‘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’?