23 JANUARY 2022: THE THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME.

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Christ Preaching in the Synagogue, c.1350, Visoki Decani Monastery, Kosovo.

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[Jesus] said to them, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”     Mark 4:21

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There are four gospels accepted as canonical, which is to say, officially accepted as genuine and worthy of belief. All mainline Christian churches accept that as a given. The gospels are not identical, but the those of Matthew, Mark and Luke are called “synoptic”, which is to say they approach the narrative of Christ’s ministry and teaching from a similar point of view. John’s gospel is different with a much broader perspective, and much more theological discussion than the other three. The style of Greek (in which all four are written), is also different. If you take them together, an interesting pattern emerges. Scholars are pretty much certain that Mark’s gospel is the oldest, which is to say, the first to be written down. It begins abruptly with John the Baptist in the River Jordan baptizing Jesus, who receives his identity and vocation at that moment (see last Sunday’s reflections). It also ends with Jesus’ empty tomb. Scholars are pretty certain about that: the other endings, even though accepted as canonical, which talk of Jesus after the Resurrection, are later additions. Then there is Matthew which begins with a genealogy of Jesus from Abraham, and then immediately to Jesus’ birth. It concludes with Jesus’ ascension and his promise to be with us to the end of time. Luke is interesting as he begins with a sort of dedication to an unknown person called Theophilus (a name which means Friend of God in Greek) mentioned in today’s gospel, and which prompted this reflection. He then describes the birth of John the Baptist, and only then talks of the birth of Jesus. Now the Acts of the Apostles also begins with a dedication to Theophilus, mentioning “the first book”, namely Luke’s gospel, in the first verse. Acts ends with St. Paul preaching in Rome after he had been condemned to death for his belief. Then there is John, beginning before time itself, “In the beginning was the Word…” By tradition, the Book of Revelation is also by John, who is mentioned at its beginning, and it ends with the end of all things, Jesus as the Alpha and Omega (the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet A and Ω as a “merism”, a rhetorical term for a pair of contrasting words or phrases). So in the four gospels there is a progression from the stripped down essentials of Jesus’ mission on earth in Mark, then wider in time through Matthew, then still wider in Luke, and then to the beginning and ending of all creation in John. They are all focussed on Jesus of course, as is today’s gospel, but each from a different perspective, beginning small (Mark) and ending cataclysmically (John).

Today’s second reading taken from Paul’s letter to the first Christians in Corinth in Greece, is a statement of his model of the church as the Body of Christ. Just as the human body is made up of different parts, some grandiose such as the brain, and other less so, such as the little toe, so each of us has a place in the church, the Body of Christ, here on earth. Just as in the human body, so each of us has a place in the church, some greater, some less, but each important. I like to give a brutal example here; yes, some of us have lesser importance, but if, for example, we slam our little toe into the door frame one morning, the whole body is instantly focussed on that little toe…. Each of us has a real place in the Christian community.  There we are expected to be as perfect as possible. How? By living up to our identity as a child of God and thereby fulfilling our vocation as Christ to the world by utilizing the gifts and talents God has given us as taught by the Lord. In that way the Body of Christ is healthy and holy and whole. And today’s gospel is simply Jesus proclaiming that all the prophecies concerning the long-awaited Messiah are now fulfilled in him, a belief which sprang from the revelations at his baptism. He was ready to fulfill God’s expectations of him as Messiah. We too are children of God, and each of us is Christ to the world in whatever way our God-given gifts and talents direct us. As the church’s “Ordinary Time” begins, that is a useful reminder of what it is all about.supper2

Christ Reading in the Temple, T’oros of Taron c.1300, The Armenian Gospels of Gladzor, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles, USA.

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16 JANUARY 2022: THE SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME.

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The Marriage at Cana, Gerard David c.1500, Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.

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Jesus told them,“Fill the jars with water.” So they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter.”   John 2:7-8.

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Perhaps the most interesting and intriguing miracle of all. After the stunning revelations at his baptism in the Jordan that he was God’s Son, and was the Anointed of God, the Messiah, then the prolonged meditation in the wilderness figuring what on earth had happened to him, Jesus’ very first demonstration of his godly power was to change water into wine! Not what one would expect… By tradition, the visit of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus and this first miracle are inked together as symbolic of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The Magi saw in him the dawn of the new age of salvation, his baptism identified him as God’s Son and the long-awaited Messiah, and the miracle at Cana demonstrated from the very beginning of his ministry as one who cared deeply for the happiness of others, as someone who had the power to deal with their problems, and, it might be said, as one who listened to his mother! He clearly did not want to intervene: “My hour has not yet come”. However, it was obvious that his mother was very concerned about the social disaster that would fall on the married couple even as they began their life together, and presumably were her friends or even relatives. And so he responded to her insistence that the servants do what she wanted him to do. And he did. The disaster was avoided.

As ever, there is high symbolism here. Stone jars were reserved for the water which was used for symbolic, ritual, cleansing, and possibly indicate that this feast was taking place in the local rabbi’s house. So they, and the water, could be symbolic of the old religion. The water transformed into wine might represent the new covenant which Jesus would initiate in his ministry. The high quality of the wine, which astonished the head waiter (who would know about such things), might be a pre-echo of the Last Supper, also with wine, but that wine, as Jesus stated, was his very blood, the best possible wine that could be! And as the married couple would become one, so the Lord becomes one with us at our communion where we take him into ourselves. Finally, the huge amount of water turned into wine (six jars each containing 20-30 gallons! One website calculates this as over 1,000 bottles of wine) might well be symbolic of the new covenant also, open to the whole world, not just the Hebrew people; there would be enough for everyone. One does wonder, however, what the scene was like at the end of this particular wedding feast. It does not seem to suggest that the Lord was a rabid teetotaler!

As one might expect for this very first, but reluctant, demonstration of Jesus’ power and compassion, Cana is very close to Nazareth where he grew up. There are several claims as to where exactly this event took place, not surprising as it was 2000 years ago! But the claims are interesting and they attempt to make the Scripture even more lively by making it concrete. It is a very human story. It is easy to put oneself into the shoes of the bride and groom when told of the impending disgrace that was about to fall on them. Some of us might well have undergone something like it and remember the embarrassment which resulted. It is reassuring to hear this gospel story, and even more reassuring to witness Jesus’ response to it all. Nothing is too small or too big for us to take to the Lord. Although we can’t do anything like this miracle, and cannot expect the Lord to intervene miraculously (though it is not unknown), we can expect comfort and understanding to be ours if we approach the God of Love humbly and openly, and perhaps to put everything into perspective..

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The Last Supper, Christianity Art. 

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9 January 2022: The baptism of the lord

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The Baptism of Christ, Verrocchio & da Vinci 1475, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. 

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……heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”   Luke 3:22.

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The baptism of Jesus was so important an event that the gospel of Mark opens with it, with no background material of Jesus’ life at all, unlike Luke, from which today’s gospel reading is taken. It inaugurates Jesus’ ministry on earth. It is a Trinitarian statement of the greatest clarity, with the Father (the voice from heaven, seen as hands in the painting above), Jesus himself and the Holy Spirit in the form and likeness of a dove descending on him, anointing him. As in the other gospels, it seems Jesus was taken by surprise at this, and went into the desert for quite some time to figure out what exactly had happened to him in the Jordan. It was then that the truth had dawned on him, and he took up his cross, and accepted the vocation to which God had called him. So, at his baptism, Jesus discovered his identity, as God’s Son, and his vocation, to fulfill the prophecies as the long-awaited Messiah (a title meaning Anointed One) following his experience in the wilderness. Consequently, he knew who he was and what he was. And so, as the first reading tells us, he would now open the eyes of the blind with his divine power, bring out prisoners from their confinement which we can see when he released people from possession by the devil, which we might now call mental diseases, or captive to other dread diseases which barred them from normal life. And, as Scripture says, release people “from the dungeon, those who live in darkness” meaning, I would imagine, anyone trapped in guilt or pain or anything responsible for a paralysis of any description at all. In other words, it seems he was called by God to restore us to freedom, one of the qualities of God. Restored to freedom, we are able to praise God and live productively and happily. Remember one of the root meanings of blessed is happiness… 

So Jesus, I believe, was called to be the prophet of freedom. In his vocation as Messiah, he had to echo and embody the divine qualities God had revealed through the centuries of the Old Testament.  For example, God had promised Abram/Abraham, a man approaching 100 years old, and his not much younger barren wife Sarai/Sarah, a son. Sarah had laughed at this promise (Genesis 18:9-15) even arguing with God over it! But a child she did indeed have, Isaac. That displayed two qualities of God, power and loyalty, that God had the power to enable a barren, very old lady to have a child, and to come through on his promise. They are but two of God’s qualities. But perhaps the most significant event in the Old Testament was the commission given to Moses at the Burning Bush when God said “I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt” (Exodus 3:7) and had heard their cry under their bondage (Exodus 2:23-24), and determined that their slavery must end, and that they would receive a land which God had promised to them. Hence God listens to us, and believes in freedom from oppression. One other thing: Moses asked God what name he should give, knowing that the enslaved Hebrews would demand to know that. And for the first time, God told him: YHWH, יהוה (YHWH (Ya- We) or YHVH (Ye-Ho-Va)) the divine name which devout Jews to this day will not utter. We Christians have decided the pronunciation is Yahweh, meaning I Am Who Am. This established a personal relationship between God and Moses, and through Moses to the people, something unknown among all the pagan gods of that time. That quality was also taken to ineffable heights in Jesus’ ministry at the Last Supper: “Take and eat, this is my Body; take and drink, this is my Blood” . No closer union can be conceived than that, the uniquely close union or relationship of the Lord with ourselves. 

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Moses and the Burning Bush, c.1175, Évangéliaire d’Averbode, University of Liège, Belgium.

So today’s feast heralds in the ministry of the Lord, in which all the qualities God had shown in the previous centuries were confirmed and taken to inconceivable heights by this Son of God. We are Christ to the world. These same qualities, and the others not mentioned here, such as forgiveness, and mercy, should be our hallmarks as the devoted followers of the Lord. And do not think ever that they are beyond our abilities. Just one example, power. We all have power, even children. Ask any child: can you make your mother unhappy today by behaving badly? Yes. Can you make her happy by behaving well? Yes. We all have power, in our speech, our behavior, our example. We can embody all of God’s qualities if we so choose. Jesus realized that at his baptism and his time in the desert, and followed through with them. So should we, also baptized, and also enjoying our identity as a child of God, with our vocation to be Christ to the world through our own talents and skills, following his perfect example.

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The Supper at Emmaus, Stom c.1639, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain.

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2 JANUARY 2022: THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD.

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The Adoration of the Magi, Murillo c.1660, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Spain.

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…in the days of King Herod, behold, Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,  “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?   Matthew 2:1-2.

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First, that word epiphany. It is Greek, ἐπιφάνεια (epiphaneia), a word which means appearance. In this instance, with the wise men (“Magi”, a priestly caste from the east) arriving and  prostrating themselves before the Christ child, the appearance of God’s Son. Hence this event changes an idea, which was perhaps abstract, into a reality, present and visible, the arrival of God with us. They had been following a star (as they were probably astronomers) and had some idea that the Jews had a newborn king and they wished to pay respects. Hence their epiphany was the star and the message coming together and making sense in the manger at Bethlehem. Due to the number and quality of their gifts, over the centuries they were increasingly thought of as three kings, even named Casper, Melchior and Balthazar, though all that is pure conjecture; scripture does not even tell us how many of them there were!

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The Three Magi, Landsberg’s Hortus Deliciarum c.1185, Library of Strasbourg, destroyed in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

They should also be reckoned together with the shepherds who also came to venerate the Christ child, who had witnessed another epiphany, namely the angels who sang Glory to God in the Highest  (Luke 2:14) and who had directed them to the stable. This also gives us the idea of the highest and lowest of societies invited to witness this unique, world-saving event. Note also that the Magi were not Jews; they were Gentiles. The local Bethlehem shepherds almost certainly were Jewish. Consequently Jesus’ life and witness was universal from the first moment.

For many Christians, the Epiphany is integral to the Christ event and was linked with the Nativity and the Resurrection from the earliest days. Eastern Christians look to Jesus’ baptism and his first miracle at Cana as the Epiphany, all of them displaying the appearance in one way or another of Jesus, the Son of God. For us today, then, it is an event which shows us that everybody is welcome into the stable, into the Christ event, no matter who we are, what our background might be, how rich or poor we are or anything else that might distinguish us from others. In the eyes of God we are utterly equal and it is up to us what we do with that. No bewailing our unhappy lot, no groveling in our wealth and power, no superiority or inferiority. We all stand equal before the Lord, as did the shepherds and the Magi. It is with such acceptance and support that we attempt to serve the Lord with the skills God has given us, loyally developed to their full potential. As children of God, then, we all enjoy an equal starting moment; even being allowed to start again if necessary, so that we become an epiphany to those around us, an appearance of the Lord, as it were, whose servant we are, as each of us is Christ to the world.

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The Three Kings, Holy Art.

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24 & 25 DECEMBER 2021: THE FEASTS OF THE NATIVITY (CHRISTMAS) AND OF THE HOLY FAMILY.

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“In Principio Erat Verbum” (In the Beginning Was the Word, John 1:1), inspired by The Winchester Bible c.1150, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, USA and Pixel Grafica & Design.

Click here for the readings for the Nativity, the Mass for the Day.

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[Jesus] went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them;  and his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.   

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This feast of the miraculous birth of the Savior is only surpassed by his even more miraculous death and resurrection, the two great pillars of his life story. In between is the reason the Son of God came to us, to demonstrate that God’s teachings and directives are indeed humanly possible, and that we should follow his example in living them out daily, in faith and good will. In doing so we can expect a happy, fulfilled and satisfying life, a foretaste of what to expect after our own death. The juxtaposition of his birth and his upbringing in the Holy Family this weekend provides a double insight into Jesus’ root beliefs and behavior. His birth, of course, is unique, occasioned by the Virgin’s acquiescence in God’s monumental request that she bear the Son of God without human intervention. So Jesus was both man and God. His emphasis, however, seems to have been on the human side, save for the miraculous events usually focused on human misery and pain in order to alleviate them. Jesus never, ever, used this overwhelming power to serve himself, only others. Even under the greatest of all temptations, on the cross itself, being taunted by crowds screaming “if you are the Son of God, come down from that cross” (Matthew 27:40) he did nothing to save himself. The power and talents we each possess must be used to serve other people. That was and is the lesson learned from his life on earth.

Then there is the example of the Holy Family. Consider the gospel of this day, the one and only story of Jesus’ youth. It was Passover time, one of the great Jewish feasts commemorating the release of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt to the freedom and hope of the Promised Land. Jesus, unbeknown to his mother and (foster) father, remained in Jerusalem in the Temple conversing with the holy men there. It was three days into the return journey that Mary and Joseph realized he was not with the group of pilgrims from Nazareth returning home. That shows several realities of his upbringing. First, he did not have his guardians breathing down his neck; they trusted him to be doing the right thing at all times. They allowed him a freedom at a young age which could be considered remarkable. On discovering his absence, three days later when they were presumably half way back to Nazareth on foot, they both returned at once to Jerusalem to discover the precocity of their child with the doctors of the Temple, who were impressed by the boy’s knowledge and questions. As a teacher of many years, I knew from a student’s questions in class whether I had a genius on my hands. Or not. The child’s remarkable response that “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” when asked what had been going on demonstrates a clarity and determination uncommon in one so young. Jesus was clearly aware of his own abilities, the limits to them (hence his questions of the doctors) and his willingness to learn and grow. 

So the linking of the Nativity and Holy Family feasts this weekend allows us to see into the birth and childhood of Jesus, his conception and the way he was being brought up. Divine nature, intelligence, parental freedom and love all figure in his youth. It is a model for all parents it seems. The result will be, in Jesus’ case and after his baptism in adulthood, a man confident in his own abilities and identity, and with a clarity on what he must do throughout his life. That does not spring out of nowhere. The solid bedrock of his youth and how it was guided by loving guardians must provide the answer. That shows even more that those of us who did not enjoy such a background yet rise to become genuine children of God are especially triumphant and beloved of God, becoming truly Christ to the world. So Jesus was indeed blessed in his youth having such people guiding him, allowing him to become the man we all look up to. We, from a galaxy of different backgrounds can all focus on the man he became, and model our lives on his, trusting fully that this is the way to achieve happiness and fulfillment both in this life and the one to come.

Christ in the House of His Parents ('The Carpenter's Shop') 1849-50 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896
Christ in the House of His Parents (‘The Carpenter’s Shop’), Millais 1850, The Tate Britain, London, UK

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19 DECEMBER 2021: THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT.

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The Visitation,Ghirlandaio 1491, Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.

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Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…”  Luke 1:42.

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Being an unmarried man, I have no idea what it must be like to have a pregnant woman in the house, and the concurrent anxieties and frustrations that must entail. Looking up “how difficult are the last weeks of pregnancy?” to find out, this came up:

The funny and frustrating thing about the last few weeks of pregnancy is that you never truly know you’re at the end until after you give birth. Why does this (seemingly obvious) thing matter? Because the difference between one, two, or three weeks when you’re oh-so-pregnant can be the difference between feeling mildly tortured and feeling like you’re stranded on a deserted island infested with mosquitos in 100 degree weather with no rescue in sight. (Lamaze International).

So I guess I found out! Pretty tough. It explains quite well in today’s gospel Mary’s immediate reaction to the knowledge of Elizabeth’s pregnant state, she who had been considered barren (Luke 1:36). Mary had just consented to the request from God that she become the mother of God’s son, so she was not yet in the last stages of pregnancy. Elizabeth, on the other hand, was in her sixth month, and in addition was almost certainly an older woman, in which case, she needed all the assistance she could get. It seems that Mary, without a moment’s hesitation, set out to help her. That meant walking of course, and Judah is a four or five day walk way south of Nazareth which is in Galilee in the north of the Holy Land…..  The angel Gabriel had told Mary of Elizabeth’s situation, and identified her as Mary’s “relative”. Hence Jesus and the soon-to-be born John (the Baptist) were cousins of sorts. So this was a family crisis to which Mary responded. And on Mary’s arrival, Elizabeth knew at once what had happened: “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” She knew that because, as the gospel says, she was “filled with the Holy Spirit” and could prophesy. That plus the unborn John leaping in her womb at the presence of God’s unborn son! What a story! 

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The Visitation, Jen Norton Picturing Stories of Home.

As ever in Holy Scripture, there is overwhelming symbolism in this apparently humble event. Elizabeth is carrying John, he who would proclaim the arrival of the Messiah some 30 years later. Jesus is the Messiah, who will be baptized by John at that time. The older man, called the last prophet by Christians, represents the closure of the Old Testament, Jesus, the beginning of the New. So the older woman embracing the younger represent the continuity of God’s revelation from prophecy to fulfillment. The immediate reaction that Mary had on hearing that her kinswoman was pregnant was to rush to her side. That demonstrated generosity, care and sacrifice. It also gives us insight into the household in which Jesus grew up (and about which we know so little from Scripture). As I get older, I find I am more and more like my mother, a strange thing to say, and I wonder if others have experienced that. But Jesus, in being generous throughout his ministry and ultimately the sacrificed lamb for our redemption, seems to reflect the household in which he grew up. He reflects in his ministry the qualities shown by Mary in the Visitation story. And that should give us deep insight into the lives of those people who have grown up in terrible conditions yet overcome them to reveal qualities which are God-like: their tenacity, conviction, courage and pure goodness. Their example seems to prove Jesus’ promise to be with us to the end of time, everywhere and anywhere. There are many people who did not get the support they should have had when young who have overcome that deprivation and emerging as true Christians, a story of triumph. And for the rest of us? It is our duty to assist such people, our friends and neighbors, who might be on the way to defeating incredibly bad odds as they respond to God’s call to perfection. So all of these thoughts are good food for Advent reflection and response. Where does each one of us fit into such a picture? What is the appropriate response on deciding where we fit? How can we demonstrate to God that we are Advent apostles seeking the good of those around us as we take care to reflect God’s goodness within us? As ever, we are not alone, as all of the above suggests. We must simply recognize the Lord standing beside us, helping us, longing for us to succeed. What a way to welcome the new-born child into our midst.

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Beautiful Nativity, Foter

Reflections on Christmas and the Feast of the Holy Family Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.

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12 DECEMBER 2021: THE THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT: GAUDETE SUNDAY.

 

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The Message to the Shepherds, Munir Alawi, Chapel of the Shepherds, Bethlehem, Palestinian Authority.

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Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!   Zephaniah, 3:14.

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First, that Latin name, Gaudete Sunday. It simply means Rejoice on this Sunday. It represents a sort of break time in the middle of Advent, and a time to give way to the excitement of the approaching feast. Even the liturgical vestments worn at Mass may be brighter, should the priest be so moved, and become rose instead of purple. You will recall Lent has a similar moment, called Laetare Sunday on that occasion. 

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The Old Testament reading is packed with joyful thought and feeling, the Epistle likewise is happy, “Brothers and sisters: Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again:  rejoice!” and then there are the words of the Baptist, proclaiming that the One will appear who will be immeasurably greater than John himself, who was by then extremely well known and revered. So the rejoicing proclaimed in the readings is in anticipation of the arrival of the Savior, just as it is with us in the middle of Advent today. 

What is there to rejoice at, you might ask. In the middle of a never-ending pandemic, with everyone just sick of all the rules and regulations, anger at those who do not comply with the way each of us thinks should be the right way, and the background fear that we may catch this thing ourselves, what is there to rejoice about? Well, looked at it through that eyeglass, not much. But that is a narrowly focussed prism, letting in only black light. Look at the picture of the shepherds above though. There the night was black, they were probably pretty cold, probably tired and stiff with lying on the ground, miserable over the minimum wages they almost certainly received, and yet…. Something happened to change it all, forever. They witnessed an inner transformation which altered everything. All the misery became background; still there, of course, but deep inside each of them – and us – there was a recognition of a greater, more glorious and welcoming reality. Here was a manifestation of God, of light, of beauty, of song, of hope, of total inward change. All of a sudden we are no longer unhappy mortals, oppressed by the world, which is of course what the devil wants, but are welcomed into a higher realm where we are welcome, treasured even, where we are children of God. When we hold to that truth, that we, each of us, is beloved of God, then things cannot be the same. And bear in mind that shepherds were probably from the lowest ranks of society, probably stereoyped as thieves and robbers. Yet the glory of God shone on them! No-one is excluded from God’s company, unless, of course, we choose to do that ourselves.

The challenges we face still exist, unhappliy. Worries remain with us. But as we await the arrival of the One who would treat each and every one of us as brother and sister, as a friend and companion, then inward attitudes can change from heavy and threatening, to uplifting and positive. Isn’t that a reason to rejoice? Let us do so then, in the middle of Advent, with the angels singing and the light descending. The Lord, the source of all light and life, is near.

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ΦΩΣ και ΖΩΗ, phōs (light) and zōē (life), Castellani 1860, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

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13 DECEMBER 2021: THE SEcOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT.

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St. John the Baptist Preaching, Preti c.1665, California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, USA.

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A voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”   Luke 3:4.  

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If you are a church-going Christian, you might well feel like a voice crying in the wilderness these days. The research and management consulting company Gallup has reported on church membership for many years, and has noted that church/synagogue/mosque membership has fallen significantly in the new century from 71% to 47% in 2020. Their report notes that the decline in Catholic membership has been greater than Protestant decline, 76% to 58% compared to 73% – 64%. That is not too surprising seeing the scandalous and shocking revelations within the Catholic community over the last 30-odd years. But is does seem to call those of us remaining in the church, and determined to eliminate the evil which seems to have been rampant up to now, to stand up and proclaim our belief in the Lord and all he stands for. In other words, to be John the Baptist today! The first reading today, from Baruch, hints at the Jewish people exiled in Babylon “Led away on foot by their enemies they left you”, “you” in our case today being the true church of Christ. We remaining church-goers might well be them today, left in the ruins inflicted by evil priests who have wounded the church so significantly. So our voices must be raised to restate the message of Christ, so utterly the opposite of what has happened in our community. So it is up to us to be “A voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths”, except it is us who have to make straight those paths turned crooked by the devil’s disciples. And what better season to do this than Advent! The goal is nicely stated in today’s second reading, that our love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value,  so that we may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness…. 

It is part of our vocation as Christians to live a life which stands as a model for those around, to behave in ways which are friendly and attractive, to be as generous as possible with our resources, our skills and our time. Remember we are here for our neighbors as well as for God and for ourselves. That is the way to attract Catholics who have given up on the Church back into its life, and indeed for others to become intrigued about the power which drives us to do the right thing. Advent means approach or coming, in our case, the arrival of the Lord of Life.  Proper recognition of that is beyond buying presents and sending Christmas cards. It is also a time to prepare inwardly for Jesus’ arrival. Just as if a relative is about to arrive for the first time in ages (quite possible in these quarantine days) we would clean the house from top to toe, the same is called for spiritually with the traditional arrival of the Lord on the 25th. And that might well call us to be John the Baptist, who prepared the way of the Lord for others. 

name is john

His Name is John, Bonnell 2020.

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

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SUNDAY 28 NOVEMBER 2021: THE FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT.

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The Last Judgment, Michelangelo 1541, the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City State.

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Jesus said to his disciples…. “People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”   Luke 21:26-27.

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One imagines that Michelangelo’s masterwork, shown here, is a pretty accurate depiction of the popular idea of The Last Judgment. Compare this picture to the passage above, taken from today’s gospel, and the parallel seems to be clear. One thing it clearly is not, and that is, it is not a presentation of the cool, calm and collected picture of a stable in Bethlehem with ox and ass in the background, shepherds and kings in the foreground gathered around a gentle mother nursing her newborn baby! So we have two pictures then, one showing the First Coming of the Lord, and then the scary Second Coming amid clouds and thunder. And this is the beginning of Advent, the run up to Christmas! The First Coming was the culmination of the centuries of waiting for the Messiah to arrive, popularly thought at the time to be more like the Michelangelo picture above, and our own centuries of waiting for Jesus’ apocalyptic words to become reality. I’m sure we would prefer it to be more like the First Coming, completing the reversal of popular imagination and the realities envisioned by God, one peaceful and dignified, and the other, calamitous and terrifying, instead of the other way round. 

Looking at all three readings today might provide some balance however. Jeremiah’s words provide a peaceful and secure setting, a prophesy that the One who will come will provide safety and justice in the land. That is more like a Christmas setting! The Christians in Thessaloniki, to whom Paul was writing in today’s second reading, were urged to love one another and, indeed, love all, which will strengthen their hearts in holiness, befitting the moment when the Lord Jesus will return. Then Jesus gives us the daunting image of the Final Judgment, but it is tied to the preparation we can make before it comes upon us. There is, he is saying, a clear way we can confront this finality with success. No “carousing and drunkenness” for one thing (another Christmas image?), and we must not wrap ourselves up in daily anxieties which blind up to a greater, and more important reality. We each of us have to find a way to be ready for this promised event at all times, to have a kind of fire alarm in our hearts whose battery is never dead. We are always encouraged to check our house fire alarms each time the clocks change; perhaps we Christians could do the same each Christmas and Easter with our own spiritual alarm. Are we ready for that daunting event? If not, if we have not been loving and active in our Christian vocation, then it is time to change, while we have the time! 

Of course it is easy to say nothing has happened in 2000 years, so why bother? The chances of this thing happening in our lifetimes is, to say the least, remote. That is almost certainly true, but there is one reality which is 100% certain: our own death. There will come a moment when each one of us will be called, ripped perhaps, from this life. Sometimes it is known when this will happen, quite often not. In either case we have to be prepared, and today’s readings suddenly spring into vivid life, calling for real action on our part. Jesus could well be preparing us for that individual moment when he comes to take us from this life to another more glorious – or not. How about that for a Christmas message? St. Paul writes to tell us that he has done his best to let us know what should be done in preparation. And this is by no means all doom and gloom. To love God, one’s neighbor and oneself is hardly a recipe for gloom; rather it is a recipe for a full and happy life, a “feel good” life if you like, which calls for sacrifice of course, but which makes us truly God-like, generous, active, spiritually healthy, content and, when Christ comes, arms will be open and welcoming on both sides. How about that as a picture for the start of the Christmas season?

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Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem, Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, Yamoussoukro,Côte d’Ivoire.

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

PLEASE FORWARD THIS WEBPAGE TO THOSE YOU THINK WOULD APPRECIATE IT. THANK YOU.

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