THIRD SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
‘He sent me to bring the Good News to the poor’
We always pay special attention to the inaugural address of a leader outlining, as it usually does, the vision of the new regime. Today we listen with special attention as Jesus delivers his first sermon in the synagogue in Capernaum. It is His ‘mission statement’ and His mission will be different. He will have a special concern and care for the last, the least and the lost. During His public ministry, He will put flesh on the words of that first sermon. He will touch the untouchable. He will invite the outsider in. He will welcome the sinner home. He will in short, proclaim the equal dignity of all God’s children. G.K. Chesterton, poet, writer and convert to Catholicism, proposed a simple, everyday image to explain the heart of Jesus’ mission: ‘People are equal in the same way that pennies are equal. Some are bright; others are dull; some are worn smooth; others are sharp and fresh. But all are equal in value, because each penny bears the image of the sovereign, each person bears the image of the King of Kings’.
SECOND SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
‘Do whatever He tells you’
here are seven miracles of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of St. John. They are referred to as ‘signs’. The spectacular drama of the Wedding Feast of Cana is a case in point. It teaches us that, when Jesus is invited into a situation, He transforms it for the better. He alone can restore hope when the wine of life runs out. It is deeply significant that the water in the stone jars was no ordinary water. It had been used by the guests to wash their feet as they entered the wedding hall. It was this foul water which Jesus changed into the choicest of wines. The ugly becomes beautiful in His hands. The abundance of wine in the story points to the limitless generosity of God. He takes delight in granting us all we need. The contribution of the servants who filled the stone jars and served the wine reminds us that the Lord relies on us to be His instruments in the world. And finally, we take note of Mary’s instruction to the servants, which are her last recorded words in the Bible: ‘Do whatever He tells you’. It would make a wise New Year’s resolution!
'Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John'
The feast of the Baptism of the Lord marks the end of the Christmas season. The word 'Baptism is derived from the Greek verb 'baptizo', meaning 'I wash or immerse'. And so it was that Jesus, as He embarked on His public ministry, immersed Himself in the waters of the Jordan to be baptized by John. We likewise, were immersed in the waters of the font on the day of our Baptism. On that day we were 'Christened'. We took-on the name of Christ. We identified with His life and mission and joined the ranks of those who believe in Him. That special moment marked the beginning of a walk with the Lord that will last forever. It conferred on us a wonderful dignity and a great responsibility. Near the end of his life, Pope St.John Paul II was asked in interview to name the most important day of his life. Without hesitation, he responded that the day he was baptized was the most important day of his life. More recently, Pope Francis proclaimed that 'Baptism is the best gift we have received since through it we belong to God and possess the joy of salvation'. The early Christians appreciated this wonderful gift and celebrated their Baptism day more passionately than their birthday. Could we recapture that ancient tradition and begin by familiarizing ourselves with the date of our Baptism?
‘The Word was made flesh’
We have just heard an extract from the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel. In the days before the Second Vatican Council this reading was proclaimed at the end of every Mass. Known as the ‘Last Gospel’ it reminded the faithful before their dismissal, of the Good News at the centre of their faith: ‘the Word was made flesh’. Our God walks with us. He has made His home with us and by becoming flesh, has bestowed a sacredness on all of creation. Heaven is literally here on earth. ‘The world around us is the shop front for a greater reality’. We are grateful to John for taking us beyond the surface to the deeper meaning of the Christmas event. The eagle is, appropriately, the symbol of his Gospel. It is believed that the eagle flies higher than all other birds and can look directly into the light of the sun. So it is with John’s Gospel. It takes us higher and deeper into the mystery of our God and the light of His face.
‘They will call Him Emmanuel, a name which means God-is-with-us’
We can’t help remembering at Christmas, because Christmas is about remembering and memories are never indifferent. At Christmas all roads lead to home and our minds turn to everything and everyone we have ever loved. We gather the victories won, the defeats suffered, the opportunities taken or missed. We come face to face with who we are and where we came from and, surrounded by those we love or have loved, whose presence we enjoy, or whose absence we feel, we are drawn to the crib, the place that holds all time together. The message of the manger is Emmanuel. God is with us. When Christ was born so was our hope, a hope that never dies. Christmas isn’t just a day. It’s a frame of mind that should inform our whole year. ‘Peace on earth will come to stay when we live Christmas every day’ (Helen Steiner Rice)
The exact birthday of Jesus is unknown. In the fourth century Christians selected the 25th December to celebrate His coming into the world. It was a pagan festival in honour of the ‘sun god’, and since we believe Jesus to be the ‘Light of the World’, the date seemed especially appropriate. Take Christ out of these days and we are back in the pagan space. We should guard against returning to where we were! Let us, rather, be possessed by the mystery and message of these days. Our God is with us. As we stand before the crib, may we find there again the gentle reassurance of His presence, and may we understand with utter confidence, that we are loved. Then, let us fall silent and rest secure in the heart of God. Nollaig Shona.
‘Rejoice the Lord is near.’
This is ‘Gaudete’ Sunday. The Latin word means ‘rejoice’. We light the pink candle on the advent wreath today to remind us that, while this is a season of quiet reflection it is also a time to be joyful. There is good news in the air. The Lord is near. Joy is something deep and lasting. It is totally different from pleasure. It can co-exist with suffering and struggle. We have only to consider the scene in Bethlehem to grasp the truth of this statement. Despite the dire surroundings, real joy filled the lowly stable. Joy is the most certain sign of the presence of God within us. John the Baptist tells us today that this joy is nourished most powerfully, when we reach out generously in the service of others. ‘If anyone has two tunics he must share with the man who has none’. The key to joy, then, is service. ‘The secret of joy is living to serve.’ (Pope Francis). Those who are happiest are those who do most for their brothers and sisters. Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud this Christmas, and experience true joy.
At the time of Christ, whenever a local ruler was travelling through the countryside his servants went before him to remove obstacles from his path so that he could make a smooth, safe journey. Today, John the Baptist uses that same image, familiar to his listeners, as he cries from the wilderness, asking people to prepare the way of the Lord. Preparing the way of the Lord means removing from our hearts any obstacles that would hinder us from being open to His word. Advent provides a space that enables us to respond, to think again, to straighten the crooked places in our hearts and minds so that we may receive Him with an open receiving heart. Then the beauty of Christmas will be found, not in the presents, but, rather, in His presence.
‘Your liberation is near at hand’
A new Church Year begins. We move into the season of Advent. The word ‘advent’ means ‘coming’. During these days we are asked to think about the coming of Christ at Christmas, His coming at the end of time and His coming into our lives every day. It is really a four-week course in waiting. Over the past two years we have become accustomed to waiting; waiting in the queue; waiting for guidelines; waiting for the roll-out of the vaccine; waiting for updates; waiting for a return to ‘normality’. It has been and continues to be an extended advent time. It may perhaps, help us to enter this grace-filled season more thoughtfully, insightfully and fruitfully. Like its cousin, Lent, it is a moment of opportunity for prayer and growth. We have travelled the road often, but sometimes we see something for the first time on familiar roads. As we gaze on the Advent wreath today we might reflect on the circle of life with its constant cycle of endings and beginnings, comings and goings, while the gentle flame of the candle should reassure us that the darkest night cannot quench the light of hope which a tiny infant brought to our world over two thousand years ago. We wait and we hope.
FEAST OF CHRIST THE KING
‘Mine is not a kingdom of this world’
Pope Pius XI, whose motto was ‘the peace of Christ in the reign of Christ’ instituted this Feast in 1925. Benito Mussolini had just declared himself ‘Il Duce’ (‘The Leader’) of Italy; Stalin had come to power in Russia; Hitler was gaining control in Germany and the Holy Father wanted to remind his flock that, for them, there could be only one ‘duce’, Jesus Christ. He placed the feast, appropriately, at the hinge of the Church Year, to indicate that all time and all seasons belong to the Lord. Christ is a king with a difference. He did not come to reign on a golden throne, but on a wooden cross. His power comes, not through domination, but through humble service. As he stands before Pilate in today’s Gospel, he explains his mission: ‘I have come to bear witness to the truth’. God is Truth and when we stray from Him, we stray from the truth. When on the other hand we seek His truth, love His truth, speak His truth, act His truth, and lead others to discover His truth we enable His kingdom to come within our hearts and within our world.
‘Heaven and earth will pass away’
There is something about the month of November that invites us to reflect on endings and beginnings. As winter tightens its grip and the landscape becomes increasingly barren we are confronted with the stark truth that this world as we know it will pass away. The Word of God these Sundays asks us to live with this awareness. We are reminded that all life is a preparation to meet the King. One day we will stand before Him to account for our stewardship, for the choices we have made. ‘If in the end we have not chosen God, then it will not matter what else we have chosen’ (C.S. Lewis). Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter suggested that ‘we should live our lives each day as though Christ were coming in the afternoon’. His advice is wise. All spectacular achievement is preceded by unspectacular preparation, and by preparing for death we actually clarify life. Doesn’t it make sense to be prepared?
The Widows’ Mite
It is said that there are three types of giver: the grudge giver who says ‘I hate to give’; the duty giver who says ‘I have to give’; the thanks giver who says ‘I want to give’. The widow in today’s Gospel, who gave away all that she had, fits comfortably into the third category. Jesus noticed her quiet gesture and presented her to the ages as a pattern of generosity. Her unsung deed teaches us that the amount of the gift never matters so much as its cost to the giver. Real generosity gives until it hurts. Wealth is not determined by what you have accumulated, but by what you will give when a good deed needs to be done. It is the truly generous who are truly wise and it is the hand that gives that gathers. The little widow was wealthy beyond words
‘Love the Lord your God and your neighbour as yourself’
The core of Jesus’ message was so uncomplicated: ‘Love God and love your neighbour’. Uncomplicated, but not simple! It begins, according to the Master, by having a relationship with God. We love others best when we love God most. If we lose Him, we are more likely to lose respect for others. Pope Francis expressed this another way: ‘when the light of faith goes out, all other lights grow dim’. Look around! When we make space for God in our lives, however, we begin to look at the world and other people through a different lens. Then every encounter becomes a moment of grace and opportunity. We come to see that every creature is full of God and all things speak of God. The celebrated 19th century Indian poet, Tagore had this deep awareness of the all-embracing divine presence in our world and his words should cause us to reflect: ‘when you left my house I found God’s footprints on my floor’
Today we join over one billion of our brothers and sisters in the Catholic world who are observing Mission Sunday. It is a day when our attention is drawn to the Baptismal Font, the place where our faith journey began. On that day we were called to be sharers in the mission of the Church. Mission is at the heart of our Church because our Founder, Christ was the first missionary. If you take all references to mission out of the Bible, you have nothing left except the covers! Consequently, the true greatness of our Church lies not in how many it seats, but in how many it sends-out! The Church must send or the Church will end! We are sent then, to make His voice and His face seen. All we need to be successful missionaries is embedded in the gifts, talents, dreams and visions we possess. We just need to use them
‘We want you to do us a favour’
The Twelve Apostles were not a company of saints. They were ordinary men with feet of clay. They struggled with pride, arrogance, selfishness and lack of understanding. In this episode we see their petty ambition coming to the fore. They wanted preferential treatment from Jesus when He came into His kingdom. Not only are they acting selfishly but they have failed utterly to grasp what he has been preaching, that the call to greatness is the call to service. There cannot be glory without the Cross. It is heartening to remind ourselves that it was with people such as these that Jesus set out to change the world and He did. God brings glory to Himself by doing great things with small tools. He uses us not in spite of our weaknesses but because of our weaknesses. His favourite instruments are ‘nobodies’. We should take heart!
‘He went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth’
The rich young man who meets Jesus appears to have it all. He is essentially decent, upright, enterprising and moral, but he does have one great flaw. He is in the grip of wealth. Back in the first century the Roman philosopher Seneca suggested that ‘wealth is the slave of a wise man, the master of a fool’. The young man represents the many in our world who are incapable of letting-go, taking the extra step. They may avoid doing wrong, but Christianity is more about doing than avoiding. It calls us to ‘cast out into the deep’. Respectability is not enough. When Jesus asked the young man to abandon his attachment to material possessions He was trying to get him to understand that we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give. No one has ever grown poor by giving. St. Francis was surely reflecting on this passage of Scripture when he said: ‘remember that when you leave this earth, you can take with you nothing that you have received-only what you have given’
‘What God has united man must not divide’
‘Marriage has been inscribed in creation’s design by God’ (Pope Francis). It was conceived and born in the Creator’s mind. It is His gift. It is central to His plan for the human family. That is why we go to a sacred place to solemnise the beginning of the marriage journey. Through word and symbol we affirm the permanent, exclusive nature of Christian marriage, which is the ultimate school of love. In His teaching, Jesus presents the handbook for a perfect marriage and those who live their marriage by His handbook will reap the blessings that obedience brings. ‘Happy ever after’ is not a fairytale but a choice! Jesus builds a rampart around the husband-wife relationship. Society would be wise to continue the protection that He proposes because healthy marriages are the bedrock of any solid society. On this bedrock the future of humanity depends. ‘The life of the Church is enriched through every marriage and is impoverished whenever marriage is disfigured in any way’. (Pope Francis)
Children set their watches by their parents’ clocks. This is true across the entire canvass of life. It is especially true with regard to the faith. The ‘little ones’ notice. There is no such thing as neutrality where faith is concerned. We pass-on either a positive or a negative attitude. We must heed the call of Jesus to be stepping stones, and never stumbling blocks to the children on their faith journey. We all ‘caught’ the faith in those early precious days. To be neutral is to place an obstacle on the road, and Jesus warns that judgement will be harsh for those who fail the young. It follows that those who would pass-on the faith must know the territory, and, here the old Latin adage comes to mind: ‘nemo dat quod non habet’ (no one can give what he/ she does not possess). In other words parents must first be in the habit of talking to God about their children before they can talk to their children about God! Every child is God’s vote of confidence in the parents.
‘To pass on to your children the gift of faith you received from your parents is your first duty and your greatest privilege as parents. The home is the first school of religion as it must be the first school of prayer’. (Pope St. John Paul, Limerick 1979)
‘They had been arguing which of them was the greatest’
Today we are surprised to find the friends of Jesus arguing as to which of them is the greatest. Ambition can be healthy or unhealthy. Jesus did encourage His disciples on another occasion to be ‘ambitious for the higher gifts’. This kind of ambition manifests itself in joyful, humble service, the placing of ones’ gifts and talents at the disposal of those who are most powerless. It may even mean being content to take second place in order to promote the greater good. There is unfortunately, an ambition that is unhealthy. It manifests itself in a blind, ruthless, uncaring pursuit of power, status and influence, which leads, ultimately, to emptiness and sterility. We have a choice then. Do we have an ambition to rule or an ambition to serve? Most political and economic problems, most bitter divisions and disputes would be solved if people chose the path of service over the path of power. What our world needs urgently is what Jesus proposed - the heart of the servant. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy highlighted this fundamental choice when he challenged his fellow Americans in his memorable Inauguration Address in January 1961: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask rather what you can do for your country’. That is healthy ambition!
‘Who do you say I am’?
Caesarea Phillippi is situated twenty-five miles northeast of the Sea of Galilee. At the time of Jesus it was a significant centre of pagan worship and it was here that He chose to pose a searching question to His disciples and by extension, to His followers of every generation: ‘Who do you say I am’? In other words, do you really know me, and does it show in your life? Many know about Jesus, but few actually know him. It is one of the great tragedies of our time that many have walked away from their faith without ever having encountered the Person at the centre of it all. And all the while, He stands, waiting to be found. English painter William Holman Hunt captured this truth beautifully in his evocative work ‘The Light of the World’ where Jesus is depicted with lantern in hand knocking on a closed door. The message is clear. He can only enter our house if we allow Him in. It begins in little ways. Dutch artist Vincent Van Gough, a contemporary of Hunt, once said that ‘the best way to know God is to love many things’. It is certainly true that, if we begin to see Him in little things, we will come to see Him in all things. He will make His home with us, and we will live in such a way that those who know us, but don’t know Him, will come to know Him because they know us
‘He makes the deaf hear and the dumb speak’
Today Jesus encounters and heals a deaf man who also has an impediment in his speech. The Lord’s gesture reminds us that the gifts of hearing and speech are among God’s greatest gifts, and are closely connected. Many talk, but few actually listen. Research has found that we only listen at twenty five per cent of our capacity. If we do listen, it is most often with the intent to reply, not to understand. One of the most sincere forms of respect is to listen to what another has to say. The esteemed German theologian, Paul Tilich went so far as to say that ‘the first duty of love is to listen’. It is interesting to note that the words ‘listen’ and ‘silent’ are composed of the same letters! We would do well, then, to heed the wisdom of the Turkish proverb: ‘listen a thousand times and speak once’. In that way, we will be more likely to use the precious gift of speech to lift-up, not to tear down; to heal, not to wound; to help not to hurt. At a recent audience in Rome, Pope Francis concluded his remarks on the theme of listening with a beautiful prayer: ‘May the Lord give us the grace to discern when we should speak and when we should stay silent’.
"This people honours me only with lip service, while their hearts are far from me"
It’s the heart that matters! Jesus returned to this theme often in His preaching. It was a revolutionary message at that time. Central to the religion of the day was the strict observance of rules, regulations and rituals, and the avoidance of foods that were 'unclean'. The Law had become an end in itself. Jesus respected the Law but He despised legalism. He warned against identifying religion with performing external acts. He presented a very different vision, a liberating path, a religion centred on the heart. He directed His listeners to look inwards, reminding them that the heart is the fountain from which all things spring, good or evil. True religion is indeed heart work and the art of authentic Christian living consists in the rhyming of wholesome hearts with worthwhile deeds. If we get the heart right, beautiful deeds will flow. We will reach out to our brothers, sisters and all living things with kindness, tolerance, compassion and respect. May He, who alone can see the 'inside' make our hearts all that they were meant to be.
'I believe that the only true religion is having a good heart'. (Dalai Lama)
‘‘What about you, do you want to go away too?”
The Christian journey hinges on two words: invitation and response. God invites and we have a choice. From the beginning many have chosen to walk away from Jesus and tread other paths. It’s not a uniquely modern phenomenon. The problem today is that many people walk away without making a reflective choice. Having received the faith second-hand, they never go deeper. There is no mature decision involved. Faith sees with the ears and the unexamined faith will wither. There is a crisis of knowledge in the Church family. It could be said that we are drowning in information but starved for knowledge. A recent survey in the United States produced the startling finding that atheists and agnostics have a significantly superior religious knowledge to Catholics. ‘Knowledge is the peg on which we hang the hat of faith, ‘the wing wherewith we fly to heaven’. We cannot have faith in something about which we know nothing! Isn’t it time for the baptized faithful to take a second look and not just walk away?
‘Of all women you are the most blessed’
Mary is explicitly mentioned in only five of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. We don’t know the dates of her birth or her death and yet her light shines like a beacon down the ages. She is ‘everywoman’. She is the woman for all times and seasons. She is the most famous woman in history who has inspired more art and music than any other woman. In our own time, she has appeared on the cover of Time magazine more often than any other woman. Without Mary, there is no Gospel. She is the one who is present where she is needed the most. She is there for her Son in all the pivotal moments of his journey from the hill country of Judea to the Hill of Calvary. She is constantly leading others to Him. ‘Her greatness consists in the fact that she wants to magnify God, not herself’ (Pope Benedict).When Jesus challenged His followers to live, give and forgive like Him, she showed by her humble service that it was possible. Jesus cannot be understood without His mother. ‘The reason why Christ is unknown today is because His mother is unknown’ (Newman). From the sixth century the belief grew, that because Mary’s life and work were so closely united to that of her Son, she was not separated from Him in death. Orthodox Christians hold that she died first and was then taken directly to be with her Son while some in the Catholic tradition believe that she was not allowed to experience death, at all. The Assumption was finally defined as a dogma of faith by Pope Pius XII on November 1st 1950 when, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit he pronounced that: ‘The Virgin Mary having completed the course of her earthly life was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory’. As the shadows lengthen and the shades of autumn appear, we salute Mary ‘the highest honour of our race’ and allow her to come close. ‘Mary is a sign of sure hope and solace for the pilgrim people of God’ (Lumen Gentium). We see in her what we can all become with God’s grace. She is ‘an echo of the heart of God’ (St. Elizabeth of the Trinity). She is ‘our tainted natures’ solitary boast’ (William Wordsworth). She has opened the world’s door to God. She has opened earth to heaven. ‘One ship has rounded the headland. We are the little ships following her home’ (Joseph Cassidy)
‘Anyone who eats this bread will live forever’
In today’s extract from the ‘Bread Section’ of St. John’s Gospel Jesus makes an extraordinary promise. If we eat His flesh and drink His blood we will live with Him forever. There has never been a greater promise made in the whole of history. By sharing in the Eucharist we share in the life of God. As we consume the Eucharist, the Eucharist is meant to consume us. Our vision becomes Christ’s vision. Our hopes and dreams are shaped by His hopes and dreams. Our hearts become His heart reaching out to all of humanity. ‘The effect of receiving the Body and Blood of Christ is that we become what we receive’ (Pope St. Leo the Great). We are dealing with mystery when we contemplate the priceless gift of the Eucharist. A young boy once asked an electrician: ‘What exactly is electricity’? The electrician answered: ‘I really do not know, son, but I can make it give you light’. Likewise, the Church can never fully explain the stupendous mystery of the Eucharist, but she can make it give us the life of Jesus. The Irish people have, through the ages, embraced the mystery and treasured the gift. When the last Chief Secretary of Ireland, Augustine Birrell, was asked by London to report on the level of faith and practice in Ireland he gave a one sentence reply: ‘It’s the Mass that matters’. May it always be so.
‘Work for food that endures to eternal life’
Jack Dempsey was one of the most famous and popular boxers in history. On July 4th 1919 he reached the pinnacle of his career when he defeated Jess Willard to become heavyweight champion of the world. The next morning when he awoke in his hotel room he had a strange sense of emptiness inside. When asked to explain this surprising feeling, he replied: ‘success didn’t taste the way I thought it would. I had won the world championship, so what’? Down through the ages people have discovered as Dempsey did, that worldly success, fame, adulation do not satisfy the deepest hungers of the human heart. Seeking satisfaction in the things of the world is like chasing the wind. Something more is needed, and in chapter six of St. John’s Gospel Jesus points the way. He is the Bread of Life and our hearts will always be restless until they rest in Him. Every longing that we try to satisfy apart from Him will fall short. Come to think of it the main difference between the greatest saint and the greatest sinner is where they go to satisfy the hungers of their hearts. The seventeenth century French philosopher Blaise Pascal expressed it better than most when he wrote: ‘There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each person which cannot be satisfied by any created thing, but only by God the Creator made known by Jesus Christ’.
‘Jesus gave out as much as was wanted’
Chapter six of St. John’s Gospel is known as the ‘Bread Section’. It begins today with the ‘sign’ of the ‘feeding of the multitude’. This is the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels because it prefigures the great event of the Last Supper when the disciples were fed with the ‘Bread of Life’. The episode speaks of the boundless generosity of God and the fact that He alone can satisfy the hungers of the human heart. The little boy offered the little that he had-five barley loaves and two fish- and Jesus did the rest. Nothing is insignificant in His hands. Nothing is lost of what is given to Him. It was this Gospel story that Pope St. John Paul II proclaimed at a Mass with young people in Scotland in 1982. In his homily that day, the Holy Father spoke these encouraging words: ‘The little boy gave all he had and Jesus miraculously fed 5,000 people. It is exactly the same with your lives. Place your lives in the hands of Jesus. He will accept and bless you, and He will make use of your lives in a way that exceeds your greatest expectation’. Today Jesus asks for the loaves and fishes of our time and talents. If we withhold our time and talents we just might miss a miracle!
'You must come away to some lonely place’
Jesus invites His friends to come aside to a lonely place to rest a while. He understood the importance of having rhythm and balance in life. He was teaching them that no fruitful work is possible without the practice of solitude. If they are to journey out to others they must first make the journey inwards to regain their perspective and recharge their spirit. Solitude is the ordeal that gives us the right to speak. Dag Hammarskjold, the second Secretary General of the United Nations extolled the necessity of solitude in these memorable words: ‘Speak only out of silence; act only out of stillness’. It is out of silence and solitude that worship springs. The cultivation of a healthy silence is of the essence if the celebration of the Eucharist on the Lord’s Day is to have meaning. The ‘little encounters’ during the week prepare the ground for the ‘great encounter’ on the ‘Day of the Sun’. These ‘little encounters’ or ‘minute vacations’ can happen over a cup of coffee in the early morning or in a quiet corner of the house when the family has gone to bed. The important thing is to find that sanctuary place each day where God can speak to the heart. God is the friend of silence.
‘You can hear the footsteps of God when silence reigns in the mind'.
‘He began to send them out’
From the outset the Church was missionary. The disciples were sent-out by Jesus to others. Christianity is not a private religion. The prayers of the Mass and the dismissal at the end of the celebration are reminders to us of the outward thrust that must be at the heart of who we are. We strengthen our own faith by sharing it with others. We share it best through our witness. Notice how Jesus concentrates on the lifestyle of the disciples rather than on the message. Witness always speaks louder than words. From the beginning the word of God has encountered apathy and downright opposition. St. Thomas Aquinas said that the four typical substitutes to God are pleasure, wealth, power and honour. These substitutes for God have become increasingly evident in our land and when God is lost people are ‘capable of anything’. The great Irishman, Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary spoke prophetic words back in the 1920’s when he warned that inertia with regard to our faith leads, within two generations, to non-practice and within a further two generations to non- belief. The era of non-belief is with us. Our mission is close to home.
‘A prophet is despised only in his own country’
Jesus is rejected in his own town. A carpenter is a carpenter surely! We know all about his family! How could one of our own possibly have such wisdom? It’s a familiar story. We tend to look to far away hills for inspiration while the treasure is under our feet. God is present in the everyday. His face shines through ordinary people. His voice is heard in unlikely places. ‘There is a divine message in everything’. We would do well to take a second look at those closest to us. There is more to them than meets the eye. How did Jesus react to being rejected by His own people? He didn’t castigate His listeners. He didn’t rant or rail. He didn’t force His message on anyone. He simply withdrew quietly and took His message to another region. The preacher depends on the disposition of the congregation. There can be no preaching to hearts that are closed. If people decide that they won’t understand, they won’t understand. We can either help or hinder the work of Jesus Christ. We can open the door wide to Him or we can shut it in His face. It is interesting to note the sequel to this unpleasant episode. After His rejection Jesus never returned to Nazareth again!
‘They were overcome with astonishment’
The English word miracle derives from an Indo-European word ‘smeiros’ meaning ‘to smile’. The Gospels record thirty-seven miracles performed by Jesus. Each miracle story reminds us that His presence always makes a difference. When He is invited into a situation, no matter how desperate, things change for the better. In today’s Gospel extract, we hear of the raising from the dead of the daughter of Jairus and the healing of the woman who suffered from a long-term haemorrhage. In each case the encounter is personal. In each case a request for healing is made. Jairus, a synagogue official, a man of substance in the community makes the request publicly on behalf of his daughter. The unnamed woman, a person of humble standing, makes her own request privately. Both Jairus and the woman have expectant faith in the Lord and their faith is rewarded. Jesus does not disappoint those who seek His assistance. Neither does He discriminate between the famous and the not so famous. With touch, He healed their bodies. With words, He healed their spirits. With love, He healed their hearts. It is interesting to note that the healing of the woman occurred as Jesus made His way to the home of Jairus. The Master was not annoyed at being sidetracked, because He understood that sometimes what happens on the journey can be as important as what happens when we reach our destination! Many people smiled that day!
‘The wind and the sea obey Him’.
The Gospel of Mark was written around the year 70 AD for the Church in Rome, which had experienced the persecution of Nero, during which great leaders like Peter and Paul were lost. Fear and uncertainty were in the air. There was a feeling abroad that the Lord had abandoned His people. Reassurance was needed. The parable of the calming of the storm would have provided that reassurance to the faithful in those turbulent times. As it was in the beginning, so it is today. Our Church has had to navigate exceedingly stormy waters in recent decades. Even Pope Benedict admitted, on the occasion of his resignation, that there were moments during his papacy ‘when the seas were rough and the wind blew against us and it seemed that the Lord was sleeping’. Whether as Church or as individuals we must never forget who is on board our ship. Sometimes He calms the storm; at other times, He calms the sailor. He never abandons His people.
‘The kindom of God is like a mustard seed’On December 1st 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parkes, a forty-two year old African American working woman refused to vacate her seat on a city bus when ordered to do so by the driver so that a white man could be accommodated. Rosa was arrested. Meetings were called. Martin Luther King emerged. The Civil Rights movement took root. Public transport was boycotted. The Supreme Court of the United States declared Alabama’s segregation laws to be unconstitutional and so ‘a forest fire began with a spark’. No word or deed is insignificant in the hands of God. Mustard seeds grow into trees. Small seeds are growing quietly in our Church. Let us take notice and take heart. We must never be daunted by small beginnings. Great acts take time. We could well adopt the words of encouragement offered by St. Francis Xavier to his followers: ‘Be big in little things’.
‘Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the Living Heart of each of our parishes’ (Pope St Paul V1).
This feast is charged with happy memories of throngs of the faithful moving in devotional processions through streets festooned with papal flags, tricolours and all manner of bunting. At every door stood little altars, laden with statues, holy pictures and candles. The men and women walked proudly and reverently in their ‘Sunday best’, as they prayed the fifteen decades of the rosary and raised their voices with gusto to sing the ancient hymns, while the children from the First Holy Communion class scattered flower petals on the roadway, and all to salute the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. On this day we remember with gratitude all those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith who preserved this treasure for us through days of persecution and days of prosperity. It could be said that we got cheap what they bought dear. They have left us a monument more lasting than bronze. As we accept anew the responsibility of holding the gift in trust for the next generation we recall the words spoken by Pope Benedict to parents some years ago: ‘Please go with your children to Church. This is not time lost. The day becomes more beautiful, the whole week becomes more beautiful when you go to Sunday Mass together’. ‘The moment we separate our lives from the Eucharist, something breaks’ (St. Teresa of Calcutta).
‘Glóir don Athair agus don Mhac agus don Spiorad Naomh’
Here we are at the heart of the mystery of our God. The human tongue can never speak the final word about God; the human mind can never fully understand the mystery of the Trinity. ‘The man who tries to understand it fully will lose his mind, but the one who would deny the Trinity will lose her soul’. Many people have used images through the ages to help us to ponder the mystery. St. Ignatius of Loyola spoke of three distinct notes being played together to form one harmonious chord. Theologian Frank Sheed used the image of water, which can manifest itself as rain, ice or steam. St. Patrick pointed to the shamrock with its’ three shoots emerging from a single stem. We will never fully understand the arithmetic of heaven, but suffice it to say the following: the Father is the Creator and source of all being; the Son is the face of the Creator; the Spirit is the breath of the Creator. The Father works for us; the Son works among us; the Spirit works within us. When we make the Sign of the Cross, we cut through the doctrine and make real our relationship with the Three Persons. Through that profound gesture, we place ourselves in their gaze. We touch the forehead as we ask the Father to make our thoughts noble; we touch the breast as we ask the Son to make our hearts pure; we touch both shoulders as we ask the Holy Spirit to make the work of our hands fruitful and worthwhile. Is leor é sin.
‘Receive the Holy Spirit’
In the year 1873 Dr. Ludwig Zamenhof, a Jew living in Russian Poland endeavoured to create a new international language, ‘Esperanto’, a word meaning ‘one who hopes’, to help break down barriers and increase understanding between ethnic groups. While his vision didn’t take root as he hoped, it is estimated that about two million people worldwide do speak the language today. On this Pentecost Day, as we celebrate the ‘Birthday of our Church’ we recall how the Holy Spirit brought and continues to offer a universal language to the human family, an internal language that reveals itself in what we call the fruits of the Spirit. Whenever we promote love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness or self-control, we speak the language of the Spirit, further the mission of the Church and contribute to the renewal of the face of the earth. ‘Let us too ask for the grace of being able to hear what the Spirit says to our Church, to our community, to our parish, to our family and for the grace to learn the language of the Holy Spirit’. (Pope Francis).
Bethlehem is God with us • Calvary is God for us • Pentecost is God in us.
‘He was taken up into heaven’
As Jesus ascended into heaven, He blessed His friends and they let Him go. Life is like that. As we move from one stage of the journey to the next we must bless what has been and let it go in order to embrace fruitfully what has yet to be. We must not allow ourselves to become prisoners of the past with all its’ hurts and wounds. The past can blind and bind us. Holding on is believing that there is only a past; letting go is knowing there is a future. It was towards that future that Jesus directed His friends as He took their leave. While giving them a glimpse of the world beyond, He directed them to continue His work in this world. This message is presented powerfully in a striking picture of the Ascension in the College Chapel of St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth. Here, as Jesus ascends, we notice that Mary is not looking towards Him, but rather outwards towards us. In other words, we are to find Him now in the lives of the people around us and help them to encounter Him. That is our mission and the reward for our efforts will be, literally, out of this world. The Feast of the Ascension, then, teaches us much about going forward, going out, going home and letting go.
‘Love one another as I have loved you’
Love is a much-used word in our world today. It has become an umbrella term to encompass enjoyment, fascination and infatuation. It is employed at times to suggest a way of living that is without responsibility, without boundaries, without principles. Jesus guides us in a different direction. The One who was known as the ‘man for others’ lived a life that was marked by humble service, selflessness and sacrifice. From country roads to city streets, from lake shore to mountain top He revealed a love that was new. It was a love that manifested itself in hands that healed, feet that walked the extra mile, eyes that looked with compassion, ears that listened with empathy, and words that lifted up and encouraged. It was a love that promoted the greatest good of all whom He encountered, and nobody was beyond the reach of that love. It was a love that led Him to the Cross. We are called to mirror that love today. It’s a tall order and it will lead us to difficult places too. It will cause grey hairs and heartbreak, stressful days and sleepless nights, but, in the end, joy. The love that Jesus proposes is as simple and as difficult as that
‘I am the vine you are the branches’
The image of the vine and the branches is one of the fundamental images of the New Testament. Jesus uses this image as He addresses His disciples in the Upper Room on the night before He died. It reminds us of a truth which we have all re-discovered in a striking way during the past year: everything is interconnected. My interest is linked to everyone else’s. We are all leaves on different branches of the same vine. For the family of believers the vine is Christ. At the centre of Christianity, there is a person. Stay close to Him and all things are possible. Lose Him and die. The image teaches us also that the vine needs the branches. The mission of Christ is our mission now. We are to be His hands, feet, ears, eyes and tongue. This is a profound and privileged task which should cause us to ask ourselves a simple question every day. Does the example of our lives turn the thoughts of others to God?
Eucharist and priesthood were born in the Upper Room in Jerusalem on Holy Thursday night. The two gifts are inextricably linked. Without priests we are deprived of the nourishment of the Eucharist. This fact should give us pause for thought on Vocations Sunday. Vocation to priesthood is a gift from God, but grows and is nurtured within family and community. Without support, encouragement and even invitation, the call will wither and die. ‘It takes a village to raise a child’, according to the African proverb. We might well say that it takes a community to make a priest. The eternally challenging words of Pope St. Paul VI come to mind here: ‘Every generation gets the vocations it deserves’. This day, of course, has a wider reach. It is a day for all the baptised. The mission of the Church is the mission of all. When someone utters the words, ‘I am on a mission’, you know that he/she is embarked on a task that is important and urgent. The mission of all in the Church family is nothing less than making the Lord’s word heard and His face visible. There is no more privileged, more important or more urgent work than that. Since lay people form the majority of the Church family, their role in this work is critical. They accomplish this work most effectively through the general witness of their daily lives. Holiness in the family and in the workplace takes on a very ordinary appearance. Laity, not clergy, are the most important people in the Church. They hold the key to the future. The ministry of priests and religious will be centred on supporting the mission of the laity.
‘He showed them His hands and feet’
In World War II a doctor leaned over an horrific wound on the side of a young soldier. As the soldier came to, the doctor whispered gently to him: ‘I’m sorry son, you will live, but I have to tell you that you have lost your arm’. The soldier smiled and said, ‘I didn’t lose it, I gave it’. Some wounds can be scars of shame, but others are badges of honour, evidence of love and sacrifice and care. ‘Our wounds are often the openings into the best and most beautiful part of us’ (David Richo). In today’s Gospel extract, the disciples recognised Jesus in His wounds. When He showed them His hands and feet, they remembered the love that was given and they believed. It called forth a similar love in them. It led them to the shedding of their blood too. On Holy Saturday night we inserted five grains of incense into the Paschal Candle to represent the five wounds He carried in His body on the Cross. They remind us of how much we are loved. May we always be aware of His wounds and the wounds of those closest to us who have made us who we are. By His wounds we are healed. By their wounds we were made. We connect at the point of our wounds.
A quieter day, but Easter glory still fills the air. Behind closed doors, the disciples are dazed and dispirited. Then Jesus appears, but Thomas is not there. An annual reminder here of the power and importance of praying with the community. Eight days later Thomas is present with the community. He encounters the Lord, his questions are answered and his life is changed forever. The doubting disciple is moved to utter, in five short words, the most profound profession of faith in the entire Gospel: ‘My Lord and my God’. He will now become one of the foundation stones of the fledgling Church. The message is clear. We absent ourselves from the community gathering at a cost. At this time, our gathering is from a distance from necessity, but even from a distance we are nourished and strengthened. Thomas recognises Jesus in His hands. The story of our lives is etched in our hands. The fruits of caring, giving and loving are there for the world to see. Jesus’ love for us led Him to the Cross and when Thomas saw the hands, he remembered, he understood and he believed.
"He is risen, Alleluia."
If Jesus did not rise from the dead, life is absurd, the grave is without hope and our faith is meaningless. The resurrection then, was the most significant event in human history. It elevates Christianity above all other world religions. It’s no wonder that it is mentioned more than one hundred times in the New Testament. We live in the shadow of Easter and we rejoice on this day, the greatest of all Sundays in the Christian calendar. The tomb is empty. Life has a destination. Hope dawns anew. Our God reigns. His victory is our victory. Good has triumphed over evil; light over darkness; peace over chaos. The fact that He rose at the darkest hour, just before the dawn is a striking reminder that, when all seems lost, resurrection is near. When we reach ‘rock bottom’ we discover that Christ is the rock at the bottom. The experience of the women who went to the tomb on that Easter morning speaks to us too. They were worried about the stone. Who would move it? Their worries were unfounded. In life, we fret endlessly, never more so than over the past twelve months, but God knows His plan and all shall be well. Because of the resurrection, there is a future for every human being. May we radiate the hope and joy of the Easter message in all we think, say and do.
‘Blessings on him who comes on the name of the Lord’
Today we turn our faces to Jerusalem once again and are transported back to the event that marked the beginning of the week we call ‘holy’. It’s a curious scene as the King of Peace comes to His city riding on a donkey. Contrary to popular opinion, the donkey was regarded as a noble animal in Palestine. When a king went to war, he rode on a horse. When he came offering peace, he rode on a donkey. Holy Week is a week of contrasts, a week of exaltation and humiliation, acclamation and condemnation, darkness and light, betrayal and loyalty, despair and hope, sadness and joy, fickleness and faithfulness, human suffering and divine triumph. During the days ahead, through word, music and especially through symbol, we remember and enter into the greatest story ever told. Our lives are determined more by what is done to us than by what we do and in His passion and death, Jesus shows us how to respond to what is done to us. In His final hours on earth He absorbs and transforms hatred and returns it as love. Holy Week is an academy of love.
HOLY THURSDAY: Eucharist and Priesthood were born on this night in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. The two gifts are inextricably linked. No priests; no Eucharist. In washing the feet of His friends, Jesus showed us that celebration of the Eucharist should lead to humble service.
GOOD FRIDAY: The wood of the Cross is the throne of grace, a sign of His love, an invitation to love, a revelation about love. On this day, we tell the story of the last hours of Jesus; we pay our respects to His body; we are nourished with food for the journey. While the world changes, the Cross stands firm. It’s no wonder we call this Friday ‘Good’.
HOLY SATURDAY: The Scriptures don’t explain the Resurrection; the Resurrection explains the Scriptures. On this most holy night, we light the Paschal candle; we proclaim the Easter story; we bless the Easter water; we receive the Bread of Life. We allow the symbols to speak. He is risen Alleluia!
‘Unless a wheat grain falls to the ground and dies it remains only a single grain’.
By using the image of the wheat grain falling to the ground and dying Jesus teaches that life comes through death, greatness through service. The image captures in a striking way the story of His own mission and ministry. By dying, He destroyed our death. From the time of Jesus, the history of the Church has been adorned with examples of valiant souls who, through their blood, provided the seed of renewal and rebirth. ‘The blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church’. Not only the Church but the world in general owes everything to people who give selflessly. We can recall the heroic sacrifices of our parents, who never counted the cost. The simple grain of wheat contains the wisdom of the ages. It is not what we take up but what we give up that makes us rich. Self-sacrifice and self-forgetfulness are the master keys to true happiness. It is indeed in giving that we receive. It is in sharing that we retain. It is in dying that we are born again to eternal life. If we choose to become wrapped up in ourselves, we become very small parcels. The great Spanish painter, Pablo Picasso expressed it better than most when he wrote that ‘the meaning of life is to find your gift, but the purpose of life is to give it away’.
In the first chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel we are given an insight into a day in the life of Jesus as He moves from prayer to active ministry. We find Him teaching in the synagogue, visiting the home of Peter, healing those who were sick and finally, praying in the wilderness. On entering the synagogue He is confronted by a man possessed by an unclean spirit. It is His first encounter with the Kingdom of Darkness and marks the beginning of a ferocious battle that will continue from Capernaum to Calvary. Good and evil are very hard to explain or understand. What we do know is that each of us is a mixture of both. ‘The battle line between good and evil runs through the heart of every person’ (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn). The struggle is essentially an internal one. Consequently, we should make it our constant care to nourish our hearts with all that is good, beautiful, noble and worthwhile so that the light may triumph over the darkness. The greatest threat to our efforts occurs when the lines become blurred, when the unacceptable is seen as acceptable, the indefensible as defensible, the inappropriate as appropriate. This blurring of lines is sadly, a hallmark of our increasingly secular world. To see evil and call it good, mocks God. To see the good and choose the good, gives Him glory. (31st January 2021)
‘What are you looking for’?