Sunday Reflection

4th Sunday of Easter

The Shepherd

The concept of shepherding is deeply woven into Biblical language. While the word shepherd is universally understood, its application, country by country, differs. At the present time most UK peoples’ mental image of a shepherd comes from the TV. It is quite different from the mental picture held by a resident of Palestine. This would also have been the case in Jesus’ day. So, a certain amount of mental adjustment is called for if we, here in the UK, are to explore the word shepherd that we read in John’s Gospel (10:1-10) for this Sunday. What follows may help us appreciate a Palestinian understanding of the word at the time of Jesus.

Professional Palestinian shepherds were not ‘odd jobbers’, combining their care of sheep with other tasks. They pastured their flocks on the Judean plateau, an area of some 35 miles long and varying between 10 and 17 miles wide. They walked everywhere with the flocks they tended, whom they accompanied day and night. Because pasture was sparse, shepherds and sheep wandered widely for days. The plateau was open and undivided, unlike in the UK where there were protecting walls and hedgerows. On either side of the plateau the ground fell away sharply to the craggy desert floor below. Grass being sparse, the sheep wandered requiring the shepherd to be constantly watchful. The sheep would also have been at risk from wolves, hyaenas and thieves. Palestinian shepherds did not necessarily have trained sheepdogs.

Palestinian and UK shepherds would have had then, as they do now, very different relationships with their sheep. In the UK, sheep are bred for meat; their lifespan is short. Palestinian sheep, being bred for wool and milk, are often with the same shepherd for years. He names his sheep and they respond to their name, as well as to the sound of his voice. Palestinian shepherds lead their sheep from the front to make sure the path ahead is safe. Their sheep have confidence to follow the shepherd they recognise.
The accepted bond between a Palestinian shepherd and his sheep allowed Jesus to use the concept to teach how he himself came as The Good Shepherd. His hearers would know exactly what he meant. Can the same be said of us today? As his adopted daughters and sons do we have have faith to follow Jesus and shape our lives in his footsteps?

Of necessity, Palestinian shepherds travelled light. Each had his ‘scrip’, a weatherproof bag made from animal skin. In it he put hard-bread and hard-cheese, dried fruit, olives and his sling. The sling was a weapon of offence and defence. It had one important use. When the shepherd needed to recall a straying sheep, he fitted a stone into his sling and landed it just in front of the straying sheep's nose as a warning to turn back. It always did! It was said that Palestine shepherds could sling a stone at a hair and not miss. Each shepherd had his crook staff. As he gathered his flock at dusk each day into the roughly made sheepfold, each shepherd held his crook across the entrance, quite close to the ground. Each sheep had to pass under the crook (Ezekiel 20:37; Leviticus 27:32); and, as each animal did so, the shepherd quickly examined it to see if it had received any injury in the course of the day. Do we appreciate the care for each of us that Jesus expresses in a myriad of ways?

John, in today’s Gospel, tells us that those listening to Jesus:
“failed to understand what he meant by telling it to them”.
His hearers had no difficulty in understanding what Jesus described, it was, after all, a scenario with which they were familiar. Their ‘failure in understanding’ was their disinclination to apply Jesus’ words to their own lives. Is this a characteristic of 21st century people too? If it is, then are we failing to be the visible ‘Body of Christ’?

To the large crowd gathered at the lakeside listening, Jesus had been teaching making use of parables drawn from daily life. His final statement was:
“Listen, anyone who has ears to hear.” (Mark 4: 1-9)
The listening to which Jesus referred was that which required an open, loving heart rather that a quizzical even rebellious mind.

His disciples and associates asked Jesus, when they were alone, to explain the parables. This Jesus did, as Mark recalls (4: 11-20):
“He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, - here Jesus quoted from Isaiah 6: 9-10 -
“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
  and ever hearing but never understanding …..’”
Unless we allow the Holy Spirit to illuminate our hearts and minds, Jesus’ parable teaching remains obscure. The necessary fusion of the Holy Spirit, received initially at Baptism, requires our daily renewed collaboration every day of our lives. Without this Divine illumination we are like people, without medical training, trying to follow the conversation of those with that training. We hear words, some of which we recognise, but our understanding is, at best, patchy.

The comparison given earlier between the Palestinian and UK shepherd, may help to make the point. John’s Gospel extract (10: 1-10) can be read in an English Bible by anyone who is competent in English. But without the background information, pertaining to shepherding in Palestine, at least some of the meaning behind the words may not be fully appreciated.
This leads to a question. How frequently do we, as the Baptised, imitate the Apostles and disciples and ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten our understanding and assist us in applying God’s Word in our daily life? Failure to do so will mean that much of God’s life-giving word may wash over us rather than penetrate the depths of our hearts and souls. God never forces himself on us. He waits to be invited into our hearts and souls. However, God never fails to respond generously when we continuously make the effort to turn our attention and affection to him.

One day long, long ago, in Palestine, I watched the re-enactment of today’s Gospel. The shepherds gathered in the early dawn at the communal sheepfold. Each one, beginning with the most senior, called his sheep by name while the other shepherds stood still in silence. One by one his flock gathered around him.  When each shepherd had assembled his flock, he set off calling his sheep to follow, which they did. It was a fascinating scenario to watch and I had been given only one condition for my presence, I was to be silent and still throughout. Even camera-shutter clicks were banned. This teaches the value and necessity of silence and stillness as we wait on God to call us through his Spirit of enlightenment and encouragement. Is there sufficient prayer-based silence and stillness in our daily life?
I am so grateful to have had that experience and have lived out of it, hopefully fruitfully, over the subsequent decades. This Gospel text, and others that are similar, reminds me to invoke the help of the Holy Spirit that I may not miss any nuance in Jesus’ words. For I am all too aware that, in my busy and distracted life, I can so easily fail to truly listen, with an uncluttered heart, to His Word.

Third Sunday of Easter

The Listening Heart

The Christian’s faith journey is towards the breaking dawn. In the Book of Numbers (21:11) the Israelites were told that their journeys through the wilderness would be towards the sunrise. The Christian’s journey is to the dawn that ‘breaks open’ with revelation, never to the night which ‘falls into darkness’.

The two disciples, in this Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 24: 13-35), were walking towards the sunset. They would not have set out from Jerusalem until the sun had begun to fall. Emmaus is west of Jerusalem. However that may be, the two were so overcome with sorrow and disappointment at the death of Jesus (“…our own hope had been that He would be the One to set Israel free.” Luke 24:21) that, internally, they were consumed by darkness. The hopes and dreams of these unnamed men were in pieces. They knew only bewilderment and unfathomable distress when an unrecognised man joined them.

Luke tells us how the unrecognised Risen Jesus invited these disciples to share their preoccupation. The two responded:
“You must be the only person staying in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have been happening there these last few days.” Gently Jesus asked: “What things?”
Jesus’ loving and attentive listening was to, slowly and tortuously, draw them, from the depths of their darkness and distress towards the light. The two began to recount the history of what had become, just two days prior, such deep sorrow and the crushing of their hope.
Luke does not indicate how long Jesus listened. But it takes time and courage for someone to recount a deeply imbedded hope. The assembly of deep, previously unexpressed inner feelings, built up over time and then dashed in a moment and their conversion into spoken words, is not a quick process.
Listening to another’s sorrow and despondency is also draining on the listener. Yet, listening is the crucial first stage in healing a wounded soul and body. Jesus would have listened not only with care but also with a profound love and compassion enabling him to detect an unexpressed but felt word, a light sigh or the fall of a tear. When a distraught person is truly listened to, they know, in the depth of their being, that they have been heard, without being judged.

The healing element of true listening is frequently damaged, if not entirely lost, when the listener is too anxious to fill a needed moment of silence with their own story, which may or may not be related to what the previous speaker had been saying. True listening requires a depth of attention that is not distracted by extraneous insertions of speech or movements or sounds.

As the Baptised, it is in Christ’s name that we are here on earth living, breathing and communicating. This Gospel text challenges us to consider the quality of our listening. Does Jesus find us, for example, as attentive to his Word today as he was to the two dispirited disciples on the road to Emmaus? Would he find a reflection of the attention he gave in the way we try to listen to the wide range of people whom we meet, from nearest and dearest to the casual acquaintance?
It could be, of course, that our sensory input is overloaded and, if so, we can be driven to distraction. If our sensory input is, in addition, hopelessly discordant, our problems of discernment are hopelessly multiplied. While it is true that, on occasion, we can bring such confusion upon ourselves, there is another whose purpose is to cause us to lose our way. His name is Satan. He will attempt to disrupt our intention to be Christ’s listening heart and ear by disrupting our sense of being guided by the Holy Spirit. The disciples walking into the Emmaus sunset had been invaded by an all-consuming despondency. Satan is the author of untruth. If our communion with the Risen Lord becomes strained or threatened by fracture, we can find ourselves, all too easily, unable to differentiate truth from falsehood, essential from non-essential.

Jesus began to heal their woundedness with his exorcising presence. His listening heart was like a loving poultice that drew from his disciples the negativity that evil had planted in them. When, finally, the depth of their depression had been exorcised, they were able to receive and recognise The Word Jesus broke open for them. Jesus listens, unrestrictedly, with his loving heart to all his disciples who turn to him aloud or in silent tears. Like the two on the road to Emmaus, we need the confidence of faith.
Occasionally, a friend, relative, colleague a neighbour or even a total stranger will choose to share very personal and sensitive information. Often such moments occur unexpectedly. Baptism gifts us with the grace of God to be Christ for that person in their moment of need. We are no longer just a relative or a neighbour or a stranger. If we are appropriately disposed we can be there in the person of Jesus Christ. This would be a use of the priestly role conferred on us by the Holy Spirit at our Baptism. Realisation of the sacredness and demands of this vocation requires from us a lively faith in Jesus that changes not only the ‘why’, but the ‘how’, we listen.
Such vocational listening is a graced encounter for both. The listener is at hand to enable the speaker to glimpse the truth that the fog of confusion and pain might have previously obscured. The listener is not there, primarily, to provide instant answers and solutions. A listener, in persona Christi, will know that he or she has fulfilled their vocational moment when the speaker expresses their gratitude for your attention. In reality, you may have said very little. What is important is that you have enabled the speaker to make contact with the Truth of God’s love for them.

The all-important moment of understanding for those Emmaus-bound disciples was a silent gesture (Luke 24: 30-31). Jesus, in response to their offer of hospitality, took bread, broke it and gave it to them. Their eyes were opened, and Jesus disappeared from their sight. Filled with the resonance of Jesus’ lengthy listening and his heart-warming catechesis, they did the unthinkable retracing their steps, through the night, to Jerusalem and a new dawn.

We cross the path of so many in the course of our lives. Each encounter, be it in silence, word or gesture is potentially a graced moment for both the Baptised and the other, baptised or not. In the moment of each encounter, it is Christ in us who is reaching out to another if we are alive to our vocation and loving enough to facilitate his desire.
These days, there are so many trudging with heavy step and bowed heads, towards what can often be nothing more than a mirage. As Jesus said:
“The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few, so ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers into his harvest.”   (Matt.9:37; Luke 10:2)
You could ask the Holy Spirit to make you aware, today, of the healing he could bring through the gift of your listening.

Low Sunday

Time Lapse
 
The Scripture extracts for the Sundays from Easter to Pentecost may appear time lapsed.

The first Readings come from the Acts of the Apostles written by Luke about 80-90AD. The second Readings come from the 1st. Letter of Peter that is thought to have been composed about 81 AD. Both tell of life in the early Christian communities that had been established much later than Pentecost.
By contrast, our Gospel extracts give partial glimpses of the chaotic and fear-filled lives of the apostles and disciples following first the Crucifixion and death of Jesus on the Friday, and then his Resurrection on the Sunday.  Overall, there is little historical detail of the depth of turmoil that engulfed the core group of believers during Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances.

From what we read it would appear that, after his Resurrection, Jesus had to work assiduously to encourage his followers to believe that he had indeed risen from the dead, as he had earlier repeatedly told them he would. Jesus’ post Resurrection appearances were one hundred percent a missionary activity by the Risen Son of God-made-Man.

There is a hint in Matthew 28:16-17 that the apostles and disciples journey of assimilation of Jesus’ Resurrection and teaching was lengthy and not without setbacks. Mark records (16: 14-15) how Jesus reproached the Eleven for their ‘incredulity and obstinacy’. See also Luke 24: 9-11 and 40-41 and John 20: 24-29. We could take time to consider what our response might have been had we been with the Apostles and disciples back then; would we have believed promptly in Jesus’ Resurrection? When we pray The Creed together each Sunday, we profess our belief but what daily evidence do we give in support that profession?

The litmus test of our commitment to the Faith is how involved we are with Evangelisation, making the Gospel visible and audible through our lives. At our Baptism we were commissioned to Evangelise which means to promote the Gospel. Each communal celebration of the Eucharist ends with the Baptised, who are present, being re-missioned to evangelise – “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” In our response we thank God for re-commissioning us when we say: “Thanks be to God.” Are we conscious of this being a re-commissioning or are we too concerned gathering our goods and chattels and leaving the building?
 
In early Christian times, the adults who had been baptised or received into the Catholic Church at Easter wore a distinctive decoration. This enabled their new faith community and Christian neighbours to get to know them. The enthusiasm of these newly baptised would have helped rekindle the faith of established Catholics, in much the same way that the advent of a newborn can reinvigorate a family.

Have you discovered the identity of those adults, in your parish or deanery, who were Baptised or Received into the Catholic Church this Easter? Could you make contact to help them integrate and feel at home with their new community? This, too, would be a form of evangelisation. The will to evangelise grows from our own appreciation of what it means to us to have been gifted with faith in Jesus the Christ.
 
In each of his post Resurrection appearances, Jesus encourages those to whom he appears to have faith in him.  If it is not in our nature to be open and outgoing about our faith, an Easter to Pentecost prayer can help:
‘Come, Holy Spirit, fill the heart
of your faithful who are timorous.’

Some baptised people are hesitant to evangelise, feeling they have little to offer. They might find encouragement in Jesus’ words about the ‘Widow and her Mite’ (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4). Jesus identified the value of the woman who made the offering. We might put too much emphasis on her two small coins whereas Jesus laid the emphasis on her will to make over to God all that she was.

Other people, baptised as infants, may feel unworthy to even think of offering themselves as evangelisers because of their history since baptism. They would find encouragement in Jesus’ parable we know as ‘The Prodigal Son’ (Luke 15:11–32). It is a parable that is not gender restricted other than, in Jesus’ time, it would not have made sense to have spoken of a ‘Prodigal Daughter’.

The prodigal came to his senses in a pigsty where the animals were better fed than he. His journey back was very hard. But, when he was still a long way from his home, his father/mother saw him and rushed to greet, embrace and restore him. Rembrandt’s famous painting shows his father/mother embracing the broken young prodigal who had clearly been stripped of all dignity. To emphasise the gentle, yet strong, welcome from the father/mother, Rembrandt portrays a male and a female parental hand on the young man’s bruised back.
 
Evangelisation is a two-way street. The evangeliser also benefits. Each person we greet and meet in the name of Christ brings us a blessing, though it may not be obvious or even evident at the time. Even a ‘cup of cold water’ given in Jesus’ name (Matt 10: 42; Mark 9: 41) will be rewarded, but it may not be in this world.

Baptismal faith remains dormant when it is not given expression. Have you noticed some notable sports stars making the Sign of the Cross or clearly pointing to the heaven? That is evangelisation. If you stop, before eating a meal, and make a sign of Cross to thank God that you have food … that is evangelisation. If you audibly add the words ‘please God’ to some hope you express … that is evangelisation. If you touch wood when expressing a hope, explain the gesture’s reference to Christ’s Cross to those who see you touch wood … that’s evangelisation. Even a simple, ‘thank you’ or ‘please’, spoken with a smile, can be evangelisation.
 
Jesus calls people where they are and as they are. His first four recruits were fishermen with no formal education (Matt: 4: 12-23). Being a fisherman in Jesus’ day was not easy. Their social ranking was low. Many were not self-employed but worked for masters who owned the boats and the tackle, the fish quotas and the licensing. For Simon (whom Jesus later re-named Peter) and his brother Andrew, answering Jesus’ call meant breaking with their masters and their Roman rulers in favour of the Kingdom of God.

As you read this, are you conscious of Jesus calling you and, if so, what has been and is your response? Will there be – has there been – a time lapse between hearing the call and your response?

Easter Sunday

Whatever happened to flowers, Easter bunnies and chocolate eggs?

It is early morning on Easter Day. You open the church door and are struck by the darkness and soundlessness of the empty interior! You ask yourself, ‘Am I imagining this or is it real?’ 
Well, if you wanted a replica of the original Easter morning at Jesus’ tomb, as experienced by Mary of Magdala and the other women, then you have it!  (Matt: 28:1-8; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-8; John 20:1-10) These women were among Jesus’ closest and bravest collaborators.
Imagine yourself accompanying the women to Jesus’ tomb. Fully aware of the prevailing political tenseness, they carefully picked their way in the pre-dawn light carrying the spices needed to embalm Jesus’ body. On the Sabbath eve, (Good) Friday, there had been only time for a hurried, impromptu and incomplete burial in the borrowed tomb.

The above portrays a very different experience from the one which worshippers, arriving today at church, expect. People now anticipate eye-catching flower displays, bells, coloured drapes; children full of excitement at the prospect of chocolate bunnies and easter eggs. So, why is it that our experience of Easter Day bears so little resemblance to the experience of those who shared the original day?
Perhaps if we were accustomed to implement the ‘emptiness’ of Holy Saturday in our homes, as well as our churches, we might have a more realistic appreciation of the debilitating shock that Jesus’ dying had brought to his apostles and disciples. The profound silent stillness of Holy Saturday is an irreplaceable prerequisite for the celebration of Christianity’s principle Feast. Tragically, that necessary empty stillness has been usurped. Holy Saturday is like any other day of week. Even for practising Christians, the ‘Saturday of Emptiness’, symbolised by the empty Tabernacle and stripped-back Altar, has been replaced with flower-arrangers and support staff hurrying to ‘dress’ the church for the Easter Vigil. The necessary ‘day of mourning’ has been obliterated.

Yet, it is the very ‘emptiness’ of Holy Saturday that has so much to teach us. Nowadays, only our orthodox Jewish brothers and sisters, observing their holy Sabbath, observe a Saturday of silence and stillness. Their weekly Sabbath commemoration is of an earlier passover when God delivered their ancestors from captivity in Egypt.
The events that accompanied the tumultuous death of Jesus by crucifixion (Mark 15: 38; Matthew 27: 51-53; Luke 23: 44-46) must have added fear to an already silenced Jerusalem.
Being still and silent on Holy Saturday allows Christians to contemplate the effect of Jesus’ barbaric death on his Mother and his frequent companions. The absence of Mass and unavailability of the Sacraments for one day might help us to appreciate what it is like for the thousands of our fellow Baptised, in areas like Amazonia, who are without Mass and the Sacraments not just for a day, but for months and sometimes years.
Experiencing Holy Saturday’s emptiness might also bring home to us the inner emptiness of those who feel cut off from the Christian community, especially those whose separation is not their fault. Equally, we could be prompted to befriend and support someone we know who is struggling to find a way to connect or reconnect with Jesus.
The Holy Saturday of ‘emptiness’ would be an appropriate day on which to disconnect ourselves from the internet, the TV and the phone. True life does not come through social media’s incessant manipulation of our attention. Sadly, social media is probably, for too many people, their only communication with life!

Each Sunday, when praying The Creed, we say:
“On the third day He (Jesus) rose again                          in accordance with the Scriptures;”
We speak these dozen words in a brief moment and without any pause. Then, like a train pounding the tracks, we tear on to Jesus’ Ascension, his being with the Father and his ultimate return for our judgement. Even on Easter Day am I aware of what I am saying?

Our Easter could begin with us imagining ourselves accompanying the real characters of the original Easter Day.
We have already considered our accompaniment of the fearful but determined Mary of Magdala making her way in the pre-dawn light to the place of Jesus’ burial.
Or, we could imagine ourselves, with Peter and John, running to the burial site because Mary of Magdala had breathlessly arrived with startling news that the body of Jesus was not in the tomb! She believed Jesus’ body had been stolen. (John 20: 3-10).
We could imagine being one of the two disciples dejectedly leaving Jerusalem to walk to Emmaus. Their once high hopes had been dashed by Jesus’ Crucifixion and Death. Imagine how they might have reacted to the stranger who caught up with them, asking to share their company for the journey. The two would probably have preferred to be alone, but traditional hospitality won the day, and they welcomed him. (Luke 24:13-32)
Or, we could imagine ourselves among the apostles and disciples slowly filling the hushed atmosphere of the upper room. Each person present would still have had fresh memories of the ‘Foot Washing’ and the Last (Passover) Supper they had all shared. The joy of that occasion was now replaced by fear and anxiety. At some point, in that long day of uncertainty, a distinctive and instantly recognisable voice was heard by those in the room. Muted conversations ceased as all eyes turned towards the speaker. Imagine you were there (Luke 24:36-49; John 20:19-23).
Or perhaps, you were with the apostle Thomas, absent from that gathering (John 20:24-29).
The original Easter Day would have been a real pot-pourri of fear-filled emotion and utter confusion.
The Resurrection of Jesus is beyond our comprehension. Just like the first apostles and disciples, we daily struggle to absorb and be absorbed by The Resurrection. It is at the heart of the journey of faith to which we have been called by our Baptism. Like Jesus, our journey to resurrection, from finite life here to the infinity of God’s eternal presence, will be through death though, please God, not replicating his suffering.  We need to be familiar with the details of the Sacred Triduum – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday – they constitute significant milestones in preparation for celebrating the Resurrection of Christ who is our Life. Without the input of the Sacred Triduum, our Easter Day can be lacking the focus and impetus we need to make a sure onward journey to Pentecost.
Christ has died;
Christ is Risen;
Christ will come again,
Alleluia.

Palm Sunday

Narrowing the Focus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palm Sunday

Narrowing the Focus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4th Sunday of lent

Eating With Our Eyes

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


1st Sunday of Lent

A Key Word for Lent

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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







The Presentation of the Lord

Our Life of Presentation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (13.08.2017)

Danger Is Not Our Only Constant Companion
 
“Would Jesus have knowingly sent his disciples into danger?” A university student put this question in a Bible-share on this Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 14:22-33). Certainly a night crossing on the notoriously unpredictable Sea of Galilee would have its dangers.

Danger, specifically the unknown, is our constant companion. Since our first parents disobeyed God, thereby losing the peace and divine harmony of ‘The Garden of Eden’, humanity has been continuously endangered. The counterbalance to the presence of unknown danger is the declaration by God of his abiding love for us through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

St. John, in his first letter (5:19) makes it clear that, while we belong to God, our world of exile is in the power of Satan. It will continue so until the Risen Lord returns as King and Judge of the Universe. Then, finally and forever, Satan’s grip on the world will be broken.

The ultimate danger for humanity is the loss of heaven, eternity with God. All other dangers, even the life-threatening variety, are relative. Just as God did not write-off our disobedient first parents neither does he write-off their descendants. The ultimate proof of this is that God the Father sent his only Son into our dangerous world. He knew that Satan’s power over this world would not triumph even when it inflicted crucifixion on his Son, Jesus.

St. Paul made this point strongly in Romans 5.20 “But however much sin increased, (God’s) grace was always greater; so that as sin’s reign brought death, so grace was to rule through the saving justice that leads to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Jesus knew the individual, as well as the collective, strengths of his disciples. Among them were experienced ‘Sea of Galilee’ fishermen. For them, sudden storms would have been nothing new. Matthew tells us that their boat was ‘battling with a strong headwind’, not sinking. There’s no mention of the disciples being in fear of the waves. Their terror came not from the storm but from the vision of Jesus walking on water. Sometimes in listening to the Gospel, as also at other times if our listening is distracted, we can insert our own preconceived interpretation on the words we hear. This can lead us to wrong conclusions and possibly faulty decisions.

Does this Gospel text challenge you and I to review and reassess the dangers, real or imaginary, we associate with our life? What do we see as the prime danger in our life? It should be any threat, from our self or from another, to our relationship with God. This always has to be our priority concern, even if the upholding of it costs our life here. The provenance for this assertion is the First Commandment – 

"YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD
WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL,
AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND"(Catechism of the Catholic Church)

Unless we give the preservation of our living relationship with God our ultimate and unchanging priority in life, then all our other judgements and evaluations become suspect. They could then, adapting words from the cigarette packet, ‘seriously damage our eternal health’.

To be a loyal disciple, follower of Jesus in this world has always been and remains for many today, dangerous.  Jesus himself said, “The birds of the air have nests and foxes have holes, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)

To the careerist Zebedee brothers, James and John, Jesus posed the question, “Can you drink of the cup of suffering of which I am to drink?” (Mark 10:38 & Matthew 20:22) Their affirmative response, like Peter’s boast to Jesus (John 13:37) “I will lay down my life for you” had yet to pass the test of reality.

Our extract from Matthew’s Gospel offers us confirmation, as the actual event did for the disciples, that Jesus is always near, fully cognisant of what we are experiencing. Even the darkest of circumstances, symbolised by it being the fourth watch of the night 0300-0600 when Jesus appeared, cannot prevent the Light of Christ reaching us. Notice though that it is the disciples, in particular Peter, who engage Jesus not vice versa. Jesus never forces himself upon us. We have to invite him – as did the two utterly dispirited disciples on the ‘Road to Emmaus’ after Jesus’ crucifixion (Luke 24:13-35) “Stay with us, for it is towards evening and the day is now far spent.”

One of life’s tragic paradoxes is that while our media and billboards are packed with information to enhance and protect our life here on earth, there’s precious little to direct peoples’ attention to eternal life. That Jesus became visible to the disciples in their hour of need indicates that they had first, in their hearts and minds, individually and possibly collectively, turned to him.

In times of desperation people, in all languages, can be heard to invoke the name of ‘God’. Is it a prayer from a humbled and contrite source or has it become just another swear word? Only God and the individual know. That is what it comes down to in the end, the quality or otherwise of that one-to-one relationship which, for God, began even before we came into being in our mother’s womb.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
 (Jeremiah 1:5)

The sinking Peter’s cry for help in our Matthew passage, “Lord, save me!” was from a humbled and contrite heart yet one, like our own, still being formed.
 

18th Sunday of Ordinary Time (03.08.14)

‘Previously’

Glacier explorers are always alert to the death-dealing danger of hidden, deep crevasses. These bottomless chasms have claimed countless lives over the centuries. A parallel can be drawn with the Church in Western Europe today. A chasm has opened up between the three Scripture readings at Sunday Mass and people’s weekday life. A homilist, unless truly charismatic, has an impossible task!

Just consider - entering a church for Sunday Mass - worshippers come from their electronically all-embracing 21st. century life to a setting, value system and vocabulary that has become, especially for upcoming generations, alien! Fewer and fewer young people speak ‘Christian’, which means having a mindset and a vocabulary resonating with Christian empathy!

Popular TV series insert ‘Previously’ segments before new episodes, even when just days apart, to help viewers’ recall. A combination of the visual and verbal triggers the memory, enabling the new segment to sit seamlessly with the habitual viewer.

Tragically, there’s no ‘Previously’ for congregations participating at Sunday Mass. Many have a six-day chasm of utterly different involvement with no meaningful remembrance of God’s Word from the previous Sunday. Moreover, the Sunday Scripture readings do not always ‘follow on’.

Through his prophet, Jeremiah, God addressed these words to his Old Testament people at a similar time of disconnect (14: 17-21)

“Therefore you shall say this word to them:
‘Let my eyes flow with tears night and day,

And let them not cease;


For the virgin daughter of my people
has been broken with a mighty stroke, with a very severe blow.
If I go out to the field,
then I behold, those slain with the sword!
And if I enter the city,
then behold, those sick from famine!


Yes, both prophet and priest ply their trade throughout the land and have no knowledge.’”

An exception is this Saturday and Sunday, 2nd and 3rd August 2014. By coincidence, Matt 14: 1-12, the Gospel reading appointed for this Saturday, reveals the background that led to John the Baptist’s martyrdom. Multiple-murderer King Herod’s conscience proved to be his personal ‘previously’. Herod had beheaded John the Baptist rather than lose political face. Uncharacteristically this had disturbed him and he now believed Jesus to be the resurrected John the Baptist! A troubled conscience is, at least, a living conscience!

In Christian times, John the Baptist was a familiar name. The memory of a man clad in animal skins, eating locusts and wild honey and with a fearless preaching style, would have endured. People would have recalled tales of his birth, mission and martyrdom to some degree. A street poll today would likely turn up few, if any, who could identify John the Baptist.

For centuries, parents gave their children the names of revered Christians. The Christian history of places was reflected in their name. This treasure chest of our noteworthy Christian antecedents has been replaced in people’s memories by the names of sports personalities and briefly enduring celebrities.

As we experience the world from an armchair or computer console, we are bombarded with more information than we can comfortably store. Experienced TV producers understand all too well the ever-shortening attention and retention periods of the human mind. ‘Soap’ producers need to refocus every twelve to fifteen seconds if they wish to retain the attention of their viewers. Maybe this says as much about the poverty of content as the state of the human mind!

Popular ‘soaps’ have weekly multiple episodes with full ‘watch-back’ facility. Sunday Mass, by comparison, is a one-day-a-week verbal-only event for the inside of an hour with no changing scenes and one male voice with readers making brief appearances. In times past, Sunday Mass was the gathering place of the local community followed by particular family get-togethers. Now, Sunday Mass has become the optional, often missed, ‘add-on’ to a busy weekend.

The reality of the six-day chasm (Monday to Saturday) means that many Sunday Mass-attending Catholics are progressively unable to link up with the Scripture extracts they hear. For there to be the essential, Scriptural connectedness, people would need a considerable time of pre-Mass acclimatization. Where once, daily life and Christian life were one and the same, now they bear no resemblance.

World Cup footballers and other sports stars are taken to expensive acclimatization locations well in advance of their professional events to ensure their fitness and readiness for the contests. There needs to be comparable preparation provided for the average Catholic who does make it to Sunday Mass.

The disconnect, now entrapping the Catholic laity in particular, has grown surreptitiously like the hidden glacial chasm. Sadly and tragically those who trek to Sunday Mass, unlike their glacier exploring counterparts, are largely unaware of the danger they are in. God’s Word is our essential lifeline for spiritual nourishment and fortification in our daily battle with Satan’s hidden entrapments. Without God’s Word alive and active, daily, within our souls and hearts we are not only a danger to ourselves but also to our companions. Jesus’ warning in John 15:5 comes to mind:

“I am the vine, you are the branches;
those who abide in Me with Me in them, bear much fruit,
for apart from Me you can do nothing.”

Just today, the Bible Society sent me this appeal to support Bible literacy:

“We’re giving you the opportunity to help us teach more than half a million Chinese Christians to read the Bible. 

Han Xiao Lang from China learnt to read when she was 34. She was one of the first to sign up to Bible Society literacy classes in 2009 and said, ‘After the class I felt more hopeful, I could appreciate the message of God for me. I found it easier to hear his voice…’ (Han Xiao Lang, now 38)”


While I’m glad to support the promotion of the Bible in China, I’m alarmingly aware how many of the UK Baptised are sleepwalking into a disconnect with their Christian heritage. Unlike us, the Chinese are hungry for God’s Word. Perhaps it is all too easy to condemn Herod the Murderer forgetting that his conscience was at least functioning.

Matthew 15:14 is an appropriate quote for the spiritually unseeing who fail to appreciate the chasms under their very noses!

"They are blind guides of the blind!
And if a blind person guides a blind person,
both will fall into a pit."
Peter said to Jesus, "Explain the parable to us."…

The Gospel for this Sunday (Matt 14: 13-21) reveals Jesus’ wish to grieve privately when given news of his cousin, John the Baptist’s, martyrdom. But the pressing needs of the living called so loudly to Jesus that he stepped away from his grief to answer their cries. Jesus picked up John the Baptist’s baton adding it to his own mandate to establish a Kingdom whose hallmark was to be communion with his heavenly Father in the care of one’s neighbour. The crucial element is the depth of our connectivity with God. The Christian veneer over much of modern day Europe is as deceptive as the glacier with its hidden crevasses. In Matthew 13:21 Jesus warns about superficial Christianity:

“But since they have no root, they last only a short time.
When trouble or persecution comes because of the Word,
 they quickly fall away.”

Keeping to the glacial analogy, the last line could be amended to read, “they quickly fall victim to the crevasse”!

At Pentecost this year, Pope Francis spoke about the Christian disconnect:

“Christians without memory are not a true Christians: they are halfway along the road, imprisoned in the moment, who do not know how to value their history, who do not know how to read it or live it as a history of salvation. We, with the help of the Holy Spirit, are able to interpret the inner inspirations and events of life in the light of Jesus' words. And thus our knowledge of memory, the knowledge of the heart, that is a gift from the Spirit, grows in us”.   (Vatican 8 June 2014)

In the popular quiz show ‘I want to be a millionaire’, the lifelines are often crucial. Our Baptismal life, when functioning well, makes us wonderful spiritual lifelines for our family, friends and colleagues.