Sunday Reflection

Birthday of St John the Baptist (24.06.18)

Religious Inheritance
 
Genetic inheritance is an established fact. A person’s religious inheritance is not always so identifiable. The Jewish people must rank among those most ancestrally conscious of their religious forebears; treasuring their deeply rooted ancestral faith in God, despite repeated persecution and their own failures.

Normally Sundays are reserved to God, but this Sunday the Church focuses on the birth of the Jew whom we know as John the Baptist. Jesus himself extols John’s role: I tell you, among those born of women, there is none there is none greater than John yet even the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:28)
 
For the Jew, lineage is significant. The extract of Luke’s Gospel read on this Sunday to mark John’s birth and naming includes the following:
When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said in reply, "No. He will be called John." But they answered her," There is no one among your relatives who has this name."
There is no detail of whom the ‘they’ was composed as in: When ‘they’ came on the eighth day ..” other than neighbours and relatives. Might one of the ‘they’ have been Elizabeth’s cousin from Nazareth, herself an expectant mother now three months into her pregnancy, called Mary? It would be reasonable to assume that Mary would have stayed for the birth of her cousin’s child, particularly after the powerful interaction between each child in the womb of their respective mothers at the mothers’ initial exchange of greetings (Luke 1:40-45).
 
The three months Mary, the young Jewish pregnant girl betrothed but as yet unmarried, spent in the household of her much older cousin must have been enormously supportive as well as educative as Mary became more comfortable with her miraculous confinement. Zechariah was unable to speak having been shocked into silence at the prospect of parenthood. Today, too, people can be rendered speechless by shock. But a silenced faith can speak loudly as the lives of many martyred saints continue to exemplify.
 
Mary would have known of Zechariah’s distinguished pedigree as a direct descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses. All male descendants of Aaron, estimated at some 20,000, were Jewish priests. Mary would have known that Elizabeth, too, was a direct descendant of Aaron. Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s marriage was ideal in terms of religious lineage except that they were childless. This would have rendered them as ‘wounded’ in the eyes of their community. Mary would have benefitted from the exemplary religious life led by her hosts whom, previously, she would have visited. She would have seen for herself the way in which they bore their pain of childlessness. Elizabeth’s pregnancy appears to have been news for Mary at The Annunciation. Understandably, Mary set out without delay to be with her cousin now ‘in her sixth month’.

Mary would have witnessed the naming of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son, John. Also, Zechariah’s recovery of speech and his proclamation of praise to God, ‘The Benedictus’, which forms part of the daily Prayer of the Church at Vespers. Supported by such exemplary holiness, Mary returned to Nazareth and thence to Bethlehem whilst continuing her own confinement.
 
This Sunday’s celebration of the birth and naming of John the Baptiser is a wondrous event in itself. When we place Mary, the mother-to-be of Jesus, in the frame, the surrounding events of John’s birth and naming take on even greater significance.
Each person’s birth is as unique as is each person. In each life, be it short or long, there are multiple defining moments mostly beginning with a person’s birth. John the Baptiser’s significant defining moments began before his natural conception with the announcement of his impending entry into the world and his naming.

Likewise, the Angel Gabriel, at the Annunciation, initiated the significant defining moments in the life of the Son of God-made-Man child whom God invited Mary to conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit. Gabriel also gave Mary’s future child his name, Jesus.
The significance of life’s defining moments may not be fully apparent in the moment of their occurrence, that may only be realised later over time. Also, an individual’s personal defining moments may continue to impact the lives of others not only during that person’s life but also subsequent to their death. For example, within the Christian and even wider community, the life of St. (Mother) Teresa of Calcutta continues to inspire people all over the world.
 
Jesus Christ, God Incarnate and the world’s most famous Jew, has adopted Christians, those Baptised in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, as his sisters and brothers be they, formerly, Jew or Gentile.
Jesus is our real ancestor. The closer we choose to draw ourselves to him the closer we will become enlivened with his religious imprint, his religious ‘gene’ as it were. Closeness to Jesus also brings us a closeness with his countless disciples over the past two thousand plus years as well as his disciples today.
 
We can visualise ancestors never met and never seen in photographs or paintings. We know them from what survives from their writings, their possessions, the places they lived and the work they did. So too with Jesus of Nazareth. We know Jesus through his Living Word, The Gospels, and the Books of the New Testament whose authorship we believe to be inspired by the Holy Spirit guiding their human authors. We know Jesus, too, through our Communion with him in the Eucharist: “Take this all of you and eat of it for this is my Body given which will be given up for you.”
 
Jesus’ Word and Life is imprinted on our life through the Baptism and Confirmation we receive. He calls us to be the living expression of himself in this damaged world, despite our status as recovering sinners. This is why Jesus longs for us to make it our priority to live each day expanding our memory of him and walking, albeit it falteringly, in his footsteps. The implementation of this call and invitation is summed up in the Ten Commandments. If these are not readily to mind then maybe this is a sign that we need to invite God to re-enter them in our hearts which may have become too stone-like! As Jesus teaches, the summary of the Ten is in the first two: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31) Refreshing our awareness of these Commandments on a daily basis – in full or in summary – will help us move more securely in the treacherous world of today. It will also enable us to reveal to others the depth of our spiritual lineage.
 

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time (17.06.18)

Spiritual Horticulture
 
We associate the month of June with summer. After a lengthy hibernation in winter, Spring’s promise is hopefully made good in June and the following months. Nature’s regeneration has much to teach us about the wonders of our God as the Creator of all that is. ‘Creator’ here implying his being the ‘first mover’, the instigator.

This Sunday’s First Reading is taken from Ezekiel (17:22-24) This visionary prophet was born about 622 BC. His life covered the years when his people were slaves and in exile in Babylon as a result of their disobeying God’s Covenant. In today’s extract Ezekiel is engendering hope as he visualises God as a skilled horticulturalist taking care of his creation. God, in addition to causing us to exist, calls us to be his collaborators in caring, on his behalf, for all the constituent parts of our world.

Ezekiel visualises the time when God will take a fertile and authentic remnant of his Chosen People out of Babylon and out of servitude, restoring them to lofty Jerusalem, his place of dwelling:
“I, too, will take from the crest of the cedar, from its topmost branches tear off a tender shoot, and plant it on a high and lofty mountain; on the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it. It shall put forth branches and bear fruit and become a majestic cedar. Birds of every kind shall dwell beneath it, every winged thing in the shade of its boughs. And all the trees of the field shall know that I, the Lord, bring low the high tree, lift high the lowly tree, wither up the green tree, and make the withered tree bloom.”
Though Ezekiel we, too, can visualize God’s longing to bring a redeemed humanity to heaven.
 
Just two years after he was elected Pope, Francis issued in 2015 his Encyclical Letter ‘Laudato Si’ on the care we are to exercise for our common home, the planet on which we live. The Pope’s choice of ‘Laudato Si’ comes from the canticle of St. Francis of Assisi – ‘praise to you, my Lord, through our sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.’(From ‘Canticle of the Creatures’ Francis of Assisi Early Documents Val.1) If you have not yet read ‘Laudato Si’ the summer months are an ideal setting for doing so and it is only 180 pages. This Encyclical can be downloaded for free from the Vatican website.
 
As every horticulturalist, amateur or professional, knows the transplanting of cuttings, to be successful, needs both skill and care. Today, there are countless sources of advice for gardeners with just window boxes or actual gardens. The popularity of TV and radio gardening programmes – not to mention Chelsea and all local flower shows – points to a very substantial segment of the population with no small interest in gardening.
 
Spiritual Directors – perhaps the word ‘Guide’ would be better - are ‘horticulturalists’ of the soul. Their gift of discernment can contribute substantially to another’s spiritual wellbeing. Just as we choose advice from people whose skill we trust and value, so, choosing a spiritual director is searching for a compatible person, not necessarily a priest, with their feet firmly on the ground and their trust firmly in God. They would be a person of prayer as opposed to someone who says lots of prayers, if you see what I mean. Their skill in ‘guiding’ should lead you to identify the choices before you; enable you to be aware of whatever support there is that helps you investigate and weigh the choice or choices; while leaving you entirely free to make that choice or those choices.
 
Pope Francis, in ‘Laudato Si’, is offering humanity guidance for the replenishment of our depleted planet and world along with the information that enables thinking people to make the right choices for the coming generations. He is reminding us that this is not our world, but God’s world. We are merely the custodians.
 
Some may fear the task too great for them. Which is why Jesus, in the extract from St. Mark’s Gospel for this Sunday (4:26-34), takes the example of a mustard seed. It’s such a tiny seed –insignificant in size - and yet, properly nurtured, it provides when fully grown safe and secure habitat for countless other creatures.
St. Therese of Lisieux used to say:
‘Therese and sixpence can do very little, but Therese, sixpence and God can do anything’
 
Within each of us, Jesus says, is the seed of God’s creative love. It is unquenchable even in the most adverse of conditions. It can be threatened only by, us as its host, when we lessen or lose our communion with the Holy Spirit. This seed needs the constant nourishment of each individual’s will to live in communion with the Holy Spirit. When a person’s communion with the Divine is lessened or, worse, interrupted, not only is growth held in check but the seed of God’s creative love can suffer loss.

There is an incalculable number of Baptised people, in the UK for example, within whom development of the seed of God’s creative love appears to have faltered perhaps having been thwarted by the Evil One. The exemplification of such a statement is evidenced by multiple examples of present day society’s now accepted behaviour. Prime among such is (direct) abortion on demand and euthanasia, not to mention the failure to respect the dignity of our fellow human beings.

The UK is one country, among many, where dysfunctionality within the Christian community has resulted in a marked falling away of belief and practice among Christians. This has resulted in the rise of Secularism and its being accorded an equal status with religion. It is a lamentable situation for nations whose people were renowned for their Christian faith.
 
Each Baptised person, irrespective of nationality, gender, status or physical capacity, is gifted with the ability and vocation to become a lifesaver on a daily basis. Baptised people do not determine when and where to exercise their vocational calling but respond to the prompts of the Divine with willingness, even when the task appears impossible. The history of Christianity in these islands overflows with the lives of women, men and children who were loyal to Christ even to the point of foregoing their lives.
 
On a balmy June evening in a garden or in the countryside as you hear and see the myriad expressions of God, reflect - have I enabled or restricted the faith growth of people whose lives I have encountered recently? The flora and fauna of our portion of the planet prompts many a thought beyond the scope of horticulture.
 

10th Sunday in Ordinary Time (10.06.18)

The Word of Invitation

 This 10th Sunday our 1st Reading comes from The Book of Genesis (3:9-15). Is God interrogating Adam and Eve or is he inviting them to grow in faith? Interrogation can be a spine-chilling word for some threatening the revelation of personal details or views. People, as we know, can be reluctant to turn the spotlight on their inner    secrets, let alone allow others access! A genuine invitation, by comparison, is an extension of gratuitous friendship and support.

Were you to speak aloud God’s words, in this Genesis extract, what tone of voice would you choose? Would you sound interrogative or invitational? Is your preference illuminative of how you interpret God’s attitude to his creation – made in his image and likeness? Why not spend a little while pondering this question?
 
God, our Creator, sees all that is within us, yet we sometimes behave as if he does not. As a loving and merciful Father God reaches out to us in an invitational manner. His forthrightness, as in the Genesis extract, invited a contriteness from Adam and Eve who, instead, resort to blaming each other and Satan. From our earliest years we have sought to apportion blame outside of ourselves! Had Adam and Eve confessed their disobedience and asked God’s forgiveness would they have forfeited the Garden of Eden? 
At the beginning of Mass, in the Act of Penance, we acknowledge God’s intimate knowledge of us in the penitential prayer, the ‘I confess’. Has familiarity with these words worn away our clarity of thinking about the openness of the confession we make in public: “I have greatly sinned in thought word and deed, through my fault …”

There is another who sees our inner struggles, but only because we have granted him access, namely, Satan. Satan’s insight is guided by malevolence as he seeks to frustrate and destroy our attempts to engage with the Holy Spirit in an on-going conscience-promoted review of life that is critical for the fulfilment of our Baptismal promises.
 
Daily life on earth is each individual’s setting for enacting their God-given free will. In the course of each day a person’s choices will move them either towards God or towards Satan. There is no static ‘middle ground’, no ‘no-man’s land’. Freedom of choice is God’s on-going gift to us and God always respects the independence of the freewill he has gifted to each of us. Equally, he will ensure that Satan respects it, too. We can neither be forced to be holy, nor can we be forced to be sinful.  Our daily choices are of our own making but we are the recipient of influences and circumstances that are not always of our own making. It’s helpful to remember that habit plays an influential part too. Mark Buchanan, author, says in his latest book ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’: “The habit of prayer will not magically arrive for you amidst the flaming debris of the apocalypse. You’ll have to get it well in hand now, working it into your daily rounds as patiently as petite point stitches. Then, when the day comes that you need it most, there it is.”

Each person’s exercise of their freewill in personal matters also affects how they respond to events not only unfolding around them but throughout our world. Those who choose to live in a communion of prayer and sacrament with Jesus are infused with his ‘lifeblood’ enabling them, daily, to make truthful evaluations of all that touches their lives. For the Baptised, the habit of daily prayer and frequent sacramental communion with Jesus is the bedrock on which their daily choices are forged.
 
Each Word of God, that enters our consciousness, has an invitational element. It is not that our name is prefixed to God’s every utterance. Nor is there an RSVP concluding each of Jesus’ Gospel statements. The invitational element is implied. So, what, do you imagine, underlines God’s continual invitation to us though his Word? Would he be asking us for a renewal of our Baptismal commitment to him? In earlier times the Catechism answer was: ‘God made me to know, love and serve him in this world and be happy with him forever in the next’. The wording, in the more updated Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church (English Translation 1994), has changed but the emphasis remains.     

Article 3 ‘Man’s Freedom’ (1730) tells: ‘God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. ‘God willed that man should be “left in the hand of his own counsel”, so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him.” (Vatican Council 2 - ‘Gaudium et Spes’ 17)
St. Irenaeus expresses it thus: “Man is rational and therefore like to God; he is created with free will and is master over his acts.”
 
If our hearing is muffled by inattention or distraction or if our conscience is muffled by temptation or by unhealed sin, the impact of God’s invitation is muffled. His implied invitation to us will, as they say, ‘fall on deaf ears’. That deafness is likely our choice. Like Adam and Eve, we might want to blame another. Or, if we are in church, we may want to blame the unattractiveness of the reader, the inadequacy of the amplification system, our neighbours, but, the fact remains, the inattention is our choice. How often do worshippers return from church and look up the Readings of the ‘Word of the Lord’ that they heard proclaimed, or sort of heard? The choice is ours.
 
Our acceptance that there is an implied invitation in Jesus’ recorded statements helps us measure our response, in matters small or great, against the template of his teaching and example. His is a gentle, loving invitation to ‘pick up our cross’ and follow in his footsteps. In the letter to the Hebrews (3:7-9) we read:
 “So, as the Holy Spirit says:
“Today, if you hear God’s voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested and tried me, though for forty years they saw what I did.”
 
Perhaps you have not previously thought to look for the implied invitation in The Word of God? Perhaps, previously, it has never been suggested to you as part of your being in Communion with the Lord? If that is so then why not begin, today, to reappraise how you hear what you hear or what you read of Jesus’ words. It is also important that Jesus’ invitation to us reaches, through us, a wider audience, that it does not lie concealed in us. It is our Baptismal duty and vocation to continuously ensure that those with whom we share the path of life are aware of how much we value our new Life in Christ.

Pope Francis said as recently as March 9th. this year:
“Every person should be able to hear God’s voice both in their own conscience and through listening to the Word.”
Every young, and not so young, person should indeed be able to hear God’s invitation in their hearts through their grace-infused conscience. May we find new enthusiasm in amplifying the invitation in God’s Word to all with whom we are in touch.
 

Corpus Christi (03.06.18)

“Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread”
 
Do these familiar words slip almost unnoticed from our lips? Are they as rich a source for meditation as they should be? Do we understand them as comprehensively expressing our deepest desire? Might our appreciation of them be restricted to our reception of the Eucharist? Surely these words have a wider application?

‘Corpus Christi’ is ablaze with meaning and mystery. We may be, figuratively speaking, like Peter, James and John on the mountain as Jesus is Transfigured, bowing our heads and unsure of what to say.
 
For ‘cradle’ Catholics, Baptism at birth ensures that the day of First Holy Communion is well impressed on our young memory. Unfortunately, the personal Sacramental encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist can be lost in the panoply of dress, school discipline, family gatherings, photographs, and, nowadays, gifts and parties.

Not infrequently, the critical theological development that is absolutely necessary is either lacking entirely, inadequate or lacking in essential homelife/ family support. Many children’s theological appreciation does not develop apace with their emerging adulthood and practice falls away.

To limit ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ to the reception of Holy Communion, as perceived by a child, could be compared to standing in the valley and looking up at the towering height of a snow-covered Mt. Everest and equating it with the making of snowballs. It’s a very small part of much richer vein of understanding.
 
‘Give us this day our daily bread’ can be how we express our willingness to share in our Saviour’s Cross-carrying redemptive mission. We recognise all too well that, without His feeding us, we would be unable to even attempt to walk in his footsteps. His redemptive mission reached, uninterruptedly, from his Conception to his Resurrection. By it, he made our Redemption possible. Though established, our Redemption is as yet not fully enacted since so many people in our world remain, up to the present moment, engrossed in a turmoil of flagrant disobedience to their Creator. The divisions that ravage our world are reflected, too, in our Church community. In his day too, St. Paul reproved his Corinthian community for their division:
What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name.” (1 Cor.1:12-15)

The continuing sinfulness of the world and of the Church is why the wounds on our Saviour’s Risen Body remain open, as Thomas, and no doubt, other Apostles experienced in Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances. Jesus is still ‘washing our feet’ but perhaps we are not washing one another’s?

The call we receive to the Banquet of Heaven involves our willing participation in a continuous journey/pilgrimage accompanying our Saviour. Each day will contain aspects of his life – his numerous rejections, his ascent of Calvary and how he learnt to die to self - spread over our lifetime, whether that be short or long.
 
‘Give us this day our daily bread’ can be how we learn to surrender our self-will to the will of Christ in order that we may become ‘faith-nourishment’ for others. Take for example, the story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5: 1-15.

On three occasions, in this story, it is a nameless servant/slave who delivers a message of faith to the all-powerful Aramean Army-Commander, Naaman, who has leprosy. The first is a young Jewish female slave kidnapped during one of his army’s raids into Israel. Then Elisha’s own nameless servant delivers the prophet’s message to Naaman who is outraged by the lack of respect being shown him. Finally, one of Naaman’s own nameless servants implores his master to listen and follow the prophet’s message.

Three times God works through the unexpected and the powerless to bring healing to Naaman. Are we willing to offer ourselves, nameless and unremarked on by the world, as a crumb of divine comfort in the faith-journey of others? In order to become that crumb we, first of all, must be nourished and made one with the Bread of Life who came not to be served but to serve.
 
‘Give us this day our daily bread’ may be our plea for spiritual insight. John is the only Evangelist to give us details of the foot washing purposefully undertaken by Jesus at the Last Supper (13:1-20)

In the Liturgy of Maundy Thursday, the celebrant temporally adopts a servant posture in order to identify himself as ‘alter Christus’. But for St. John all present must be involved with the foot washing if they are to be one in Christ. For Jesus, his Washing of the Feet of his apostles was not an optional extra but an integral part of Communion.

Rituals are potent elements of our national and personal memories. Think, for example, of ‘The Trooping of the Colour’ in the UK. The historical procedure has to be correctly followed. The ritual of Jesus Washing the Feet of his apostles is less adhered to than the Institution of the Eucharist. Both occurred in the same celebration and in the same location. Notice that Jesus gives explicit instructions that both actions, the Foot Washing and the Eucharist, should be repeated by the disciples namely.

‘Give us this day our daily bread’ reminds us that, in the Eucharist, we are seeking to become one with God-made-Man who chose to be the servant, the one who washed the feet of his disciples. In approaching the Eucharistic we might well consider if and how often we wash the feet, perhaps metaphorically, of those we offend and whether we allow others to wash our feet. Jesus taught:
 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-26) 

We cannot truly be one with Christ in receiving Holy Communion if we are not one with others through a mutual ‘washing of feet’. In other words, we make a firm commitment to be reconciled with God and with one another. Communion with the Lord presupposes reconciliation with him and with others. Jesus demonstrated this teaching in the Upper Room at the Last Supper. Have we explored how we ‘Wash the Feet’ of those in our care, be they physically close by or far away?
 
Can we truly ask for our daily bread if we are selective as to whom we are willing to share it with? Can we truly ask for our daily bread if we are selective as from whom we are prepared to receive it?

The Eucharist is a denominational ‘conflict zone’. Foot Washing, though marginalized and neglected, is also a ‘conflict zone’ for different reasons.

No Catholic priest, anywhere in the world, will hesitate to preside at the Eucharist. There are not a few around the world, though, who would hesitate to preside at a Foot Washing because it is socially awkward. Could it be that until we have accepted and valued Jesus’ call to copy his Foot Washing we will not find unity with Him and with one another in His Eucharist?
 
A few months from now The Archdiocese of Liverpool will host a national Eucharistic Pilgrimage and Congress lasting three days. This gathering of clergy, religious, catechists, schools, & chaplains takes place 7-9 September 2018. The programme is published. The Catholic community has been invited to prepare through prayer and liturgical events. So far, it would appear, that there is no place for ‘Foot Washing’.

One might have thought that the opening of a Eucharistic Congress and Pilgrimage would be well served by a Liturgy of Foot Washing as the appropriate context in which to celebrate our worldwide unity as the visible Body of Christ on earth.
 
In the Catholic Church today are all manner of debates and acres of print about who may or may not be admitted to The Eucharist. There would appear to be less argument about who may or may not be admitted to Foot Washing, though issues of gender and status continue to rear their head in some parts.

The Evangelists Matthew (20:25-27), Mark (10:43-4) and Luke (12:25-26) each recall, in their own words, Jesus’ teaching at The Foot Washing in the Upper Room:
“their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave …”
 
Far from being a one-off, Jesus’ Foot Washing contains a core truth about our being the Body of Christ on earth.
Give us, Lord, our daily bread that we may learn how to receive and share your presence as you intended. For unless there is mutual forgiveness and a willingness to serve one another we cannot be one with you.

The Most Holy Trinity (27.05.18)

Perfectionism
 
Are we justified in asking if perfection exists on earth? The question follows, naturally enough, when we acknowledge that both humanity, and the planet we inhabit, is permanently evolving and perfection, as we define it, means that point where no further enhancement is possible. Perfection means different things to people in the constantly changing circumstances of life. We can imagine how a seriously dehydrated person will relish the first trickle of drinking water as the most perfect thirst quencher. Likewise, a composer hearing, for the first time, the fullness of his or her months of demanding composition may be elated by, to their ears, its perfection. Or how, for the utterly weary, spiritually, mentally and physically exhausted refugee, a warm smile and a sincerely welcoming word can be the perfect antidote to months if not years of persecution. But even these, and all similar so-called perfect ‘moments’, pass.
 
We, the inhabitants of this world in flux, are within ourselves constantly changing. We have no proof of how it was for our first parents before, what is called ‘the fall’ namely, when they disobeyed God. Is there a sense of timelessness, and therefore changelessness, in the pre-fall Biblical description of Eden? (Genesis 2.)

Sin, resulting from Satan’s temptation and our fore- parents’ capitulation, fundamentally changed the previously perfect relationship between God and our first parents:
“God saw all that he had made
and indeed it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31).

The resulting disrupted relationship has subsequently afflicted generation upon generation. It has gathered momentum and caused ever greater disunity both between humanity and its Creator God and between person and person.  (Genesis 3:8-24)
 
Yet humanity has never ceased yearning for that perfection of relationship it enjoyed with its Creator God at the outset. The seal of that perfect relationship is indelibly inscribed on each eternal soul. Our drive for knowledge, our reaching out into the unknown, if we only could recognise it, has but one ultimate goal namely, to rediscover that unique relationship of a total fulfilment that does not pass.
Those who believe in Jesus Christ and strive, daily, to follow his teaching sense in their communion with him the pathway to that perfect fulfilment. Their hope is not based on their own efforts or determination but rather on the mercy of their heavenly Father. God welcomes all who are willing to try to walk in the footsteps of his beloved Son, Jesus, God-made-Man.
 
Truly selfless loving requires a heart and soul unimpaired by sin because one consequence of humanity’s original sin is the impairment or contagion of selfishness. No matter how selfless we imagine our love to be it is contaminated, inescapably, by self-love because we are, on this earth, never more than recovering sinners. In just the same way, the alcoholic who has never touched an alcoholic drink for decades continues to define him/herself as a recovering alcoholic.
 
To selflessly show love to another, following the example of Christ, requires a heart reclaimed from sin be it personal or corporate. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are called to confess not only our personal sin but also our share in the sin of the world. Despite differences of language, culture and ethnicity we are one people, one human race. The fundamental  ‘good’ of each person reverberates beyond that person just as a drop of water falling into the oceans increases the volume of the oceans. So, too, any evil that we allow to pass, without reparation, in our individual life, in our city, society or universe increases the volume of evil in this world. Remember the truism:
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for a good person to do nothing.” (Edmund Burke in a letter addressed to Thomas Mercer). 
 
Among solely humans, Mary, the Immaculate Mother of God is unique for, by Divine intervention, she is without sin either personal or corporate. In her own words at Lourdes Mary identified herself to St. Bernadette and companions as ‘The Immaculate Conception’. Because Mary is without sin, the love she gives is truly selfless.
The bond uniting Jesus and Mary transcends the bond uniting a mother with her child. The mother/child bond is commonly regarded as the closest of all human bonds yet the bond between Jesus and Mary surpasses it uniquely and in a way that will never be repeated.
 
God became a child in the womb of Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit; pure uncontaminated love in communion with pure uncontaminated love. It is not a communion of equal with equal but of Creator with created. Mary, the Immaculate Conception, received within her womb the wholeness of God-made-Man thereby initiating, in human history, the process of humanity’s eternal salvation.
 
Mary, for believers, is the living proof that humanity’s ultimate fulfilment and perfection is only to be found in the indwelling of the Living God. All else will pass, including evil which will be expelled.
Mary proclaimed when she responded to Elizabeth’s greeting:
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
Because He has looked upon
the lowliness of his handmaid …”
(Luke 1:46-47)
 
Where The Holy Spirit dwells, there also is The Father and the Son. When Jesus walked, taught and suffered on this earth, the Father and the Holy Spirit were present within him. When Jesus is affronted God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is affronted. When Jesus is acclaimed, God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is acclaimed.
 
In the life on earth of The Son of God-made-Man Christians glimpse, in an extremely limited way, the inner life of perfect love. St. Aelred, a revered English Cistercian monk and Abbot of Rievaulx, from 1147 to his death in 1167, expressed what he glimpsed in his book the ‘Mirror of Love’, from which the following is taken:
 
“If people wish to love themselves appropriately they must not allow themselves to be corrupted by indulging their sinful nature. If they wish to resist the promptings of their sinful nature they must enlarge the whole horizon of their love to contemplate the loving gentleness of the humanity of Christ. Further, if they wish to savour the joy of the love of the brethren with greater perfection and delight, they must extend even to their enemies the embrace of true love. If they wish to prevent this fire of divine love from growing cold because of injuries received, let them keep the eyes of their souls always fixed on the serene patience of their beloved Lord and Saviour.”
 

Pentecost (20.05.18)

Pentecost Fire
 
There are multiple and varied references to fire in Scripture. In particular, the element of fire has long been associated with today’s celebration of Pentecost. The Acts of the Apostles (2:3) tells us that on this Day in the Upper Room, that had become the Apostles’ refuge: “They (the Apostles) saw tongues like flames of a fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.”

Jesus had previously said: “If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever — the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.  I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” (John 14:15-20)
 
The coming of The Holy Spirit upon the Apostles lifted them out of their entrapment by fear. Fortified by God’s Spirit, they demonstrated a fearless commitment to speak and act in the name of Jesus, their Risen Lord, irrespective of the consequences. The Holy Spirit, when given our wholehearted collaboration, has the capacity to lift us from a world awash with the misuse of the sensual to a communion with our Risen Lord. The question is whether we, minute by minute, wish to continue in that mode? For no sooner have we been nourished by the Spirit than Satan retaliates by attacking us where we are most vulnerable namely, our weaknesses, of which we know there are many.
 
Many will be familiar with the prayer: ‘Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love’. The fire of The Holy Spirit never consumes in the way that paper or coal is consumed by fire. The Spirit will never override our will. Rather, the Spirit’s presence within us is aligned with our ever-changing determination and free will. This makes it all the more important for us to have the practice of daily prayer and Sacramental life.

The Spirit’s presence illuminates a person from within, dependent upon a person’s willed collaboration, with the intrinsic luminosity of God. Peter, James and John, recorded in the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36 plus Peter in his 2nd Letter (1:16-18), recall for us their experience of The Transfiguration of Jesus. Like Peter, at the Transfiguration, when we are integrated with the Baptised community of faith we can say, “Lord, it is good for us to be here”.
 
Sadly, society has its pyromaniacs. Periodically we are tragically made aware of their hidden presence. Satan is the artificer in chief of the ‘fire’ that attempts to asphyxiate the soul by enticing people away from God’s grace of The Spirit. It is amazing how expressions like ‘The fires of Hell’ and ‘Hellfire’ are well used even by those who deny that both the Devil and Hell exist! Nowadays, the public is more fascinated by, than fearful of, the Devil. Satan successfully markets himself as a source of fun which, for Christians and maybe others, is deeply disturbing. For example, each year Halloween’s increased extravagances further obliterate the Christian feast of ‘All Saints’ on 1st November. The material extravagances of Christmas have overcome peoples’ awareness of the uniqueness of the Birth of Christ. Even some Christians hold back from sending true Christmas greetings that might be seen as religious. The Resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday has been lost in a vacation Bank Holiday bonanza weekend coated in chocolate eggs. Satan revels in his public rehabilitation.
 
When we intercede for the gift of The Holy Spirit we are opening ourselves to the unique enhancement of our created God-likeness. In a world, in a society, where religious belief is in decline the Baptised’s application to prayer and the Sacraments becomes vital. People ascending high mountains rightly acknowledge they cannot achieve the summit on the little natural oxygen that is available at that height. So, the Baptised in a world where authentic spirituality is diminishing and Satan’s dominance grows, need a deeper spiritual communion with The Holy Spirit.  Maybe Pentecost is an appropriate time to read again the parable of ‘Dives and Lazarus’ (Luke 16:19-31)
 
Without a vibrant and valued commitment to believe in God we are horrendously at risk from all forms of Satanic conflagrations. Please God, the human race will again heed God’s call to welcome his Holy Spirit despite the skilfully misleading barrage broadcast by Satan.  St. Bernard of Clairvaux is thought to be the originator of the proverb: ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’. An alternative rendering of which is: ‘Hell is full of good meanings, but heaven is full of ghttp://aood works’.

One interpretation of the sayings is that wrongdoings or evil actions are often masked by good intentions. Some good intentions, when acted upon, may have unintended consequences. Another interpretation of the phrase is that while individuals may have the intention to undertake good actions they nevertheless fail to implement their intention or perhaps to see it through. There are many reasons why we do not complete the journey to which we have committed our self - fear, procrastination, laziness or the subversive temptation of Satan that ‘we’ve made enough of an effort’. Hence, the saying that a good intention is meaningless unless followed through.
 
As we become conscious of our own limitations, weaknesses, plights and age-related decrepitude we have a choice. Either we resign ourselves to what appears to be ‘our lot’ or we look for ways of moving beyond these stumbling blocks. Those who care for their physical health carefully watch what they eat and how they exercise. Those who care for their spiritual health need a similar application to prayer, fasting and almsgiving (which is not restricted to the donation of money) to prevent the encroachment of Satan. This in addition to fulfilling their vocational covenants as spouse, parent, teacher etc. The Holy Spirit’s ‘Tongue of Fire’ fortifies souls in harmony with their Creator whatever their physical condition.
 
Pope St. Leo the Great wrote this:
“Dear friends, at every moment the earth is full of the mercy of God, and nature itself is a lesson for all the faithful in the worship of God … initially, we are made new by the rebirth of Baptism. Yet there is still required a daily renewal to repair the shortcomings of our mortal nature, and whatever degree of progress has been made there is no one who should not be more advanced.”
 
St. John Chrysostom Archbishop of Constantinople and an early Church Father of the 5th century had this to say:
“When light enters our bodily eyes, our eyesight is sharpened. When a soul is intent on God, God’s inextinguishable light shines into it making it radiant and clear.
Prayer is the light of the soul - that is spontaneous prayer from the heart and not from routine. Such prayer lifts the soul into the heavens where it hugs God in an indescribable embrace.
Such prayer - the go-between linking us to God - brings joy to the soul and calm to the emotions.
When God gives the gift of such prayer it causes the soul to catch fire with an eternal desire for the Lord. Our collaboration with such a gift of prayer allows us to receive his image in our soul.”

7th Sunday of Easter (13.05.18)

“I am with you always, yes to the end of time.”
 
To lose contact with a loved one is frightening. To lose contact with a loved one on whom one has come to depend is far, far worse. Such a loss can happen suddenly or over time. It can result from injury or infection or the breakdown of a relationship. If the impact is immediate then the familiar sound and sight of the other is suddenly replaced by a feeling of emptiness and a silence that drives home the depth of loss.

Jesus had frequently prepared his constant companions for the time when they would no longer see and hear him on a daily basis. St. John’s Gospel gives us Jesus’ ‘Farewell Discourse’ in the course of which he said:
 “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.
 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:33-35) 
Peter questioned Jesus: “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus replied: “Now you cannot follow me where I am going, but later you shall follow me.”
 
 
The majority of people will face, in the course of life, the distress of separation from loved ones. Where the Christian faith is a living and shared bond between the parties, the pain of actual separation can be assisted by the light of a living hope. Jesus is that hope who accompanies the bereaved as he awaits the departed. From his dying, rising and Ascension we draw our faith in which we base our hope.

The noun ‘Ascension’ (with a capital ‘A’) is, even in today’s secular society, uniquely attributable to the Risen Jesus of Nazareth. It expresses the Christian belief in the unimpeded access that the Son of God-made-Man has to his heavenly Father.

God became Man to subsume death, the devastating calamity that our first parents had brought upon themselves and their progeny, the human race. Jesus of Nazareth freely chose to embrace and triumph over death – “No one takes it (my life) from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” (John 10:18)

St. Paul echoes Jesus’ words in his first Letter to the Corinthians:
“Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (15: 55-57)
 
Death is the contradiction of everything God is. As the Book of Wisdom expresses it:
“Do not court death by your erring way of life,
nor draw to yourselves destruction by the works of your hands.
Because God did not make death,
nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.
For he fashioned all things that they might have life,
and the creatures of the world are wholesome; ... ”
(Wisdom 1: 12-14)
 
We can hear – as we celebrate The Ascension – Jesus’ final exhaustive utterance from the Cross on Calvary, “It is accomplished.” (John 19:30) Jesus had accomplished the restoration of the fractured relationship between God and his Creation. Jesus, after his Resurrection, worked ceaselessly to demonstrate to his Apostles that death had been overcome by the Risen Life of God-made-Man.
 
In the Ascension, we celebrate that God, like us in all things but who did not sin in the person of the Resurrected Jesus of Nazareth, is now with our heavenly Father. Prior to Jesus’ Ascension, no human person was at one with God. Moreover, where Jesus is we, whom he has adopted through Baptism as his sisters and brothers, are called to be. Where the Head leads, the Body is called to follow. As Jesus died, so must we. As Jesus rose from death, so must we. Whereas Jesus, free from sin, Ascended, we, sinners, make our pilgrimage of atonement towards judgement day.
 
Jesus gave his Apostles this final briefing:
“Go, therefore, make disciples of all the nations; baptise them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you.” (Matt 28:19-20)
Then Jesus added: “And look, I am with you always; yes, to the end of time."

How can Jesus be leaving the Apostles and, at the same time, continue to be with them?
Could it be that our purgatorial pilgrimage on earth is in allowing Jesus, present in us through his Spirit despite our sinfulness, to progressively transfigure us in our reaching out to others? The story of the two dejected disciples on the ‘Road to Emmaus’ (Luke 24:13-35) serves as an example.

The ‘making of disciples’ consists in our consistent collaboration with the Holy Spirit who alone can bring us to the fullness of whom we are called to be. In other words, we are called to be Christ to one another. In the process we will have to do battle with the ‘death’ that continues to stalk this land of exile. As it was for our Saviour, our battle with ‘death’ will bring pain and disfigurement in many and varied ways. But if we remain in communion with Jesus, through his Spirit, his triumph over ‘death’ will be our triumph, his Resurrection our resurrection and his return to the Father our entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. Is this ‘pilgrimage’ of unknown length and content also ‘our daily bread’ enabling us to be forgiven, as we forgive others, by the power of the Spirit dwelling within us?
 
The Holy Spirit is the intimate force of God’s love who, living in us and enabled by our free will, transforms us in Christ. Therefore, we call upon the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts expelling from them all that prevents us from being finally transfigured in Christ. Mary, the Immaculate Conception, uniquely demonstrates how our human nature, made by God in his own image and likeness, has the capacity to make present the Risen Christ for the salvation of others.

Do not forget, though, that our continuous cooperation and our freely given consent are required for this transfiguring action, as St. Augustine taught: “He who made you without you, will not save you without you”.
 

6th Sunday of Easter (06.05.18)

TRUE LOVE DISMANTLES BARRIERS
 
In other circumstances, their paths may never have crossed. Peter was a local Jewish fisherman on the Sea of Galilee who likely didn’t venture too far from home. Cornelius, an Italian, was a professional soldier of rank in the Roman Army. His current posting, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, was at the busy Roman port of Caesarea on the Palestinian coast not too far from the Sea of Galilee.

Most people have countless, unexpected and apparently haphazard, encounters in the course of their lives. Some are memorable. Some act as a catalyst in redirecting individual lives. Some blossom into a married love and family. But many are unremarkable and unremembered by us, but not by God.
 
It may appear haphazard that a Roman Centurion, equivalent in rank to a British Company Sergeant-Major, should be sent to the headquarters of the Roman Army of Occupation for Palestine at that time. In the Divine plan there are no haphazard events. As a Centurion, Cornelius would have been regarded as a man of proven courage and loyalty. Men of his rank were the backbone of the Roman army. Professional Roman military leaders, if they had any religious leanings, would have favoured the plethora of traditional Roman gods as a customary way of self-advancement in the army.

Cornelius, a God-fearing soldier, had grown weary of the hollowness of his ancestral deities and attached himself, though a Gentile, to the Jewish faith. He and his family had become monotheistic believers in the One God of Judaism though they accepted neither Jewish circumcision nor the Jewish Law. Nor would Cornelius have had a clear concept of the God of the Jews to whom he felt drawn lacking, as he was, a Jewish background. But in the light of the faith he had, he prayed and tried to live close to God. Cornelius was a man seeking God and God found him.

Romans attending synagogue, especially military men of rank, would be conspicuous. According to Acts (see Chapter 10), Cornelius, a man of prayer, was known for his charity. In the harsh circumstances of Palestine, charity would not have been a frequent characteristic shown by members of the Army of Occupation whose presence was deeply resented as well as feared.
 
The landscape of the historical Church is dotted with numerous significant milestones. Chapter 10 of The Acts of the Apostles details the events which led to the first recorded admission of a Gentile into the fellowship of the Baptised. Unfortunately, on this 6th Sunday after Easter, we are only given excerpts from the chapter (25-26,34-35,44-48). To do justice to the importance of Cornelius, may I urge you to read the whole of chapter 10.
 
Simultaneously with his change-of-life call to Cornelius, God was also calling Simon, whom we know as Peter, the Galilean fisherman. The backgrounds of Cornelius and Simon (Peter) were entirely dissimilar. Yet each was destined to bring God’s blessing to the other. Simon (Peter) had still to grow into the fullness of his Christian faith. Chapter 10 of Acts gives us clues. Cornelius’ divine messenger tells him to send to Jaffa (another costal port): “to fetch a man called Simon, known as Peter, who is lodging with Simon the tanner whose house is by the sea.” (10:6-7)
“ .. a man called Simon, known as Peter …” The Galilean fisherman’s conversion from Simon into Peter is still incomplete. As chapter 10 discloses, Cornelius was to be instrumental in a major advancement in God’s plan for Simon (Peter). But first God had to help Simon (Peter) face another of his religious taboos.

Simon-the-tanner’s trade involved dead animals. In Jewish eyes he would be classed as permanently unclean. A strict Jew would have no contact with Gentiles and would certainly not accept hospitality from one, especially one whose work rendered him ‘unclean’ in Jewish eyes. Peter, while at prayer on the flat rooftop of Simon-the-tanner’s house, (10:11-16) found his heavenly revelation challenging.

Mystified, Peter descended to greet Cornelius’ emissaries, some of whom were strictly observant Jews. We know this because they “were standing at the door” - strict Jews would never enter a Gentile house. Peter persuaded them to enter and accept lodging.

Cornelius’ emissaries, Peter and his companions eventually reached Caesarea. “ … as Peter reached the house, Cornelius went out to meet him ..” (10:25) Clearly Cornelius expected that Peter, a Jew, would not enter his Gentile house. Peter then declared that, as a result of the vision he had received, “God has made it clear to me that I must not call anyone profane or unclean.” (10:28-29)
 
God’s calls to humanity come in a markedly personal and individual way, even within a group or a community. The time you set aside today to reflect on Acts chapter 10 allows God to further your conversion. In addition, it will enable you to interact more spiritually with others

All our interaction either promotes or sets back other peoples’ conversion of heart and mind to God. The making of a cup of tea or the not doing so; the saying of a ‘please’ or ‘thank you’; there is nothing too small or large to be insignificant. Thankfully, we are mostly unaware of how our beneficent interactions with others are woven into their lives. Alternatively, our consciences should alert us when our interactions are detrimental and requiring of restitution. The discernment of how each day’s interactivity has played out is a subject of each evening’s examination of conscience. We need solitude and space to become aware of God’s interactivity with us and through us with others whom he also dearly loves.
 
Finally, in the Centurion’s house Cornelius’ and Simon Peter’s interactivity blossoms.
Peter makes a world-altering profession: “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” (10:34-35)

The Holy Spirit confirmed Simon Peter’s words:
“While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles.  For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.” (10:44-48)
 
Only God knows the true number of godchildren you have and who is included among your godmothers and fathers!
 

5th Sunday of Easter (29.04.18)

VINICULTURE WITH A DIFFERENCE
 
The vine is part and parcel of Jewish imagery.  A bunch of grapes is the accepted symbol of Israel because grapes were the fruit of the reconnoitre the Israelites made of the land Canaan in response to God’s command issued through Moses. God was to gift Canaan to the remnant of Israelites at the end of their forty years journey in the desert. (Book of Numbers 13:17-24)
 ‘…. Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan … Now the time was the time of the first ripe grapes. …  they came to the valley of Eshcol and cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes; and they carried it on a pole …’
 
Jesus – in John’s Gospel for the 5th Sunday after Easter (15:1-8) - focuses his disciples’ attention on the vine. He draws an analogy between it and himself. His disciples, being Jews, were already well versed in the vine’s symbolism for their people. But now Jesus was uplifting that symbolism to a new height. Henceforth, it would embrace a living, personal relationship with God through the person of God-made-Man, Jesus the Christ.
 
 Just as God had previously prepared his remnant people, after their centuries of captivity in Egypt and their forty-year trek through the Sinai, for the land where he would settle them, so, ‘in the fullness of time’, he prepares us for eternity. St. Paul expounds the phrase in his letter to the Galatians (4:4-7)
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons (and daughters). And because you are sons (and daughters), God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son (or daughter), and if a son (or daughter), then an heir through God.”
 
 
In viniculture grafting has a long and successful history in developing new varieties of vine and therefore of grapes. Much of the acclaimed wine now coming from the ‘new world’ resulted from European vine cuttings being grafted on to new-world stems that supplied the life-giving sap.

Archaeological evidence of wine has been found in China circa  7000 BC, Georgia circa 6000 BC, Iran circa  5000 BC, Greece circa  4500 BC and Sicily circa  4000 BC. The oldest evidence of wine production has been found in Armenia circa  4100 BC. Presently, there are over 10,000 varieties of wine grapes.

Our grandparents and great grandparents would be flabbergasted to learn that the Wine Standards Board reports that, in England, there are just over 450 wine producing vineyards. The largest of these are in Surrey and Kent. The most northerly commercially producing vineyard is in Yorkshire. Welsh vineyards date back to Roman times. Currently, there are 22 operational vineyards in the Principality.
 
Jesus says he is the true vine. Truth is the ‘sap’ flowing through this Divine vine. In identifying himself as the ‘true vine’ Jesus is distancing himself from the ‘vineyard of Israel’ that had run wild. The prophet Jeremiah tells the people of his time that they have turned into ‘a degenerate and wild vine’(Jer. 2:21) A people who claimed Jewish descent but who no longer drew their sustenance from the One True God. They were Jews in name and external practice only. The parallel today is the incalculable number of people, particularly in Europe, who, though Baptised as infants and who attended Catholic and other Christian schools, have effectively become detached from the Vine of Christ or, as Jeremiah expressed it, have ‘run wild’. A vine deprived of sap becomes infected, withers and dies.
 
Jesus is saying of himself: ‘It is I who am the true vine.” Claiming to be ‘Catholic’ because of an infant Baptism will not save us if, presently, we do not have an intimate, living, communion with Jesus, the true vine of God. Jesus lays it down that neither Jewish blood nor Christian Baptism brings salvation but only a living faith in him. External qualifications cannot set a person at rights with God; only a daily, living, loving and attentive relationship with Jesus the Christ can do that.
 
In drawing his word picture of the vine, Jesus knew his words would be heard and understood, but not necessarily appreciated. The vine was grown all over Palestine, as it still is. It is a labour-intensive plant which needs a great deal of attention if it is to produce the best fruit. Needing light and air, it is raised off the ground on terraces. The ground itself has to be free from weeds and damaging insects. Weeds will not be found in successful vineyards!

When the conditions are right, the vine grows luxuriantly. But drastic pruning is necessary, for it will creep over the ground at speed. A young vine is not allowed to fruit for the first three years and each year is cut drastically back to develop and conserve its life and energy. When mature, it is pruned in December and January. It bears two kinds of branches, one that bears fruit and one that does not.  Branches that do not bear fruit are pruned-out so that they do not waste the plant's precious sap. Jesus knew that a vine cannot produce its best harvest without drastic and skilful  pruning.

Jesus says his followers are like that. Some are fruit-bearing branches of himself; others are useless because they bear no fruit. Who was Jesus thinking of when he spoke of the fruitless branches? Was He thinking of Jews and Christians for whom faith has become no more than a label without practice, words without deeds? Was he was thinking of Christians who became apostates, who, having heard and accepted His message, then fell in with tempting falsehoods, becoming traitors to the Lord?

Jesus is speaking words not so much of condemnation as of a call to the spiritual resuscitation he alone can offer. It is a resuscitation that will need continuous self-administered ‘pruning’ as well as that of Divine origin. When there is that collaborative ‘pruning’, to which Jesus refers in his analogy of his role as the vine and ourselves as the branches, the harvest will indeed be plentiful as willed by our heavenly Father, the vinedresser.
 
The Prophet Isaiah put these words of God before his beleaguered people suffering because of their own infidelity:
“On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
    a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
    the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
    the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away

 the tears from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
    from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.”

(25:6-9)

The mountain referred to is symbolised by Jerusalem, chosen by God as the focus for the great assembly. From all approaches there is an ascent to the geographical city indicating the uphill nature of the pilgrimage of faith to which all the Baptised and, indeed, all peoples are called. In this ascent the Baptised are enabled to lift up their hearts and eyes in hope because they are engrafted on to Christ, the True Vine.
 

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.