7 FEBRUARY 2021: FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME.

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Christ Preaching in the Synagogue, 14th century, Visoki Dečani Monastery, Deçan, Kosovo. 

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[His disciples said to him] “Everyone is looking for you.” He told them, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.”    Mark 1:37-38.

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Well today’s first reading could well have been written last week, considering our times and situation:

So I have been assigned months of misery,
    and troubled nights have been allotted to me.
If in bed I say, “When shall I arise?”
    then the night drags on;
    I am filled with restlessness until the dawn.

And then at the dawn, there is nothing to look forward to, except more misery! Poor Job, poor us! We have been assigned a terrible condition and time, albeit with some promising lights on the distant horizon in the form of vaccines and “herd immunity”. It is times like these that really do test our faith and belief. How can a God of Love allow this to happen? Why are so many good people struck down before their time? How can innocent and good men and women die for no good reason? But, of course, we can ask the identical question concerning the crucifixion of the Lord himself. The only answer that occurs to me is the unfolding of the supreme gift and supreme curse and mystery of freedom. Each one of us is a child of God, free to respond to that identity with its challenges, or to bow out into a life of self before everything else. We enjoy freedom in way animals cannot. We can choose deliberately and consciously what, when where and how to do something. That is also found to some extent in the non-human world. Given certain circumstances and opportunities, animals can make basic choices; a dog may look around, lose interest and decide to fall asleep. Or may get up and sniff around, or scratch at the door to be let out, and so on. I’m sure sometimes dog owners have no idea what ideas are going on in that doggy mind. The same is true of the virus world, free to exploit whatever environment it might enter, be it a dog or me. And in that same freedom, off it goes on a potentially fatal joyride. We only have our God-given brains and intelligence to come up with an effective response, be it remembering to put on a face mask before going out, or as a research biochemist, to seek a good defense against the bug. There’s no easy way to move from all that into today’s gospel, which sees Jesus going off to pray in solitude while his fame as a healer has spread and many people are seeking him out. It does demonstrate his exercise of freedom, however, in a way which can impress us. When his disciples find him and tell him he is in enormous demand, he ignores that and states that he must move on to places where he is unknown to spread his good news there too. In other words, he too exercises freedom not to enhance and enjoy his fame, but to obey his vocation to go to new places to teach, preach, cure and draw more and more to the love of God. So he had priorities, a ranking of importance which he, in his freedom, decided to follow no matter what. Jesus was not interested in fame, fortune, power, wealth or those other goals which have little to do with following his vocation, to be Christ to the world. That is our God-given vocation too. Should it accidentally produce any of those other alluring effects, then we must assuredly use them as tools of our vocation, rather than ends in themselves. 

One example of a wealthy and highly successful businessman is Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft. In his early 50s, by then worth a staggering $50 billion, he left his company and began to concentrate on what he was going to do with so much wealth. His father had created the William H. Gates Foundation in 1994 geared to reducing the mortality rate in childbirth and improving impoverished childhood health, found widely in poorer countries. In 2000 the junior Bill Gates founded the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, incorporating his father’s charity into it. To date, the Foundation has invested, donated, earmarked and supported ventures to the tune of $50 billion! Although this is clearly out of just about everyone’s league, the model is clear, and parallels Jesus turning away from fame and possible fortune in today’s gospel to go other “nearby villages” to spread his life-affirming message among those who did not know him. It is therefore up to each of us to consider that model and decide what we can do, each in our modest but sincere way, to follow such an example and actually love our neighbor as best we are practically able. And this should be undertaken as freely as we are able, as God’s free children.

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The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Africa.

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

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

Roger

© SundayMassReadings.com

31 JANUARY 2021: THIRD SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME.

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Christ Cures the Possessed Man in the Capernaum Synagogue, 11th Century, Abbey of the Assumption, Lambach, Austria.

Click here to read today’s Sunday Mass Readings.

All were amazed and asked one another, “What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”  Mark 1:27.

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Looking at the 11th century fresco above, taken from the Benedictine Abbey of the Assumption in Lambach, the scene is a little scary to say the least. It looks like Jesus is stamping on the poor wretch at his feet, who looks like he’s at death’s door! The Lord’s expression does not encourage us to think otherwise.  But I wonder if this might indeed be close to the original event 1000 years before this was painted. Summon up a little imagination and see the event: A man, clearly very troubled, probably screaming and ranting, talking in the plural (Have you come to destroy us?), must have occupied center stage in the synagogue. He was probably well known in the local community, and I imagine everyone avoided him as best they could, possibly were even scared of him. And the evil spirit, or spirits, recognized Jesus instantly, unlike the others in the synagogue, hence the question above. Jesus’ fierce look in the fresco might well have been the anger the Lord experienced at the presence of evil, especially in the Lord’s house, the synagogue. This unhappy individual was not free, proven by the very word “possessed”, in this case by something beyond his control. Throughout Scripture, time and again God defends the ideal of freedom. In the Old Testament it is most clearly seen in God’s delivery of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land. Characteristics of the promised Messiah included the ability to make the blind see and the lame walk (Isaiah 35:5-6), releasing them from a different type of captivity. God wants us to be free so that we can fulfill the potential given us by our gifts, our talents. Anything which inhibits us is, as it were, unnatural. Notice also, Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit(s), and banishes it immediately after it calls Jesus the “Holy One of God”, another name for the promised Messiah. Jesus does not want that known, something he states time and again through his ministry. Why? Because the prevailing image of the Messiah at that time was more or less a military figure who would rid the Hebrews of foreign domination and restore the kingdom of David. Jesus would eventually reveal his identity, only to be crucified, but that was after his mission had been accomplished, his followers had accepted his teachings and they would then be able to spread that gospel throughout the world. In other words, a premature revelation of his identity, as threatened by the evil spirit, would have crippled him, rendered him unable to fulfill his vocation as true Messiah, would have stolen his freedom. Note also that the second reading displays the same theme, stating that unwarranted anxiety is also a restraint on our freedom.

So the concept of freedom is, I believe, one of the principal characteristics of Godhead. Anything which hinders that is, therefore, wrong, and every effort must be made to establish true freedom. Teaching in my girls’ school I made a big point out of this, as it was my understanding that they should beware of any “friend”, boy or girl, who sought to control them, hence would be robbing them of their freedom. It was not unknown for such captors to take over their lives, control who they would interact with, even hold their money or even abuse them. Some girls would even try to justify such behavior, saying they deserved it. Do you recall the scene in the movie Good Will Hunting with Robin Williams, as a psychologist, and Matt Damon as his young patient? The young man makes a habit of destroying promising relationships, springing from the self-loathing resulting from abuse when he was a foster child. Children will often irrationally blame themselves for the evil they have been subjected to. The psychologist repeats and repeats that it was “not his fault” that he was abused (be aware of strong language in that clip). Eventually the young man breaks down, the moment, if you like, when the evil spirit is expelled, and he becomes a free man. God wants us all to be free, free to discover our strengths, free to develop them and free to use them as true children of God, loving God, our neighbor and ourselves. So any hindrance to that freedom is to be confronted in whatever way is appropriate in order to attain the joy of God’s free children. Note that any unavoidable hindrance, such as being blind or lame, is, like any such impediment, not our fault, but such individuals must do all in their power to minimize such constraints so as to be free to follow their vocation. I am reminded of a British film called Mandy made in 1952. It concerns a seven-year old girl who is deaf. Deafness is a profound disability, worse than blindness in my opinion, because, left on its own, it prevents communication with the outside world. It is a very uplifting story, made at a time when such disabilities were considered shameful. Well, the story is full of hope, and one scene sticks in my memory. Mandy’s parents are desperately searching for a way to help their child. In one scene they are talking to a teacher of deaf children, and in the course of their conversation they ask her a question but she has her back to them, and does not respond. Then she turns and sees the confusion on their faces. She apologizes, and admits she, too, is deaf (she can lipread). Now it’s 69 years since I saw that movie, but that scene is the one that sticks in my memory. Here is a teacher, a person who had tackled her “evil spirit” if you like, and had defeated it, rather than let it possess her, to become a glowing example of what is possible with the true human, God-inspired spirit. Helen Keller faced even greater impediments to her freedom, also overcome, as seen in the movie The Miracle Worker. So freedom was the gift Jesus gave to the man who confronted him in the Capernaum Synagogue all those years ago, and in many ways it is still possible to defeat such devastating constraints to freedom today so that we can truly act as God’s children. Finally, this means that the vast majority of us who face significantly fewer impediments to our true freedom, such as bad habits, have an even greater responsibility to crush them underfoot and become truly free children of God.

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The Remains of the Synagogue at Capernaum, Israel, Summer 2018. The black basalt stone at the base is believed to be the floor of the Synagogue which Jesus knew.

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

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

Roger

© SundayMassReadings.com

24 JANUARY 2021: THIRD SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME: SUNDAY OF THE WORD OF GOD.

META

Metanoia, Christ Church NC, 2018.

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

Jesus said to [Simon and Andrew],“Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Then they abandoned their nets and followed him.  Mark 1:17-18.

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Metanoia is a Greek word, μετάνοια, a word which is not used on a daily basis but is reserved for very special occasions. It has several meanings, but the one I’m thinking of is strictly Christian. It means, for me, a fundamental change for the better in thinking, leading to a fundamental change in behavior and consequently living in a radically improved way. Look at all three readings today. Firstly we have the “enormously large” city of Nineveh where “Jonah began his journey through the city, and had gone but a single day’s walk announcing, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed,” when the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.” Then the second reading states “I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out. From now on, let those having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning….” And finally the gospel describing Simon (Peter) and Andrew encountering Jesus, hearing his message, and immediately dropping their livelihood equipment as fishermen and following the Lord. These are all metanoia moments of topsy-turvy change which would dazzle anybody. The word metanoia comes from a root word meaning repentance, so it could be said that what had been left behind was inferior, and perhaps not worthy of us (it is much better explained here). Therefore it was conversion from an inferior state to a superior state. This means for me to become a better me, and you to become a better you. Easy? I don’t think so. Yet Jesus’ words today, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” are the first words he speaks in Mark’s gospel, which is the oldest of the four gospels, and presumably closest to the events mentioned. Also, the word “repent” is really a poor translation of metanoia, which is the original Greek word in Scripture, μετανοεῖτε, here in the imperative: Jesus is instructing us, calling us, ordering us, to metanoia, today as clearly and forcefully as he called Simon, Andrew and James back then! It is a clear invitation to step back, evaluate what and where and who we are, and make a judgment in the light of his teaching and example. That being so, and being a follower of the Lord, we should all take a deep breath and begin to ponder the Lord’s instruction today. Am I being the best I can be? Am I living the life which would please the Lord? Do I follow the precepts as laid out in the Good News, the Gospel? Do I love God, my neighbor and myself in the manner Jesus wishes us? Is metanoia called for? And it is important to know that metanoia does not necessarily suggest that we have done something wrong, as our English word repent does. Simon and Andrew were fishermen, an honorable occupation, nothing whatever to be ashamed of. Yet they clearly realized that Jesus was calling them to something greater, and they obeyed. Am I, are you, being called to something greater? That is today’s message. This could mean many things: greater generosity towards the sick and the poor, helping out a neighbor in trouble, attempting to heal a family rift, responding to a church appeal for some great need, and so on. Depending on our situation, this could mean anything from a small adjustment to a Scrooge-like metamorphosis! But today’s gospel, remembering that today is Word of God Sunday, is a clear call to self-reflection which must lead to action. Remember that Jesus never calls us to more than we can manage; let us simply ask for insight, clarity and strength to react appropriately. 

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Change.

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

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

Roger

© SundayMassReadings.com

 

17 JANUARY 2021: THE SECOND SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME.

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The Isenheim Altarpiece, Grünewald 1515, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France.

Click here to read today’s Sunday Mass Readings.

…as [John the Baptist] watched Jesus walk by, he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God.”   John 1:35.

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The incredible, stunning Grünewald painting above shows the Savior taking his last agonized breath on the cross, with John the Baptist, who of course was not present, pointing towards him, and the Lamb of God below, transferring today’s gospel to the end of Jesus’ life. It is the completion of the Baptist’s insight, in the opening chapter of his namesake’s gospel, when he laid eyes on Jesus. Here was the innocent, sacrificial Lamb who would be offered for our sins on the cross at the fulfillment of his mission. It is the parallel of the original Passover event, when the blood of a sacrificed lamb “without blemish” was applied to the doorposts of the enslaved Hebrew homes as the angel of death flew over Egypt but “passed over” their homes, and their first-born sons did not die. As a consequence, the Hebrew people were released from slavery that night. They had also been instructed by God to consume the sacrificed lamb that Passover night to strengthen them for the journey to the Promised Land, the origin of the Passover Supper. So the blood of the lamb saved them (Exodus 12:1-14). For us Christians, it is the sacrificed Lamb of God who releases us from slavery to sin, nourishes us for our journey towards life eternal, our Promised Land, as we are reminded at every Mass just before Communion. 

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Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”) Plaque, 14th Century Catalan, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, USA.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis/dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us/grant us peace.

When you catch sight of lambs early in their lives, they are running and jumping and leaping around, apparently giddy with delight and innocence and life itself. Perhaps that is the key to understanding the other readings today. The young man Samuel is innocent of the fact that God is calling him until the High Priest Eli realized it was God calling him and told him how to respond. The second reading, telling us to treat our bodies with respect, calls us to innocence there. Applying that reading to our own time, it clearly means that we must not damage what St. Paul calls the temple of the Holy Spirit. Hence tobacco, illegal drugs, even careless eating habits leading to health-endangering obesity, could all reasonably be considered destructive to ourselves, and so going against God’s will for each of us. Responding positively to that call is very like today’s gospel, where Jesus invites Andrew and another disciple to “come and see” where he is staying and they spend the day with him, changing their lives forever, having seen and experienced the Lamb of God, innocent and pure. And at that point Andrew rushes, lamb-like, to his brother Simon Peter to declare “We have found the Messiah”, the beginning of Christian missionary proclamation, the overwhelming desire to share the Good News with whoever will listen. And don’t you agree that that is a suitable keynote to a new “ordinary time” in the Church’s year?

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The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew, Caravaggio 1603, Hampton Court Palace, London, UK.

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

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

Roger

© SundayMassReadings.com

SUNDAY 10 JANUARY 2021: THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD.

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The Baptism of Jesus, Artist Unknown.

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On coming up out of the water [Jesus] saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  Mark 1:10-11.

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Note where the quotation above is taken from – the very beginning of the Gospel of St. Mark. After a few words about John the Baptist, we go straight into the scene in the River Jordan, with John the Baptist fulfilling his destiny to recognize and proclaim the arrival, at long last, of the promised Messiah. Then the focus switches to Jesus, who experiences two life changing moments. The first, God’s Spirit, as of a dove, descended upon him. That constitutes an anointing by God, hence Jesus became the Anointed of God, in Hebrew the Messiah of God, in Greek, the Christ of God. Then a voice from heaven, therefore that of God, proclaimed him Son of God. So in a few seconds the culmination of the entire Old Testament occurred, and the promise of centuries was fulfilled. The Messiah was no less than the Son of God Almighty come to earth to redeem us all, to invite us into God’s kingdom that we might dwell in eternal happiness. In other words, Jesus had now received his identity, as Son of God, and his vocation, to fulfill all the prophecies concerning the Messiah of God in holy Scripture. It was no wonder the poor man took off to the wilderness immediately to try and come to grips with those two revelations! It inaugurated his mission on earth, removing him from the carpenter’s bench to become God’s long-promised champion. Now you might well ask, what Scriptural passages are there concerning the Messiah? Today’s first reading from Isaiah begins to answer that: “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit; he shall bring forth justice to the nations, not crying out, not shouting,…” and “so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it” Jesus now being God’s word made flesh. With the power of God he made the lame walk and the blind see. He fulfilled all that Scripture claimed for him. And he stayed true to that vocation even to death rather than deny his God-given identity or vocation. Even if that resulted in death, so be it. Jesus did not betray himself or his mission for anyone or anything.

Baptism is the cultic exercise whereby Christians become Christian. It is at that moment we, too, receive our identity as children of God and our vocation to be Christ to the world, using our God-given gifts or talents, as Jesus did. We emerge from the waters of baptism to become a daughter or son of God, a spiritual birth as it were. We are then anointed with oil, the outward sign of receiving the Holy Spirit, and are henceforward the Anointed of God, hence Christ to the world. Perhaps each time we are reminded of such treasures we too should take off for a short time to examine what we are doing with such an identity and vocation. Are we truly acting as a child of God? Are we truly using our talents as a child of God ought? Well it’s never too late to start:

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Amy P. Photography, Cathedral of St. Paul, Birmingham, Alabama, USA.

God appreciates, loves and encourages even the smallest steps in the right direction!

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

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

Roger

© SundayMassReadings.com

SUNDAY 3 JANUARY 2021, THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD.

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Reliquary of the Three Kings, Cathedral Church of St. Peter, Cologne, Germany.

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When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”   Matthew 2:1-2.

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Well, let’s clear a little of the deck first. An epiphany in Scripture is a revelation or a manifestation of divinity. When Jesus was “transfigured” and appeared speaking with Moses and Elijah, that was an epiphany. The guiding star over Bethlehem and the magi following it, and searching for a “newborn king”, not to mention the virgin birth, was an epiphany. Then come the “magi”, a word which comes from the Greek word μάγοι (magoi) which has several meanings, but first, this is not an original Greek word, but a word taken from Old Persian maguŝ, itself coming from an ancient language called Avestan, where magâunô is an ancient Persian religious caste system into which the prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra in the original) was born. Zoroastrianism is a religion, still with us, which believes in one God, Ahura Mazda. Now in Europe there was little understanding of this religion 2000 years ago, and all sorts of powers were ascribed to it. One was an unrivaled understanding of astrology, which was very important in the ancient world. Magi were also believed to be masters of the occult, and our word magic comes directly from that understanding. They were also believed to be masters of sorcery. To sum up, they were considered to be profoundly clever in ways the Europeans thought extraordinary, and consequently the east was thought to be the source of great wisdom. This, however, is but one of several different theories concerning these visitors. There is no mention in the gospel of how many magi there were. Because of the number and quality of their three gifts, the tradition developed in the early church that there were three magi and that they were wealthy, possibly even kings themselves…. Hence the spectacular reliquary of the three kings in Cologne Cathedral as shown above, whose contents apparently date right back to the 4th century. They also figure in the coat of arms of the city (crowns = kingly power; ermine = wealth), where no doubt today is a major feast:

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City of Cologne Coat of Arms.

The magi were clearly not Jewish, and were, therefore, Gentile. And so, at the very beginning of the Savior’s life, there was a Gentile recognition and acceptance of his status: they were the first to recognize him as king, priest and sacrifice. And this was way before any general Jewish acceptance of him had happened, except for Simeon and Anna at his Presentation in the Temple, and of course the shepherds in the fields abiding. And there is a contemporary note about the star which led them to Bethlehem. On December 21, 2020, there was a “great conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn, a rare occurrence, making for what looked like a bright star to the naked eye. Such an event last took place in 1226! It is possible that such an event also took place in about 7BC, close to the real year Jesus was born. Also, January 6th, the traditional date of the Epiphany, was taken as the original date for Christmas, and still is in many eastern Christian churches. December 25, in the latest thinking, was selected as it was exactly nine months after the Spring equinox, March 25 in the old Julian calendar (also celebrated as the Annunciation, or Jesus’ conception), which also marked the ancient belief in the birth of the earth and the creation of the world. It also happened to coincide and overtake pagan midwinter festivals. Also of interest was that the image of the helpless babe in a manger, now our most popular image of Christmas (rather than King, Priest and Sacrifice), began to take root only in the 5th century, along with a tradition that Jesus was born at midnight, December 24/25, Cristes Maessan, Christ’s Mass, from which we get our word Christmas.

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The Three Kings (and their Star) c.520, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy

And then there were the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh which are not really what you would present to a newborn! Clearly they are symbolic of something. The general scholarly understanding of them is a threefold meaning, gold for a king, frankincense for a priest and myrrh for sacrifice, as it is the oil used to prepare a body for burial. All three apply directly to the adult Jesus, his mission and his glorification. That would also tie in with the perception of these bearers of eastern wisdom and divination. In short, this gospel passage, written it is thought by Matthew for a Gentile Christian congregation, clearly states the absolute acceptance of non-Jewish believers in the Savior, even in his extreme youth, confirmed by their welcome by Mary and Joseph, and, it might be said, by the warning dream they were not to return to King Herod and tell him where the child was. Perhaps even  more intriguing is that the three 6th century mosaic characters in the picture above are seen as young, middling and old; the three kings’ reliquary in Cologne was opened in the 19th century, and three sets of male bones were found therein, one young, one middle-aged and one old…. It doesn’t prove anything, but it is fascinating, and these visitors will continue to do that forever!

So when the magi had departed, the meaning was that Jesus was the Son of God through his conception by God’s Holy Spirit, that Mary had accepted this as God’s will and thereby reversed the fall of mankind in the story of Adam and Eve (which reflects humanity’s sinfulness which brought ruin on ourselves, but that there was now hope), that the choirs of heaven had made this known to humble Jewish shepherds who were therefore the first to acknowledge him as the Messiah, and that Gentile people of great wisdom, apparently led by God, also recognized Jesus as King, Priest and Sacrificial Victim. It set the stage for the mission of Jesus with his message of universal forgiveness, eternal love of God and the absolute, golden rule, that we must love God, our neighbor as we love ourselves. 

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The Three Kings, Pierre André 1981, Myriam Nader Art Gallery, New York City, NY, USA.                    

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

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

Roger

© SundayMassReadings.com

27 DECEMBER 2020: THE HOLY FAMILY OF JESUS, MARY AND JOSEPH

HERE’S WISHING YOU A VERY MERRY, HAPPY AND HOLY CHRISTMAS EVEN IN SUCH THREATENING TIMES.

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Mystic Nativity, Botticelli 1501, The National Gallery, London, UK.

Click here to read today’s Sunday Mass Readings.

[Simeon said when he took the baby Jesus into his arms] “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.” Luke 2:29-32.

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Well Botticelli’s spectacular Mystic Nativity above, and the abundance of choices in today’s Sunday Mass Readings (two choices for the first reading, the psalm and the gospel, and three for the second reading) impress upon the reader that there is an effort going on here not to leave anything out! The quote above, spoken by the old man Simeon, possibly a priest in the Jerusalem Temple, was God fulfilling a promise made to Simeon that he would not see death until he had seen the Christ of God, which is to say, the Anointed One of God. The Latin name for his prayer is the Nunc dimittis and has been said as part of daily night prayer (Compline) for centuries, just as the Benedictus and the Magnificat are said at morning (Lauds) and evening prayer (Vespers). In today’s gospel, Joseph and Mary were obeying Jewish law that required any first born baby boy to be presented to God and “bought back” by a sacrificial offering. That would be two doves for a poor family, as you can see below. The mother would also be “purified” at that time. This is the origin of feast of Candlemas, usually celebrated in February.

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The Purification of the Virgin and the Presentation in the Temple, de Morales 1562, The Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain.

All this and Christmas a couple of days ago! It’s hard to figure out where to start. One thing that occurs to me is not mentioned anywhere, and that is the parallelism between the Holy Family and Blessed Trinity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit together constitute God; Joseph, Jesus and Mary are rather like a human representation of that Trinity, remembering that the Holy Spirit in Hebrew and Aramaic has a feminine gender…. We know little about the Holy Family from Scripture, save the situation before, during and a little after Jesus’ birth, and the one incident in the Temple when he was at about the age of reason, and that’s it. But from that, and what the personality of Jesus was like from the gospels, we can with confidence say it was a happy, ordered and accepting household. We are all hostage, as it were, to our early years and how super precious they are from every point of view in moulding who we are. So today we see a family obeying the Jewish law, even apparently  making the arduous journey from Nazareth to the Temple in Jerusalem (64 miles, or 104 kilometers, and on foot if you are a poor family, taking perhaps two days, which is to say four, there and back). The Holy Family certainly seems to have been a loyal, real and noble reflection of the Blessed Trinity. That seems to blend with Sirach and the letter to the Colossians, today’s first choice of the first and second readings. 

Today, the bases of our civilization are being reformed and reshaped. The traditional model of the family seems to be on the way out. A profound equality seems to be taking its place. The old pyramidal model, father on top, wife below and children at the bottom seems to have been replaced by a horizontal model of equality. Now we can see families where there is a “stay at home dad”, for example, unthinkable even a few years ago. Wives now may earn significantly more than their husbands, a reality which is more and more taken as a plus for the family, rather than an insult to masculinity. Children, of course, have to learn how to behave appropriately and safely, which calls for occasional “tough love”, by which I do not mean physical punishment, which is simply bullying under a different name. No, there are many effective ways of disciplining through tough love, and I think of my sister’s family where, as far as I can see, never a blow was given, and her children are now law-abiding, peaceful and productive citizens. and practice the parenting skills evident in their own childhood. Isn’t that a better reflection of the Blessed Trinity? There we find absolute equality between the three persons, as we traditionally call them, united in an eternal bond of absolute love. That love is the reason we are all here, invited to share in it for eternity, as true love is open and welcoming, the bigger the better! So our task here is to try and conform to that love in all its dimensions, whether we be married, single or separated in some way. As God is forgiving, loyal, merciful, one who listens, one who loves freedom and is powerful and one who is open to friendship and relationship, all seen from Scripture, so should we be, as each and every one of us can demonstrate all of those qualities in our lives. Power? you might say. Yes. My favorite example of the fact we are all powerful is this. Ask any young child this question: When you go home today, do you have the power to make your mother’s day one of total misery? Answer: Yes. Or can you make it so nice that she glows with happiness? Answer: Yes. We all have enormous power, and it is to be used as God uses divine power, for the benefit of those around us, which in turn redounds on us. In that way we all live in one family of humanity, created by God and one day to be joined together in eternal joy. After all, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). 

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Eternal Joy, Scorpio Poetry.

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

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

Roger

© SundayMassReadings.com

SUNDAY 20 DECEMBER 2020: THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT.

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The Annunciation, Helena Vurnik 1915, National Gallery of Slovenia, Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Click here to read today’s Sunday Mass Readings.

[The angel said] “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God….”    Luke 1:35.

Words and phrases highlighted in red are links to supporting materials.

It is thought that girls got married in the time of Jesus when they were physically able to bear children. That probably means mid-teenage years, and quite probably that marriage would be arranged by her parents, in the same way their marriage had been, as in the famous Matchmaker, matchmaker from Fiddler on the Roof. All of which must tell us how shocked, scared, intimidated, amazed and possibly awed Miriam, which is Mary’s real Jewish name, must have been when this heavenly apparition appeared to her. Helena Vurnik’s beautiful picture above seems to capture some of that wonder, after the young girl had accepted what was clearly God’s astonishing will for her that she would conceive by the Holy Spirit. In one world-shattering moment human history was transformed. What Adam and Eve – we – had destroyed by their – our – disobedience, ushering in pain and death, Mary corrected by her obedience to the will of God in that moment, which inaugurated at last the possibility of an eternal life of joy. And in a few days time we will commemorate, nine months after the feast of the Annunciation, the birth of God’s Son whose life’s teaching and work enable each of us to gain an eternity of happiness and joy in God’s presence.

Let’s think about that last idea – the presence of God, the definition of the word “grace”: Hail Mary, full of the presence of God....”. From time immemorial, there have been places claimed, as it were, by a higher presence, a spiritual “something”. If you have ever visited Stonehenge in England, there is a certain presence there (though this was more apparent in the old days when you could wander around the stones at will). I’m sure many people have experienced this in varied locations, coming away with more than was put in, as it were. In Genesis 12, where God, as a still small voice, approached Abram, later Abraham, that experience of “presence” became more pronounced, even though a disembodied voice. That ended with the drama of the Passover, the crossing of the sea, the arrival at Mount Sinai and the identification of the Hebrews as God’s Chosen People. That being so, God demanded the construction of the Ark of the Covenant, into which went the Tablets of the Law, the two stones engraved with the Ten Commandments. The voice of God had proclaimed these, God had promised that if those commands were agreed to, then, God said, “I will be your God” (Genesis 17:7). From that moment, the Ark was taken to be the presence of God among God’s people. It was their most sacred artifact, as the Law represented God; it came from the finger of God. Later, with the establishment of the kingdom of David, the king became obsessed with God dwelling in a box protected by a tent, whereas he lived in a “house of cedar” as today’s first reading puts it. David wanted a building fit for God to dwell in. Due to his misdeeds, God was not too happy with this, forbade David to have anything to do with it, but permitted his son, Solomon, to go ahead, and the Temple in Jerusalem was constructed, in the center of which was the Holy of Holies, where the Ark rested until its disappearance after the Babylonian conquest. This was all destroyed by the Babylonians, then rebuilt. Much later, King Herod, near the time of Jesus, constructed a spectacular new temple, if contemporary reports are to be believed, and that was the building Jesus was familiar with. It was the site of the first recorded act of Jesus, when, barely at the age of reason, he was found in conversation with the priests of the temple while on pilgrimage with his parents.

Now what is this all about? Well, we have progressive locations, as it were, where God seemed to dwell. So sacred was the temple to Jews that even today, 2000 years after the temple of Herod was destroyed by the Romans after a revolt, the Western Wall, the foundation of that building, is the holiest place in the world for the Jewish people.

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The Western Wall, Summer 2018, Jerusalem, Israel.

But for Christians, the story does not end at the Temple. At the Annunciation, today’s gospel, God literally entered human life in the womb of the Virgin. At his birth, the Son of God’s first dwelling was a cave, or a stable, depending on which tradition you wish to believe in. Jesus moved through his years of work, then of his mission, the presence of God within him. Then, at the Last Supper, Jesus gave us consecrated bread and wine, declaring them to be his body and blood. We believe Jesus to be Son of God, within the Trinity of God. Hence wherever that consecrated food is, there is God. Go into the humblest, smallest Catholic church anywhere in the world, and there will be a small tabernacle, inside which is the presence of God.

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St. Martin’s Catholic Church, 3490 South Highway 237, Warrenton, Texas, USA: “World’s Smallest Catholic Church”

And ultimately, when we receive Holy Communion, then we ourselves become the presence of God, with the obligation to live up to that heavenly standard as children of God with all that that demands. And so it will remain until Christ comes enthroned on the clouds of heaven to claim us all for God. That’s quite a procession from the first revelation of God in Genesis 12 to Sunday at Mass (hopefully real rather than virtual!) and the strength it gives us to behave as God wishes.

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Our Lady of Grace Roman Catholic Church, 780 Highway 44, Reserve, Louisiana, USA.

Friday is Christmas Day. Have a wonderful blessed and happy day. Give thanks to God for all that you have to be thankful for.

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

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

Roger

© SundayMassReadings.com

SUNDAY 13 DECEMBER 2020: THE THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT: GAUDETE SUNDAY.

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Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, Vik Muniz 2018, Galeria Nara Roesler.

Today’s Sunday Mass Readings can be found by clicking here. 

[John] said: “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord…’”    John 1:23

Words and phrases highlighted in red are links to supporting materials.

I think you might agree that the depiction of the Baptist above is different! Firstly, he looks young, instead of the ancient, grizzled creature we usually see. It prompted me into thinking that was true: John was only six months older than Jesus (Luke 1:26-28), who was probably about 30 when John baptized him. We are also told that all sorts of people were traveling out from Jerusalem into the wilderness to see him (Matthew 3:5-6), hence the many diverse depictions of people around him in the picture. Many wanted to be cleansed of their sins, and that, I think, can also be seen in the picture, even with some imagination: on the right hand side is the Wicked Witch of the West! It was Jesus himself who said that even “tax collectors and harlots” were going out to see him (Matthew 21:32). And John dressed and acted for the part, in camel skins, eating locusts and wild honey, in typical prophetic manner, all of which perhaps you can make out in the picture above! In other words, John was a massive hit, the hot “must see” of the moment, so much so that the religious leaders in Jerusalem became interested in him, and sent out scouts to take a look and do an evaluation. He was, after all, prophesying the arrival of “one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” as today’s gospel says. That prompted even more interest. Perhaps the crowd thought John himself was the long-promised Messiah come at last. But today’s gospel states explicitly that John denied this in the strongest possible terms: “I am not the Christ”, meaning not the Messiah, not the Anointed of God, but claimed that he was indeed the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy that he was the voice of one in the wilderness announcing the way of the Lord (Isaiah 20:3). There were disciples of John who did indeed believe him to be the Messiah, and their descendants are among us to this day, the Mandaeans. They consider John to be their last prophet. In other words, John the Baptist was and is a very significant person in history.

John, then, was the first major indication that things were about to change in the Jewish landscape. He clearly impressed people with his sincerity and his message. He was indeed the voice of one in the wilderness preparing the way of the Lord, but where is the message for this Sunday in Advent? Clearly each one of us must prepare the way of the Lord also, both spiritually within, but I think also without, doing what we can to prepare the world outside each of us for the arrival of the Christ child. We live these days in a world which is suffering more than before, with this terrible pandemic. It is calling loudly for a savior to end the suffering and death which has come upon us. Clearly an effective vaccine will be one answer, and promises are getting more and more credible as the days go by. But many more than those who have fallen prey to the virus have been affected. Jobs have been lost, companies have closed their doors for the last time. Healthcare workers have put themselves on the line in trying to save and protect us all. It is incumbent upon the majority of us who have not been impacted beyond isolation to help them in any way we can, and also to extend help to those impacted in other ways, especially economic. Christmas is going to be grim experience for too many of us this year, some with no resources even for food, let alone presents for the children. Others will face a Christmas dinner missing beloved members of the family who have passed away because of this plague. Our only hope, apart from a vaccine, is the arrival of the king of peace and hope, which was also born in impoverished circumstances. So it is incumbent upon those of us who are able, because “the Spirit is upon us” as it says in today’s first reading, to help those who have been devastated in this terrible time. In a very small way, hope is reflected in the rose vestments which may be worn on this Gaudete Sunday (gaudete = Latin for joy). It signals how close we are to the birth of Christ, the bringer of hope and joy.

To help us in that, here are the charities designated A+ (Excellent) by Charity Watch which have aimed at those who have been deeply affected by the pandemic both here and abroad:

All Hands and Heart, CARE, Catholic Relief Services, Comic Relief, GiveDirectly, United Methodist Committee on Relief.

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Comic Relief’s program to end child poverty.

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

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

Roger

© SundayMassReadings.com