SUNDAY 15 MAY 2022: THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER.

JerusalemThe New Jerusalem, Angers Apocalypse Tapestry, Musée des Tapisseries, Angers, France.

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I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.”  Revelation 21:2-4.

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Oh for that New Jerusalem! What a different world it must be compared to the stark anger, hatred, violence, pain and tears of our present world. Urban violence in large cities, murders committed in all places, hatred cried out aloud in demonstrations, attacks on old people, unprovoked invasions on peace-loving countries; what a contrast to the words of today’s second reading, quoted above. How on earth can such a reign of peace and love possibly exist in such a world? Well it can, incredibly enough – in our own hearts. Let the New Jerusalem enter through the gateways of our own conscience, heart, mind. Let God rule instead of us, instead of me. But how can that come to be? Look at today’s gospel, and the answer is as clear as sunshine: Love one another. That is easier said than done, as the Lord really knows. He told his followers to love one another, but how could he prove, as it were, that he really meant what he said? He could have just been mouthing a platitude, a simple heartfelt wish, or simply hot air uttering a pious hope. How could he show that his words really sprang from utter conviction and example? Look at his words: “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and God will glorify him at once.” Difficult words to express a supreme Christian truth, hanging on the command to love one another.

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The Sacrifice of Isaac, Woodcut from the Lyon Missal c.1500.

The whole concept, the ethos, as it were, springs from the Hebrew notion of sacrifice. Do you remember the command God gave to Abraham, to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, “whom you love”, as a sweet offering to God, to prove he loved God (Genesis 22:2)? The fact that Abraham trusted in and loved God above all else was proven, and God stopped him killing his son at the very last moment. Blood sacrifice, therefore, was part and parcel of the Hebrew concept of love and devotion. It was also an unquestioned practice among the peoples of Canaan at that time. But the killing of a child to prove this among the Hebrew people was henceforward absolutely forbidden by God, setting them apart from their neighbors. The idea of substitution was therefore introduced; in the sacrifice of Isaac, a lamb caught in a thicket was substituted and offered to God in Isaac’s place. This original idea of sacrifice has lived down to the present time. St. Maximilian Kolbe gave  up his life in exchange for another prisoner’s life in Auschwitz. What possible greater proof does one need in proving one’s love for another? And so it is that Jesus did exactly the same thing. In the fateful admission that he was indeed the Son of God and the Messiah to the high priest, which occasioned his condemnation to death, he showed his utter devotion to God, who had identified him at his baptism as Son of God, and anointed him as Messiah by the Holy Spirit, all for our redemption, and willingly went to a gruesome, horrible death for love of us. He proved his love for us and for God his Father in the starkest, most profound way possible.

The martyred saints down through the centuries have done the same thing over and over. As Thomas More says in “Man for All Seasons”, “I do none harm, I say none harm, I think none harm. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live” (A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt, Vintage Books, 1962, p.93). In other words, love is the answer, now, then and always, even if you have to die to prove it. Take that image and apply it to Passover Night in the Book of Exodus, where the blood of an unblemished lamb, slaughtered that night and whose blood was smeared on the doorposts of the Hebrew homes, saved the lives of their first-born sons. Then there is the Lord at his Last Supper stating that the bread and wine of that meal was his body and blood which we must take eat and drink, preserving our life to that of heaven, the shared eternal bliss of the life of God.

Challenging thoughts which can be summed up, as Jesus himself did, into one simple command, love one another, for in that lies the secret of eternal life and happiness. If we are prepared to live that way to the utmost and best of our ability, then we are the friends of God, the God who loves us so much that we can become one with the Divine who becomes one with us. That gives each one of us the strength to live a profoundly good life, loving God and neighbor and self now and forever, in the New Jerusalem.

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Flower Power, October 1st, 1967, The Pentagon, Washington, DC.

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SUNDAY 8 MAY 2022: THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

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Adoration of the Lamb, van Eyck, St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium.

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After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb,wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. Revelation 7:9.

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All three readings today deal with gatherings in one way or another. The first, from the Acts of the Apostles, talks of a synagogue congregation addressed by Paul and Barnabas which turns ugly once they indicate that God had welcomed the Gentiles into their midst. The second reading from Revelation talks of the endtime, with a huge gathering united in adoration around the Lamb of God. Then today’s gospel which talks of Jesus preaching in the Temple, describing how he gives life eternal to the sheep who follow him, and because of his resurrection, he became the living proof of the power of that teaching, one which gives eternal life and happiness. So the pattern is both success and discord in this life in the first reading, Jesus letting his followers know that the path will be difficult, sometimes good sometimes not. But the result of acceptance of that teaching is eternal peace, unity and joy shining in the second reading, and the gospel spelling out how this teaching should be delivered, to those willing to trust in the Lord and his message and to follow him no matter what.

Sunday Mass is called a liturgy. That is an interesting word. It is originally Greek, λειτουργία, or leitourgia, whose literal meaning is work of or for the people, or simply public worship. It meant the worship of the gods to the ancient Greeks, and the Christians adopted it to describe their own worship. Link that with Matthew 18:19–20, where Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”.

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Pope Francis celebrates Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2019.

So clearly, in the mind of Jesus, the ancients and today, there is something very special about gathering together to worship God. We call it the Mass. You can find this in the absolutely grandest buildings in the world, and the humblest setting imaginable.

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U.S.Army Captain Carl Subler, a chaplain, celebrates Mass for soldiers in Helmand Province in Afghanistan, February 21, 2010. 

And the Lord is present no matter the surroundings! The Covid pandemic over the last two years has confirmed the necessity we have as human beings to gather together. We are social animals. Among the very first manifestations of this in the Covid crisis was restaurants opening up in the street, taking valuable parking space, so that people could gather once more, as safely as possible, so strong is this urge to be together. How much more is this elevated when we gather together to give thanks (the meaning of the word Eucharist) for blessings received from God, especially good health, and to pray for those who suffer for any reason, from any disability. And recall that the  Eucharist is a re-enactment of the Last Supper, a meal, just like the reason for the street restaurants which have flowered in the last two years!

There is, I think, a progression in today’s three readings. The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles describes the challenging start of Jesus’ message in Antioch, the one in Pisidia, now an ancient ruin in the middle of Turkey. There was a great fuss in the Jewish synagogue at Paul’s message, especially when he said that Gentiles should be welcome to worship with them. The universality of Jesus’ message, which was a topic that had almost ripped the infant Christian church into shreds, had only just been resolved in the Gentiles’ favor. So this core teaching, that all are welcome at the altar of the Lord, was born amid protests and even some violence. So, like any birth, our church had difficulty in getting the message of universal salvation out to everyone. And it was within the confines of a liturgy, the Jewish Sabbath in this case, that it was first announced. Today’s gospel shows the seeds of this new teaching, with the words of the Lord describing his followers, those who “hear his voice” and follow him – anyone who hears his voice, that is. Jesus places no limits on his teaching. And the reason? The promise of eternal life. And the wondrous van Eyke vision of this, namely the image at the top of this page, is the consequence. All within the context of a liturgy, a social function in the presence of God.

So as the pandemic slowly recedes and our world tries to regain a sense of normality, we can return to Mass as we once knew it, rejoicing and giving thanks once more amid fellow Christians, as we regain the experience of church, assembly, liturgy. It is in this experience that Jesus is, as ever, present, and fulfills the promise in the second reading:

For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne
                        will shepherd them
                        and lead them to springs of life-giving water,
                        and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

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The Lamb of God, Basilica of San Vitale 6th century, Ravenna, Italy.

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SUNDAY 1 MAY 2022:THE THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER.

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Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my sheep”

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“Simon, son of John, do you love me? Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”   John 21:17.

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If you look back to the Sunday Mass Readings for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, dated 6th February 2022, the gospel told of the calling of St. Peter by Jesus to become “fishers of men”, and my rather, um, personal interpretation of what might have really happened there. Today’s gospel seems to be a kind of parallel or perhaps a bookend, even though this passage is from John (the other was from Luke). It is possible that Peter had returned to Galilee to take up his old trade once more as a fisherman, having betrayed Jesus in the courtyard of the high priest while Jesus was being interrogated. In other words, perhaps his action was a kind of rejection of Jesus and all he stood for. Clearly Jesus was not the messiah the people had expected, the warrior figure who would call them to arms and kick out the Roman overlords. Did Peter think it was all a huge mistake, something to be forgotten? But, on the other hand, Peter might simply be obeying the words of the angel in Jesus’ tomb, telling the women to tell the apostles to go to Galilee and await the Lord. Both theories are plausible. Then today’s gospel event happened, curiously similar to Jesus’ initial meeting with Peter. At that time Peter had labored all night and caught nothing. Today’s gospel says they again had labored all night and caught nothing. Jesus this time calls from the shore telling them what to do. They do it, and the miraculous catch this time is prodigious, all of them having to jump into the shallow sea and physically pull the net onto land. Then Jesus puts the same question three times to Peter: “Do you love me?” – a justifiable enquiry following what had happened in the high priest’s courtyard. Three times Peter says “yes” echoing the three times he had denied even knowing Jesus. Note the utter absence of any words of condemnation or rebuke from the Lord. This is a God of Forgiveness, a God of Love. But Peter must have been bitterly aware that Jesus asked him three times the same question: “Do you love me?” His remorse must have been profound, painful beyond words, and utterly crushing. But here was the risen Lord, alive – eating a fish dinner with them! This gospel scene is a mixture of the utterly ordinary and the spectacularly incredible. No wonder the gospel says “And none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they realized it was the Lord”. They were probably incapable of speech… They all knew that Jesus had died a terrible death, had been buried and left for dead, and yet, there he was, sitting with them enjoying a fish dinner!esus-christ-fish-feed-shutterstock_712805536

Jesus and the Fishermen, Entrance Mosaic to the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of ta’ Pinu, Gharb, Gozo, Malta.

Isn’t it human to return to the tried and true if confronted with something way beyond one’s experience and understanding? Peter, having followed Jesus for perhaps three years, believing in everything the Lord taught, then betraying him, even in his sight and hearing, as Luke 22:61 baldly states, must have thought his, Peter’s life, had been utterly crushed with guilt. Despite seeing the Lord alive as they huddled in the Upper Room, it seems Peter and some friends returned to their fishing rather than setting off and preaching to the world. And what would that have been? Fishing, their previous life. It must have given them a foundation on which to base their lives, something they trusted and relied on. But now the Lord reappears once more, telling Peter to feed his lambs and feed his sheep. Peter, once more surely overwhelmed that the Lord greeted him as a friend – colleague even – and entrusted to him the message he had to bring to the world, even though, as Jesus says, this would mean that “someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” as today’s gospel says, an intimation of his martyrdom. And this time, Peter obeys and his life really does change.

So the message today seems to be for us to put all our challenges into a perspective that Peter would understand, as he lived through them. That we are not to be overwhelmed by events, or at least, if we are, then never to give up hope in the Lord. Jesus’ quiet approach even to someone who had betrayed him shows how we too are to behave if ever in the same position. We are never pawns to be shoved around by life’s whims and blows; we are Christians, supported by someone who understands all that because he went through it as well. Hatred and blame were never on his lips, so they should never be on ours. The overwhelmed Peter is our model, the quiet strength of the Lord is our guiding force. We have strong models to be adopted and lived. And, as ever, we have the Lord alive within us, incorporated literally through communion with him, ready to give us strength to overcome whatever challenges us in this life.

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Helping Hands Doula in Kansas City, USA.

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SUNDAY 24 APRIL 2022: SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER: SUNDAY OF DIVINE MERCY.

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The Doubting Thomas, Bloch 1885, etching, Brigham Young Museum of Art, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA.

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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 20:29

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Today’s gospel has one of the most fascinating stories in Scripture. It is very easy to identify oneself with the doubting Thomas in this passage. Absent at the risen Jesus’ first appearance to his apostles, Thomas declared outright to them: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Well, one can quite easily agree with that. Jesus had been cruelly put to death, the dead body taken down and placed in a tomb, and a stone rolled across its entrance. Pretty good proof the man was dead! Hence Thomas’ incredulity, as it is called. Even more understandable is his reaction at the appearance of the Lord in their midst and his direct address and invitation to Thomas to examine physically the wounds his body bore. Scripture does not tell us if Thomas did place his finger in the wound, but it does tell us that the man was overcome with emotion and basically collapsed in front of Jesus and uttered the words “My Lord and my God”, the one and only time in the gospels they were said. It was true! Jesus was alive! Indeed, nothing is impossible with God. We are dealing with the central, utterly essential Christian belief here. Without the Resurrection, Christianity is nothing. Without the Risen Lord, Christianity is simply a nice wind rustling through the centuries of time. Not much. With Jesus defeating death itself, Christianity is everything: the ultimate enemy is conquered, just as the prophecies had foretold. And here he was, confronting doubting Thomas face to face. No wonder the poor man fell to his knees! No-one had ever seen the like before; only God could do such a thing.

The author of this gospel, John, believed to be the John beloved of the Lord, would have been present at this scene as witness. By tradition he was imprisoned on the Greek island of Patmos (near what is now the Turkish coast), as he says in today’s second reading. It was there that he also authored the Book of Revelation, the Apocalypse, which talks of the final time, the last judgement, in the most dramatic way. In this, he expands on the theme of the Risen Lord, and reports that the Lord said to him, “Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last, the one who lives. Once I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever. I hold the keys to death and the netherworld” (Revelation 1:18). John’s gospel begins with the famous line, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God…..” in other words, before all creation had come to be, God was present; and then his Book of Revelation ends when creation itself is judged, when time ends and the eternal reigns. In other words, John writes of the very beginning to the very end. And this from the only apostle who did not suffer a violent death because of his beliefs. He presumably died in prison on Patmos, but compared to the gruesome deaths of many of the others, he was fortunate.

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St. John on Patmos, Velázquez 1619, The National Gallery, London, UK.

They had all suffered as a consequence of their belief in Jesus and not the Roman gods and goddesses who, the Romans believed, protected their empire. Hence those who did not worship them endangered the Empire and consequently were guilty of treason, the crime of endangering the state. So John was fortunate that he escaped the death of a traitor. Perhaps the Lord was merciful and protected him. Today is the Sunday of Divine Mercy, a very special quality of God. Shakespeare describes it as the gentle rain dropping from heaven, greater than the thronèd monarch, even greater  than his throne; an attribute of God himself (Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 2). Mercy could be described as compassion towards someone who does not deserve it. And who among us deserves God’s compassion? Every one of us. We are all sinners in God’s eyes, some greater than others, but the smallest sin degrades us to being less than human, the Church’s famous “venial” sins. They have the potential to take root, grow, overcome us and drag us down to the depths, the infamous “mortal” sin, which kills the soul, and us. We are the guilty ones in committing sin, and it is up to us to realize it and do something about it. This is much easier when we are guilty of venial sin. Mortal sin is another matter, however, because those guilty of it are so blinded by their selfishness that they see no need to reform. Their world is entirely themselves, no room for others (except in any way they can be used by that person) and certainly no room for God. So the merciful God must simply wait and hope! God has done everything to help them, us, even sending his own Son to us to show us how to live a proper life no matter the challenges. So we should be thankful that the eternal God offers mercy in abundance should we so acknowledge that, and respond accordingly. For those lost, self-locked in to mortal sin, it is my belief that their eternity, their punishment, is themselves alone, fully conscious, forever. A lonely, unchanging, solitary, eternal, locked-in Hell. And one small step into God’s mercy would have saved them. Today, the Sunday of Divine Mercy, we can all pray that the mortally sinful will respond to God’s generosity. We can also pray for ourselves, our families and friends, rejoicing in God’s generosity, responding to it by ourselves living a life of generosity towards others, and thereby enjoying the truly happy open life of God’s children. 

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Sermon Quotes, Trust the Past to God’s Mercy….

 

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april 14, 15, 16, 2022: THE SACRED TRIDUUM: MAUNDY THURSDAY, GOOD FRIDAY & HOLY SATURDAY.

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Life, Death & Rebirth.

Click here for the Triduum Readings:  Thursday  

                                                                             Friday  

                                                                             The Great Vigil of the Resurrection       

                                                                             Resurrection Morning.

[The angel said to the women at the tomb] “Why do you seek the living one among the dead? He is not here, but he has been raised”.     Luke 24:5

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These three days are the holiest in the Christian calendar. They commemorate the events which are the foundation of Christian faith and hope. They are both terrible and wonderful, deadly and full of life. From the grinding, unspeakable crucifixion of the Lord to his triumph over all sin and death and his promise to be with us for all time, this is the glowing Christian message for all time and all people: Life will always and everywhere triumph over death. Hope will always confound despair; love is eternally life-giving, and each one of us, without exception, is welcome into this light and hope-filled world. Within these three days, Jesus revealed the heart of his teaching, and gave us the perfect example of what it means to be Christian. From insisting on washing his disciples’ feet to forgiving those who had unjustifiably crucified him, from giving us his body and blood at the Last Supper so he could be with us forever, to his command to love one another no matter what, the heart of the Christian way of life was forever revealed. Although down through the centuries this perfect message has been torn and sullied, the saints among us, forever guided by God’s Holy Spirit, even today, have always called us back to the truth.

So, on Holy Thursday Jesus gave us two great commands. At the Last Supper, he told us to “do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19). And this memory was, and is, the real thing (and is considered to be the foundation of the priesthood), for we believe that the blessed bread and wine are the Body and Blood of the Lord, forever present with us and to us. And he also said on that same evening “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12) and demonstrated it vividly by washing their feet. This command, or mandate, has given us the name Maundy (Mandate) Thursday.

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Edudwar, Maundy Thursday 2022.

On Good Friday, Jesus was called to justify himself, and in doing so to condemn himself to an ignominious death. At his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus heard the voice from heaven state he was God’s Son, and God’s Holy Spirit descended on him, confirming that statement, and anointing him, an action which proclaimed he was the Anointed of God, the Messiah, the Christ. He was given both his identity as Son of God, and his vocation, to be the Messiah of God. So when, according to Mark’s gospel, the oldest and bluntest of the gospels, the high priest asked him point blank, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One? Jesus answered “I AM”, which instantly condemned him to death for blasphemy as it echoed the ineffable and unspeakable Name of God, but, if he was to be loyal both to his identity and his vocation, he had to answer that way (Mark 14:61-62) or he would have betrayed everything he stood for, his mission in ruins.

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Jesus Before Caiaphas the High Priest, Flemish c. 1515, Getty Museum Collection, Los Angeles, USA.

Jesus was quickly condemned to death by the Roman governor, the only person with the power to do so, to placate the crowds, incensed that this man, whom they had thought was the long-promised messiah to crush the Roman occupiers and restore the kingdom of David, was not. They had greeted him as such the previous Sunday, only to find that he had not called them to arms, had not led the charge against the gentile, pagan, unclean Romans and was, therefore, a vile imposter who deserved to die for not fulfilling their stereotype of the messiah.

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“eli eli lama sabachtani” (My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?), Plasschaert 1913, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

And so Jesus’ life ended in ignominy, shame, agony and abject failure. Matthew 27:45-46 has Jesus crying out “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” quoting Psalm 22. For indeed he looked out on a world where every semblance of a loving God seemed to have vanished, yet, as C.S. Lewis says, he still obeyed (The Screwtape Letters, Harper San Francisco 2001, pp.40-41).

There followed the silence of the tomb and then the unwitnessed, unparalleled and utterly confounding event which changed everything: Jesus rose from the dead. Not one word in any of the four gospels describes this event. We are simply told the tomb was empty, save some burial cloths where he was once laid to rest. Matthew has two women who had followed Jesus come to the tomb, witness an earthquake, an angel descending from heaven rolling back the tombstone, showing them the empty interior, and sending them off to tell the others what had happened. Jesus met them on the way…. Mark’s original ending is simply three women seeing the tomb but with a “young man” there who told them that Jesus was risen, and that they were to tell the others to go to Galilee. Luke tells us that four  women went to the tomb and could not find the body. Two men “in dazzling apparel” greeted them with the words that he was risen. Finally, John tells us that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to see that the stone entrance had been rolled away and the tomb was empty. She ran back to Peter and “the other disciple” usually assumed to be John. They rushed off to and entered the empty tomb. Mary was weeping outside, and Jesus approached her, she not recognizing him. They had a sort of chat, and then Jesus simply said “Mary” and she understood. Interesting that in all four gospels it is the women who discover the empty tomb and who are the first to whom the risen Jesus speaks….

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The Women at the Tomb, Shaftesbury Psalter, c.1125, The British Library, London, UK.

And so, I wish you a very holy and happy Easter with many blessings. Remember the strength of the Lord, the generosity of the Lord and the faithfulness of the Lord, both to God and to us. He stood by the identity and vocation he received at his baptism. We have the exact same identity given to us at our Baptism, as a child of God, and vocation, to be Christ to the world in the way God wants us to be according to the gifts we have been given. With Jesus at our side, as he promised, we are never alone, but girded with his strength and determination, his help and his love. Alleuia! He is risen!

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The Resurrection, Judson Studios , Church of the Resurrection, Kansas City, Kansas, USA.

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SUNDAY 10 APRIL 2022: PALM SUNDAY OF THE LORD’S PASSION.

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The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem, Flandrin 1844, Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris, France.

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They proclaimed: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.Luke 19:38.

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For those of us who believe, this Sunday and the following seven days constitute the turning point of history, the ultimate example of love and sacrifice, and the complete, supreme victory of life over death. They are the culmination of the Sacred Scriptures, called the Old Testament, and record the fulfillment of the centuries of prophecy all pointing to this one man and the events which surrounded and engulfed him and over which he prevailed. Jesus’ mission had been completed. He had gathered a group of followers who would, eventually, carry his message forward down down through the centuries. All that was now needed was for the Scriptures, which referred to him, to be fulfilled, beginning today:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, Lowly and riding on a donkey, A colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9-10).

Kings do not ride on foals of donkeys. This king was different.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD. From the house of the LORD we bless you. Psalm 118:26. 

This is clearly a king of peace, not war.

And so the crowds welcomed Jesus into the holiest city on earth, Jerusalem. They had heard of his actions, all prophesied by Isaiah among others. They were spreading their cloaks on the ground before him, praising him for the mighty deeds he had been doing, his words of majesty and his miraculous curing powers. This was indeed the Messiah that God had promised the people down through the centuries. At long last the wait was over. Now was the time to re-establish David’s kingdom which was to last forever. And here was the king to lead them to ultimate victory. And then at today’s Mass, the Passion of the Lord is proclaimed. As we hear this history of events, this is not a picture of a triumphant conqueror acclaimed by all. In fact, it is the story of injustice, torture and a gruesome punishment reserved for common criminals who do not have the good fortune to be Roman citizens (for whom beheading was reserved). From the rejoicing of Jesus’ entry into the Holy City to crowds baying for his death in the matter of a few days, something had gone horribly wrong.

It was probably a toxic mixture of bitter sense of betrayal and a sense of complete disappointment in this man Jesus. The crowds had welcomed him as the new David, the long-for and long-awaited Messiah as promised by God for centuries. At last, here was the man who fulfilled these prophecies, making the lame walk, the blind see and the mute speak, all prophecies from Scripture. Then there was the conflict between what the people were expecting, and what God intended. For centuries the prophets had talked about a new David who would re-establish the kingdom as it was under the first David, all other kings would bow down before him, and he would rule with justice and peace. Now they thought such a one had arrived in their midst, the golden age was about to dawn.

And it did not. There was no call to arms. There was no summons to an uprising against the unclean, pagen Roman occupiers. Jesus quietly taught those who would listen, much as before. With the city on edge waiting for the call, none came. Within a few days, the overwhelming excitement of the crowds metastasized into overwhelming hatred and disappointment, betrayal even, represented in the person Y’shua ben Yosef, to give Jesus his full Hebrew name. This was definitely not their idea of God’s Messiah, sent to rid them of the Romans. The problem was that their vision, their stereotype, of the Messiah clashed headlong with God’s vision of the Messiah. They waited for a conquering warrior leading them to military victory and the re-establishment of the Davidic kingdom. (In fact, this is exactly what happened in AD65 and again in AD131, both times crushed by the Roman army, the AD131 revolt leading to the banishment of all Jews from Jerusalem, which was renamed Aelia Capitolina).

Jesus was no Julius Caesar or Napoleon Bonaparte. Yet he was a victor, and a victor over the greatest enemy of us all, death itself! But that was still to be seen. In the festivities of Palm Sunday, in the delirious rapture of the crowds convinced that their idea of the Messiah was in their midst, all they wanted now was a call to arms! The 1977 movie Jesus of Nazareth has a scene, not in Scripture, but quite plausible, between Jesus and Barabbas at the Pool of Siloam following Palm Sunday. He pleads with Jesus to give the word for the uprising to begin. Jesus gives the absolute opposite message: Forgive them all, Romans, Herod, sinners, tax collectors, all of them. Not what Barabbas wanted to hear! He goes off bewildered and bitterly disappointed, which reflects the changed attitude of the mob a few days later. Jesus was the ultimate non-politician! He was not proclaiming what the crowd wanted to hear. He proclaimed what he believed to be the truth, but of course, the mob did not want to hear the truth, and in their hatred now called for his blood instead. There are echoes of this attitude in today’s world too! Jesus was a victim of their stereotyping him as their messiah (not God’s). Note the pure evil that stereotypes can do, based on a minimum amount of truth but smothered in wishful thinking, rumors and pure invention. We must always be on the lookout for the truth all situations and at all times and ignore any stereotype. The truth is always a message of peace, understanding and forgiveness, of love, whether we like it or not. That is the Christian way, paid for in the blood of Jesus himself.

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Ecce Homo (“Behold the Man”), Titian c.1560, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland.

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SUNDAY 3 APRIL 2022: THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT.

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The Woman Caught in Adultery, Julia Stankova 2015, Julia’s Galleries.

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Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”  John 8:10-11.

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Last Sunday we saw the return of the lost/dead/prodigal son to the super-forgiving, merciful, father, having wasted everything he had been given, only to be rewarded a thousandfold by the love and forgiveness of his father (but perhaps not of his elder brother). This Sunday we have another unforgettable scene of forgiveness, this time in real life rather than in a parable, of a woman caught in the act of adultery. Hauled to the Master, thrown at his feet, the overjoyed men dying to see if this would be Jesus’ undoing. They thought they had trapped him utterly, his ministry at an end. Why? Because no matter how he responds to their demand (What do you want us to do with her?) he will be damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. How come? Easy. His whole message, command even, is that we should love one another, forgive one another, even “seventy times seven times” (Matthew 18:22). So if Jesus agrees with the law, that such persons should be stoned to death and so should she, he would be condemning his own teaching and seen as a fraud; his entire mission would collapse. Yet if he says we must love her and forgive her and must let her go, he would be contradicting the law, which clearly states that adulterers should be stoned to death, and that would mean he had broken the law himself and be no better than the woman. What to do?

For the first and only time in Scripture, the Lord pauses, kneels down and begins to write/doodle/draw something in the dusty ground, saying nothing. And not one word in Scripture tells us what that was. But the crowd, slavering for a response, convinced they had him trapped, howled for a response, and that is exactly what they got. Yes, Scripture is very clear, she should be stoned for her sin. So, therefore, says the Lord, let the one who is without sin or fault in any way, be the one to cast the first stone. Surely, is the thought, that only the sinless can punish the sinful? Who gives a sinner the right to punish the sinful? So, in that small community, where everyone knew everyone (there are no secrets in neighborhoods), woe betide the first person to pick up a stone, as there would be someone who would remember some old disgrace from years before and start laughing at him. And as we know, there was only one utterly sinless person present… So, almost inevitably, the oldest leave first, for obvious reasons, followed by everyone else. Who can doubt Jesus’ wisdom, sang-froid and brilliance at that time? And he even resisted the temptation to ask where is the man who was the woman’s adulterous partner. The Law clearly states that both should be stoned….

The gentle, even tender, conclusion takes place apparently between just the nameless woman and Jesus. He does not condemn her, but clearly tells her not to sin again. She, for her part, seems to express no remorse, no regret or sorrow. She simply walks away. We have no idea what her response to the event was; we can only guess. Having just stared a horrible death in the face, she was probably in shock, incapable of any reaction at all!

The other readings seem to flesh out what the nature of our God is like. The first reading talks of the might and power of God, who crushed a mighty army intent on destroying God’s people, yet a God who cares for all living things, even jackals and ostriches! Then St. Paul states that simply knowing God is more than anything this world can give that is equal; there is nothing in this world that comes even close to resurrection from the dead, the total defeat of sin, the heart of the absolute goodness of God, all freely given by God for our benefit. All that is encapsulated in the gospel event, the way evil, even hatred, is handled so lovingly by Jesus that it just melts away, conquered by love. Isn’t that what Lent is supposed to be all about? We are called to be Christ to the world, to act in the very same way that Jesus does in today’s gospel, not relying on ourselves, but the Spirit of God working through us as much as we permit it. To be truly God’s presence in the world, a world in dire need of such today.

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Christ of St John of the Cross, Dali 1951, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, Scotland                                                                                                                                                                  Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.

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SUNDAY 27 MARCH 2022: THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT: LAETARE SUNDAY.

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The Return of the Prodigal Son, Murillo 1682, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.

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[He said] ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’   Luke 15:21.

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Undoubtedly one of the most famous parables of all. I’m pretty sure it would be correct to claim that just about everyone has heard about the son whose prodigal misuse of his money brought him disaster, and back he went to his roots for forgiveness and re-acceptance. But first, just consider several significant points in this story, some of which might be new to you:

  1. His father was apparently willing to give his son the share of the property that would normally come to him upon his father’s death; a very generous father!
  2. The younger son “squandered his inheritance” (verse 13), an action not untypical of a young person, unaware that care with money is one of the first things which must be learned.
  3. This happened in “a distant country” where eventually he was reduced to taking care of the pigs on a farm. There is a Jewish kosher law forbidding Jews to eat pork (Leviticus 11). So this represented the depth of his desperation; nothing worse could be considered for a Jewish man. So this distant land had to be pagan, not Jewish, pagan and unclean.
  4. He came to his senses, a key moment in just about anyone’s life where disaster has stared them in the face.  He had reached that moment of utter degradation and humiliation. It was the moment when the alcoholic is lying in the gutter unable to get up, when the drug addict has run out of his last penny. It is the moment of self-realization: what am I doing with my life? And you then say “Help me Lord. Then, at last, you say, “Thanks be to God”.
  5. His decision was to return home, say what he planned to say, asking forgiveness, and beg to be taken back in any capacity.
  6. On returning, his father saw him before he saw his father. His father had not given up on him, awaiting his return no matter the odds, never giving up hope.
  7. The son started to say his planned speech begging for forgiveness, but was unable to complete it before his father, overcome with joy, set about celebrating the return of his son.
  8. His older brother, learning of this event, refused to go into the house, so angry was he at the reception his brother had received.
  9. Instead, his father came out to him…
  10. This older brother used deliberately offensive words: “When your son returns…” (verse 30), consciously rejecting his relationship with the returning man, his own younger brother.
  11. Then his father’s anguished response, “we must celebrate and rejoice”, acknowledging that this young man “was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found” (verse 32).

Quite a number of important elements which might well get overlooked simply because of the older brother’s response – and I wonder how many of us would totally understand his fury, and perhaps sympathize with it. But if you look at all of the above, perhaps a better title to this parable would be that of the Forgiving, Merciful Father; and remember one of the best definitions of mercy: “compassion on someone who does not deserve it”. The whole story hinges on the old man’s unconditional acceptance and forgiveness of his errant son. It went without saying that this prodigal wastrel had to be accepted, completely forgiven, and welcomed back into the bosom of the family because he requested it amid anguish and infinite regret and sorrow. Note that Jesus does not tell us what reaction the older son gave to his father, perhaps because each of us is either the prodigal son or the furious son, when of course we are to be as like the forgiving father as possible! Only you can answer that question. It is clear what Jesus wants – he is the forgiving, merciful father of course. Jesus requires and gives forgiveness which is central to his message. Remember those memorable words of his uttered from the cross itself….

Today’s first reading is an example of forgiveness in the Old Testament. Moses had died before entering the Promised Land. God had appointed Joshua to undertake that task. The Hebrews had been condemned to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, the length of a generation, for doubting God’s word and not trusting in God for their welfare. Now they were ready to move into that Promised Land, and no longer needed to be supported by the manna God had sent to them every day to sustain them in their punishment. The second reading sums up today’s whole message, one of forgiveness, no matter what. Jesus has taken all sin to himself on the cross; in fact, St. Paul actually says Jesus became sin… (2 Corinthians 5:21) so that we could be forgiven. That means that we should accept the fact of God’s forgiveness of us, no matter how difficult that might be for us to accept! We have to believe in a God of Forgiveness! We will always be welcomed back by God should we take that first step back, as we are free to do that or not. In other words, we are, each one of us, the prodigal son (and that includes those of us who side with the older son and should not) We can be forever sure that if we come to our senses, then we will be taken back, forgiven and made new. What a joyful message, on this Laetare Sunday, a Latin word meaning “Rejoice” (the girl’s name Letitia (“Joy”) may be linked to it), as we have every reason to do so. It signals we are half way through Lent, we have been forgiven should we so ask. We have time left to make sure we take the right steps to stand with the Lord before we rejoice in the remembrance of his Resurrection, the conquest of all sin and death. And the priest today has the option of celebrating in rose vestments to signify joy, one of only two Sundays in the year to do so, the other being Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent.

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Laetare Sunday, Catholics at Work. 

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SUNDAY MARCH 20, 2022: THE THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME.

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The Barren Fig Tree, Out Upon the Waters.

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I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.   Luke 13:8-9.

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So much of our Bible assumes knowledge of the earth, of plants and animals, of winds and climate, that sometimes it seems to have been written on an alien planet. Most of us live in cities, and the countryside is what we see through a railway or car window, or look down on from a great height flying from city A to city B. I do not know a fig tree from any other tree: a tree is a tree! So today’s gospel is a little mystifying to this city dweller. You get figs from the produce section of the local supermarket, usually tied into a loop…. End of knowledge. So, digging around, I found a picture of the tree whose fruit is the fig. Such a tree not bearing said fruit is pictured above (I think). It does look a little skinny and bleak so I would simply remark that it’s not surprising that it bears no fruit, poor thing. Today’s gospel, however, threatens it with destruction if that state continues. A fig tree is supposed to bear figs, or else, not too surprising, seeing that the humble fig is quite a star in the field of health and has a long and illustrious history. In other words, it is supposed to be a friend of humanity, and is rightly expected to support us through its fruit.

Well all that sounds very familiar don’t you think? Isn’t it exactly what we are supposed to be and do in life? The fig tree seems to be a metaphor for our own mission on earth. So what would our “fruit” be? At birth God gives each and every one of us a set of gifts with which we are to navigate ourselves through life. Some of us are more gifted than others; a few of us are super-gifted, others with a bare minimum. Such is life. There is no reason to moan and groan about any of that, as it is what it is, and to be accepted. Education is the mechanism which transforms those gifts into the skills with which we will glorify God, serve our neighbors and keep ourselves hale and hearty, as we would be fulfilling God’s plan. That is the Christian recipe for a happy, productive and satisfying life, the model fig tree if you like. Today’s parable seems to echo that model. If our fruit is turned inwards, which is to say we produce no fruit at all, then the model becomes corrupt and non-life giving. That is the situation presented to us in today’s gospel. Yet there is hope offered to the hopeless. The owner listens to the gardener who offers to try and save the forlorn fig tree in the hope that it will, indeed, produce the life-enhancing fruit. And a time limit is introduced: one year. If no improvement, then the tree will be cut down, the soil around it will no longer be drained of its nutrients, and so something else could be planted there. Pretty logical, though it is consoling that a last chance has been given. All this reminds me of the reflections presented on this webpage dated February 13th, where Scrooge was the focus. I think he could be be genuinely compared to the barren, fruitless old fig tree, miserable in his wealth, a joy to nobody, including himself, who responded wonderfully well to the gardener softening the ground around it, fertilizing it, and the consequent miraculous transformation! So Jesus’ message remains the same: there is always hope, always a gardener ready to  help us back to the right way, always a way for our potential for good to be realized and brought to fruition, if you like.

Now, the first half of today’s gospel seems to talk of something completely different, disasters that have happened and people having died as a result. That was not because of any sins: accidents are exactly that, accidents. But, as Jesus points out, we might well be directly responsible for our own personal disasters if we do not recognize the gifts we have been given and develop them as God intends. If we do not, then disaster awaits, possibly in this life, certainly in the next. And don’t you think that that gardener seems to be a very patient, well-meaning chap? He seems to care about the wretched, barren fig tree. He might be an avatar possibly, in the Hindu meaning of the word. Don’t you think he might be the Lord, seeking us and helping us fulfill our potential? Can God be that close to us? Well, look at today’s first reading, one of the most important passages in all Scripture, the famous scene of Moses and the Burning Bush. This scene reveals a great deal about God. God has heard the cry of the enslaved Hebrews in Egypt. Hence we know God listens to us. God wants Moses to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt, out of slavery to the freedom of the Promised land. Hence we believe in a God of freedom. Then Moses asks God for the divine name. God had uttered the title we all know, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” But that is not a name; it is a title. What is your name? Moses asks. And the answer is “I AM WHO AM”, the ineffable holy name which devout Jews to this day will not speak; YAHWEH in Hebrew. In revealing that, we now know that we have a God of Relationship, one who knows our name, as we know God’s name, a God who wants the Hebrews to inherit a land flowing with milk and honey, another agricultural ideal. That is the type of gardener we have in today’s parable, one who knows us and cares for us and wants only the best for us. And there it is, utterly clear, utterly true and real, and utterly up to us to respond to God’s care, generosity and love.

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Moses and the Burning Bush, The Inside Passage.

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