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.

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

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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. 

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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.

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

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

COMMUNION

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:

Parey

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

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

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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.

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


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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.

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“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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22 MAY 2022: THE SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER.

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The Holy Trinity, The Holy Trinity Glass Mosaic Artwork.

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Jesus said, “I have told you this while I am with you. 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 14:26.

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Today’s first reading talks about the first major controversy that shook the early church almost to pieces. Remember that all of Jesus’s first followers were Jews. Jesus himself was a faithful Jewish man, obeying the rules and regulations, even though he talked of revolutionary changes to come, after his death, resurrection and ascension. So when unauthorized persons began to teach that you had to become a Jew before you could follow Christ, that presented an enormous hurdle, especially for men, who wished to follow Jesus’ teachings. Circumcision, dietary requirements and the myriad regulations strict Jews were required to follow (apparently 613 in total) would mean minimum Gentile conversions even if they acknowledged the beauty and attraction of Jesus’ words. There was a sizable number of Jewish-Christians who also held that view, hence the huge controversy in the early Church, which led to the first meeting of the whole church, the Council of Jerusalem. The results of that meeting comprise today’s second reading. The requirements for new converts as stated by the Council came down to a few rules which forbade you to take part in any pagan sacrificial practices. But you did not have to become a Jew in order to become a Christian. This event breathes life into today’s gospel. Jesus told his followers that he was to return to the Father, but that the Holy Spirit will, in a sense, replace him and remain with them (right down to us today).

So the presence of the Spirit will guide them, us, whenever there is a challenge to our faith in some way. Take the Reformation, for example. The 95 Theses Martin Luther nailed on to the Wittenberg Castle Church doors in Germany in 1517 listed the objections and complaints he had concerning the Catholic Church at that time. They were substantial. Some, especially concerning indulgences, were a genuine criticism of church practices at that time. One popular ditty at the time says, “When the money in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs”. So, for example, when the indugence provider arrived in town, Johann Tetzel being the prime offender, if you thought your mother was in purgatory, then you would say an indulgence for her access into heaven. A small charge was made for this privilege….. That was the problem, plus an inaccurate idea of what indulgences are all about. Well, Luther’s objections did, indeed, tear the church apart, and we live with the consequences down to this day. But, it must be said, that the Holy Spirit was very much at work, and the consequence was the Catholic Counter Reformation, which changed the church in many ways, and produced the church in which I and all of the Catholics of my age, grew up.

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Luther Hammers his 95 Theses to the Door, Pauwels 1872, Wartburg Castle Foundation, Eisenach, Germany.

It was the Second Vatican Council which ushered in an “aggiornamento” (or a “bringing up to date”) and changed the church into what we know today. And the Spirit is at work at the present moment. For example, Pope Francis has inaugurated high level scholarly research into the possible role of ordained female deacons in the early church. For a substantial change like that to take place in the Catholic Church, two elements are essential: 1) There must be evidence from Scripture that the practice is permissible, and 2) there must be actual evidence of that practice in the early church. Both must be present for any change to be considered. Therefore the claim that human rights, for example, should be a guiding principle in church evolution has never been regarded as authoritative in this regard. All changes must emerge from Scripture and tradition.

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The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, 1962, New Liturgical Movement

For example, when I was growing up, the Mass was entirely in Latin, except for the sermon. Today it is in the language of the place where the Mass is being celebrated, the vernacular. How did that happen? Well, consider the first Mass, which Catholic tradition holds was the Last Supper. Jesus  almost certainly spoke Aramaic, not Latin. The Christian Scriptures were written entirely in koine Greek, the Greek of the man in the street, not that of the poets and philosophers. So, you can at least conclude with some certainly that the Last Supper was not in celebrated with Latin speakers, either in Scripture or in early church practice! The Last Supper (Scripture) and the earliest Masses (practice) must therefore have been in the language of the place it was being celebrated. The Emperor Charlemagne had a strong influence on that practice. His empire covered an enormous stretch of western Europe, with many different local languages. He saw the Mass as a means of unifying that disparate collection of peoples. All Masses would henceforward be in Latin! And so it was until the 1960s, well over a 1,000 years later (which is why we thought it would never change)!  And remember that the Orthodox and eastern Catholic churches have always used and still use Greek or other eastern languages in their Mass… So the Church is not an unchanging monolith set in stone. The core beliefs are unchanging, and will ever remain so, but other practices are not, and are always open to examination and perhaps, change. And that is where God’s Holy Spirit is always present, guiding and encouraging the Church day by day, showing that which cannot be changed, and that which perhaps can. And so today’s readings illuminate a church which was challenged, the first reading, which remained sure, solid and true to God, the second reading, and which has the assurance from Jesus himself that the Holy Spirit has been, is and always will be with us to guide us and support us through the centuries, the third reading. 

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Church Militant, Penitent, and Triumphant, Andrea da Firenze c.1365, Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy.

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SUNDAY 15 MAY 2022: THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER.

JerusalemThe New Jerusalem, Angers Apocalypse Tapestry, Musée des Tapisseries, Angers, France.

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I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.”  Revelation 21:2-4.

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Oh for that New Jerusalem! What a different world it must be compared to the stark anger, hatred, violence, pain and tears of our present world. Urban violence in large cities, murders committed in all places, hatred cried out aloud in demonstrations, attacks on old people, unprovoked invasions on peace-loving countries; what a contrast to the words of today’s second reading, quoted above. How on earth can such a reign of peace and love possibly exist in such a world? Well it can, incredibly enough – in our own hearts. Let the New Jerusalem enter through the gateways of our own conscience, heart, mind. Let God rule instead of us, instead of me. But how can that come to be? Look at today’s gospel, and the answer is as clear as sunshine: Love one another. That is easier said than done, as the Lord really knows. He told his followers to love one another, but how could he prove, as it were, that he really meant what he said? He could have just been mouthing a platitude, a simple heartfelt wish, or simply hot air uttering a pious hope. How could he show that his words really sprang from utter conviction and example? Look at his words: “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and God will glorify him at once.” Difficult words to express a supreme Christian truth, hanging on the command to love one another.

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The Sacrifice of Isaac, Woodcut from the Lyon Missal c.1500.

The whole concept, the ethos, as it were, springs from the Hebrew notion of sacrifice. Do you remember the command God gave to Abraham, to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, “whom you love”, as a sweet offering to God, to prove he loved God (Genesis 22:2)? The fact that Abraham trusted in and loved God above all else was proven, and God stopped him killing his son at the very last moment. Blood sacrifice, therefore, was part and parcel of the Hebrew concept of love and devotion. It was also an unquestioned practice among the peoples of Canaan at that time. But the killing of a child to prove this among the Hebrew people was henceforward absolutely forbidden by God, setting them apart from their neighbors. The idea of substitution was therefore introduced; in the sacrifice of Isaac, a lamb caught in a thicket was substituted and offered to God in Isaac’s place. This original idea of sacrifice has lived down to the present time. St. Maximilian Kolbe gave  up his life in exchange for another prisoner’s life in Auschwitz. What possible greater proof does one need in proving one’s love for another? And so it is that Jesus did exactly the same thing. In the fateful admission that he was indeed the Son of God and the Messiah to the high priest, which occasioned his condemnation to death, he showed his utter devotion to God, who had identified him at his baptism as Son of God, and anointed him as Messiah by the Holy Spirit, all for our redemption, and willingly went to a gruesome, horrible death for love of us. He proved his love for us and for God his Father in the starkest, most profound way possible.

The martyred saints down through the centuries have done the same thing over and over. As Thomas More says in “Man for All Seasons”, “I do none harm, I say none harm, I think none harm. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live” (A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt, Vintage Books, 1962, p.93). In other words, love is the answer, now, then and always, even if you have to die to prove it. Take that image and apply it to Passover Night in the Book of Exodus, where the blood of an unblemished lamb, slaughtered that night and whose blood was smeared on the doorposts of the Hebrew homes, saved the lives of their first-born sons. Then there is the Lord at his Last Supper stating that the bread and wine of that meal was his body and blood which we must take eat and drink, preserving our life to that of heaven, the shared eternal bliss of the life of God.

Challenging thoughts which can be summed up, as Jesus himself did, into one simple command, love one another, for in that lies the secret of eternal life and happiness. If we are prepared to live that way to the utmost and best of our ability, then we are the friends of God, the God who loves us so much that we can become one with the Divine who becomes one with us. That gives each one of us the strength to live a profoundly good life, loving God and neighbor and self now and forever, in the New Jerusalem.

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Flower Power, October 1st, 1967, The Pentagon, Washington, DC.

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SUNDAY 8 MAY 2022: THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

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

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After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb,wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. Revelation 7:9.

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All three readings today deal with gatherings in one way or another. The first, from the Acts of the Apostles, talks of a synagogue congregation addressed by Paul and Barnabas which turns ugly once they indicate that God had welcomed the Gentiles into their midst. The second reading from Revelation talks of the endtime, with a huge gathering united in adoration around the Lamb of God. Then today’s gospel which talks of Jesus preaching in the Temple, describing how he gives life eternal to the sheep who follow him, and because of his resurrection, he became the living proof of the power of that teaching, one which gives eternal life and happiness. So the pattern is both success and discord in this life in the first reading, Jesus letting his followers know that the path will be difficult, sometimes good sometimes not. But the result of acceptance of that teaching is eternal peace, unity and joy shining in the second reading, and the gospel spelling out how this teaching should be delivered, to those willing to trust in the Lord and his message and to follow him no matter what.

Sunday Mass is called a liturgy. That is an interesting word. It is originally Greek, λειτουργία, or leitourgia, whose literal meaning is work of or for the people, or simply public worship. It meant the worship of the gods to the ancient Greeks, and the Christians adopted it to describe their own worship. Link that with Matthew 18:19–20, where Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”.

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Pope Francis celebrates Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2019.

So clearly, in the mind of Jesus, the ancients and today, there is something very special about gathering together to worship God. We call it the Mass. You can find this in the absolutely grandest buildings in the world, and the humblest setting imaginable.

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U.S.Army Captain Carl Subler, a chaplain, celebrates Mass for soldiers in Helmand Province in Afghanistan, February 21, 2010. 

And the Lord is present no matter the surroundings! The Covid pandemic over the last two years has confirmed the necessity we have as human beings to gather together. We are social animals. Among the very first manifestations of this in the Covid crisis was restaurants opening up in the street, taking valuable parking space, so that people could gather once more, as safely as possible, so strong is this urge to be together. How much more is this elevated when we gather together to give thanks (the meaning of the word Eucharist) for blessings received from God, especially good health, and to pray for those who suffer for any reason, from any disability. And recall that the  Eucharist is a re-enactment of the Last Supper, a meal, just like the reason for the street restaurants which have flowered in the last two years!

There is, I think, a progression in today’s three readings. The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles describes the challenging start of Jesus’ message in Antioch, the one in Pisidia, now an ancient ruin in the middle of Turkey. There was a great fuss in the Jewish synagogue at Paul’s message, especially when he said that Gentiles should be welcome to worship with them. The universality of Jesus’ message, which was a topic that had almost ripped the infant Christian church into shreds, had only just been resolved in the Gentiles’ favor. So this core teaching, that all are welcome at the altar of the Lord, was born amid protests and even some violence. So, like any birth, our church had difficulty in getting the message of universal salvation out to everyone. And it was within the confines of a liturgy, the Jewish Sabbath in this case, that it was first announced. Today’s gospel shows the seeds of this new teaching, with the words of the Lord describing his followers, those who “hear his voice” and follow him – anyone who hears his voice, that is. Jesus places no limits on his teaching. And the reason? The promise of eternal life. And the wondrous van Eyke vision of this, namely the image at the top of this page, is the consequence. All within the context of a liturgy, a social function in the presence of God.

So as the pandemic slowly recedes and our world tries to regain a sense of normality, we can return to Mass as we once knew it, rejoicing and giving thanks once more amid fellow Christians, as we regain the experience of church, assembly, liturgy. It is in this experience that Jesus is, as ever, present, and fulfills the promise in the second reading:

For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne
                        will shepherd them
                        and lead them to springs of life-giving water,
                        and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

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The Lamb of God, Basilica of San Vitale 6th century, Ravenna, Italy.

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