7 JUNE 2020: THE SOLEMNITY OF THE MOST HOLY TRINITY.

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The Holy Trinity, Clipartmax

For today’s Sunday Mass Readings, click here.

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…..   John 3:16.

Today we ponder the deepest, most secret, mysterious Christian truth of all, the Holy Trinity: Three Persons in One God. Whole libraries of books, papers, treatises, tomes, theses, sermons, manuscripts, scrolls, incunabula, you-name-it, have been written to attempt to get to the heart of this most mysterious of all our Christian Sacred Mysteries. The single quotation above from today’s gospel sums it up: God, Love, Son. Beyond that, what is there to say? Well, we have an interesting distinction here in theological thinking which contrasts the Eastern Christians to us in the West, Orthodox Christians and Catholic Christians. Orthodox contemplation of the Trinity is quite unlike ours. For them, the truth lies beyond words, concepts and human powers of analysis (Karen Armstrong, A History of God, p.118). In the West, the impossibility of explaining the Trinity led to all sorts of difficulties, even to the “death of God” thinking in the 19th century, the result of embarrassment and confusion amid the “clarity” of the Enlightenment and the “Age of Reason”. In its terms, the Trinity simply makes no sense at all, so….. Armstrong examines the “theory” of the Trinity; for the Orthodox, the word theory means contemplation. In the West it means a rational hypothesis which must be logically demonstrated. In those terms, God simply cannot be neatly wrapped up in a human system of thought, hence Western thinking many times has dismissed the whole concept of the Trinity. So what can one say?

Well, we must leave all our great analytical tools at the church door. This greatest mystery can never be unravelled in neat, mathematical logic, so accept that. What do we have left then? We have that opening sentence above, “God so loved the world…..” Have you ever met a couple deeply in love, yet each so utterly different from each other? A mystery! Each is tolerant and accepting of the other. Each recognizes the uniqueness of the other, yet completely knows the other. Sometimes they even know what the other is about to say before it is said! And we on the outside are always totally welcomed into their world, made to feel at home, made to feel part of their world. And as with any couple so deeply committed to each other, if they have children, they are the pride and joy of their lives, the apple of their eyes. That is the contemplation of the Trinity of Love, our Christian God. John says simply “God is love” (1 John 4:8) which should be the template, the touchstone of our understanding of the divine. In our experience, love requires at least one other. Two modern songs sum it up: “A bell is no bell till you ring it,/ A song is no song till you sing it,/ And love in your heart/ Wasn’t put there to stay/ – Love isn’t love ‘Till you give it away.” (Sound of Music, Oscar Hammerstein, stage version).  And “To love another person is to see the face of God” (Les Misérables, Victor Hugo). In other words, at least two people are needed for love to be present, and true love is hallmarked by an openness to the world and all therein. We believe in a single, unitary God, yet a God of love….. So here is the thought I offer you today:

Love is such a mysterious reality. When it is present, the world becomes something wonderful, even perhaps in the face of terrible trials and challenges. With love, anything and everything seem possible. It is not confined, it has to be given away. When returned, it is fulfilled, and the world seems perfect. We are stronger, happier, more willing and even better at facing whatever challenges come our way. And God is the heart and soul of it. God so loved the world…. And in God we have three “persons” as the heart of love. The Father uniting with Love, and emanating from that, the beloved Son “in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). To make that somewhat more intelligible, I recently made a case for us English-speakers with our strongly-based gender-sensitive language, to think of the Holy Spirit as female (see 6th Sunday of Easter, 17 May 2020), something which, I believe, Jesus himself would have understood and accepted completely, as God’s Spirit in his Aramaic language was female….. So, at the centre of the universe, the opposite of a black hole exists, not sucking everything into itself, but our numinous God of Love, unleashing the power of love upon us all, wanting nothing more than for it to be returned purely and rightly in what we say, do and think both with God and with all around us, incredibly inviting all of us to unite together both now and for all eternity. God so loves the world that we are invited into the Godhead of love eternal.

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Pope Francis Opens Pre-Synod of Young People, March 2018, Young Christian Workers.

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

Please forward this webpage on to those you think would appreciate it. Thank you.

Roger

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31 MAY 2020: PENTECOST SUNDAY – THE BIRTHDAY OF THE CHURCH

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The Procession, Swanson 1982.

Click here to read the daytime readings for this Sunday’s Mass Readings.

Then there appeared to them tongues as of  fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit….    Acts of the Apostles 2:3-4.

This day marks the event which changed everything. It took place originally on the Feast of Weeks, Shavuot, 50 days after Passover, one of the three Jewish feasts of pilgrimage (the others being Passover, and Sukkot, the Feast of Booths later in the year). The Jews in Jesus’ days called it Pentecost, meaning in Greek “fiftieth”, 50 days after Passover. That being so, pilgrims to the temple in Jerusalem may have stayed on after Passover to celebrate Pentecost also. Hence the crowds referred to in today’s reading (“Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem”). Subsequently, Christians took over the Jewish-Greek name, so that today Pentecost is considered completely Christian. Christians also call it the feast of The Descent of the Holy Spirit, and the Birthday of the Church. The Christian term Whitsun is also employed for today, coming from the old English, or even the Anglo-Saxon, word “wit” meaning understanding or wisdom, given to Christ’s followers by the Holy Spirit on this day 2000 years ago. Our Jewish brothers and sisters today call it Shevuot, the Feast of Weeks, seven weeks after Passover, but it is also the thanksgiving Feast of the First Fruits of the Harvest, when the first buds had appeared in the fields. Also, by tradition, it was 50 days after  escaping from Egypt under Moses that the Hebrew refugees arrived at Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments from God, so it is also known as the Feast of the Law.  That makes a total of seven names for this combined feast! It also marks one of the greatest events in Christian history, the sine qua non of our church.

Consider it. The entire Christian community in the world was crowded into a small upper room somewhere in Jerusalem. They were praying, we are told, behind locked doors. Jesus had basically ordered them not to leave Jerusalem until the “gift” arrived, whatever that was (Acts 1:4). They were terrified that what had overtaken Jesus would happen to them too, as his followers. So they were in what would be called a “safehouse” today, fearing the worst, but hoping for… something. The crowds outside would be going to and coming from the temple giving thanks for the beginning of the year’s agricultural yield, and thanking God for their identity as God’s Chosen People, remembering the time when God chose them out of all the peoples of the world to receive the sacred Law.

Then it happened, as described in today’s first reading.

If I might venture an opinion, I believe this to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, “proofs” of God’s existence. What else could possibly explain how this terrified bunch of individuals suddenly opened those locked doors, never to be locked again, and rushed out into the Shevuot crowds to proclaim the news that the world’s savior, their Messiah, none other than the Son of God, had been in their very midst? The exact claim that had led to Jesus’ execution they were now shouting out loud to anyone who would listen to them. It was a complete and utter reversal which, I believe, can only be explained by the direct intervention of the finger of God, this time under the guise of tongues of fire. The arrival of the Holy Spirit of God inaugurated humanity’s third and final age, following that of God the Father in the time of the Old Testament, the time of God the Son with the life of Jesus among us, and now the time of the Holy Spirit, the age in which all of us are privileged to live. And, picking up on last week’s consideration of the Holy Spirit, note that the original Greek word “wind” in today’s first reading is πνοης, pnoēs, which can also be translated as “breath”. Hence you could say their safehouse was filled with God’s very breath, from which emerged tongues of apparent fire. Jewish identity had sprung from the Law; Christian identity springs from the very breath of God, breathing life, as it were, into that terrified Christian community, just as God’s breath had breathed life into Adam (Genesis 2:7). Nothing could, can or will contain that, hence the doors were burst open, the locks smashed and forgotten, and Jesus’ message has been proclaimed ever since.

And here we are, 2000 years later, but again cowering inside away from the covid-19 evil without. But there is a significant difference. We know that we will emerge at some time in the near future. In the meantime, this is an opportunity to consider the state of God’s church community today and our place in it. Where does each of us fit in? Each of us is the work of God as is the church community itself, and we all have a role to play. Am I playing it? Once we return to what is being called the “new normal”, what contribution will we all be able to make in helping the church recover its mission in and to the world? At the moment our opportunity is limited, but that means we have the time to pray, reflect and consider carefully what each of us can contribute. In that way, once the “self isolation” has vanished, then we can act on what this time of reflection suggests. Then we, each of us, can be God’s Holy Spirit breathing more life and strength into the institution we love and its mission. Hence this present lock-down can be considered God’s time if we are generous enough to make it so.

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Pentecost, Pixabay.

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

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desert

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24 MAY 2020: THE SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER.

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Saints of the Americas, Monastery Icons.

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

For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that be the will of God, than for doing evil.     1 Peter 3:17.

What struck me first in that icon above of the Saints of the Americas was the presence only of three secular people (that is to say, not priests or nuns) St. Kateri, and indigenous American native of the Algonquin tribe from New York State and Canada,  St. Juan Diego, another indigenous native of what is now Mexico, and St. Rose of Lima, Peru, (though she belonged to the secular Third Order of Saint Dominic) a child from a mixed marriage, indigenous and Spanish. The others were all members of religious orders, but Elizabeth Seton was a laywoman for much of her life before establishing a sisterhood and taking vows a few years before her death. All of them died natural deaths, some young, some old, but they all met enormous challenges to a holy life which they all confronted and conquered. Interestingly, there was an almost total contrast in backgrounds here, from the millionaire background of St. Katherine Drexel to the almost-certain illiteracy of St. Juan Diego. Yet in the eyes of God, they were all saints. Today’s readings support our efforts to emulate them as we strive to live up to our vocation to be Christ to the world, just as those saints emulated our Savior themselves (not forgetting the other North American martyrs, such as St. Isaac Jogues and his companions).

In a way, the three readings today suggest a pattern of growth in the faith. The first reading talks of the original followers of Jesus going to the upper room and staying there. There is no talk of preaching or in any way spreading the word. They simply prayed. In fact, they were almost certainly terrified that the fate Jesus had met might well be theirs too. Even the risen Lord had vanished from their sight at his Ascension. Although he had promised something would happen, they had no idea what it could be, or how they would ever emerge from the mess they were in. All they knew for sure was that they seemed to be alone. Their situation was just like a winter scene, a field, plowed, seeded and still, apparently devoid of life. The gospel has Jesus praying for them: “Now they know that everything you gave me is from you, because the words you gave to me I have given to them, and they accepted them and truly understood that I came from you, and they have believed that you sent me.” That seems to be a powerful validation of the sacred knowledge they now have, all locked into that upper room in Jerusalem. Trouble is, they were the only ones who had that knowledge, and no-one else had any idea about it. Jesus even said, “And now I will no longer be in the world, but they are in the world, while I am coming to you.” The second reading seems to offer a rather threatening future for them should they ever emerge from their room, “But whoever is made to suffer as a Christian should not be ashamed but glorify God because of the name.” Unfortunately  they didn’t have the courage to risk that suffering. They preferred whatever protection their locked doors offered them, keeping the world out. It was the perfect setting for the arrival of God’s Holy Spirit to change everything.

I wonder if that situation described the situation of any of us. We have that exact same knowledge Jesus talks of in his prayer. We have the faith that leads to eternal life and happiness. We know how to overcome those same challenges and hurdles our eight saints above confronted and defeated. In other words, we too are called to be Christ’s disciples at all times and in all places. But do we? There have been several moments in my life when I was clearly called by God to give witness to forgiveness, courage, protection, simple Christian virtue, and I failed. Remorse is the result, a bleak, almost hopeless aftershock. Nothing can be done about it, and even forgiveness of self is a challenge. But God’s Holy Spirit remains with us, with me. Courage is what I lacked, as it was with those locked up in the upper room. Praying to God’s Holy Spirit and asking for her (see last week’s reflection) guidance and strength is clearly the answer, and demands a suitable response. We all need a Pentecost moment.

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Pentecost Moments, The Marfam Programme.

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

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17 MAY 2020: THE SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER.

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The Holy Spirit, Colleen Shay, 2009, Fine Art America.

Click here to read today’s Sunday Mass Readings

Jesus said: [The Father] will give you another Advocate to be with you always,
the Spirit of truth.       John 14:16-17.

God’s Holy Spirit figures strongly in all three of today’s readings. This is not surprising as the event which changed everything, Pentecost, gets nearer. So perhaps a look at the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity is appropriate at this time. Clearly, this Person is the most enigmatic of the three. It is easy to understand God as Father and Son, but the Spirit, appearing in the gospels as like a dove at the baptism of Jesus, and in the Acts of the Apostles as like flames of fire at Pentecost, is more challenging. As one Japanese gentleman contemplating Christian conversion supposedly said, “I understand the idea of honorable Father and honorable Son, but not the idea of the honorable Bird”. Quite understandable. The first letter of St. John states bluntly, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). This gives love a very special quality then, so powerful that it is divine, part of the Godhead. Indeed, so strong that it has its own identity. As Jesus said at the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matthew 28:19 – see below). Now note I am describing the Holy Spirit as “it”, which makes God’s Spirit inanimate, the opposite of the truth. The English language comes into full force here as a consequence. To “animate” the Spirit, we have to use a personal pronoun, either “he” or “she”, and I’m stepping into deep water here…

As you know, all the original Christian texts, our New Testament, were written in Greek, which was the universal language at the time of Jesus (as English is today’s universal language). The quotation above, from the last verses of Mattrew’s gospel, is this in the original: πορευθέντες οὖν μαθητεύσατε πάντα τὰ ἔθνη, βαπτίζοντες αὐτοὺς εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ πατρὸς καὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ καὶ τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος…” Now the last two words, ἁγίου πνεύματος, hagiou pneumatos, mean Holy Spirit. We get the English words hagiography and pneumatic from those Greek words, one referring to holiness, and the other to air. In Greek, pneuma (and in Greek, as in French, the p is pronounced: p-neuma),  means air or wind, and that is the word the original writers of the New Testament used for the Holy Spirit. Fine, except that in Greek, that word is neuter. It did not seem to matter back then. When the Greek text was translated into Latin, which had a huge influence on the eventual English translations, the Greek word was translated as Spiritus, from which we get our word Spirit, and in Latin it is masculine. Most Latin words ending in -us are masculine (words ending in -a are usually feminine). Hence Spiritus was “he”. All well and good, until you dig a little deeper, to the language Jesus actually spoke, which was Aramaic, closely related to Hebrew. The Hebrew word for Spirit is רוּחַ “ruach” pronounced Ruahh (as in the Scottish word loch). Now here’s the point. In Hebrew and Aramaic, that word is feminine. In the first verses of the Book of Genesis, God’s ruach hovers over the waters of chaos prior to order arriving, firstly in the creation of light. Then, later, God’s ruach entered the man formed of clay, and God’s ruach gave him life (Genesis 2:7). So there are two meanings here, both wind and breath, but the word is feminine. Clearly, I am taking the Spirit, the ruach  of God in the Old Testament as a prefiguration of the revelation by Jesus that God’s Holy Spirit is a person, one of the community of three in the one Godhead. Hence, for Jesus, God’s Spirit would always be thought of as “she”, described as such in Scripture. Now read today’s first reading and substitute “she” for “it” when referring to the Holy Spirit near the end of the passage, and see what that one small difference makes to our English-language minds and hearts. Remember that in other European languages, the gender of nouns is almost meaningless, so there is no controversy. But for us, gender applies directly and clearly to things masculine, feminine and neuter. It actually means something! One more note; the Hebrew word for wisdom, חוכמה or Chokmâh, used when talking of God’s wisdom, is also feminine.

Why have I done all this? Well, firstly, God transcends all our thinking of gender, but we do not think as God thinks, so thinking of God’s Holy Spirit as “she” makes the Trinity truly universal. The Father and the Spirit of Love emanate out as the Son who was given to us out of love, an act of love so inconceivable as to be overwhelming. And the Passion of the Son is the absolute proof of that love of us sinful people that in spite of what happened, we are still loved beyond all telling. Yet those first disciples, perhaps already knowing all that, were still terrified of the authorities who might arrest and kill them all. They were still in hiding, waiting for the worst to happen. It was only when She, God’s Holy Spirit, came upon them that things changed forever. So meditate on this line in today’s gospel: [The Father] will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him.” and substitute “her” for that last word and examine the reaction within yourself…

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God’s Holy Spirit, Catholic Answers.

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

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Roger

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10 MAY 2020: FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER.

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The Risen Jesus, Ethiopian Crosses, anon., Handpainted on Leather.

Click here to access todays’s Sunday Mass Readings.

Jesus said to [Thomas], “I am the way and the truth and the life.”  John 14:6.

A few interesting items first before heavier things. In the earliest days of the post-Pentecost church, the followers of Jesus were not called Christians; that name had not been created yet. They were called followers of the “Way”, a name you can find very often in the Acts of the Apostles. The expression might well have come from Jesus himself when he said, as reported in today’s gospel: “I am the Way…..” Saul, a rabid persecutor of Jesus’ followers, later to become St. Paul but before his miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus, asked permission from the Jewish authorities to travel to Damascus “so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:2). Secondly, in today’s gospel there is the strange expression Jesus often uses to begin a statement rather than conclude it, “Amen, amen I say to you”, in some scholarly opinions, these are “ipsissima verba” of the Lord, which is to say, an exact quotation from the time he said it. Almost everything else he said had been handed down from speaker to speaker, retaining the substance, but the actual words might not be exactly what the Lord said, especially as he spoke Aramaic, and our gospel texts are all in Greek. People back then were used to aural histories, and could repeat them accurately, but not necessarily verbatim. So this strange expression, out of place compared with common usage, almost certainly means they are directly from the lips of Jesus. Then there is a third interesting event in today’s readings, the first reading from Acts, reporting the first flair up, or conflict, within the fledgling community called the Way. Apparently back then there were two early Christian-Jewish communities, one native Hebrew-, or Aramaic-speaking, and the other spoke the universal language of the time, Greek, the “Hellenist” speakers. These latter speakers complained that their widows were not getting their fair share in the “daily distribution” (presumably food) compared to the Hebrews. The 12 apostles were somewhat exasperated over this, as they considered their work to be “prayer and the ministry of the word.” That could very likely mean the liturgy of the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Word, today’s Mass. So they appealed to others to handle these more mundane matters, and seven acceptable men were appointed to deal with all the other things which concerned the community. And the apostles “laid hands on them”, commonly (though not by everyone) taken to be the institution of the order of deacons. Diaconos, Διάκονος, the Greek word for them, means servant or assistant. Interestingly, St. Paul, writing to the Christians in Rome later, commends to them a certain woman called Phoebe as διάκονος, not διακόνισσα, the Greek word for deaconess…. You’ll find that at Romans 15:16; English translations rarely say “deacon” but deacon is what the original, Greek, text says….and that is the reason scholars must always base their findings on the original Greek for their New Testament work, and original Hebrew if they talk about the Old Testament (plus the Septuagint, its ancient and respected Greek translation), Finally it seems that the community could have elected those first seven deacons…. But that’s enough revolutionary talk for now.

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The First Deacons (possibly), Clarity, “Selecting the Seven”.

This fifth Sunday of Easter is still located in the time between the Resurrection and Pentecost, the time when all of Jesus’ disciples were either shivering behind locked doors in fear, or were running away, like the two men last Sunday, doing a bunk to Emmaus before Jesus himself caught up with them and managed to change their minds, and they returned to Jerusalem. I have compared that time to our own moment, hunkered down behind locked doors for fear of the corona virus. Unhappily our problem will not be resolved by Pentecost on 31st May. If only. Putting today’s gospel in that context makes for a powerful statement. Look at the way it begins: Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me.” One giant invitation there for us today, to escape the tedium, fear, mistrust in the world and instead to nestle in the warmth and protection of Jesus’s love. Within that love is divine strength, “whoever believes in me will do the works that I do,  and will do greater ones than these.” Now we are not divine as he was, so no raising from the dead for us, but we have the gifts that God has given us, and I believe Jesus is referring to these. Fully developed and used in the service of our neighbor, these can achieve great things. Even in our isolation, resolutions can be made, backed up with good planning and perhaps even an optimistic timetable, so that when this is all over we can emerge with eagerness and determination. That might also count towards searching for a new job if that is necessary. In that way, once we are released from our home imprisonment, we will touch the ground running, with the fire and strength of the Lord himself, as he himself said.

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Joy of the Righteous in the Lord, Viktor Vasnetsov, Saint Volodymyr’s Cathedral, Kiev, Ukraine.

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

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Roger

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3 MAY 2020: THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER: “GOOD SHEPHERD SUNDAY”

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Picture of the year? Could be for Good Shepherd Sunday, but this is the Pope visiting a Living Nativity  just after Christmas.

Click here to read this Sunday’s Mass Readings.

[Jesus said] “….and the sheep hear his voice, as he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”         John 10:3.

If ever there was a time in the world’s history that needed a caring and protective shepherd, it is now. The world is in lockdown, each of us in his/her own little sheep paddock, scared of the virus wolf at the gate, and not knowing when it will ever be safe to go out into the grassy field once more to work and play with everyone else. But today’s gospel has Jesus say he is the gatekeeper; it is he who will tell us when it is safe again. Let us hope that all the scientists who are examining this virus wolf get it right, fully using their God-given gifts to figure out when, in fact, it will be safe, and become, we hope, the voice of God.

Because of today’s gospel, psalm and second reading, this Sunday is traditionally called Good Shepherd Sunday. This was an image of Jesus that especially appealed to those early Christians who, like us right now, lived in a world of fear. Their fear was being captured by the pagan Roman power that tried to destroy Christianity for its first 300 years. Hopefully our virus fear will not last that long! The image of Jesus the Good Shepherd is the earliest image we have, dating back to the 3rd-4th centuries. And remember that the Latin word pastor means shepherd. The crucified Jesus image, on the other hand, was almost tabu among the ancient Roman Christians: it was intimately associated with the worst criminals who, at that time, were still being executed in that way in the Roman world. The cross image only started to appear much later, after crucifixion had long been abolished.

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Baptistery wall painting: Good Shepherd, c.232, Yale-French Excavations at Dura-Europos, Syria, now in Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, USA. 

This paint on plaster depiction above was removed from a 3rd century Christian house-church in Syria before World War II and probably shows the earliest picture of Christ the Good Shepherd we have. No baby lamb here! Note also that Jesus appears as a young Roman man in typical Roman garb. Most memory of Jesus as a strict Jew would have vanished from the Christian memory by that time. Hence no beard – the young Roman men were fashionably clean shaven. Once the Christian religion was legally recognized in 313, grander representations appeared, but still primarily of the Good Shepherd:

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The Good Shepherd, anon., 300-350, Catacombs of Domitilla, Rome, Italy.

Clearly Jesus was universally seen as a young Roman with close-cropped hair (remember he was only about 33 years old when he died), dressed as such, one who would blend into the hillsides around Rome itself. He did not appear bearded for another few hundred years. Clearly the Roman Christians of the fourth century understood Jesus to be identical to the shepherds they were used to seeing in the hills outside Rome and throughout the empire. And the job of the shepherd is to ensure the safety of his flock. Therefore, at this critical moment and in today’s gospel, Jesus is at the gate, and keeps it locked, not with fear, but with hope. We are all in that sheepfold (home) where we are safe; outside the gate is the virus, prowling and searching for a host. Love of neighbor and self tells us to remain where we are until it is safe to gather together one day, hopefully to give thanks that it is safe once more to do so. The early Christians did the same. Indeed, they even created a system of secret signs to let others know that their homes were Christian, and therefore it was safe to enter them. Well we don’t have a government intent on destroying us, but we do have a virus capable of doing just that, and we have been told the best ways of avoiding it. And then we have prayer. And being so confined these days, we have no excuse for not praying fervently and frequently to God for a way out of this disaster. God has given us creative brains and dogged persistence which will eventually rescue us today just as in the past. And then there is the omnipresent obligation to help those who need assistance, be it in this country or abroad, especially where resources and money are scarce. Those are the places where the sheepfold is ramshackle and weak. The Shepherd is at the gate, but the virus has other ways of breaking in. If we can, we are obliged to do all we can to prevent that. Victory is assured, but it will take time and money and patience. All that and prayer.

Covid-19: A Prayer of Solidarity:

For all who have contracted coronavirus,
     We pray for care and healing.

For those who are particularly vulnerable,
     We pray for safety and protection.

For all who experience fear or anxiety,
     We pray for peace of mind and spirit.

For affected families who are facing difficult decisions between food on the table or public safety,
     We pray for policies that recognize their plight.

For those who do not have adequate health insurance,
     We pray that no family will face financial burdens alone.

For those who are afraid to access care due to immigration status,
     We pray for recognition of the God-given dignity of all.

For our brothers and sisters around the world,
     We pray for shared solidarity.

For public officials and decisionmakers,
     We pray for wisdom and guidance.

Father, during this time may your Church be a sign of hope, comfort and love to all.
     Grant peace.
     Grant comfort.
     Grant healing.
     Be with us, Lord.

Amen.

Copyright © 2020, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. This text may be reproduced in whole or in part without alteration for nonprofit educational use, provided such reprints are not sold and include this notice.

Solice

I Will Give You Rest, Yongsun Kim, n.d.

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

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Roger

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26 APRIL 2020: THE THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER

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The Way to Emmaus, Zünd, 1877, Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, St. Gallen, Switzerland.

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Today’s gospel is possibly your favorite; I feel sure it must be for many people. It is peaceful, refreshing, holy, all the things we might associate with a gorgeous day in the countryside. Then the miraculous ending, when these two men realized they had been walking and listening to the Lord himself, their hearts burning, who vanished in some way from their sight and presence. Yes, but….. Clearly these two were disciples of Jesus. They seemed to have witnessed the Passion of the Lord, and were even aware that there were rumors that he had somehow come back from the grave, but why weren’t they still in Jerusalem? Look at risen Jesus’ words to his followers in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, 1:4: “And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem but to wait for the promise of the Father….” Was this the risen Lord forbidding his followers to flee the city because of meeting these two “followers” who were in all likelihood running for their lives? Last week’s gospel told us that Jesus’ followers were all huddled behind locked doors, scared that they would meet the same fate as Jesus as they were known as his followers. Now we have two followers running away! This over-arching fear was destroying Jesus’ mission in its entirety. No wonder Jesus told them to sweat it out and remain and wait for this “promise”, whatever that was, which would change everything. Meanwhile they were terrified, and who could blame them? Clearly something dramatic must have happened between today’s gospel and today’s first reading, with Peter standing up preaching openly about the Lord to anyone who would listen.

The “promise” was the gift of God’s Holy Spirit at Pentecost, 50 days after the Resurrection. We will celebrate this greatest event in the life of the church (as it was the birth of the church), on 31 May. This will be 49 days later, but calculated as 50 because of the concurrent Jewish feast of Shavuot, or “Weeks”, 50 days after Passover or seven weeks. So for seven weeks, Jesus’ whole mission hung in the balance. Without the Holy Spirit there would never have been anything called Christianity, and for seven weeks there was no Holy Spirit, just a room full of frightened people waiting for the worst.

Doesn’t that describe us, almost exactly, in our situation today? It’s weird; here we all are in “self isolation”, behind locked doors for fear of the virus, hoping that we will not be discovered by it and dragged to a possible horrible death. But our “promise” is more than 50 days away: the promised vaccine will be sometime next year, possibly. So for us, there is nowhere to run, as the whole world is under this threat. The unforgettable pictures of Pope Francis in a deserted St. Peter’s Square will remain with us forever. In fact, I would bet for many of us, our only hope, apart from physical cleanliness and care, thereby obeying God’s command to love (and protect) our neighbor and ourselves, is to hope in God. And that’s where we are different from that “Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie” of Rabbie (Robert) Burns. For we have the Holy Spirit of God with us, who will remain with us throughout it all no matter what happens. And here a glance at today’s second reading should prove encouraging, for St. Peter tells us we must “conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning, realizing that you were ransomed from your futile conduct, handed on by your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold but with the precious blood of Christ as of a spotless unblemished lamb.” That Lamb of God has the strength of God Almighty against a world of unpredictability, brutality and pain, and invites us to stand alongside as fearless disciples, unlike those running  away to Emmaus.

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The Apostle Peter Preaching, Veneziano, 1370, Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Germany.

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

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Roger

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19 APRIL 2020: SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER: SUNDAY OF DIVINE MERCY.

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The Incredulity of St. Thomas, Caravaggio, 1602, Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany.

Click here to access today’s Sunday Mass Readings.

Jesus said to [Thomas], “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”     John 29:29.

Today’s readings are so rich a book could be written about them! Fear not, that will not be the case here…. Let’s take a look at today’s first reading, close to the opening of the Acts of the Apostles. Firstly, look at this: “Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes.” This describes two actions, prayer in the holy temple in Jerusalem, and “breaking the bread” in their homes. These are the first converts to belief in Jesus as the true Messiah. Their prayer would be based on readings from Scripture. Remember that in these early days there was no Christian Scripture – it had yet to be written; the Old Testament is what they would have heard. So this was, in fact, the origin of the Liturgy of the Word, the first half of today’s Mass. Then because they could not celebrate the Eucharist (the “breaking of the bread”) in the temple, they adjourned to individual homes, the origin of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Secondly, look at what they were doing, “they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need.” If you have ever read Karl Marx’s Manifesto of the Communist Party, you would know Marx would have recognized this as an early form of communism! “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” Marx said, and here it is among the very earliest Christians! Now don’t explode here; we still have this in our Church, and it is called monasticism. When I entered the Jesuits, I did this, as all monks and nuns and members of the various religious orders have done down through the centuries, given everything we have to the groups into which we went. The difference between us and the communists is that we all did it voluntarily! Unhappily, as we have become more and more materialist and rich, fewer have felt called to do this, but that’s another matter. The point is that this appeared very early in the Christian tradition. But even if not called to this type of life, we are all exhorted to sacrifice the fruits of our labor to help in the mission of the church as it reaches out to the less fortunate. As Christians we have such an obligation, and it is a lifetime obligation. “You will always have the poor among you” (Matthew 26:11) Jesus said, and so it is 2000 years later. These days, however, it is even more obvious with the coronavirus plague. Imagine what life must be like among penniless and desperate refugees with the additional threat of that hanging over them. We are obliged to help them as best we can.

And now that gospel demonstrating the “incredulity” (disbelief) of Thomas that Jesus could possibly be still alive. I suspect many of us, confronted by such a claim, would have had the exact same response! Then, of course, it happened. The risen Lord stood there, confronted poor Thomas, who may or may not have responded to Jesus’ invitation to examine the mortal wound in his side. But what Thomas then said to Jesus is unique in all of the New Testament: “My Lord and my God!” No-one else ever said that to him. Thomas’ doubt had vanished, replaced by adoration. And so all of us are blessed in our belief, taken from Jesus’ own words quoted at the top of this reflection.

There is more. The gospel makes a strong point about one thing; these followers of Jesus were terrified. John states not once but twice that “Jesus came, although the doors were locked…” Why were the doors locked? Well the common sense answer to that would be that, as followers of this would-be Messiah, they would also suffer the same terrible result as had happened to Jesus if they were found out. And who on earth would want that? In other words, the entire Christian church was huddled, terrified, in one small room in Jerusalem, fearing a Nazi-like pounding at the door, and all led away to be butchered. It was understandable. Although John has them receive the Holy Spirit in today’s gospel, nothing happens; they remain behind locked doors. We have to go to that same Acts of the Apostles to find out what happened next, but that comes later in the liturgical year!

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Image of Divine Mercy, Chapel of the Gates of Dawn, Vilnius, Lithuania.

And finally, today we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday. Remember the definition of mercy: Compassion on someone who does not deserve it. Jesus does not berate Thomas or criticize him in any way. He clearly understands him and accepts him. He does not condemn his disciples for being mice rather than men, locked away scared to death; Jesus is merciful. Everyone we know is deserving of our mercy. Mercy is close to forgiveness, though it is not the same thing. Compassion means pity, or sympathy or even empathy. It is the start of trying to understand another person, not condemn him or her. If this person is someone near to you, yet you are, say, estranged, mercy might allow you to see that person’s actions as regrettable but s/he deserves sympathy as his/her behavior might be the best of which that person is capable. It might be far from your or my best but mercy demands a different perspective, one that is more accepting. Perhaps they are incapable of anything better…

Final thought. It is interesting to note that even though the disciples had seen the risen Lord twice, they remained locked up, away from the world. The Resurrection was clearly not enough to strengthen their faith to confront any consequences. They remained terrified. So perhaps the lessons for us today are these: Doubt and questions, even fear, are absolutely normal and should be openly addressed. We are not made smaller or less because we question the elements of Christian faith. Indeed, doubt, if it exists, should be expressed and examined. What is the evidence for the truth in our Christian faith? How could it have persevered for 2000 years? Satisfying such questions will only strengthen our faith rather than destroy it. Today’s readings should be at least an encouragement for such thoughts, and they showed up even in Jesus’ inner circle! From today’s second reading:

Although you have not seen him you love him;
even though you do not see him now yet believe in him,
you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,
as you attain the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

 

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Jesus Appears to the Disciples Behind Closed Doors, Duccio, 1311, Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Siena, Italy.

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

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12 APRIL 2020: EASTER SUNDAY, THE RESURRECTION OF THE LORD.

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The Empty Tomb, Geek Wire.

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

[Simon Peter] went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.      John 20:6-7.

None of the Christian scriptures mentions one word of what happened in the tomb wherein Jesus’ dead body was laid. All they say is that his body was laid in there, the stone at the entrance rolled into place, and everyone departed. But when the tomb was visited three days later, it was empty. Interestingly, many scholars believe the gospel of Mark originally ended simply with the discovery of the empty tomb (but Jesus’ risen appearances in Mark’s gospel are considered true even if from another, later, hand). Today’s gospel reading from John ends at this point too, but it is not the end of John’s gospel. Then why does Mark consider that this empty, desolate burial chamber to be the end of the story? Consider that Mark begins his gospel with the baptism of Jesus. This is the event giving Jesus his identity as Son of God, and his vocation, to be the long-awaited Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ. John, on the other hand begins his gospel before time begins, and ends (in the Book of Revelation, traditionally by the same author), with the end time, the final judgment. Jesus’ death and burial for Mark represent the completion of Jesus’ vocation, with just the mention of the empty tomb, and a man there (not described as an angel) who tells Mary Magdalene and the other women that Jesus has risen and they will see him in Galilee. End of story, in the original version of Mark.  John says the same thing in today’s gospel passage, but goes on later to bear witness to the risen Lord. I mention this simply to indicate the unique importance of today’s gospel passage.

So the jaws of death, by some means, have been unlocked and cannot hold Jesus. I doubt if those first witnesses thought that however. Indeed, poor Mary Magdalene, slightly later in John, states in tears, “I don’t know where have they have laid him” (John 20:13). The enormous reality here is that we have an event unparalleled in all history, where one like us has conquered the ultimate enemy, death itself, and has invited us to the same. Jesus through his life and death remained true to the vocation God his Father gave him. In defying the popular stereotype of the Messiah then prevalent which believed him to be the military figure to restore the kingdom of David, Jesus actually fulfilled all of the messianic prophecies both positive and negative, especially those in Isaiah concerning the Suffering Servant which we heard yesterday. He demonstrated numerous times God’s power through his miracles, he forgave hideous betrayals inflicting on him by friend and foe alike, and in all reflected and lived the true nature of a loving and forgiving God through everything. And for that he conquered even death itself. And therein lies the lesson for all of us, invited to follow him through whatever gets thrown at us (and today’s world-wide coronavirus challenge is a pretty good example). Today’s gospel ends with Peter and John standing bewildered in the empty tomb, “For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.” In fact, that unparalleled truth has been pondered, examined, explained, doubted, embraced, trumpeted, belittled and accepted by millions of people ever since. It is unique in history, a breathtaking claim that no other tradition has claimed. In fact, it is the heart and soul of Christian belief. Without this one, central, event, there would be no Christian church at all; it is as important as that. Here is a man who was publicly killed in the most brutal fashion, taken down witnessed by friend and enemy alike, and laid, as they all thought, in his last resting place. And yet……

Jesus is called the New Adam. The Old Adam, he of the opening chapters in the Book of Genesis, the very archetype of humanity itself, was the man responsible for introducing death into human experience. Through his betrayal of the one commandment of God he brought disaster into human experience. Sin and death, therefore, are one and the same thing. It follows that a life without sin cannot be destroyed by death, as seen in Jesus’ experience. Hence the closer we get to a life without sin, the closer we are to life everlasting. Having gone through the Lenten experience, we should all be a little closer to that ideal, banishing sin/death from our lives and welcoming in the exciting possibility of a life of happiness without end through our imitation of the life of the Lord himself and the ways we have created to love God, neighbor and self, giving us meaning to life.

So, as our Greek Christian brothers and sisters say at this time (and they will celebrate Easter next Sunday):

Χριστός Ανέστη!

to which is responded:

Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη!

Christos anesti! Alithos anesti!   Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!

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The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, Surgun100.  An Orthodox icon of Christ’s descent into Sheol. In the icon, Christ tramples on Death depicted as a bound man. At the same time, Christ raises Adam and Eve from the grave, representing the whole of humanity. Old Testament prophets testify to the Resurrection.

The reflection for next Sunday will be posted on Wednesday.

Please forward this webpage on to those you think would appreciate it. Thank you.

Roger

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