20 OCTOBER 2019: TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME.

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Parable of the Unjust Judge, Nicola Sarić

To read this Sunday’s Mass Readings, click here.

[Jesus said] “Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night?”    Luke 18:7.

In Scripture there is a significant challenge when it comes to time. There seems to be a regular time, familiar to us all, and then there is a special, or God’s, time. In Greek there are, in fact, two different words for them, χρόνος (chronos), from which we get chronological, etc., meaning regular time with which we are all familiar. That is the word used in verse 8 of the gospel: “..for a long time the judge was unwilling…” The other word for time in ancient Greek is καιρός (kairos), meaning the opportune moment, originally taken from such practical situations such as the moment when an arrow can be released with correct force so that it will enter the target successfully, or the moment in weaving when the shuttle can be passed through the threads of the loom. I think that is a valuable distinction which helps us understand a challenging parable such as we have today. In English I think this sense of the word should be used, with the idea of picking the right, exact moment, kairos, to do something, to understand Jesus’ words.

So in today’s gospel we have a tough judge being henpecked by a widow for a judgment in her case, whatever it was. Eventually, over time, he is sick of it, saying that he had better settle it, as it says in today’s gospel, “lest she finally come and strike me.”  Interestingly, this is apparently taken from boxing terminology, and could also be translated as “lest she give me a black eye!” So this widow is not the shy, retiring supplicant we might suppose. And she gets her way. But Jesus says quite definitely that with God you can expect a “speedy” answer. But for those of us who have not, in our opinion, received such an answer, what can be said? Well the only thing I can think of is the distinction between those two understandings of time, God’s and ours.  If we have been begging for something for a long time, how does that fit with today’s gospel? Scripture says of God’s time that “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2nd Peter 3:8) and A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night” (Psalm 90:4). That would seem to be a definition of God’s time, God’s kairos. Definitely not our idea! But I’m sure many of us have experiences of God’s intervention as requested. Now miraculous interventions for very grave situations are extremely rare, but there are more regular requests which when granted might have the finger of God there. For example asking St. Anthony of Padua for help in finding something lost. I’ve experienced that and have been baffled how finding it happened (…but I looked there a 1000 times and it wasn’t there – but there it is!). And also remember St. Anthony has to ask God to intervene and being such a close friend, it has happened! Have you had such an experience?  Take a look at this. In my opinion, that is the Communion of Saints at work: God’s kairos is present and we have friends above! And if we are really serious, asking a group of contemplatives, such as the Carmelites, to pray for our intention cannot hurt. And ultimately, if our request is not granted, somewhere there will be a reason even if locked away in heaven. 

So perhaps today’s gospel invites us to take a theological look at our situations when we ask God (or the saints) for something. Yes our requests are heard; yes sometimes they are answered, even immediately, and sometimes in ways we do not expect, and sometimes they are not answered. The point is that we always have someone on high who listens to us, who knows us and who knows best. We might have to resign ourselves to acceptance of a bad situation and work our way through it, also with God’s help. In all cases, then, we are never alone, wherever we may be. Ultimately that should be a comfort, trusting that God has done the right thing. Jesus must have trusted that when he breathed his last. And he was right.

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Shrine of St. Anthony, Padua, Italy.

Roger

Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.

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13 OCTOBER 2019: TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

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The Samaritan Leper, Codex Aureus of Echternach c.1030Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, Germany.

For this Sunday’s Mass Readings, click here.

[Jesus said] “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine?  Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”      Luke 17:17-18.

At the very heart of Christianity there is gratitude. The very word eucharist (from the Greek ευχαριστω, eucharistō, or thank you) means thanksgiving. It is the reason we go to Mass on Sunday, to give God thanks for the blessings we have received, beginning with life itself. A life of gratitude is a life which is based in reality. All we have, inside and out, is a gift, and for gifts we say “thank you”. The true prayer after receiving the Lord in communion is a simple “thank you”. In today’s gospel, only one of the ten lepers cured of perhaps the most dreaded disease of that time, returned to Jesus to say thank you. His life, and those of the other nine, had been completely changed when they developed leprosy. There was no cure of course. It was contagious and disfiguring, and so those who had it were excommunicated, in the true sense of the word: they were cast out of the community, forbidden to come near anyone else, ever. Hence the gospel description of them standing at a distance, and having to shout to the Lord for help. There is an additional twist in this story, as the only one who returned to Jesus was a Samaritan. The introduction to today’s gospel says Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem. He was traveling from his homeland of Galilee and to get to Jerusalem he had to go through Samaria. As I have mentioned many times before, there was no love lost between the Jews and the Samaritans, even though both were Jewish. The Samaritans denied that the Temple in Jerusalem was the true temple; that was to be found in Samaria. Samaritans claimed that the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, were alone the Word of God; all the other books, including the prophets, the psalms and of course today’s reading from the Second Book of Kings, were simply pious writings. There is nothing to compare to the hatred to be found sometimes in families, and here in the Holy Land itself it was to be found in spades between these two groups. Hence the astonishment that the Samaritan leper alone returned to give thanks to the Jew from Galilee. Even Jesus called him a “foreigner”. But the final twist is this: this man is the only one in all the gospels who thanked Jesus for what he had done!

One can find gratitude in St. Paul writing from prison where, as he says, he sits in chains “like a criminal”. He was under sentence of death for his beliefs; he had sent away Onesimus, the man who had done his best to help him, but whose conversion to Christianity meant he was more valuable as a missionary than as a servant to Paul, who writes: “But the word of God is not chained. Therefore, I bear with everything for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus…” Paul is grateful that as a servant of God, he has been able to bring others to the freedom of the love of God in Jesus. He is thankful that God has called him to such a life, and he rejoices in their happiness. I guess it is like seeing the silver lining around the darkest of dark clouds. The darker the cloud, the brighter the silver lining! Paul compounds this with his famous declaration of the faithfulness of Jesus, no matter what. In all and every circumstance, in the bleakest of bleak situations when all seems to be lost, Jesus is faithful to us “for he cannot deny himself”. In other words, we are never alone, never. Jesus, our faithful companion and leader is with us always when we let him. We might not have leprosy (which can still be found however), but we might have cancer, we might be in terrible situations, we might on the other hand be very comfortable; whatever our situations might be, we have a faithful leader directing our actions in the way of truth and righteousness. And we should never forget to say thank you for the peace and confidence he gives us no matter what. So however negatively we might consider ourselves, perhaps unable to forgive ourselves, remember that Jesus actually cleansed a leper whom most Jews would have considered an enemy of the people twice over, as he was also a Samaritan. But he was the only one who returned and thanked the Lord, who accepted his thanks and who was the one who stood by him. And so it is and should be for all of us.

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ThankYouDiva.com

Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.

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Roger

6 OCTOBER 2019: THE TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME.

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Lord of the Harvest: Urgency, CP Churchplants.

Click here to see today’s Sunday Mass Readings.

When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’            Luke 17:10

Well today’s readings offer a significant challenge to us all. Reading the gospel of the 27th Sunday seems to to offer nothing but drudgery, slavery even. Having worked all day, Jesus says, don’t expect the employer to offer you thanks or help or praise, because you have simply done what you are paid for and expected to do. Nothing more, nothing less. Having come back to the master’s house after a day of work, do not expect an invitation to sit down and feast, rather be prepared for a command to get the dinner ready for the boss! Only then, Jesus says, can you rest, but yet don’t wait for praise you might think you’re due after such a day. You have simply done what is required of you. And that is expected day after day until the last day… St. Paul today today tells us to bear our share of hardship for the gospel, but be assured that we don’t do that alone; our strength comes from God. And today’s first  reading says that although everything around us might be darkness and ruin, “the vision” (presumably offering hope and victory) will come in its own good time. So although times might be bleak they are not permanent; better times will come. But that is in the Old Testament. There seems to be more hope in the New, because we follow where Jesus went, and for us the ultimate hope lies in the resurrection and eternal happiness.

So today’s readings might well be a corrective for unwarranted self-praise or resentment because we have not been praised or rewarded for work done or achievement attained. In fact, that sort of resentment can gnaw at the soul relentlessly, causing great damage. In that case, Jesus’ words today might well come as healing: don’t expect any praise at all, simply doing what is required of us to the best of our ability is satisfaction enough. We have simply done our duty as servants of the Lord. But remember another teaching of the Lord if all this seems to be totally bleak: “Well done good and faithful servant, enter into my happiness” (Matthew 25:23). It can be safely assumed that this servant did exactly what Jesus is telling us today in the gospel. We must do what we must do in obedience to the Lord’s command, expecting nothing in this life. So hope is important here. If life is tough, if we are at our wits end, if there is no sign of rescue or help, we must struggle on in hope. Remember Our Lord on the cross: that is exactly what he looked out on from his cross. Yet he did not despair; God was, in some incredible way, still present. It is from that belief we draw out strength when events and situations overwhelm us. Hope in the Lord is our passport through any challenge no matter how devastating it might seem to be. Each of us has been put on this earth with the clear expectation that we are here for each other. Through that belief we are called to goodness, and if at any time we are the ones in need of help, let us hope there are others ready to do that; if not, then we throw ourselves on the mercy of the Lord, the source of eternal mercy. 

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The Intercession of Christ and the Virgin, attrib. Lorenzo Monaco 1402, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA.

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Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.

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29 SEPTEMBER 2019: THE TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME.

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Lazarus and Dives, Codex Aureus of Echternach c.1030–1050, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, Germany.

You can see Sunday’s Mass Readings by clicking here.

Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.‘   Luke 16:31.

Continuing the theme from last Sunday and the one before, Jesus teaches us the importance of wealth and the obligations it imposes. Today we have perhaps the most direct, unmistakable and unambiguous teaching, or parable, of the lot. Lazarus lies helpless, starving, disease-ridden and ignored at the gate of the wealthy Dives (pronounced Dy-vees, the traditional name given to the rich man, though not found in Scripture). Each, when called from this life, goes to the opposite situation for eternity, Dives to suffering, Lazarus to paradise. It could hardly be clearer. If we have the means, we are under divine orders to help those who do not, and woe betide those who do not so act. Period.

All that started me thinking about generosity on a national level. Each year the Gallup organization conducts a survey of world countries to discover which are the most generous. They ask three questions: Have you donated money to a charity? (Answer ‘yes’: 1.4 billion people). Have you volunteered time to help an organization? (Answer ‘yes’: 1 billion people). And, have you helped a stranger in need in the past month? (Answer ‘yes’: 2.2 billion people). Take a look:

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(It seems Sudan, Angola and a few others were not included).

So it does seem that helping others is very well obeyed in many parts of the world. Getting a little closer to home, how about the Christian churches in the USA: how much do they receive from their faithful? The Giving Institute has calculated that an estimated $358.38 Billion was donated to charity in the USA in 2014. This rose to $410.02 Billion in 2017, the first time that figure had gone over $400 billion. A significant proportion of this was done through donations to the various Christian churches. I wondered how the Catholics had fared here. The Roman Catholic Church is the biggest single Christian church in the USA. It is difficult to find figures less than  five or six years old, but back then Catholic church membership was reckoned at 68 million, with the second largest, the Southern Baptist Convention, at 16 million. Both have declined since then for various reasons, though scandal and betrayal have almost certainly played their parts. One survey tells us that “There are still a lot of buck-a-week Catholics: Catholics give less than 1.2 percent of their income to the church, about half of Protestant giving levels.” Other sources support that conclusion: “Compared to Protestant affiliation, both Catholic affiliation and Jewish affiliation reduce the scope of average giving, when other influences are held constant.” (Philanthropy Roundtable). So today’s gospel might well be aimed at us! Pope Francis recently threw out a challenge to us all, saying that charity is not simply putting money in the plate to calm the conscience; it must also be active love of neighbor in some way.

So, given the facts, and placing today’s gospel alongside them, each one of us is called to examination of conscience. Are we in fact doing all we should as Christians to respond to God’s call to love our neighbors as ourselves? I for one must be honest with myself and wonder what more – and how – I can do in this regard. It is not easy, but it is essential. To provide a moment of quiet contemplation, here is a website which might help, with music actually inspired by the story of Dives and Lazarus. The great English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, inspired by today’s gospel and a traditional English folk melody, wrote this piece of music, Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus. The pictures reflect the English countryside.

The melody also fits with this hymn, also reflective of today’s gospel message:

I heard the voice of Jesus say, “Come unto Me and rest;
Lay down, thou weary one, lay down Thy head upon My breast.”
I came to Jesus as I was, weary and worn and sad;
I found in Him a resting place, and He has made me glad.

I heard the voice of Jesus say, “Behold, I freely give
The living water; thirsty one, stoop down, and drink, and live.”
I came to Jesus, and I drank of that life giving stream;
My thirst was quenched, my soul revived, and now I live in Him.

I heard the voice of Jesus say, “I am this dark world’s Light;
Look unto Me, thy morn shall rise, and all thy day be bright.”
I looked to Jesus, and I found in Him my Star, my Sun;
And in that light of life I’ll walk, till traveling days are done.

Horatius Bonar, 1808-1889.

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The Good Samaritan, Veronese c.1585, Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, Germany.

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Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.

Apologies for this week’s late delivery.

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22 SEPTEMBER 2019: TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

The Worship of Mammon

The Worship of Mammon, Evelyn de Morgan 1909, De Morgan Centre, London, UK.

Click here to read Today’s Sunday Mass Readings.

Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and mammon.”       Luke 16:13.

When I was on Wall Street, I felt empty. I tried to fill that hole inside me with money and power and prestige. But that hole doesn’t get filled by money — it gets filled by connection and empathy and love (Sam Polk: Why I walked away from Wall Street—and millions of dollars). Last Sunday I talked of Jacob Marley and Ebenezer Scrooge and their relentless pursuit of money to the exclusion of everything and everyone else. Marley realized his mistake in doing this on his deathbed; Scrooge relived his whole life (and its ending) with the help of his three spirits and came to the same conclusion, and knew what had to be done to make amends. Today’s readings carry the same message; in the gospel’s own words, You cannot serve both God and mammon. That word mammon comes to us directly from the Bible, and derives ultimately from the ancient Aramaic term for money or wealth. As a teacher of many years, I know that many young people are really focused on making as much money as possible, today even more so. The thinking is to make enough so that they will not retire into poverty and squalor, convinced that America’s social security funding will evaporate and knowing that many companies do not have pension schemes for their employees. So today’s perception of wealth seems to flying the face of Jesus’ words stating wealth contradicts God. So perhaps the whole question rests on Jesus’ use of the verb serve. Does one serve wealth or God? Is our priority here to make money exclusively or to be true to the gospel? 

In the same 1951 Christmas Carol movie I drew upon last week, Scrooge’s first two efforts to atone when he woke up on that Christmas Morning (following his nightmarish adventure) were to send a huge turkey as a gift, anonymously, to his clerk Bob Cratchit; the other, on the same day, was to give his housekeeper Mrs. Dilber a present into her hand of a gold sovereign (a valuable gold coin in circulation at that time) and a raise in wages.

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A Christmas Carol, Renown Pictures Corporation 1951,  Alastair Sim & Kathleen Harrison.

Her incredulity at the change in Scrooge’s temperament and attitude can be seen clearly: is this the same man who has treated me so poorly for years? Scrooge himself cannot believe the change within himself; he even says he doesn’t deserve to feel so happy as he plans his new life! What he does, of course, is immediately to help those around him whom he has abused for so long. At long last he has recognized and accepted their dignity and given them the respect that every person deserves, including even his own family. So the question is, is that incompatible with making money, with making a living? Clearly not. It is legitimate and necessary to earn enough to keep body and soul together so long as we never forget those around us who are not so fortunate. Christians have an obligation to assist others who are in need, even if it does hurt somewhat to give of one’s own wealth. Remember the story about the widow’s mite and Jesus’ teaching that we should give of our substance, not just “contribute” where we would not really miss the amount. In other words, we have to intend to be and actually be generous, and hence be pleasing in God’s eyes, especially if no-one knows about it except God…  So this means that wealth – mammon – is not the beast in charge of our lives, but rather our servant, slave even, actually helping us to become true Christians, loving God and neighbor and also ourselves in appropriate and unselfish ways. And so it, mammon, wealth, serves us rather than the other way round. As a consequence, we should be able to achieve the peace that the second reading today talks about, when St Paul says, “It is my wish, then, that in every place we should pray, lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument.” 

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The Widow’s Mite, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo c.500, Ravenna, Italy.

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Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.

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15 SEPTEMBER 2019: TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

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The Adoration of the Golden Calf, Poussin 1634, National Gallery, London, UK.

Click here to read this Sunday’s Mass Readings. 

Jesus said, “In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”         Luke 15:10.

In the 1951 superb movie of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, there is a scene where Ebenezer Scrooge goes to his business partner, Jacob Marley’s house as he had been told several hours before that Jacob was dying. Refusing to close his office early, Scrooge waited until his 7:30 closing hour in the evening to go see his partner for the last time. Gasping for breath, Marley utters his last words: “We were wrong”.

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A Christmas Carol, Renown Pictures Corporation 1951,  Alastair Sim & Michael Hordern.

Scrooge laughs this off, “Well we can’t be right all the time” and thinks no more of it. Marley, of course, is referring to their entire business history, where they concentrated simply and solely on making money, no matter what. They had no thought of the distress and pain of others; if it didn’t make them money they were not interested. On his deathbed, Jacob Marley had come to this deadly realization that his entire life was an abomination in the eyes of God. Dickens’ entire story, of course, is the slow path Scrooge himself goes down to reach the same conclusion, with the help of the famous three spirits, but with time left to make amends. Today’s readings give scriptural support to that same journey. The golden calf in today’s first reading easily stands in for Marley’s deathbed vision of a life spent worshipping money; St. Paul, in his letter to Timothy, today’s second reading, agonizes over his earlier life when he persecuted the followers of Jesus before being saved by the grace of God, hence a parallel to Scrooge’s journey to redemption. And then today’s gospel with the joy that God and the angels feel at the sinner coming to his senses and being saved by God’s mercy. 

So once more we come to the grim reality of the condition of remorse. Marley experienced it too late (though God’s mercy is unlimited and incomprehensible). And Scrooge’s abounding joy as he experiences for the first time the genuine love of his neighbors and his family, having plumbed the depth of remorse during his conversion. I am reminded of another example of remorse. Dr. Samuel Johnson, creator of one of the first dictionaries of the English Language, and one of the great minds of his time, grew up in a poor family in the north of England in the 18th century. His father was an itinerant bookseller, going from town to town and setting up shop in marketplaces. Young Samuel was too proud to help his father, refusing to stand in for him when he was ill. As an adult, of course, he realized his arrogance and misplaced pride, and suffered from the deepest remorse. One way he handled it this is shown here:

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Dr. Johnson Doing Penance in the Market Place of Uttoxeter, Staffordshire, Eyre Crowe 1869, Dr. Johnson’s House, London, UK. 

He did penance, in his own words: Pride was the source of that refusal, and the remembrance of it was painful. A few years ago I desired to atone for this fault. I went to Uttoxeter in very bad weather and stood for a considerable time bareheaded in the rain on the spot where my father’s stall used to stand. In contrition I stood, and I hope the penance was expiatory. (Boswell’s Life of Johnson, 1786). Remorse is, I think, a taste of hell. It is a realization that we have done wrong, cannot undo that wrong, and yet yearn to do something, anything, to make amends. For all the pain which accompanies it, it can lead to a better life. So in a strange way, it is a life-giving pain. The rejoicing in heaven when even one of us going through such a painful transition to a much happier, self-fulfilling state, now aware of God’s other children around us, is considerable, as the gospel says. Each one of us is that single sheep from today’s gospel, so precious in the eyes of the Lord that the others are left in their self-righteousness to get on with it; each of us is that lost coin, with God searching and searching for us until we are found, until we recognize our dependence on the Lord’s mercy. Remember the definition of mercy, compassion on someone who does not deserve it. We are each that precious in the eyes of the Lord. 

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Rescue of the Lost Lamb, Minerva Teichert, 1939, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. USA.

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Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.

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8 SEPTEMBER 2019: TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME.

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The Institution of the Eucharist, Tiepolo 1753, National Gallery of Art, Copenhagen, Denmark.

For Today’s Mass Readings, Click Here.

Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”  Luke 14:26.

“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you  thousand times”…. “Oh my, this shopping weighs a ton” … “If I said that at home my father would kill me” … “Your husband is as thin as a rake”. A thousand times? A ton? Kill?rake? I wonder what the world would be like without hyperbole; certainly duller, less vivid, more boring. How about this:

“Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No. This my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.”     Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act II, Scene II.

Over-exaggeration has been around for a very long time, and it seems to have found a home in today’s gospel. But this is a hard passage nevertheless. Jesus seems to be saying it is a prerequisite to hate just about everyone before one can become a Christian! Clearly the literal meaning cannot be taken as Jesus’ real meaning. But a scene from Robert Bolt’s masterpiece A Man For All Seasons comes to mind. Thomas More, ex-Chancellor of England, once the most powerful man in the kingdom after the king (Henry VIII) himself, is confined to the Tower of London for refusing to swear to the Act of Parliament acknowledging Henry to be head of the Church. He will not say that; he simply refuses to sign the document stating it. To deny it out loud would be construed as treason, the penalty for which is death by hanging, drawing and quartering. Imprisonment is the punishment for refusal to sign. But his family is allowed to visit him. They have been allowed on condition they try to convince More to sign on the dotted line. He refuses. His wife and children think he must hate them for so refusing. Not so; he, a lawyer, states that if there were the slightest little chink in the Act which would allow him to sign, he would, and then be would be back with them. There isn’t: it’s watertight. If he signed it, he would be betraying that which he holds dearest, his faith in Jesus and his vicar on earth, the Pope (still one of the Pope’s titles to this day). He holds true to his belief, is found guilty of treason in court as a result of a witness’s perjury, is condemned, and is executed (commuted to beheading). Did he “hate” his family? Very clearly no. Might it look that way? Possibly to someone not familiar with true belief, but it would not be true.

I believe that Thomas More’s faith is the type of faith Jesus is talking about today. Are we prepared to go to the wall in defense of our belief in him? All the church’s martyrs have through the centuries. Have they all hated those dearest to them. It would be nonsense to think so. But in today’s teaching, it is clear that Jesus expects us to be rock solid in our belief, which is not hyperbole! And that is the challenge thrown at us this Sunday. Is there within each of us a permanent, absolute faith in the Lord which nothing on earth could move? It is said that only at times of great challenge, whatever it might be: terrible illness, unexpected death of someone close, financial ruin, whatever, it is only then that any one of us knows if we have such faith. Let us pray that none of us ever has to go through such a trial (we pray for that every time we say the Lord’s prayer). But it is crystal clear what Jesus’ expectation of us is at such times. He comes first, last and always, no matter what, as seen in today’s illustration above. The focus is on the self-giving Jesus surrounded by faithful companions, save for the one at the right hand side, who has chosen another path. The other two readings seem to flesh out the implications of today’s gospel. The Book of Wisdom states clearly that the things of this world, its worries and concerns, are real and might obstruct the vision of heaven.  But if we can rise above them, then, according to the second reading, written apparently by Paul when an old man, a prisoner and awaiting death, anything is possible. Paul is sending his servant (possibly a slave) back to Philemon even though he needs assistance in his old age. But Onesimus is clearly more than a servant; he has been instructed in the faith of Christ and is now a disciple able to bring others to the freedom of Christ. Hence Paul would have thought himself selfish to have retained him. He is able to rise above that, and think of others. Hence focus on Christ seems inevitably to lead to the needs of others and the challenge that offers to each of us. And at that point, we return to Jesus’ teaching. We should sit down and think about our commitment to him. Just like the man building a tower or a king figuring out how to deal with a threat, Jesus seems to be saying that we, like them, are called to estimate our commitment to the Lord and whether we can indeed rise to the occasion. 

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“Totus Tuus” (Totally Yours). Two Dominican sisters joining Lansing Catholic High School.

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1 SEPTEMBER 2019: TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME.

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Soup Soul, Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, Holy Apostles Church, New York City, USA. 

To read this Sunday’s Mass Readings, click here.

[Jesus said] Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind…         Luke 14:13

A new book has just been published, Dominion: the Making of the Western Mind, by British author Tom Holland. He has some startling observations to make about how Christianity contains two deeply radical concepts which have shaped western civilization right to the present time. One, from Jewish roots, that God created us in the divine image, hence every human being has an inherent, unassailable human dignity, and the other from the Lord himself, that the lowest of the low enjoy a potential relationship which is closer to God that any king or pope. Jesus suffering the death of a common criminal in the most downtrodden, brutally disgusting way, yet emerging as savior of the world rocks the foundations of all philosophies which went before. There is a logic therefore in the development of the idea that every human being has rights which are unassailable. This foundational ideal springs directly from Scripture and (possibly unknowingly) is supported by people who would shudder at being called Christian. It could be said that even secularism, buoyed by belief in the welfare state, equal rights, individual human dignity, springs from this Christian ethic. The welfare state, care for the downtrodden, care for the sick, old age pensions, all these concepts spring from a deep-rooted belief in the dignity of the human person. Although we dislike paying the taxes which underpin all these ideals, it is unthinkable that people would be allowed to die in the street from lack of those services just mentioned. And where does such concern come from? Holland would say that they come from the Judeo-Christian ideals of human dignity and the need to care for each other, high-born or low.

Jesus’ radical command in today’s gospel feeds right into this concern which he taught us. Those among us with nothing, quite often through no fault of their own (poor education, weak health, little economic opportunity, etc.), are the responsibility of us all. Somehow we have to invite them to the table of dignity, greater opportunity, adult education – whatever it might be, to acknowledge that their human dignity demands such help. We with greater resources must on some level help those with less. It is our Christian – indeed human – responsibility. And it clearly aligns with Jesus’ teaching, crystal clear in today’s gospel. 

As a retired teacher, I see Jesus’ teaching today through my teacher’s eyes. I once worked in a Jesuit school in Washington DC. It was (and remains) very successful, with many more applying for places than are available. It is expensive to go there, but a good fifth of the students were granted substantial scholarships, some of them 100%. One student I remember especially. His family lived in one of the worst areas of the city. He was on a 100% scholarship. His father had vanished years before. His mother had MS. They were devout Catholics, even with holy pictures pinned (literally) to the walls. They had, essentially, nothing. He is now a professor of law at a leading university in the Midwest. I think that is what Jesus is talking about today. That student was invited to feast at the table of learning, respect, discovery, growth and development, and blossomed magnificently. And the money for such scholarships? It comes from the generosity of the alumni, most of whose parents could afford full tuitions. They see the truth at the heart of Jesus’ teaching, and recognize, accept and act on their own duty to help those with nothing. Both groups are all children of God, and must be treated as such. And this isn’t pinko liberalism; it is the heart of the Christian message, that we are all brothers and sisters under God, one great family. And family is what counts.

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United Nations Flag Mural, University of Michigan, Dearborn, Michigan, USA.

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25 AUGUST 2019: TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME.

LastJudgement

Last Judgement 1435, Stefan Lochner, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, Germany

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The master of the house said, “I do not know where you are from.  Depart from me, all you evildoers!” And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth…  Luke 13:27.

Ah, the Last Judgement, a favorite of medieval artists, and more frequently met than paintings of the Resurrection! I’m afraid that the medieval concept of this event does not really align with our own ideas, if and when we ever even contemplate the Last Time. Devils having a super time grabbing and pitchforking unfortunates down to their just punishment, great maws of death awaiting (look at the bottom right-hand corner, the traditional spot for such depictions), fire always present, and so on. Then the justified good ones, being invited upwards by armies of angels amid music and (presumably) singing and rejoicing. Pretty clear cut, the choice offered us between bad and good, and we can never say we weren’t warned. In the picture above, Jesus looks away from that fiery scene as if to say “I told you so”.

Now considering the other two readings today, the emphasis seems not to be on the evil that men do, but rather the opportunities God has sent to us all, to avoid such calamity. Isaiah seems to be saying that salvation, set in a rather oblique future, will be offered to other, non-Jewish, communities, I looked up the strange names of those places, and they seemed to align with the missionary activity of St. Paul hundreds of years later. It has been suggested that Paul took Isaiah’s writings as a template for his missionary travels. On the other hand, the Letter to the Hebrews takes up the human reality of pain and failure, to cast it in a more positive mould, one that will allow us to become better people. It seems to suggest that if something horrible happens to us, we should look around and see if we might be able to act in a good way to please the Lord, no matter the circumstances (I don’t really believe God punishes us in this way; I think we do a wonderful job punishing ourselves. But I do see the benefit of us always being challenged to become better people, even from exceptional situations). There is a final plea to us readers to pick ourselves up, brush ourselves down and start all over again, presumably having learned our lesson. It seems to offer a recipe to help us deal with any bad thing that happens to us and asks what good can we make out of a bad situation. That seems to be a pretty positive course of action which might produce a better person out of any one of us and prevent us railing on about bad luck, being abandoned by God, and “why me?”.

Perhaps it would indeed be better to see what good can emerge from a bad situation. One example of this was a true story televised in 1992 which I gave to my Junior girl students each year. It concerned a wealthy young woman called Alison Gertz. She lived in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a very upscale part of the world. Her parents were business people, perhaps more concerned with their professional lives than their duties as parents of an adolescent girl, their only child. That girl, during a weekend when her parents were away at their house in the Hamptons (very expensive area on the south shore of Long Island), had a sexual experience with a barman who worked in a popular club in Manhattan. She became sick, and went through a harrowing set of tests to find out what was wrong; they found nothing. In desperation, the doctor tested her for AIDS. It was positive. She had AIDS. It was unbelievable. Girls never got it! Her first words on being diagnosed were “Oh my God, I’m going to die”. She plunged into deep depression, was angry at everything and everybody, screaming at her Dad for getting the wrong bandages; things like that. No-one could console her. She had a gay friend who stood by her, who once accidentally let slip a guilty thought. Half his friends had died in that plague, and nothing was being done. Then he said, “And nothing will be done until…..” “What?” asked Alison. “Until more people like you get it”, which of course was unhappily true. Alison however was still buried in despair and pain. Then another AIDS sufferer gave her a book to read, Love Medicine and Miracles by Dr. Bernie Siegel. Almost overnight she changed from an inward-looking, despairing emotionally crippled woman to someone who had a message for others because of what had happened to her. Meanwhile, Alison’s mother had became so upset at the idea that only gay people and druggies got AIDS, that she wrote to the New York Times to let them know what had happened to her daughter. That triggered a new life for Alison, speaking to school assemblies and others about the danger she had fallen victim to. Her depression was transformed into missionary zeal to prevent this happening to anyone else. No more inward-looking, highly negative focus on self, but a much more healthy concern about others and what she could do about it.

All this is to support what I mean by saying that out of even such shatteringly negative, painful, terrible events, goodness can emerge, and helping others once more becomes a true source of hope and even happiness. However, Alison did fall victim to the dread disease in the same year the TV movie was broadcast. But the good she had achieved she took with her, not despair, not  hopelessness. Not the bottom right of the painting above, but the top left….

Alison

Alison Gertz, 1966-1992.


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