The Four Presences of Christ, National Catholic Educational Association. 

[Jesus said] “…where two or three are gathered together in my name,
there am I in the midst of them.”  Matthew 18:20.

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

The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s had a great deal to reflect on, and enacted a large number of reforms in the Church. Not least among them was replacing the use of Latin in the Mass with the language of whatever place the Mass was said. For someone like me, this was a breathtaking change. The Latin Mass was something which had been in place for over 1000 years, something which would never change. But it did. The consequences of this still resound in the church today. The Council stated this was not only to enable a greater understanding of the central and most sacred liturgical action in the Christian Church, but also to enable other Christians to see and understand what the Roman Church meant by it. Remember that the “Real Presence” of the Lord in the consecrated bread and wine at Mass was one of the most divisive factors in the Reformation. The Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy also stated the Church’s strong belief that the presence of the Lord is also to be found in the sacred writings, in the presence of the priest at Mass and in the gathering of the faithful, “two or three” to use Jesus’ own words today. Primarily, however, the consecrated elements of bread and wine are the ultimate foundation of this belief. In fact, the greatest privilege a priest has is to preside at Mass. Ask any bishop, ask the Pope himself, and you would get the same answer, to preside at Mass. So the Mass should be the supreme demonstration of Christian love, celebrating Jesus’ love for us, fulfilling his promise to be with us forever until the end of time (Matthew 28:20). Given that, but knowing human frailty, Jesus tried to create a model which would help achieve that goal even when there is division. It is all shaped, I believe, by possibly his strongest of all commands, that we forgive, forgive and forgive again. So if our brother sins against us, we are obliged to forgive him, but also to address him directly, a confrontation devoutly to be avoided most of us would say. But there it is, from the lips of the Savior himself. If there is no admission of guilt, then further action has to be taken, and ultimately, given no change, he is to be “treated as you would a Gentile or a tax collector”, which is to say, to be excommunicated from the community. That is to be done even though you have forgiven him, unsaid by Jesus, but fully in line with his teaching on forgiveness. 

The thought occurs here that this confronts a frequent criticism hurled at Christians that we forgive anybody for anything and even let people get away with murder. But in today’s gospel we have a wrongdoer being punished for his evil act, whatever it was. In fact, if you transpose this gospel teaching to the supernatural world, it seems to say that the wrongdoer will end up in hell, an existence I have always equated not with devils, fire and pitchforks, but with a solitary existence, a solitude, a loneliness forever, forever without any hope ever. If you put yourself always first in this life, then that’s what you get after. Jesus is very clear on something else too: that the facts, as stated by two or three witnesses, have to indicate clearly the guilt of the sinner. So it is clearly the stubbornness of the guilty party that is the reason for his punishment. We often read of court cases where the accused shows no remorse over the crime committed. That always seems to have a huge effect on the ultimate punishment. One might think prisoners at the bar might make at least an attempt at remorse, but some do not, which makes Jesus’ words today even more understandable, though bear in mind that God will know the difference between remorse and show acting… So the lack of remorse displays defiance, a “me first and always” attitude, leading to self-destruction, as suggested above. As the second reading states clearly, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law, and, one might add, the pathway to life and love eternal. Surely that is worth remorse, shame and admission of guilt and the hope of forgiveness? Continue reading



Flag and Coat-of-Arms of the Vatican City State (the “Holy See”).

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[Jesus said to Peter] “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church and ……. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.”   Matthew 16:18-19.

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

Have you ever stood under the spectacular dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and looked up? In clear capital letters you will see the Latin words: “Tu es Petrus and super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum” “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church and to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven” all taken from today’s gospel.


This passage from Matthew is the locus classicus for the claim that the Pope is the legitimate successor of Peter, believed to have been the first Pope, and is therefore the primary leader of the Christian Church, just as Peter was 2000 years ago. It also contains a pun in Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, Greek and no doubt other languages, but unhappily not in English. For example, in French, the gospel reads “Tu es Pierre et sur cette pierre je bâtirai mon église” In all those languages, “Peter” and “stone” or “rock” are the same word. Jesus is equating Peter with the foundation of the Christian community which will continue after him. In the original, with Jesus speaking Aramaic rather than the Greek of the gospel writings, he nicknamed Peter Cephas, meaning rock (or Rocky?). The dome of St. Peter’s also stands directly over what is believed to be the tomb of Peter, three stories down from the high altar, and so the church is literally built on him! (Note that the only connection in English between Peter and rock is the word “petrification” and “petrified”, or turned to stone; not helpful, even though the name Peter is indeed derived from the Latin word Petrus). His tomb, underneath St. Peter’s, is near what was once a narrow lane through a pagan necropolis open to the sky. Take a look:

st peter's tomb

Tomb of St. Peter. (This video takes a little bit of learning to operate, but persevere…)

Additionally, today’s gospel from Matthew is also the origin of the keys in the arms and flag of the Vatican City State, as you can see above, the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Also, any church statue of a man holding two keys means it is St. Peter, as they are his symbol.

So what does today’s gospel mean for us today? Jesus seems to be doing a sort of review of progress so far. I think many of us could understand this in terms of an annual job review, with compliments on what has been done well, and goals set to improve the rest. His disciples gave him that, reporting that some say he is John the Baptist returned from the dead, or, even more spectacularly, Elijah or Jeremiah. After that, Jesus wanted to check on them: “Who do you say I am?” One can imagine a moment of silence, as they all presumably thought he was the long awaited Messiah. Peter stepped forward and stated it out loud and clear: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. Remember that “Christ” means the Anointed One, or Messiah. So at that moment Jesus must have thought that they had understood everything about his mission, his vocation, and declared Peter to be the very foundation of this new community. Today’s gospel ends at that point. The very next verses prove, unhappily, that they did not understand his mission! They firmly believed he was the messiah of Jewish hope and expectation, the one who would restore the kingdom of David and expel the hated occupying pagan forces from the land of Israel. On the contrary, when Jesus stated that his mission would end in disaster and death, Peter objected strongly, to which Jesus replied “Get behind me Satan…” (Matthew 16:23), this same Peter who had just been given the keys of heaven! Jesus then said that his followers must be prepared to take up the cross and follow him; his call to all of us is just as strong today as it was then. Note the hidden lesson here. How many parents and teachers have there been who have tried to decide what their children and students should be rather than pointing out their strengths and talents, and allowing them to figure it out? Jesus strenuously rejected his disciples’ false image of him as he already knew what the prophecies concerning  the Messiah meant. Our children and students are still finding this out. All we should do is praise their strengths, their gifts and perhaps indicate all the possibilities they might consider, rather than thrust our own choice on what they should become instead of just suggesting it as a possibility.

As we are currently confronted with Covid 19, we must act as true followers with strength, dignity and conviction that ultimately truth, good health, will prevail. But we too, almost despite all that, must declare our belief in Jesus’ identity and vocation, as it is also ours. Remember we are adopted daughters and sons of God, with our vocation to be Christ to the world. So, following today’s gospel, perhaps it’s time for some personal introspection; what progress have we all made along that path? Do we seek glory and power in our own world, or the profound satisfaction that we are doing our best to be servants of all, as Jesus was, offering all to God?


Arms of Pope Francis, Vatican City gardens.


Arms of Pope Francis explained.

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The Procession, Swanson 1982.

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

This day marks the event which changed everything. It took place originally on the Feast of Weeks, Shavuot, 50 days after Passover, one of the three Jewish feasts of pilgrimage (the others being Passover, and Sukkot, the Feast of Booths later in the year). The Jews in Jesus’ days called it Pentecost, meaning in Greek “fiftieth”, 50 days after Passover. That being so, pilgrims to the temple in Jerusalem may have stayed on after Passover to celebrate Pentecost also. Hence the crowds referred to in today’s reading (“Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem”). Subsequently, Christians took over the Jewish-Greek name, so that today Pentecost is considered completely Christian. Christians also call it the feast of The Descent of the Holy Spirit, and the Birthday of the Church. The Christian term Whitsun is also employed for today, coming from the old English, or even the Anglo-Saxon, word “wit” meaning understanding or wisdom, given to Christ’s followers by the Holy Spirit on this day 2000 years ago. Our Jewish brothers and sisters today call it Shevuot, the Feast of Weeks, seven weeks after Passover, but it is also the thanksgiving Feast of the First Fruits of the Harvest, when the first buds had appeared in the fields. Also, by tradition, it was 50 days after  escaping from Egypt under Moses that the Hebrew refugees arrived at Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments from God, so it is also known as the Feast of the Law.  That makes a total of seven names for this combined feast! It also marks one of the greatest events in Christian history, the sine qua non of our church.

Consider it. The entire Christian community in the world was crowded into a small upper room somewhere in Jerusalem. They were praying, we are told, behind locked doors. Jesus had basically ordered them not to leave Jerusalem until the “gift” arrived, whatever that was (Acts 1:4). They were terrified that what had overtaken Jesus would happen to them too, as his followers. So they were in what would be called a “safehouse” today, fearing the worst, but hoping for… something. The crowds outside would be going to and coming from the temple giving thanks for the beginning of the year’s agricultural yield, and thanking God for their identity as God’s Chosen People, remembering the time when God chose them out of all the peoples of the world to receive the sacred Law.

Then it happened, as described in today’s first reading.

If I might venture an opinion, I believe this to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, “proofs” of God’s existence. What else could possibly explain how this terrified bunch of individuals suddenly opened those locked doors, never to be locked again, and rushed out into the Shevuot crowds to proclaim the news that the world’s savior, their Messiah, none other than the Son of God, had been in their very midst? The exact claim that had led to Jesus’ execution they were now shouting out loud to anyone who would listen to them. It was a complete and utter reversal which, I believe, can only be explained by the direct intervention of the finger of God, this time under the guise of tongues of fire. The arrival of the Holy Spirit of God inaugurated humanity’s third and final age, following that of God the Father in the time of the Old Testament, the time of God the Son with the life of Jesus among us, and now the time of the Holy Spirit, the age in which all of us are privileged to live. And, picking up on last week’s consideration of the Holy Spirit, note that the original Greek word “wind” in today’s first reading is πνοης, pnoēs, which can also be translated as “breath”. Hence you could say their safehouse was filled with God’s very breath, from which emerged tongues of apparent fire. Jewish identity had sprung from the Law; Christian identity springs from the very breath of God, breathing life, as it were, into that terrified Christian community, just as God’s breath had breathed life into Adam (Genesis 2:7). Nothing could, can or will contain that, hence the doors were burst open, the locks smashed and forgotten, and Jesus’ message has been proclaimed ever since.

And here we are, 2000 years later, but again cowering inside away from the covid-19 evil without. But there is a significant difference. We know that we will emerge at some time in the near future. In the meantime, this is an opportunity to consider the state of God’s church community today and our place in it. Where does each of us fit in? Each of us is the work of God as is the church community itself, and we all have a role to play. Am I playing it? Once we return to what is being called the “new normal”, what contribution will we all be able to make in helping the church recover its mission in and to the world? At the moment our opportunity is limited, but that means we have the time to pray, reflect and consider carefully what each of us can contribute. In that way, once the “self isolation” has vanished, then we can act on what this time of reflection suggests. Then we, each of us, can be God’s Holy Spirit breathing more life and strength into the institution we love and its mission. Hence this present lock-down can be considered God’s time if we are generous enough to make it so.


Pentecost, Pixabay.

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The Worship of Mammon

The Worship of Mammon, Evelyn de Morgan 1909, De Morgan Centre, London, UK.

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Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and mammon.”       Luke 16:13.

When I was on Wall Street, I felt empty. I tried to fill that hole inside me with money and power and prestige. But that hole doesn’t get filled by money — it gets filled by connection and empathy and love (Sam Polk: Why I walked away from Wall Street—and millions of dollars). Last Sunday I talked of Jacob Marley and Ebenezer Scrooge and their relentless pursuit of money to the exclusion of everything and everyone else. Marley realized his mistake in doing this on his deathbed; Scrooge relived his whole life (and its ending) with the help of his three spirits and came to the same conclusion, and knew what had to be done to make amends. Today’s readings carry the same message; in the gospel’s own words, You cannot serve both God and mammon. That word mammon comes to us directly from the Bible, and derives ultimately from the ancient Aramaic term for money or wealth. As a teacher of many years, I know that many young people are really focused on making as much money as possible, today even more so. The thinking is to make enough so that they will not retire into poverty and squalor, convinced that America’s social security funding will evaporate and knowing that many companies do not have pension schemes for their employees. So today’s perception of wealth seems to flying the face of Jesus’ words stating wealth contradicts God. So perhaps the whole question rests on Jesus’ use of the verb serve. Does one serve wealth or God? Is our priority here to make money exclusively or to be true to the gospel? 

In the same 1951 Christmas Carol movie I drew upon last week, Scrooge’s first two efforts to atone when he woke up on that Christmas Morning (following his nightmarish adventure) were to send a huge turkey as a gift, anonymously, to his clerk Bob Cratchit; the other, on the same day, was to give his housekeeper Mrs. Dilber a present into her hand of a gold sovereign (a valuable gold coin in circulation at that time) and a raise in wages.

Screen Shot 2019-09-14 at 14.33.57

A Christmas Carol, Renown Pictures Corporation 1951,  Alastair Sim & Kathleen Harrison.

Her incredulity at the change in Scrooge’s temperament and attitude can be seen clearly: is this the same man who has treated me so poorly for years? Scrooge himself cannot believe the change within himself; he even says he doesn’t deserve to feel so happy as he plans his new life! What he does, of course, is immediately to help those around him whom he has abused for so long. At long last he has recognized and accepted their dignity and given them the respect that every person deserves, including even his own family. So the question is, is that incompatible with making money, with making a living? Clearly not. It is legitimate and necessary to earn enough to keep body and soul together so long as we never forget those around us who are not so fortunate. Christians have an obligation to assist others who are in need, even if it does hurt somewhat to give of one’s own wealth. Remember the story about the widow’s mite and Jesus’ teaching that we should give of our substance, not just “contribute” where we would not really miss the amount. In other words, we have to intend to be and actually be generous, and hence be pleasing in God’s eyes, especially if no-one knows about it except God…  So this means that wealth – mammon – is not the beast in charge of our lives, but rather our servant, slave even, actually helping us to become true Christians, loving God and neighbor and also ourselves in appropriate and unselfish ways. And so it, mammon, wealth, serves us rather than the other way round. As a consequence, we should be able to achieve the peace that the second reading today talks about, when St Paul says, “It is my wish, then, that in every place we should pray, lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument.” 

22.4.2010: Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

The Widow’s Mite, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo c.500, Ravenna, Italy.


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

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Jesus Teaches, 1886-1894, Jacques Tissot Watercolor Series of the Life of Christ, The Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York, USA.


Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go?     John 6:67-68.

Today’s gospel continues the theme established several weeks ago, where Jesus lays the foundations of what would become the Eucharist we all celebrate to this day. If we do not accept the gift of his flesh and blood then we have no life in us, he says. Today is a further elaboration of this basic – and on the face of it – shocking, teaching. But today’s teaching  has the key to understanding it. Jesus says today that flesh “is of no avail”, and that it is spirit “that gives life”. So he must be talking somehow of a spiritual flesh and blood that will give life. Even so, this was the final straw for many of his followers, spirit or no spirit. Such a teaching was way beyond their understanding or tolerance. Many left him, hence Jesus’ plaintiff question to his closest friends today, “Do you also want to leave?” The fact that his closest disciples did not leave him might be behind Jesus’ statement that they remain because God the Father has granted them such loyalty. They are of course free to leave, but at Peter says, where else could they get such incredible teaching which carried with it the gift of eternal life, even though they almost certainly did not understand it? They had accepted that he was the Holy One of God, the long desired Messiah, and that was why they still followed him. Almost certainly, on the other hand, his teachings must have bewildered them. No-one had ever taught such things before, but they trusted him so deeply that they knew somehow it would lead to holiness, to eternal life.

The second reading seems to attempt to give a human parallel to the relationship between God and the followers of Jesus, the church. With deepest respect on both sides, two people who love one another truly and profoundly become one in their union. In the same way God and Jesus’ followers, whom we call the church, are also united in love and become one together. Just as God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, has demonstrated the qualities of power, loyalty, forgiveness, mercy, the ability to listen, the love of freedom and an openness to relationship through the Scriptures and through human history, so we must show those same qualities towards God and each other today, and so become one in mutual love and respect. Hence in that way, true Christians reflect here on earth the image of heaven, with the life of Jesus at its heart animated by the Holy Spirit This fulfills the very teaching we see in today’s gospel, because where else can we go to find  the words of eternal life?


Jesus Goes Up Alone Onto a Mountain to Pray, 1886-1894, Jacques Tissot, Watercolor Series of the Life of Christ, The Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York, USA.

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Millais_-_Christus_im_Hause_seiner_ElternJesus in the House of his Parents, 1850, John Everett Millais, Tate Britain, London, UK.


“I am the living bread that came down from heaven;
whoever eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”           John 6:51

……But isn’t he the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? So spoke the people listening to the brand new teaching Jesus was giving them. As we saw a few Sundays ago, it was well nigh impossible for Jesus’ neighbors to accept his teaching. In fact, today’s teaching is still striking 2000 years later! Giving one’s flesh for the life of the world??? Whaaat? There were striking stories from the Hebrew Scriptures about miraculous food, as seen in today’s first reading, but Jesus’ words went way beyond anything in the Old Testament. But bread, or some basic solid food, comes up several times in Scripture. There is of course the manna (which can be considered a kind of life-sustaining bread) in the desert, feeding the grumbling and complaining Hebrews, condemned to wander around the wilderness for 40 years because of their lack of belief. Elijah in the first reading has a “hearth cake” to eat, another image for bread. But most important of all is the unleavened bread of the Passover described in detail in the Book of Exodus. It had to be prepared in haste, hence no time for yeast to rise, to enable the Hebrews to be nourished sufficiently to escape from slavery in Egypt. In other words, it was the antidote for starving in the desert. It represented life in a rather more dramatic way than the humble loaf of bread might represent today. Jewish people to this day call Passover and the six days following  the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Hence it represents freedom from oppression as well as life-sustaining food, life to the fullest. But it could not last. Death comes to everything. And that’s exactly where Jesus stepped in with his new teaching. “Whoever eats this bread will live forever” he said to the dumfounded people of Nazareth. And what was this bread? My flesh, was the answer. It is easier for us to understand what must have been their reaction to what Jesus said! But Psalm 34, today’s response, seems to be strongly prophetic: “Taste and see how good the LORD is…” Please note that LORD is capitalized. That means the original Hebrew text says YAHWEH, God’s most sacred name. But how could a Hebrew possibly taste God? They had to wait until today’s teaching, heralding the beginning of a new age.

Jesus bravely launched into even greater mystery by declaring: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him on the last day.” He seemed to be announcing the end of death itself. Note that at the time of Jesus there was a huge debate going on in Jewish circles. For centuries there had been no commonly accepted definition of the afterlife. There was Sheol, a place of shadows to which everyone went, whether good or bad. It was bleak, silent, with no praise of God possible, no interaction, just a basic semi-existence. But a few hundred years before the birth of Jesus, other interpretations of the afterlife had emerged. By the time of Jesus this had settled into two disputing camps, the Sadducees, who denied any afterlife or resurrection, and the Pharisees, who accepted those ideas. So it is clear that Jesus stood with the Pharisees, at least in this instance. It is also clear that those who had lived a just and good life would be among the elect, those who would spend eternity with God and the angels, and with Jesus, who would be the means to securing that reward.

So it is not too surprising that those hearing Jesus’ message for the first time would have some difficulty taking it in. It was in effect a brand-new teaching, never heard before. That made it even more difficult for them to accept this, from the son of a carpenter! But do we accept it fully and unquestioningly? Have we come to terms with Jesus’ message that it all depends on him? Will he raise each one of us up on the last day? There lies today’s challenge; this is the thought, or rather challenge, for the day. Do our actions, words and thoughts invite Jesus, the bread of life, into the deepest realms of our life and spirit? If so, then we are on the right path. If not, there is still time to change things. Jesus waits for us no matter the path we are on, but he stands at the end of the path of righteousness, but it is up to us to choose to walk on that path of light. Jesus guide me and help me.


The Last Judgement, 1435, Stefan Lochner, Wallraf-Wicharts Museum, Cologne, Germany.

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breadThe Last Supper, 1467, Dierik Bouts, Sint-Pieterskerk, Leuven, Belgium.


“I am the bread of life….”           John 6:35

The greatest prophet in the Old Testament was Moses. The 10 Commandments were delivered into his hands by God on Mount Sinai. God spoke to him in the burning bush and revealed the sacred name YAHWEH to him. He guided the people out of Egypt through the waters into freedom. Yet despite all that, despite leading the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years, Moses was destined never to enter the Promised Land, just see it from a distance before he died. Scholars ever afterwards have wondered why. Today’s first reading is their favorite explanation. The Israelite murmuring, complaining, grumbling about their condition and discomfort seemed to suggest a lack of trust in God. Perhaps God expected more of Moses in dealing with that; perhaps God blamed Moses for the distrust the people seemed to have in God. Scripture does not answer the question. All we know is that it seems God does not like to be distrusted. One of God’s many qualities is loyalty: if God says something will be done, it will be done. The Israelites were promised the Promised Land (clearly), but moaned about how long it was taking and how uncomfortable things were as they waited, even to suggesting that they were better off in Egyptian slavery!

Today’s gospel has a little reflection of this attitude: “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do?This, of course, was immediately after the miracle of the loaves and fishes (last week’s gospel), paralleling the miraculous manna in the desert sent to calm the nerves of the wandering Hebrews centuries before. The contemporaries of Jesus were, in a way, going through the same experience as their predecessors – and remaining just as skeptical. Then came the critical response to their question quoted above demanding (another) sign from Jesus so that they could believe in him. They had chosen a singular miracle from the past, the astonishing appearance of manna in the desert which had nourished their ancestors. Jesus points out that this food, like everything else, eventually perished or stopped, even this bread from heaven. But, Jesus pointed out, the bread he would give them would be eternally life-giving. Of course they wanted that bread: “Sir, give us this bread always”. And then the answer: “I am the bread of life…”  This bread will never perish, never run out, never fail in any way. It is to be trusted. And just as one of God’s qualities is loyalty, Jesus has stood by this promise ever since. It is the heart of the Christian faith, the consecrated bread of the Eucharist. Around this circles all the life of the church, the life of Christians everywhere. As stated in the famous “Lima Text” of the World Council of Church’s document, p.14, #14:

In the celebration of the eucharist, Christ gathers, teaches and nourishes the Church. It is Christ who invites to the meal and who presides at it. He is the shepherd who leads the people of God, the prophet who announces the Word of God, the priest who celebrates the mystery of God.            Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, World Council of Churches, Faith and Order Paper No. 111, Geneva, 1982.

This is Jesus’ way of fulfilling his promise to be with us to the end of time, another instance of his loyalty towards us. Just as Jesus strengthens us in this central act, we in return give thanks, the actual meaning of the word eucharist. This is the strength with which we face life’s crises and demands. With the Lord firmly planted within us, we Christians can face both impossible odds and wondrous happiness with the confidence of God’s children. No wonder those people back then wanted him to give them this bread always. We still do, thousands of years later, only now we don’t grumble; we say “thanks”.


SANTA CEIA E O PEIXE AZUL, Sagrado, http://menote.art.br/wordpress/

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christpreachnazChrist Preaches in the Synagogue, Anonymous c.1350, Decany Monastery, Deçanit, Kosovo.


Jesus departed from there and came to his native place, accompanied by his disciples. When the sabbath came he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished.                   Mark 6:1-2

Many people are intimidated at the prospect of talking to a large group. The danger of making a fool of yourself is probably paramount, or breaking down, or simply freezing. There is no escape from such disasters, and no-one present will forget it. Hence many simply refuse any offer or request to speak publicly. It is too stressful. Jesus might well have had such qualms, but if so, there is a discrete silence in today’s gospel. It says he taught there; every preacher knows that a good sermon is, at root, a teaching. The people learn something from it, and, one hopes, will apply the new knowledge in their lives. Well, whatever Jesus said, unhappily not reported in today’s gospel, it had an impact. The reaction is any preacher’s dream come true. His audience was astonished; they saw that his words were full of wisdom; they wondered where on earth this erudition had come from. Oh that all sermons had such a result! But there was a bitter edge to this praise, because it eventually dawned on these people that Jesus was a local boy recently returned home: “Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary?” In their minds, it was simply not possible that anyone so familiar to them could be so erudite. There was something wrong here, and they turned against him, possibly thinking he was possessed. The incident reminds me of an unhappy event in my own life. My dear mother was born Anglican, but married a Catholic boy in the 1930s, in what the church called a “mixed marriage”. She had to swear to bring up her children as Catholics as a condition to getting married in a Catholic ceremony. This she did, and my sister and I were duly brought up Catholic, going to Catholic schools, and so on. Then one day she announced she had converted. She had gone to an old Catholic priest secretly and been instructed in the faith, and was equally secretly baptized. We were all astonished. Well, several years after that she announced she had given it all up. Why? She had been taught by the old priest that she had to go to confession whenever she wanted to go to communion, and that she found herself making up sins to tell in the confessional! Now I, her son and an ordained Catholic priest, assured her that this was not so, that she was completely free to receive communion without having to do that. Confession should be done when necessary – when you have something to confess! Well, I was her son. She was never going to listen to me over the wise old priest who had told her what to do. She never did change back. I think Jesus was in the same boat. Having realized he was a local boy, they would not listen to a word he said. Jesus probably had the same feeling of frustration I had over this lamentable situation. There was nothing either of us could do. It is the same with prejudice. If you fit into someone’s idea of what is evil based on some stereotype, even you are clearly not, there is nothing you can do about it. Hence Jesus felt hamstrung by this prejudiced reception and so, as the gospel says, was unable to do any mighty deeds there. 

Prejudice (“pre-judgement”) is a terrible thing. It is always based on a stereotype, a judgement placed on someone or a whole group which condemns them all. I have another personal example here, the one and only time I have been the victim of prejudice. I was working in a school in Washington DC, and I had two little flags on my desk, the Stars and Stripes of the USA and the Union Jack of the UK, the place I was born. I came to work one day and the Union Jack had gone. Stolen. I asked the dean of discipline to investigate, and he, being excellent in his job, found out who had stolen it. He told me who it was, and that the student’s family totally supported him (!). They were strong supporters of the IRA (this was years before the ending of the Northern Irish “Troubles”). I asked the dean if I could talk to them. No. Why? Because you’re British. But I am a Catholic priest… You’re British. My father was born in Dundalk in the Irish Republic. No – I was British. I was entitled to an Irish passport because my father was Irish. No matter – you’re British. There was nothing I could do or say that would allow me to address them and talk about what their son had done. I could do nothing right! It was like standing in front of an indestructible brick wall; I was powerless to do or say anything good. I could not be forgiven for the unforgivable crime of being born British.

It must be thus with all people who are victims of prejudice, just as, in its way, today’s gospel sees Jesus as such a victim. It is horrible. But I hope that such victims can see a silver lining there. It allowed me, for example, to understand the pain and helplessness of those people who are victims of prejudice because of birth or color or nationality or whatever, over which they have little or no control. In the gospel today, Jesus could not go back and grow up somewhere other than Nazareth; I could not go back and be born anywhere that wasn’t Britain and hence be acceptable to that family. Prejudice renders one defenseless. Ezekiel, in today’s first reading, probably thought that would be his lot when obeying God’s command to go and recall the rebellious Israelites to God fearing that the response would not be, shall we say, positive. Paul, in today’s second reading, describes an experience over which he had no control, not prejudice but a physical weakness. It is a fact, live with it, is the essential response from God. Through that trial, God says, you will emerge even stronger. And that is what I found as a result of my experience, and Jesus, though certainly discouraged, went on to spread his word over the land, which in time took root and eventually became the Christian way of life, a way of life that should not know or support any prejudice of any kind, as it is simply unfair, destructive, wrong, unChristian.

a·part·heidDoornfontein Railway Station, South Africa, Rush Hour Under Apartheid, Ernest Cole, “House of Bondage”, Random House, 1967. (This book was banned in South Africa at that time).

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Christ Raises the Daughter of Jairus, Johann Friedrich Overbeck, Gemäldegalerie – Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Germany.


“My daughter is at the point of death.
Please, come lay your hands on her
that she may get well and live.”                     Mark 5:23

Jesus received his vocation from God the Father at his baptism, when he was anointed by God the Holy Spirit. Anointed One is Messiah in Hebrew and Christ (Christos) in Greek. That meant he had to fulfill all the prophesies of the Messiah found in Holy Scripture, the Old Testament as we call it. There are many there, both good and threatening. To fulfill them, he had to employ the gifts, or talents, he had. Being God’s Son, his identity which was also revealed to him at his baptism, meant that he had gifts none of us will ever have, as is seen in today’s gospel. The synagogue official, Jairus, had a daughter who was dying, and indeed was already dead by the time Jesus arrived at the man’s home. There Jesus raised the girl from the dead. That is impossible for any one of us to do. It was a demonstration of unique divine power, and used for the benefit of others. In this way he hoped that the people would remember his teachings and his example, to help others no matter the cost, and in this way to honor God. (The cost to Jesus was staggering; he was eventually hailed as the long-promised messiah because of his powers, but it was the false messiah of the masses, the military man of great power who would re-establish the kingdom of David. As he wasn’t, this led to his death). In raising Jairus’ daughter from death Jesus showed that life was sacred, from the hand of God who has power of life over death. Today’s passage is taken from Mark’s gospel, the first to be written down and therefore the oldest of the four gospels. Note that it is so close to the time of Jesus that it quotes Jesus’ very words Talitha koum, טְלִיחָא קוּמִי, which is Aramaic (“Little girl, get up”), the language Jesus almost certainly spoke. It is closely related to Hebrew and was clearly remembered by Jesus’ companions, eye witnesses to the wondrous event. It is not surprising they recalled a detail like this – who else has raised anyone from the dead? But this miracle was not an end in itself: it was to encourage people to listen to Jesus’ words and imitate him in the way he dealt with people and events. The miracle, obviously from the hand of God, was to impart confidence in accepting the Lord as a true and reliable teacher. If he could do something as so obviously good, he could be trusted. It must also have occurred to those present that here was a man who was clearly enacting the prophecies of the holy men of the past. The death of a youngster is felt so much more than someone older, which meant her family and friends “walked in darkness”, overcome with grief, but they “saw a great light” (Isaiah 9:2) in the miracle of Jesus. Also from Isaiah they might have recalled “Your dead shall live, their bodies shall rise” (26:19). Here was the man fulfilling such long-remembered prophecies. They would have hung on his words, as he clearly spoke with a divine authority. But note that, as always, he instructed them to tell no-one about this. As I mentioned above, he knew that he would be taken as the messiah of popular myth, one who had the power to defeat the hated Roman occupiers and re-establish the kingdom of David, He was not that kind of messiah! The last line of today’s gospel is interesting: “[Give her] something to eat”. This is a documented reaction of those who have experienced miraculous cures, such as Vittorio Micheli, a soldier with an incurable malignant tumor of the hip. That was in 1962. His cure was declared to be the 63rd miracle at Lourdes in 1976. (Remember the three absolute requirements for the church to consider an event a miracle; it has to be immediate, inexplicable and permanent). Micheli says “Nothing notable happened while I was there [being lowered into the baths at Lourdes]. I didn’t feel any special sensation but, upon returning to the Trento hospital, I stopped taking painkillers because the pain had stopped abruptly. My appetite returned and I started to eat again. I abandoned my crutches and found I could walk, even with the plaster on.” (https://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20130211/local/A-miracle-at-Lourdes.457109). It is not surprising that people who have been suffering greatly have bodies wasted by disease at the time of their cure who at once crave nourishment as they have now been restored to perfect health.

Today’s first reading is very interesting in the light of all this. Death, it says, really has no place in genuine human life. God made us to live forever, to be happy in the divine presence always. Through pride and envy did death come upon us, and the rest is history, that is until Jesus. And although he ascended into heaven, events such as the one mentioned above in Lourdes, remind us that we can still depend on his word: he still has the power to crush the evil of this world miraculously. But those events are extremely rare. The rest of us must trust his word and live by it, believing that it will usher us eventually into eternal happiness. And this word is clearly stated in today’s second reading. Its focus is clearly on the others in our lives. It is our duty to see that we respond to clear situations of want and hunger in the world, of which there has  always been an abundance. So if the need is next door or 6000 miles away, Jesus tells us to do something about it. All are our brothers and sisters just as the little girl was sister to Jesus, and family is everything. So our reaction to the needs of others, wherever they are, must be as genuine as Jesus’ instant response to Jairus’ desperate plea for his daughter. In that way we are Christ to the world, the vocation given us at our baptism, to be lived out daily. Let us pray that we are ever aware of that and have the generosity to respond to the best of our ability.


Lourdes, Summer 2008, Mass for the Sick at the Grotto.

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