Sunday Reflection

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Preference 
 
Jesus does not mince his words with James and John. In Mark’s Gospel for this 29th Sunday (10: 35-45) Jesus speaks plainly: "You do not know what you are asking.” He was responding to the brothers’ request for preferential seating. Who, amongst the Baptised, hasn’t resorted, at times, to praying for preferential treatment?
 
Each human being is born with an innate preference for God. As God is our Creator, we bear his hallmark in our inbred preference for Him, ‘The Good’, who is God. As we grow, we develop natural inclinations drawing us towards music, science, sport, religious life, politics etc. These often occur as a result of influences received in early life. Our preference for God is something else, it is the result of God’s prior preference for us.
 
His preference for us rules out his drawing us to a position of false privilege, an apparent but vacuous superiority. Jesus calls us to copy what he did for us namely, to kneel down and wash our feet. That is Jesus’ definition of preference and it is a world apart from the secular privileges towards which the Evil One tempts us with persistent regularity.
 
When Pope Francis washes the feet of women and men serving time in prison or rehabilitation, when he embraces a seriously disfigured person at the end of a Wednesday general audience, he is not performing some liturgical rite. He is being Jesus Christ for each of those individuals at that moment and the recipients of his action recognise the truth of it to some extent. To the media it may be a photo opportunity but those recipients know something of the truth of the man who represents Jesus the Christ. In a less profound way, our eye-contact, open smile and ‘thank you’ to the person on the check-out, to the person who didn’t hold open the door for us, to the surly receptionist is, for us and each Baptised person, their moment to make Christ present. Jesus gladly receives the offering you and I make of ourselves in his name. An offering known only to Him and us individually.
 
Likewise, you may be the person disfigured, the person disabled in mind or body by a degenerative disease. So often such people are seen only as the recipients of others’ benefactions. They, themselves, are all too rarely recognised as benefactors. Many years ago, as an over- busy person rushing from engagement to engagement, I arrived at a L’Arche house for a meeting. (L’Arche an international community of family residences for those known then as ‘Handicapped’ – a term no longer appropriate, thank God). One resident, a man in his thirties, with a misshapen face, stunted growth, unable to speak coherently and given to dribbling, met me in the hall and grabbed my hand as I attempted to rush by. I had to stop. Not to have done so would have been highly discourteous.
 
I imagined that Brian was just wanting to say ‘Hello’ in the only way he could, by holding my hand. I expected him to release my hand when I said I was late for a meeting and needed to go. But no! He continued to quite firmly hold my hand. Franticly, I looked around for someone to come to my rescue. There was no appropriate person in the immediate vicinity. I could have forced Brian to release my hand but that would have violated everything that L’Arche stood for. In the ensuing minutes, having exhausted the possibilities for releasing my hand, I just accepted that I was rooted to the spot until Brian chose to release me. I remember calming down, slowly. Eventually, my frantic haste subsided as we stood there in silence. I became peaceful. A moment or so later, Brian released my hand and, with a smile, went on his way and I on mine.
 
I got in late to the meeting. There was no major fuss. Nobody asked why I was late and if they had, how could I explain what had happened? I was only just coming to understand it myself. Later, I went looking for Brian. He was just sitting quietly in the community room. I sat opposite him and offered him my hand which he accepted. I cannot remember my exact words but I thanked him for making me stop my frenetic behaviour and for showing me the falseness of it. I thanked him for teaching me an important lesson. Forty something years later I remember that teaching and Brian (now gone to God) so well. That evening, Brian said nothing as I took my leave, but his eyes told me he understood and was happy for me.
 
Maybe, this reflection has wandered away from the brothers, James and John. Maybe not! For each of us knows disfigurement and disablement. Sometimes it manifests itself in frenetic behaviour and addictions that having nothing to do with amphetamines. We give our innate likeness to God a deal of punishment over the years. God, for his part, continues to exercise his preferment of us even when we are too busy, too self-absorbed, to notice. If we are blessed, there will be a ‘Brian’ or three along our road of life. Whether we appreciate their presence, whether we learn from them  … well that’s another matter.
 
Decades after my Brian moment, I had to retire after brain surgery. Now, in my greatly reduced pace of life and spending time coaxing my injured brain to function usefully, I am grateful to be able to remember Brian and do so with gratitude.
 
As for James and John. When they asked Jesus for seats at his right and left hand they clearly had no premonition that, for Jesus, his first throne was his Cross on Calvary and the ‘seats’ were the crosses either side of his. The Gospel tells of their occupants. Neither James nor John nor the other bickering Ten Apostles had really taken in Jesus’ teaching that precedes today’s Gospel – Mark 10: 32-34.
 
People, now more than ever, need to learn again how to reach out to The Good God whose likeness we all bear. To do this, we need to stop and silence the chattering devices that we allow to continually bombard our senses. In our stillness and interior silence, the Lord reveals himself in his love for us and invites us to show that same love to others, as Brian did to me.
 
 
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28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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

Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his book on the rosary, The Threefold Garland, makes the point that it is in Christ’s Passion that the fullness of Mary’s Annunciation “Yes” – “Let it be done to me according to your word’ - is revealed. He writes: “Mary’s is a ‘yes’ which has been expanded wider and wider.” By constantly adding her love to God’s gift of graced sinlessness, Mary chose to embrace Jesus not only as an Infant but also as our Crucified Saviour on Calvary. In addition, Mary embraces the entire human race whom, without exception, her Divine Son has adopted as his sisters and brothers.
We, the adopted, struggle to hold together, let alone broaden, our fragile initial Baptismal ‘yes’ to God. Satan’s duplicitous words are as undermining today as they were to Eve: “Did God really say …” (Gen.3:1)
 
It is important to remember that, when Satan’s temptation is the most severe, Jesus is looking into our eyes and loving us with a love that is unvaryingly and infinitely compassionate. This Sunday, as Mark’s Gospel extract is proclaimed in Catholic churches in all the languages of the world, what will be peoples’ dominant reaction? Will listening congregations judge the man negatively or see themselves reflected in him?
 
We may like to think that, in a similar circumstance, we would have behaved like the Apostle Matthew, the tax collector, and given back or given away our wealth. But would we?
Maybe, the man in Mark’s Gospel had not foreseen the challenge Jesus presented. Are we sufficiently alert to the challenges on our vocational pathway when we pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done? It would appear that, for that man, the missing element was his trust in the love of God. Might we be standing in his shoes?
 
It is helpful that the man is nameless. It makes it easier for any one of us to stand in his unisex shoes, if we have the love and courage to do so. Perhaps from such a standpoint, we could then not just read but actually pray the extract from the Book of Wisdom (7:7-11) that we are given for a First Reading this Sunday:
“I prayed, and prudence was given me; I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me. I preferred her to sceptre and throne, and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her, nor did I liken any priceless gem to her; because all gold, in view of her, is a little sand, and before her, silver is to be accounted mire.”
And, for a prayerful encore, try the Responsorial Psalm.
 
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27th Sunday In Ordinary Time

Forewarned is Forearmed
 
Jesus was well used to questions from Pharisees. We know for certain, aged twelve, he had begun his dialoguing with them. Mark’s Gospel for this 27th Sunday (10:2-16) tells of another encounter:
The Pharisees asked -"Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?"
and Mark adds by way of comment:
“They were testing Jesus.”
One thing seems certain, the Pharisees’ question was not an academic one of interest only to the rabbinic schools. It was a question which dealt with one of the acutest issues of that time and ever since. 
 
While divorce itself was not a point of contention the circumstances in which it was allowed were. Those circumstances are laid out in Deuteronomy 24:1:
If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house …”

In theory the Jewish ideal of marriage reigned supreme because marriage was the legitimate source of regeneration and continuity has always been, and continues to be, paramount for the Jews because of their frequent persecutions. You are unlikely to find a Jewish home without children.

In Judaism, chastity, defined as ‘the avoidance of illicit sexual activity’ is held to be the greatest of all the virtues. Specifically, adultery, incest, sodomy, and bestiality are called abominations; rape and seduction are likewise censured. Jewish belief holds that: ‘Unchastity causes the glory of God to depart’. ‘Every Jew must surrender his life rather than commit idolatry, murder or adultery’. The ideal was there but practice fell very far short. This is not to finger-point, as Christians, also, contravened their laws governing chastity.
 
Another problem in ancient times was that, in Jewish law, a married or betrothed woman was regarded as a ‘property’. So a father gave a dowry to a future son-in-law who then took on the father’s ‘property’ as his betrothed/ wife. A wife had no legal rights whatsoever. She was at the complete disposal of the male head of the family. The result was that a man could divorce his wife much more easily than could a wife divorce her husband.  
 
Jesus, at his bar mitzvah, entered adult Jewish male life. In the Gospels it is recalled as the occasion when Jesus stayed back in Jerusalem for three days (Luke 2: 41-51). Jesus became Joseph’s adult apprentice growing in awareness of much more than carpentry. Over those, so called, ‘hidden years’ Jesus would have known about births, betrothals, weddings and divorces as well as deaths, especially the crucifixion version of the latter favoured by the Romans.
There’s every likelihood that, in the course of their man-to-man chats, Joseph would have shared with Jesus his experiences and feelings about the announcement of and the birth of his foster-Son.

Joseph may even have shared that he had thought about divorcing, quietly, Jesus’ mother, Mary, before Jesus was born, for fear of interfering in what he did not understand. Jesus might then have heard, at first hand, about the apparition that changed Joseph’s mind giving him the confidence to proceed with the marriage. His foster father may also have related details of the apparition in Bethlehem warning of the need to depart quickly for Egypt.
There are precious few words of Mary recorded in the Gospels but, of Joseph, there are none. Like Mary, Joseph’s actions define him as a man of faith and prayer.
 
  
It was unlikely that the Pharisees posing the question - -"Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?"- had any inkling of Jesus’ background. As ever, Jesus tried reaching out to them, despite their underhand intentions, asking:
"What did Moses command you?"
Jesus knew full well that if he hadn’t raised the issue of Moses’ rescript, they would have done so. Their question, itself an entrapment, was part of the overall Pharisee strategy to promote antagonism between the religious leaders and Jesus.
The Pharisees replied,
"Moses permitted a husband to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her."
In response Jesus pointed out that the Mosaic rescript was occasioned by “the hardness of your hearts”. Did Jesus mean that Moses had given the rescript because it was the best that could be expected from Jews at that time or because Moses was trying to control a situation which was, even then, degenerating by introducing some kind of law to make divorce more difficult.
 
This Pharisee initiated dialogue gave Jesus the opportunity to re-present his Father’s original purpose in the giving of The Law; namely, the enablement of each person, made in God’s imagine and likeness, to know how to live out their God-given vocation to be human. This applied not only to the Mosaic Law but also to the amendments taught by Jesus who said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to complete them.” (Matt: 5:17)
 
For both our Jewish brothers and sisters and ourselves, as their Christian successors, God’s Law, spanning the Old and New Testaments, is a light for those in doubt on a demanding pathway, a handrail for the unsteady, a reassurance for the uncertain. The ‘keys of the Kingdom’, given by Jesus gave to Peter (Matt: 16:19) are to enable Christ’s Vicar on earth to give support and guidance as well as calling the wayward to repentance. All must choose to embrace this life-enabling Law of God but may not alter it. When Pope Francis recently revised the Catechism to state that it was never lawful to take life. He was restoring the 5th of God’s original Commandments. He was revoking a rescript that had allowed the taking of life in specific circumstances.
 
In his dialogue with these Pharisees Jesus did the same, he revoked the rescript that Moses had allowed “to meet the hardness of your hearts”. Note – Jesus says ‘your’ not ‘their’ inferring that the hardness of heart had continued. In revoking the Mosaic rescript, Jesus was restating that marriage was a permanency which indissolubly united two people in such a way that the bond could never be broken by human law. For his authority he quoted Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24. In other words, Jesus was stating that, in the constitution of the universe, true marriage had been given as an insoluble unity, and that no Mosaic (or other) rescript could alter that. 

However, Jewish law holds that adultery dissolves the marriage vow. For the Jews, once adultery has been exposed the marriage unity is destroyed and divorce merely attests the fact. In the Roman Catholic Church adultery does not, of itself, dissolve the vows of matrimony. It may, however, be indicative of an invalid marriage and so be useful evidence in any application for nullity, if efforts at reconciliation fail.

Jesus, in insisting that the loose sexual morality of his day had to be amended, was rebuilding God’s sacramental rampart round the home. The work goes on today in the Catholic Church’s pre-Sacramental programmes. This is particularly true of the Sacrament of Matrimony which, in the Roman Catholic Church, is understood as the response, by each partner, to commit their life to the other person of the other gender to form a permanent partnership for the whole of life for the well-being of both with the potential for the procreation and education of new life.
 
At first sight there may appear to be no bridge linking the two incidents in this Sunday’s Gospel. But beneath the surface can be discerned, perhaps, Jesus’ teaching about what it means to be human (Mark 10:13-16). Baptism, Confirmation and The Eucharist forearm us, as the Lord’s adopted brothers and sisters, to share the kingdom of God here and right now with all from the youngest to the most senior in this land of exile.
 
We are called to a formidable vocation but God provides all that we need if our will is disposed to accept his calling. Others who have walked the path before us knew the self-sacrifice that it calls for. Of no other human is this more true than it is of Mary, the Mother of our Saviour. This version of the ‘Hail Mary’ is derived from a meditation on Michelangelo’s Pieta:
‘Hail Mary, full of sorrows, the Crucified is with thee; tearful art thou amongst women, and tearful is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of the Crucified, give tears to us, crucifiers of thy Son, now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.’
 
 
 
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26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (30.09.18)

The Delusion of this World’s Permanence
 
James, in this Sunday’s final extract from his Letter (5:1-6), pulls no punches. His theme is ‘the worthlessness of riches’. Today’s congregations could be forgiven for forgetting that James was writing in the 1st century AD, his letter sounds so contemporary! The unjust treatment of people by the powerful and the wealthy was an ongoing problem in the ancient world as much as it remains a problem in our 21st century. However, for all who have lived since the time of Christ there is even less excuse for injustice.
 
Fruit and vegetable retailers say that the British ‘eat with their eyes’! If the product looks bright and fresh on display shoppers will more likely want to buy it. The same principle drives the retailing advertising industry in general. Whether in the shopping mall or on-line, the aim is to catch the prospective buyer’s eye in the first place.
Avaricious is a posh word for greedy. History is packed with tales of peoples’ avariciousness and the wars, local and international, that have resulted. In answer to the question, ‘where did it all start?’, the answer can be found with Satan successfully tempting Eve to want more and, through her, Adam. Their ‘fall’ is our inheritance.
 
The appetite for greed is a corruption of a wholesome impulse to look for ‘the good’ in everything. As Genesis reminds us: God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.” (1:31)
The identification and amplification of what is truly good is the reason for all creation and, in a unique manner, human life. God expresses his unfathomable love in creating human life in his own image and likeness so that, by our free choice, we can reflect back to him his goodness in breathing his life within us. This bond of love is the focus of all Satan’s evil work.

This Sunday’s extract from James’ letter reflects the social and economic situation of Palestine during the first century A.D. The amassing of tracts of land in the hands of a few wealthy and powerful individuals, common throughout the Roman empire, tallies with tales of the wealthy hoarding countless riches, fine clothes and precious metals. Clearly, self-indulgence, pleasure and self-gratification have been primary and dominant driving forces in human behaviour since ‘The Fall’.

James’ letter reflects, the plight of day-labourers who depended on a daily wage to support themselves and their families. Peasant society, forced to live day by day, was unable to store up money, food or clothing for later times. Therefore, not to earn a wage for a day would lead to a dire situation for both the peasant and family. The rich, then, exerted power over the peasants denying them justice and imprisoning them in a life of poverty, hunger, as well as starvation and even death.

Given the situation he experienced, it is no wonder James wrote such a stinging letter of reproach to the economic powerbrokers, and, in this case, the wealthy landowners of his day. The unjust exploitation of people was in those times, and remains today, a crime crying to heaven for redress. Nowadays it is dressed up to appear what it isn’t, to quote just one example, there is the injustice of ‘zero hours’ contracts.

James announces the woes that are to befall the unjust rich.  James uses past tense verbs to describe the riches that have rotted away, the clothes that have become moth-eaten, and the gold and silver that have become corroded. In doing so he is suggesting that their day of justice has already begun. What the peasants have experienced at the hands of the rich, they will now experience themselves namely, devastation and economic insecurity. 
 
 
Social or commercial success is often identified with acquisition that is limited to the material world which, as Jesus foretold and James echoes, will pass away and is doing so before our very eyes. Many have lost, both sight of and the will to aspire to, that just appetite for ‘success’ and ‘achievement’ that is in accord with our Creator’s will for us. This is one of Satan’s greatest areas of success.
 
Contemporary culture, which strongly influences society’s attitudes, floods the minds of upcoming generations with ideas of becoming achievers which is not, in itself, injurious. But achievements limited to materialism and materialistic control, without reference to a higher good and often disguised as being for the common good, can be seriously detrimental. One example of this is the falling away of vocations to lives dedicated to God. This is not solely related to Ordained or Religious life, it refers just as much to married love. It may surprise some that Catholic teaching on Matrimony identifies the heavenly homecoming of the spouses as the primary objective of the life-commitment that is married love. True love is, after all, the giving of oneself for the good of another. The ultimate objective of Ordained and Religious life is the fostering, through a life of self-dedication to God, of the eternal salvation of all humanity.
 
By acting prophetically in his day, James became God’s lightning rod and the people’s conscience. This same roll is presented to each newly Baptised infant through the infusion of the Holy Spirit. Once planted, the seed of faith needs the nurturing love of parents, family and society. Today, in the 21st century, many have lost sight that ‘nurturing to eternity’ becuase of the skilful intervention of the Evil One. As Jesus reminded his disciples (Matt 16: 24-28)
“What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.”
 
“If you knew what you were doing,” James says to the unjust and avaricious, “you would weep and wail for the terror of the judgment that is coming upon you on the Day of the Lord.”
James intensifies his meaning by choosing a word ‘to wail’ that, in English, means to shriek and howl with frantic terror. The same word is used to describe those undergoing the tortures of the damned.
 James identifies the three main sources of wealth in his day. Corn and grain - which he says grows rotten. Garments - (in the East garments equalled wealth) that become food for moths. Gold and silver – that will be rusted clean through. The point here is that gold and silver do not actually rust. James is saying with great clarity that even the most precious and apparently most indestructible things are doomed to decay. Rust is the ultimate proof of impermanence. James compares the greedy and unjust desire for these things like a type of dreaded rust eating into men's bodies and souls. He identifies the only treasure finally possessed by those consumed by inordinate and unjust greed will be the unquenchable fire of eternity. 
 
In this life we have to choose whether to make our own desires or the Will of God our main objective. If we choose our own desires, we have effectively separated ourselves from God as well as from our fellow humans. As St. Paul tells us in Hebrews (4:12) “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
 
 
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25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (23.09.18)

Emotion       
 
In this 25th Sunday’s 4th continuous extract from his Letter, James, the Apostle, writes about human relationships. His fledgling Christian converts, in the midst of the diasporan Jews, were in a highly emotionally charged environment. Sadly, there are too many like situations in our modern world.
While human life, as we know it, cannot exist without emotions (so say today’s psychologists and psychiatrists) various difficulties in expressing them caused people to act unpredictably and explosively then and now.
 
Though we engage with our emotions on a daily basis, how well do we understand them? While there is no universally held definition of emotion, most accept emotion to be any conscious experience involving intense mental activity with a certain degree of pleasure or displeasure intertwined with mood, temperament, personality, disposition and motivation.
 
James urged his fledgling Christians to ask daily for the help of the Holy Spirit when faced with so much difficulty. Jesus, in times of distress and/or pain, interceded with his heavenly Father, for the Spirit is the communion uniting both. Surely the most poignant is Jesus’ cry from the Cross:
 “From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). (Matthew 27:45-46)
Jesus experienced being deprived of the sense of his heavenly Father’s love and presence at the high point of his earthly life, his acceptance of Crucifixion.

Through our Baptism of Adoption, we have been gifted with the same Holy Spirit to be our communion with the Father and the Son. There are countless emotionally distraught people who would find solace in Jesus’ cry if it were to be explained and shown to them in practice. Imagine, for example, the impact on his fellow prisoners of the St. Maximillian Kolbe in the Nazis’ concentration camp as he offered himself to save another inmate’s life?
 
It is vital to be constantly aware that, as the Master of Evil, Satan is highly skilled in sowing the seeds of malicious jealousy and false ambition to contaminate human free will. His first recorded assault is his insinuation and temptation of Eve: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1) We are but the latest generation living with the consequences of Eve’s, abetted by Adam’s, capitulation. We, too, experience Satan’s uninterrupted use of the subtlety of insinuation to undermine the resolve of the Baptised in their battle to be loyal to God.

As James, through his letter, was the living channel of the Holy Spirit to those fledgling Christians mixed in with their fellow diasporan Jews, so we, too, by prayer, word and action can be channels bringing The Spirit to those for whom we pray on a daily basis. In so doing we are participating with God in achieving good in the midst of evil.
 
James, in his Letter, identifies how emotions of anger, jealousy etc threaten our freedom of choice. The daily Christian prayer of intercession helps us win strength for others as well as ourselves.
But it is also easy for believers, whose faith is perhaps more nominal than practiced, to pray and act with a sense of self-righteousness, as opposed to acceptance of God’s will.
James makes clear the importance of regular prayer:
 You want something and you lack it; so you kill. You have an ambition that you cannot satisfy; so you fight to get your way by force. It is because you not pray that you do not receive; when you do pray and do not receive, it is because you prayed wrongly, wanting to indulge your passions.
Jesus’ teaching goes further:
 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27-31) 
 
Daily the news makes clear how every human community is prone to problems that arise out of emotions untouched by God’s grace. Damage results when, spurred on by jealousy and ambition, people measure and evaluate their own worth in the light of another’s apparent gifts or gains. Perhaps the only people we can evaluate with any degree of correctness are those who are humble enough to admit their own failures and their gratitude for receiving God’s grace. It is rare for such people to incite great envy or jealousy.
 
James tells us that conflictual behaviour springs from ignoring the wisdom “from above.” Wisdom from above is a gift of God. The person gifted with this wisdom unwittingly manifests it in their deep humility. God’s gift is available to all without distinction as to race, colour, creed or circumstance. All this is required is a will disposed to receive and collaborate with it.
 
James criticizes his fledgling Christians if they have allowed conflict and ungraced emotions to dictate their communal life. James points out that their self-centred attitudes have even made their prayer impotent because in asking for their own will, they are ignoring the will of God. James understood the daily pressure-cooker like conditions facing his fledgling exiled Christians – James writes:
“Anyone who is wise and understanding among you should from a good life give evidence of deeds done in the gentleness of wisdom.”
 
European Christians of the 21st century, fast becoming a minority, bear some resemblance to the Christians to whom James was writing. Jesus’ European disciples today have not been physically overpowered, deported or enslaved – as in other parts of the world. But Europeans know other types of enslavement such as addiction and not only to drugs. Smart phone users in the UK, on average, check their device every 12 minutes; they may spend slightly over two hours per day on their devices.
Have we allowed ourselves to be marginalized and effectively silenced by fear or shame in the fora of European public affairs? If so, then we must ask if our emotions have been influenced by Satan more than by the Holy Spirit?
The broken vows and spilt blood are reminiscent of earlier times. Then, too, God’s chosen people, to whom the Christians of today are linked by Baptism into Jesus Christ, were successfully tempted to leave the Covenantal Way and worship false gods. Satan’s insinuations and manipulations shut the door on prayer.
 
The physical circumstances confronting James’ fledgling Christians left them in no doubt that they were being persecuted. Are today’s European Christians sufficiently alert to the style of persecution to which believers are being subjected? Satan is undoubtedly behind the confusion that mars our 21st century. But the call of Christ our Redeemer continues to be heard through the lives of faithful believers who, by resisting the Evil One, are calling their brothers and sisters to resist sleep-walking towards the even greater catastrophes to which Jesus has already alerted us:
“There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.” (Luke 21:25-26)
 
Perhaps it would be helpful to read Genesis 18:16-33 the account of Abraham – our father in faith – interceding with God. Maybe we could imitate him on behalf of the people of our era?
 
 
 
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24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (16.09.18)

How do you, for example, sympathise?

A phrase in frequent use is ‘I do sympathise’. But perhaps consider if the users of the phrase appreciate that an emotion is not something in which to luxuriate but something that, with human cost, toil and self-discipline needs to be converted into action? Sometimes this will involve a physical engagement of some type, where appropriate and welcomed. Always, for the people of faith, it will involve intercessory prayer. Sympathy that equates to only a feeling isn’t real.

The Apostle James, the Church’s first Martyr, makes the point this Sunday’s in a 3rd consecutive extract from his Letter (2:14-18):
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says they have faith but do not have works? …. So faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
 
People sometimes describe a good happening or event as ‘a moment of grace’. God’s grace is unchangeable and continuously available to us. Our recognition of it may be momentary because we are tempted to be distracted. Unlike the prophet Isaiah, in this 24th Sunday’s first Reading (50:5-9), we do rebel and repeatedly block the flow of the Lord’s grace. How many realise that every time they block, or allow to pass untouched, God’s continuously graced invitation, they become ever less likely to respond positively?
 
The fact that a person’s claim to faith must be ethically demonstrable is an essential part of Christian teaching throughout the New Testament. St. Paul, whom, some might argue promotes the idea that a person is ‘saved by faith alone’ (Romans 3:28), also emphasizes (Romans 2:6), that “God will render to each according to their works”. And in 1 Corinthians 3:8 says: “Everyone shall receive their own reward (from God) according to their labour”.
 
However, purely intellectual beliefs do exist. For example, those skilled in mathematics will say that: ‘the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle equals the sum of the squares on the other two sides’. And they can prove it in reality. I believe them but I do not understand them. My belief in the correctness of the mathematicians makes no difference to my life and how I live. It has no effect upon me
 
There is another kind of belief that, for example, two plus two equals four. No amount of clever argument that two plus two equals something else will change my belief. This belief is not only in my mind but it is also in my daily activity. If something has the price tag of 4p. I will refuse to pay 5p.
 
James is claiming that for a person’s belief to be true it must have a visible or related expression. For example, we believe that the Devil believes in God and the evidence is in the Devil’s continuous behaviour in tempting us to abandon God.
 
James’ letter is focused on the enslaved Christians, themselves converts from Judaism, trapped with other Jewish exiles in servitude to their captors far from their homeland. The temptation not to antagonise both their captors and their fellow Jews with external manifestations of their new faith must have been strong. It’s possible, even, that their fellow Jews blamed the Christians for their joint predicament. James encouraged each Christian not be afraid and to let her/his strength of faith be visible, not as a point of conflict, but as clear encouragement to all and especially to their fellow fledgling Christians.
 
Could a comparison be drawn between those early fledgling diasporan Christians and their 21st century counterparts in Europe?
 
The Diasporan fledgling Christians would have been exhaustively and unremittingly aware, in terms of daily pain and harassment, of the cost of their faith in Jesus of Nazareth that touched every aspect of their daily life. They would have had to hold on to their new faith and relationship with God, received through Baptism, in a doubly hostile environment. James urged them to live each day as people justified and sanctified by the life, suffering death and Resurrection of Jesus the Christ. They were to show themselves to be such people without concern for the hardships it brought them.
 
The dangers facing European Christians in the 21st century is very different. They are not external but internal. European Christians are already disappearing, not through physical or mental persecution, but by being subsumed.  Many of our Baptised brothers and sisters are being cleverly yet ruthlessly absorbed by corrupted nations and societies ruled by selfish greed. If a person truly grasps that God really loves them unconditionally, however unworthy that person considers themselves to be of God’s love, their response will be to try to love God by striving to prove to him that he is not loving them in vain. True love always gives rise to action.

That is why Jesus specifically cautions about Satan attempting to steal what is sown in the heart. When we yield to temptations we damage our capacity to nurture God’s Word, lessening the spiritual fertility of our hearts. Not only in Europe but throughout the world there is ample evidence of Evil being at work in the growing hopelessness with which many people feel overburdened. Society seems unable to stem the tide of violence, discrimination, the abuse of power and the disregard for human rights and dignity. People of faith in God must not only recognise the stealthy role of Evil but work to sow and cultivate God’s love as the only antidote to such evil.
 
The remnant ‘shells’ of Christianity, dotted across our landscape, have been left as a deliberate deception. It’s as if the Devil would even fund the upkeep of empty church buildings to make all peoples, including Christians, believe that ‘all is well’. The Baptised still resort to the external trappings of Christianity with less and less knowledge, let alone reverence, for their meaning and history.

The UK, for example, still professes to be a Christian nation listing Christmas, Easter and Pentecost on its official publications but, for the majority of its peoples, these are now no more than labels for public holidays. They have long since ceased in any sense to be ‘holy days’.
 
In any well-proportioned life there must be both faith and deeds. It is only through deeds that faith can prove and demonstrate itself. It is only through faith that good deeds will be attempted and done. Faith, true faith, will always overflow into action. Faith-inspired action begins only when a person believes in a cause or principle that God has presented to them. In the well-proportioned life there must be prayer and effort.
 
The 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel gives us three of Jesus’ parables on faith in action – The Wedding Attendants, The Talents and The Last Judgment – each supports the words we find in James’ letter
“ So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.” (2:17)
 
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23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (09.09.18)

Am I Discriminating or Discriminated Against, or Both?
 
Discrimination is as natural to us as is breathing. We don’t think about it, we just do it! Discrimination - from the Latin to make distinction or to separate – is how we recognise and understand the differences between one person and another, one animal and another, one thing and another. The most fundamental discrimination, that humans have to practice, is between right and wrong, between God and Satan.
God has implanted himself within us by making us in his own image and likeness. The Holy Spirit, gifted to us at Baptism, is the living ‘template’ within us of what is good. But, for God’s living ‘template’ to be effective within us, we have to choose to be in constant communion with Him. When we allow this living communion with God to falter, we become seriously at risk because we lessen our ability to accurately discriminate between good and evil.
 
The Apostle James, from whose letter we have the second of five continuous extracts this 23rd Sunday (2:1-5), was clearly concerned for the spiritual survival of the fledgling Christian converts from Judaism caught up in the Jewish ‘Diaspora’. The term collectively describes Jews who had been driven from their homeland by persecution, deportation, enslavement and who were known as the lost and scattered twelve tribes of Israel.
The fledgling Christian converts from Judaism, caught up in the general diaspora, were doubly at risk. Their fellow Jewish deportees regarded them with suspicion, if not open hostility. Their captors had no regard for their spiritual requirements. James, alert to the dangers facing these isolated fledgling Christian converts, penned his letter.

In today’s extract, James says:
My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ”.
Jesus’ teaching on treating all alike applied whether the person or people concerned were friends or foes. Discerning and holding a non-partisan moral balance in the unending daily skirmishes between God and the Devil was, and remains, both difficult and demanding. James, himself a convert from Judaism, would have known how deeply ingrained was his Jewish upbringing and how it continued to colour his understanding of Jesus’ teaching.
 
James was empathetic to the plight of all Gentiles seeking Baptism as well as the particular circumstances of the Diasporan Christian converts from Judaism. Nevertheless, James urged them to treat Jew and Gentile and even, in the case of the Diasporan exiles, their captors with an equality of dignity even though it was not reciprocated. James emphasised for them the means by which they would be able to behave in this way:
“Humbly welcome the word that has taken root in you with its power to save you. Act on this word” (James 1:21-22).
Hearing such a teaching is very different from faithfully implementing it through thick and thin. How often have we found ourselves, internally and momentarily, at one with a preacher or speaker but disconnected, even a short while later, when it came to a personal moment of implementation?
 
Like James and Peter and all early Christians who had converted from Judaism, we, too, can find our long-held understandings and practices challenged and questioned by God’s Word. As adults we acknowledge, but can at times be unaware, of just how influential in shaping our character and colouring our opinions our accumulated ingrained attitudes are in the choices we make. One example, from among many facing older Catholics today, concerns the question of Inter-Communion. The German dioceses have failed, so far, to find a shared viewpoint that would allow the non-Catholic spouse, in good faith with his/her own church, to receive Communion when accompanying his/her Catholic wife/husband to a Catholic Mass.  
Mark’s Gospel (6:1-6) tells of the prejudice and negative discrimination shown to Jesus by his own Nazarenes when, as a mature preacher and teacher, he returned to his home town.
 
James understood how cultural discrimination and partiality, favouring one social group to the detriment of another, was and remains irreconcilable with the teaching of Jesus Christ. Reports of parents, for example, teaching their children to show hatred and discrimination is frightening. The evidence that they do so is still visible, for example, on the streets of Northern Ireland, and in the Middle East where major Muslim sects are at war. As believers in the Word, Christians are called to have magnanimity of heart, to see and value other people as God sees and values them.

Through parental formation, family influence, formal education and life experience we learn how to enfold and blend our senses-derived information with our decision-making. Our five senses, hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch, have informed us from when we came into being. Even before the time of conscious maturity, our senses have been engaged in our decision-making.
 
The Seven Sacraments are the Divinely provided channels of God’s grace that can correct the biases we, perhaps unknowingly, develop, along with the partiality and negative discrimination that Evil has skilfully woven into our lives. As Pope Francis never tires of saying, we need the Sacrament of Reconciliation because we are sinners. Our unhealed sin not only disfigures our personal likeness to God, it contaminates our brothers and sisters.

Our world is plagued by invisible and deadly illness. Much time and resource is rightly given to discovering ways of combatting disease. But we have to care as much for our spiritual wellbeing that, unlike our physical being, has a hereafter. As James told his alienated and discriminated against brothers and sisters:
“Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.
Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him?” (James 2:4)
God is partial to those who struggle to love him because their struggle invites his intervention. This is what it means to ‘Humbly welcome … and act in concert with God’s Word.’
 
We can draw a parallel between those early fledgling Christian converts from Judaism and ourselves. Their deportation and enslavement deprived them of all that was familiar in terms of kith and kin as well as their locality. Deprived of their holy landmarks and places, they had to carry within their hearts and souls their sense of the sacred and their relationship with the Divine.
 
We 21st century Europeans, on the other hand, live in countries festooned with landmarks of our forebears’ Christian faith which, now, crowds of tourists, not worshippers, visit annually.
The Evil One has cleverly left us, Europeans, in our familiar settings but contaminated our sense of the Divine with a mirage that truly is desolate.
Jesus’ words are apposite:
“‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’” (Matt 15:8-9)
Perhaps today would be a good moment to commence a daily exploration of how discriminatory we may have become?
 
 
 
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22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (02.09.18)

The Lost Art of Letterwriting

It is estimated that one in four UK residents has not received a hand-written letter for at least ten years. Numerous people intend to write letters but very few carry out their intention. Yet a hand-crafted, well-composed, letter can be informative as well as constructive on multiple levels unlike a text or telephone call. The time, care, thought and composition, involved in a handwritten letter, is as expressive, if not more so, of the writer’s feelings and attitude as is the message conveyed. Modern instantaneous communication is monotone by comparison.
 
 
St. James the Apostle composed his letter at some point before AD 69. He addressed it to Jewish converts to Christianity dispersed far and wide among the twelve Jewish ‘lost tribes’ of Israel. This Sunday (the 22nd), and for the next four, our 2nd Reading at Mass gives us extracts from James’ Letter. Its rich content makes it significantly important for the Baptised of the 21st century, but more of that later. The commentary on James will run continuously through the five-week period.
 
What might have prompted James to write his significant epistle? As a Jew, he would have been all too aware of the semi-continuous decimation of his race. A decimation, believed by some, to have been a self-inflicted running-wound resulting from the Jews’ multiple failures to uphold the covenants with God to which they had freely committed themselves over the passage of time.
 
Early Christians, being entirely Jewish in origin, retained their ‘Jewishness’ while transitioning into a distinctly different set of religious beliefs.  Unless forced to do so, convert Jews did not sever, totally, their contact with the synagogue. To have done so would have brought them outright ostracization by their fellow Jews. Gentile converts to Christianity only began to number significantly through the later ministry of St. Paul, the former persecutor of Christians and leading Pharisee previously known as Saul. It would have taken many decades for early Christians, from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds, to have coalesced into basic Christian communities.
 
Early Christians also encountered persecution from both Jews and the Roman Army of occupation. Some escaped to less hostile territories choosing locations where there existed remnant populations of Jews from earlier periods of deportation and enslavement. These Jews of the Diaspora (the word means ‘scattered’ in foreign parts) had been deprived not only of their homeland, with its traditions and customs, but of the focus of their life, The Temple, that gave tactile expression to their national integrity and identity. To appreciate this deprivation, imagine the sense of loss were the English to lose, overnight, their visible history - the Houses of Parliament, the Cenotaph, Westminster Abbey, church and other significant buildings throughout the land!
 
Deprived of all that was familiar, the ‘scattered and lost’ Jews cherished their sacred history in their hearts and souls. Parents handed-on this sacred knowledge to their children, for upon it depended their continuous living relationship with God who had chosen the Jews to be his people. The Deuteronic daily prayer of a Jew (6:4-7) says it all:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
 
James chose to address his letter to the Jewish converts to Christianity living among the Jews of the diaspora. These new Christians would have shared in safeguarding the sacred knowledge of their ancestor’s living relationship with God but they were also called to upgrade their belief to an entirely unprecedented and new level because they professed belief in Jesus of Nazareth being truly God-made-Man.
 
Perhaps a word of explanation would be of help here. For the Jew, the ‘past’ is indistinguishable from the ‘present’. Many nations, for example, categorise their nation’s history as ‘the past’, thereby indicating something closed and concluded. Whereas ‘the present’ is now and happening. The Jew sees no such distinction. For the Jew, the present incorporates the previous in an uninterrupted continuity which, for the orthodox, incorporates God’s relationship with his chosen people
.
So, for example, when orthodox Jewish families gather on Sabbath eve (Friday) to recall ‘The Passover’ it is not an historical enactment, like a play or a religious performance of their ancestors’ deliverance from captivity in Egypt. The Jewish Sabbath Eve Passover is experiencing, in 2018, that very deliverance with unbroken continuity. Every Sabbath Eve, God continues to draw his people on their journey to the promised land - not to be confused with the State of Israel. In fact not a few orthodox Jews refuse to set foot in the State of Israel because it is made by man not God granted.
                                                                                                     
Roman Catholic belief in The Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, in His Word, in The Church and the Sacraments should enable Catholics to empathise with their Jewish brothers and sisters in the matter of continuity. The Roman Catholic Mass is not an historical play or a performance of an historical event that took place on Calvary some 2,000 years ago. The Mass is Christ himself making real, in our here and now, his continuing self-offering on the Cross on Calvary for the Redemption of humanity. Why? Because humanity, still trapped in the ‘diaspora’ of this sinful world, continues to be needful of redemption.
 
For some undisclosed reason, James must have felt for the new Christians of Jewish origin doubly isolated, as it were. They would not be as fully integrated into the Jewish community as they would have been before their conversion. They were distant from the practical support of the early Church in Jerusalem.
 
On this 22nd Sunday, we hear James encouraging his isolated Christian brothers and sisters whom he may never have met:
“Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls.
Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding your selves.”
These Jewish converts to Christianity would previously, as believers through Judaism, have had great respect for The Torah and indeed for all of Jewish Scripture. But now, their Christian faith invites them to welcome The Word (of God) as Jesus, God-made-Man, who, through Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist, is planted within them.
James, sensitive to the plight of these Christian fledglings living in exile, deprived of comforting familiarity and exposed to distracting and discomforting influences, reached out to them with his letter.

What does James mean - ‘humbly welcome the Word’? The word James uses for ‘humbly’ is the same as that used to describe the purging process used to remove impurities from, for example, coinage enabling it to be described as unalloyed. We are used to cleansing skin and clothing of invisible and unhealthy substances that we pick up as we work and move around. How aware are we of the faith-undermining material that clogs air-waves, the internet, and the media? Such material, so easily integrated into everyday speech and behaviour, begins to undermine a faith and a belief that is more dormant than active.
Could you be a ‘James’ to isolated Christians who might be uplifted and supported by a handwritten, thoughtful and encouraging letter from you?
 
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21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (26.08.18)

Defection, Deterioration, Determination
 
This Sunday we have the final extract from John’s Gospel (Ch.6 60-69) on the Eucharist. John sites his recall of Jesus’ teaching on his Real Presence when he was being actively pursued by the crowds. The presence of crowds caused alarm for both the military and religious authorities.

The Roman Army of Occupation feared gatherings that could lead to civil unrest and as a flashpoint for an uprising. The Jewish religious leadership were more concerned for the preservation of their own authority as Jesus, not infrequently, highlighted their hypocrisy.

Against this background, there were changing attitudes amongst the Jews following Jesus. These changes could be summarised under the headings of defection, deterioration and determination.
 
 
Some ‘fair-weather’ followers of Jesus had become alarmed for their safety and their future prospects and quietly moved away. Jesus is aware of these defections as he indicates in this Sunday’s Gospel extract. These defectors would also have included those who feared the challenges set by Jesus. They had followed him to gain something for themselves. But, when it came to suffering with him some public rebuke or hostility, they quit. Yet Jesus had never hidden from his followers that there would always be the shadow of the Cross. Mark (8:34) recalls Jesus’ words:
“Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
  
Deterioration is a more gradual disengagement.          Judas exemplifies the process. In Judas, Jesus would have seen qualities that he valued and which enabled him to include Judas as one of the Apostles. Yet, the potential saint became a person of shame. When the passage of time is spent unwisely, it can undermine the ideals and enthusiasm that previously motivated us. Progressive deterioration often results from compromises that shrivel, rather than expand, a person’s love for Christ.

It is not intellectual difficulties that keeps people from remaining committed to Christianity; it is the depth of the moral demand that Jesus makes. At the heart of true faith there must be mystery because God is that heart. We are the created of God and, therefore, can never fully understand him.
 
 
Determination calls up qualities of character reflecting commitment and grit. Peter is an exemplar of determination. His loyalty was based on his personal relationship with Jesus. A loyalty that had known setbacks, uncertainties and even denials but which had always recovered and, in turn, had been forgiven.

There was much that Jesus taught that Peter did not fully understand. He was as bewildered and puzzled as any of the twelve. Yet, for Peter, there was something about Jesus for which, so he believed, he would willingly die.

In the final analysis Christianity is not a philosophy to be accepted, nor a theory to be upheld. Discipleship with Jesus is a person to person relationship. It is a willed response to the Son of God-made-Man. It is the love one gives willingly because the heart will not allow anything less.

This may help us to a better understanding of Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question: "Do you also want to leave?"
“Lord, to whom are we to go?” (replied Peter) You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed and we have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.
 
Christianity makes demands on those who claim to be Christian. Each believer is called to make an act of surrender to Christ, and, equally, each must accept Christ as the final authority.

The disciples were well aware that Jesus claimed to be the very life and essence of God come down to earth and clothed in human nature. Their difficulty in those days, reflecting that of humanity today, was to accept Jesus’ claim as true with all its implications. To this day, many defect from their Baptismal commitment or allow it to deteriorate to the point of separation not because Christianity challenges the intellect, but because it challenges a preferred way of living.
 
Jesus says: "My words are spirit and life."
Only He who alone is Life can tell us what life is. He, who is Life, puts into us the Spirit with which we must live life. He, who is Life, give us the strength to live Life.

Life takes its value from its purpose and its goal. Christ alone can give us Life’s true purpose and the vocational power to work through to its purposed outcome against the constant opposition that comes from without and within.
 
John recalls in 6:66-71:
“After this many of his disciples turned back and would not walk with him anymore.”
Jesus was well aware that some would not only reject him but would reject him with growing hostility. No one can accept Jesus unless they are open to the Spirit of God. But, to our earthly life’s end, a person can resist that Spirit. Such a person is shut out not by God, but by him or herself.
 
In the light of our own well proven stubbornness, perhaps we can hope that among the “many who turned back and would not walk with him anymore” there were also many who, at a later stage, had a change of heart? Such a thought might also prompt us to remember in prayer those of our contemporaries:
- who have defected from their Baptismal promises for whatever reason.
- whose relationship with their Baptismal community has deteriorated to an irregular or even a complete absence.
-   and last, but far from least, may we rejoice at the determination of those we know, or know of, who have persevered in their Baptismal commitment despite testing difficulties.
 

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.