SUNDAY 24 JULY 2022: THE SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME.

our father

Church of the Pater Noster, Mount of Olives, Jerusalem, Israel.

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[Jesus] said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name….”   Luke 11:2.

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The Our Father is the central prayer of the Christian community, from the lips of the Savior himself. It is the summation of all our hopes, our trust, our belief, our devotion to God. Wherever and whenever Christians gather, this is the prayer you will hear. At the Church of the Pater Noster (Our Father in Latin), you will see this prayer in 140 languages!

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One of the 140 Languages Displayed in the Church of the Pater Noster.

By tradition, this church, and the cave beneath, is where Jesus prayed, and where he taught his followers the most important prayer in Christianity. Matthew’s version of the prayer is more familiar to us so this is perhaps an opportunity to  consider the essential meaning of Jesus’ prayer as we look at Luke’s version. So, for example, “forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us” . I recall reading Matthew’s version out on the school intercom in Brooklyn, where I was a teacher, shortly after 9/11/2001 attack. Several of my students lost their first responder fathers on that day. It means we say to God that we forgive those who sin against us in the same breath as we ask God to forgive our own sins.  Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us….” Looking at Luke’s terminology in today’s gospel, we are saying that those who have run up an enormous indebtedness to us are to be forgiven that debt. Do we, can we, really forgive those responsible for 9/11? But Jesus’ words are pretty much definitive. Yes we must – yes we do. Lack of forgiveness means carrying a grudge, a hatred, which can fester within us for a long time, and can metastasize into something uncontrollable and evil. Hatred is a breeding ground which can even develop into something worse than the original evil act. If we use today’s gospel word “debt”, we know that in the real world, a debt such at 9/11 can never be repaid. Knowledge of that can become overwhelming for us to whom it is due. Only we, to whom it is owed, can forgive it. And that can even be more challenging if those who owe it show no remorse, no sorrow for what they did, as in the case of 9/11 where the guilty even thought they were doing God’s will. Even in the face of such frustration, anger, even hatred, the Lord is clear – forgive them their debt!

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The Our Father Updated, Timothy R. Botts, Calligrapher.

Today’s gospel concludes with Jesus encouraging us to ask God for our needs, and even to persist if we do not get what we are asking for, even if we are convinced that our request is good and proper, not, for example, asking for the name of the winner of the Kentucky Derby! I’m sure that you, like me, have asked for what seemed to be absolutely right but did not receive it, perhaps even after years of asking. I don’t have the answer, save to hope that my request is locked in the heart of the Lord for a better reason that I can imagine. Jesus must have felt that in his last moments on the cross. So we are in the best company when seemingly God has, for some good reason, chosen to turn away from our petitions. It is indeed that at such time our faith is tested. In fact it has been said that we only know if we have such faith in times of great challenge. Jesus did not lose hope, even then. We are never to lose hope, no matter what, following in Jesus’ faith-filled footsteps. Just as he found, ultimately, a God of love and hope, so shall we.

Man

Christ at the PilloryBartolomeo Montagna 1500, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin, Germany.

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Today’s readings are very challenging. You might like to go a little deeper by looking at the SundayMassReadings for this 17th Sunday three years ago:

sundaymassreadings.com/2019/07/25/28-july-2018-seventeenth-sunday-in-ordinary-time/

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

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SUNDAY 17 JULY 2022: THE SIXTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME.

 
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, Velázquez, National Gallery, London, UK.

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[Jesus said], “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”   Luke 10:41-42.

This scene is so utterly domestic that it is very easy for all of us to identify with poor old Martha and understand her frustration, even anger, at her sister not helping her out in the kitchen. There she is, sweating away, making sure everyone is satisfied (except herself of course), the perfect hostess, but with an overwhelming sense of unfairness. And then to be put down by Jesus himself after she had complained to him about it all. Poor Martha: she can’t win! Velázquez seems to have captured all that feeling in his picture above, don’t you think, especially in the way she is grasping her pestle! And on top of it all, she probably wanted to sit at Jesus’ feet herself to hear the voice of happiness and salvation coming from the Savior’s lips. But there she is, grumbling, gutting fish, crushing garlic, cracking eggs, life as we all know it. Today’s gospel.

Today’s first reading should ring a bell, as it was examined on Trinity Sunday last. The three men are visiting the very old Abraham, who addresses all three as “Sir”, which some people say was a foreshadowing of the revelation of the Blessed Trinity. The three announce that his wife Sarah, aged 90, will bear a child. Now, the ancients wanted basically one thing from their gods – power. They themselves had little to no power over the elements which controlled their lives – weather, invasions, earthquakes, famine and so on. So they looked to their gods to show their godlike power and prevent such disasters. Consider, for example, the dreadful bloodthirsty local Canaanite gods such as Molech. He was pretty  typical of the local pantheon. But the Abrahamic God chose to reveal his power for the first time by enabling Sarah to conceive a child and bear her baby one year later, the boy Isaac. So listening to the three visitors was life-giving for the old couple, even though the barren Sarah laughed at the incredible prediction. Now take a look at today’s second reading. It is summed up in Paul’s simple line to the Christians in Colossae“it is Christ in you, the hope for glory”.

So, we have the hope of new life for Abraham and Sarah, the eternal hope for the Christians in Colossae, and Jesus presumably delivering the same hope to Mary, which Martha knows she is missing, in today’s gospel – and she does not like it! But the remedy is clear- listen to the Lord later that day, or, more likely, have Mary tell her, teach her, what Jesus had said. And as any teacher knows, there is nothing like teaching something to make you understand it more deeply, love it more clearly and incorporate it more fully. One final thought: the Martha and Mary occasion can be taken as a model for the diaconate and the priesthood. Martha is serving (the word deacon, διάκονος (diakonos), means servant in Greek), perfectly proper, essential and acceptable, whereas Mary listens at the feet of Jesus, teachings which she will use to inspire her life, her belief and her attitude and which she will proclaim thereafter to her sister and friends: a priestly vocation!  And here we have two women! And of course, once more, all three readings today call us to accept, believe and live the life of hope and love of God, the message that remains eternal, inviting us all to accept it and live it fully.

Matthijs_musson-cristo_en_casa_de_marta_y_maria-1_edited-1Jesus in the (more upscale) House of Martha and Mary, Musson c.1650, BBVA Collection.

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SUNDAY 10 JULY 2022: THE FIFTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME.

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Almost 40 years ago, when I was an assistant principal in a Catholic high school, a strange incident happened. Being British and working in an American school, I had two small flags standing together on my desk, the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack. One morning arriving at work, I noticed the Union Jack had vanished. I asked the Dean of Discipline to find out who and why… And he did. So I asked to talk to the culprit who had apparently been put up to it by his mother. The family refused to speak to me about it. “Why?” I asked. “Because you’re British”. It turned out they were a heavily IRA family (Irish Republican Army which at that time, prior to the Good Friday agreement, was supportive of violent action in Northern Ireland to expel the British). “But I’m a Catholic priest” I said. “You’re British” came the answer back via my Dean of Discipline. “My father was Irish – I have an Irish passport” I protested. “You’re British”. It was a brick wall; I could do nothing. I eventually got the offending article back, but was never able even to talk to the family. It was the one time I have confronted blind prejudice, and it was terrifying, because I could do nothing about it. I couldn’t go back and be reborn somewhere else! In its way it was also a godsend, because it gave me an insight on what so many people may have to go through daily, be they Muslim, or black, or gay or even being a woman!

I say all this to illuminate today’s gospel parable. Jesus quite deliberately labelled the person who helped the man beaten half to death a Samaritan, and this is why. Just like the IRA and the British, the Jews and Samaritans basically hated each other. There is no feud like a family feud, and this was one. Samaritans were Jewish, but… They accepted only the first five books of the Bible as inspired by God. The rest was simply pius writing. They intermarried with non-Jews. They rejected the sanctity of the Temple in Jerusalem in favor of their own on Mount Gerizim. And still do! There is a small Samaritan community in the Holy Land to this day. So no love was lost between the two (which explains several confrontations between Jesus and his followers throughout the gospels – even last week’s gospel where Jesus and his followers were not welcome in a Samaritan village). Meanwhile, back in the parable, it should be noted that two others had chanced upon the suffering man, and walked on, one a priest and the other a Levite, an assistant in the Temple in Jerusalem, two who you would think would have stopped and offered assistance. But did not. You can almost hear the gasp from Jesus’ listeners when he said that then a Samaritan walked by, and stopped…

samaritansSamaritans on Mount Gerizim, 2019.

Now presumably the wounded traveler who was coming from Jerusalem was Jewish, and the Samaritan passer-by probably shared the mutual distrust between the two, but he overcame that on seeing the Jewish man suffering and near death. As for the stricken man, he would be desperate for any help from anybody at that moment with no judgement anywhere. And, note, looking at the quote above from today’s gospel, when Jesus asked his questioner which of the passers-by helped the stricken man, he answered “the one who treated him with mercy”. He can’t even say the despised word “Samaritan”, which anyone else would say automatically in answer to the question. So our modern idea of the “good” Samaritan would conflict mightily with the ancient Jewish idea of those people. So, as I used to do regularly with my students in school, I challenge you to rewrite this parable by updating it: what person would you substitute for the Samaritan who would unexpectedly step up and help? Remember, it has to be a  person with no control over the reason s/he is despised, just like me being born British. And, of course, that is the reason Jesus quite deliberately chose the Samaritan as his hero in the story. We are all children of God, including the Samaritan who certainly acted that way; and we must all act that way,  no matter what. And that can sometimes be a gigantic challenge, but Jesus’ teaching and expectation are utterly clear.

Now there are several other points about this parable which might be of interest. First, Jericho is considered by many archeologists to be the oldest inhabited town or city in the world, perhaps 11,000 years old! Our traveler was journeying from Jerusalem which, though not the oldest city in the world, certainly has claim to being perhaps the holiest city, sacred to Jewish, Christian and Muslim believers. So, in a sense, the traveler was symbolically going the wrong way, from God’s eternal city to the oldest human city! And, as if to rub in that thought a little harder, Jerusalem stands 2,472 feet above sea level. Jericho is 850 feet below sea level, the lowest such inhabited place on earth. Indeed, much of the Jordan Valley is below sea level, as is the Dead Sea. Clearly this has no outlet to the sea, hence it retains all the salts eroded and dissolved by rainfall and carried down to it by the Jordan over the millennia, making it one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world. Nothing living can tolerate that, hence it is truly dead. Finally, the road between these two cities is desolate, bleak, treeless and somewhat forbidding, a prime area for brigands. So there is a strange juxtaposition between life and death in this whole area, perfect for a parable! 

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Site of Jericho, Palestinian Authority.

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On the road between Jerusalem and Jericho.

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Friends Forever!

SUNDAY 3RD JULY 2022: THE FOURTEENTH SUNDAY ON ORDINARY TIME.

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Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, Haydon c.1820; Athenaeum of Ohio, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA.

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(Jesus said to them), Go on your way; behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves.  Luke 10:2.

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Jesus’ words above from today’s gospel are as if he were talking to each one of us today in the 21st century. And I think this painting by Benjamin Robert Haydon, an artist previously unknown to me, seems to capture the essence of Jesus’ words. Haydon was a British painter active in the first half of the 19th century. Incredibly, he painted works such as this Entry Into Jerusalem without a commission, in the hope of selling it after completion. The results were mixed, ultimately ending up in poverty and suicide. But this painting could almost be autobiographical, if unintended. If you look closely on the right hand side, there is a familiar face from history, François-Marie Arouet, better known by his nom de plume, Voltaire:

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Voltaire, Vintage Design Pics.

Though a baptized Catholic and educated by the Jesuits, Voltaire was a scourge to the Catholic Church throughout his life and even worse against Islam. The point is, Jesus is entering Jerusalem in the picture above, being greeted by an adoring crowd, but which crowd, within only one week, will be baying for his blood. So when Jesus says to his followers that they will be like lambs among wolves, he could well have been talking also about himself! And so there is Voltaire, ready to condemn and criticize the organization which based, and bases, itself on Jesus’ teachings, skeptically watching Jesus enter into his Passion. It is said that Voltaire is between Keats and Wordsworth, two Romanic poets, friends of Haydon, who had also turned away from established religion in favor of their own ideas of the transcendent. Take this thought up to today where we find Christians beset with indifference, temptations, ridicule, even hostility. So, as ever, Jesus’ words apply to us also, today, in the 21st century, as they did 200  years ago, as they did 2000 years ago. Plus ça change.

But there is more than gloom in today’s readings. True, established religion in the more advanced countries is in troublebut for those who do accept a reality beyond our own senses (and perhaps even within them), there can be joy in life and fulfillment, as witnessed in the first reading today. And look at the conclusion of the longer version of today’s gospel: “The seventy-two returned rejoicing, and said,”Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name.”Jesus said, “I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky”. It seems that even the lambs amid a gang of wolves can find fulfillment and even happiness. That is the power of the Lamb – the Lamb of God. Remember it is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. With sin taken away, grace is left; remember that sin is the absence of God. With no sin, we are in the presence of God – the state of grace. That could be taken as the definition of true happiness. And that brings us to the heart of today’s gospel. It is the obligation of every believer to demonstrate in his or her life the fundamental joy of life in God. That can be seen in quiet acceptance and response to challenges, treating everybody with care and dignity, even if they do not deserve it, displaying trust in God even when there seems to be no God present, and, fundamentally, a rock solid certainly that God is on our side, encouraging us, supporting us and guiding us to the ultimate goal of eternal peace and happiness, some of which we will have already tasted in this life. And in achieving all that, we should share as much of all that as possible with those around us, believers or not.

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Lamb Among Wolves, Universal Peace Window, Washington National Cathedral, Washington DC.

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SUNDAY 25 JUNE 2022: THE THIRTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME.

Heart

Sacred Heart of Jesus, Chapel of Mercy Convent, Albany, NY, USA.

Link the image above with this song: “Time After Time”. You can find the lyrics at the foot of this posting. 

Click here to read today’s Sunday Mass Readings.

For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Galatians 5:14.

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We celebrated the feast of the Sacred Heart last Friday, and perhaps we can link the message of that image to today’s gospel, which contains something of a challenge. The Sacred Heart is one of the strongest symbols of Christ’s love for his Father and for us. His entire life and mission were based on that simple truth: God first, last and always. Anything which detracts from that reality is to be treated as temptation away from the truth, even the burial of your own father as we hear in today’s gospel. These words from today’s gospel are almost always used as an example of Jesus’ “hard sayings” and it is immediately followed by another, similar instruction: Another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” To him Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” In other words, once your eyes are set on God, there is no looking back. Jesus is talking about total commitment, utter devotion, fixed focus. It is the first step in walking with the Lord, as he exemplified in all of the above. In everything he did, it was for the Father he did it. The ultimate example, of course, was his acceptance of the dreadful fate which awaited him beginning in the Garden of Gethsemane, which put his devotion to God to the ultimate test. But clearly that is not the end of the story – it is the beginning!

At the beginning of every journey, an itinerary has to be created, beginning with the destination from your starting point. Then you figure out the best possible route between the start and the finish, and then what to expect between those two points. For Jesus, the objective of his entire ministry was to obey the will of his Father. That began at his baptism, when he discovered his identity (Son of God) and his vocation (to fulfill all the prophecies concerning the Messiah of God). We were given the exact same identity and vocation at our baptism. As children of God, our objective must be union with God at the end of our time on earth, and to achieve that we must follow the vocation God has given us to the letter! And that’s where today’s gospel takes its place. No looking back, no other obligations other than those to God. That sounds hard, of course: not go to my father’s funeral? Not to say goodbye to my parents? But wait (as they say in commercials), that is by no means the end of the story. Once our allegiance to God has been established, then God’s will takes over, overriding our own, and then the law of love floods in, overwhelming all other considerations. As St. Augustine said, using the quote from last week, love and do anything you want, because everything will be done out of love and no harm or sin can ever come of that. So, then, yes, go to the funeral, go say goodbye, and do all with the love of God flowing through you, making everything you do an expression of what Jesus would do, as you too are a child of God. And with that comes total freedom. It might not be easy, but it will be God’s will and we will be free agents doing it, relying on the power of God within us which can never fail. Even after Jesus died, he triumphed through God’s love and power.

So it is appropriate that, as “Ordinary Time” begins once more, we have the starting point of our Christian existence underlined for us again in today’s gospel: all we say, do and think must be set on God, our acceptance of God’s will, and what then we must do as a consequence. In that way we are truly being and acting as children of God.

TIME AFTER TIME

Lying in my bed, I hear the clock tick and think of you
Caught up in circles
Confusion is nothing new
Flashback, warm nights
Almost left behind
Suitcase of memories
Time after
Sometimes you picture me
I’m walking too far ahead
You’re calling to me, I can’t hear
What you’ve said
You say, “go slow”
I fall behind
The second hand unwinds
If you’re lost you can look and you will find me
Time after time
If you fall, I will catch you, I’ll be waiting
Time after time
If you’re lost, you can look and you will find me
Time after time
If you fall, I will catch you, I will be waiting
Time after time
After my picture fades and darkness has
Turned to gray
Watching through windows
You’re wondering if I’m okay
Secrets stolen from deep inside
The drum beats out of time

If you’re lost you can look and you will find me
Time after time
If you fall I will catch you, I’ll be waiting
Time after time
You saId go slow I fall behind
The second hand unwinds
If you’re lost you can look and you will find me
Time after time
If you fall I will catch you, I’ll be waiting
Time after time after time 
Source: LyricFind
Songwriters: Cyndi Lauper / Robert Hyman
Time After Time lyrics © Concord Music Publishing LLC, Warner Chappell Music, Inc.
Heart

Sacred Heart Church, Suffern, NY, USA.

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SUNDAY 19 JUNE 2022: THE SOLEMNITY OF THE MOST HOLY BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST: THE FEAST OF CORPUS CHRISTI.

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Whoever Eats My Flesh…, One Walk, April 2021.

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…..the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”    1 Corinthians 11:23-25.

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This feast rejoices in the central, most profound truth in the Catholic Christian teaching that exists. For once, the Church becomes literalist, even fundarmentalist, taking those words above at their literal meaning. The words of consecration, the same words Jesus used at the Last Supper over the elements of bread and wine, said by a priest in the liturgy of the Eucharist, mean they actually become the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus. Hence the extreme veneration of the consecrated elements of bread and wine: the priest genuflects in front of them; sometimes the consecrated bread is “enthroned” in the center of a monstrance for adoration and blessing, or even processed in the street in some parishes on this day:

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Pray Tell, Corpus Christi Procession April 2018, Rome, Italy.

So, in a way, this is the living heart of the Church teaching, and the source of major controversy down through the centuries. Even in the Roman Catholic Church one survey stated that today only one third of Catholics accepted this central, most important teaching! The rest considered the consecrated bread and wine were “symbols” of the presence of Jesus at Mass or are simply not sure about the teaching itself. And this teaching was one of the most important controversies in the Reformation in the 16th century, with the church battling vigorously to defend this very teaching! Even Martin Luther defended this teaching, famously writing the words hoc est corpus meum  (Jesus’ words at the Last Supper “this is my body”) on the table top around which a team of reformers sat (not Catholics) several of whom denied that teaching. But the graphic words of Jesus are strikingly clear: “Take, eat, this is my body; take, drink, this is my blood” (Matthew 26:26-30; similar to the other gospel writings on the Last Supper). Then there are the shocking words from St. John’s gospel, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day” (John 6:54). Well these words are absolute, and they order us to do what the words say! In fact, these teachings were totally misunderstood by the pagan Roman authorities in the early church, and Christians were accused of cannibalism (along with atheism and incest)! Indeed looked at from a totally pagan point of view, they had a point. But when the full teaching is known, then we are challenged: do you believe and accept that fully or not? Surely Jesus knew that what he was talking about had massive implications and a strong potential for rejection and misunderstanding, yet he persisted. This is what Jesus wanted us to accept, clearly for our own good. But if we place ourselves into the sandals of those who heard this teaching for the first time, what on earth would have been our reaction? It was only at the Last Supper that, as they say, all was revealed. That is what the Lord meant! Common, simple bread and a glass of vin ordinaire. Held by Jesus and with his words clearly spoken over them, this  became the central teaching of Christians forever more.

Now consider the implications of this extraordinary teaching. The Lord’s whole message can be summed up into one word, love. St. Augustine summed it up rather strongly in his words “Love and do whatever you will”, or , more fully “Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved”. If you think and act out of love at all time, there can be no hurt but only grace. But how is this true, intimate love to be expressed? Surely by ensuring we do not hurt anyone; love expressed in intimacy between those joined together by God, speaking and acting with such care that we only act for the good of others. And so on. And how does Jesus express his love for us? At Holy Communion… We actually take him into ourselves! We are invited to consume that which he declared categorically to be his body and blood! The Lord and each of us become utterly intimately one. We are physically, intellectually and emotionally one with Jesus at Holy Communion. That is the profound and ineffable truth and reality of Communion, and is the meaning of today’s feast. It is the foundation of our faith, the proof of Jesus’ last words, that he will be with us until the end of time as reported at the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel. Saints have been martyred over that most profound of all teachings down the centuries. Take a look at St. Nicholas Pieck, a Dutchman who died during the Reformation defending the truth of the Real Presence of Christ on the altar, or the 19-year old Spaniard who died defending the Blessed Sacrament (the consecrated hosts) during the Spanish Civil War. That is what belief in and defence of the Blessed Sacrament should be for all Catholics. It is Christ actually and really present among us at every Mass.

Celebrating the Mass is the supreme privilege of any priest or bishop and even the Pope. There is nothing greater than welcoming the Lord himself into our midst as we say thank you (which is what the word eucharist means) to Jesus for being with us as he promised. To say that the consecrated bread and wine is merely a “symbol” such as the flag of the country, reduces it immeasurably and denies what the Lord actually promised. That is how we walk with him and he us. That is what makes the teaching on the Real Presence real! Have no doubts; do not make this teaching and reality complicated. Accept it for what it is, the profound reality of Jesus’ love for each individual human being, high, low, rich poor, black, white, crippled, healthy, ignorant, educated: everyone with not one exception. The real Jesus wishes us to take him totally into ourselves so that we too can become truly Christ to the world, our true vocation and identity. And with Christ at our side – indeed, within us – we really can be that strong and convincing.

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Christ to the World (“Jesus in Outer Space”), 2013, Zack Hunt.

On Friday, 24th June, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

You can discover the roots of this special feast day here, and a great story it is. Although not a holyday of obligation, the Sacred Heart does call us to meditate on the burning heart of love God has for us, and the example of total love Jesus had – and has – for us as seen in his actions while here on earth. The modern aspect of this devotion springs from the divine revelations granted to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, a French nun in the Visitation Convent in Paray-le-Monial in the south-east of France:

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Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Paray-le-Monial, France.

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SUNDAY 12 JUNE 2022: THE SOLEMNITY OF THE MOST HOLY TRINITY.

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The Most Holy Trinity, Redbubble/DeoGratias.

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Jesus said to his disciples:
“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.
Everything that the Father has is mine;
for this reason I told you that she will take from what is mine
and declare it to you.”   John 16:12-15.

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The above quotation is today’s gospel in its entirety, except…. Look back at last week’s Sunday Mass Readings for the rationale behind this difference from what you will hear in church today. In the Aramaic language, which Jesus almost certainly spoke, the gender of the word Spirit, רוח, ruakh, is feminine. So whenever Jesus spoke of God’s Holy Spirit, the words must have sounded like the above rendition of today’s gospel. That version above is as strange to our ears as today’s approved reading in English would be to Jesus’ ears! It would be even stranger if we listened to the literal translation from the Greek text (in which all the gospels are written) because the Greek word for spirit, πνεύμα, pneuma, is neuter, and Spirit would therefore be rendered as “it”, which would be utterly unacceptable in English! I guess “he” for the Spirit must have been the politically correct pronoun to use when English translations were being created. English speakers are not alone in this: Spirit is rendered the same way, masculine, in French. It might, however, come from the Latin translation of πνεύμα as spiritus, spirit, which is masculine in Latin. And there it has stayed for 2000 years. Unfortunately. But with this correction, which I prefer to call it, the understanding of the Holy Trinity, as far as we are able to do so, is much, much more understandable. But it does seem to open up many questions

That being so, today we commemorate the most profound of all Christian truths: the reality, the mystery, of the Holy Trinity, one God, three Persons. It is a rational impossibility. In our logic, it cannot be. A thousand volumes have tried to rationalize this belief, but ultimately it is not in any way possible. You either accept it in faith or reject it in logic. That being so, what in our experience can at least echo this truth in some way? I believe there is a way which allows us to accept – embrace even – this teaching.

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Traditional Symbol representing the Holy Trinity.

There is something in human experience which might help us understand, or at least accept the Trinity. It is the reality in our lives of love. I would not be surprised to find that almost as many books have been written about love as about the Trinity! Firstly, love requires at least two people to be real. Love unrequited, or not returned, is not love; it is frustration,  emptiness, loneliness, rejection. True love is beauty, fullness, love of life and just about anything else that is fulfilling and positive. And love is not selfish. Those who claim they love another person and make sure no-one else can be close friends with that person, are possessive and smothering, not loving. Two people in love are very open to others and invite them into their presence happily. Those who visit the home of two who are utterly devoted to each other, experience immediately that they are welcome and are immediately at home with them. And furthermore, a couple who have been happily together for years will seem to know what the other is thinking and will even know what they are about to say; it is almost as if they have become one. And that, friends, is, I believe, the reflection or echo of the Holy Trinity whose love generates so strongly that we are all here as the result. We have, all of us, been loved into existence by God! 

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The Dogmatic Sarcophagus showing the Trinity creating Eve, 4th century, Vatican Museums, Vatican City State.

It is believed that the Old Testament has suggestions and hints at the reality of the Trinity scattered throughout. For example, Genesis 18:1-4 says this:

The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord,[a] do not pass your servant by.Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree.

Note the language: “The Lord” presumably God was visiting him, then suddenly “three men” were standing there. No explanation at all, even when Abraham bows before the three and addresses them as “My Lord”. They were there to tell the 100-old man that his old wife would bear a son in due time. His wife Sarah was listening in and laughed at the prediction:

Abraham and Sarah were very old, and Sarah had stopped having her monthly periods. So Sarah laughed to herself and said, “Now that I am old and worn out, can I still enjoy sex? And besides, my husband is old too.” Then the LORD asked Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Can I really have a child when I am so old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD? As I said, nine months from now I will return, and Sarah will have a son.” Because Sarah was afraid, she denied it. “I didn’t laugh,” she said. “Yes, you did,” he replied. “You laughed.”

(A pretty earthy translation here, the New King James Version). Sarah did in fact bear a son, Isaac, because with God anything is possible as the passage says, even for someone who argued with God and even laughed at God’s promise! And this was the first indication of God’s power after God’s first approach to Abram/Abraham in Genesis 12. And what a way to show power, a very old lady giving birth to a son! Positive, life-giving, fruitful and loving. But that one and three vision before Abraham, with no explanation, is taken by many Christians as an early indication of the Trinity. And finally there is the point I made last week, trying to make a case for the Holy Spirit of God bearing the power and majesty of the feminine ideal to complement the male ideal as borne by the Father, which eternally generates the Son in an everlasting outpouring of love which also brought all of us into existence. And there lies, I believe, the reality and truth of our irrational but profoundly real knowledge and experience of the Blessed Trinity of God. As I said last week, To love another person is to see the face of God, and Love isn’t love ’till you give it away. God wants us to live a life that is so filled with love that when we are eventually called to account, then we will be assumed into that same love which created us and love it for all eternity.

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The Trinity, Girardin 1478, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio, USA.

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SUNDAY 5 JUNE 2022: FEAST OF PENTECOST, THE DESCENT OF THE HOLY SPIRIT, THE BIRTHDAY OF THE CHURCH.

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Pentecost, Mary Reardon 1986, Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, St. Louis, Missouri, USA.

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[Jesus said] “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.”   John 14:25-26.

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Just five weeks after Passover in Jerusalem, the entire Christian Church was crammed into one room in Jerusalem (traditionally the Upper Room or Cenacle), behind locked doors (as stated twice in John’s gospel) scared to death that they would be found out and condemned to the same frightful death that Jesus had suffered. Remember that Jesus himself had told them to stay in Jerusalem, no matter what (Acts 1:4 and Luke 24:50-53 ), even so, two ran off to Emmaus, only to encounter Jesus himself on the way, and then return to the city. So the future of the Christian church literally hung in the balance! One imagines that they would have quietly slipped out of the city, one by one, never to be seen or heard of again. And one could completely understand that, except, of course, that we would have heard nothing about them 2000 years later! Clearly something had to happen to change it all. Jesus had promised them some sort of help: “Wait for the gift I told you about, the gift my Father promised. John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4-5). So there were a few days in Christian history where, it seems, no trace of the Holy Trinity was present on earth, and the handful of believers trembled. Then it happened:

When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled,
they were all in one place together.
And suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.
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
and began to speak in different tongues,
as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven
staying in Jerusalem.   Acts 2:1-5.

But first, some explanation of what was happening outside those locked doors. The Greek word pentecost literally means fiftieth, from the Greek word πεντήκοστος, pentēkostos (the number 5 being πέντε, pente, in Greek, hence pentagon, pentathlon, etc.). It was the 50th day after Passover. The Jews of that time called it Pentecost; today the Jewish name for the feast is Shavuot (“weeks” שבועות in Hebrew) as we Christians took over the Greek title in later years. Those 50 days were special for the Jews. The first fruits of the harvest were appearing in the fields, hopefully signalling another year of a safe food supply. Also, by tradition, it was 50 days after release from slavery in Egypt that the Hebrews arrived at Mount Sinai and were given the Law, the 10 Commandments, by God, so it was also the Feast of the Law. 2000 years ago, when the Second Temple still stood in Jerusalem, Pentecost was one of the three great pilgrimage feasts (along with Passover and Sukkot, the gathering of the harvest later in the year) when those Jews who could manage it, made their way to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple, hence the large crowd of people mentioned above, presumably scaring our early Christians even more. So far, therefore, this feast day has three Jewish names, the Feast of First Fruits, the Feast of the Law and Pentecost/Shavuot or Feast of Weeks. 

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Jewish holiday of Shavuot, DepositPhotos.com.

And so it happened, and this timorous group of shivering followers of the crucified Jesus suddenly changed into a fearless band of missionaries unable to hold in the Good News a second longer! And more – even with their Galilean accent they were able to speak to all the Jewish Pentecost pilgrims from all over the Roman Empire in their own tongues! The Holy Spirit of God had descended on them and they were now ready, willing and able to proclaim that the Messiah had arrived, that we were saved, and that the kingdom of heaven was calling everyone to an eternal life of happiness. That for which the Jews had waited for over 1000 years had come. Hence the church was born! This Pentecost was, then, the Birthday of the Church. And the cause? The Descent of the Holy Spirit. So just like our Jewish brothers and sisters, we too have three names for the feast we celebrate today, in our case, fifty or so days after Easter (for remember that the Last Supper was a Passover meal). Two further things. In Genesis, the sin of pride was absolutely demonstrated in the building of the Tower of Babel, to ensure that if God ever dared send another flood, there would be a place to escape from it, up that tower. God punished them by confusing their speech, the Genesis explanation of different languages. Now, at this first Christian Pentecost, that was reversed, and the one message of salvation was clearly offered and understood by everyone, no matter what language they spoke. Secondly, if ever a rationale for a miracle was ever demonstrated, it was this spectacular event. What, save God’s power, could have possibly transformed this terrified band of people into fearless and effective heralds of the Messiah? It ranks up there with the Resurrection and the Raising of Lazarus as an inexplicable, instantaneous and permanent work of God, a miracle. It was the birth of the church.

And so the Age of God’s Holy Spirit was inaugurated. It is through this reality that Jesus is with us today, in the consecrated bread and wine at Mass, in any gathering in his name, in the sacred words of God’s New Testament and in the priest who represents Christ in any gathering. The Holy Spirit is the One who inspires individuals to heroic action, bravery and witness to God’s love, especially seen in the lives of the saints. It is the Spirit who constantly calls us back to holiness throughout the centuries, and guides the Church away from sin and disgrace to holiness and purity. And God’s Wisdom and Spirit should be always honored with the title “She”. In Hebrew, as seen in the Book of Wisdom and the Book of Proverbs, both Wisdom and Spirit are feminine in gender:

“Get Wisdom; get insight. Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her and she will guard you.” (Proverbs 4:5-6).

“For wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me. For in her is a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle….”  (Wisdom 7:22).

Additionally, the feminine Hebrew word SpiritRuach, also holds the meaning of wind and breath, which becomes very interesting when, in Genesis: “the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). Also, in Genesis 1:2, “the Spirit/Wind of God was moving over the face of the waters”. Now take a look at the quotation above from Acts 2 describing the Pentecost event. The words Spirit, Wind and Speech (breath?) all occur….

We can deduct easily, then, that Jesus, who probably spoke Aramaic, had always considered God’s Spirit and Wisdom as feminine. Now I do not say all this out of some sort of wokiness, but simply to state what is in Scripture! Many languages have gender attached to language; English jettisoned all that centuries ago, and consequently English speakers are much more sensitive to word genders as almost all words are neuter, gender free. Constantly calling God “he”, for example, where the French might not think twice about it (probably), can be painful for many believers. But God embraces all gender and all humanity, and is all in all as St. Paul states in 1 Corinthians 15:28, hence way beyond any stereotype or label. But we mortals are not quite that free, and so it is good, I think, to point out God’s universality in a uniquely English way that makes sense. Finally, the Christian revelation of the Holy Trinity makes much more sense in this light, with the love of God the Father and the (feminine) Holy Spirit eternally generating the Son of God. Remember that love requires an other. As the song says, “love isn’t love till you give it away”  (Oscar Hammerstein, “The Sound of Music”). Then, in “Les Miserables” you have “To love another person is to see the face of God” (“Aimer une autre personne, c’est voir le visage de Dieu.” – Victor Hugo). To love is to share the life of God. At Pentecost, the earliest followers of the Lord were filled with such an overwhelming love that it had to be shared; as many as would listen had to be invited into that love, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). So the church – the Christian community – was born in love, and remains in such, and it is up to us to live it, share it and act it: it is the hallmark of the true Christian.

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The Spirit of God, Stained Glass, Inc.

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SUNDAY 29 MAY 2022: THE SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER.

ALPHA

“I am the Alpha and the Omega”, late 4th century mural, Commodilla Catacomb, Rome, Italy.  

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I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.   Revelation 22:13. 

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First, some basics. The picture above from the final years of the fourth century, is one of the very first depictions of Christ with a beard. Up to that time he had almost universally been drawn or carved as a young Roman man, clean shaven and usually dressed in Roman clothing. Remember that Roman men of that time were clean shaven and had little or no idea of what a young Jewish man would look like. In fact, Romans usually associated beards with barbarians – the very word comes from the Latin for beard, barba! Only after many years did Jesus’ image change, and he was ever afterwards shown with a beard (still the fashion for many Jewish men today).

Secondly, Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, upper and lower case: A or α, Ω or ω. As Jesus almost certainly spoke Aramaic, not Greek, he would have said “I am the Aleph and the Tav”, א and ת, the first and last letters of his alphabet! Strangely, I cannot ever recall seeing Jesus pictured as the A and the Z, or, for that matter, the א and the ת, but only as depicted above! So, as the Book of Revelation also records, Jesus also said, as stated in today’s second reading, “I am the first and the last” to make his message absolutely clear. He existed before creation was created, as indicated at the beginning of John’s gospel “In the beginning was the Word”, and will live beyond the end of creation. So together, John’s gospel and his Book of Revelation encompass all time and space. 

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Christ Appears to his Apostles, The Maestà by Duccio c.1311, Cathedral of the Assumption, Siena, Italy.

Last Thursday (or today, depending on which Catholic archdiocese you live in), we in New York celebrated the feast of the Ascension, the moment the bodily Jesus left us to return to the Father in heaven. It is reported both at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles and at the end of the gospel of  Luke, and presumably at the end of Matthew’s gospel with Jesus’ final words to us all to spread the gospel throughout the world. That ended the Age of God the Son with us on earth and, at Pentecost, the Age of the Holy Spirit was inaugurated, the age in which we all live right now; (the Age of God the Father was the era from Abraham to the arrival of John the Baptist, heralding the presence of Jesus among us). Which is not to say that these Three Persons acted separately – just look at today’s gospel. Jesus, praying to his Father in heaven, asks that his followers “may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me”. So unity is a key theme and reality for which Jesus longs, that we all be at one with each other and with God. And clearly the power which enables all this is love, again as Jesus says today: “that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them”. It was, is now and ever will be the saving grace among us, to love one another as God, who is love, loves all of us. It is the unstoppable power which carries us even through death, witnessed in today’s first reading, the first martyrdom in the church. Stephen, one of the first deacons in the church (see Acts 6:1-6) so enraged his listeners that they literally took the law into their own hands (only the Roman authorities had the power to impose the death penalty) and stoned him to death for blasphemy. Stephen “saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God'”, and in his last breath forgave his killers, echoing the Lord himself from the cross. In other words, he breathed love in his last moments. 

A very strong lesson for us in today’s readings. Nothing new of course, but love is never old and cannot ever be. It must infuse our every thought, word and deed, from the beginning to the end, reflecting the truth and reality of today’s eschatological readings. If we ever fail, we have to believe that we can be forgiven by a God of Love. How could it ever be otherwise? So we can rejoice and be glad that such a God made us, stands by us in all situations, and will welcome us into divine life when we are finally called into eternity, we having tried to reflect the Trinity of Love to the utmost of our ability at all times.

 

stephen2 Stoning of St. Stephen,  Elsheimer c.1605, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland.                                                                                                                                

 

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