10 MAY 2020: FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER.

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

Click here to access todays’s Sunday Mass Readings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Roger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Covid-19: A Prayer of Solidarity:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

Solice

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

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

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

Roger

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26 APRIL 2020: THE THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER

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

To access today’s Sunday Mass Readings click here.

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

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

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

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

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

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Roger

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

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

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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 29:29.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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The Empty Tomb, Geek Wire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Χριστός Ανέστη!

to which is responded:

Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη!

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

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

The reflection for next Sunday will be posted on Wednesday.

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Roger

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10 APRIL 2020: GOOD FRIDAY OF THE LORD’S PASSION.

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Ecce Homo (Behold the Man), Caravaggio, 1605, Palazzo Bianco, Genoa, Italy.

Click here to access the Good Friday readings.

Once more Pilate went out and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you, so that you may know that I find no guilt in him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple cloak. And he said to them, “Behold, the man!” When the chief priests and the guards saw him they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!”    John 19:4-6.

Could there be any greater contrast between this image of the Lord and that from last Sunday when he entered Jerusalem in triumph? From adulation to contempt in five days is, at the least, remarkable. At most it is the resounding fulfillment of the prophecies in Scripture, especially and completely that found in Isaiah, read as today’s first reading. Those verses are so uncannily accurate that it seems almost to suggest a script for today’s horrifying drama. A man utterly innocent (as Pilate clearly knew) yet condemned to an unspeakable fate. On the other side there was a storm of hatred from a people who considered themselves cruelly misled and betrayed by a man they had hailed as their liberating hero. This was God’s chosen, they thought, who was to restore them to the glory of David’s kingdom, even more keenly felt as this was the time of Passover which celebrated God’s rescue of their ancestors from slavery; what better time for their hero to arrive and defeat the hated Roman occupation force? But no: their hopes collapsed in the farrago of hate and condemnation.

For Christians, this was the moment Jesus took the whole weight of the world’s sinfulness on his shoulders, our sins, for he was sinless. He could have walked away from this shame and degradation by simply denying all that he had taught, and denying any claim to be the Son of God. That would have meant the end of his mission, a humbling return to Galilee, never to be thought of again. But he did not deny any of his teachings, and for that he was put to a shameful, hideous death, the wage of our sin. As Isaiah says, “through his suffering, my servant shall justify many,
and their guilt he shall bear.” Hence to deny the forgiveness that we experience through the love of God is to deny the very passion of Christ. It was for this that he came into the world. By dying for what he taught and demonstrated, he proved the truth of his mission, a mission of forgiveness and love. We benefit from his suffering. Again from Isaiah, “Yet it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured, while we thought of him as stricken, as one smitten by God and afflicted. But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins; upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.” Hence Jesus’ last words according to today’s gospel, “It is finished.” His mission, his vocation given by God at his baptism, was complete. Then silence.

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“It is finished”, Public Domain Pictures.net.

The reflection on the event of the Lord’s Resurrection will be posted tomorrow.

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9 APRIL 2020: MAUNDY THURSDAY: EVENING MASS OF THE LORD’S SUPPER.

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Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet, Boccaccino (?), 1500, Gallerie dell’ Accademia, Venice, Italy.

To access Holy Thursday’s Mass readings, click here.

[Jesus] took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist.        John 13:5.

Have you ever volunteered for this exercise? I did (though not as a volunteer) as a Jesuit novice, and the Novice Master was Christus. It was utterly embarrassing, difficult, agonizing. I fully empathize with Peter’s reaction in today’s gospel. I did not like it, and was glad when it was over. But it meant that Christ had made a very powerful point, one which has lasted down to today. Matthew and Mark both have Jesus stating that he came to serve, not to be served, and this is clearly the epitome of that belief, reducing his disciples to anguished silence. This was the man who, but a few days earlier, had raised Lazarus from the dead; he clearly was divine in his power, able to do anything, God-like, and here he was acting the part of a lowly slave. One of the Pope’s titles to this day is Servus Servorum Dei, Servant of the Servants of God. Jesus made this point loud and clear to his followers, and they – we – must follow it. Servant leadership is a recognized branch of management studies; it apparently works in the “real world” as well as being a cardinal teaching in the Christian world. When I was a school principal I tried to implement a philosophy where I served the teachers, who served the students who were learning to become Christian servants.

Holy, or Maundy, Thursday is the last day in which Jesus was a free man. He knew that his days were numbered because he was not the stereotype Messiah the people were waiting for – and they had believed it to be him. No, and that bitter disappointment would mean his end. So it was the last day in which he could freely teach his followers. One point was that they were to serve each other and everyone else. Then came the Last Supper.

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The Last Supper, Doward, n.d., Fine Art America.

This was a Passover supper, commemorating the hurried departure of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, hence the unleavened bread, with no waiting for dough to rise, which Jesus took and blest and then told his disciples it was his body, to be given up for them. The original Passover was also the night an unblemished lamb was to be sacrificed, and the blood to be smeared over the doorposts and lintels of the Hebrew homes as a sign for the Angel of Death. Seeing the lamb’s blood, the first born sons of that household would not die, they would live. Hence the blood was a symbol of life. This echoes the symbol of blood when the Hebrews arrived at Mount Sinai and received the 10 Commandments. Animals were to be sacrificed, and half their blood sprinkled over an altar, the sign of God in the midst of the people, and the other half over the people themselves. This signified the eternal link, or covenant, between God and the people, becoming at that moment the People of God. Here the blood symbolized the life of God and of the people sealed together, hence another symbol of life. But then remember Jesus’s words at the Last Supper, taking a cup of wine and telling his disciples to drink “my blood of the (new) covenant” (found in all three synoptic gospels). This surpassed the Sinai covenant not with the blood of sacrificed animals, but now with a new covenant in the blood of the Son of God! Finally Jesus told them, ordered them, to do all that in his memory, a commandment, or mandate if you like, taken to be the foundation of the priesthood, because priests substitute for the Lord at every Mass, a re-enactment of the Last Supper. The word Maundy, used for this day, is a corruption of the word mandate (mandatum in Latin), which was given at this sacred event.

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The New Covenant, New International Version.

Also, on this day, all the priests of the diocese concelebrate the Chrism Mass in the cathedral with the bishop, usually in the morning. This is to celebrate the institution of the priesthood at the Last Supper, and also, traditionally, the three sacred oils are blest by the bishop and are taken back to all the parishes to be used sacramentally for the next year. These are the Oil of Chrism, used for anointing at ordinations, baptisms and at confirmation; the Oil of Catechumens, also used at baptism, and the Oil of the Sick or Infirm, used at the Sacrament of the Sick. The basis is usually olive oil, mentioned frequently in the Old and New Testaments. It was used at coronation ceremonies through the centuries, as Christian kings and queens were anointed in the same way priests are, taken presumably from the anointing of David as king by the prophet Samuel. Queen Elizabeth was anointed at her coronation in 1953, considered to be the most sacred part of the ceremony, and not filmed or shown in any way. The English monarchs are the only European monarchs still to be anointed.  One final thought. For centuries, monarchs would also wash the feet of some of their subjects as a Christian sign of humility. Francis Joseph, Emperor of Austria-Hungary, performed this ceremony every year:

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Francis Joseph Washes the Feet of the Poor.

That died out in England, but was replaced by the distribution of the “Royal Maundy”, with the Queen distributing specially minted coins to the same number of people as her age (the 2020 celebration has been cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic). Hence Maundy Thursday is laden with symbolism and tradition. And it is the first day of the Sacred Triduum, Latin for the three days of the Lord’s passion and death and resurrection.

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Pope Francis Washes Feet of Refugees, 2016, Centre for Asylum Seekers at Castelnuovo di Porto, Italy.

Reflections on Good Friday’s Readings will be posted on Friday.

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SUNDAY 5 APRIL 2020: PALM SUNDAY OF THE LORD’S PASSION.

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Entry of Christ into Jerusalem, Lorenzetti, 1320, Lower Church of the Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi, Italy.

Click here to read today’s Sunday Mass Readings. 

The crowds preceding him and those following kept crying out and saying: “Hosanna to the Son of David…”     Matthew 21:9.

You will recall last Sunday’s gospel, where Jesus revealed clearly the power of God that he had in calling Lazarus from death back to life. John places that greatest of all miracles in Bethany, close to Jerusalem, with Jesus giving no prohibition that this should be kept secret. Word must have spread like wildfire, and it’s pretty clear that all of Jerusalem knew of it, which explains today’s introductory gospel, only a few days later, with multitudes greeting him as the messianic “Son of David”. Only God has the power to raise from the dead. Jesus clearly had that power. Jesus was, therefore the long-awaited Messiah. The beautiful paean of praise which St. Paul writes in today’s second reading from Philippians encapsulates all that, a humble, generous man with the power of God almighty. Clearly the crowd thought of him as the savior for whom they had been waiting for centuries. Their idea of such was a stereotype, however. Their idea was that the Messiah would indeed have the power of God, which Jesus clearly had, who would bring everlasting peace, independence and freedom to the downtrodden Jewish state, crushed by the power of Rome. In other words, he would lead them into a battle for total freedom from political oppression. Well, the first clue that this was not going to happen was the method Jesus chose to enter the city, on a donkey! This was to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah centuries before. Also, it should have been the first clue, that this was not a Messiah of war! Alexander and Caesar did not ride donkeys! The Pharisees saw that, hence the plot to destroy him mentioned last week. Clearly they accepted the political Messiah image, and taking one look at the Lord they knew at once that this was not he, no matter what powers were claimed for him. However, he was a star that first Palm Sunday, Pharisees notwithstanding. But it set the stage for what was to follow, hence today’s reading of the Passion.

Betrayal is a terrible thing. It is often the inspiration of great art, plays, movies; the movie Ghost has a jolting moment of total betrayal, bringing gasps from the audience. Hamlet considers himself, and indeed his whole country, betrayed. Caesar’s last gasp was “et tu, Brute?” If ever one of us has been betrayed, it is a moment never forgotten (though it must be forgiven). In a way it brings down our trust and belief in the goodness of humanity. It occurs in Scripture also; consider Joseph, betrayed by his jealous brothers and sold into slavery. And then there is Passion Week. Within a few days, Jesus went from being lionized on entering Jerusalem, recognized by all as the Messiah at long last come to restore the glory of David’s kingdom, to that same crowd baying for his blood less than a week later. In the meantime, there had been no rallying cry to arms from him (especially at that time of Passover, celebrating the release of the ancient Hebrews enslaved in Egypt led by Moses); Jesus did not stand in a high place and exhort them to battle. Instead he padded around the temple, teaching and healing, a picture of total peace. And this with the city on edge, just waiting for the word! In their eyes this was the ultimate betrayal. Their highest of high hopes slowly crumbled away and it soon became obvious that this was not their liberating general, not their highest hope, not their Messiah. They had been betrayed! And they wanted revenge for this bitter disappointment.

So this is also an example of the destructive power of the stereotype. The messianic image of the new David leading the Jews into conquest, victory and, at long last, glory, had taken hold over the 500 years or so of Jewish servitude under Gentile, impure, rule. Jesus did not live up to that stereotype, and as a consequence he was submitted to a terrible fate, horrible even by the standards of the day, a deliberately humiliating and agonizing public torture and death. And strong stereotypes remain with us to this day. For example, if you are Irish, you must be a ****; if Muslim, a *********; if Polish or blond-haired, you must be  ****. Remember the fate of many Sikh men after 9/11? Out of pure ignorance, they were thought to be Muslim, hence many were hounded and beaten up. Innocent Muslims suffered the same fate. They were all stereotyped, and the consequence was the same: suffering and pain for no good reason whatsoever. Asian students are often stereotyped as highly intelligent. Well, many are, but there are average and lower than average Asian students too, and that stereotype applied to them is going to be an agony to endure – and there is nothing they can do about it. So one little thought for this Passiontide is to examine oneself to see if there are any destructive stereotypes lurking inside. The latest example appears to be the hounding, even physical abuse, of local people of Chinese descent, accusing them of bringing in the corona virus! Stereotypes are wrong, evil and cause nothing but pain and injustice. Put yourself in the shoes of those people in ancient Jerusalem, thinking themselves betrayed, baying for the blood of a completely innocent man, and then into his shoes…. He who had seen two of his own betray him (Judas and Peter), only to be abandoned by all the others when he needed support more than ever before.

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Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, Giltner, n.d., Free Bible Images.

The first reflection on the approaching Sacred Triduum will be posted on Tuesday.

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In these troubled times, here is some practical advice.

Roger

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SUNDAY 29 MARCH 2020: THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT.

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The Raising of Lazarus, Juan de Flandes, 1515, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Read today’s Sunday Mass Readings here.

“[Jesus] cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out…”  John 11:43-44.

This, the greatest of all Jesus’ miracles, is reported only in John’s gospel. It also seems to be part of a progression, because Jesus had raised others from the dead as reported in the other gospels: the synagogue official Jairus’ daughter, who had died just hours before Jesus’ arrival (Matthew 9:23-26, also in Mark and Luke); then there was the widow of Nain, walking in her son’s actual funeral, so he must have died within a few days of Jesus’ arrival (Luke 7:12-15). Then there was Lazarus. It seems that Jesus deliberately waited for this to happen: “So when he heard that [Lazarus] was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was.”  (John 11:6). So this time, Jesus raised someone from death after the funeral and who had been buried for four days! It is further suggested that this ultimate miracle, Jesus’ last, was the final straw for the religious leaders of the time. He was now an existential threat to their authority, and had to be put down. It was shortly before the final gospel events in Jerusalem, the reason today’s gospel has been placed on this day, the Sunday before Palm Sunday. In addition, this event took place in Bethany, today called Al-Eizariya, then and now less than two miles from Jerusalem, so there was no doubt that the news would be there almost immediately! Was this also deliberate on Jesus’ part, I wonder. In the eyes of the Jewish people, this miracle would be the conclusive evidence that Jesus was the new David, the long-promised Messiah, come to liberate the people from pagan domination. Note also that this time Jesus does not demand silence on the part of his followers as he had done so many times before. Everyone knew about this event; everyone talked about it. Within days the crowds would at last acknowledge his supernatural power and welcome him into Jerusalem as the conquerer, the Messiah, the new David, the King of the Jews. He must have felt confident that his message had been delivered, his mission was complete, his vocation almost fulfilled: the messianic prophecies had still to take their bitter course to the conclusion, especially those in Isaiah. The cross was to be the throne and twisted thorns the crown of this new King of the Jews!

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Bethany, Al-Eizariya, to the west of Jerusalem today.

It is obvious that for us raising people from the dead is impossible. When Jesus called Lazarus back from death, it implied that his spirit, soul or whatever you want to call his essence, had gone “somewhere” and now it was summoned back and he rose to life once again. So what possible merit is there in today’s miracle for us, other than confirming once more that Jesus was, indeed, the Son of God? But I believe that there is a very important lesson for all of us here. It depends on the situation. For example, 8:30 in the morning, first class of the day in a high school. An enthusiastic young teacher flies into the classroom, and begins. After a while, the teacher realizes that very large percent of the students are “not there”. They are “somewhere else”. They might as well be dead! Young people, as a general rule, are evening or night people. Research on preferred time of day supports the claim that young people tend not to be morning people (see page 225 in the linked article). In other words, teachers are required to raise their morning-class students, as it were, from the dead!  My lengthy experience in teaching also attests this to be true… In addition, teachers and parents in dealing with the young many times find them blind to many realities, deaf to advice, almost always unable to speak with any authority; this may well be true of some grown-ups too. Christians have the obligation to respond to such ignorance kindly and gently. If we have not done that, remember that this is Lent. Is this another area where action, previously lacking, should now be considered? The Lord handled such people with understanding and non-judgment, though when he found complete resistance to his example and teaching (as with many of the Pharisees), he was devastating in his criticism. He knew their standing in society gave them the perfect opportunity to apply his principles into good practice, but many refused utterly, earning his condemnation. So this Lent perhaps a little self-examination might be undertaken: do I have any Pharisee in myself? Do I at any time or place behave with attitudes or actions which Jesus condemned? Or do I, in imitation of him, try my best to enlighten the ignorant, try to show good example to my neighbor, try to be truly Christ to the world as befits my baptismal vocation? Could it be that an act of kindness on my part to someone with low self-esteem or riddled with guilt or some other disability which holds them down could begin to bring them back to life?

Food for thought in the final weeks of Lent.

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Christ Reproving the Pharisees, Tissot, 1899, The Life of Our Saviour Jesus Christ, The McClure-Tissot Company.

IN THESE TROUBLED TIMES, when even churches are closed due to the danger of contracting the coronavirus, interest has been aroused in “Spiritual Communion”. You might like to become acquainted with this little-known but ancient practice for those unable to attend Mass:

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Also: Spiritual Communion.

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

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