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).





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.” ( 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.





Adoration of the mystic lamb, van Eyck, St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium.

John was standing with two of his disciples,
and as he watched Jesus walk by, he said,
“Behold, the Lamb of God.”         John 1:35.

Today’s gospel reveals the source of Jesus’ somewhat unusual title of “Lamb of God”. It comes from John the Baptist who proclaimed Jesus as the mystic lamb who would, as is said at every Mass, “take away the sins of the world”. John does not say what led him to proclaiming Jesus in this way, so we have once more to resort to the Old Testament for clues. It most likely comes from the central event in the history of the Chosen People, the escape from slavery in Egypt to the glory of liberty in the Promised Land of Canaan. You will recall that the king of Egypt had refused 10 times to allow the Hebrews, his slave population, to leave Egypt freely. So the angel of death passed through the land and all first-born males died. The angel, however, “passed over” the Hebrew settlements which had the blood of a spotless slaughtered lamb displayed on the door frames. Hence this lamb was forever associated with escape from slavery and death and leading to freedom and life. John saw in Jesus the author of life, the teacher who would guide us all into the path of truth. So, in a way, he reversed the roles of a timid, retiring lamb, into the champion of the downtrodden and the conqueror of sin and death. So perhaps it is not so surprising that the very earliest images of Jesus, statues from the 4th century, almost always portray him as The Good Shepherd, carrying a lamb:


Christ the Good Shepherd, 3rd century, Catacomb of Domitilla, Rome, Italy,.

So Jesus is both lamb and shepherd. This fits well into his identity as both God (shepherd of us all) and lamb (open to the pains, temptations, challenges and weakness of being human). The final New Testament Book of Revelation has a scene with a transformed lamb, apparently slaughtered, but alive. A song of glory is sung:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
    and with your blood you purchased for God
    persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
    and they will reign on the earth.”       Revelation 5:9b-10.

So this suggests that the blood of the lamb bought us humans for God; that we who were drowning in evil have been made clean and acceptable to the Almighty. All this is deepest mystery and perhaps difficult the grasp. But another layer can be placed upon it to make it perhaps more understandable.

The crucial moment of Jesus’ life was the question thrown at him by the high priest following his arrest in the garden of Gethsemane: 

Are you the Christ, the Son of the living God?    Mark 14:61.

Jesus had four possible answers to this, namely “yes”, “no”, “I don’t know” and silence. Mark, being the earliest and most direct, straightforward gospel of the four, states Jesus as saying “I am” or Ἐγώ ἐιμι (Mk. 14:62) in the original Greek gospel. This emphasizes the “I” in Jesus’ answer which cannot be really rendered correctly in English. But the consequence is devastating, leading directly to his condemnation to death for blasphemy.  Hence he deliberately brought death upon himself by stating what he believed to be true; after all, this was exactly what he had learned and experienced at his baptism, that he was the Anointed (the Christ) of God, and God’s Son. But why do this? Because any other answer would have betrayed his entire mission, his whole life’s work. He had to answer this way. So his death was the perfection of his work: he died for what he believed to be true. And what was that? That we humans are the children of God, that we can have our sins forgiven, that we can be holy and beloved of God in following Jesus’ teachings and that ultimately we can receive eternal happiness in taking on such a life as Jesus wishes us to adopt. All that would have vanished in a trice had Jesus answered (or not answered) in any other way. So the blood of this wholly innocent lamb put the seal on his ineffable teaching which stands for all eternity.

Today’s gospel, therefore, reminds us once more that our belief in the Lord is the way, the truth and the life all of us are invited to accept and live out. By rising from the degradation and squalor of death on a cross, Jesus put the ultimate seal on his teachings and example. We who follow him can hope for the same consequence if we too live and act the way he did. And this we are able to do, not alone, but with the strength of God’s Holy Spirit sent to us by the same Jesus present in the Eucharist, who remains with us to this very day.





The Epiphany,

…behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,
“Where is the newborn king of the Jews?
We saw his star at its rising
and have come to do him homage.”    Matthew 2:1b-2

There is so much tradition and history around the birth of Jesus that it can become very confusing. Take the feast of the Epiphany, for instance. The word itself means a “manifestation” or “showing” and the ancient Greeks used the word to describe someone who had experienced a visit from the gods, therefore had witnessed an epiphany. The shepherds in Luke’s gospel had experienced an epiphany when the angels directed them to the place the child was born. Hence the later visit of people from the east (hence Gentile, not Jewish) guided by a heavenly body in today’s gospel, accepted that they had seen the newborn savior, and had therefore had an epiphany of the divine. Some eastern Orthodox churches use this feast as Christmas (and it is often called “Little Christmas” by others). Others in the Orthodox use this feast to celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, as at that time John the Baptist had seen the anointing of Jesus by the Holy Spirit “as of a dove” and heard a voice from heaven declaring him to be God’s Son. So he had experienced an epiphany. Therefore Christmas, the arrival of the three Magi and the Lord’s Baptism are all epiphanies.

Traditionally, the western Christian celebration of the Epiphany takes place on the 12th day of Christmas, January 6th (when Christmas decorations come down, though others do this on the later feast of Candlemas). But some Catholic bishops’ conferences have moved the feast to the Sunday nearest January 1st. Currently there is a movement in the Catholic church to return it to the traditional January 6, the 12th day. However, the entire Western Christian tradition of this feast is to celebrate the arrival of the “Magi” (Greek: Magoi) to the (traditional) stable to present three mysterious gifts. Note in the gospel there is no mention at all of how many Magi arrived; it is through the number and quality of the gifts that a tradition of three kings arose. But the word Magi does not mean kings. When you find out that the word “magic” comes from the same root meaning, namely power or knowledge, then more confusion starts. English translations of this word in Scripture have included “wise men” and “astronomers” but scholars have unearthed this word from many ancient civilizations, sometimes meaning whole peoples, sometimes priests or other holy men. Others claim that the magi were Zoroastrians from Persia (now Iran) whose descendants are the Parsees, most of whom now reside in the area around Mumbai in India. Interestingly, Zoroastrians worship one God. So to call the three (?) mysterious visitors to the birthplace of Jesus as three kings, although inaccurate, is easier to understand. 

Note that Scripture tells us they first arrived at the court of King Herod to enquire where the newborn King of the Jews could be found. This king, scholars tell us, had become increasingly paranoid in his old age, responsible for the execution (or murder) of three of his sons from his ten wives. Therefore to hear of a “King of the Jews” (as he himself considered himself to be exactly that) was not good news. It set the scene for the later “massacre of the innocents” when all newborn baby boys in his kingdom were put to the sword, thereby eliminating any other King of the Jews. This was the reason Joseph led his family to Egypt having been warned and advised in a dream to do so.

So what was this whole event about? These mysterious visitors were Gentile, non-Jews. Anyone “from the east” would be classified as such. Most of the Jews at the time of Jesus were to be found within the Roman Empire which, to them, represented “the world”. There were some Jewish communities in Syria and Babylonia dating from the time of the exile when the Babylonian king had conquered Jerusalem and sent many of them to Babylon, some 500 years before. It is unlikely that the magi would have been from there. They were Gentile. The heavenly body which had guided them there was a manifestation of the divine (an epiphany) and they duly recognized the child as of God by kneeling and doing him homage. The baby was a manifestation of God, hence an epiphany. 

Then there are the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These are not, nor ever will be, gifts for a newborn child, except perhaps the gold. They are further manifestations of the child’s identity as king, priest and sacrifice, myrrh being an unguent used on bodies of the recently dead. How did they know all this? They were “wise men”, holders of knowledge no-one else had. Where did they get this knowledge from? Ah, now there’s a question. I don’t know. They were clearly attuned to the Holy, even to the extent of being warned in a dream not to return to the paranoid king of Judea. So God must have been the source of their information. They leave, never to reappear in the Christian Scriptures. 

Apart from the child Jesus being lost in the Temple and found discussing theology with the priests there, nothing more is said about the Lord until the time of his baptism. But the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke have, as it were, set the scene for Jesus’ mission. This man was clearly of God and from God if you accept those narratives. All was set for Jesus to fulfill his vocation from God, to be the Messiah.


The Resurrection, Raffaellino del Garbo, Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy.



805L15133_8Q8TCJohn Melhuish Strudwick, The Ten Virgins, Private Collection

Sunday 12 November 2017

‘Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.’
Therefore, stay awake,
for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  Matthew 25:12-13

If there is one thing Jesus was asked quite frequently, but never responded to, was the question when will I die, and when will the end of the world come? That lies behind today’s parable of the Ten Virgins. Five were constantly alert for a special day, and the other five, not. Therefore, when at last the time came, five were ready for the bridegroom, and five were sent into a mad rush to get ready, ending in rejection. They had all gone out to meet him, but only the wise among them had thought to provide oil for their lamps for the long run, just in case. They all knew he was coming; that was certain. But the exact time? That was the question.

Now all of us will have to face that day when we meet the bridegroom, namely Jesus, when we are called from this life. and again when the Last Judgment is announced. Most of us haven’t the least idea of either of them. Terminal disease and suicide are exceptions, and one is completely unacceptable to God, the author of life and consequently the only person with the right to take it back, whereas the other is purely accidental. Perhaps the only silver lining in that case is that we can do our best to get really prepared to meet the Lord. For people with suicidal thoughts, they would seem to have rejected any thought of a loving God who brought them into existence, and who waits to help and support them, but they are responding to a terrible situation with the freedom God has given us. Perhaps what is lacking is wisdom in them. That has been defined as the ability to see things as God sees them. In the case of one tempted by suicide, wisdom would be horrified at the possibility, as we are all God’s children, and that might give way to the empathy needed to see things from God’s point of view. But we digress from today’s readings.

Do you notice the gender of God’s wisdom as told in today’s first reading? Wisdom, which has been defined as the perfection of prudence? I wonder if that is one of the reasons it has been linked to today’s gospel. Remember that the Old Testament is in Hebrew, and that we read a translation of this each Sunday. Wisdom, and its (or her) close relative, spirit, are both feminine in gender in that language, hence the use of “she” in the reading. Wisdom as an English word is germanic in origin, and is used to translate the Latin word for wisdom, sapientiae, which is feminine. Consider also the English word  spirit. That comes to us from the Latin, spiritus, which is masculine. Hence God’s Holy Spirit is always called “he” in Scripture, translated from the Greek and presumably borrowing the gender of the Latin equivalent, because the Greek for spirit, pneuma, is neuter. In Hebrew, however, the word for spirit, ruah, is feminine. Hence Jesus, who spoke Hebrew’s close cousin, Aramaic, would have understood both God’s wisdom and spirit as feminine…..

It would seem that wisdom is the key to understanding today’s gospel. The ten virgins had clearly been told to look out for the bridegroom, but had not been told when he would arrive. Five of the ten were not only wise, but practical. Not only did they have their lamps with them to greet the bridegroom, but they also had brought plenty of oil should they have to wait a long time. The others simply brought their lamps, with no contingency plans, no Plan B. They all fell asleep as he did not show up, but then the cry went up. and they all woke up, five to find their lamps dead, the oil used up, and the others happily preparing their brightly lit lamps, using the oil reserves they had brought with them. Five had to rush off and try and find more oil, during which time the other, wise, five welcomed the bridegroom and entered the wedding feast with him, and the door was locked behind them before the others had returned. They were rejected and therefore missed the wedding banquet for all time.

This could seem like a mean and spiteful finale for a group of people who had every good intention, only to have the door slammed against them. But that would not be the point. The point is everyone was told to look out for the bridegroom, and only half of them really took this to heart. That meant each one had to be completely ready for the moment of arrival. You can look at it this way. The lamp’s oil is the work we do trying to obey God’s law in this life. It’s not easy, but it’s what God wants us to do, and allows us to experience a happiness which justifies life itself. The flame therefore is the sign that this is happening. If we continue in this way, then, in the words of the parable, we have reserves which will allow the flame to last. There is no way we can “share” the reserves of our own goodness to help out the other peoples’ “lamps”. In fact, if we do, it builds up our reserves, not theirs! Hence the inability to help the others in this particular way. Translating this to our own world, now, the parable refers to the moment when we are called out of this life to the next. We all know that will happen at some point, but usually we have no idea when. In the meantime, we are expected to be ready, always, for that moment. No slacking, no dozing, no quiet forgetting of God’s will and substituting our own, no excluding what we know to be God’s will for us and doing what we know conflicts with that will, for as Thomas More says “Death comes to us all… yes, even to kings he comes…” (Robert Bolt, Man for All Seasons). It couldn’t be clearer.


Thomas More, Hans Holbein the Younger, Frick Collection, New York, USA.