Christ in the Home of Martha and Mary, Vermeer, National Galleries of Scotland, UK.

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Martha…. said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?”      Luke 10:40.

Quite often it is difficult or challenging to link together Sunday’s three readings in any convincing way, but for today’s readings one link seems to me to be the presence of women in Scripture. The main focus in the first reading is Sarah, as it is because of her that the “three men” appeared at Abraham’s camp to announce that the 90-year old woman would have a son within a year. This reading appeared several Sundays ago where Sarah, on hearing what the men had to say, laughed (understandably), then argued with God about it. The gospel is dominated by Martha and Mary, and the roles each had in the household when Jesus appeared. The second reading is the one which might prove a tad controversial. 

Whenever change in the church is discussed, it is critical to know that such change can only come about by proving that the desired change can be supported by appealing to “Scripture and Tradition”, and not from arguments such as human rights or gender equality. That is to say, you have to prove that the desired change is present in Scripture, and that it was practiced in at least the early church. For example, the change from Latin to English in the Mass, mandated by the Second Vatical Council in the 1960s, was based solidly from arguments in Scripture and tradition. As Jesus spoke no Latin, the universal language at that time was Greek, not Latin, that the earliest Masses must have been in Aramaic, the vernacular language of the apostles, later in Greek and then in Latin. In other words, insisting on the Mass in Latin was a weak argument from both Scripture and Tradition, and so it changed. The current huge demand in today’s church is for strengthening the power of women in what is thought to be a male-dominated church. Well, can this be challenged by appeal to Scripture and tradition? That is the only way to effect change. 

So let’s take a look at today’s readings. The gospel has women playing two roles, one as cook and servant, the other listening at the feet of the Lord. Martha becomes very upset at the imbalance; Jesus says that Mary “has chosen the better part”. If you look at the roles displayed here, without placing gender on it, one role is diaconal, meaning servant, and the other is priestly, listening to the Lord, presumably in preparation for spreading it. Hence Martha is acting as a deacon, from the Greek word διάκονος, meaning servant, and Mary as πρεσβύτερος, presbuteros, or elder, senior. Today, the Church’s priests are technically called presbyters, not priests. Although far from sufficient for making a case for such a radical change, it is part of the evidence. Now look at today’s second reading. Paul talks of the church “of which I am a minister“. The word in the original Greek is διάκονος once more, another step in the direction (take a look at Romans 16:1, where Paul clearly refers to a woman called Phoebe as διάκονος, a stronger argument still). Now Pope Francis called for a commission to examine evidence such as this to examine the proposition of women being ordained to the diaconate. The Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate was created in 2016 and completed that work in 2019. It has not as yet been published. Rumors suggest that it was still not convinced that the evidence, from both Scripture and tradition, is sufficient to recommend change. But just look at today’s gospel. Jesus’ simple words that Mary had “chosen the better part” without mentioning a single word of criticism or opposition, might also be taken as evidence. But as ever, is it sufficient? The Church moves very slowly. The movement to change to the vernacular of the Mass began in the 19th century! This latest movement, even more radical, will certainly take time before a definitive change such as women’s ordination to the deaconate becomes a possibility. The fact that a commision was appointed to just look at the evidence is to be considered progress. 

Now, as to the actual teaching of today’s readings, it would seem pretty clear from the gospel story. Martha is bustling about getting dinner ready, seeing that everyone is settled and content. In other words, she is obsessing over the minutiae of the gathering. In doing so, she was missing the words that pertain to eternal life, and concentrating instead on tonight’s washing up.  That must surely have been the reason Jesus defended Mary’s behavior, that it must be better to understand life’s meaning, God’s love and our response to it than housework. All the household fuss is of course necessary, but there are things in life which are more important, to which time and attention must be given. After all, why go to church at all when there is cleaning and clothes washing and shopping to do? Why? Because Jesus’ words, Jesus’ life, holy communion with God, is infinitely more important. That behavior is the foundation of all we do, and gives meaning to our very lives. Without that, life becomes a meaningless drudgery. So Jesus points out that time given to understanding and accepting our relationship with God, acknowledging that we are children of God, and hence all that follows from that truth, allows us to understand all that we do in a daily basis. Mary, indeed, had chosen the better part. So should all of us.


Martha and Mary, https://www.pinterest.com/mccrimmonsuk/


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The Good Samaritan , Provenance Unknown.

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Jesus replied, “A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho….”      Luke 10:30.

We have today possibly the most famous parable of all, the Good Samaritan. It is one of those stories that homilists love to get their teeth into. You have one in me! But behind the most famous elements in the story, there is a wealth of hidden symbolic language just below the surface. For starters, the man is going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. Literally true. Jerusalem is 2472 feet (754m) above sea level. Jericho on the other hand is 846 feet (258m) below sea level. It is on the River Jordan, which flows into the Dead Sea, the lowest level on the earth’s surface. Then there is the symbolism of each city. Jerusalem is a city holy to the three great monotheistic faiths. For Jews, it is the site of the Temple built by Solomon and the holiest place on earth. For Christians there is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally the location of Jesus’ crucifixion, death and resurrection. For Muslims, it is the location from which the Prophet Mohammed rose into heaven. So for millions of people it is the holiest place on earth, (for Muslims the third holiest). Jericho, on the other hand, is thought to be the oldest human settlement on earth, going back perhaps 11,000 years. So if there ever was a City of God, it has to be Jerusalem; and if there is a City of Mankind, without divinity, Jericho has a good claim. So, symbolically, the man was going in the wrong direction – away from God and descending to the level of mere humanity, a path leading to death, symbolized in the Dead Sea. And all this before the story has begun! 


The Desert and the Dead Sea South-East of Jerusalem, Musement.

The road from Jerusalem to Jericho is mostly desert and completely barren (as you can see above), hence mostly unihabited, a typical place for villains to hang out. So you can expect the people hearing this story would not have been surprised at the fate of the man. He was beaten up, robbed and left to die. Two Jewish travelers passed by, ignoring him, a priest and a Levite, an officer of the Temple in Jerusalem. Naturally the listeners to the story would have been surprised at such indifference, and then bewildered that a Samaritan came to the man’s rescue instead. But Jesus is making a point: the Samaritan belonged to a people utterly despised by the Jews. There was a hatred between the two communities dating back centuries. I made this point two weeks ago where we had Jesus passing through Samaria itself, with a link explaining the antagonism between the two closely-related peoples. So the bewilderment among Jesus’ listeners would have changed to astonishment and possibly even anger at this turn of events. A Samaritan helping a Jew?? But remember what started this story: A man asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered this with a question at the end of the story: “Who was neighbor to the man left for dead? Note that the questioner could not even speak the word Samaritan: “The one who helped him.” When we are desperate, we will gratefully accept any help offered; any help from anyone. So you can be sure the questioner remembered ever after the Lord’s final question. The lesson is that every person we ever meet in our life is our neighbor; no exceptions, whether they are in need or not. Jesus pushed this even later in his ministry by insisting all people are our brothers and sisters throughout the whole world! We should be enemies to no-one. 

Today’s first reading is a kind of exhortation which can be linked to the parable. Catholics believe that we are hard-wired to the good; it is in our nature to be good people, but we have the freedom to ignore that and mess it up, and we do. Hence it can be said that we all have inside us the drive, no matter how weak, to help each other. So many negative forces, such as prejudice (as we see here in today’s gospel) can get in the way of that. But hearing today’s words of life, of support, of good neighborliness, we can begin to correct any negative forces which work against that ideal. And we are not – ever – alone in that. Standing with us is the most powerful force of good that exists, as stated in today’s second reading. We can trust in the person of the Lord, trust that he will stand by us, help us and, like the good Samaritan, pick up up when we fall or get beaten by the forces of evil around us. In doing that, in restoring us to our good nature, we too are then able to be the good Samaritan, and love and respect and, if necessary, help our neighbor, whoever or wherever he or she may be. We have the same strength because we take that same Lord into ourselves at Communion, becoming one with God. Nothing can beat such strength and with that strength we are Good Samaritans.


Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.


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Peasant Woman Binding Sheaves, van Gogh 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

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“The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.     Luke 10:2.

Well I think you’d agree with the Lord when he says that; (the quote above). That is as true today as, apparently, it was 2000 years ago. In my parish each Sunday’s Prayer of the Faithful contains a petition to God to help each one of us approach someone who used to attend Mass but does not anymore, and invite them to return to the table of the Lord. I’ve no idea if that has indeed happened, but I know from trying this exact approach with a friend of mine, it is not easy. It is so much easier to lie in bed on a Sunday morning than drag yourself off to church; even more difficult if you have kids (the reason I never get upset if there is crying or excited squeals from the very young at my Masses; I am simply amazed they are there at all; it is an example of heroic virtue). So what is the solution offered by Jesus? He sent off 72 “others” ahead of him to prepare the people there for his arrival. I wonder who they were. The Lord must have assembled quite a few followers to be able to do that. One homilist suggests they were ordinary people, and, unlike the apostles, not “ordained” in our present sense of the world. They were not at the Last Supper where the apostles were instructed to “do this in memory of me”, hence becoming what we would eventually understand as ordained priests. No, they seemed to be “ordinary” people. They were told to expect success and failure, to dust themselves down if they had not been received well, and move on. When greeted well, they should accept the hospitality offered them and rejoice. Well, how about that today?

In the usual understanding, missionary holy people, priests and nuns are often, perhaps always, thought of as types of Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke in “The Nun’s Story”, or Graham Faulkner at St. Francis in “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”. Meanwhile Mr. and Mrs. Jones next door would probably never be thought of as such. Yet today’s gospel does seem to call them – and all of us – to such a state. When I was a Jesuit novice in Pennsylvania, one of the exercises we were required to do was conduct a sort of census of the Catholics at a local community college. We had to knock on the doors of the local college dorm and ask if the people there were Catholic or not. As this was deep in Pennsylvania Dutch territory, you can imagine the result. It was agonizing, and not simply the abuse we sometimes received. To put it mildly, we did not return to base rejoicing in the successes and the conquests we had made. I, at least, was glad it was over. Direct missionary zeal is a gift from God, which I had not received. I don’t know how those 7th Day Adventists or Jehovah’s Witnesses do it! On the other hand, the way one lives one’s life can really be seen as a missionary act. Simply being a good person, itself not an easy accomplishment, is to be a missionary. Being perhaps a little more vocal about the foundation on which we stand which gives life to that behavior is what Jesus is calling us to in today’s gospel. Simply being happy with being a good Catholic or whatever your Christian identity is, and perhaps every now and then mentioning or just alluding to the reasons which nourish that, is all it takes. Why keep the secret of that contentment secret? The first reading describes a picture of rejoicing and nourishment which supports us and which can easily be transcribed to today’s world. For Jerusalem, read Sunday’s Eucharist, a word which means Thanksgiving. Being renewed in the faith, which the Sunday Mass is supposed to achieve, will give the peace and mercy St. Paul talks of in the second reading.

So, like the old lady harvesting the wheat in van Gogh’s picture above, we are all called to the harvest in one way or another. Some of us will find that easier than others, but all of us should be content in what we believe in to be true and life-giving, just as the wheat of the harvest. Hence we should be open to inviting others into that source of happiness in a gentle and welcoming way, so that they might also find the meaning of life and love in God.



The Lay Ministry in the Church.


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The Light of the World, Holman-Hunt 1852, Keble College, Oxford, UK.

Click here for the Readings for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

“Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests,
but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”     Luke 9:58.

Today’s gospel is set in Samaria, a small nation between Galilee in the north where Jesus was from, and Jerusalem to the south. Samaritans were Jews, but…. As with any dispute, those within the family are probably the worst. Here we have such an example. The Samaritan bible, for example, consists only the first five books, the Pentateuch, namely Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. All the other books of the Old Testament were rejected by Samaritans as not being divinely inspired. Also, Samaritans rejected the idea that Jerusalem was the location of the temple. Their holy mountain was, and remains for them, Mount Gerizim, and their temple was built there (though, like the Jerusalem temple, it was eventually destroyed). So any mingling of Jews and Samaritans was forbidden, hence the frosty reception described in today’s gospel. But this was difficult, as Jewish travelers to Jerusalem from the north either went straight through Samaria, or had to take a long way round to bypass it. For most people then, they had to interact in order to buy food and lodging. But note in today’s gospel the reaction of Jesus’ followers to the Samaritan refusal to allow them to prepare a reception; they wanted divine fire to destroy them! Jesus, not surprisingly, calmed them down and they all moved on to another place. Jesus’ reaction to being among Samaritans is nothing like that of his followers, or, indeed, any average Jewish person of that time. Remember one of Jesus’ most famous parables involves a hero Samaritan taking care of a wounded Jewish man. Imagine the reaction to that story when first heard!

It is perhaps not a coincidence that Jesus seems a little depressed there in Samaria when he said he had no place to lay his head. On the other hand, it was in reaction to someone who declared he would follow Jesus anywhere, so perhaps it was a warning that things would not necessarily be rosy when following the Lord. Anyone who has had the courage to stand up for what is right in a hostile context would certainly agree with that. Then the final words today are a statement about what to expect and what to do as a follower of Jesus. It requires complete dedication and absolute trust that in what you are doing is correct and right. The second reading elaborates on that theme. We are free to do anything we like, a gift from God; we are a free people. But how we use that freedom is what counts. Will it be to gratify ourselves or serve others and God? And I think that is the core of today’s reflection. The readings remind us that we are here for a purpose; there is a blueprint created by God. We can chose to follow it or tear it up. Ultimately it is to decide if we treat ourselves as god, or look to the real God as God. On paper it sounds like an easy decision. But Jesus himself tells us of the potential challenges in taking such a path. However, that path, long and difficult though it may be, is the path to self-fulfillment as a child of God and in the end union with perfect love and happiness. So the path, as Jesus states, is to be as straight and true as the path of the plowman; deviate, look back, run off to do something else, and the results will be a disaster. Stay the course, and the harvest will be great.


At the Plough, van Gogh 1884, Private Collection.


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Corpus Christi Procession, St. Mary’s Church, New Haven, CT, USA.

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Then taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing over them, broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd.      Luke, 9:16.

Today’s feast, the third and last following Pentecost (ordinary time resumes next Sunday), culminates in the reality of Jesus’ promise to be with us until the end of time (Matthew 28:20). The traditional name for today’s celebration is Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ. Indeed, as we can see from the picture above, Jesus, present in the consecrated bread in the monstrance the priest holds underneath the canopy, is present in the neighborhood around the church! Corpus Christi street processions are apparently coming back into favor as demonstrations of Catholic belief and devotion. They were almost universal in days gone by. The basic idea is that Jesus is actually present under the guise of consecrated bread and, at the Mass, wine. In other words, Catholics and Orthodox Christians take Jesus’ words at the Last Supper literally. When he took a piece of bread and said “This is my body”, Catholics and Orthodox, perhaps for the only time, become fundamentalist, and accept the literal words and what they mean. Similarly when Jesus said “This is my blood” while holding a cup of wine. Weirdly, most fundamentalist Christians make an exception of their literal interpretation of Scripture over this; they prefer to believe that Jesus’ intention was to make the bread and wine a sort of symbolic presence of him. Except Jesus said this is my body. Even Martin Luther himself defended this interpretation in a crucial meeting with Ulrich Zwingli, the Swiss reformer, who absolutely denied the literal meaning of the words. Luther even wrote the words Hoc est corpus meum (“This is my body”) on the table top across from Zwingli! 

Now in the Mass, at the consecration, the priest takes the chalice and says: This is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant….” That seems to suggest that there was an old and finite covenant. Well for Jews there was and still is but one major covenant, that one made at Mount Sinai where God declared them to be his children, the Chosen People. The covenant, or alliance, between them was an agreement; they would obey God’s law, the 10 Commandments, and God would become their God. Then a ceremony was enacted (Exodus 24:1-8), where the blood of sacrificed animals was splashed against an altar representing God, and then  and rest of the blood splashed upon the people. Blood, being a sign of life, symbolically linked the life of God with the people, and the covenant was complete. At the Last Supper, Jesus proclaimed the bread and wine to be his body and blood, which we are invited to consume, hence in a literal way we link our lives with the life of Christ, in an infinitely more intimate way than the Sinai covenant. So holy communion is the way our souls are fed, refreshed, kept holy, in a way which parallels the way we keep our bodies alive and well. 


Pope Francis celebrates the Eucharist in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, traditionally the location of the Last Supper, Da Mihi Animas.

So today the Church celebrates a basic, fundamental belief in life and health. Just as our bodies have to be treated with care and respect, as they are God’s gifts, animated by the Holy Spirit, so our souls, our very Christian life, must be fed, nourished, kept healthy by the holy food instituted by Jesus himself. The belief that the consecrated bread and wine are, indeed, Christ’s very body and blood, has to be the highest possible trust Jesus places in us, the highest respect, and ultimately, the highest, truest love. Christ’s life to enter into us, literally, is the supreme Christian act. For every priest, bishop, even the Pope himself, celebrating the Mass is the ultimate privilege and honor; for all of us, receiving Christ in this way is our ultimate privilege. What we do with the spiritual food and the strength it provides marks us out as children of God, and what we do with that will be how we are judged when our time comes. Jesus has done all that for us. It is our turn to do all for him. 


By means of His presence in the Holy Communion He makes our unity in Him evident and certain even today. 


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The Holy Trinity, Book of Hours, attributed to the Dunois Master c.1445, The British Library, London, UK.

For the Mass Readings for Trinity Sunday, click here. 

[Jesus said “the Spirit of truth] will glorify me,
because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.
Everything that the Father has is mine….”        
John 16:14-16.

If there is one, central, overriding mystery of Christian belief it is the reason for today’s solemnity, the Blessed Trinity of Three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in one God. From the dawn of realizing this truth, scholars have grappled with it for centuries, trying to come to grips with what is, essentially, a mystery. In human reasoning there is no way three equals one; but that is what Christians are asked to believe and accept. The other two great monotheistic religions are baffled at this acceptance, but there it is. Consider Jesus’ last words in the gospel of Matthew 28:19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…..” Pretty clear don’t you think? Jesus didn’t seem to have any doubts or confusion here, so why should we? Ah, but puzzles or mysteries just cry out for explanation in the human experience. We can’t stand anything inexplicable. What on earth is the Trinity? Well, 2000 years of experts trying (and really failing) to answer that question essentially means there is no answer, just intimations and echoes in the human experience, as we are God’s sons and daughters. First of all, though, let’s look at the gradual revelation of the Trinity in Scripture.

God’s first entrance into human history occurs in the 12th chapter of the Book of  Genesis. Abram, an old man living in Haran in northern Mesopotamia about 3000 years ago, heard a still small voice, and obeyed the instructions the voice gave him to move to Canaan and wait for further instructions. The voice, who eventually gave Moses the divine name, Yahweh, or I Am Who Am, was the all-powerful and all-loving One God of all. Down through about 2000 years, this still small voice revealed all sorts of divine qualities which set this God apart from the dozens of other gods of that time and place. Then a man appeared who was, according to the Angel Gabriel, God’s Son, who in turn promised to send the Holy Spirit of God to us once he had ascended back to his Father in heaven, and did. We have been trying to figure all that out ever since. But there is one intriguing pre-echo of the Trinity in the Book of Genesis. Abraham (Abram) and his wife Sarah were very old, certainly over 90. Well one day three strangers arrived at their dwelling (Genesis 18:1-15). Scripture states clearly that “The Lord appeared to Abraham…..(who) looked up and saw three men standing there…” Well they turned out to be angelic beings, who promised that Sarah would become pregnant and bear a child. Sarah was hiding and listening to the conversation, and she laughed, not surprisingly. The Lord asked her why she laughed; she said he hadn’t. “You laughed” the Lord insisted! Well she gave birth to Isaac, a name which means “he laughs”. But look at that Scripture passage; it clearly states the Lord is present, but Abraham sees three individuals……


Symbol of the Trinity, Dome of Blessed Trinity R.C. Church, Buffalo, NY, USA.

If we Christians believe we are God’s children, then there must be something in our DNA which reflects our divine Parent. Remember that Jesus essentially gave us one command to obey, stripping away the hundreds of mini-rules he was born into as a Jewish boy. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34). He then tied this love of them to his love of God his Father: “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30)Then last Sunday’s gospel, the feast of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, Pentecost, Jesus said that “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him” (John 14:23) and furthermore: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything…” (John 14:26). So in some way the Holy Spirit emanates from the union of the Father and the Son. So I think love is the key to accepting the mystery of the Trinity. 

In human experience, love is the ultimate experience of being human. The total acceptance of one person by another, and its complete return by the other is universally accepted as the perfect experience of being human. It is the root of all happiness and confidence. If two people like that have been together for years, then it can be noticed that each in some deep way knows what the other is thinking, feeling, even about to say. Their union, as it were, has made them into one person. Not only that, but one of the most winning traits in such a true loving union is that they are welcoming to all others, and invite them into their presence openly and willingly as friends. As the final song in the musical of Les Miserables says“to love another person is to see the face of God”. Additionally, of course, that union of love usually welcomes new life into the world as an expression of that true love. When it all goes right, nothing is more beautiful in life. That is the echo of the Trinity in our life, I believe. It is the DNA God shares with us. 

Now, to parallel that image even further, there is the gender identification of God which makes it even more acceptable. I have talked about this before, but is is worth repeating. Jesus is clearly male, and frequently called God his Father. So in our human understanding (though the total mystery of God transends all our comprehension), two persons of the Trinity are male, leaving the enigmatic person of the Holy Spirit. Well, our English translations universally call the Holy Spirit “he” also, rendering the third person of the Trinity also male. Now English has basically discarded the gender of nouns, unlike most of the European languages. In French, for example, a door is la porte, and is feminine; teacher is un professeur, and is masculine (even if the teacher is a woman), and so on. In English, he, she and it apply logically to whatever you are talking about. So a door is “it”. A teacher is neutral, can be either masculine or feminine depending on the circumstance, and so on. So whenever you read “he” in English, that person is unquestionably male. So if the Holy Spirit is called “he”, he is male! But Jesus spoke Aramaic, not English, where the word for that same entity is feminine, so why isn’t the Holy Spirit called “she”? Ah… Our Christian scriptures were all written in koine Greek, meaning the common Greek spoken in the streets at the time they were written. The Greek for spirit is πνεύμαpneuma (pronouncing the p; we get words like pneumatic from it in English) and it is neuter, neither masculine not feminine. So logically, God’s Holy Spirit was “it” in the original Greek. In English that sounds bad. When the Greek scriptures were translated into Latin, πνεύμα was translated as spiritus, from which we get our word spirit. And that Latin word is masculine. So the Spirit became ‘he’ ever afterwards probably from that connection. Again, Jesus didn’t speak Greek or Latin; he spoke Aramaic, a version of Hebrew. In his language, the word spirit, רוח or ruach (ru-ackh), also meaning wind and breath, is feminineHence if we are to be true to Jesus’ understanding of God’s Holy Spirit, we should refer to the Third Person of the Holy Trinity as “She”. Take a look at the Old Testament Book of Wisdom. God’s Spirit is always referred to as “she”. Thinking in that way, the Holy Trinity immediately takes on a radically different sense for English-speaking people. The love of Spirit and Father emanates as the Son, couldn’t you say? And that understanding allows English speakers to identify much more easily with the greatest mystery in Christianity and the word love becomes much more understandable. Additionally, today’s gospel would have Jesus say: “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when she comes, the Spirit of truth, she will guide you to all truth. She will not speak on her own, but she will speak what she hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming. She will glorify me, because she will take from what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:12-20) A little different don’t you think?

Finally, a small reflection on the nature of love. The song in Sound of Music says “Love isn’t love ’till you give it away”, (and hopefully is returned). In that case, isn’t it logical to say that it takes at least two persons to achieve it? How can a single-person God be love in that case? And considering our own place in the universe, doesn’t it make sense for us to be loved into existence by a God capable of love even before the Big Bang? So today’s feast recognizes the source of eternal love, and hence life. Such was the love of Jesus for his Father that he was prepared to fulfill the task his Father gave him, to fulfill all the prophecies concerning the Messiah in Scripture, wherever that may lead. So, in our turn, we are invited into that same love which will flourish into happiness, and ultimately eternal life with the source of love itself. 


The Trinity, Pinterest.


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Pentecost, The Sherbrooke Missal c.1315, National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, Wales, UK.

For the Pentecost Mass During the Day Readings, Click Here.

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

First of all, that name Pentecost. Today is the only day it is used and at no other time. It is from the Greek, meaning 50 days. At the time of Jesus, it was a totally Jewish feast, and it meant 50 days, less sabbaths, after Passover. You will also recall that this was also 50 days after the Last Supper, which was a Seder Passover meal, and all Jesus’ followers were hiding away behind locked doors, as St. John’s gospel puts it, terrified that they too would be put to the same gruesome death that Jesus had endured as they were his followers. In fact, you could quite accurately say that the entire Christian church was locked away in one room (and the tradition has it that the Blessed Mother was with them) in the middle of Jerusalem, unknown to just about everybody! Now, the Jewish Pentecost originally celebrated the First Fruits of the Harvest, hence it was a thanksgiving feast. Then it took on a second meaning. By tradition, it took 50 days from the liberation from slavery in Egypt, the location of the very first Passover, to reach Mount Sinai where the Hebrews received the 10 Commandments from God. Hence Pentecost was also the Feast of the Law. Over the centuries as Pentecost became more and more identified with Christian belief, the Jewish usage of the word died away and the feast became known as Shavuot, which is still its name today. Shavuot means “weeks”, hence it is the Feast of Weeks (50 days being roughly seven weeks). Finally, Shavuot/Pentecost was one of the three great pilgrimage feasts, when those who could would travel to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple; the other two were Passover and Sukkot. Now, from a Christian perspective, first, this accounts for the great number of pilgrims in Jerusalem at that time, as shown in the listing in Acts 2:5-12. Then there was the incandescent transformation of these timid first Christians into lions of the faith following the Descent of the Holy Spirit, another name for this day. With that, all fear thrown to the winds, they rushed into the crowded streets to preach the message of Jesus for the first time, so this was the Birthday of the Church. Count them; this feast has six different monotheistic names! 

This event of total transformation is, in my opinion, one of the greatest signs, “proofs” if you like, of God’s presence and power here on earth. With the exception of John, all Jesus’ apostles were indeed eventually martyred for their belief, the very thing they were terrified of. Yet this was instantly forgotten, and they cared not a fig anymore for consequences. They ran into the streets and spoke to anyone who would listen, even, by the grace of God, speaking to them in their own language, which, it is believed, reversed the punishment given at the Tower of Babel. The Church was, indeed, born. This event initiated the Age of the Holy Spirit, in which we are all privileged to live. Salvation history can be divided into three eras: God the Father, from the time of Abram/Abraham to God the Son, the life and message and time of Jesus, to God the Holy Spirit, from the first Christian Pentecost to now. For the last 2000 years, the church has been guided and protected by the Holy Spirit, who has inspired holy people, the most courageous or heroic of whom we call saints, to call us all back to holiness down through the ages. Today’s other readings, I think, indicate that. And remember, there is a very strong case to understand the Holy Spirit as the feminine aspect of God…


The Cenacle or Upper Room, supposed site of the Last Supper and Descent of the Holy Spirit, Jerusalem, Israel.

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, one of the choices for today’s second reading, explicitly states that the Holy Spirit now works in us: No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. It seems like this is an explanation for the complete change in Jesus’ followers after the incredible event in the Cenacle. He develops his thought, comparing the varied gifts we as Christians enjoy, each individual gifted in different and wonderful ways, with the human body and its many parts, an insight he was to elaborate much more in his writings. He seems to be saying that the Spirit is, or should be, the driving force of all our actions, using the gifts God has given us. In that we we are all equal in the eyes of God, no matter our apparent differences. Today’s second choice gospel from John carries this further, with the Lord saying that our love of him is sufficient to keep us on the right course towards God. Indeed, Jesus says “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him…” So, given a right attitude in us, it seems we could each be the temple of God! With that understanding, we can experience something of the power and courage of those disciples in the Upper Room.

Another angle on this feast is to compare and contrast the Jewish and Christian feasts in parallel. The Feast of the First Fruits takes place 50 days after Passover, presumably when the first shoots of the year’s harvest have appeared. Compare that to the Christian 50 days. That began with the death of Christ, and the disappearance of his followers, hidden away in fear and trembling. Then, 50 days later, they burst out into that same world that had seemed so hostile. That’s like a seed suddenly coming to life, or a dead-seeming bulb bursting into a new Christian harvest. Then there is the second interpretation of the Jewish feast, the Feast of the Law. That contrasts the slavery and oppression of Egypt, where the first Passover took place, to the freedom and acceptance of God’s law on Mount Sinai. In comparison, contrast the bleak death of the Lord on Calvary and his followers vanishing, the triumph, as it were, of sin and death. Despite Jesus rising from the tomb, that was insufficient for his followers; they were still in hiding. Then the arrival of the Holy Spirit transformed that seeming victory of defeat and death into the  proclamation of the Lord’s new command, law if you like, of love and promise of everlasting life, The original, old, covenant is transformed into the new covenant of life everlasting grounded in love of God, neighbor and self.

So today we celebrate the birthday of the Church, witnessing the power of God’s Holy Spirit which resulted in a movement which was to spread to the furthest corners of the world. We still enjoy the presence of the Trinity today in its many and varied ways; now what we do with that power is up to each of us. Perhaps we, like those first recipients of the Spirit, can also do wonderful things for God.


Pentecost (“Our Lady of the Cenacle”), from Minatures 1391, MS 8227, Matenadaran Institute, Yerevan, Armenia.



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The Martyrdom of St. Stephen, Tintoretto, San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, Italy.

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Stephen said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”     Acts of the Apostles, 7:56.

My apologies to those who live in dioceses where the feast of the Ascension is celebrated on Sundays. We will be back in sync on June 9 for the Mass of the Day on the feast of Pentecost.

Today’s first reading is an account of the first person killed because of his faith in Jesus the Christ. Hence St. Stephen is Christianity’s proto-martyr. He had been summoned to stand before the Sanhedrin (the supreme Jewish religious authority at that time) and must have enraged it much more even than Peter who had accused it of killing the Lord, which is incredible in its way. I say enraged, because Stephen was hauled out and stoned to death, the traditional, Scriptural, way of dealing with blasphemy. Only the Romans had the power to execute, so the Sanhedrin completely lost it in their rage and anger. It might have been building up because of the times Peter had stood before them, and the fact that the early Christians were gaining more and more followers, all of them Jews in those early days (except for the crisis which was described in last Sunday’s reading from Acts).  I began thinking about Stephen. That is not a Jewish name, but he was Jewish. Look at Acts 6. The Jewish Christian converts were apparently of two types, Hebrews and Hellenists. The Hebrews were the native Jews from the Holy Land, Palestine. The Hellenists were not; they were from basically anywhere else in the Roman Empire. The lingua franca of the day was Greek, not Latin, which came later (today it is English, spoken in one way or another all over the world). That is the reason our Christian Scriptures are all written in Greek, not Hebrew or Latin. (“Hellenic” means Greek; the Greek for Greece is Hellas). Well I checked the name Stephen. Sure enough, it is not a Hebrew name, but Greek. Look at the passage from Acts which names him and the others who became the church’s first deacons. They were appointed by the apostles to sort out a squabble between these two groups, one accusing the other of favoritism. Stephen was one of those appointed to serve at table and settle the fight which the apostles did not think of as one of their duties. Look at the word “attend” in that passage, διακονεῖν, diakonein. That is the origin of our word deacon, or servant. Hence St. Stephen is not only the first Christian martyr, he is also the patron saint of all deacons to this day, and his feast day is December 26, the day Good King Wenceslas went out to help the poor.

But clearly Stephen was not simply a servant to help in waiting at table and handling disputes, he was prepared to stand by his belief in Jesus to the bitter end, trusting totally in his vision of the Lord waiting for him in heaven. He had recited almost all of salvation history to the Sanhedrin, culminating in the figure of Jesus, fulfilling, in his opinion, all the prophecies concerning the Messiah. And that was sufficient to get him killed. And, strangely, one of the witnesses to this brutal act was Saul, who approved of it. He was later to become St. Paul, bitterly regretting his action to his dying day.

The theme of things Greek, or Hellenic, continues in the second reading from Revelation. Jesus calls himself the Alpha and the Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. It comes from the conclusion of the Book of Revelation, and in some ways suggests the vision that Stephen had at the moment of his death. But not only was Stephen invited, but each one of us also. “Come” says Jesus, “receive the gift of life-giving water.” The gospel concludes this entire vision presented by today’s readings with the declaration of what is called the Priestly Prayer of Jesus. It reveals the unity of Jesus with the Father, and the bond between God and us, so that in everything we are all one, linked to the Divine and the Divine linked to us, which Jesus calls perfection. Stephen experienced that in his last moments. We are called to accept it and live it in ordinary, regular life, to walk with God and each other in a total bond of unity and perfection. It is a vision which ravishes, strengthens, give hope and courage, and warms us with divine light and love.

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The Lamb of God Alpha & Omega Window, All Saints Episcopal Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA.

This window from the 1960s refers directly to the readings from the Book of Revelation. The Lamb of God rests on the book with seven seals, which rests on the New Jerusalem from which healing waters flow. The Hand of God the Father and the dove-like image of the Holy Spirit surround the Lamb, and we believers are all gathered into one by the rays of light and love streaming from God.  And can you find the Alpha and the Omega?


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The Council of Jerusalem, Cathedral of St. Peter, Cologne, Germany.

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[Jesus said] “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything…..”           John 14:26

The church is facing an extreme situation right now, with heavy criticism of certain approaches to dealing (or not dealing) with evil actions on the part of priests and bishops. With God’s help, this will be handled and dealt with appropriately, effectively and lastingly. But you may not know that this is the latest challenge to a church which has faced multiple serious challenges over the centuries. Today’s readings reveal the very first challenge, which almost tore the infant Christian community into pieces. It required a meeting in Jerusalem of all the apostles and disciples to figure out what to do. Remember the first commuity which followed Jesus was entirely Jewish, including, of course, Jesus himself. They followed all the Jewish rules and regulations as they had all their lives. Well, the message they preached attracted more than Jewish listeners; Gentiles, non-Jews, also began to listen and become interested to the point of wanting to join up. And there the trouble began. Could Gentiles join the Christian (and 100% Jewish) community? The challenge was based on this: Genesis 17:10-11 clearly and definitively stated that all males following God’s law must be circumsized, and Leviticus 11 lists all the foods which are either permitted or forbidden to all Jews (the origin of the kosher laws), and so on. Well, of course, Gentiles had never followed any of those commands (and one of them would be a significant challenge to any Gentile adult man who wanted to join up!), so the question for the early church was, understandably, should they be allowed in? It provoked strong arguments up to the possibility of schism (breaking up of the church). The danger was so great that a meeting in Jerusalem was called to examine that very question. It has been called The Council of Jerusalem, the first such council in the history of the Christian Church. In this case, revelations to St. Peter especially provided guidance. The Acts of the Apostles 10:9-16 and 17-48 explain why. Briefly, Peter was clearly instructed through divine revelation that all foods were now acceptable to God, and that Gentiles were also acceptable to God as they were. From this, it was clear that God was open to Gentiles being baptized and admitted into the Christian Church, and that has remained the case ever since. A few nods were given to Jewish tradition concerning avoidance of foods associated with pagan idols, and marriage with close relatives which were understandable and acceptable. And so the early church survived its first, but by no means its last, challenge. Note that circumcision was the physical mark that the man was claimed by God. For Christians, that mark is now spiritual, and is made on the soul at baptism, and this of course includes both men and women. 

This early event in the Church revealed another truth concerning Christianity which Jesus promised in today’s gospel, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” The promised event came to be at the first Pentecost of the Church, the Descent of the Holy Spirit. From that moment, Christians have been guided, strengthened and inspired by God’s Holy Spirit, as seen in St. Peter’s experiences and the Council of Jerusalem, from then until now. As Christians, each one of us is never alone. Jesus promised that he would be with us until the end of time (Matthew 28:20), a promise upheld at every Eucharist. So too the Spirit which we received at Baptism, and especially at our Confirmation, is with us always. Our challenge is to remember that reality in bad times as well as good, and to make sure we do not displace God’s Spirit with our own will, which each of us can easily do, especially in times of challenge and pain. But that is the path to even greater misery and unhappiness. Remember that the absence of God is sin… To follow God’s will, clearly seen in the teachings of Jesus, is to be in the presence of God, which one could even describe as heaven here and now, no matter the circumstances, positive or negative. Look at today’s gospel: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” To believe that and accept such peace provides strength and courage even in a world without it. I recall a parishoner many years ago who had just converted. She had terminal cancer, her appearance showed it, ashen and drawn, but her spirit was alive, strong and vibrant. She embraced the presence of God even amid disaster and pain. To be with her was to be in God’s presence! That is the peace and strength we get from our Savior.


The Holy Spirit of God, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City State.



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