9 January 2022: The baptism of the lord

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

Click here to read today’s Sunday Mass Readings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2 JANUARY 2022: THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Three Kings, Holy Art.

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

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

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

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

Click here for the readings for the Feast of the Holy Family.

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

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

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

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

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

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19 DECEMBER 2021: THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Visitation, Jen Norton Picturing Stories of Home.

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

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Beautiful Nativity, Foter

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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13 DECEMBER 2021: THE SEcOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT.

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

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

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

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

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His Name is John, Bonnell 2020.

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SUNDAY 28 NOVEMBER 2021: THE FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SUNDAY 21 NOVEMBER 2021: THE SOLEMNITY OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST, KING OF THE UNIVERSE.

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 Te Deum, James Powell & Sons 1895, St. Nicholas Anglican Church, Blakeney, Norfolk, UK.

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Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. John 18:36a.

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Today marks the end of the liturgical year, and next Sunday, the first of Advent, inaugurates a new year in the church’s long life. So today is like a summary of the central message of Christianity, that the Lord of Life and Light is our support, our life and our destiny. He must be the center of our life, the focus of our thoughts and actions, and the very foundation of our existence. The church’s role is to remind us that we are not alone in that journey; we are part of a community all intent on living up to that high goal, to live by his teachings, the only way to ensure true happiness and direction in our life. He is, after all, the only person who has conquered the ultimate enemy of us all, death itself. and he invites each of us, individually and collectively, to follow him in defying death by leading a virtuous, happy and fulfilling life here on earth. The Old Testament reading is a pre-echo, if you like, a promise that this king will appear in due time, and that we can trust completely in his reign and dominion. Unlike any of earth’s rulers, we can have complete confidence in this king as he will never fail, never lie, never retreat and will always be there for us. The second reading from the Book of Revelation, states this clearly and definitively: “I Am the Alpha and the Omega”, the beginning and the end. Put your complete trust in me and you will prevail against the world and live forever.

This feast was created by Pope Pius XI in 1925 with a deliberate goal in mind. The increasing secularization of society all over the world and, at that time especially, the increasing pattern of focussing all power on one political figure, seemed to be minimizing the reality of Christ as ultimate ruler. It was to be a reminder that Jesus must be the principal focus of our thoughts and words, not some earthly, time-constrained political principle or person. We are all here to serve God by serving our neighbor, Jesus’ clear message. Anything less than that was simply not Christian. Pope Paul VI moved this feast day to the last Sunday of the church’s year in 1970 to act as a summary of all our belief and hope, centered on the figure of Our Lord. It is interesting to note that this liturgical festivity has been adopted by many non-Catholic churches, recognizing the universality of the kingship of Christ. So here we have a truly universal king, worshipped by millions of people world-wide, one who will not fail us, but who will be there for us whatever the reason or situation. No human ruler can do that. As Jesus says today, “But as it is, my kingdom is not here.” So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

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Christ the King, Patecki 2010, Świebodzin, Poland. 

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

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SUNDAY 14 NOVEMBER 2021: THE THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME.

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All the Times the World Didn’t End: A History, USA Today NEWS, September 2021.

Jesus said to his disciples: “In those days after that tribulation the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.   Mark 13:24-25.

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Words highlighted in red are links to supporting materials.

Well, reading that passage above from today’s gospel, you might be forgiven for thinking it is one of the wilder conspiracy theories so common on the Internet. Wrong: it is the Lord himself speaking, so this time we have to figure out what on earth he was talking about. It does sound strange and prone to whipping up a frenzy of panic and confusion everywhere. Yet it is today’s Scripture reading! I imagine Jesus wasn’t out to panic all of us in saying this, but what was he trying to do? In his day, there was excited and breathless anticipation that the Messiah was about to appear. This would be the One who would deliver the Jewish people from the rule of the Gentile pagan Roman occupation forces and re-establish the kingdom of David. Trouble with that is that Jesus’ language is not the language of victory and jubilation, but of destruction and perhaps damnation. Not what was wanted. Of course, in Jesus’ thought, that popular idea of the Messiah was completely wrong, that this man (as it was always thought to be a man) would have to suffer and die, as well as be the one who would triumph, with kings bowing down to him (which of course happened in the centuries that were to follow). But those first followers would know nothing about that, and so would have to work out for themselves what, exactly, he was talking about. And as we know, even they got it wrong, spectacularly demonstrated by Peter in the garden of the high priest where Jesus was being questioned and condemned, and Peter disowned him. Jesus was clearly not Peter’s idea of the Messiah. Those grim words from today’s gospel quoted above would surely describe Jesus’ thoughts and feelings at a moment like that, alone and betrayed. Indeed for him the sun was darkened, and the powers in the heavens were shaken. Jesus was abandoned, friendless and utterly alone.

But then Jesus’ words change. He talked of better times, when we must learn a lesson from the fig tree, when its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, as if coming back from the dead, for then we know that summer is near. So there is a great contrast in today’s gospel. There is something approaching despair followed by a spark of hope. Hope is usually not an element found in Internet conspiracy rants. But our gospel is not a conspiracy rant; it is a recipe for salvation. There is hope buried amid the warning of catastrophe and perhaps that is the message for today’s believers. It also occurs to me that perhaps Jesus’ words can be applied to our own last moments in this world when we are radically alone, facing eternity. But with a little confidence, our own fig tree can provide us with support, strength and above all, faith in what is about to happen. So for each of us there will be a time when all will end and each of us will face we know not what. We know what faith says, what the Lord says, what St. Paul says and the rest of it, but what, exactly, will happen? Ah, that’s the question, when our whole life might well flash in front of us, assuring us of eternal happiness as one of the “elect” as today’s gospel says, or not, when it is too late to do anything more about it. But right now, we do have time and opportunity to act, either to maintain a life in accordance with the will of God, or to change it now to align it with God’s will and thereby save ourselves. We have been given clear and direct guidance on what to do, and will have no-one but ourselves to blame or congratulate. So ends the church’s year with clear language and some strong encouragement as to what we should do with our lives to ensure happiness both here and beyond.

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Happiness Beyond Paradise 2020, Zerbini.

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

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