Sunday Reflection

2nd Sunday of Advent

When Invisibility Becomes Culpability
 
Catholics in the UK in the 16th and 17th centuries suffered persecution and, many, a cruel martyrdom. They were shunned in society. For example, Queen Victoria ordered a line of trees be planted to hide a Roman Catholic monastery which she would otherwise see from her railway carriage when journeying to and from Scotland. In 1829 the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed by Parliament. It still left unresolved a number of exclusions by which Catholics were prohibited from holding public offices.
Old prejudices die hard. As relatively recently as 1953, when Pius Xll was Pope, a gift was sent from the Holy See to mark the coronation of our present Queen. The Holy See’s Apostolic Delegation in London, equivalent to an embassy, was advised by officials at Buckingham Palace to deliver the gift to the servants’ entrance at the rear of the Palace. Such behaviour would be unthinkable today.
Reference is made to these earlier times, not to open old wounds, but to remind contemporary Catholics that, in the UK, our predecessors learnt to blend-in with society. They did this to avoid contention hoping that, slowly, they would become tolerated by being semi-invisible. When we read of John the Baptist in Luke’s Gospel extract (3:1-6) for this 2nd Sunday of Advent, the contrast with our Middle Ages’ forebears is striking. Matthew chapter 3 gives a fuller picture of the Advent of John the Baptist.
 
It might be asked, have English Catholics become invisible, too blended-in, too indistinguishable within a society that has grown decidedly more secular and humanist? Perhaps Advent is a timely moment to question ourselves. If Jesus’ Second Coming were to happen now, would I be identifiable as his disciple? If I were identified, would it be a surprise to both friends and colleagues? Is this how I am called to live my Baptismal promise?
 
It was clearly the stand-apartness of John’s proclamation, more than his wardrobe and diet, that brought him to the attention of his fellow Jews. Whereas his fellow Jews were blaming the Romans for the harshness of Jewish life with its grinding poverty and hunger, John, as Luke tells us: “ … went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins … ”
John the Baptist identified to his own people their sins, not those of the Romans. John made it clear, it was his own people’s non-repentance for their sins that had driven God away from them.
 
It was the consistent strength of John’s conviction and uncompromising adherence to the truth that shook his fellow Jews from the clutches of misconception and delusion. Matthew 3 tells us that many Pharisees and Sadducees had ventured out from the safety of their ‘lairs’ in the Temple estate to see and hear John’s proclamation for themselves. How shocked must they have been to hear themselves addressed by John:
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he (John) said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.  And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matt. 3:7-10)
 
John charged them, as he charged all Jews and their descendants, which includes us by virtue of our adoption by God to be the brothers and sisters of His Only-Begotten Son: “….to produce fruit in keeping with repentance”. So, when the Church calls our attention to John the Baptist in Advent, she is calling the Baptised to produce the fruit of repentance.
Undeniably, the worldwide Catholic Church is, currently, being called upon to confess many serious offences against vulnerable people with offenders being identified throughout the entire gamut of its membership. John the Baptist, in his day, was aware of the sinfulness of his own people. It was for this reason that he called all his fellow Jews, at the time, to repentance.
Today, too, Catholics are being called to corporate acts of repentance for the victims, that they may find healing, and for the abusers that they may cease abusing. For all Catholics today bear some blame, not for the actions or omissions of the few, but for our failure to be the community he calls us to be of faithfulness in our love and service of Him through our love and service of others. Had we, individually and as a community, been more faithful to God in our love and service of others, perhaps the weak and the tempted would have been better supported and saved from injuring others and themselves and the community.
St. Paul’s 1st Letter to his Corinthian community makes our obligation plain:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” (1Cor 12:12)
If one member suffers, all suffer together …” (1Cor 12:26)
 
Acting upon this call to repentance is more than the saying of an act of contrition and the making of the Sign of the Cross. It is choosing to draw closer to Christ in our daily personal life, through prayer and the Sacraments, because we are surrounded by a panoply of evil disguised as everything but evil. How many of us, the Baptised, realise that in our daily lives we receive unexplainable protection, communication and guidance that surely indicates the presence of “ministering spirits sent forth (from God) to serve, for the sake of those who are to possess salvation” (Heb.1:14)
 
There’s the story of a wise confessor whose penitent said he had maligned a particular person on multiple occasions. The confessor gave him, as his penance, the task of taking a bag of chicken feathers to the top of a hill on a windy day and there letting them be blown away by the gusts. “Then,” said the confessor, “go and collect the feathers.” The penitent pleaded that it was an impossible task. “So now,” said the confessor, “you can see how hard you have to work to make good the damage done to that person’s reputation.” It’s a task longer than Advent’s four weeks or Lent’s six.
The commercial christmas has been trailed before us on a daily basis since September. The ploys to tempt us to spend, to take on debts, to try and satisfy the unending greed of the young played-upon by soulless advertising, is a very tough scenario in which: “….to produce fruit in keeping with repentance”.
 
There’s no denying that it cost John the Baptist his life here. What we will never know, here, is how many lives he saved by his commitment and fortitude. It is undeniably hard to stand apart, to be identified and maybe vilified because we choose to: “proclaim a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” – not other people’s sins but our sins, because we are one body.
 
We do not need to be dressed in camel skin, with a leather belt or eat wild honey (a healthy diet though it is). All we need is the ability to walk with purposeful steps against the flow of secularism and humanism with confidence and commitment. The ripples we leave on our way will touch others and, who knows, some eternal good that we never dreamt of may result.
 
 
 1274

3rd Sunday of Advent

“WHAT OUGHT WE TO DO?”
 
Five interrogative words with a mountain of meaning. They represent the collective outpouring of those Jews who, having trekked into the desert, listened with close attention to John the Baptist’s proclamations.
 
Real deserts are not to be found on anyone’s doorstep. Real deserts are substantial, unfriendly, silent tracks of emptiness inhabited by a few specialists. It’s the profound silence of a real desert that is captivating. Sometimes, only the almost imperceptible movement of grains of sand, being caressed by a gentle breeze, is all that is audible. Being a place of deep silence, a real desert is distraction-free allowing human hearing to be heightened. Serious commitment, preparation – including sufficient time for the noise within ourselves to abate - and a determined sense of purpose are indispensable for people intent on entering a real desert. It would never have been an afternoon’s outing! Perhaps we should be asking what compelled so many Jews, at the time, to trek to the desert to listen to John the Baptist (Matt.3:5)?
 
The short answer was to quench their thirst, which may seem strange as we associate deserts as being the cause of bodily thirst. But the thirst that brought the Jews in such droves (Matt: 3:5) to the desert, alarming their religious leaders in the process, was not a bodily thirst quenchable by an intake of liquid. Their thirst was spiritual, a thirst of the soul. The human soul cannot thrive without a continuous infusion of Divine grace and the Holy Spirit is our only source for this essential sustenance. Only a well-founded Christian faith can take us to believe in what we know as home namely, this earth, is our place of exile not our homeland. Space explorers know full well that they have to take the earth’s atmosphere with them when exploring other planets. So, too, when the behaviour of our forebears placed them, and thereby us, in exile God ensured the continuance of life-supporting grace through the Covenants and the leaders that he sent to his Chosen People. Finally, God sent his Only-Begotten Son, Jesus of Nazareth. God intended his Chosen People, in turn, to be the ‘bringers home’ of all His scattered creation. Yet again, Satan plagiarized God’s work – as he continues to do today – with schemes to satiate human thirst for Divine grace with effervescing, captivating falsehoods that divert attention from people’s real thirst for God by substituting all manner of clever deceptions.
 
Those who live near sand-dunes, or a sandy beach, know how it is virtually impossible to stop the wind driving tiny particles of sand into their home. Particles get through the smallest of crevices and amass! Annoying as they are, they are a demonstration of Evil’s persistence in infiltrating our lives whenever we lower our guard, relax our will to give all to God. There is a desert, not of sand but of deception, that is not only on our doorstep but has infiltrated our homes, our minds and our hearts. We even carry it around on our devices and plug it into our ears. What is this deception? It is noise. It passes as music for some, ‘soap’ serials, sports, gossip, politics, commerce and so much more for others. For each person, God’s enemy – and ours – concocts a forever varying and distracting soul-numbing addiction. How effective is it? Well, for example, take a look around Europe’s devastated Christian communities in this 21st century.
 
This Sunday’s Gospel – Luke 3: 10-18 – brings us hope. John the Baptist proclaimed God’s Word in the Judean desert (Matt: 3:1) presumably to the few and far between camel trains and Bedouin. He did not visit Jerusalem or any other towns and villages, at this stage, that we know of. Yet, the city-dwelling Jews heard about his message. How, we do not know. God’s soul-quenching Word has an inexplicable reach, like the proverbial single seed that falls to the ground and produces a crop (John 12:24). It’s not the quantity of the Word but the accuracy with which even a single word is relayed, coupled with the sincere belief to be heard in the voice of the proclaimer.
This combination of Word and belief carries and touches the souls of the spiritually thirsty that are drawn to seek it more and more. So, for example, try and ensure that the Christmas greetings you write contain not just your word, but God's too, quietly endorsed by your love. You could go a stage further. As you prepare cards for posting or Emails for sending, pause and pray for the recipient(s). Your intercession can carry across deserts and airwaves as well as the noise barrages that Satan copiously manufactures.
 
It is the verb in any sentence that carries the ‘punch’, as it were. The crowds that came asked John the Baptist: "What ought we to do?" The choice of verb carried an affirmation that they enquired not on a whim or a moment. Their question came from deep within as they recognised their obligation to God. Advent calls forth that same recognition, here and now, from us. Search your conscience and you will know. Then ask Jesus, with faith and with courage, the same question those Jews asked John the Baptist.
 
875

1st Sunday of Advent

When Drowsiness Can Threaten Eternity
 
Bodily drowsiness is a sign the body need recuperative sleep. Jesus alludes to a more serious drowsiness in this Sunday’s extract from Luke (ch.21) when He told his disciples: "Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy …”.

Jesus was referring to spiritual drowsiness, a very deadly form of inattention. Such is a typical ploy of our enemy by which Satan induces in us a non-alarming indifferentism to God. Satan fuels our spiritual drowsiness in small ways for as long as it takes us to become unresisting because he is persistently determined. But God is equally persistently determined. Little wonder then that Jesus forewarned his disciples: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” (Luke 16:10) 
 
For a person with faith in God it can be tempting to imagine that she or he is living in a religiously settled situation with regularity of prayer, attendance at Sunday Mass, participation in fora for justice, charity etc. Satan cleverly makes use of what is to hand on a daily basis, as well as capitalizing on moments of weakness. Routine and regularity can induce a form of drowsiness of heart where it is tempting to imagine that all is well. In reality, whenever our spiritual alertness lessens, we become more susceptible to distracting temptations. These can wear us down imperceptibly as a drip of water can eventually wear away the surface of a stone. Distracting but nevertheless engaging temptations can be identified and addressed with the help of good spiritual direction and whatever behavioural reform is agreed upon. Unless such temptations are tackled, they can lead to a growing disgruntlement in much the same way that food particles remaining in the teeth, despite daily brushing, can be the cause of decay. The first steps in losing one’s faith are most frequently not major disagreements with the Church or, less likely, with God but inattention to the seemingly small but persistent and potentially deadly inroads made by Satan. Faithfulness in regular prayer and practice falters and eventually slips on a compromised decline. So many Baptised do not so much storm out of communion as float gently away on a tide of decline leading to an eventual disintegration of our religious purpose.
 
Every Christian needs to live in a permanent state of expectation. While the thought of my Guardian Angel being on my right shoulder may be comforting, I need to be aware that Satan is hovering all too near my left shoulder.
 
For this reason, Christians need to welcome and utilize the annual season of Advent. Have you stopped to consider how and why the four weeks of Advent have been swallowed up and disappeared, over time, by the alluringly deceptive ‘malls’ of Christmas shopping whether on-line or in the high street? It is neither by accident nor the avariciousness of unchecked commercialism that this has happened. Advent has been overlaid by Satan who, most certainly, does not want Christians alert and expectant. He prefers people to be shopped-out and living in an alcoholic blur.
Have you experienced the wonder of standing, on a mountain, above the cloud-line with the sun high in the sky? Rolling away beneath your feet, as far as the eye can see, are the brilliantly white undulating, uninterrupted tops of the clouds. You almost feel that you could step out on to them! In such a location, on a windless day, there can be a quality of silence and stillness unparalleled at ground level. This is the last possible experience that Satan wants us to have for, in such a stilled silence, we are open to the delicate call of God. Our hearing of God’s call, Satan will do everything in his considerable power to mask. Satan makes use of noise, sensation, reverberation, vibration, pollution to overlay our appetite for the beauty of stilled silence. In this 21st century, as never before, we carry around in our pockets and ears all manner of devices to assist Satan and many do not even know they are doing so!
 
Satan wants to trap us, buried-alive as it were, in the present moment.  God is calling us to eternity. Advent calls Christians to raise their hearts and heads from being buried-alive in the present chaos. This is not a call to escapism, just as there was no escape for Jesus on the ascent of Calvary. Advent is calling us to allow God to replenish our exhausted spiritual drive, as Jesus called his disciples to rest after their apostolic exploits. (Mark 6:31)
 
Some, reading this may wryly smile and say “Rest! Is he mad! There are only 23 shopping days to Christmas!” Precisely! Satan is working so hard to make people exhausted both emotionally and financially. He has absolutely no thought for our spirituality being silently, but all too efficiently, suffocated.
God gives us an Advent call that is clear:
“… stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.”
“Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.”
“Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.”
 
How we choose to respond is a personal decision but, if I may suggest, it is easier to make a whole-hearted response with the support of others. Why not ask family members, especially the younger members, to compose a ‘family Advent prayer’? After all, nobody knows your family’s needs better, save God. Adults should resist the temptation to make it ‘correct’ or ‘appropriate’! God knows what the authors intended even if the punctuation is not of ‘A’ level standard. Make use of it daily, together if possible.
Why not think of drawing any elderly Christian neighbours into your prayer by offering them a copy of your prayer and inviting them to join you, from their home, when you pray it as a family?
If you were really adventurous, try turning off all devices for ten minutes and holding the resulting silent-stillness (ignoring the doorbell) for ten minutes. Then share your prayer. It does make a difference – you hear each other differently.
Bring Advent alive and by reinvigorating your belonging within the family of Christ on earth.
 
1076

Christ the King

Christ The Truth
 
The public perception of royalty in the 21st century has substantially altered. This last Sunday of the Church year has traditionally been called ‘Christ the King’. Is the word ‘King’ in the title helpful in terms of 21st century evangelisation? Perhaps it could be exchanged with the word Truth, as in ‘Christ the Truth’?
Jesus did not describe himself as a king while being interrogated by Pilate, the Roman Governor. More than a few are under the impression that he did.
Jesus said: “… my kingdom is not of this realm.”  “Then You are a king!” Pilate said. “You say that I am a king,” answered Jesus. “For this reason I have come into the world, to testify to the truth.” (John 18:37)
Pilate’s response: “Truth? What is that?” (John 18:37) was a classic statement of self-indictment, had he realised it.
 
Pilate was so mentally enmeshed in political power and intrigue that he missed the importance of Jesus’ nuanced responses to his question. We will never know what might otherwise have transpired had Pilate recognised the personification of truth in the person of the bedraggled Jesus standing before him.  Or, for that matter, had Pilate paid attention to the message his wife had sent him: While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” (Matt 27:19)
Jesus had offered Pilate a ‘moment of truth’, which is another way of describing the ‘grace of profound awareness’ that only God who is The Truth can give. Jesus had earlier described himself to Thomas (John 14:6) “I am the way, the truth and the life ..”
 
Truth emanates from God not from a laboratory or archaeology. Yet if you look up the word truth on Wikipedia, a source of information for millions today, there is no direct reference to God as the author of truth.
 
The Truth lives because God lives and God is truth. There are true facts (2 plus 2 = 4) but that is an unchanging existential truth. The Truth, God, is greater than we, who are God’s creation, can comprehend.
Scripture teaches that we can have a true and personal relationship with God, but this does not mean we will ever understand God exhaustively. The Bible is clear that God is ultimately incomprehensible to us; that is, we can never fully comprehend his whole being. The following Scriptural excerpts make this point:
“Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable”. (Ps. 145:3)
“Behold, these are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand?” (Job 26:14)
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa. 55:8–9)
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! "For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counsellor?” (Rom. 11:33–34; cf. Job 42:1–6; Ps. 139:6, 17–18; 147:5; Isa. 57:15; 1 Cor. 2:10–11; 1 Tim. 6:13–16)
Through these verses we learn that not only is God incomprehensible but that each of his attributes, his greatness, power, thoughts, ways, wisdom, and judgments as we might describe them, are beyond human ability to fully fathom though, in his creation, we catch glimpses of his wonder. The clearest example being ourselves. Not only can we never know everything there is to know about God, we can never know everything there is to know about even one aspect of God’s creative work.
 
It is in the light of such reflection that the title ‘king’ may be inadequate. But then, so too, may be our own understanding of the truth. As children, many were taught the static facts of the Catechism and, later, the semi-static laws of the Church. But the truth is not a static fact to be ‘committed to memory’. The Truth is God alive with the continuous living interaction of the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit. This living Trinity of Love, that is Truth, longs to fill each human heart and soul, not to exercise regal power but to show us love and compassion. This is the Mystery of faith to which we are called and which lies at the core of our belief.
To the saying: ‘knowledge is no burden’ someone added: ‘That may be true until you start to implement that knowledge when it often becomes burdensome’. But it is true to say that truth is never a burden. What truly lifts us closer to God cannot be burdensome, it is all that holds us back from closeness with God that is burdensome. Baptism fills us with the weightless joy of God’s grace but very quickly, thereafter, this world’s gravitational pull attaches itself to us like detritus which wears away that grace. Children’s bedrooms are packed so often with materialism that God is edged out and it’s all done in the name of love.
Parents, from a child’s perspective, have all the answers. It is so vitally important for parents to disabuse their offspring of this misconception by introducing them, gently and over time, to the One who does know everything and who loves them and mummy and daddy. The problem for parents is that the window of opportunity for them to guide their children towards God is becoming smaller and smaller as the material world seeks to fill their emerging minds with other thoughts and desires.
 
Jesus tells Pilate, in today’s extract from John (18:33-37): For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
The Truth is compelling. When it is set before us it can captive us as nothing else can. But the truth needs dedicated nurturing in our heart and soul for, as Jesus, teaches in the Parable of the Darnel (Matt.13:24-30), Satan loses no opportunity to sow his corruptive darnel. It looks like the truth, it may even sound like the truth, but it will try to suffocate the truth
 
Perhaps today, the Feast of Christ our Truth, would be a moment for each of us to reflect upon what The Truth who is Christ means to us. If our responses tend towards the monosyllabic rather worn phraseology of earlier times in our life, fear not. God, who is truth, is alive and longing to freshen and deepen our appreciation of his love for us. His love, like his truth, is timeless and limitless. All that needed is for us to empty out the dead-weightiness that our enemy and God’s has slipped into the nooks and crannies of our life. The problem may be identifying it! It has all become very familiar and we are rather loathed to change. ‘Come, Holy Spirit, fill the heart of this weak disciple trying to be faithful’ – is a good place to start. It’s a cry for help that will not go unanswered.
 
Pilate had the Truth standing before him and utterly failed to recognise Him or, perhaps, feared doing so because of the implied cost. Why else would be wash his hands in public?
Mary had the messenger of the Truth standing before her. She found the love to say: “Let it be done to me according to your Word”.
Anyone of us, at any time, can ask our mother, Mary, to stand with us as we face the Truth.
 
1311

33rd Sunday In Ordinary Time

WHAT WILL IDENTIFY YOU AT THE JUDGEMENT?
 
This is the penultimate Sunday of the Church Year. Mark’s Gospel extract (13:24-32) focuses on the ‘end of time’ as we know it. The whole of Mark’s Chapter 13 makes thought-provoking reading. At the ‘end of time’ all man-made identities creating social distinctions and division will disappear. The identities received from God, on the other hand, will remain.
 
Each person’s unique identity owes its origin to our being made in the imagine and likeness of God. No one is duplicated. As we grow up, our unique identity may become overlaid by ever-changing clothing, make-up, badges, uniforms, possessions and behaviour. Through it all our likeness to God our Creator remains, though it may be hidden at times.
 
As human beings we come into this world as God’s creation. Christians believe that, through Baptism, God has initiated a revolutionary, eternal change in his relationship with his human creation. God has allowed his human creation, irrespective of tribe or people, to become His adopted daughters and sons by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Through this Sacrament, God makes each of the Baptised a brother or sister of His Only-Begotten Son, the Jewish man, Jesus of Nazareth.
 
For Catholics, each freely received successive celebration of a Sacrament enhances the presence of God’s spirit. This increase in God’s indwelling is to fortify our personal relationship with God. It also enables us to stand four-square with Christ our Saviour in His continuing battle, in this world, with the cunning power of Satan. As is testified by the history of the worldwide community of the Baptised, The Church, many have followed our Saviour’s path to death through persecution. An even greater number endure a bloodless, but still painful persecution, of interminable length.
 
For a non-Jew, Mark 13 is difficult to fathom, referencing, as it does, so much of Jewish history and thought. But then, that should not be wholly unfamiliar territory for the Baptised who have become the sisters and brothers of Jesus the Jew who is God-made-Man.  It may be helpful to reiterate here some fundamental distinctions between Jews and Christians who form the two original streams of people called by God.
For Jews, Jesus is a holy Jewish man. Jews do not accept Jesus of Nazareth as the Incarnate Son of God-made-Man. Therefore, they continue to await the Messiah’s promised ‘Coming’. For this reason, continuity is at the heart of Judaism. Their unconquerable optimism that they are God’s ‘Chosen’ has enabled them to survive horrendous persecution down the centuries.
 
Anglo-Saxon Gentiles consign history to archives. For the majority it is ‘The Past’ and, as such, quite distinct from ‘The Present’. 
For Jews, their ‘history’ is for them their ‘present’. It lives in them today. Jews, alive today, are the living expression of their ‘history’ with which they are very familiar. When a Jew speaks about the Holocaust, for example, he/she is mentally and spiritually living that experience in the present moment. When you visit Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, you will recognise this to be so.
So, too, each Sabbath Eve meal (Friday at sunset) is a sacred family gathering in which each member lives, here and now, the experience of their captured enslaved forebears whom Moses was to lead from Egypt to the promised land. Gathered to share their Sabbath eve ‘Passover’ meal, each Jewish family is doing more than remembering, they are making real and continuing the turmoil of that ‘journey of promise’ awaiting the ‘Passover’ that is the coming of the Messiah. This is the strength of the individual Jew and the entirety of Jewish identity.
 
There is a connection here for Catholic Christians. Sunday Mass is the gathering of God’s Baptised family whether it be a congregation of two or more than half a million. Each is called to renew their individual adoption by God through absorbing The Word of God and receiving The Word-made-Flesh. At the celebration of Mass, Jesus, our Lord and Brother, links each Catholic Christian present with two thousand years of Baptised forebears whose pilgrim steps we are walking in today, through circumstantially very different times. But also, through our communion with Jesus the Jew, Catholic Christians are linked to his Jewish antecedents including, of course, his Jewish Mother, Mary. I wonder how often we identify that linkage in our prayer even, when praying the Psalms particularly, we are making use of a Jewish form of prayer which Jesus would have known by heart and used!
 
This makes me ponder my Catholic identity. As a Catholic am I, at the time of Holy Communion, sufficiently aware of being united with Jesus the Jew who is the Christ? Am I consciously willing myself to be one with Him in His continuing self-sacrifice for the redemption of the world, for Jew and Gentile? Does Holy Communion unite me, as it should, with my suffering, imprisoned, persecuted brothers and sisters, Jews and fellow Christians, struggling to be faithful in this ‘Vale of Tears’? Am I motivated by receiving Holy Communion to become more actively engaged with corporal works of mercy and of the promotion of justice? Am I conscious of Jesus’ outreach to his fellow Jews … am I concerned for them as my sisters and brothers?
Or, is my thanksgiving after Communion over concerned with me, my agenda and my needs?
 
Mark’s chapter 13 shows Jesus making use of much that would have been familiar to his fellow Jews then or now but which is unlikely to be familiar to contemporary Christians. Mark 13 benefits from being read against a Jewish mindset and that does not come easily to a Gentile. ‘Listening in depth’ to the Gospels involves a lifetime of prayer to the Holy Spirit. It is impossible to switch meaningfully into such an in-depth listening mode for a few minutes at Sunday Mass.
Do we spend sufficient time dwelling on the implication of our affiliation to and identification with the Jew who is Jesus Christ, God’s Incarnate Son? Do Gentile Christians somehow identify with Jesus minus his Jewish background? A Jewish mindset can only be grown from the inside, from our hearts. In our prayer, do we ever ask Jesus to help us understand his Jewishness? It is not something that can be taken on board, like a fact of impersonal history. Nor can this short article supply what is needed but it may help point a reader in the right direction.
 
Mark 13 gives Christians much food for thought about, what we refer to as, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ as King and Judge of the world. We know today, sadly, that many non-Jews, and not a few Christians, disregard this revelation.
 
Jews and Christians share a belief that God will break into the Evil- induced chaos of this world, at a point we do not know, ending time as we know it and bringing about an entirely new order namely, eternity.
Jews and Christians share belief in the prophet Joel’s disturbing descriptions of the ‘Day of the Lord’ (Ch.2&3) that tell of that day of God’s intervention. We share belief there will be times of terror and chaos when the world, as it is known, will be shaken to its foundations.
 
Where we differ is that, for Christians, the Messiah has already come, 2000 years ago, in the Person of Jesus the Christ. Therefore, God’s return as King and Judge in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth will be, for Christians, the Second Coming of God-made-Man. Christians celebrate this article of our Faith next week on the last Sunday of the Church year, the Feast of Christ the King.
 
The Jews believe that the advent of God will be the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham and that, in this new order, they would occupy the place assigned to the Chosen People.
  
From the time of Jesus up to our present, Jews and Christians have walked parallel, semi-complimentary yet also vastly distinctive paths as we share God’s creation. The complementarity of our paths is to be found in that both Jew and Christian share belief in the visible coming amongst us of God. The distinctive difference between our paths lies in the gulf of belief that, for Christians, the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth is the Only-Begotten Son of God made Man; whereas, for the Jews, the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth is a man of God and probably the most famous Jew who has ever lived.
For Christians, God is among us and working in our world through his adopted daughters and sons, the Baptised, who are Jesus’ brothers and sisters.
For Jews, God has yet to break into our world. So, for Christians, the present year is 2018 Anno Domini (the Year of the Lord) when God-made-Man came among us. It’s a sad sign of our growing secularism that many have jettisoned ‘AD’ for ‘CE” (the Common Era).
For Jews, this is the year 5,778 which they regard as the number of years since the start of Creation.
 
Will the Jewish and Christians paths converge? Well, for certain there will be a convergence when God calls the world to order, but prior to that we can but pray for one another. It is said that when Judaism accepts the Divine Nature of Jesus of Nazareth, Mark’s chapter 13 will be fulfilled.
 
The question posed in the title above is: ‘What will identify you at the Judgement?’ The answer, for Christians, will lie in how loyal and dedicated each has been in acknowledging and responding to the Son of God’s call in John’s Gospel (15.4) “Make your home in me, as I make mine in you.”
Our Jewish brothers and sisters will answer for themselves.
May Jesus, their brother in race and ours by adoption, bring us both to his heavenly Father.
 
 
1645
 

32nd Sunday In Ordinary Time

The Tutored and the Untutored Ear
 
It takes time, aptitude and sensitivity to become skilled in tuning a musical instrument. A professional solo pianist or violinist, for example, is immediately aware when their instrument has lost even a fraction of pitch. An untutored ear may not be so acutely aware. In an orchestral setting an individual instrument, losing pitch, may take shelter amongst fellow instrumentalists. The soloist has nowhere to hide.
Top soloists regard stillness and silence to be essential when rehearsing even familiar pieces of work. For no two performances are the same. Just as repeated walks through familiar countryside constantly bring us to a fresh appraisal of our loved and known surroundings.
 
 
In just four lines, St. Mark describes an event in Jesus’ life the implications of which should reverberate in the daily life all his followers … including us, “.. if we have ears to hear..” (Mark 4:9)
We are able to hear those four lines (12:41-44) read at Mass this 32nd. Sunday. (St. Luke covers the same incident in 21:1-4) They describe Jesus teaching his disciples about self-giving. The incident is known as ‘The Widow’s Mite’. Incidentally, the phrase, ‘The Widow’s Mite’, has been woven into common usage to categorise something as being insignificant. Many, who use the phrase today, are unaware of its Biblical origin. But that is true, sadly, of so many Gospel events. Christians are lamentably aware of how Christmas, for example, is widely observed as a festive holiday but precious few now acknowledge the Holy-Day of the Incarnation of God-made-Man.
As St. Paul writes to his much-loved Corinthian community: “We all have knowledge; yes, that is so, but knowledge gives self-importance – it is love that makes the building grow. A person may imagine they understand something, but still not understand anything in the way that they ought to.” (1Cor.8:1)
 
It may surprise some Ignatian silent-retreat  first-timers that during the first two of their eight days they have no set programme to follow. Instead, they are encouraged to familiarise themselves with their surroundings getting to know the Centre, especially adjusting to being still in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. Equally important, weather allowing, is a familiarisation with the gardens and woodlands with all their distinctive colours and sounds, from the rustling of leaves high in the canopy to the calls of hidden birds. For would-be retreatants hailing from cities and towns, where the decibel level of general noise is both high and constant, this extended exposure to silence and its replacement with nature’s natural sounds can be a little unsettling before becoming a welcome revelation!
 
Being silent in church does not equate with achieving interior stillness. Most journeys from home to church are relatively brief and not free of noise and distraction.  Then there is the accumulated ‘noise’ we carry within us made up of previous happenings or plans for the future. Most people carry a mobile phone. It is estimated that the average Brit checks his/her mobile device every twelve minutes. So, while we imagine we are silently listening to the reading of the Gospel there remains a cacophony of interior ‘noise’ still reverberating within us – ten to fifteen minutes after we entered the church building! In fact, if we estimate that Sunday Mass lasts about 50 to 60 minutes, we are leaving church little altered by being relatively silent. Sadly, we are also likely to be leaving with an insufficiently shallow uptake on the teaching of Jesus to help us face the week ahead.
 
So, what might we have gleaned from the Gospel of ‘The Widow’s Mite’ had we been able to prepare with a prolonged period of stillness and silence? Well, for one thing we would have noticed that Jesus made no judgement about the widow’s reasoning or her action. We may find that strange because it is precisely what many, hearing this Gospel read aloud, will do. Society has formed us to be judgemental. Just about everybody – ourselves excepted –  and everything comes within the orbit of our judicial review where we are not only judge and jury but also the Court of Appeal!
 In earlier times, the Gospels would have been peoples’ touchstone. Nowadays so many, having lost contact with the content of the Gospels, are no longer able to apply Gospel norms in their everyday life. Instead, people today, when making either conscious or subconscious judgements and evaluations, use standards promoted by a secularist society and the current media climate.
 
Jesus was making an observation when he said:
 “… she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood”.
The making of an observation demonstrates an ability to notice and to offer that to others. An observation, being devoid of judgemental evaluation, does not contravene Jesus’ teaching:
For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matt. 7:2)
 
 It is possible that Jesus had previously met that poor widow. Maybe she had witnessed how he drove the money-changers and sellers out of the Temple: “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market place” (John 2:16). People like that widow were drawn to Jesus, as the Gospels show time and again. Perhaps, then, she had told him of her circumstances.
 
 
 People actively choose to employ secularist and political norms in making their daily judgements and evaluations when they cease to have a living relationship with Jesus Christ. Thereafter, they subconsciously allow what has filled that void, and become their everyday norm, to proceed unchecked!
The untested results of such judgemental behaviour are retained, subconsciously, to become a contributive factor in all subsequent judgements and assessments. Over time these layers of untested subconscious assessments slowly grow, like a cancer of bias, skewing our ability to make a conscience-directed judgement when it is vital that we should. So, for example, when Satan weaves his disingenuously dangerous temptations, we are tempted to pass them off as of little import.
 
Today, in times of human disaster, television coverage features the poor, because they have lost the little they had. Their plight brings home to worldwide viewers, in a clear way, the scope of the devastation. It is revealing, too, how the poor often talk of their trust in God, with an utterly genuine faith, despite their appalling circumstances. But do viewers hear that promulgation of faith for what it is?
 
Only God and the widow knew the intentions motivating that widow to give her two small coins (something of almost negligible value) to the Temple.  Jesus saw and did not judge other than to acknowledge that in giving our love to God there should be no room for calculation. Jesus’ tortuous steps to Calvary were made up of a freely-chosen, totally committed love, that cost Him everything. There’s a challenge in hearing such a teaching and perhaps, rather than be so challenged, we are tempted to take shelter in noise!
  
 
1165

31st Sunday In Ordinary Time

Does God’s Word Resonate Deeply Within Us?
 
This 31st. Sunday, Mark’s Gospel (12:28-34) tells of Jesus dialoguing, yet again, with representatives of the Mosaic Law.
Some Catholics, who use the one-word title ‘Catholic’ to identify their religious affiliation, may be failing to appreciate themselves, as well as clarifying for others, the fullness of their religious heritage. That heritage opens up when we expand to the three-word title, Gentile Catholic Christian. For we are following in the footsteps of the first Christians all of whom were converts from Judaism thereby meriting the title, Jewish Christians.

So, the question can be asked, do Catholics today have a sufficient depth of their religious history to understand what Mark is revealing in this extract from his Gospel? Do Catholics, Gentile Catholic Christians, appreciate the assiduous reverence believing Jews, then and now, have for the Mosaic Law that underpins their faith in God?
Further, do Catholics appreciate that secular Jews, too, had and have both a working knowledge and a respect for the Mosaic Law because it was so bound up with their everyday customs and behaviour? To make the point, one could equally ask how it would be possible for someone, without a tutored eye and background knowledge of the artist, to develop an informed in-depth appreciation of the artist’s work?
 
At the age of twelve Jesus began his public dialogue with the practitioners of his heavenly Father’s Law. He had just celebrated his Bar Mitzvah (Luke 2:41-52). Throughout his public ministry Jesus frequently found himself challenged by fellow Jews, individually or collectively belonging to either the Scribes, the Pharisees or the Sadducees or any combination of them. Jesus levelled some of his most scathing comments at some of these practitioners of the Law, but never at the Law itself.
To refresh your memory –
The professional Scribe knew the Law and orally interpreted it making use of the 613 precepts, known as the Mishna, developed for its application. These non-Divine precepts, a minefield for ordinary Jews, made the Scribes both powerful and wealthy.
The Sadducee denied any obligation to follow the oral tradition. For them the written Law was sacrosanct. Sadducees also denied the resurrection of the dead and the existence of spirits.
The Pharisee represented an ancient Jewish sect of strict observance of the traditional written Law. They were political and had pretensions to superiority.
 
Present day secular society, at least in the Western World, can be said to have jettisoned belief in God and therefore belief in God’s prerogative to be our lawmaker. Christians believe God our Creator to be the originator of all law. For the purposes of authenticity, in the true sense of that word, only man-made law traceable to God’s original Law, summed up in the Ten Commandments, can call a Christian to obedience. Therefore, we, as God’s creation, may only obey those laws of our country whose Divine provenance is endorsed by ‘Peter’ and The Church. Obedience to God comes before obedience to man: (St.) Peter replied: "We must obey God rather than any human authority.”’ (Acts 5:29)
 
Contemporary Catholics now, more than ever, need a knowledgeable and reverential familiarity with their spiritual and religious history because it is no longer part of national or family daily life. All Christians have a rich reservoir of spiritual and religious history, as well as God’s grace in the present moment, to sustain us through the recent deplorable revelations that have lacerated others as well as our own community. Our spirituality reaches back to Jesus and, through Him, to His people, the Jews, and so to Abraham whom we, along with our Jewish brothers and sisters, honour as our ‘father-in-faith’. (See the 1st Eucharistic Prayer)
 
We may think of Jesus as God-made-Man, native of Palestine and born in Bethlehem. But, do we think sufficiently of Jesus the Jew, who is God-made-Man, native of Palestine and born in Bethlehem?
Without an awareness of Jesus’ Jewishness and, at least, a semblance of an understanding of Judaism as it was in Jesus’ day, how can we understand Jesus as our Saviour and our unique Jewish brother? Unique, but not alone, among all Christians’ other Jewish brothers and sisters past and present?
 
Without being able to appreciate, sufficiently, the background to the Scriptural extracts being read at Mass, or a celebration of God’s Word, worshippers are inhibited from receiving the full nourishment that only God’s Word can give. In the expanding ‘desert’ of secularism the oasis of God’s Word is ever more vital. It is such a tragedy when God’s life-giving Word goes, virtually, in one ear and out of the other because it is heard as little more than a sound, leaving no ‘footprint’ in the hearer’s heart and soul.
 
We can draw a comparison with those who visit foreign cities and other world areas of special interest.  Some visitors will have spent time and effort in reading-up, beforehand, on the cities or areas to be visited. It stands to reason that they will reap a more personal, deep and lasting experience, as well as insight, from their travel. Consequently, they will be able to share with and benefit others with all that they absorbed on their journey. This is how we Catholics should leave each Sunday Mass. We should be alive with God’s Spirit who has mandated us to “go in peace to love and serve the Lord”. Our enthusiasm to share the Good News, with which we have been nourished, should be contagious. It is not a question of forcing our beliefs on others but, rather, having them spontaneously enquire from us the source of our peacefulness and inner joy.  
There must surely have been a look of love and appeal in Jesus' eyes as he said to the Scribe:
“You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:34)
Is this how Jesus looks at us day by day? Please God it is, but, note the pilgrimage made by that scribe and imagine what he might have had to endure along the way from fellow scribes and others.

One reason Jesus spent time with the practitioners of the Law, apart from seeking their personal salvation, was to win their trust in accepting the healing implicit in his teaching. Jesus knew that if he could cure the corrupt practitioners and their ways, he would immediately enable his people to find healing. As we now know all too well from the current abuse crisis throughout the Church – which is so much wider than sexual abuse – when the shepherds are corrupt the flock is ravaged and Satan rejoices.

This Sunday’s First Reading comes from the Book of Deuteronomy. It is the 5th book of the Jewish Torah (Testament) which is known to Christians as ‘The Old Testament’. In it we find the last set of laws given by Moses prior to his death. The Book’s purpose is to lead Israel to obedience and to warn the people against disobedience. The spirit and aim of the law is explained in such a way as to present both encouragement and warning:
"Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today." Jesus was later to build on this foundation and bring it to completion when he taught:
“The second (Commandment) is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 21.31)
 
 
Pope Francis commented at Pentecost this year:
 “A Christian without a memory is not a true Christian. He or she is somewhere along the faith road but has become imprisoned in a moment.  Those who do not know how to value their history, how to read it and live it are lacking in an understanding 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 memory knowledge, the knowledge of the heart, is a gift from the Spirit, that grows in us.
There is a distinction between the memory of the soul and the memory of the brain.
The brain’s memory ages and is subject to distortion and decay with the passage of time and wear and tear.
The memory of the soul is sustained by grace. So long as the grace of the Spirit is present the decay that affect the body does not touch the soul.”
 
 
1426
 

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

There Is Only One ‘Way’
 
God’s Word does not have a BBD - a ‘Best Before Date’. Once revealed, God’s Word is timeless in both its message and application. Jeremiah is correctly labelled an Old Testament prophet. But, while his life and ministry is dated, God’s revelation of his intentions, made through Jeremiah, are not. Therefore, through prayer and with a contemporary, as opposed to historical, mindset we ask for the grace to understand how God’s Word, through Jeremiah (31:7-9) in this Sunday’s First Reading, is finding expression today.
 
There are contemporary Jews who see the establishment of the State of Israel on 14th May 1948 as the fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy. Other Jewish leaders would disagree to the extent of refusing to set foot in the land. For these latter, Jeremiah’s prophecy is still being fulfilled. For them, it is God who will repatriate the diasporan Jews to a homeland not the Israeli military or the United Nations:
“Behold, I will bring them back from the land of the north; I will gather them from the ends of the world, with the blind and the lame in their midst, the mothers and those with child; they shall return as an immense throng. They departed in tears, but I will console them and guide them; I will lead them to brooks of water, on a level road, so that none shall stumble. For I am a father to Israel, ..”

Moreover, God chooses the most vulnerable – in 20th century terminology, the most disposable members of society – the homeless and stateless, the lame, the blind, mothers to be, orphans, mothers with children. If there were ever an assembly needing God’s protection as they seek a safe homeland, these are they. God chooses the ‘remnant of Israel’ not the power-hungry and rich. God chose and is choosing what our contemporary culture might refer to as ‘the left-overs’ to be cared for. In any size of gathering he attends, Pope Francis seems drawn to these very people. His actions exemplify God’s words. One question posed by the Jeremiah reading for us is, do my actions exemplify God’s choice?
 
Once, a pupil said in response, “But I don’t know any Jews. They don’t seem to live in my area.” God’s choice of people, to carry forward his plan for humanity, is not limited to the ethnic race that he has chosen or a Church of his adopted daughters and sons. Equally, his choice is rarely for the quick of mind or the strong of body. Rather, his choice is for the less able, the weak and the young. St. Paul puts it this way in I Corinthians:
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. He chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” (1:27) 
 
God chooses the people the world may deem redundant to bring about the fulfilment of prophecy in any given era as well as being the bearers of his Divine blessing. From the vantage point of the 21st. century it is impossible to miss the connection with the millions of displaced and stateless people migrating to where, they believe and hope, life can thrive. These migrating people do not have doctorates or wealth, perhaps not even the strength to replenish their ageing populations. History is full of God’s inversions of society’s established values. For those who desire to be included in God’s family, the message remains clear.
 
Bartimaeus recognised his plight as being deeper than physical blindness (Mark’s Gospel (10:46-52). Bartimaeus was “beside the road” – beside is different from being on ‘the way’ of Jesus Christ. In our world countless people are moving ‘beside the way/road’ of Jesus without being aware of his nearness? They do not recognise him in his ‘remnant’ attire and status. The phrase, ‘so near and yet so far’ comes to mind.  
The cry, at the Last Judgement, of a sighted people who failed to see comes to mind:
“‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”
(Matt.25:44-45)
 
Bartimaeus’ awareness of his deeper blindness was indicated in his shouting out: "Jesus, son of David, have pity on me." There was an inner depth to that shout that Jesus heard, despite all the noise around him. Jesus stopped, called Bartimaeus and asked him the same question he had asked James and John: “What do you wish me to do for you?” They had wanted preferential seats in the Kingdom. How different was Bartimaeus’ response: “Master, let me see again.”
 
Did the ‘again’, in Bartimaeus’ answer, indicate that, at some time in his life, he had been sighted? Or, was Bartimaeus confessing to Jesus his failure of faith in God in the course of his life? Was Bartimaeus inwardly aware that this ‘Son of David’ was indeed the promised Messiah? If so, was Bartimaeus asking for a replenishment of faith and promising that, were his request to be granted, he would live out his gratitude through his faithful following of Jesus? As one who had himself existed ‘beside the road’, Bartimaeus would indeed have eyes for others who were trapped ‘beside the road’?

Such was the depth of Bartimaeus’ faith that it enabled Jesus to say: "Go your way; your faith has saved you." On other occasions when he had restored sight, Jesus had either touched the blind man’s eyes (Mark 8:23) or sent him to wash in the Pool of Siloam (John 9:7). On this occasion there was neither contact nor directive. Is this a further indication of an inner healing that was manifested in a restoration of vision?  Mark tells us that Bartimaeus: Immediately received his sight and followed Jesus on the way.”
 
Bartimaeus’ request was what Jesus had longed to hear. It was one that he could grant only to a person who had both a depth of faith and spiritual courage. Scripture scholars tell us that in the ‘Kyrie eleison’/the ‘Lord, have mercy’ dialogue at Mass there is the echo of Bartimaeus’ shout. When we speak or sing that acclamation, is our depth of faith audible in the heart of Jesus who is present in the community? Being in a church building does not imply that we are ‘being the Church’ of our Baptism wherever we are, just as being beside the road is different from being with Jesus ‘on His way’.

Are we able to find a reflection of the Bartimaeus incident today in Pope Francis’ ‘Evangelii Gaudium’? That when we are tempted to keep the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length, Jesus is inviting us to engage with the human misery and suffering of others: “…that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from … human misfortune and … enter into the reality of other people’s lives” (Para 270). The very ways in which we see ourselves as gifted are the very ways in which we are a gift for others in their need.
 
1199
 

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Preference 
 
Jesus does not mince his words with James and John. In Mark’s Gospel for this 29th Sunday (10: 35-45) Jesus speaks plainly: "You do not know what you are asking.” He was responding to the brothers’ request for preferential seating. Who, amongst the Baptised, hasn’t resorted, at times, to praying for preferential treatment?
 
Each human being is born with an innate preference for God. As God is our Creator, we bear his hallmark in our inbred preference for Him, ‘The Good’, who is God. As we grow, we develop natural inclinations drawing us towards music, science, sport, religious life, politics etc. These often occur as a result of influences received in early life. Our preference for God is something else, it is the result of God’s prior preference for us.
 
His preference for us rules out his drawing us to a position of false privilege, an apparent but vacuous superiority. Jesus calls us to copy what he did for us namely, to kneel down and wash our feet. That is Jesus’ definition of preference and it is a world apart from the secular privileges towards which the Evil One tempts us with persistent regularity.
 
When Pope Francis washes the feet of women and men serving time in prison or rehabilitation, when he embraces a seriously disfigured person at the end of a Wednesday general audience, he is not performing some liturgical rite. He is being Jesus Christ for each of those individuals at that moment and the recipients of his action recognise the truth of it to some extent. To the media it may be a photo opportunity but those recipients know something of the truth of the man who represents Jesus the Christ. In a less profound way, our eye-contact, open smile and ‘thank you’ to the person on the check-out, to the person who didn’t hold open the door for us, to the surly receptionist is, for us and each Baptised person, their moment to make Christ present. Jesus gladly receives the offering you and I make of ourselves in his name. An offering known only to Him and us individually.
 
Likewise, you may be the person disfigured, the person disabled in mind or body by a degenerative disease. So often such people are seen only as the recipients of others’ benefactions. They, themselves, are all too rarely recognised as benefactors. Many years ago, as an over- busy person rushing from engagement to engagement, I arrived at a L’Arche house for a meeting. (L’Arche an international community of family residences for those known then as ‘Handicapped’ – a term no longer appropriate, thank God). One resident, a man in his thirties, with a misshapen face, stunted growth, unable to speak coherently and given to dribbling, met me in the hall and grabbed my hand as I attempted to rush by. I had to stop. Not to have done so would have been highly discourteous.
 
I imagined that Brian was just wanting to say ‘Hello’ in the only way he could, by holding my hand. I expected him to release my hand when I said I was late for a meeting and needed to go. But no! He continued to quite firmly hold my hand. Franticly, I looked around for someone to come to my rescue. There was no appropriate person in the immediate vicinity. I could have forced Brian to release my hand but that would have violated everything that L’Arche stood for. In the ensuing minutes, having exhausted the possibilities for releasing my hand, I just accepted that I was rooted to the spot until Brian chose to release me. I remember calming down, slowly. Eventually, my frantic haste subsided as we stood there in silence. I became peaceful. A moment or so later, Brian released my hand and, with a smile, went on his way and I on mine.
 
I got in late to the meeting. There was no major fuss. Nobody asked why I was late and if they had, how could I explain what had happened? I was only just coming to understand it myself. Later, I went looking for Brian. He was just sitting quietly in the community room. I sat opposite him and offered him my hand which he accepted. I cannot remember my exact words but I thanked him for making me stop my frenetic behaviour and for showing me the falseness of it. I thanked him for teaching me an important lesson. Forty something years later I remember that teaching and Brian (now gone to God) so well. That evening, Brian said nothing as I took my leave, but his eyes told me he understood and was happy for me.
 
Maybe, this reflection has wandered away from the brothers, James and John. Maybe not! For each of us knows disfigurement and disablement. Sometimes it manifests itself in frenetic behaviour and addictions that having nothing to do with amphetamines. We give our innate likeness to God a deal of punishment over the years. God, for his part, continues to exercise his preferment of us even when we are too busy, too self-absorbed, to notice. If we are blessed, there will be a ‘Brian’ or three along our road of life. Whether we appreciate their presence, whether we learn from them  … well that’s another matter.
 
Decades after my Brian moment, I had to retire after brain surgery. Now, in my greatly reduced pace of life and spending time coaxing my injured brain to function usefully, I am grateful to be able to remember Brian and do so with gratitude.
 
As for James and John. When they asked Jesus for seats at his right and left hand they clearly had no premonition that, for Jesus, his first throne was his Cross on Calvary and the ‘seats’ were the crosses either side of his. The Gospel tells of their occupants. Neither James nor John nor the other bickering Ten Apostles had really taken in Jesus’ teaching that precedes today’s Gospel – Mark 10: 32-34.
 
People, now more than ever, need to learn again how to reach out to The Good God whose likeness we all bear. To do this, we need to stop and silence the chattering devices that we allow to continually bombard our senses. In our stillness and interior silence, the Lord reveals himself in his love for us and invites us to show that same love to others, as Brian did to me.
 
 
1075
 

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Pilgrimage of Germination
 
A man approached Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel for the 28th Sunday (10:17-30), showing a sense of urgency. He had his question ready: "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus’ succinct answer: “You know the Commandments” might indicate that that the man had previously heard Jesus speak but now was pressing for a personalized response.
 
Mark tells us that Jesus was “setting out on a journey”. The man was evidently not one of Jesus’ regular travelling companions. Maybe he had familial or farming responsibilities that tied him to one location. His fear of missing this opportunity may have prompted both his question and his self-defense. He demonstrated a good heart but, in his rush, had he left himself short on in-depth reflection? The man assured Jesus that he faithfully observed the Commandments.
 
Then looking at the man with great love Jesus pointed out the way of perfection: "You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." Mark continues: The man’s “face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.” Mark does not tell us if that man, later, had a change of heart. The path of our Baptismal vocation is not an autobahn or motorway. It can be like a ‘B’ or even ‘C’ class road with meandering undulations and narrow bends.
 
The seed of a vocation can be sown in a moment but germination can be as long as a lifetime. That lifetime can be a minefield the safe traversing of which has to be made in communion with the Holy Spirit. Satan, preferring not to reveal his hand by confronting us directly, deploys attractive and persuasive alternatives that, like social media, cleverly seek to trap our attention and appetite. As the old adage has it – There's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip’. Many Baptised people hesitate or falter at the challenges encountered in the working-out of their relationship with God. It is not God’s grace that is lacking in those moments but continuity in human application by the power of the Holy Spirit. Procrastination is truly called the thief of time.
 
The public act of committing oneself to God happens in what is, relatively, a moment. For example, the exchange of vows in a sacramental Wedding, the final Profession of a religious, the Ordination to Ministry, or choosing to make a public profession of faith (e.g. making a Sign of the Cross before eating) do not take a long time. What does take time is the journey to that ‘moment’. A loving ‘yes’ to God, or to another for God’s sake, will normally have had a well-honed history of prayer and sacramental life scored, no doubt, by struggles and battles with the power of Evil to the point where a deeply loving, lifetime commitment becomes possible.
 
Then, following its public announcement and acclamation, each person’s freely chosen commitment will continue to find expression, please God, in each successive moment of married, religious and ministerial life as well as in times of personal prayer or engaging in work for the benefit of others. For this to be, that ‘yes’ needs constant nourishment, Divine and human, to embrace the ever-changing circumstances and horizons of the unknown, likely not even dreamt of at the outset.
 
Most people will be familiar with Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s in Rome. It is not the first ‘pieta’. One of the earliest extant is the Röttgen Pietà in Germany, dating back to the fourteenth-century. The Röttgen Pietà is more clearly marked by grief. Mary’s mouth is open, Christ’s body shrunken. This pieta is an image of love, in the depth of suffering, being poured out for the world. The inspiration may have come from the plague we know as the ‘Black Death’. Then, many a mother reflected in her features her almost inexpressible pain as she held the death-enshrouded, withered, tormented body of her child.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his book on the rosary, The Threefold Garland, makes the point that it is in Christ’s Passion that the fullness of Mary’s Annunciation “Yes” – “Let it be done to me according to your word’ - is revealed. He writes: “Mary’s is a ‘yes’ which has been expanded wider and wider.” By constantly adding her love to God’s gift of graced sinlessness, Mary chose to embrace Jesus not only as an Infant but also as our Crucified Saviour on Calvary. In addition, Mary embraces the entire human race whom, without exception, her Divine Son has adopted as his sisters and brothers.
We, the adopted, struggle to hold together, let alone broaden, our fragile initial Baptismal ‘yes’ to God. Satan’s duplicitous words are as undermining today as they were to Eve: “Did God really say …” (Gen.3:1)
 
It is important to remember that, when Satan’s temptation is the most severe, Jesus is looking into our eyes and loving us with a love that is unvaryingly and infinitely compassionate. This Sunday, as Mark’s Gospel extract is proclaimed in Catholic churches in all the languages of the world, what will be peoples’ dominant reaction? Will listening congregations judge the man negatively or see themselves reflected in him?
 
We may like to think that, in a similar circumstance, we would have behaved like the Apostle Matthew, the tax collector, and given back or given away our wealth. But would we?
Maybe, the man in Mark’s Gospel had not foreseen the challenge Jesus presented. Are we sufficiently alert to the challenges on our vocational pathway when we pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done? It would appear that, for that man, the missing element was his trust in the love of God. Might we be standing in his shoes?
 
It is helpful that the man is nameless. It makes it easier for any one of us to stand in his unisex shoes, if we have the love and courage to do so. Perhaps from such a standpoint, we could then not just read but actually pray the extract from the Book of Wisdom (7:7-11) that we are given for a First Reading this Sunday:
“I prayed, and prudence was given me; I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me. I preferred her to sceptre and throne, and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her, nor did I liken any priceless gem to her; because all gold, in view of her, is a little sand, and before her, silver is to be accounted mire.”
And, for a prayerful encore, try the Responsorial Psalm.
 
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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.