Sunday Reflection

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Disarming of Evil

“Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy…”, God said to Moses.
These are attention-arresting and challenging words.  They introduce our First Reading for this 7th Sunday from the Book of Leviticus (19:1-2,17-18) which dates back to the period 538 to 332 BC.
The urgent import of its message, far from being dimmed by repetition over the passage of time, is now ever more pressing. Choosing an extract from the Jewish Bible to open our Christian celebration of God’s Word also reminds us that our Baptism has incorporated us into the ‘whole community of Israel’ to whom God’s imperative command is addressed.

Each person born into this world faces an inescapable lifelong embattlement. Concomitant with the struggle of birth, infant viability and adult life, God calls us to reclaim the holiness with which He had endowed us, together with his image and likeness. That holiness was damaged by our forebears when they chose to listen to the Evil One. The poet Wendell Berry, born in 1934, wrote: “There are no un-sacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” Adapting his words, we can say: There are no un-sacred persons; there are only sacred persons and desecrated persons. God’s revealed purpose is the re-consecration of desecrated persons.

The Transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1–8, Mark 9:2–8 and Luke 9:28–36), commemorated annually on August 6th, is perhaps mistakenly thought of as a single event. Jesus prayed frequently to his heavenly Father without the apostles presence. On those intimate occasions, Jesus could have experienced transfiguration. Could the inclusion of one such occasion in the Gospels be to teach us that, through our transfiguration, Evil can be disarmed?
Do you recall any reference, when celebrating Jesus’ Transfiguration on August 6th, to the Baptised’s ongoing pilgrimage of transfiguration? For, by virtue of our Baptism, we are engaged upon a daily and lifelong battle to reclaim the innate holiness with which we were gifted, through the power of the Spirit. The battleground of this transfiguring reclamation is the cutting edge of life here on earth where God and Satan are conflicted.
In recent months, the media has featured remembrances of World wars, each with their dates of commencement and termination. On this earth, the war with Evil is ceaseless. The media often tags particularly horrific acts of death and injury with the word ‘Evil’, as if they are one-offs. Whereas, these horrific outbursts of evil are but momentary glimpses of the continuous battle Satan wages here, for this is his kingdom (1 John 5:19), against God’s elect.

At our Baptism, after the water was poured on our foreheads and the words were spoken, each of us was anointed on the crown of our head with the holy Oil of Chrism. The accompanying prayer has these words:
“God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has freed you from sin and given you a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit and welcomed you into his holy people. He now anoints you with the Chrism of salvation. As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet and King, so may you live always as a member of his body, sharing everlasting life.”

The words “As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet and King, so may you live always as a member of His body” tell us that the grace of Baptism enables our continuing transfiguration, if we willingly collaborate with the Holy Spirit. We share in Christ’s Priesthood by the daily offering we make of our self, as we live our vocation be it as spouse, parent, refuse collector, teacher etc, on behalf of humanity. We share in Christ’s Prophetical role by speaking the Truth, as taught by Jesus, to all people irrespective of the consequences. We share in Christ’s Kingly role by our commitment to servant-leadership both within our community and in wider society.
Jesus was engaged in bringing about our redemption from his conception to his last breath, thirty something years later. The Baptised are called to unite with Jesus, in a process of continuous transfiguration, for the salvation of humanity. Jesus’ battles with Satan, referenced throughout the Gospels for example in Luke (4:1-13), are to show us that we should expect nothing less.
 

Each new day calls us, as the Baptised, to renew, in our heart and soul, our deliberate choice to live these charisms of Christ, Priest, Prophet and King, in union with the Holy Spirit. As with Christ, the first pilgrim on this path of human transfiguration, we have no need of uniform or emblems. Neither have we need of ranks of superiority, for all are equal in the sight of God. As has been painfully shown in the history of the Church, both historical and contemporary, the true embracing of holiness has little to do with religious garb, clerical collars or episcopal mitres.
This Sunday’s Second Reading is an extract from St. Paul’s first letter to his Corinthian converts (3: 16ff.) in which he wrote:
“Brothers and sisters,
You are God’s building…. Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.”

The Incarnation of Jesus brought the holiness of God to desecrated human nature that, of itself, had no means of transfiguration. Like those first apostles and disciples, we too have to learn, through innumerable and costly mistakes, how to surrender our sinfulness to the One who:
“will transfigure these wretched bodies of ours into copies of His glorious body. He will do that by the same power with which He can subdue the whole universe.” (Philippians 3:21)
Individually, we are infinitesimally small in the great order of things. Nevertheless, we are individually important in God our Father’s mosaic of Life that is eternal.





6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Is It ‘Law’ or ‘Love?

‘Law’ can vie with ‘Love’. These two words may have centre-stage profile in a Christian’s memory. Dependent on age and circumstances, one of these words will have predominance. For older Catholics the resonance may be of (Church) ‘Law’. Commandments, Church laws and regulations could have been the inescapable order of the day in church, in the classroom and possibly in the home. Non-compliance retribution chilled many a child’s imagination.

How different an experience when one is guided in a more mature reading of the New Testament. Given time for reflective prayer, we can discover how Jesus unveils his heavenly Father’s will as a loving invitation rather than as a non-negotiable, imperative command. The father in Jesus’ parable of the ‘Prodigal son’ (Luke 15:11-32) epitomises our heavenly Father’s love for us, his adopted and much-loved family. In his teaching, Jesus does make use of the imperative – see Matt: 5:48 echoing Leviticus 19:2 – but more to underline the urgency of what he is saying. Our God is a God of patience and gentle persuasion who respects the human freedom with which he has gifted us. Nevertheless, Jesus does not deny that there would be consequences were people to marginalise or decline outright his heavenly Father’s invitation.

While the Ten Commandments are non-negotiable, their exposition, in the context of an ever-expanding human understanding and experience, is necessary. This is the on-going fulfilment to which Jesus alludes in the statement he makes to his disciples that opens our Gospel extract today (Matt: 5:17-37):
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfil” (Matt. 5:17)

Perhaps Jesus was confronted with a groundswell of opinion that it was time to, as the saying has it, ‘make a fresh start’. Jesus’ clarifying response is highly illuminative. Nothing that God had previously revealed ever becomes out of time, disposable or, for that matter, alterable; for every word of God is eternal. But God’s foundational words can be better understood, amplified and extended under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus himself engaged in the process of bringing his heavenly Father’s revelation to fulfilment. Jesus, after the Last Supper and when Judas had left, gives his apostles a new commandment (John 13:34):
“I give you a new commandment; love one another; just as I have loved you, you also must love one another.”
The ‘newness’ is in the specific just as I have loved you, you also must love one another. Jesus’ injunction reconstitutes and amplifies God’s foundational commandment adding new meaning in the light of Jesus’ impending death and Resurrection.

The Councils of the Church assembled under the authority of Peter and his Successors, the Popes, have highlighted times of teaching and clarification that are built on God’s groundwork, a linkage continuously highlighted. This process of amplification has never ceased during the 2000+ years of the Church, it continues today and will be on-going up to the end of time. The implementation of the most recent Ecumenical Church Council, Vatican 2, (1962/65) has yet to be fully developed and incorporated universally.

When Jesus forewarned his Apostles that his time with them was limited (John 13: 33-35) they became fearful. So Jesus told them:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me.  My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14: 1-4)
It was the Apostle, Thomas, who then asked Jesus:
“Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
Jesus answered,
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14: 5-6)
In these words, “I am The Way, The Truth and The Life”, Jesus affirmed the continuity of his unseen (post Ascension) presence within the Baptised through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit whom he would send to all who believe in Him and accept Him.

It is the unrestricted availability of the Holy Spirit – in today’s parlance 24/7 – that underpins the truth we read or hear read in today’s First Reading from Ecclesiasticus (15: 15-20):
“If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live; he has set before you fire and water to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand. Before you are life and death, good and evil, whichever you choose shall be given you”.

Some young friends recently came back from Fatima. They had gone, somewhat warily, as participants in a group to which they belong. On their return, I asked how they found the week at the Marian shrine? I was surprised to hear comments such as ‘the week went really quickly, ‘I’d expected to be bored, but I wasn’t’, ‘we were staying in a convent-hotel with simple food, but the nuns were fabulous’. The most telling comment was ‘It was amazing to be with a whole crowd of people (at the Shrine) whom we didn’t know and yet felt as if we did! There was an amazing sense of togetherness.’
In response to the acid-test question as to whether they would go again? The response of one was accepted by all: “Well, I’ve lots of other places on my ‘bucket-list’ I want to visit but who knows ... maybe’.

There’s a frightening complexity of distractions, material and experiential, on offer today with which we are unceasingly bombarded. One of the most effective ways of ‘silencing’ someone, in the sense of shutting down a person’s comprehensive ability to think, is to impose continuous ‘noise’. The internet can be a form of continuous ‘noise’, in the sense of an addiction, that can hold a person’s attention in jeopardy. Thank God, there are various Christian apps which offer help with prayer and reflection stimulation throughout the day. The Jesuit sponsored ‘Pray-As-You-Go’ for people on the move is highly recommended.

The author of Ecclesiasticus tells us to ‘stretch forth our hand’ and experience tells us how often we misjudge and are drawn, in our weakness, to choose what is incompatible with the Lord’s will – but is highly seductive. Maybe it would be helpful to make a copy of this Sunday’s First Reading (Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20) and put it on the bedside table or next to the mobile! Those opening words are so important: “If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you..” God offers us his Law as a handrail because he loves us.

 

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

What It Means To Be Salt and Light

Our Sunday Gospel extracts, this year, come from St. Matthew. Only during Lent and Eastertide will we hear from the other Evangelists. Matthew’s is a teaching Gospel in that he collects the various teachings of Jesus under certain great headings. For example, the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is not a single sermon. It is a collage of the teaching Jesus gave his disciples over the three years of his active ministry.

To tell someone, ‘You are the salt of the earth’, is one of the highest compliments we can pay a person. We are commending their solid worth and irreplaceability. When Jesus told his disciples ‘You are the salt of the earth’, he was saying something quite different.
In the ancient world salt was highly valued. In Jesus’ day, salt was associated, in people’s minds, with three special qualities.
1. Salt was connected with purity; its glistening whiteness made that connection easy. The Romans held salt to be the pure because, for them, it came from, for them, the purest of all things, the sun and the sea. For the Romans, salt was always included in the offerings they made to their gods. The Jews, too, offered salt with all the sacrifices they made to God.
In times past, purity was associated, negatively, with sexuality. In more recent times, purity has come to mean untainted e.g. pure water. The Christian, called to be the ‘salt of the earth’, is being called to try and uphold, in all places, untainted modes of speech and conduct that are aligned with Jesus’ teaching and personal example.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians gives a good example of how we should live that purity:
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.  Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (4: 29-32)


2. In the ancient world salt was the most common of all preservatives. Salt held putrefaction at bay in foodstuffs that would otherwise be subject to decay. Christians, as the salt of the earth, are called to have a restraining influence, by their presence in society, on speech and activities in social gatherings; a presence that defeats corruption thus enabling others to unite in upholding the common good.

3. An undoubted attribute of salt, when used carefully in cooking, is that it draws out true flavour. Food without salt can be insipid. It is a tragedy, today, that many people, especially in western Europe, associate Christianity with taking the flavour, as they might call it, out of life. Whereas, in reality, Christians, as the ‘salt of the earth’, have the vocation to draw out from the people they encounter their innate  likeness to God.
For this to happen, Christians themselves need to be constantly in communion with the Holy Spirit nurturing their oneness with Jesus in the communion of The Church, his body on earth. In a world beset with worry and serious depression, Christians need to be buoyant with the joy of Christ’s life within them that is eternal and unquenchable.

Today might also be called ‘Salt and Light’ Sunday as both elements are highlighted by Jesus in the Gospel. Which reminds me to commend to you the ‘Salt and Light Media’ which described itself as:
‘Born on the wings of the 2002 World Youth Day in Canada, Salt + Light is a unique instrument of the New Evangelization. It is dedicated to being – and helping others become – the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Our mission is to proclaim Jesus Christ and the joy of the Gospel to the world by telling stories of hope that bring people closer to Christ and the Catholic faith.
We share the joys and hopes of the Gospel through television, radio, print, and online media. Our work unites people through prayer, celebration, reflection, education, authentic dialogue and enquiry, thought-provoking reporting and stories of faith and action. We also challenge believers to grow in the knowledge of the faith and the Catholic tradition in its many expressions. We strive to offer an invitation to all peoples, especially those on the peripheries of faith and the Church, to draw closer to the Lord and experience the community of the Church.’

When Jesus told his disciples: “You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14) he was calling on them to be like him. For, as we read in John 9:5, Jesus said:
“As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
These words would have been familiar to his disciples for the Jews spoke of Jerusalem as a ‘light to the Gentiles’ and a renowned rabbi was called ‘a lamp of Israel’. The Jews were clear that no one is their own light. Jerusalem was indeed the ‘light to the Gentiles’ but it was God who lit Israel’s lamp. Jesus calls neither his disciples nor us to be the makers of our own light. The radiance shining from within is the reflection of the Holy Spirit’s presence within the Christian’s heart.
A light is first and foremost intended to be seen. Palestinian homes in Jesus’ day were small and dark. A lamp, a pottery bowl filled with oil and a floating wick, was difficult to light. It was customary, for safety’s sake when leaving the home, to put the light under an earthen bushel measure where it could stay alight without causing a fire.
It’s important to be aware that Jesus calls us to be a light of the world, not of the Church. As bearers of the light of Christ, Christians are to be trustworthy guides as well as proclaimers of danger, though their presence and proclamations do not necessarily find universal approval. The treatment metered out to Jesus will be metered out to those of his disciples who recognisably walk in his steps. Jesus forewarned us:
‘No servant is greater than his master.  If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you too.” (John 15:20)

Jesus makes clear that the attractiveness of Christians’ good works (deeds) must draw peoples’ attention to God and not to themselves. Goodness which is conscious of itself it not Christian goodness. People who are anticipating praise, thanks and prestige are unlikely to have even begun the Christian ‘Way’.





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’.






3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Transitioning


All life on earth is in transition. This transition has two very distinct applications. The first, applicable to all earthly life, is the continuously uninterruptible transitioning that ends with death. The ageing process is a good example. The second, unique to human beings, enables people to regulate their transitioning by the exercise of our God-given free will. An example would be two people freely choosing to marry one another.

Our Scripture extracts, for this 3rd Sunday of the year, are flavoured with a theme of transition.

The prophet Isaiah (8:23-9:3) uses figurative language. He speaks of unproductive land becoming productive; of people who walked in darkness seeing the light and of people being freed from the yoke (burden) they had collectively worn. These refer to Israel’s times of deportation and enslavement and then the Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt and their rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. All was in preparation for the coming of a child of royal line whom Christians recognise as Jesus, The Christ, the Messiah. This process of transition continues for our Jewish brothers and sisters, as they do not acknowledge Jesus as Divine, as the Son of God made Man.

Many generations, in the intervening centuries, have lived through punishing times with oppressive injustice and darkness. We, of the 20th and 21st centuries, are no exception. As did our forebears, we too have brought much misery on ourselves by choosing the light of falsehood in preference to The Light, God’s Holy Spirit. For some have chosen to supplant the Divine protocol with one of their own choice, seeded with greed for profit and power, which, with hindsight, is revealed for the costly ‘fools’ gold’ it is.

In the Isaiah extract we read the oft quoted passage:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
How many, consciously or subconsciously, have been successfully tempted to transition into the pervasive and powerfully captivating false light of the Evil One that unrestrictedly pours into countless homes and hearts through the media in its many forms.

The Baptised are called to walk in the light of the Divine Presence, an interior light visible in the lives of those who are in communion with God and know His peace, in a world that, increasingly, does not?
Isaiah’s words prompt the question, ‘By which light are we more easily and more frequently captivated?’ Hindsight may show us that, at times, we have chosen the ‘false light’. Please God we have been rescued – like the second child in the parable of ‘The Prodigal’ (Luke 15:11-32). It is always fitting to renew our thanksgiving and a good way of doing that is by reaching out to those whom we know are still trapped in that pervasive false light.

Today’s Gospel extract from Matthew (4:12-23), tells how John the Baptiser’s arrest by Herod prompted Jesus to move from Nazareth to the lakeside town of Capernaum in Galilee. In doing so, Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy (9:1):
“Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair will not go on forever. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali will be humbled, but there will be a time in the future when Galilee of the Gentiles, which lies along the road that runs between the Jordan and the sea, will be filled with glory.”
For Matthew, Jesus’ transition marks the beginning of his public ministry. As if to emphasise the point, Matthew tells of Jesus’ recruitment of two pairs of brothers Simon (whose name Jesus later changed to Peter) and Andrew and, then, James and John. That all four ‘immediately’ left their nets is symbolic of their willingness to transition, to leave their former way of life, and follow Jesus.

Not all Jesus’ invitations met with such a prompt response then (cf. Luke 9:61) or now. Faced with a shortage of ministerial priests, all the Baptised, who form the Priesthood of the Laity, are frequently encouraged to ‘pray for vocations’ to the ministerial priesthood. Is it made sufficiently clear that our intercessions to God are not for him to call candidates because God does this unceasingly, but rather that those whom he is calling may respond positively, generously and without delay? Equally, as has been amply shown in the course of the recent Amazonian Synod, the Church needs to review the conditions for selection/election of candidates for the ministerial priesthood currently in place.

When God calls, the call is made in perpetuity (i.e. it will never be rescinded) irrespective of our response. Baptism is God’s most significant call to human beings made, as we are, in his image and likeness. Infant Baptism deprives most of a personal knowledge of the graced moment. The process of Initiation involves three Sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation and The Eucharist. Together, they transition us from exiles into adoptees of our heavenly Father; which has the additional effect of making us the brothers and sisters of Jesus.
Recipients of the Sacraments of Initiation receive not only sanctifying grace but also a ‘character’, an indelible mark, in their souls by which they are conformed to Christ as priest, prophet and king. It might be understood more easily as an infused blueprint of the Divine. God invites the Baptised to build their lives, with the support of the Holy Spirit, on that blueprint.

It was the Second Vatican Council (1962/65) that gave fresh impetus to the vocation that is received through Baptism called ‘The priesthood of the laity’. The Council reminded the Baptised that their ‘priesthood of the laity’ differs in essence “and not only in degree” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, No. 10) from the ministerial priesthood; yet “the one is ordered to the other” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1547).

The ‘priesthood of the laity’ and the ‘ministerial priesthood’ share a common goal; namely, the holiness and consecration of all those Baptised. The late Dominican priest / theologian Jordan Aumann’s summary, in his book “On the Front Lines” (Alba House, 1990), may be helpful:
“The laity …. as baptized persons (sacramental aspect) are incorporated into Christ (Christian aspect) in becoming members of the Church (ecclesiological aspect) and therefore have the right and duty to participate actively in the mission of the Church (missionary aspect).
In addition, the laity, by reason of their Baptismal character, are committed to the renewal and sanctification of the temporal order of the world. Their vocation both calls them and enables them to sanctify the world from within, in other words by being living parts of it on a daily basis.”

The Baptised faithful, the priesthood of the laity, are the frontline troops, as it were. Their vocation, fulfilled through a holiness which is the intimacy of their personal relationship with God, is to transition into the Baptismal character they received when words were said and water was poured on their infant foreheads.

The ministerial priesthood, equally called to holiness, is the divinely intended means – through the Eucharist and the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Anointing - of guiding and supporting the Priesthood of the Laity in their mission to bring about the holiness and consecration of all the peoples among whom they live and work.

Seeing The Church from this perspective is challenging but necessary, demanding, for some a transition of some magnitude. Now the Pope’s title ‘Servant of the Servants of God’ makes sense for he shares in the ministry of all the faithful that of being called to a state of continuous transition as we respond daily to God’s personal call.


2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Mission Engagement


Lived experience greatly influences our personal points of view. A deeply ingrained, narrow and prolonged experience can foreclose the possibility of an objective viewpoint, in later life, that is open to embracing different understandings and new ideas. At times, the cry is heard that, “Mass is boring, it’s always the same”. The ‘sameness’ of the Mass, which for many expresses a theological belief and anchor of faith, has now become, for younger generations a cause of disaffection. They cease to participate in what is essential in the life of the Baptised.

The Israelites, whom Moses, at God’s behest, led to freedom from Egyptian slavery, made a similar complaint (Numbers 11:1-9). It is true that not every celebrant of the liturgy is gifted with theological insight, personality and a captivating voice. But God calls all, celebrants and congregations, to the life-pilgrimage to personal holiness which, for those who accept the vocation, is the unique and unquenchable attraction of true communion. The urgency in God’s daily call to us is the diminishing belief in Christianity across Europe. Our pressurised daily life makes it hard to set aside, at home, preparation time for Sunday Mass. Yet we need to allow the Spirit to lead us personally into a deeper fellowship, if we are to grow into one with Christ through sharing in the Mass.

Think, for a moment, how outstanding character actors, in Shakespearean plays for example, are likely to spend more time, during the average season, in the make-up and costume departments than on stage. They never walk off the street and on to the stage. ‘Getting into the character’, as it is referred to by some, is as important as is the on-stage enactment if they are to bring their character alive for the audience. For us, as the Baptised, to form the ‘body of Christ’ on earth, we need whatever preparation time we can make. Is it fair to our Baptised brothers and sisters for us to walk ‘off the street’ and ‘into Mass’ without at least some preparation in thought and prayer?

Preparation for participation in Mass calls for us to disconnect ourselves from manufactured noise and conversation. This is why pre-Mass conversations in church are so invasive. Pre-Mass silence provides an opportunity for us to read through the Scripture texts for the day before they are proclaimed to the assembly. The Word of God, that feeds our eyes, heart and mind, will still have to do battle with our previous preoccupations, that take so long to quieten, as well as current distractions. It may help for us to make our own our own the prayer made by the proclaimer of the Gospel:
“Cleanse my heart and my lips, O Lord, that I may worthily proclaim (read) your holy Gospel.”
The importance of giving God a freed-up space and sufficient time in which to nourish us with an understanding of his Word, despite the continuing distraction, cannot be overemphasised. 

The time John the Baptiser spent preparing for his ministry in the desert appears, from all accounts, to clearly outweigh the length of his public preaching, baptising with water and indeed his earthly life. Yet, here we are, thousands of years later, annually celebrating his life and public testimony to Jesus with two major liturgical festivals (his birth and his martyrdom), not to mention his frequent appearance in the Gospels of which this Sunday’s Gospel (John 1:29-34) is a perfect example.
John the Baptiser, being Jesus’ cousin would have known Jesus from childhood. Jewish families were and are notoriously close-knit and commonly share the major religious and family festivals.
In our Gospel for today John the Baptiser, on seeing Jesus, proclaims:
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. He is the one of whom I said, ‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’”
And then, cousin John adds:
“I did not know him (Jesus), but the reason why I came baptising with water was that he might be made known to Israel.”
How are we to understand this apparent contradiction? Perhaps, it is no contradiction at all but rather a statement underlining how cousin John discovered, as we say, a whole new aspect to his cousin Jesus at his Baptism. John the Baptiser had previously been unaware that cousin Jesus was The Christ: “I did not know him (Jesus)…”  As human beings, do we truly know one another even when we have been life-long or even frequent companions? Kith and kin can surprise us by the unexpected revelation of an authentic aspect of their character prompting us to comments such as ‘I never knew you had it in you’. 

Unlike John the Baptiser, Jesus would have known his cousin through and through, just as Jesus knows us through and through, despite our subterfuge. John the Baptiser tells us how he had been forewarned:
“…. but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’”
We can only try to imagine John the Baptiser’s astonishment at the fulfilment of this revelation. He was baptising in the River Jordan when Jesus stood before him. You can read Matthew the Evangelists’ account for yourself – Matt: 3:13-17. Having baptised his cousin in the River Jordan, and with Jesus standing before him, John witnessed how the Holy Spirit came down and remained on Jesus while the voice of the heavenly Father was heard. Little wonder then that, thereafter, John the Baptiser is uncompromising in his public testimony:
“Now I have seen and testified that Jesus is the Son of God.”

John the Baptiser was not enacting a role, like an actor. He was living to the full his vocation which he had received from Jesus while still in the womb of his mother, Elizabeth (Luke 1:43-45). We, too, are recipients of God’s call initiated through our Baptism. The quality of the daily attention we give to God’s call is determined by our prayer and meditation on His Word. Like John the Baptiser we are called to give witness without knowing where, when or how. To use another theatrical role as an allegory, all the Baptised are John the Baptiser’s understudy. At unspecified times and situations, we will be invited to give witness to our faith in Jesus. How well prepared are we for God who tells us in this Sunday’s First Reading from Isaiah (49:6):
“I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”


The Baptism of the Lord

Renewing Baptismal Vows


Celebrating ‘The Baptism of Jesus’ close to Christmas might mislead the unwary. In our era, Baptism is commonly associated with infants. Jesus was approximately thirty years of age when he stepped into the River Jordan to be Baptised by John the Baptiser.

How often do we, the Baptised, consciously, renew our Baptismal promises? There are two liturgical occasions for doing so, namely:  at Sunday Mass, when we pray the Creed together and, on Easter Sunday, when the Creed itself is replaced by a congregational Renewal of Baptismal Vows.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the Sacrament of Baptism is received just once and, excluding adult converts, in a person’s infancy. The purpose and meaning of Baptism, as opposed to remembrances of accompanying festivities, is entrusted to parents, Godparents and family to be communicated to the new Church members as they mature. Sadly, this does not always happen. Birthdays are religiously celebrated but the anniversaries of Baptism are almost always overlooked. Which of us can easily recall the date and place of our Baptism?  Yet, our Baptism is as significant as our birth.

The frequency of the Baptised signing themselves with the Sign of the Cross has diminished. The water at the church entrance was there to encourage us to reconnect with the pouring of water over our forehead at Baptism. By making the Sign of the Cross on ourselves with blessed water we recommit ourselves to God. But now, far fewer share regularly in church-based prayer and worship.

However, there are significant daily moments for us to consciously reconnect with Jesus who asks us repeatedly, as he once asked Peter: “Do your love me more than …” (John 21:15-17). Moments such as - the start of the day when offering our day to God our Father; before eating when we thank God for our food and for those who have prepared it; at the conclusion of our day when we might also reflect if, at times, we have  failed to live by our Baptismal commitments.

Decades ago when ‘Oroglas’, an alternative to traditional glass for windows, was first invented it was marketed, accurately, as ‘stone proof’. However, over a remarkably few years its surface could be severely scratched by wind-driven particles of sand and grit that, by embedding themselves in its surface, reduced Oroglas’ transparency.

As committed Christians in Western Europe today, are we aware of the density of the continual bombardment of our senses by Evil’s temptations? Our eyes can so easily rest momentarily on sights that impact our base nature. Likewise, our ears can be impacted by words or sounds that can tempt us to make an ill-advised response. It is in such ‘hailstorm’ moments that we need to recall Jesus’ words: “Do your love me more than …” and respond, ‘I do’, adding: ‘In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’


There are some, athletes especially, who make the Sign of the Cross publicly before and after their competition. Sadly, there are also business agents who discourage their athletes from any such display of faith. They tell them their public ratings will suffer which will affect their income from advertising. It was, therefore, both refreshing and rare when tennis star Novak Djokovic, responding to a press challenge that he had financially helped a Greek Orthodox community in financial difficulties, said very clearly “I am a Christian first and foremost and then I am a sportsman”.

One wonders how frequently Jesus, throughout his childhood, adolescence and early manhood renewed the commitment to his heavenly Father that his Mother and foster-Father had made, on his behalf, when they had presented him in the Jerusalem Temple eight days after his birth. For Jews, as for Christians, there are recommended set pieces of daily prayer. The faithfulness to family prayer in Jesus’ home would have laid the foundations for his own personal prayerfulness. The faithfulness to family prayer in our homes is essential for the nurturing of prayer in the young.

These days, pollution not infrequently threatens the air quality of our major cities and industrial centres. It is not unusual to see citizens, in some countries, wearing breathing masks as they go about their daily life. We can draw a parallel with mountaineers. The lack of oxygen at the highest reaches demands that they carry bottles of oxygen in their packs. As Western Europe becomes increasingly secularised, the habit of personal prayer diminishes. It’s as if Evil is de-oxygenating, i.e. removing, the prayerfulness that once permeated the lives of our countrymen and women. Evil works, initially, slowly and maliciously hoping that we remain unaware of his inroads. The sound of church bells, for example, announcing the Angelus three times daily has largely ceased or has been drowned out by the ever-increasing noise or 21st century life. Cathedral bells are a tourist attraction rather than a call to communal prayer and praise of God.
Recently, a new Christian monastery was granted building permission in its reasonably remote location. One of the several conditions imposed by the local authority was that there should be no audible sound of the monastic daily routine that once would have been announced from a bell tower. Each member of this community now carries a personal electronic device to call them to communal prayer or activity. A technical advance, some might say; but the people of the locality are deprived of a reminder that, in their midst, are people praying for them.

As a Christian, you may be the only one in your group who makes the Sign of the Cross before eating. Your action may draw a question or even an adverse comment. It may even lead to you being excluded from some peoples’ company. Jesus frequently found people who chose to walk with him no more (John 6:64-66)

In our era Christians, like the mountaineers who triumph in reaching oxygen-deprived summits, need to carry within them an enriched commitment to both communal and personal prayer and worship. Even a ‘For Sale’ notice outside a former church can spark a prayer for the community, living and deceased, who had worshipped there; for those who had been Baptised there and whose fidelity has enabled our Baptism.  The bells may be silenced but as we read in John’s Gospel of Jesus’ final entry to Jerusalem:
“When Jesus came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19:30-45)

The Epiphany (05.01.19)

The Pilgrimage that is Exploration
 
This Sunday we commemorate The Epiphany. St. Matthew, in Ch. 2:1-12, is the only Evangelist to record the Persian Magi’s visit to the Infant Jesus. Persia had long been associated with astrology. The ‘Magi’ had been searching for the person who would fulfil an ancient prophecy that had enthralled not only them but also their predecessors. These explorers evidently had the time and the means to undertake lengthy journeys.
 
Human beings are born explorers, as demonstrated by a healthy infant’s crawling agility. The characteristic is retained throughout life. Some people implement it more from a sedentary position, but many choose to make it a lifelong source of physical and mental activity and stimulation. Our immediate ancestors, let alone our ancient predecessors, would find our current speed and ease of travel, both in and beyond our known world, incomprehensible. Today’s youth have no hesitation in including space travel on their ‘bucket list’! By contrast, the ‘Visitation’, recalled in the second Joyful Mystery, would have taken Mary weeks of arduous walking in each direction!
 
One advantage of physically engaging in exploration is that it both dislocates and disconcerts us. The combination of stress, boredom (often of queuing) and expectation can reduce us to nervous wrecks, but it can also open us to experiencing ‘new things’, as well as causing us to see familiar things from a fresh and new perspective. Looking into a property online, for example, will never substitute for the ‘feel’ and smell you get when you physically journey around and spend time in a property.
 
Wise men from the East were famous for stargazing. Their stellar cartography helped them to navigate the ‘oceans’ of endless sands that made up the deserts. These same wise men hoped to discover where time and eternity might touch as the ancient prophecy had indicated when telling of a star (Apocalypse 22:16) that would rise out of Jacob. In their culture and ethos, such a star would have to be a very special person, a king perhaps.
 
The Magi’s long search for a king brought them to a child, not in a palace but sheltering in a cattle byre. Nor were they the first to discover him, common shepherds had already visited. The Magi were directed to return to their own lands by a different route and, unwittingly, they left a trail of grief and destruction behind them. We are not told of the effect the Magi’s protracted exploration had on them; nor if they found the re-entering of their own culture challenging. For sure, their expedition would have changed them.
 
The life-pilgrimage that Baptism initiates for each member of the Christian family is truly a testing form of exploration. At the outset, no one knows what their life will entail but, for sure, it will contain an element of Christ’s Cross. How we accept our cross in its various forms throughout our life is the measure of our commitment to and love for Jesus. Originally, pilgrimages were journeys of reparation for personal sin and the sin of the world made on foot. They have been an integral to Christian life since the time of Christ. The Gospels frequently tell of people who were sick or disabled being brought to Jesus for healing by relations, friends and neighbours (Matthew (9:1–8), Mark (2:1–12), and Luke (5:17–26). In some instances, Jesus calls such people personally (Mark 10:49).
 
Ironically, we humans do not have to travel to find Christ. He has already journeyed to find us. In addition to the gift of life, God has enriched us with the gift of his Holy Spirit. Therefore, the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit, dwells within those who open their hearts and will to God. Yet, we see so many of our fellow citizens preferring to search for the perishable ‘gold’ of this world and having no compunction in trampling others in its pursuit.
 
Around the portal of our free will are encamped the legions of Satan. They search for each and every moment of weakness or hesitation in our love for God, tempting us with momentary and damaging pleasure. In this world we will be under siege by Evil until God calls us to himself. Our defence is Jesus, God’s Living Word, who love creates us from moment to moment. The Incarnation of God’s Word in the birth of Jesus and his Epiphany has transformed our view of this world. Our on-going Baptismal expedition requires constant vigilance to make the required course corrections made necessary by the incessant and plausible false directions of Evil.
 
The Epiphany reveals Jesus the Christ as True God and True Man. He is The Way, The Truth and The Life. Other vistas of spurious earthly paradises tempt us, but only Christ and the gifts he has given us will satisfy us if we correct our vision.
 
So, whether we are physical explorers or make our journeys via the computer screen or via a book, we have a clear destination: eternity. We have, too, the means of getting there through the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity. Even in this life, our hearts and minds can become a Bethlehem where Christ is continually born through the grace of faith. 
 
In 2019, BBC Earth produced a DVD entitled ‘The Planets’. The renown Professor Brian Cox presents a stunning series bringing to life, in a most remarkable way, the most memorable events in the history of the solar system to tell our current understanding of the thrilling story of all eight planets. For those who have faith in God, this DVD provides a fine, if unintentional, visual accompaniment to any contemplation of the ‘unknown’ of God’s creation.
 
As St. Peter writes in his second letter (2:19):
'Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the Morning Star rises in your hearts'.
 

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.