.

By encouraging the use of synods in the dioceses as well as regions of the world-wide Church, the Pope is opening up the possibility for dialogue and discussion involving all God’s people and not just male clergy. He is making it possible for all voices to be heard through the process of discernment. This is clearly his aim for the 2018 Synod dedicated to Young People, vocations and the Faith. By way of preparation, the Pope has launched a worldwide on-line process of discernment, thus making it available to all young people, including non-Catholics. He wants them to share their hopes and concerns.

Jesus’ words to Peter and his subsequent explanation to the apostles of what lay ahead for him, as well as those who chose to follow him, was undoubtedly frightening. In a not totally dissimilar way, Pope Francis’s words and decisions have brought fear to some senior clergy and laity within the Church. These, like the Pharisees and Scribes of Jesus’s day, believe that they can stop the present implosion by a strict and rigid adherence to moralising norms and liturgical rubrics. They are obsessed by a needed to control and rule the Baptised through the ranks of Ordained ministers.

As we know from the Gospels, Jesus needed to repeat constantly his vision in the hearing of his apostles and the people at large. Despite doing so, we know that many of Jesus’ followers saw his crucifixion on Calvary as the end of the line. Perhaps this is a good moment to read it again and reflect upon Luke 24:13-35 – ‘The Road to Emmaus’. Let’s be clear, as Jesus walked with those two despondent disciples, so he walks today with his faithful people. We can equally be sure that he walks with his Vicar on Earth, Pope Francis.
 

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (27.08.17)

SETTINGS
 
The choice of a setting can make or break an occasion. Proposals with the potential to alter the course of life, be it individual or collective, are influenced by the choice the setting for their revelation. For example, the setting chosen for making a proposal of marriage or celebrating a wedding anniversary is chosen with care. The settings in which heart-warming and life-celebratory events unfold are imprinted on the memory. Conversely, such details are usually unrecorded when people receive less favourable personal news, such as a difficult medical diagnosis. You could experiment by recalling the settings you remember for the significant or challenging events in your life.
 
Matthew’s Gospel extract for the 21st Sunday (16:13-20) tells how Jesus, knowing his time was running out and faced with the increasing active animosity of the Jewish authorities, took his disciples to Caesarea Philippi. These two semi-adjacent districts lay twenty-five miles from the Sea of Galilee and outside of the territory of the murderous Herod Antipas. Jesus needed a less stressful location than Jerusalem in which to teach the Twelve. There was much for them to learn from him in the short time available. But first, it would seem, Jesus had questions for the Twelve! Were there other reasons why Jesus chose the region of Caesarea Philippi?
 
This area was scattered with historic temples honouring the Syrian god Baal and other ancient pagan deities. Within this territory was a deep cave, claimed as the birthplace of the pagan god Pan, containing water said to be the source of the River Jordan. It was also the location for a glistening marble temple supporting the deification of the Caesars as an unsettling reminder of the established and greatly feared power of Rome.
 
Picture, if you will, in this setting of Caesarea Philippi, so full of the influence of earlier beliefs, the impact of the appearance of a homeless, penniless Galilean carpenter become itinerant preacher, with twelve quite ordinary male disciples. Jesus had deliberately placed himself in this unfavourable setting of historic association with pagan religions that had ensnared his people in earlier times. In this discordant setting Jesus chose to ask the Twelve for their verdict on him.
 
There were more favourable settings Jesus could have chosen for his questions. For example, the remote site where he had involved the Twelve with feeding the five thousand plus with two small loaves and two fish. Equally, he could have taken them by boat to where, on the Sea of Galilee, he had calmed their fears and the storm by a word.
 
The setting of Caesarea Philippi would not of itself support the Apostles in giving Jesus the answers he most desired. Caesarea Philippi would have prepared them for the antipathetic conditions they would henceforth encounter if they committed themselves to their Apostolic calling.
 
Jesus’ opening question should have given the Apostles a steer, one that they may have missed - “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  The Twelve replied openly and without hesitation: “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Jesus then made the question quite specific by asking: “But, you, whom do you say that I am?”

It’s not difficult to imagine how each fell silent.  An increasingly deep stillness spread person to person in the group. Eyes, previously lively and bright as an accompaniment to a genial conversation, would have dropped to the floor in the uncomfortable atmosphere. Each Apostle, faced with such a direct and compelling question from Jesus, would have needed time to collect his deepest thoughts in a setting that provided only contradictory memories.
 
Who, among us, faced with such a direct question would not take refuge in an embarrassed silence of recollection, particularly if we found the setting challenging? At such moments we can become acutely, painfully even, aware of the discordance between our words and our tendency to compromise!
 
Try imagining how Jesus appeared to his stilled and silent Apostles. His expression and manner would have been gentle and encouraging with no hint of condemnation or criticism. Did Jesus himself know how the silence would end? How testing a time was it for Jesus when, approaching the end time for his ministry on earth, he was actively looking to see who would respond to his call for volunteer missionaries?
 
Peter broke the silence. From all accounts Peter did not fumble or mumble but in a clear voice exclaimed: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  (Matt)  “You are the Christ.” (Mark 8.29). “You are the Christ of God.” (Luke 9.20). The word Messiah and the word Christ mean the same; the one is Hebrew and the other Greek for ‘The Anointed One’.
 
With the oppressive silence broken, Jesus rejoiced by thanking his heavenly Father for enabling Peter to make his public proclamation of Jesus as The Messiah, the Son of the Living God: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father”.
Peter’s proclamation provides food for thought:
1.     It makes clear that all pre-existent human categories were inadequate for describing Jesus as ‘God-made-Man’.
2.     It is doubtful that Peter could have given a theological explanation of what he meant when he said that Jesus was the Son of the Living God. His words were inspired by the Holy Spirit as Jesus’ response confirmed. What Peter did understand was that no merely human formula of words was capable of formatting a description of Jesus.
3.     This event in the early life of the Apostolic College tells us that each individual’s discovery of Jesus Christ has to be a personal journey.
4.     Our personal acknowledgement of Jesus can never be second-hand – “I was told …” “I am given to understand …” Jesus asks each of us individually and repeatedly: “Whom do you say that I am?”
 
In the daily life of the Baptised Christian will be numerous occasions when our loyalty to Jesus will be tested by the settings in which we find ourselves. Many such occasions will not be of our making. They will have the hallmark of Satan disguised under all manner of persuasive modern secularist thinking. For the committed Christian entrapment is everywhere. For some it stalks the streets under the flag of ISIS. For many more it lurks in the apparent obscurity of todays, so called,  ‘recreational’ activities that, in reality, are abuses of God’s gift of life. It isn’t Jesus who has led us into this conflict situation. We put ourselves here through the disobedience of our first parents now compounded by our own.
 
However, there will be some settings of singular importance – as you might say, ‘a matter of life and death’. They could be compared to the placing of The Twelve in Caesarea Philippi. Will we be overcome by the settings or, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, will we overcome their lure?  Our UK martyr forebears chose to surrender their lives in defence of Jesus, his teaching and his Church. We have even more faith-forebears, unrecorded by history but known to God, who surrendered their lives in a bloodless martyrdom to defend the same. Their successors accompany us on our pilgrimage of life today. People whom we may know personally, or know only by name, who value their faith in Jesus ahead of love, promotion and all manner of personal gain.
 
We are accompanied by martyrs in our world today. Women and men, even children, who choose to identify Jesus as they continue their cooperation with the grace of the Holy Spirit received at Baptism. They depend upon us, as we upon them, for accompaniment in the daily struggle? Together, our daily actions may speak louder than any words. This united impact may be subtle but persuasive, as our love for the Lord endures and our commitment holds true. We do not have to travel to find today’s equivalent of Caesarea Philippi. In Western Europe we are already living in it!
 
How do we reply to Jesus when, multiple times daily, he asks us personally: “Whom do you say I am?”
 

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (20.08.17)

THE HEALING POWER OF FAITH
 
A grieving mother’s vocalised disconsolation is unavoidably arresting. We may not be surprised that Jesus’ disciples interceded with him on behalf of the woman, but was their motivation entirely altruistic? “Give her what she wants,” they said to Jesus, “because she is shouting after us.” You can read Matthew’s account of the episode in the Gospel for the 20th Sunday (15:21-28).
 
Our 21st century world is overwhelmed with constantly increasing sounds of distress. Despite so many advances in science and technology the means of bringing lasting relief to those in distress escapes humanity. Which is not to say that relief is not available but rather that humanity has yet to avail itself of the pathway God is offering.
 
Matthew gives a ringside account of the behaviour of the unnamed disconsolate Canaanite mother. She vocalised her pain and in so doing caught Jesus’ attention. The land of Canaan, centred on Palestine, was situated at the crossroads of Egyptian, Mycenaean, Cretan and Mesopotamian cultures. The Canaanites were the original pre-Israelite inhabitants whose language was a form of ancient Hebrew that related to the Hebrew of the Old Testament as Chaucer’s English relates to modern English. Practising Jews would not enter Canaan territory nor have any contact with its people whom the Jews regarded as unclean. You may recall the amazement of a Canaanite woman at Joseph’s well when Jesus, a Jew, asked her for a drink of water (John 4:5-30).
 
It’s opportune to recall that many, long-term, distressed people endure pain or hardship without revealing their feelings. Jesus could discern when a person was in distress irrespective of their stoicism. In the same way that he could discern a person’s faith or their unawareness of their spiritual distress. Recall, for example, Matthew’s story of the long-suffering woman who, as it were, ‘pickpocketed’ her healing (9:21). Ill as she was, and therefore classifiably ‘unclean’ under Jewish Law, her faith motivated her to make a silent approach to Jesus. She believed that if she could just touch the fringe of his garment, she would be healed. Coming up behind him, surrounded as he was by crowds, many of whom would have momentary contact with him, she intentionally touched the hem of his garment and was instantly healed. Jesus, aware of the healing that had gone out of him, asked the dumbfounded crowd, “Who touched me?” The now healed woman owned up and was rewarded by Jesus addressing her as ‘Daughter’, the only woman Jesus addressed with that title.
 
Jesus was no stranger in the land of Canaan (Luke 9:51 and 17:11). Crowds even came from Tyre and Sidon, Gentile port cities north of Israel, to see and listen to Him (Mark 3:7-8). Jesus, a Jew, is conscious that his primary mission is to the Jews. (This Sunday’s Matthew Gospel 15:24) He nevertheless, ministered to the non-Jews who demonstrated faith in him.
 
Luke (10:13-14) and Matthew (11:20-24) tell of Jesus mentioning Tyre and Sidon. He compared them to the Jewish cities in which He had performed miracles. But those citizens had refused to repent and believe in him. Jesus berated his unbelieving fellow Jews saying that had Tyre and Sidon been given the same opportunity the citizenry would have turned from their wickedness and been saved:
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you.” (Luke 10:13-14)
 
It may also help to scene-set Jesus’ encounter with the unnamed but passionate Canaanite woman. Notice how she addressed Jesus: “Sir, Son of David, take pity on me.” The title “Son of David” is, in addition to being a statement of physical genealogy, a Messianic title. In referring to Jesus as the Son of David, people hailed him as the long-awaited Deliverer, the living fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies. Matthew’s first chapter gives the genealogical proof that Jesus, in His humanity, was a direct descendant of Abraham and David through Joseph, Jesus’ Foster-father. Jesus, by lineage, is a blood descendant of David through Mary. In Judaism Jewishness is inherited through the mother not the father.
 
Is there a sense of this mother’s fear of exhaustion that would have brought tragic consequences for her daughter? The mother explains: “My daughter is tormented by a devil.”
 
Humanity has a long conflicted history with Satan. Eve and Adam were his first conquest and he has had success with all their progeny save one, Mary the Immaculate Mother of God-made-Man. The open warfare between humanity, as the adopted children of God, and Satan has an unquantifiable number of battlefronts that relate to individuals or to individuals who, collectively, form a nation or a group. This on-going conflict is epitomised by the heartfelt outpouring of the Canaanite mother battling with Satan for the wellbeing of her daughter. Our brains are hotwired for hope because it is God who created us and who keeps us in being.
 
Jesus presents his imploring disciples with a conundrum: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” As on the occasion of the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus knew what he was going to do (John 6: 5-7). By this time the Canaanite woman had approached Jesus and was on her knees. The disciples were silent but the mother continued to be vocal: “Lord, help me.”  Jesus said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” To which the Canaanite mother responded: “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”
 
In those days yard-dogs lived rough with frugal nourishment, much like their oppressed owners. These were not the pampered pooches that compete at ‘Crufts’. Did Jesus take deliberate advantage of a scenario that had presented itself to allow a public display of his own people’s prejudices? A ‘foreign’ (Canaanite) woman demonstrated real faith in Jesus and revealed his own people’s shameful narrowness of heart and mind. The question is not who came first or who is more privileged, but through whom is God more able to work, at any given moment, for the good of all?
 
We can imagine Jesus’ commendation of the mother to have been heartfelt: “O woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”
 
Instantly, Satan’s hold over the beloved daughter was broken. Here’s a challenging thought to compliment a challenging Gospel. It is God’s Chosen People (originally the Jews but now extended to embrace Baptised Christians) who are called to be ‘the light to the world’.  For that to happen, there will need to be a worldwide reinvigoration of the personal faith of the Chosen peoples in which all accept Jesus as their Messiah. This is especially true for the Chosen peoples in Europe. Put another way, if Christians and Jews were to find a living unity in Jesus Christ, would there be an ISIS? What a cause for prayer!

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 in Ordinary Time (06.08.17)

Bereavement
 
Bereavement is associated in most people’s minds with death. Yet the word ‘bereavement’ has many other associations involving, to mention but three, dispossession, privation and trauma. Partners may experience ‘bereavement’ when a marriage breaks down.
 
Jesus may have expected that King Herod would make a martyr of his cousin John the Baptiser. That expectation would not have lessened the impact on Jesus of the loss of his close cousin when it came. Matthew’s Gospel extract for this 18th Sunday (14:13-21) tells how Jesus sought solitude on hearing of John’s savage death.
 
No matter how anticipated the death of a close relative, there’s a unique finality when it occurs. A life on earth is concluded. Nothing can be added to or subtracted from what constituted that person’s earthly existence. As Christ’s disciples, we believe that, by prayer and penance, we can intercede with God on behalf of those who have gone before us. In turn they can pray for us, but not for themselves. Some bereaved people seek a time of personal recuperation through solitude. Jesus, like many a parent with young children, like others with dependants of all ages, found achieving personal solitude almost impossible. Even in the solitariness of his Crucifixion he was harangued by one of those crucified with him and petitioned by the other while some hostile onlookers mocked him. (Luke 23:35-39)
 
Throughout his public ministry, the crowds would not let Jesus be alone. Their very presence served as a constant reminder of what Jesus, aged twelve, had said to his Mother and Foster-father: “that I must be about my Father’s business” (Luke 2:49) Jesus’ awareness of ‘his Father’s business’ speaks, to us, of the incalculably selfless love that binds the Father and the Son, so perfect as to be the Person of the Holy Spirit, the Third member of the Holy Trinity.
 
So, on reaching his hoped for seclusion, Jesus was faced with a crowd of sick-bearing pilgrims who had trekked to find him. Jesus set aside his own physical and emotional depletion when he saw the people. He cannot but respond to their needs. Initially those needs, Matthew tells us, concerned the people’s spiritual and physical health. Eventually the practicalities of food in such a remote spot became an issue. Five loaves and two fish were too little and too late for such a huge crowd. Matthew makes a point about there being grass. This tells us it was Spring as grass, in the heat of Palestine, has a short life. It also reminds us of God’s providential care. He has provided humanity with adequate sustenance provided that we care for and are just in distributing what we have been given to work with.
 
Once blessed and distributed, the five loaves and two fish fed the assembled thousands. There were even twelve baskets full of surplus food portions for subsequent use. God is abundantly generous. In countless homes over the centuries since, especially when resources have been scarce, the little there was became, unbelievably, enough for the many when love did the multiplying.
 
It is likely that Jesus and John the Baptiser would have exchanged thoughts and hopes, as well as the dangers facing them, over the years of their adolescence and early manhood. Each would have known the other’s mind and heart. The Gospel tell how Jesus, in Mary’s womb, ‘acknowledged’ or, we could say, ‘confirmed’ his cousin John in his future role of being his Precursor while still in the womb of his mother, Elizabeth. (Luke 1:39-45) John’s murder was a loss that would have wounded Jesus.
 
Bereavement may sometimes, hopefully, more frequently than not present the bereaved with real opportunities to generously amplify, in their own lives, the qualities they most valued and respected in the life of the departed. Jesus’ behaviour, subsequent to John the Baptiser’s death, demonstrated the point precisely. Prompted by the Holy Spirit, Jesus endured the forty day desert fast and the temptations of Satan before picking up the Baptist’s challenge and making it his own: “Repent for the Kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:14-15) Thus Jesus began his own unique ministry to reveal God’s love for us. A ministry that would lead him to Calvary and crucifixion as it has continuously lead so many of Jesus’ disciples to martyrdom down the centuries.
 
Giving continued expression, in our own life, to the qualities we have valued in those who have left this world is truly putting into practice God’s Commandment to “love our neighbour as our self” (Mark 12:31). Those who have gone to God are as much our neighbours as those accompanying us now here on earth. When we emulate the qualities we may have seen in the deceased we are, in a way, praying with them. Equally, such emulation extends to those now with us on earth, the influence of the goodness that those departed may once have brought to us. And so the life of the community continues to grow under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit
 
Jesus’ demonstrated how He was to be remembered when, in the Upper Room at the Last Supper, he said, “Do this in memory of Me” (Luke 22:19). The ‘this’ was his twofold action in that room – He washed the feet of his disciples, “I am here to serve not to be served” (Matt 20:28) and He gave them his Body and Blood in the form of bread and wine “Take this all of you …” (Matt 26:26). In the washing of their feet, Jesus evidenced a ‘church of service’. In the gift of his Body and Blood, Jesus evidenced how he would remain within his own who chose to live in Communion with him.
 
People, sometimes, imagine that Christians build churches as memorials to Jesus Christ in much the same way as people construct huge edifices over graves.  The physical church building is essentially a covered gathering place specifically set aside for the Baptised community to assemble as the visible Body of Christ on earth and, collectively, to worship God. Christ’s Church is His body, the Baptised on earth not a material structure of small or vast proportion. The Risen Christ is the head and the Baptised are his members who, together, form his visible body on earth. We need to remember that the early Christian church had no buildings. They assembled in open spaces where they could be free from persecution. Jesus never owned a building – “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58) nor did Jesus order the construction of buildings. Instead he gave his Apostles this mandate:
“Therefore go 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 I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt 28:19-20)
 
As someone commented, “The Church is what would be left if all its buildings and memorials disappeared.” For sure, the preponderance of church buildings can beguile people into believing that the Church is alive and well. Whereas, the real Church, the Baptised, continues in Western Europe at least to be more absent than present for collective worship within these dedicated buildings. Often pastors have little option but to become too preoccupied with the upkeep of buildings to the detriment of what should be their first task, the nourishment and growth of their congregations.
 
 
There are over 630 locations in Wales with names beginning with ‘Llan’. For example, Llandudno, associated with Saint Tudno, itself a well known and popular North Wales resort town. ‘Llan’, in ancient times, identified a small flat, accessible piece of land defined as sacred because Christians gathered on it to pray and worship God. It had no buildings. It was identified and respected solely by the way in which it was used by the Baptised when they assembled as The Church in that area. Christians are among many who walk over these, now buried, ancient Llans today completely unaware of their significance to them. Yet we are only Christian today because of the living Faith these early Christian forebears secured for us.  Will our successors be our faith-beneficiaries or simply inheritors of costly and burdensome buildings?
 
It is illuminative to read Pope Francis’ recollection on the Sunday after he returned from Fatima and the Canonisation of Francisco and Jacinta, two of the children of Fatima – 14th May 2017:
“From the beginning, when I remained a long time in silence in the Chapel of the Apparitions (at Fatima) accompanied by the prayerful silence of all the pilgrims, an atmosphere of recollection and contemplation was created in which several moments of prayer were held. And at the centre of everything was the Risen Lord, present in the midst of His People in the Word and in the Eucharist, present in the midst of so many sick, who are protagonists of the liturgical and pastoral life of Fatima, as of every Marian Shrine.”
 
Jesus often surprises us with what can be revealed when people are at the centre of our field of vision, for example – a widow and her two small coins! (Mark 12:42) Bereavement, that is associated with the passing of another, may well bring hurt, shock and tears. But their shadow will lift and be replaced, hopefully, by the remembrance and emulation of the goodness, and kindness of the departed. Jesus focused on people not regulations or grand memorials.
 

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (30.07.17)

The Parable – A Work In Progress
 
The Matthew Gospel for this 17th Sunday, like the two previous, features Jesus’ parables - 13:1-23 for the 15th.; 13:24-43 for the 16th.; and 13:44-52 for this 17th.
 
Christians, familiar with Jesus’ parables, may be less familiar with how the parable, a teaching tool, works. A parable is helpful when you want to change another’s whole frame of mind. People often resist making such a change. This is especially true when the mindset has been inherited, for example, through generations of how a family votes at a General Election. It’s notoriously hard to persuade a person to alter the way they process the knowledge they receive.
 
That Jesus chose to use parables in his teaching tells us what he wanted to accomplish in his earthly ministry. You may know the lovely story of a tourist, lost in the countryside, who asked a local for directions. The local thought for a moment and then said, “You cannot get there from here!” When Jesus, the teacher, makes use of a parable he is in fact saying, “You cannot get to where I am, and experience how God wishes to be present in your lives, unless you first of all change your frame of mind”.
 
Because Jesus’ parables called into question some of the then prevailing Jewish attitudes to God and life, his teaching unsettled peoples’ minds. He challenged people about their taken-for-granted way of viewing everything namely, “It’s the way it’s always been”. Some believe that Jesus’ parables contributed to his eventual crucifixion. Neither the Jewish nor the Roman authorities appreciated the way Jesus looked at what they regarded as reality. Those who empower people to choose a different frame of mind are often a threat to the status quo.
 
For example, Pope Francis is viewed as a threat by Church members who are wedded to their understanding of the, as they see it, more conservative outlook of Pope John Paul ll and Emeritus Pope Benedict XVl. These two Popes influenced the unfolding of the Second Vatican Council’s teaching, throughout the Church, over a combined period of thirty-five years. Views as to how the two Popes enabled this unfolding vary from Catholic to Catholic. Some are preoccupied with measuring the legitimacy of Pope Francis’ leadership in terms of his continuity or discontinuity with his German predecessor.  For the first time in living memory, Pope Francis’ predecessor is living in retirement in the same complex as the present Pope. This enables some to manufacture mischief to further their own aims. Recently Pope Francis, addressing a plenary session of the Vatican Secretariat for Communications, said:  “Let us resist the temptation of being attached to a glorious past; let’s all be team players in order to better respond to the new communication challenges posed by culture today without fear and without foreseeing apocalyptic scenarios.”
 
Jesus, throughout his public ministry, was building on his initial and foundational declaration: “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand.” (Matt 4:17) Jesus’ call alerts all to be aware of the nearness of God and his desire to work collaboratively with us in our daily lives. His presence is sheer gift. We cannot merit it or control it. God is present among us and we engage with him when we bring him our repentance.
 
Today people are less able to see the Kingdom of God among them because they allow themselves to be conditioned, to have their minds set, by culture and peer-group pressure. It is estimated that some people would need a 180-degree change in their value systems, in their mindset, to begin to experience how God’s Kingdom is interwoven with their world and everyone in it. For others the change required would be less but nevertheless a measured change of outlook.
 
Jesus, in the first two of his parables for this Sunday, the treasure buried in a field and the finding of a pearl of great beauty and value, assumes that people would be willing to sell all they had and, in today’s parlance, go into debt (which is covenanting their future) to acquire them. By implication Jesus was asking his audience – as he asks, again, this Sunday – were they, and are we, willing to exchange all we own for these treasures? If our answer is ‘yes’ then it follows that if we appreciate the eternal ‘treasure’ Christ is offering in the Kingdom of Heaven, we would willingly surrender what is truly personal to us, without causing injury to others such as family and immediate community. This is in fact what we profess when we pray The Creed though the familiarity of the words might shield us from a penetrative understanding.
 
It is incumbent on us to remember that this world, as St. John’s first letter tells us (5:19), is in the grip of Satan. The kingdom God does not, for now, annihilate all other kingdoms. Life remains complicated and we will have to continue our pilgrim way until our heavenly Father calls time and brings this world to an end.
 
Jesus explains this with another parable this 17th Sunday: The kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind. When it is full they haul it ashore and sit down to put what is good into buckets. What is bad they throw away. Thus it will be at the end of the age. The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them (the wicked) into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”
 
In other words, we are called to establish God’s kingdom in an ‘all -comers net’. We are not to wait to establish the faith until conditions are ‘perfect’. There is no such entity as a perfect Catholic parish or a perfect Catholic leader. We are to evangelize the world as we encounter it. Since we do not know when the ‘end of the world’ will come, we must fulfil our Baptismal promises in the daily battleground of good and evil.
 
Matthew, the repentant tax collector become Evangelist, finishes recording this series of parables with Jesus saying: “Every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.”  Which is exactly what Matthew did when Jesus called him from the Custom’s house. (Matt 9:9) Matthew will not have expunged the memory of his previous life and activity but made use of it to see Jesus’ invitation with a rarified clarity.
 

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.