The Price of Forgiveness

More on the incredible faith of the Amish:

Ours is a faith-torn world in which most of us tolerate — however unhappily — a schism between what we profess and how we act toward our fellow humans. In such a moral void, the quiet actions of Pennsylvania’s small Amish community speak volumes about the call to forgive others rather than tally our wounds.

Today, the Amish attended the funeral of the man who murdered their daughters.

Charles Carl Roberts IV, 32, was buried in his wife’s family plot behind a small Methodist church, a few miles from the one-room schoolhouse he stormed Monday. His wife, Marie, and their three small children looked on as Roberts was buried beside the pink, heart-shaped grave of the infant daughter whose death nine years ago apparently haunted him.

About half of perhaps 75 mourners on hand were Amish.

“It’s the love, the forgiveness, the heartfelt forgiveness they have toward the family. I broke down and cried seeing it displayed,” said Bruce Porter, a fire department chaplain from Morrison, Colorado, who had come to Pennsylvania to offer what help he could and attend the burial. He said Marie Roberts was also touched.

“She was absolutely deeply moved, by just the love shown,” Porter said.

God bless them.


P.S. — The Lesson of the Amish:

“Sometimes, faith helps ordinary men and women do the humanly impossible: to forgive, to love, to heal and to redeem. It makes no sense. It is the most sensible thing in the world. The Amish have turned this occasion of spectacular evil into a bright witness to hope. Despite everything, a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” — (Rod Dreher, Dallas Morning News)

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Thinking on the Margin, Brian Hollar.

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[Jesus said] “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies.”     Matthew 5:43.

If ever there was a claim that Jesus was counter-cultural, today’s gospel proves it. We, his followers, must turn the other cheek to the one who has just struck us. Someone claiming our property? Give that person more. Obliged to go where you don’t want to go? Go even further. Give to the beggar and agree with the one who wants to borrow from you. Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you. Hands up the one who has done all these without a second thought. On Monday October 2, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV walked into a one-room schoolhouse where Amish youngsters in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania were studying. He shot eight young girls aged 6-13, killing five of them. He then shot himself. The attack was completely unprovoked and utterly unexpected. The small conservative Amish community, a Christian sect derived from the Swiss German Anabaptist tradition, was devastated.


Nickel Mines, PA. 

A grandfather of one of the murdered Amish girls was heard warning some young relatives not to hate the killer, saying, “We must not think evil of this man. He now stands before a just God.” Hours after the dread event, a young Amish man knocked on the door of the killer’s house. His widow, mother and father, themselves devastated by the event, were there. He told them that his community did not see them and their family as the enemy but rather that they too were a family grieving the loss of a son. About 30 Amish attended the funeral of her son, among them some parents of the children he had killed. They offered their condolences to the grieving family afterwards. One cannot imagine a deeper demonstration of forgiveness than that showed by these peace-loving people to the family of a man who had wreaked unprovoked horror upon them. It was a shining, purest example of the very words of the Lord in today’s gospel in action.

We are all called to show exactly the same reaction to anything unjust or unfair thrown at us. The Christian heart has no place at any time, in any place, for any reason, for hatred, revenge or retaliation. Remember the Lord at another time, when Peter asked him how many times must he forgive? Six times? Seven?” Jesus said “seventy times seven times” or, less poetically, always. And there are the Lord’s dying words from the cross itself to forgive those who had done that to him. Hence Christians must be cloaked in forgiveness now and always. It is at the heart of our belief always and everywhere, without exception. But it is not the easiest lesson the Lord has given us, probably the reverse – the most difficult of all. That’s why we have a sacrament of forgiveness and a God who calls us to forgive at all times as often, indeed, as we are forgiven for our sins. That is the way of life and light.



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Choices, Creative Educator.

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[Jesus said] whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.  Matthew 5:22.

Today we live in an ocean of choices: from the mundane: which clothes to wear  when we get up, what breakfast food to have, which car on the train to take, and so on, to the middling: what to do this weekend, when to mend something about the house, choosing a new book to read, to the profound: do I say sorry about something, am I satisfied with my career, what do I do about a terrible decision I made, each with a resounding ? after them. Television is saturated with choices thrown at us, from which $50,000 car to buy to which toothpaste will be most beneficial.  Look at the quote from today’s gospel above. Jesus talks about the commandment Thou shalt not kill, the 5th commandment in the Catholic reckoning. That’s pretty clear, but Jesus has expanded it enormously in today’s reading – we must not even be angry with someone! He teaches similar massive developments with the other commandments in today’s gospel. What is his point?

There is an expression, great oaks from little acorns grow. This is clearly true – where else would oaks come from? But that can be applied to today’s teachings. In old school Catholic teaching a great deal was – is – made of the concept of venial sin. It is always contrasted with mortal sin, the worst sin we can commit, as it destroys – kills, hence ‘mortal’ – our very spirit, our very soul. The teaching says that venial sins, left to themselves, can lead to the death of the soul, hence our link with God, hence eternal damnation, which is eternity without hope; a hell of our own making. So, following the Lord’s line of thinking, anger left alone can grow into the most terrible situations which could be avoided by acting earlier, with courage and hope, to resolve a potentially terrible consequence. So leaving anger unchallenged is to permit it to grow to hatred and ultimate disaster. He points to other common failings which could also result in ultimate catastrophe, such as lusting leading to adultery and destruction of life-giving and sustaining relationships, and so on (great mortals from little venials grow?). Today’s first reading has the same theme, the need to make choices which strengthen our relationship to God and those around us, sometimes very difficult choices, and the second reading indicates the ultimate result, a profound wisdom which is the result of carefully made choices where the goal is clearly on getting closer to God rather than getting more wrapped up in ourselves, God-focussed as opposed to selfishness.

Each of us lives in a unique situation with its own challenges and demands. The golden rule which applies to each and every situation remains the same, love God, neighbor and self. Living by that golden rule would deal with anger immediately, lust would be extinguished, and anything which presents itself as a choice but which leads us away from the golden rule would be rejected at once. Stamping out selfishness in all its guises however is not easy; it seems that modern life is devoted to attempting to enhancing selfishness on a daily basis! Awareness of what is happening around us and to us is a step in the right direction though, provided we choose the correct pathway. With today’s readings as a guide, and with prayer, reflection and the sacraments to strengthen us, the right choices should become clear, if not easy. That’s when we ask for God’s help and guidance. St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, had a model for arriving at the right choice, a “discernment” as he called it. Briefly, when a very important decision was required and hence you are faced with a choice and (most important) acting with radical self-honesty, and a searching for the deep feelings which the various choices trigger within your heart, you list the pros and cons of each side of the argument, honestly and bluntly. This is putting it very simply (though look at “prayerful decisions” below for the full approach), The choice with the more positive thoughts and feelings and the least negatives point in the right direction; those choices which trigger negative feelings, honestly identified, should be rejected. Here is a secular version of the same thing.


St. Ignatius Loyola, Making Prayerful Decisions

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Lighthouses don’t go running…..  Anne Lamott, 2015.

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[Jesus said] You are the light of the world.    Matthew 5:14.

After all the sublimity of Christmas, the beginning of a new year, the Magi, the Holy Family and candles (last week), today’s readings bring us down to earth and state clearly, without fuss, what our Christian life is all about:

First reading:       Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them…

Second reading:   I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of Spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom
but on the power of God.

Gospel:              [Jesus said] Just so, your light must shine before others,
that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.

And there you have it, summed up succinctly and clearly. Despite our weakness and failings, with God’s presence in and around us, we can stand firm amidst anything life can throw at us. Examples of this are to be found in the lives of the saints, but remember, saints are never aware that they are saints! They simply accept certain principles as life-saving, even though that might be the reason for losing their lives in this world. One example was a humble housewife in England, married with three children. This was in the 16th century, and the England of Queen Elizabeth I had renounced the pope and established her as “supreme governor” of the Church of England (a title which is given to the monarch to this day). Mrs. Clitherow did not find the new system spiritually satisfying and converted to the old faith, which at that time was an illegal thing to do. Worse, she hid Catholic priests as they ministered to those who refused to adopt the new church. At that time, it was treasonable to be a Catholic priest in England, thanks to a highly unfortunate and inflammatory papal bull issued by the then pope Pius V, declaring Elizabeth “the pretended queen of England and the servant of crime” and releasing all English Catholics of any allegiance to her. That made all Catholics potential traitors in the eye of English law. Well, Margaret Clitherow was caught and accused of harboring and sheltering traitors, namely, Catholic priests. To this accusation she made no response (that is, she did not plead guilty or not guilty) simply saying “I know of no offense whereof I should confess myself guilty. Having made no offense, I need no trial.” Today a refusal to plead automatically means a “not guilty” plea is entered for you. Not then. You had to make a plea. If you refused, you were condemned to the peine fort et dure. This meant, literally, a plea would be forced out of you. Clearly this woman was acting totally from her belief and determination not to betray it; she was also aware that if found guilty, her property would be forfeit to the crown, and her children (she had three) would become beggars.  All this made her, as it were, a lighthouse amid the tempestuous storms of religious controversy and recrimination of that time. The same can be said exactly of Jesus at his trial when he was accused of being the Messiah and the Son of God; knowing that he was indeed the Messiah and the Son of God (from the events at his baptism), and to deny it would mean the destruction of his entire ministry given to him by God, he simply said “I am” (Mark 14:62), fully aware that the penalty for this perceived blasphemy was death. So these two people were put to death most cruelly, simply because of their belief, which would hurt no-one. In 1970, Margaret Clitherow was canonized as one of the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales by Pope Paul VI.


Margaret Clitherows’s house in York, England.

Well we live in less barbarous times, though I’m sure you can find places today where similar things still happen. We Christians are still possible targets for ridicule and contempt, and how we deal with such things will show the strength of our belief. But we do have to be sure that the ridicule is based on the good works we have done, not through some self-glorifying vanity project. Jesus simply went around doing good (Acts 10:38); Margaret Clitherow helped those in danger of arrest, torture and gruesome death simply because they were Catholic priests. So, a question for our times: What have we done to help the poor, feed the hungry, tend the sick, help the refugee, no matter the consequences? How have we loved our neighbor, ourselves and God? It always comes down to the golden command, and how we respond to it.


“The Shambles” where Mrs. Clitherow lived, York, England.

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Our Lady of Candelaria, Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria, Tenerife, Canary Islands.

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When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord…..   Luke 2:22.

Today is special for many people; for some, it represents the end of the Christmas season. Another angle comes to us from the gospel, which tells us that Joseph and Mary were obeying the Mosaic law. This states that 40 days after the birth of a baby boy, he must be presented to God, to whom he belongs, to be “bought back” into the care of his parents for a certain price, two young pigeons in the case of the poorest people. Also, the birth-woman had to be “purified” according to the Jewish tradition as stated in the Book of Leviticus. Additionally, when Jesus, Mary and Joseph entered the Temple precincts in Jerusalem, an old man called Simeon approached them, gazed upon the child, and proclaimed this famous speech:

Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be glory of thy people Israel. 

This prayer is perhaps better known for its first two words in Latin: Nunc dimittis. For centuries his proclamation has been sung as part of evening prayer as the day dies and night approaches. Simeon had been promised by the Holy Spirit that his eyes would see the long-promised Messiah before he died. Additionally there is an ancient title for this day, namely Candlemas. It is associated with Jesus, the light, coming into the world, as Simeon says. Churches traditionally bless their candles for the year on this day. They represent light in the darkness, and are a pre-echo of the lighted paschal candle being brought into the darkened church at the great Easter Vigil Mass. That ties the aged Simeon, now ready for death, with Jesus conquering death. The candles on either side of the lectern when the gospel is proclaimed therefore remind us of Jesus as the light of the world. So this is a many-faceted feast, but light does seem to be the overarching symbol, in its way it is yet another epiphany, with the Holy Spirit’s promise to Simeon.


Candlemas, uCatholic, January 2015.

It is said that we today, in the 21st century, can have very little idea of what life was like in Jesus’ day, also the time after him right up to the 19th century when everything changed. But we do have direct experience of that time if we think about it. When a church bell  rings out, that is the sound of the Middle Ages; candles connect us directly to days long ago. The chant in the Nunc Dimittis link above would be instantly recognized by people centuries ago. There is the treasury of sacred art from the Middle Ages (see below and the current stunning exhibition in Ghent, Belgium) which many feel has never been surpassed. We are more children of those times than we think! And of course the message of today’s readings is as relevant now as it was then. Simeon’s words can cleave into our hearts in exactly the same way: is there any darkness there that begs for the light of Christ to enter? Is there any coldness there that longs for the warmth of the presence of God? Jesus’ sacrifice for us is the price he paid for that light and warmth of our salvation….. not two pigeons. That’s how much God wants us back; that is how much Jesus was prepared to pay for our redemption. If we allow that light, that fire, to enter our hearts, then will today’s first reading come true: …who can stand when he appears? For he is like the refiner’s fire….. the purifying fire of the presence of God even within us. As today’s second reading says, he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. We are never, ever, alone if we are brave enough to let that light, that fire, enter into us which allows us to be true, responsive, active children of God.


The Presentation in the Temple, Lorenzetti, 1342, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy.

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synagogue2The Synagogue at Capernaum, late 4th century, built upon the foundations of Jesus’ synagogue. 

Sunday’s Mass Reading can be found by clicking here.

As [Jesus] was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”    Matthew 4:18-19.


Statue of St. Peter, Madden, Sculptor, 2000 CE, Caperneum, Israel. (The Sea of Galilee in the background).

Last year, Pope Francis declared the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time to be celebrated as Word of God Sunday. That day is to celebrate the great book containing God’s very words. In the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June, 1953, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury, presented the Queen with a bible. The Archbishop said, “…we present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords”.  Then the Moderator said, “Here is Wisdom; This is the royal Law; These are the lively Oracles of God”. Note “Lively”. That means full of life. The bible contains all that is necessary for a happy and fulfilled life here on earth, and provides a pathway to heaven itself. If one follows these Oracles, the result is happiness and fulfillment. Now let us look at today’s gospel. 

On February 10 last year, the 5th Sunday in Ordinary time, we heard St. Luke’s description of the call of Peter. Try to find it (do a search for “Peter” and you’ll get there eventually). That reveals my take on this event, perhaps a little too “lively” in the secular sense to make it into Scripture. It shows how a hard-bitten, hard working man such as Peter was overwhelmed by the presence of Jesus, despite what I think he might have said when Jesus told him to pull out and fish again. Matthew omits that episode, but does of course put in the effects of the encounter: Peter drops everything to become a disciple. On 17 January, we celebrated the feast of St. Anthony, recognized as the founder of monasticism. He too dropped everything and walked out into the desert in order to get closer fo God and away from the distractions of the world. We still have today, though the numbers have sadly declined, men and women prepared to give up everything and follow a life dedicated only to God and follow the lively Oracles contained in God’s word. So the power is still there even now, when Isaiah’s words in the first reading are once more fulfilled: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone. You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing….” But let me not forget those who have not embarked on such a life, the vast majority of people. These are still “in the world” but through these same lively Oracles, we all have the same identical invitation to live a life fulfilled and holy leading to eternal happiness. Indeed, Paul’s letter today is addressed to just such people, who are arguing madly about who has the greatest and most effective teacher, just like today’s arguments about who is the greatest Yankee pitcher or best Manchester City striker. Except those people in Corinth argued about who was more likely to get them into heaven! Paul quickly puts them to rights: only Jesus, always Jesus and he alone is to be their – our –  teacher. In him you trust, in his words you place your hope, his example you follow to the very best of your ability.


The ruins of the ancient synagogue at Capernaum in Galilee; the big black stones are the floor of the synagogue in Jesus’ time, where he would have walked.

Today’s challenges, which are monumental and certainly enough to reduce us to despair should we let them, can be tamed, controlled and overcome with the application of Jesus’ words. If we each love the other, if we trust in God’s presence here and now, if we act accordingly (and that is by no means easy or simple), these challenges can be met. They require sacrifice, never popular in the secular world; climate control demands courageous decisions, income equalization demands massive changes, corruption elimination requires courage and clarity and strength. And on and on. The simplicity and honesty of the Lord should be our constant model, his resilience our guide. It is as if, in fact, we are being asked to drop all number of privileges and wealth for the greater good, as the saints have done through the centuries, modeling St. Peter in today’s gospel. This attitude would offer the world hope, which is in short supply. But it seems, as the days go by, that we, among the wealthiest people in the world, will be asked for such sacrifice to preserve our planet. With God’s help, and our trust in that, it is possible, as the lively Oracles of God guide our way to doing what is right and good.

st peter

St. Peter, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City State.

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mystic lamb

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Van Eyck brothers 1432, St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium.

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John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world…”   John 1:29.

A question occurred to me preparing this Sunday’s reflection concerned John’s choice of the word “Lamb”. Why not “fawn” or “calf” or “foal” or some other word applied to the young of animals? If we started to use any of those terms today and apply it to Jesus, it would sound very strange as we are so used to “lamb”. But surely John’s followers, who heard his description of Jesus, a grown man, for the first time, might well have reacted in the same way: “lamb”? It must have been strange. Or perhaps not, considering the highly significant role that the figure of a lamb had played in Jewish history:

[God said to Moses] Tell Israel they shall take a lamb without blemish, a male one year old, kill the lamb and take some of the blood and put it on the the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat the flesh with unleavened bread…. when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will fall on you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt. Exodus 12, abridged.

Following that night of the 10th plague, when the first-born of Egypt were slain, the Hebrew people were released from slavery and began their 40-year journey to the Promised Land. Hence the blood of the sacrificed lamb represented life (including consuming the lamb in haste at mealtime, strength to begin their journey) over death of the first-born, and freedom over slavery. Transferred to Jesus’ mission, it meant freedom over slavery to sin, eternal life and happiness, our Promised Land (with his body and blood at communion as an anticipation of the eternal banquet, and as food for the journey towards that time) as opposed to eternal hell and suffering. And that symbolism has remained with us down to the present: Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world…” said prior to consuming that sacred Lamb in the form of consecrated bread and wine at Mass. That also helps us understand the painting above, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. A non-Christian would have a very hard time understanding what it was all about.

So, following on John’s recognition and identity of Jesus as the Lamb of God, it follows that Jesus is the sacrificial victim who will deliver us all from slavery and death. Jesus has the power to give us freedom and life, the essentials of a good and fulfilling life here on earth followed by the absolute freedom and life in heaven, always provided that that is what we truly want and are willing to do what is necessary to deserve them. Remember the ancient Jews had to believe in the power of the lamb’s blood on the doorposts to save them from death, and had to endure 40 years in the wilderness before arriving at the freedom of their Promised Land. Christians have to accept that the Lamb’s blood received in communion has the power to give us eternal life, and that our pilgrimage here on earth, obeying God’s will, anticipates the absolute freedom of eternity in God’s presence. If you read today’s first reading with that in mind, it becomes clear that we, as God’s children here on earth, are to be lights of life and freedom to all around us, that others too might enjoy and model their lives to God’s will in anticipation of such a wonderful consequence. The fact that if we do actually model our lives in such a way here and now, we have heaven here and now! Remember Jesus often said “Heaven is like…..” when he was teaching. Follow that teaching therefore, and we experience heaven in the here and now! In other words, we can experience profound happiness and satisfaction springing from obeying God’s will today. It may not be easy, it may incur suffering, but if God is with us and we with God, what can prevail against us?

Ancient design for the Christian cross: 𝚭ΩΗ (ZŌĒ -“zoey”- LIFE) and ΘΩΣ (PHŌS – LIGHT).

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The Baptism of the Lord, Perugino, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City State.

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Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.  Matthew 3:13.

As explained in last Sunday’s SundayMassReadings, this event is another Epiphany. Perugino displays this loudly and clearly in the picture above. You have God in heaven, whose voice was heard at Jesus’ baptism, and you have God’s Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus, thus anointing him. Such divine intervention is called an epiphany. It inaugurated Jesus’ vocation to be the Messiah, the Christ, (meaning the Anointed One), and gave him his identity, as the heavenly voice declared Jesus to be “my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” The gospel of Mark actually begins with this event, which shows how important it was. Jesus was probably about the age of 30 and presumably by then a jobbing carpenter as Joseph, his stepfather, was. And so he was certainly thrown into a turbulent state of mind and with much confusion at the double revelation, hence his rapid departure into the desert to try and figure it all out: What and who am I? Note that these two questions apply to all the baptized down to today. The second reading shows how baptism, the spiritual circumcision for all Christians, was clearly opened up to all Gentiles very early on. A very confused St. Peter witnessed the Holy Spirit anointing the pagan Roman soldier Cornelius and his household even before they were baptized. This was the absolute sign that the potential chosen people of God could now be anyone, anywhere. It was clear and absolute, and was to precipitate the first major crisis in the new Christian community. All the Christians up to that Cornelius moment were converted Jews, and so it was understandable that they assumed you would have to become Jewish if you wanted to be Christian; this event in the household of the Roman soldier Cornelius stated absolutely that this was not to be the case. Eventually that was accepted, and so anyone could become a follower of Jesus.

The Jewish people had waited a very long time for the Anointed of God (the Messiah) to arrive. Ever since the conquest of the Holy Land by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in about 590 BCE, save for a short period of independence, foreign, pagan, forces had occupied the Holy Land. They were aching for a Messiah who would end this national disgrace and restore the kingdom of David. That hope was to result in the death of Jesus as he was such a colossal disappointment to them. In their eyes, he betrayed the greatest hope they had in the Messiah – political independence. Yes they were delighted at Jesus’ miracles but they wanted much more, concentrating on the more overt prophecies concerning the messiah, for example, that kings would bow before him (Psalm 72). Jesus must have been aware of these strong expectations, but they meant nothing to him, he who said that those who live by the sword will die by the sword (Matthew 26:52). In fact, the Jewish people, despite many attempts to attain this treasured independence, had to wait until 1949 to achieve it, with the foundation of the state of Israel. Those other messianic prophecies which talked about a suffering servant (Isaiah 53), always accepted as such by Christians were not – and are not – accepted as such in Jewish thought. So Jesus almost certainly took on this role of Messiah knowing the perils it most certainly would bring. But obedience to the will of God was first and foremost in his thinking; after that was a total trust in God’s protection and loyalty, no matter what happened to him. He put God first, and personal fears and reluctance behind him. And that is the eternal model for all of us. Doing the will of God is never easy, yet if we trust God, have perfect faith in God, know that all will be well in the end, then we too become truly obedient children of God, giving us both our God-given identity and, based on our God-given gifts, our vocation. These we received at our baptism too. Let us ask clarity and strength from God to accept these and act accordingly following his will for each of us. That is the pathway to perfection, happiness and eternal life.


AZ Quotes.

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Magi from the East, Catholic Culture.

….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, let us take at that word “Magi”. It does not come from Latin or Greek, which makes the term unusual in Christian Scripture. It is thought to come from an ancient eastern religion called Zoroastrianism. This religion survives to this day, and what is remarkable about it is that it is monotheistic, predating Christianity. Zoroaster, the founder, lived in what is now Iran perhaps 700 years before Christ (there is a lot of discussion on this point). Magi were possibly priests of that religion. In any case, they were not kings! Note that today’s gospel does not tell us how many arrived at the stable. From the number of gifts and their quality, especially gold, popular tradition assumed they were kings, even naming them Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. These Magi, however, from the only other society who worshipped one God, witnessed a revelation – or epiphany – of the One True God by means of a star guided by God’s hand. They represented the world’s nations. (Note that the shepherds, who also arrived at the stable, had witnessed a chorus of angels as their epiphany. They also represented the lowest end of the social scale compared to the Magi who were probably at the highest end). So epiphany means an intervention and revelation of the divine in human society. Next week we will celebrate the baptism of Jesus, where a voice came from heaven, and the Holy Spirit “as of a dove” descended on him. That event, therefore, was also an epiphany, a representation of the presence of God. The same goes for the event known as the Transfiguration, where Jesus appeared with two of the greatest figures of the Old Testament, plus also the voice of God was heard. But today’s event of the three wise men arriving from the east is probably the most familiar of these epiphanies.

The three gifts have their own significance also. Gold, frankincense and myrrh each has a specific implication. Gold clearly represents wealth and power; this is Jesus seen as an all-powerful King. The Sunday before the beginning of Advent, you will recall, was celebrated as the feast of Christ the King of the Universe. Incense for a Catholic or Orthodox Christian instantly recalls celebrations in church; there is even a psalm which says that our prayers to God should “rise like incense” (Psalm 141). So this gift identifies Jesus as High Priest. (Frankincense specifically identifies a type of incense made from the sap of a certain tree). Then there’s myrrh, the most mysterious of the gifts. Like frankincense, it comes from the sap of a certain tree, and it is still used today in cosmetics and health care. That seems unlikely to apply to today’s feast. Very likely it was in reference to embalming a dead body, for which it was once used. If so, this can be taken as a reference to Jesus’ death. So the gifts represent Jesus as King, Priest and Victim, which encapsulate his life, his vocation, on earth. 

For many years, the feast of the Epiphany was celebrated on January 6, and is sometimes called “Little Christmas”. If so, it is on the 12th day after Christmas (the source of that famous song) and is often the day Christmas decorations are taken down; for many of our Orthodox brothers and sisters that day is celebrated as Jesus’ birthday, using the old Julian calendar instead of our Gregorian calendar. So this feast has many and varied dimensions and can be quite confusing. But at root it indicates the universal nature of Jesus’ vocation. The three Magi represent the nations of the world in their wisdom, power and faith. The birth of the Son of God was not a local Jewish event meant for one people. It was meant for everybody, everywhere. In this understanding, all of us, every race, nation, city, village, family and individual, are called by God to recognize Jesus as sent by God to each of us. Hence any prejudice, any racist thought or word is to be absolutely and totally rejected. Such thinking has no place in the Christian world. Contemporary examples of anti-semitism, white supremacy and so on are the opposite of what today’s feast represents. Today demonstrates the Christian acceptance of all people as children of God, all of us equal in God’s eyes, each individual beautiful in the sight of God who created us all. I believe that to be the precious message of today’s feast. And Amen to that!


Diversity, Evangelicals for Social Action.

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

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The Holy Family, Ethiopian Arts.

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…..the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel…..     Matthew 2:19-20.

To see a young Jesus, with Mary and Joseph (or, more likely, Y’shua, Miriam and Yosef), walking down the street of a Jewish Saturday afternoon coming back from temple, nothing would have seemed remarkable. The youngster would perhaps have been jumping about, his apparent father maybe playing with him, Mary perhaps smiling at the loving relationship between the two. Perfect. Life I’m sure would not have been easy for them; they were not wealthy, they depended on Joseph’s skills as a carpenter, and I’m sure there was a struggle to put food on the table day after day. Almost all families face such challenges; I know mine did just after the war in the 1940s and 50s. Millions still do in the poorer countries of the world. But life goes on. Today’s feast therefore is a celebration of the completely normal and ordinary. Almost all of us can identify with that scene. So what is it doing here today? Well, I’m proposing something rather unusual, and that is, that such a family is a reflection of the Blessed Trinity itself. God the Father was the first Person to enter human history in Genesis 12, approaching Abram and offering friendship and promising that which Abram would have thought impossible – ancestors and land. From the heights of heaven, this covenant was fulfilled slowly and surely through the centuries. Once the foundation was laid, God’s Son appeared, one who could and would demonstrate in purely human terms, how God the Father would like to see us behave with each other and God. Once that example had been done, and Jesus, God the Son, was condemned for so doing, God’s Holy Spirit was sent to us to enable us to live that perfect life Jesus had shown us. So the Holy Family could be a living example of the Trinity in human terms. Joseph taking on the role of Father, the one who sustains his family, guides them. Jesus as the life force, moving into adulthood with the solid foundation and experience of a loving family from which he drew stability and confidence. And Mary as the binding force, the strength keeping everything together and in harmony (and remember that the Jewish understanding of God’s Wisdom was feminine). And there you have it, the perfect unit. Today, of course, we have many different manifestations of that family unit. Rather than condemning them, perhaps it would be better to hope and pray that each of them can offer the same strong ideal foundations that their children can rely on as they grow. Love is the binding force in all such relationships. And so we need to consider the nature of love itself.

There are two popular songs from Broadway/West End musicals which seem to capture the nature of love. One is from the Sound of Music, but much more elaborated by its lyricist, Oscar Hammerstein II, in his song, “Love isn’t love till you give it away”  The other is from Les Miserables, the finale of which states, “Take my love, For love is everlasting; And remember, The truth that once was spoken: To love another person is to see the face of God” And from that comes another amazing “proof” if you like, of the nature of the Blessed Trinity. The other two great monotheistic religions cannot begin to comprehend what the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is. But if you accept the definition that God is love (1 John 4:8), then there has to be a community of persons, at least two, for love to be present. Anything less than that means there cannot be true love. To whom do you give love if you are alone, such as one solitary God prior to the creation of the universe? There is no such conundrum with the Holy Trinity, who loved all of us into existence. That is why I claim that today’s feast is a clear reflection of God, the Christian belief in a divine community, love generating life (which can be seen in the Person of God the Son, eternally generated from love) for all eternity, and we are fortunate enough to benefit from such care and solace.


The Holy Family, Catholics Striving for Holiness.

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

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