29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Many Forms of Prayer
Not everyone is gifted with mystical meditation. The word mysticism is derived from the Greek mystikos, which in early Christianity referred to the biblical, the liturgical and the spiritual or the contemplative. The biblical dimension refers to "hidden" or less obvious meanings within Scripture.
More than a few do not find formal prayer overly attractive. Among the most widely known formal prayers are the ‘Our Father’ and the ‘Hail Mary’. The Nicene Creed is a prayer that formalises our universal belief as Christians. Formal prayer structures can be helpful in launching us into a time of prayer.
Perhaps you have heard the delightful tale of the gifted gymnast with outstanding bodily contortions. The same man found himself quite hapless at prayer. So, when nobody was about, he used to go to the chapel and perform his gymnastic display for the Lord. It was his form of prayer.
There are countless believers, today, who pray through caring for children, for elderly and sick people, through farming, flower-arranging, weaving, woodwork, baking, and suchlike. We can turn whatever we are about, that is in harmony with the will of God, into prayer by an act of our will. But, and there is a ‘but’, prayer requires a conscious, deliberate, offering to God of what we are about on each occasion. Prayer cannot be conducted by a ‘standing order’, as it were.
The Scriptural readings for this 29th Sunday of the Year focus on the offering to God made under the general title of ‘prayer’, with an emphasis on perseverance.
Moses, Aaron and Hur, in the 1st Reading (Exodus 17:8-13), remind us that collaborative prayer is an attractive, strengthening resource when we are threatened by our individual weaknesses. Many forms of collaborative prayer make use of modern communications, bringing the encouragement of real-time visual as well as audio participation. This feature is especially beneficial for immobilised people, as a counter to the negative aspects of isolation, by allowing for family, community or congregational participation.
Today’s Exodus extract also involves the Israelites in a combative encounter. Adversarial combat, in one form or another, is something we all experience. Traditionally, Eve was the first victim of our adversary of adversaries, Satan, who aims to snare us by our weaknesses. How essential it is for us, like Moses, to identify and openly acknowledge our weaknesses. Perhaps, too often, we can be reluctant to do so, preferring ‘a brave face’ for the sake of our public image. Yet, unless we acknowledge that we are ‘recovering sinners’, beset by weakness, we are effectively telling God that ‘we can manage, thank you’, despite plentiful personal experiences to the contrary.
Earlier forms of catechetics often over-emphasised stalwart individualism in prayer, to the detriment perhaps of collaborative forms of prayer. Even when together in church, there could be an over-emphasis on our individual recitation as opposed to our communal participation. The ‘me and my’ took precedence even when we prayed the ‘our’ Father!
How much of the legacy of that emphasis on individualism remains? Probably more than we care to admit. Do we truly value the promise of prayer gifted to us by a person of evident disability, as we would the same promise from, say, an enclosed religious? That is, presuming we understood what the disabled person wished to communicate to us. Yet, who is to say which of the two is the more disabled? Do we value the prayer of people whom we may pity, despise, think less of, regard as outcasts? Jesus did. He listened and responded to each person, be they a Roman soldier, a thief, a Pharisee, a beggar, a scribe, an adulterer, a leprous outcast, a Samaritan, if, in that moment of one-to-oneness with him, they had a righteous disposition of heart.
What might constitute, in Jesus’ eyes, a righteous disposition of heart? St. Paul, in his 2nd Letter to Timothy (3:14-4:2), highlights a person’s constant, unswerving, patient commitment to proclaim God’s Word even in the midst of torment, as per the repentant thief crucified with Jesus (Luke 23:42). When pain or isolation reduces us to silence, it is possible, within our heart, to hallow God’s Word and this, in itself, is a form of prayer.
In today’s Gospel extract (Luke 18:1-8), Jesus’ parable tells of the righteousness of the powerless. A combination of personal persevering application and prayerful supplication brought the appellant the justice, to which her belief clung despite her treatment.
It is Jesus himself who gives us an extended list of the righteous in his Sermon on the Mount (Matt: 5:1-12):
The poor in spirit who, recognising their own spiritual poverty, appeal to God.
The gentle who ask God’s help in resisting the temptation of retaliation.
Those who mourn their spiritual poverty and grieve at their own negligence.
Those whose consuming appetite for universal righteousness is not intimidated by its widespread absence from the world.
Those who extend the mercy of God’s forgiveness to those who treat them unjustly and unmercifully.
Those who, acknowledging that their heart has been petrified, accept Jesus’ invitation to replace it with a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26)
Those who, being trapped in isolation and alienation, accept the Christ’s offer of reconciliation.
Those who, in the defence of righteousness, accept suffering and mistreatment for Jesus’ sake.
The phrase “I’m saying my prayers” may be an all-too-accurate description of the recitation of known-by-heart prayers. It is so easy to find that, while mouthing the words from memory, the mind is focused elsewhere. The Prayer of the Church, also known as The Divine Office, is now used by many lay-folk. It has long been a prayer of obligation for religious and clerics. Even when prayed on one’s own, it is possible to appreciate that, in multiple other locations, the same prayer is being expressed in a wide variety of languages. An even more enhanced appreciation of collaborative prayer comes when we mentally link with and welcome into our prayer those who, though now deprived of the means of collective participation in prayer through persecution or illness, would wish to join with us in their heart. A list of photographs and names is a good backdrop to have in times of prayer.
There are vacancies galore in which to emulate Aaron or Hur, who supported Moses in his prayer during the battle (First Reading), if we stop to think before we pray!
28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Chains – Visible and Invisible
The wearing of chains carries signification. Dignitaries often wear chains of office to signify status. Convicted criminals sometimes wear ankle chains that also signify status. St. Paul was put in chains for preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In his 2nd letter to protégé Timothy (today’s Second Reading: 2:8-13), Paul writes:
“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David: such is my gospel, for which I am suffering, even to the point of being chained, like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.”
Individuals freely choose to wear chains of precious or other metals as either a decoration or a declaration; for example, to claim membership or affiliation with an organisation. For St Paul, the manacles he was forced to wear for years were the badge of his Christian apostolate. Down the centuries, up to and including the present, countless women and men have followed his example by stoically bearing incarceration and torture rather than deny their allegiance to Jesus the Christ.
Memories, too, can enchain us and cause torment. Seniority can bring a recall of behaviour and attitudes in earlier decades that, with hindsight, show a depth of selfishness and self-righteousness that an older and wiser person now finds embarrassing. Accumulated invisible memories can be persistent as well as unyielding. One suspects that Satan is surreptitiously behind many a memory-chain invasion of prayer time, especially. Such historic distractions can make a person feel unworthy to pray, to believe in Jesus, to share in the Mass. It is, therefore, important to grasp the truth that when God forgives us – in response to our prayer: “… forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us …” - he never makes use of what he has forgiven to mock or belittles us. God has only compassion and love for us, even when we fail to love him. It is Satan who mocks us with our past when we choose to give time to prayer.
A holy person recommended an enquirer, who continuously felt undermined by Satan’s mockery, to confront the Devil. “Say to Satan,” the holy person said, “All that you accuse me of, and which I do not deny in my past; all that you mock me for when I pray, I do not have anymore. I surrendered it all to Jesus and in return received his healing absolution.”
Whenever Satan rakes up the memories of earlier behaviour and dispositions – as he does – we must confront him with the truth that, when we surrender our failings to Jesus, he absorbs it into his suffering, Crucifixion and Death. Our sin is dissolved into the enormity of his love for us. The Risen Jesus calls us to take refuge in his wounded Body, in which we can find healing and redemption.
Our will to be one with Christ does not imply that we will be free of memories. We will need to pray “… forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us …” while we draw breath. For the duration of our earthly life, we will not cease to be recovering sinners bearing the scars of our sinfulness, just as the Risen Jesus carries the wounds of his suffering, Crucifixion and Death. His wounds, and our status as recovering sinners, will be complete only when God calls all to judgement at the end of the world. Meanwhile, Satan will continuously attempt to undermine our belief in God’s forgiveness by re-presenting to us the fickleness from which we still suffer because we remain ‘recovering’, i.e. not yet recovered, sinners.
Disease, too, is an enmeshing contagion capable of capturing the incautious and the unwary. The First Reading and Gospel for this Sunday feature leprosy, which has afflicted humanity for thousands of years. In Jesus’ day, leprosy was widely feared because no antidote then existed. Stringently imposed segregation was the norm, at least for ordinary people. Evidently, Naaman’s elevated social position in Syria, and apparently in Israel, allowed him exceptional freedom of movement. Leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, is no longer common in the developed world but is not unknown.
It could be said that leprosy has an affinity with human sinfulness. Both are long-term debilitating infections. Initially, a person infected with leprosy might have no identifiable symptoms for anything between five and twenty years. When symptoms do develop, they may reveal themselves in a lack of ability to feel pain in the extremities due to the growth of a mass of vascular tissue. This in turn can lead to the loss of extremities due to repeated injuries or infection. The disease can also affect lungs and eyes. Leprosy, occurring more commonly among those living in poverty and lacking a proper diet and healthcare, is contagious, although extensive person-to-person contact is necessary.
Leprosy is curable with long-term multi-drug therapy provided free of charge by the WHO. In the past 20 years, 16 million people worldwide have been cured of leprosy. The average number of new cases per year is something over 200,000, predominantly found in sixteen identified countries, with India, China and Africa at the top of that list. There are about 200 cases reported annually in the USA. World Leprosy Day was initiated in 1954 to draw attention to those bearing the long-term loss of limbs and sight due to leprosy.
Sinfulness, too, is contagious. From small beginnings, and left unchecked, it can grow exponentially by numbing the conscience of an individual, a tribe or a nation. Earlier this year, the free world celebrated the 75th anniversary of ‘D’ Day. People still wonder how Hitler succeeded in duping his followers to inflict the evil of Nazism on numerous victims in so many countries. The parallel with the wilful abandonment of the Ten Commandments and the norms of the Gospels by the free world is not only plain to see but terrifyingly frightening for those who see through the eyes of faith.
The innocent words of one of his female child slaves persuaded the mighty Syrian, Naaman, to put aside his highhanded dismissal of the prophet Elisha’s message. Naaman’s change of heart and compliance with the prophet’s instruction – ‘plunge yourself seven times into the river Jordan’ – brought him not only physical healing but faith in the God of Israel.
What innocent yet muted outpourings, inflicting death and/or profound suffering, in our 20/21st century are being largely ignored or even denied by society? Among those that readily come to mind are direct abortion, the deliberate ending of life, capital punishment, chemical or nuclear warfare, driving in a manner that threatens life. Are there, also, invisible, personal chains that impede our growth as disciples of Jesus?
27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Shortages Provoke Panic
The merest whisper of basic shortages can cause a buying panic. Bread is one of the first commodities to disappear from the shelves. People overbuy and stock their freezers. One wonders how much of that overbuy will eventually end up in the bin! Meanwhile, others have no bread. Fear spreads like a plague and prompts irrational, anti-social behaviour of the worst order. Hitler, Stalin and multiple lesser-known people of evil have made abhorrent use of the public’s susceptibility to fear.
So, is it fear that prompts the Apostles’ second petition to Jesus in this 27th Sunday’s Gospel (Luke17:5-10): “Lord, increase our faith”? And, if it is a fear-motivated request, what type of fear does it illustrate?
It is Luke (11:1) who records the Apostles’ first petition to Jesus when they asked him to teach them to pray after they had seen him at prayer.
In all likelihood, the Apostles second petition would have been fear-motivated, but for the highest of motives. Their enthusiasm to fulfil the mission entrusted to them would have demonstrated their individual commitment to Jesus, who had called them to himself. It would have been the very opposite of subservient fear.
Luke sites the Apostles’ second petition to Jesus at the conclusion of his extensive enumeration of the struggles awaiting them in their apostolic mission. A gentle reading of chapters 11 to 17 may help identify what prompted the Apostles second specific request. The missionary work ahead of them would have appeared daunting, the more so when they reviewed their individual resources of faith.
Most people, these days, take time and interest in frequently updating their awareness of their financial viability. Up to the moment information of one’s credit worthiness is just a few button-presses away via phones and other devices. One wonders if people are equally well-informed, or even concerned, about their spiritual viability?
It would be a ‘to be marvelled at’ grace from the Holy Spirit were we, today, prompted to make our own the Apostles’ petition: “Lord, increase our faith”.
God-fearing folk are not hesitant in presenting the Lord with their own, as well as others, unending needs; health and wellbeing being uppermost on many a long list. But here’s a question – when was the last time we consciously petitioned the Holy Spirit for the single issue of an increase of faith? In fact, has it ever been our consciously specific personal prayer, as opposed to one of the many ‘response’ type petitions in dialogue prayer.
The following comparison may lack finesse but it might dramatically identify a lacuna in our spiritual armoury, should one exist. Do people regard a residual supply of God’s grace as something akin to the old water tanks that used to be in the lofts of our houses? Each had a ballcock automatically regulating the supply of water from the mains. If this is how we regard the grace of faith then an upgrade is urgently needed. In the days before central heating and micro-lagging, loft water tanks and ballcocks could freeze in a harsh winter, not only ending a home’s water supply but also threatening the fabric of the building whenever the thaw came. Today, too, farmers need to keep their livestock’s drinkable water supplies flowing in barns and fields in a mean winter.
Because water is essential for life, the regular maintenance of both feeder pipes and any water-storage container itself has to be attended to. Have you thought how much debris can collect, over time, on top of and in a water tank? A tank may be full but is the water it contains fit for consumption? We can draw a parallel with ourselves. The gift of the Holy Spirit is primarily to help us break the all too easily undetected crust of self-centredness and overriding self-concern that stealthily weaves its way over so many of us as a defensive measure. In a despiritualised environment, such as Europe has tragically become, it is so easy to lose communion with God and with one another. The Holy Spirit enables those who value and live their faith to pray for an increase in faith that they, and others, may stay receptive, alert and willing to open their minds and hearts to Jesus and to one another.
But, are people nowadays, including the Baptised, willing to risk being stronger in faith? For there is a risk if and when people ask the Lord to ‘increase their faith’, as did the apostles. Faith is not a protective shield, a sort of spiritual armament. To be filled with faith is being gifted with the staunch vitality to preach the Gospel, by word and by action, in season and out (Cf. 2 Timothy 4:1-5) with a wholehearted readiness to take the consequences, as did Jesus himself. Pope Francis has said that the era in which we live is recording more Christians martyred and persecuted than ever before. Preoccupied or brain-dead through Brexit and the value of Sterling, we can so easily miss the almost out-of-sight, bottom of the page, notices about the latest Christians who have suffered in hate attacks. Yes, indeed, faithfulness can be hazardous to your health and, daily, people prove it so.
This, conveniently, leads us back to this Sunday’s First Reading from the prophet Habakkuk (who dates back to around 612 BC and was an early contemporary of the prophets Jeremiah and Zephaniah). Under siege from crushing military forces attacking Jerusalem, Habakkuk cries out:
“How long, O Lord? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, "Violence!" but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord.”
Then the Lord answered:
“Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets, so that one can read it readily. For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfilment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late.
The rash ones have no integrity; but the just ones, because of their faith, shall live.”
Is the delay, referred to by the Lord, his last attempt to win over the rash who so lack integrity. Is it through the witness of the faithful that those, now rash, might be prompted to petition God for faith and find redemption? There is a saying that (human) history repeats itself, but that it puts up the price each time. If there is panic on this world’s final day it will be because people have not paid attention to God, not because we have not been warned.
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Eyes Wide Shut
Can you recall standing, mesmerized, in a supermarket? Before you were well-stacked shelves. Your eye searched for a product you had previously bought but now failed to see. Having ‘eyes wide shut’ is something akin to that. The eye and brain, for some inexplicable reason, fail to coordinate. Perhaps the product had been repackaged, given a change of colour and you were unable to identify it. Your preconceived memory acted as a block to the present reality. When you asked a person for help, you discovered that the item was immediately in front of you all the time!
The Gospels reveal multiple examples where Jesus used actions and words to reveal his development of The Truth to his fellow Israelites as well as his apostles and disciples. Though they, at first hand, listened and observed him, they failed completely to recognise the developed Truth Jesus revealed. In some instances, he found more faith in non-Israelites. An example would be the Roman Centurion’s Israelitic servant who was dying (Luke 7:9ff) The centurion’s depth of faith in Jesus caused him to say: “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”
Sometimes we fear advancing beyond the routines of long- established forms of prayer and belief. How often adults choose an Act of Penance that can be traced back to a primary school classroom in its format and content, though we have long left behind our childhood. There can be lingering, sometimes painful, memories of occasions when we attempted to make changes in both the format and the practice of our baptismal faith and earned ourselves a sharp rebuke. Sometimes we pay the price for not having made time to reflect upon the gift of faith which we have received. We may also have failed to discern how our faith interacts with our daily life.
Consequently, there can be a significant chasm between some adult Christians’ technological/scientific knowledge and abilities and their comprehensive overview of their spirituality. Then there is the ‘shortage of time’ factor. Overextended tiredness, spiritual or physical, deters many from drawing closer to Jesus, despite His saying: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matt. 11:28) Plus, dare one say it, it is all too easy to surrender to temptation and find our love, that once was for Jesus, squandered in other directions.
The adventurous spirit of youth becomes, in most of us, more measured as we advance along the path of life. Specific experiences such as betrayal, war, injury, protracted illness, bereavement can curtail our ability to trust. As a consequence, we view almost everything unrecognised through, as it were, caution-reinforced lenses.
Unforgiven personal and corporate sin can have a similar effect upon our spiritual life. The soul’s unhealed scars not only hold our growth towards Jesus in a type of abeyance, they act as receptacles for the infectious and avaricious activity of Satan. Spiritual weariness affects many today, just as it did in the days of Jesus.
One wonders how many times the unnamed rich man, featured by Jesus in the parable we read this 26th Sunday (Luke 16: 19-31), being permanently preoccupied by his business-affairs, arrived at and left his house without ever seeing Lazarus, the beggar, at his gate. One suspects that had the rich man’s attention been directed to the beggar, he might have said that he had never noticed him before.
Possibly, the first time we saw a person sleeping rough on a city street or a park bench, we were disturbed, if not a little scared. Scared, not so much for our own safety but that this could happen to a fellow human being. Then, as these sightings became more frequent with increasing numbers of homeless populating our cities’ streets from dusk to dawn, we tended to no longer see them. Our busy, self-focusing minds had merged these bedraggled, cardboard-covered shapes into their unspecific and unrecognised background. We even found ourselves accepting hearing them referred to as ‘the homeless’, as if they were no longer deserving of the title ‘people’, like us. A disabled friend used to become irate whenever he heard himself categorised as ‘disabled’. “I’m not a ‘disabled’, he would say forcibly to the offending speaker from his low wheelchair, “I am a disabled person and just as much a person as are you!”
There are two classic Gospel events that highlight Jesus’ struggle to endow his apostles with developing Truth. Both occur on Jesus’ last night on earth in that Jerusalem Upper Room of the Last Supper. The first is recorded by John (13:1-7)
Jesus Washes the Disciples' Feet.
“….. Jesus rose from supper … laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.’”
Not infrequently, it is the persevering implementation of faithfulness that, eventually, brings the blessing of understanding. As Jesus once said:
"Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” (Luke 16:10)
The second is recorded by Luke (22:19); Matthew (26:26) and Mark (14:22.) “Jesus said: ‘Take this, this is my Body’ …. ‘Take this, this is my Blood’.”
This Sunday’s Gospel has challenging home-truths.
Are we conscious of any gap between whom we publicise ourselves to be and who, in fact, we are? If there is a gap, then we can petition the Holy Spirit to help us more authentically fill our Christian profile.
Christian ethics calls for a just distribution of the world’s resources which, currently, are more often motived by selfish greed. We may not be able to change the world, but we can and must review our own behaviour for it is here and now that the eternal die is cast.
Christianity calls us to value the potential of each individual. When we are willing to allow God to love us through the least likely people it is a clear sign that this love comes from God.
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
It is a loaded word with perhaps some unsettling overtones. A whistle-blower is a person who informs on another, or others, engaged in secret or illegal activity. ‘Whistleblowing’ happens for multiple reasons, some of which are genuinely altruistic and personally costly to those involved. Clearly, not all ‘whistleblowing’ events can be claimed as genuinely altruistic
‘It takes one to know one’ is an old adage that could preface this 25th Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 16: 1-13). Clearly, the denounced steward is an embezzler. But then his denouncers would appear to be, too, as they are shown to be willing to collaborate in his embezzlement for their own advantage. The steward’s employer or owner, if the steward were a slave, leaves himself open to be thought of as an embezzler, too, by appreciating the shrewdness of his employee/slave rather than criticizing him for his thieving.
God has gifted each person with a conscience. It is akin to our inner resemblance to God keeping a watchful alertness over all our intended actions and decisions because these affect not only us, individually, but the wider community too. So, our personal conscience could be likened to our personal inbuilt ‘whistle-blower’ not to inform on us to another but to give us personal advance knowledge of pending controversy resulting from our potential choices. That personal advance awareness may be momentary which is why we need to try to keep our mind and heart as free from interruptive temptation as possible. It being Satan’s speciality for distracting us from our Baptismal commitment.
Our whistle-blowing conscience has no executive power because God has granted us freedom of choice. It is, however, our responsibility to keep our conscience informed to help us formulate choices that are in accord with God’s will. If responded to positively, the conscience will expand its illuminative ability, thereby helping us to discover more authentically God our Creator will. Likewise, the more it is ignored, the conscience’s illuminative role diminishes. The quality of our spiritual life determines the delicacy and consistency of the conscience’s ability to alert us when, as a consequence of free choices, we move away from God. Is it possible to evaluate the quality of our spiritual life?
Well, consider this - were all Christians to engage more fully in the pursuit of The Truth and the implementation of real justice, our world would begin to resemble the kingdom to which Christ has called us:
“Jesus told them: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop — a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” (Matt. 13:1-9)
It is estimated that we all expend twenty times the amount of thought, time, money and effort on pleasure, hobbies and sport than we do on developing our personal gift of faith and our involvement in evangelisation. How often do we respond to our conscience ‘whistle-blower’ alerts when we make disproportionate allocations of our resources? Our true wealth consists not in what we squirrel away, but in what we give away especially to those in need. Possessions in themselves are not sinful, but they bring with them a great responsibility for undaunted altruism. Material possessions can be the cement of binding friendships that reveal the real, lasting, values of life – here and hereafter.
Effectively, Jesus is saying that in our limited tenure here on earth, we have custody not ownership. We are stewards of all that this world presents. No created thing here, by its very nature, can be permanently ours because we have no permanence here! Another adage comes to mind: There are no pockets in shrouds. On the other hand, if, please God, we reach heaven we will receive what is really and eternally our own. What we will be given will depend on how we exercised our stewardship of this world’s goods during our earthly life.
Jesus tells us that we cannot serve, with an equality of love and application, two masters. Yet nowadays, many working people have to hold down, of necessity, more than one employment in order to support family and dependents or, perhaps, to get a foot on the proverbial ‘housing ladder’. Not infrequently it is the multi-tasking person’s spiritual life that suffers. The abolition of Sunday as a day or rest did nothing to help. If you remember, initially an employee was theoretically allowed to decline Sunday work for religious reasons. Soon enough, any person making such a request could find themselves either out of work altogether or held back along the promotion trail. The introduction of Sunday trading was a clever ruse that played to Satan’s advantage.
So how does the dedicated Christian cope? Being consciously aware of the dilemma is a priority. It means we need to make every reasonable effort to maintain a Sacramental and prayer life in the midst of work. All employed people have allocated times for rest and eating etc. and there are multiple internet sites on phones and iPads that enable a person to have a ten or fifteen minutes of assisted prayer time, with the privacy of ear plugs. The Jesuits, for one example among many, run a highly beneficial and easy to access free service called ‘Pray As You Go’. So often people say, “I just don’t have the time!” That is the cue for the last conscience-prompted, ‘whistle-blown’ adage: ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way’ but, please God, it will be in the direction of the footsteps Christ has laid down for us.
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
What Prompts Authentic Rejoicing?
Authentic, as opposed to induced, rejoicing is experienced when the soul encounters The Truth. Humans, being made in the image and likeness of God, have an innate affinity with The Truth, because God is The Truth. Authentic rejoicing, therefore, is a deep, spontaneous, up-welling from the soul and the heart. It’s manifestation can be experienced silently, within the soul and heart. Equally, it can audible and visible as, for example, when Jesus was transfigured on the mountain top in the presence of Peter, James and John – (Matthew 17:1–8, Mark 9:2–8, Luke 9:28–36). Likewise, when Elizabeth greeted Mary addressing her not as cousin Mary, but as “The Mother of My Lord” (Luke 1:43). The Good News of Jesus the Christ brings authentic rejoicing to those who courageously search for The Truth. Persevering courage is required for the discovery of authentic rejoicing because, in this world, there are innumerable obstacles and false trails.
It is lamentably true that Satan thrives on misrepresenting God. In his continuous attempt to invert The Truth, Satan has always cunningly involved flawed human thinking and methodology. For example, it is true that God chose the Jewish people to be his own. But in doing so, God did not endow them with an exclusivity that would forever separate them from the remainder of the human race. The Jews granted themselves his false aura of exclusivity. Jesus, himself a Jew, never lost an opportunity of exposing the falseness of his fellow Jews’ claim to superiority.
We find two biblically classic examples of Jesus attempting to change the Jewish mindset in the Gospel for this 24th Sunday which comes from St. Luke (15: 1-32).
Jesus freely welcomed all sincere searchers after The Truth to his gatherings, including Jews who were tax collectors and sinners. In the eyes of the Pharisees and scribes and, therefore the main Jewish population, such Jews were definable as public sinners. This was no nitpicking disagreement. The Pharisees classified those Jews who did not observe the Mosaic Law – as interpreted by the all-powerful Pharisees – ‘the People of the Land’. There was a complete barrier between the Pharisees and their fellow Jews so classified. The Pharisaic regulations laid it down that no male member of ‘the People of the Land’ could marry the daughter of an orthodox Jew – Jewishness being passed through the mother not the father. Nor could the ‘the People of the Land’ be entrusted with the monetary affairs of the orthodox. No testimony could be taken from ‘the People of the Land’, they could not be entrusted with secrets, or become guardians of orphans or charitable funds, nor could they be trusted as companions on a journey. Pharisees were forbidden to be guests of ‘the People of the Land’ or to invite them to their homes.
In case the point remains unclear, the Pharisees would have preferred Jesus to have said: ‘There will be joy in heaven over one sinner (Jew or other) who is annihilated.’ Jesus’ outreach to his fellow Jews branded as ‘sinners’ appalled the Jewish religious leaders of the time.
The impact of the parables of ‘The Lost Sheep’ and ‘The Lost Coin’, that are at the heart of this Sunday’s Gospel extract, is lessened for us who are largely unfamiliar with the reality of ancient Israelitic life, especially as it was lived in Jesus’ day.
The Jewish Judaean shepherd had a hard and dangerous task. Pasture was scarce and not all that grew was edible. Animals could become dissemblingly sick by being allowed to eat the wrong food. The central plateau was narrow before plunging down wild cliffs to the devastation of the desert. There were no restraining walls as we know them and sheep wander. George Adam Smith wrote of the shepherd, "On some high moor, across which at night the hyaenas howl, when you meet him, sleepless, far-sighted, weather-beaten, armed, leaning on his staff and looking out over his scattered sheep, each one of them known to his heart, you understand why the shepherd of Judaea sprang to the front in his people's history; why they gave his name (The Good Shepherd) to the king and made him the symbol of providence; why Christ took him as the personification of self-sacrifice."
The shepherd was personally responsible for the sheep. If a sheep was lost the shepherd must at least bring home the fleece to show how it had died. These shepherds were experts at tracking and could follow the straying sheep's footprints for miles. For good shepherds, it was all in the day's work to risk their lives for their sheep.
Many of the flocks belonged to village communities with two or three shepherds in charge. Returning sheep and shepherds would have brought news that one shepherd was still out on the mountain side searching for a lost sheep. The whole village would be upon the watch because their livelihood was at stake. When, in the distance, they saw the shepherd striding home with the lost sheep across his shoulders, there would rise from the whole community a shout of joyful thanksgiving.
That is the picture Jesus drew of God; that, said Jesus, is what God is like. God is as glad when a lost sinner is found as a shepherd is when a strayed sheep is brought home.
It is a wondrous thought and an amazing truth that God is more merciful than are we. The orthodox Jews wrote off tax-collectors and sinners; not so God. God loves the faithful who never stray; but in his heart there is the joy of joys when one that was lost is found and brought home.
How are we to understand the woman’s lost coin? Well, have you ever seen a photo of a Middle Eastern woman wearing a headdress decorated with ten-linked silver coins? It signifies a woman who is married. The acquisition of the ten coins, the equivalent of a wedding ring for us, was highly personal, irreplaceable and so sacrosanct that it could not be taken from her even for the payment of a debt. The loss of one of those small coins would initiate a most thorough search in unpromising condition of a beaten-earth, dusty flooring covered with dried reeds and rushes. Equally, the finding of such an irreplaceable coin would occasion a whole family celebration. We can imagine the truly authentic rejoicing. God, said Jesus, is just like that when a sinner sets out on the daunting journey home (the parable of ‘The Prodigal Son’ Luke 15:11-24).
Turn our hearts and souls, Father, to search for The Truth, Jesus the Christ, when our spirit is tempted by the evils abroad in our world. May the anticipation of finding our Good Shepherd bring us true joy despite our suffering.
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Air We Breathe
Breathing clean air is fundamental to health. Yet, today, most people have little option but to breathe air that is polluted to a greater or lesser degree. Most industrial, commercial and consumer discharge takes the form of gas which, circulating in the air we breathe, is a major contributive cause of respiratory and other illnesses. In 2016, the UK Royal College of Physicians found that air pollution causes 40,000 premature deaths each year.
An analogy can be drawn with our spiritual lives. Where communities of believers live Gospel-based lives, the spiritual atmosphere is vibrant and healthy. Lourdes and Fatima are examples, both being places of international pilgrimage. The overriding number of ‘cures’ are of those suffering from illnesses of the soul. Very many pilgrims, both sick and healthy, return to home renewed in the Holy Spirit. That such widespread communal spiritual reconstitution happens in places where physically and mentally ill people gather is a subject for another article. Suffice it to quote Jesus’ words: “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” (Matt. 19:30)
A spell in hospital may help people with respiratory illness find relief. Their problem continues, sadly, when they return home where they reconnect with the still polluted air that caused their hospitalisation.
It is similar for returning pilgrims. They are inescapably re-immersed in a daily routine where the spiritual is marginalised because, as St. John writes in his First Letter (5:19), this world is the kingdom of Evil.
However, spiritual respite is not limited to places of pilgrimage. Each Baptised person has available the spiritual equivalent of a physical defibrillator; the gift of the Holy Spirit. However, the choice to appeal for the help of the Holy Spirit presupposes an individual’s awareness of the critical state of their spiritual deprivation. Where this deprivation increases subtly, the victim can remain dangerously unaware of being at risk.
In the daily ‘battle’ for souls, two things never happen. There is never a moment of truce and there is no such thing as a vacuum where neither God nor Satan is present within a person. We are either moving towards God, with the support of The Holy Spirit, or we are collaborating with the temptations of the Evil One. We are the people who, by exercising our free choice, control, the direction of the incessant flow and ebb between the Spirit of God and the spirit of Evil.
The Jewish author of this Sunday’s First Reading (Wisdom 9:13-18), dating back to the late 1st century BC, appears well acquainted with human limitations that we know so well today:
“What human being indeed can know the intentions of God?
Who can comprehend the will of the Lord?
For the reasoning of mortals is inadequate,
and our attitudes of mind are unstable.”
In the UK, there now exists an established unfamiliarity with the tenets of Christianity. Even among the Baptised there will be some attending a wedding, first communion or funeral who feel the church to be an alien place and that what is being liturgically celebrated is meaningless. Among the Baptised there are those who, lacking a concept of belief, lack also an understanding of what happens in church and why.
The physical area between life’s highway and the pathway to church, at least in the UK, may not be great but it is strewn with unfathomably deep crevasses affecting knowledge and practice.
Walking is a recognised form of healthy exercise. For people able to walk and for whom the church is not too distant, walking there is more than physical exercise. Without the distraction of motorised transport and electronic interference, the walking potential-worshipper can begin to adapt his/her mindset. By taking time to step aside from daily routines, it is possible to open up an awareness of God’s Word in advance of hearing it proclaimed in church.
Studies show that people sitting in a car on a busy road, and especially in a line of traffic, breathe in more air pollution than those walking on the pavement. Apparently, the exhaust of vehicles in front is drawn into those following and so the pollution builds up vehicle to vehicle. It may be healthier to walk to church than to ride there!
The parallel with the spiritual life is that much that we hear, see and read, on a daily basis, comes from people who do not necessarily share our belief in and Baptismal commitment to Jesus. So, it addition to the spiritual and physical benefit of walking to church, we may have time to spare having arrived. We could encourage one another to keep silence in the presence of Lord for ten or fifteen minutes before the start of a service. This would allow everyone’s senses to adjust, not only to where they are but also as to why they have come.
Avid concert-goers always arrive early at the concert venue. They make every effort to let the hubbub of the day, or even the last hour, abate. They read the programme notes on the composers, soloists, conductor and orchestra and they may even read the musical score. Individually aware of the discord (pardon the pun) between their working/home life and what they hope to absorb in the concert hall, they consider their preparatory time part of the concert even though no performed musical note has been heard. Their individual preparation supports the whole assembly, audience and performers. No wonder the Wisdom author writes:
“It is hard enough for us to work out what is on earth,
laborious to know what lies within our reach;
who, then, can discover what is in the heavens.”
God calls his adopted children to form a community of faithful individuals each contributing, to the best of their ability, to the spiritual benefit of all. As Jesus said: “For where two or more gather in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matt.18:20) United with Jesus encourages each to remain faithful, true and active in the mission of evangelisation.
With all the electronic wizardry that has become today’s ‘must have’ do we have more peace of mind or soul? Is it not true as we read in the Wisdom extract for this Sunday?
“this tent of clay weighs down the mind with its many concerns” (9:15)
It was Jesus who, in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of his betrayal, asked Peter, James and John to keep watch with him. He prayed. They fell asleep. Jesus came back to find them asleep and, as Matthew recalls, said:
“Watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (26:41)
In giving ourselves time to absorb the Wisdom Reading, we would be, both individually and collectively, better disposed and prepared to ask the assistance of the Holy Spirit in fathoming and absorbing Jesus’ message in Luke’s Gospel extract (14:25-33). Jesus, in challenging us to review our priorities, is inviting us to check if, in our daily life, we are still following him.
Jesus makes use of the example of tower-building and of the need to calculate with care the cost not only of materials etc but also of personal involvement. There would, long ago, have been a widespread ‘climate’ of Christianity throughout these islands to give mutual support, but that has severely diminished. It is vital for today’s Christians to be alert as to just how spiritually polluted the air of our homeland has become and to take remedial action. Small adjustments have their value. So, if you are able, make your Sunday, or any day, walk to church part of the daily offering of yourself to God.
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Recognising Authentic Humility
Jesus had been invited by a leading Pharisee to a Sabbath meal. In such a highly-charged politico/religious setting it was characteristically brave for Jesus to have spoken to his fellow diners about the virtue of humility and more. Luke’s Gospel extract (14:1; 7-14) for this 22nd Sunday sets the scene.
In the experience of many people nowadays, raised voices and emphatic language often characterise the exchange of differing points of view. Verbal belligerency appears to have replaced politeness, let alone humility, in expressing opposing preferences.
We can be sure that Jesus’ disposition, in the house of the Pharisee, would have been respectful, as well as humble as he, too, was an invitee. Jesus would also have intended to foster rapprochement among those present who might not always have valued each other, or each other’s presence. In seeking to heal divisions and build up his fellow Jews to be the people whom God had chosen, Jesus would have employed his greatest gift, The Truth. But, would his host and fellow guests that Sabbath day have recognised The Truth when they heard its Author enunciate it?
Genuine humility has long been a characteristic of those possessed of true greatness. Its attractiveness lies in the bearer’s ability to encourage others, particularly those less sure of themselves, to breathe freely. Genuine humility has a gentleness that conveys calm and reassurance; it not only does no injury but, instead, respects other people as unique expressions of God’s creation. Genuine humility seeks to disarm belligerency without a blow being struck, so to speak.
Contemporary hearers or readers of the Gospel accounts of strongly-worded exchanges between Jesus and the religious leaders of his era, may unwittingly interpret them as shouting matches, because, these days, that is often how disagreements are voiced. Given his disposition “to be about his Father’s business” (Luke 2:49), Jesus would never have shouted except to give his word amplification where the crowd was large.
There is a marked difference between reading silently for oneself and reading aloud for the benefit of a congregation/audience. Many who read aloud in church prepare by rehearsing the text aloud in the privacy of their home and, perhaps, the edification of their neighbour. Just as professional soloists and groups rehearse, as if it were a live performance, so too should readers. The proclaiming of God’s Word is of such importance that we need to show it professional respect.
As an example of what I mean, try reading aloud St. John’s account of the Good Friday morning exchange between the Roman Governor, Pilate, and Jesus (John 18:28 – 19:16).
But, before you start, spend a little time thinking about Pilate’s character. See him in your mind as history portrays him, a nervously insecure minor Roman Governor of a troubled outpost of the Empire populated by rebellious-minded Jews forever stirring up discontent. Afraid of his own shadow, imagine his voice and gestures, his authority, balanced on a knife-edge, would mean he was forever nervous whatever outward appearance he may have displayed.
Think about Jesus. He had prepared, throughout his life, for what now lay before him. As a man of faith, Jesus would be calm, patient, reflective and humble.
If, when reading aloud, you voice Pilate and Jesus identically are you helping either the audience or yourselves? When you read aloud the words spoken by Pilate, be Pilate, yourself! His tone of voice, intonation and emphasis would have been so different from those of Jesus. When you read aloud the words of Jesus, be Jesus, yourself. By giving your voice to God’s Word, in other words by bringing it alive, you are nourishing both the congregation and yourself.
You could do the same with this Sunday’s Gospel, Luke 14:7-14. When you have familiarised yourself with Jesus’ words, speak them aloud as you could envisage Jesus to have spoken them. It really does make an amazing difference when you ‘perform’, but a better word would be ‘pray’, Jesus’ words from the Gospel. Speaking aloud in this way helps bring home to you the depth of the truth of what you are speaking and does so more effectively than if you just read the words, silently.
Such ‘performed prayer’ brings its own blessing because you are sharing so much more of yourself with the Holy Spirit to bring to life, in yourself, the Word of Life. It may also serve as a reality check for yourself in assessing how you respond in testing circumstances.
In the Gospel extract for this Sunday, it would not have been Jesus’ intention to make either his fellow guests or his host feel uncomfortable. He would have wanted to win them over from their suspicious stubbornness and he could never have achieved that by belittling them.
Just now there is much heated debate within the Church on a whole raft of contentious topics. There are those defending ‘old ways’ and those promoting ‘new ways’. It is easy to forget that God is still speaking, principally through his Word, which is a continuum. As Jesus said: “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them” (Matt.5:17). Whereas our word dies as soon as it leaves us, each Word that God has revealed remains forever, alive and active. Each continuing Word of God is grafted onto what preceded it with added corrections and new understandings, all illustrating that revelation continues. Consider how much of the teaching of the Second Council of the Vatican (1962/65) remains to be realised. While sixty plus years is but a moment in the Church’s lifetime there needs to be much more urgency in promoting the Council’s real message given the speed of change in our world and not just climatically. As a Church community, we have spent far too long on ‘fixtures and fittings’ instead of equipping each Baptised person to be knowledgeably able to engage with the world at this critical point in its history.
Sadly, too often, the ‘old’ is far too human, jealous and fearful, claiming orthodoxy when the issues are little more than turf wars in the greater context. The ‘new’ is not without fault either; too easily disregarding what has gone before, reacting and rebelling instead of improving and enriching; appearing to want to start a new book instead of being willing to add a chapter, as it were, to what we have inherited. It is important to realise that the disciples of Jesus Christ have known these tensions since the very beginning of the Church.
The humility of Jesus would have been recognisable not only in the tone of his voice but also in the gentleness of his disposition. Before you say it, Jesus’ emptying the Temple, his Father’s house, of parasitical traders (John 2:15) could have been accomplished without violence in word or action. The knotted cord would have been useful for moving on the larger animals.
Despite the conflict of words between factions within our Baptismal community today, the Church continues thanks to the Holy Spirit. This is the good news! Alleluia! Our responsibility is to follow the example of our Teacher who, himself, fulfilled the prescription in this Sunday’s First Reading:
“My child, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts. Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favour with God.” (Ecclesiasticus 3:17)
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
A Taster for the Eternal Banquet
At a first glance, this Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 13:22-30) may have a jarring effect. Do Jesus’ words have an ominous ring to them?
“Keep on striving to enter through the narrow door … Once the master of the house has risen and locked the door, you may find yourself knocking on the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ but the master will reply, ‘I do not know where you come from. Away from me all you wicked people!’”
Interestingly, in Matthew 19:23-24, Jesus makes reference to another narrow opening.
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again, I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Is there a correlation between the two? Both teachings share a reference to the narrowness of a point of entry.
The ‘eye of the needle’ refers to the narrow gap in a town/city perimeter wall that permitted access for a camel. All baggage had to be removed for the camel to pass through the aperture in the wall. The lengthy process allowed the authorities to examine in detail whatever each camel was carrying and apply the appropriate taxes.
In Luke 13:22, this Sunday’s Gospel, a reader, making a casual or first glance, might assume that it is God who makes the aperture narrow, but there is no indication of this being so. Each aperture is evidently sufficient for the opening to do what it was intended for; namely, to admit a single person or a camel.
Jesus had previously, in Luke’s Gospel, been teaching in various towns and villages while making his way to Jerusalem. His theme, latterly, had been ‘The Kingdom of God’. This gave rise to a questioner asking: “Lord, are those to be saved few in number?” It was this question that prompted Jesus’ response about the narrow door. It is likely that the questioner would have been a Jew and he would have assumed that the Kingdom of God was for the Jews and that Gentiles would be shut out.
Jesus’ response: “Strive your hardest to enter….” May have shocked both the questioner and the crowd. For, far from playing the numbers game, Jesus made it clear that a person’s ethnicity was no guarantee of entry to the Kingdom. Passage through the ‘narrow door’, entry into the Kingdom, would be for those who have struggled along the pilgrim path of faith.
The word strive has its origin in the word ‘strife’ and is associated with the word ‘agony’. The struggle for entry would be so intense that it could be thought of as an agony of the soul and the spirit. As has been said before, Christian Baptism is no more a guarantee of passage through the ‘narrow door’ than is Jewishness. The only finality in the Christian life is at the point of death. Until then, each is called to be going forward with purposeful continuity towards the ‘narrow door’, otherwise, of necessity, each person will be retreating from it.
Jesus anticipates the Jewish crowd’s defence:
“We ate and drank in your company, you taught in our streets …”
Just as it is incorrect to presume that ethnicity is a guarantor of admission through the ‘narrow door’, it is equally incorrect for the Baptised to believe that membership of a Christian civilisation, country or family is sufficient without personal fidelity to one’s Baptismal promises. For, a Baptised person, merely living in a Christian family or country, does not necessarily make one a practising Christian. Though benefitting from their Christian background, a Baptised person cannot presume to benefit from the Christian capital that others have built up by their lives of committed fidelity. How often the goodness of saintly grandparents/parents, national saints and patronal saints are falsely assumed to be the automatic inheritance of grandchildren and children. So much depends on what the descendant, personally, has done to preserve and develop their inherited faith not only for her/himself but also for their kith and kin. None of us can live on inherited goodness.
There will be surprises beyond the ‘narrow door’. Those acclaimed with the title ‘celebrity’ by this world may not find it the same in the next. Those who have been unnoticed, cast to the periphery or undervalued in this world, may find themselves acclaimed in the next. For the Israelites of Jesus’ day as for religious leaders today, cultivating a desire for the fulfilment of God’s promises is a challenge when it impinges on presumed privilege and primacy and, one might add, clericalism.
It could be that those locked out and knocking for admittance have a problem they refuse to recognise. They think they deserve admittance but the banquet they seek is not what is happening beyond the ‘narrow door’. The door is locked against them because their type of banquet does not exist in heaven. Exclusivity was their previous route to entitlement, but at this ‘narrow door’ it cuts no ice.
If, as they claim, they had heard Jesus, they had not listened and taken to heart his words, nor did they participate in the communion of self-giving. As the extract from the Letter to the Hebrews that we hear today, (12:5-7,11-13), reminds us, growing into the person God is calling us to be can be a painful process. The Kingdom of God is a banquet that we will enjoy only to the extent that we have aligned our love with God’s love here on earth and committed ourselves to making what God offers, our desire. In the parable of the wedding feast, Jesus reminds us: “For many are invited, but not all are chosen”. (Matt.22:14)
Perhaps the challenge at the ‘narrow door’, the problem of the crowded point of entry, is less to do with the size of the crowd and more to do with size of individuals’ egos. The people who pass through the ‘narrow point of entry’ without difficulty will have demonstrated personal strength of faith by trusting the Word of their Host. They will have brought no baggage other than their unbounded hope in their Host’s mercy. That hope will have bred patience. Their open-hearted love will have engendered an ability to enjoy, as well as enabling, the company of less strong companions. By their presence, they will have transformed the approach to the ‘narrow point of entry’ into a taster for the banquet that awaits beyond the door.
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Stillness of Sundays Long Passed
Do you remember when Sunday was a day dedicated to God? People kept Sunday distinct from the other weekdays because there was respect for God’s Third Commandment: "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy." For Muslims it was Friday, for Jews it was Saturday and for Christians it was Sunday. Shops and businesses were closed, there were no major sporting fixtures etc. Sunday was for the family and the wider Christian family. Assembling as a community to worship God was central to the day. It may seem another world but it was not all that long ago.
Today, Christians in the West live in countries where Sunday is no longer distinct. It is just another day of the weekend. The worship of God, where it happens, is fitted into a busy secular Sunday schedule. Gatherings, that once happened in church, are now found in physical fitness and shopping centres. The punitive effect on the quality and depth of peoples’ faith is evidenced not only in the emptiness of places of worship but also in the inner emptiness so many people experience.
Individually, people of faith are no longer able to draw spiritual nourishment from society as they once could. Therefore, believers perhaps should invest more of themselves and their time into nourishing and growing the faith with which they have been gifted, not only to remain faithful but also to be evangelists. Christians, whose only contact with God’s Word is in church, may find themselves insufficiently spiritually nourished to withstand the pressured secularity of daily life. The Word heard in church is a taster to whet the appetite. Thus encouraged, people can choose to invest time in discovering the full quote, scenario and background. Nourished by the fullness of The Word, believers should be encouraged to ask God how his Word affects not only them but this world. All this is real prayer and is of greater significance, dare one say, than the ‘saying of prayers’, because there is no better prayer than reading the Scriptures. Of course, local Scripture study groups, which of course can be ecumenical, are so important. Remember Jesus’ words: “Where two or more are gathered in my Name, there am I in the midst of them.”
It is always spiritually beneficial to remember, especially for the housebound and the hospitalised, that they are able to receive Christ in His Word in the very same way that they do in the Eucharist. Whenever and wherever we choose to put God at the forefront of our thoughts, we are praying.
The compilers of the Lectionary – the book of Scripture extracts used in the Liturgy – had the enormous task of collating extracts from both Testaments into focus in a way that would help us methodically explore God’s Word as we navigate the religious seasons of the year.
In certain eras of the past there would have been greater widespread familiarity with the Word of God within the community of the faithful. Peoples’ minds, less overwhelmed with stress which is the curse of today, were able to retain His Word by the grace of God’s Holy Spirit for a longer period of time. Today, that is no longer the case. Therefore, if worshippers are to benefit from the texts already chosen for a particular Sunday or major celebration, they might benefit by being encouraged to pray them beforehand, by their reading and research.
Tragically, nowadays, the incessant clamour of instant communication can easily obliterate God’s Word from our hearts and minds before it has had the opportunity to become embedded. Jesus’ parable of the sower comes to mind: “As the sower was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants.” (Matt.13: 1-9)
The Martha and Mary scenario in this Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 10:38-42) is a case in point. Where there exists, today, an apparent inequality of work, service and leisure, you may hear people describe it as a ‘Martha and Mary’ situation. People make use of the ‘Martha and Mary’ Biblical scenario without knowing its origin, its purpose and what it was intended to teach the folk of Jesus’ day. The cleverness of Satan is that he leaves a person with superficial, vague remnants of Biblical truth that have the effect of calming an alarmed conscience. A parallel could be drawn with an anti-flu injection. The patient receives a controlled dose of the virus to stimulate the body’s natural production of the appropriate antibody.
For sure, as Christians we need greater exposure to The Word if we are to breathe spiritually in this sin-polluted world. Likewise, we need more than the odd moment of prayer, of worship or of Sacramental involvement. The extracts of The Word, received in assemblies and often the seed ground for the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, can be become more fulfilling by supplementary reading and shared discussion, both of which can be an exercise in prayer. As the parable of The Sower makes clear, when The Word falls into good soil it will sprout securely and produce a crop for the Master and the household.
Sometimes our concept of prayer is too constrained. Martha and Mary were both praying but in demonstrably different ways; Martha through her physical work and Mary through her work of contemplation. Both were praying through their work. Martha may have momentarily lost sight of prayer being work and challenged her sister. It is good to recall that the prayer/work of each nourished the other. Martha’s physical ministrations, as an act of loving service, ensured that the household received the necessary physical sustenance. Mary’s prayer ministration ensured that the household would be able to share in the spiritual nourishment that she brought to their shared conversation at the table.
Jesus invited Martha to be less anxious because stress never comes from God but from the enemy. All will come to fulfilment in God’s good time which is of God’s determining, not ours. Psalm 75 reminds us: “We give thanks to you, God, we give thanks to you, as we call upon your name, as we recount your wonders. ‘At the appointed time, I shall dispense justice.’”
13th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Many Roman Catholics might hesitate to describe their Church as diverse. The world is resonant with variation, in culture, interpretation, tradition and expression. It would seem that these are not contemporaneous descriptions of the Catholic Church’s public image for some centuries. Yet, at the Church’s inception, its collaborative diversity was particularly evident in the Founding Fathers whom we are honouring, jointly, this day; namely, Saint Peter, local Jewish fisherman, husband and parent, and Saint Paul, educated, distinguished Pharisee and Citizen of Rome.
We know increasingly more about how the human body itself is an intricate conglomeration of non-identical and unequal parts with distinctly different functions. Yet, each plays a part in completing and fulfilling the role given by the creator namely, a healthy and functioning human person.
Diversity is the hallmark of the multitude of the components of the human body. Distinct as they are in so many ways, our many body parts nevertheless act in unison to keep us alive and well. The healthy human body has a unity without uniformity. This unity with diversity is as much a core ingredient of the Church on earth as it is for each of its members. St. Paul, in chapter 12 of his first letter to his Corinthian converts, lays out an overview that assures each person that their giftedness as individuals in no way detracts from their harmony when they act in concert. It could be said that having Paul’s chapter 12 as a blueprint, enables an appreciation of how the diversity within human nature is, by Divine intention, an integral part of the Church. The only caveat can be found in verse 3:
“Therefore, I tell you that nobody speaking by the spirit of God says, “Jesus be accursed.” And no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the holy Spirit.”
Therefore, each and every individual, within the Body that is the Church, is called to unite in a continuous, consistent and wholehearted acclamation that “Jesus is Lord”. The loyalty with which each responds to this call, the prime vocation of a human person, affects not only the individual but impacts too upon the holiness, the oneness spoken of by Jesus, of the whole body, the Church.
God mandated Moses: “Speak to the whole community of Israelites and say: ‘Be holy, for I, the Lord your God am holy.’” (Leviticus 19:2) At his Incarnation, Jesus became the ultimate personification of God’s holiness on earth in the human person. By our Baptism into Christ, each is grafted onto the community of Israelites called to live in holiness with The Holy One, who is God.
This is why, as Christians, we are called to what may be described as a double-fronted ecumenism. We reach out to our brothers and sisters in the family of the Chosen that they, as well as all our Gentile brothers and sisters, may unite with us in proclaiming: “Jesus is Lord”. This double-fronted ecumenism began with Peter and Paul who each received individual mandates directly from Jesus. Matthew 16:18 recalls Jesus’ mandating of Peter and Acts 9 and Galatians 1:11-12 recalls Jesus’ mandating of the Pharisee Saul, now become Paul the Apostle. Peter was to take knowledge of Christ to his fellow Jews. Paul was to do likewise but to the Gentile peoples.
So, in Jesus’ individual mandating of the unalike Peter and Paul, can be seen a unique and dramatic advancement in God’s unfolding plan for the restoration and healing of his Chosen people who are now to incorporate the Gentile nations. Thus, the prophesy of the shepherd-farmer Amos, somewhere between 783 and 743 BC, is fulfilled:
“After that I shall return to rebuild the tottering house of David; I shall make good the gaps in it and restore it. Then the rest of humanity, and all the nations over whom my Name has been pronounced, will look for the Lord, says the Lord who makes these things known from of old …” (Amos 9:11-12 - as quoted by the Apostle James in the Jerusalem meeting of the Apostles and Elders: Acts 15: 13-21)
Paul explains, in Galatians 2: 1-10, how a Church assembly at Jerusalem finally affirmed that the distinctive Apostolic missions of both Peter and Paul were fully in accord with the teaching of Jesus Christ. As Catholics, in the 21st century, we know well enough that the Church’s Conciliar teachings are not always easily accepted throughout the body of the Church. What was agreed in that Jerusalem meeting met with continuing opposition.
It may be helpful to recall that this new ecumenical emphasis was then being enacted and continues now to be enacted in this ‘vale of tears’, which is the kingdom of Evil. Christ’s enemy has lost no opportunity to undermine and cause distress and dissention within the Body of Christ on earth, the Church. Catholics, today, are experiencing a 21st century version of what our religious forebears experienced in the infant Church.
Pope Francis has made Lumen Gentium a central theme of his pontificate. He is calling the Church to follow Christ in his poverty and humility in order to bring the Good News to the poor.
One of the key portions of Lumen Gentium is its second chapter, with its declaration that the Church is "the People of God":
“At all times and in every race, God has given welcome to whosoever fears Him and does what is right. God, however, does not make people holy and save them merely as individuals, without bond or link between one another. Rather has it pleased Him to bring people together as one, a people which acknowledges Him in truth and serves Him in holiness [...] This was to be the new People of God. For those who believe in Christ, who are reborn not from a perishable but from an imperishable seed through the Word of the living God, not from the flesh but from water and the Holy Spirit, are finally established as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people ... who in times past were not a people, but are now the people of God.”
Pope Francis, in reaching out through interreligious dialogue and action demonstrates that the Catholic Church is open to all humanity.
Our understanding of our relationship with God, through the Church, is constantly evolving and there is more to come, maybe beyond our personal lifetime. It may be helpful to recall Peter’s teaching in his Second Letter:
‘But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’ (3:8-9)
4th Sunday of Easter
What happens when you listen?
Spiritually deep-listening to God is a whole-body experience. It involves the coordination of the soul, in conjunction with all the senses, focusing exclusively on God. Deep-listening is distinctly different from casual hearing where we give low-level attention to a whole host of separate activities and noises. Only when a single focus attracts our whole fixed attention are we able to engage deep-listening.
The perfect exemplar of deep-listening is Mary. The profundity of Mary’s immaculate listening to God’s messenger, Gabriel, made real the Incarnation; the coming among us of the Son of God-made-Man. The committed and intense listening of multitudes of the Baptised, from all nations, over the past two thousand years has revealed the presence of God’s Holy Spirit dwelling in his adopted family of recovering sinners.
When faith inspires and sustains our deep-listening to God, our vision begins to change. We begin to see through, as opposed to with, the eyes of Christ. Little by little we learn to shed our culturally-imposed singularity of mind, presently embraced by much of the world, in favour of seeing ourselves as numbered amongst the multitude described by the excerpt from Revelation (7:9) that is our 2nd Reading for this Sunday:
“I, John, had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.
Then one of the elders said to me, “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
John’s vision is of a great and united community, rather than a gathering of individuals. The way of salvation, while requiring individual commitment, is not an exclusive ‘Jesus and me’ affair. This great and united community, this ‘flock’, is brought together from multiple nations, races and languages without any loss of individual identity. The single source of unity, common to all, is the communal shouldering of the tribulation that makes us one with our Saviour God who, bearing the agony of Calvary, gave this great community everything it needs, including each other. On this 4th Sunday of Easter, the Scripture readings invite us to reconsider our identity, taking care to root out any tendencies to self-sufficiency. Instead, Jesus encourages us to live in solidarity with Him and with one another. In the Gospel for this day (John 10: 27-30), Jesus tells us:
“My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me.”
Our simple, yet profound, assignment is to deeply-listen to the voice of the Shepherd and to follow him. It is a life-giving assignment that draws the Baptised into an amazingly multifaceted world of relationships.
Pope Francis tells us that a committed deep-listening to God “commits us to serving others ... learning to find Jesus in the faces of others, in their voices, in their pleas” (“The Joy of the Gospel” 91). Clearly, the will to immerse ourselves in deep-listening to the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd, involves a deep-listening to the voices of others, especially those who need us as well as those from whom we can learn.
The whole of the Book of Revelation invites us to look forward to Christ’s final victory. At the same time, we are to take into account the sufferings that will mark the entire journey. In the Book of Revelation, John speaks of the great multitude who have ‘washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb’, and the Second Vatican Council’s ‘Gaudium et Spes’ addresses “the entire human family, seen in its total environment ... bearing the marks of its painful laborious effort, its triumphs and failures” (Gaudium et Spes 2). Revelation describes human-kind’s destiny as a joyful celebration of life that no longer knows hunger or thirst because it has found the One who alone can satisfy all human longing.
In Revelation, we learn that the whole community will be shepherded by God who will lead it to springs of water and wipe away every tear. ‘Gaudium et Spes’ describes human destiny as the ‘familial solidarity that results from being guided by the Holy Spirit and giving living witness to Christ, who does not judge, but saves, who serves rather than is served’. (Gaudium et Spes 3).
Both Revelation and ‘Gaudium et Spes’ offer us a dream of what can be. Both are realistic in admitting that our road to God’s future passes through laborious effort, through contradiction and suffering. Both also affirm that getting to our destiny is possible not because we are so strong and visionary, but because that is where God is leading everyone who is willing to go there. There is no time more appropriate than the Easter season for us to pause and allow God’s dream to inspire us, as it did the author of Revelation and those who wrote the documents of The Second Vatican Council.
Jesus’ sheep learned to recognize him and his work; they know how he calls them and what he hopes both for them and from them. They are also watchful. They yearn to hear his voice at any given moment. They realize that every moment is indeed given to them through him.
This Sunday’s Scriptural extracts combine to offer us a practical mysticism, a way of life that is deeply involved in the events of each day and highly attuned to the grace offered in every moment. The extract from the Acts of the Apostles reminds us that our Christian vision needs to be expressed in terms that ordinary folks can understand, even though many will decline to do so. The Book of Revelation and John’s Gospel invite us to dream, to take the path of mysticism, to remember the Word we have heard and to imagine our destiny, as we move in both joy and sorrow toward the glory to be revealed.
Considering that God has imbued all humans with characteristics including counsel, creativity, understanding, wisdom, and the knowledge of the difference between good and evil, how is it that we are not living in Utopia? One explanation is that God also gave us free will so that we might choose the Divine will … or not. Sadly, it is true that some do seem to purposefully and consciously choose evil.
But surely it is more common for people not to make any choice at all? We seem to have lost the will — free or otherwise — to choose what is best for us. Access to knowledge has never been more available, yet we skim over the top, preferring sound bites and a never-ending longing for newness rather than deeply-listening to the Creator who sustains us. Ours has become a culture of distraction promoted by the abundance of Evil. If only people would stop to consider, in depth, the evidence. It is only when we deeply-listen that we lose ourselves and experience the Divine.
God of my heart, live in me and calm my mind that I may deeply-listen to You and then choose what is good.
4th Sunday of Lent
For the parents, the loss of a child is a pain like none other. St. Luke is the only Evangelist to record three of Jesus’ parables on the subject of loss. This 4th Sunday of Lent we read the best recognised of the three, remembered under the title ‘The Prodigal Son’ (vv.15: 1-3, 11-32). In this context ‘prodigal’ carries the meaning of a recklessly wasteful use of inherited resources followed by a contrition.
In the main, Jesus’ teaching parables are complete. He describes the scene, the ensuing action and delivers the conclusion. But the ‘The Prodigal Son’ parable is different. Despite the eventual return of the second son, the prodigal, Jesus leaves the parable open-ended. Not only does the elder son’s antipathy towards his younger brother remain unresolved, it appears to worsen. Then, the elder son turns his venom upon his parents. It is a cliff-hanger of an ending.
This ‘Prodigal Son’ parable is much depicted in paintings and essays. Rembrandt’s interpretation in oil on canvas probably stands head and shoulders above other artistic interpretations. A feature unique to Rembrandt is his portrayal of the father’s hands resting on the bowed back of his returned prodigal. Rembrandt gave the father one male and one female hand thereby deliberately including the boys’ mother. Rembrandt drew attention to the fact that, in Jesus’ era and for long after, women were without independent status, personal identity and power.
Since commentaries often give a detailed examination of the Prodigal Son, it may be refreshing to broaden the focus. The parents represent God the Father who, in creating us [male and female] in his own image and likeness, has endowed each of us with an equality of dignity and purpose. Another word to describe this endowment is vocation. Created by the Almighty, we each carry within us God’s personal invitation to understand that our vocation is not a choice we have to make, but our answer to His proposal that we will find in the words of his Son, Jesus Christ. The Prodigal, isolated in the foreign pigsty – the epitome of shame for a Jew – remembered his parents’ (God’s) lifelong forgiveness that he had repeatedly experienced in his early life. By contrast his elder brother did not consider himself in need of forgiveness – he had kept the Law!
Human parents pass on to their offspring genes that considerably influence the life decisions made by their offspring of either the first or subsequent generations. We can ask what was the prime endowment passed on by these parents to their two sons in Jesus’ parable entitled, ‘The Prodigal’? A tempting answer would be land but is that the correct answer?
Is the earth we inhabit God’s prime endowment to us? A Divine endowment is forever, literally. Our earth, as we now know only too well, has no permanence. Neither, apparently, does anything in the cosmos. Surely, the prime endowment we have received from God is our likeness to Him and its hallmark is Divine forgiveness.
The parents (God), in the first place, showed their sons the quality of respect for the law of God. Having chosen to retire, the father had no alternative but to accede to his younger son’s request for one third of the estate. It may have broken the parents’ hearts to divide their much-loved land that the boy’s father would have received as a cherished inheritance, but it was the Law.
Secondly, the parents showed their sons the quality of love. The parents had evidently lived this quality themselves and in doing so would have demonstrated it continuously to their sons and their household. In Jesus’ parable there is no trace of parental recrimination towards the elder son when his younger brother leaves home. The parental love for the elder son is shown in the father’s words: ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.’”
It would appear that the elder son remained as unmoved by his parents’ suffering at the loss of their younger son as he was unforgiving towards his brother.
The younger son’s actions and words speak for themselves.
Thirdly, the parents showed their sons the quality of forgiveness. A continuous exemplification of forgiveness must have been both visible and audible in the parental behaviour. How else could the prodigal son have been so sure that he would be completely forgiven and reconciled. Had he not been certain he would never have said:
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’
St. Luke’s words paint a clear picture of the parental heartache: “While he (the prodigal son) was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.”
You can only hope to catch sight of someone or something for whom or for which you are committed to searching for specifically and continuously. The recognition is as much of the heart as of the head.
Note the earlier parable of the ‘lost sheep’ in chapter 15: 4-7.
Both the sons were the cause of the parental heartache. The Prodigal recognized that he was a recovering sinner. The elder son had yet to do so. Parental love continued to be extended to both.
God’s prime disposition towards each and every person whom he creates, in his own image and likeness, is forgiveness. When God invites us individually to our specific vocation it is not because we are without fault or even perfectly suited to it. Each vocation is a gift enshrined in Divine forgiveness because we can only come to him as sinners. We are invited to understand that our vocation is nor a choice we have to make, but our answer to Christ’s proposal that we recognise our need of his forgiveness and actively seek it. This journey, like that of the Prodigal, can be lengthy and arduous.
The Prodigal, at his homecoming, must have sensed his being forgiven, being ‘re-birthed’, was way beyond anything he had expected. It is his belief in Divine forgiveness that allows Pope Francis to repeatedly call himself a sinner. “Pray for me, please, I am a sinner.” The Pope recognizes himself as a recovering sinner. He urges us to share his vision because this is how we will remain until our last breath.
The elder sibling’s attitude towards his younger sibling, whom he sees as a miscreant, is one of God’s works in progress. Is there here a reflection of the divide between Jew and Gentile?
Jesus calls his Christian ‘prodigal’ adoptees to share in this on-going mission of repatriation through the teaching of the Second Council of the Vatican and subsequent Papal teachings. As Christians we are encouraged to pray for our elder brothers and sisters, the Jews, on to whom we have been grafted in and through the Person of God-made-Man, Jesus Christ, the Jew.
Faith and prayer embolden our hope in an era when, once again, there are worrying signs of the growth of widespread anti-Semitism. But, do we believe and pray with the same personal and deep faith that kept a mother and father, whose pain is incalculable, searching through rivers of tears that channelled the worn skin of their face as seen in the Rembrandt portrait?
3rd Sunday of Lent
The Effects of Spiritual Disorientation
Disorientation is a scary experience. It’s causes can be internal or external, neurological or circumstantial. Either way, disorientation is a cause of suffering. Dementia, for example, is a chronic progressive disorder of the mental process. Equally, a person trapped in a snow blizzard, a sandstorm or a total blackout can be suddenly and life-threateningly disorientated, as well as frightened.
There is also spiritual disorientation which Satan puts to much use. Unlike the sudden snow blizzard or sudden darkness, the Satanic initiated disorientation infiltrates a person slowly and progressively. Satan disguises his infiltration of spiritual disorientation by bombarding an individual’s senses with excesses of continuously stimulating and captivating momentary distractions and delights. This has been happening in Western Europe for decades. The result, for an unaware Christian, can easily be an increasing disorientation resulting in a lapsation. Lapsed Christians do not feel out of place in a society that is itself disorientated. A society no longer drawing on its Christian heritage for moral guidance becomes more and more secular.
An example of modern secular mentality is the ease with which people have assumed for themselves God’s prerogative of judgement and authority. People now block, erase and reject on Facebook and Twitter etc anyone or anything that does not share their outlook and current belief. A 2018 UK survey commemorating the 70th
anniversary of the Holocaust found that one in five of those questioned did not believe the Holocaust happened.
It is not that God refuses to share his prerogative with us. The prophet Jeremiah relays God’s message:
“I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them upon their minds. I will be their God and they will be my people” (31:33)
It is that in the Satanically induced disorientation affecting Western society many people, including Church people, have less daily awareness of God and God’s Word-made-Flesh. Wherever a ‘faith-gap’ opens up in a person’s’ life, Satan occupies it.
Christianity is anchored in God who has revealed Himself, in these last times, through Jesus, His only-begotten Son-made-Man. Jesus defined Himself as the one reference point underpinning all reality when he answered ‘doubting’ Thomas: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
For thousands of years The Truth has been accepted by thinking people as an objective feature of our world. It is external to us. We neither invented nor discovered it. Objective Truth is what should ground everyone’s thinking and decision making.
Tragically, many people today in our disorientated modern secular society choose to believe that Truth is what an individual decides. Even the number of Christians, who believe moral truths are unchanging and unchangeable, is shrinking because of Evil’s ability to disorientate them through the pressures of society’s shifting culture. Satan has persuaded many people that Truth is relative to the prevailing circumstances.
God’s Word for this 3rd
Sunday of Lent presents three scenarios that could be said to share a theme of our need to be always alert and of the consequences of not being. There is an Evil-induced spiritual disorientation forever lurking whose purpose is human entrapment.
In the 1st
Reading (Exodus 3:1-8, 13-15
) a youthful Moses is told by God:
“I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers, so I know well what they are suffering.”
Despite promising to do so, the people of Israel had failed, collectively, to uphold the covenant they had entered into with God. This failure brought them a lengthy suffering and enslavement in Egypt. The Jews had become generationally disorientated in failing to appreciate that, by reducing to external conformity their observance of the Covenant, they had succumbed to Evil.
The educated one-time Pharisee, Saul, now Baptised and renamed Paul, was all too aware of the effects of ancestral disorientation. This explains why, in the 2nd
Reading, we hear Paul address his young Corinthian converts to Christianity: (10:1-6, 10-12
“I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all of them were baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea…. These things happened as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil things, as they did…. whoever thinks they are standing secure should take care not to fall.”
In the Gospel extract from St. Luke (13:1-9) Jesus calls his people to repentance as a necessary step to escape the effects of Satan’s disorientation:
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? They were not! I tell you. No; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did!”
Jesus was aware that if his people continued their political intrigues, plottings and rebellions, they were committing national suicide. Their seeking of an earthly kingdom while rejecting the Kingdom of God could only have one outcome. After Jesus’ Death and Resurrection, this is precisely what happened. In AD 70, Roman patience finally ran out. The Roman army obliterated both Jerusalem and its people – see Luke 21:6, 24.
There is a paradox that links the deliberate choice of sin with subsequent suffering. While it cannot be said that individual sin and suffering are inevitably connected, it can be said that communal/national sin and suffering are connected. The nation that deliberately chooses to engage in sinful ways will suffer the consequences of its choice. Jesus did not mince his words in today’s Gospel: “But I tell you, if you
(the nation) do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”
In the case of the individual, it is different. Individuals, being part of a community, can be caught up in their nation’s activity and its consequences which they neither willed nor caused but were without power to halt. Where such individuals manifestly rejected their nation’s choice and did their best to persuade others to do likewise, they, as individuals, will not be held to account by God.
It is always unwise to automatically attribute an individual’s personal suffering to their sin. It is always safe to say that a nation that rebels against God will inherit disaster.
God shares with each of us his concerns for all his people. Our informed consciences are alerted through daily prayer. There will be ‘burning’ issues calling for our attention and engagement. There will be people we see at spiritual risk as well as in need of physical shelter. There will be seemingly unproductive situations absorbing precious time and energy. And when we feel ‘enough is enough’ we hear the Lord of all gardeners/carers plead for us to continue “one year more”.
The bringing alive of the Gospel message depends on the spiritual capacity of Christians today to collectively discern, under the leadership of Pope Francis, God’s action as it continues to unfold through the reiteration of the central spiritual questions of our age.
If we could just sense the treasure there is in participating in the Mass, in the Eucharist, then perhaps even a lame homily, a poor liturgy, a faulty choir or distracting neighbours would not diminish our sense of the presence of the sacred or our joy in recognising the depth of love God has for each of us. The Evil One is fully capable of using even distractions to further our disorientation, even when we are in church.
It is vital for us to remain alert and on guard against the Evil One’s surreptitious infiltration of spiritual disorientation. As St. Peter, in his first letter to all Christians, wrote: “Keep sober and alert, because you enemy the devil is on the prowl … looking for someone to devour.”
33rd Sunday In Ordinary Time
WHAT WILL IDENTIFY YOU AT THE JUDGEMENT?
This is the penultimate Sunday of the Church Year. Mark’s Gospel extract (13:24-32) focuses on the ‘end of time’ as we know it. The whole of Mark’s Chapter 13 makes thought-provoking reading. At the ‘end of time’ all man-made identities creating social distinctions and division will disappear. The identities received from God, on the other hand, will remain.
Each person’s unique identity owes its origin to our being made in the imagine and likeness of God. No one is duplicated. As we grow up, our unique identity may become overlaid by ever-changing clothing, make-up, badges, uniforms, possessions and behaviour. Through it all our likeness to God our Creator remains, though it may be hidden at times.
As human beings we come into this world as God’s creation. Christians believe that, through Baptism, God has initiated a revolutionary, eternal change in his relationship with his human creation. God has allowed his human creation, irrespective of tribe or people, to become His adopted daughters and sons by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Through this Sacrament, God makes each of the Baptised a brother or sister of His Only-Begotten Son, the Jewish man, Jesus of Nazareth.
For Catholics, each freely received successive celebration of a Sacrament enhances the presence of God’s spirit. This increase in God’s indwelling is to fortify our personal relationship with God. It also enables us to stand four-square with Christ our Saviour in His continuing battle, in this world, with the cunning power of Satan. As is testified by the history of the worldwide community of the Baptised, The Church, many have followed our Saviour’s path to death through persecution. An even greater number endure a bloodless, but still painful persecution, of interminable length.
For a non-Jew, Mark 13 is difficult to fathom, referencing, as it does, so much of Jewish history and thought. But then, that should not be wholly unfamiliar territory for the Baptised who have become the sisters and brothers of Jesus the Jew who is God-made-Man. It may be helpful to reiterate here some fundamental distinctions between Jews and Christians who form the two original streams of people called by God.
For Jews, Jesus is a holy Jewish man. Jews do not accept Jesus of Nazareth as the Incarnate Son of God-made-Man. Therefore, they continue to await the Messiah’s promised ‘Coming’. For this reason, continuity is at the heart of Judaism. Their unconquerable optimism that they are God’s ‘Chosen’ has enabled them to survive horrendous persecution down the centuries.
Anglo-Saxon Gentiles consign history to archives. For the majority it is ‘The Past’ and, as such, quite distinct from ‘The Present’.
For Jews, their ‘history’ is for them their ‘present’. It lives in them today. Jews, alive today, are the living expression of their ‘history’ with which they are very familiar. When a Jew speaks about the Holocaust, for example, he/she is mentally and spiritually living that experience in the present moment. When you visit Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, you will recognise this to be so.
So, too, each Sabbath Eve meal (Friday at sunset) is a sacred family gathering in which each member lives, here and now, the experience of their captured enslaved forebears whom Moses was to lead from Egypt to the promised land. Gathered to share their Sabbath eve ‘Passover’ meal, each Jewish family is doing more than remembering, they are making real and continuing the turmoil of that ‘journey of promise’ awaiting the ‘Passover’ that is the coming of the Messiah. This is the strength of the individual Jew and the entirety of Jewish identity.
There is a connection here for Catholic Christians. Sunday Mass is the gathering of God’s Baptised family whether it be a congregation of two or more than half a million. Each is called to renew their individual adoption by God through absorbing The Word of God and receiving The Word-made-Flesh. At the celebration of Mass, Jesus, our Lord and Brother, links each Catholic Christian present with two thousand years of Baptised forebears whose pilgrim steps we are walking in today, through circumstantially very different times. But also, through our communion with Jesus the Jew, Catholic Christians are linked to his Jewish antecedents including, of course, his Jewish Mother, Mary. I wonder how often we identify that linkage in our prayer even, when praying the Psalms particularly, we are making use of a Jewish form of prayer which Jesus would have known by heart and used!
This makes me ponder my Catholic identity. As a Catholic am I, at the time of Holy Communion, sufficiently aware of being united with Jesus the Jew who is the Christ? Am I consciously willing myself to be one with Him in His continuing self-sacrifice for the redemption of the world, for Jew and Gentile? Does Holy Communion unite me, as it should, with my suffering, imprisoned, persecuted brothers and sisters, Jews and fellow Christians, struggling to be faithful in this ‘Vale of Tears’? Am I motivated by receiving Holy Communion to become more actively engaged with corporal works of mercy and of the promotion of justice? Am I conscious of Jesus’ outreach to his fellow Jews … am I concerned for them as my sisters and brothers?
Or, is my thanksgiving after Communion over concerned with me, my agenda and my needs?
Mark’s chapter 13 shows Jesus making use of much that would have been familiar to his fellow Jews then or now but which is unlikely to be familiar to contemporary Christians. Mark 13 benefits from being read against a Jewish mindset and that does not come easily to a Gentile. ‘Listening in depth’ to the Gospels involves a lifetime of prayer to the Holy Spirit. It is impossible to switch meaningfully into such an in-depth listening mode for a few minutes at Sunday Mass.
Do we spend sufficient time dwelling on the implication of our affiliation to and identification with the Jew who is Jesus Christ, God’s Incarnate Son? Do Gentile Christians somehow identify with Jesus minus his Jewish background? A Jewish mindset can only be grown from the inside, from our hearts. In our prayer, do we ever ask Jesus to help us understand his Jewishness? It is not something that can be taken on board, like a fact of impersonal history. Nor can this short article supply what is needed but it may help point a reader in the right direction.
Mark 13 gives Christians much food for thought about, what we refer to as, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ as King and Judge of the world. We know today, sadly, that many non-Jews, and not a few Christians, disregard this revelation.
Jews and Christians share a belief that God will break into the Evil- induced chaos of this world, at a point we do not know, ending time as we know it and bringing about an entirely new order namely, eternity.
Jews and Christians share belief in the prophet Joel’s disturbing descriptions of the ‘Day of the Lord’ (Ch.2&3) that tell of that day of God’s intervention. We share belief there will be times of terror and chaos when the world, as it is known, will be shaken to its foundations.
Where we differ is that, for Christians, the Messiah has already come, 2000 years ago, in the Person of Jesus the Christ. Therefore, God’s return as King and Judge in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth will be, for Christians, the Second Coming of God-made-Man. Christians celebrate this article of our Faith next week on the last Sunday of the Church year, the Feast of Christ the King.
The Jews believe that the advent of God will be the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham and that, in this new order, they would occupy the place assigned to the Chosen People.
From the time of Jesus up to our present, Jews and Christians have walked parallel, semi-complimentary yet also vastly distinctive paths as we share God’s creation. The complementarity of our paths is to be found in that both Jew and Christian share belief in the visible coming amongst us of God. The distinctive difference between our paths lies in the gulf of belief that, for Christians, the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth is the Only-Begotten Son of God made Man; whereas, for the Jews, the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth is a man of God and probably the most famous Jew who has ever lived.
For Christians, God is among us and working in our world through his adopted daughters and sons, the Baptised, who are Jesus’ brothers and sisters.
For Jews, God has yet to break into our world. So, for Christians, the present year is 2018 Anno Domini (the Year of the Lord) when God-made-Man came among us. It’s a sad sign of our growing secularism that many have jettisoned ‘AD’ for ‘CE” (the Common Era).
For Jews, this is the year 5,778 which they regard as the number of years since the start of Creation.
Will the Jewish and Christians paths converge? Well, for certain there will be a convergence when God calls the world to order, but prior to that we can but pray for one another. It is said that when Judaism accepts the Divine Nature of Jesus of Nazareth, Mark’s chapter 13 will be fulfilled.
The question posed in the title above is: ‘What will identify you at the Judgement?’ The answer, for Christians, will lie in how loyal and dedicated each has been in acknowledging and responding to the Son of God’s call in John’s Gospel (15.4) “Make your home in me, as I make mine in you.”
Our Jewish brothers and sisters will answer for themselves.
May Jesus, their brother in race and ours by adoption, bring us both to his heavenly Father.
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.”
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)
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
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.