Expulsion from Eden, Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City State.


[Jesus said] If a kingdom is divided against itself,
that kingdom cannot stand.
And if a house is divided against itself,
that house will not be able to stand.            Mark 3:24-25

Today’s first reading is one of the most famous in Scripture, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, from Paradise. God had created them to live there in peace and happiness, giving one simple rule to live by, not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Of course, they broke the law, and the rest is history. This chapter in Genesis should not be considered a page from the history book; it is much more than that. It is Scripture’s reasoning of why there is evil in the world when God created us to be happy and fulfilled. Consider the build-up to the expulsion. The serpent, a figure of evil here, tempts Eve into breaking God’s one rule. She eats the fruit (note there is no mention of an apple, just a fruit). Adam falls into the trap too. Immediately they hear God walking in the Garden and they hide from him, the one who had created them to be happy and content. Hiding implies they are alienated from God, the source of all happiness and hope. Next, when challenged by God, Adam says he hid because he was ashamed that he was naked, whereas before there was no such shame. This suggests Adam is now alienated from himself. When challenged by God as to what had happened, and if he had broken the one rule, Adam says Eve was the one to blame, she gave him the forbidden fruit. This implies that he is alienated from Eve, from his wife, his neighbor. The consequence of all that was that God expelled them from Eden, condemning them to a life of hardship and necessity, where the earth will only yield after toil and sweat and from which comes a universe of disease and suffering. In other words, humanity is alienated from nature. And so, therein lies all our misery, from these simple words in Genesis, showing the genius of Holy Scripture.

Consider: Alienation from self may lead to dislike of self, and the possibility of hatred of self, and ultimately the possible destruction of self, suicide, all of which is contrary to God’s will for us. Alienation from God, the source of love and hope can lead to hopelessness, and ultimately despair, the utter desolation of believing there is nothing worth living for. Alienation from one’s neighbor may lead to dislike of neighbor, hatred of neighbor and destruction of neighbor, murder. And alienation from nature may lead to famine, disease and starvation. It could be said that these few simple verses in the third chapter of Genesis are a rationale for all of the evil the world has ever seen. Hence the genius of this simple story allowing us to come to grips with hugely greater truths. Salvation history begins here, pointing the way back from the fall of humanity back to the restoration of friendship with God.

The ministry of Jesus fits neatly into this picture as the mirror opposite, destroying these alienations and restoring unity with God. This is why he points out the contradictory nature of the accusations made against him. How on earth can curing people and restoring them to physical and mental health possibly be evil? Surely it harks back to the perfect days of Adam and Eve in paradise. Isn’t this restored good health a reflection of God’s perfection and goodness? Satan would make these people worse off, not better surely? Jesus then talks of alienation when he declared that a house divided against itself cannot stand; it is doomed to destruction. And to condemn God’s Holy Spirit, the source of all unity, is to witness to ultimate alienation, where there is no hope at all. Finally Jesus talks of ultimate reconciliation, where not only his family are his brothers and sisters, but all who witness to God’s goodness are brothers and sisters in God’s family. In other words, Jesus points to another Paradise, one that awaits all who follow his path away from death, destruction and despair to universal love and life, ultimately confirmed in the  triumph of the Resurrection which conquers the world’s evil seen in his passion and death. And all of us are invited to follow that glowing pathway to redemption, happiness and union with God.


Resurrection of Christ, Bellini, Gemäldegalerie Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Germany.

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The Last Supper, Jaume Huguet 1463, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain.


While they were eating,
he took bread, said the blessing,
broke it, gave it to them, and said,
“Take it; this is my body.”       Mark 14:22

During the course of salvation history as recounted in the Old Testament, God slowly revealed many qualities and characteristics which had been unknown to the Hebrew people. These were in many ways very different from the qualities worshipped in the pagan idols of the peoples surrounding the Holy Land back then. One quality in particular was certainly unique to the Jewish God. In Exodus chapter three, God, speaking to Moses in the burning bush, revealed the sacred name Yahweh, or I AM WHO AM, and thereby established a personal relationship between God and Moses, and through Moses to the entire people. In the days I taught religion, when we came to this section of the course, I would ask the students if anyone had a friend but you didn’t know his/her name. Quite often there would be one or two who said they did. Carefully pursuing this, it would become quickly clear that this was unusual, and they would themselves sometimes admit this, because how could you have friends and not know their names? Knowing God’s name, then, which had been unknown until that moment (the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” is a title, not a name), meant there was a deeper link between God and the Hebrew people. Then when the people arrived at Mount Sinai, having escaped the slavery of Egypt, this relationship became even deeper. God offered to be their God if they were prepared to be his people. How could that be? By accepting God’s law and promising to live by it. In other words, to obey the 10 Commandments. They agreed, and so it was. Today’s first reading then described what happened, a ceremony to solemnize the agreement. An altar was erected symbolizing God, and surrounded by 12 pillars, representing the 12 tribes, the people of Israel. Animals were sacrificed, and their blood preserved. Half was poured over the altar, and other half sprinkled over the whole people. A strange procedure, but heavily weighed with symbolism. Remember that the night they were released from slavery by the Egyptian pharaoh, they had daubed the blood of a sacrificed lamb, one year old and spotless, over their doorposts, and the angel of death passed over their homes as the first-born sons of the Egyptians died. Therefore, the blood symbolized life, not death as it preserved the Hebrew first-born sons from the angel of death. So at the foot of Mount Sinai, the blood of the animals splashed over the altar, representing the invisible God, and the people represented the life of God linked to the life of the people, in a covenant which the Jewish people recognize to this day as the covenant between them and God sealed in blood. So the blood of Passover night and the blood of the Covenant both were symbols of life.


The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci 1490s, Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy.

Today’s gospel from Mark is about Jesus and his friends preparing and celebrating the Passover, as God had instructed his people 1000 years before to do every year, and done right to this day. Except this time it was different. The unleavened bread they used (again from the original Passover night, when the food had to be prepared hurriedly, so there was no time for leavened bread dough to rise) was taken by Jesus who blessed it and declared that they had to “take and eat for this is my body”Similarly, he took the wine at table, blessed that too, and handed it to them saying take and drink for this is my blood of the covenant”The gospel of Luke is clearer, where Jesus says this is my blood of the new covenant (Luke 22:20), and at Mass the priest says that the wine is the blood of the new and eternal covenant. In other words, Jesus raised the feast of the Sinai covenant to an entirely new level, declaring that the blood of the new covenant was sealed with none other than his own, not the blood of sacrificed animals. He linked his own life to us in the consecrated wine of the Mass, now his own blood. It is impossible to imagine a deeper, more profound or intimate relationship between God and us: we are told to take and eat, take and drink none other than the body and blood of Christ himself. How closer can we get to the life of God than this? Hence the relationship between us and God is total. God’s life enters our very bodies, to strengthen us and guide us in the ways and truth of God. 

Now, just a little note about Christian history. At the Reformation, this whole belief and teaching was heavily questioned, and even dismissed by some reformers. Several of them claimed that the bread and wine of the Eucharist were symbolic of Jesus’ presence, and therefore not real, as the Catholic (and Orthodox) church proclaims. So the term “Real Presence (of God)” refers to this distinction between the two. Many other protestant churches, however, declared belief in the real presence of the Lord at the Lord’s Supper. The Catholics, however, declared in no uncertain terms that the consecrated bread was and is indeed Our Lord, truly present among us, and even developed rituals designed to demonstrate this belief loudly and clearly.


Corpus Christi Procession, Morogoro, Tanzania. 



A Monstrance, http://www.marianland.com/veritas/10_443.html

The two photographs immediately above show this conviction in practice.  The first photo above was taken in Morogoro in Tanzania at a Corpus Christi Sunday procession. Such processions are normally reserved for today’s feast, but in Lourdes, in southern France, it takes place every day. Lourdes is the town where, by tradition, Bernadette Soubirous was graced with visions of Our Lady, the mother of Jesus, as the Immaculate Conception, in the mid-19th century. In the course of these visions, Bernadette, following the vision’s instructions, unearthed a rivulet of water, which over the years has become closely associated with healing miracles. Although the church has only recognized a handful of miracles as undoubted (67 since 1858), very many more people have claimed to have been cured there than that. Many have taken place during the course of the procession of the Blessed Sacrament, when the consecrated bread is carried before the faithful. Many parishes throughout the world on this day will have a procession of the Blessed Sacrament through the streets near their church as you can see above. In this way, the neighborhood and its people can witness the belief and devotion of Jesus’ followers as they honor and respect his Body in the consecrated bread. For such purposes, the consecrated bread is placed in a monstrance, an elaborate vessel designed purely for these occasions, as in the first photograph above and also seen below. Such an event in a way shows that Jesus is a real and present neighbor! These are a tradition dating from the 13th century, and are generally limited to the Catholic Church. The same idea rests with the Catholic ritual known as Benediction, where the gathered faithful are blessed with the consecrated bread, the real presence of Christ. .


Pope Francis blesses the congregation at Benediction in St. Peter’s Basilica, New Year’s Eve, 2015.

So all this is an expression of belief, hope and trust. It is a simple statement of belief in Jesus’ words “This is my body, this is my blood” and, additionally, in Luke 22:19 “Do this in remembrance of me”. And so we do, at every Mass. The feast of Corpus Christi displays not only the Eucharist but has built traditions based on it, all declaring the Catholic belief in Jesus really present among us here and now. All this makes the dismissal command at Mass all the easier, perhaps, to obey: Go and announce the gospel of the Lord, because we take the Lord with us having received his body and blood at communion. One final thought. The Protestant churches which deny the real presence tend to be called fundamentalist, taking every word of the bible as literal truth, such as the universe being created in six days, something the Catholic Church does not accept as scientific reality. However, when it comes to the Words of Institution (“This is my body….”), the Catholics become fundamentalist and the fundamentalists become more flexible, if that is the word. Intriguing.


Blessed Sacrament Procession, Lourdes, France, 2013. 


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The Trinity, anonymous 16th century, Church of Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand, Poitiers, France.


Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…           Matthew 28:19.

For Christians, it could be said that there are three great revelations of the Divine in human history. First is recorded in the 12th chapter of Genesis, when that still small voice addressed an old man, Abram, instructing him to move to another country where he would be granted descendants and land. There he began to understand that this voice was that of a previously unknown God, intervening for the first time in human history. Then came the third chapter of the Book of Exodus, where God, present in the famous burning bush, revealed to Moses the divine name of God, Yahweh, or I AM WHO AM. That established a relationship between God and Moses, and through Moses to the Hebrew people. It was then that they became God’s Chosen People, united in accepting God’s law. Then today’s gospel (and at several other moments in the New Testament) reveals that God is Three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That final revelation has confounded people and scholars evermore. How can the One True God be Three Persons? Of all the mysteries in our shared belief, that is the most profound of all, completely inexplicable to the other two great monotheistic religions. And today we celebrate it!

First, an interesting thought. God the Father is, in human understanding, a male figure. The Son is another obvious male figure. But the Holy Spirit? Traditionally the Holy Spirit in English is also a “he” (also in French and other languages). Why? Well, the New Testament is written in Greek, where Spirit is rendered by the word πνεύμα (pneuma, pronouncing the p). We get such words as pneumatic (of or relating to air, gases, or wind) from that same source. But grammatically that word is neuter, neither male nor female. In English almost all nouns are neuter, save for male and female persons.  That would mean that the Holy Spirit grammatically would be rendered “It” in English, which is clearly unacceptable. The Latin for Spirit is Spiritus, masculine, from which we get our own word in English. If it were feminine it would be Spirita, but it isn’t. And almost certainly it is from the Latin that we get our masculine designation for God’s Holy Spirit. But…. Let us look a little further back. Jesus almost certainly spoke Aramaic, a variant of Hebrew. In that language, spirit is rendered רוּחַ (ruach, ruah or ruwach), and this word is feminine. So whenever Jesus talked about God’s Holy Spirit, his understanding of it would clearly have been feminine. Hence the Old Testament Book of Wisdom (also called the Wisdom of Solomon), written in Hebrew, consistently calls the Spirit “she”. You could say that God’s Wisdom, as described there, is a prefiguring of the revelation of the Holy Spirit by Jesus:

With you [God] is wisdom, who knows your works and was present when you made the world, and who understands what is pleasing in your sight and what is right according to your commandments. Send her forth from the holy heavens and from the throne of your glory send her, that she may be with me and toil, and that I may learn what is pleasing to you.                                         Wisdom of Solomon, 9:9-10.

Now all this is very interesting, but what does it have to do with today’s feast? Two Sundays ago, the second reading described God in a unique way as God is love (1 John 4:16). In our human understanding, true love is always experienced between two people. That kind of love is very different from all other sorts of love, such as in “I love pizza”. It’s a shame we don’t have different words for different types of love in English, as they do in Greek, which has at least four! But the context in English usually reveals which kind of love we are talking about. In the musical Les Miserables, for instance, the final song says To love another person is to see the face of God, and it is perfectly clear what kind of love is meant. It is the deepest, most profound, utterly unconditional love that humans can experience. And generally speaking, for most people, that is the love between man and woman, a love so life-giving that it gives forth new life! So my point is simple. The Holy Trinity is the model of love: Love between Father and Holy Spirit, with Son as its constant and eternal expression. That is a love we can understand and accept and into which we are all invited. Pushed further, there is another dimension we can see in human experience. Loving couples who have been together for a long time seem to know what the other is thinking and feeling. There is a unity and acceptance there which is so profound that the two seem to have become one. And almost always such a love is utterly accepting of other people; it is not an exclusive love, but a love which encompasses everyone. The Trinity is even beyond that with three persons so united in that profound bond of love that they are one, the One True God. That is the only way I can begin to understand the greatest Christian mystery of all. And it is through love that we each approach God. 

This provides the foundation for our own lives here on earth. The model of service which Jesus taught time and again, demonstrating love for each other, comes directly from the Trinitarian expression of love. As our anointing at baptism conferred on us the vocation of being Christ (or Anointed One) to the world, so we too must embody the openness and love of God as shown in the Trinity in all our dealings with each other here on earth. The Trinity should inspire all our life’s work; it is that on which we will be judged. Jesus, the Son of God, received his vocation (to be the world’s Messiah) from his Father, and with the love and strength of God’s Holy Spirit, was enabled to obey that vocational mission to its bitter end. And so it was that he defeated death itself, which was unable to defeat the life-giving force and power of the Holy Trinity of light and love. And here we are, God’s adopted children through baptism, with the same vocation, via our various talents and gifts, to be Christ to the world, having the same power and strength of the Holy Spirit to fulfill God’s will in each of us. Hence we, too, may worthily hope for life after death having obeyed God’s will for each of us to the best of our ability. Even when we stumble therefore, the God of Love will pick us up, time and again, for that is what a loving parents will do for their child. That is what the Holy Trinity of Love will always do for us.


Holy Trinity Window, Lutheran Cathedral of St. Mary, Visby, Gotland, Sweden.

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Pentecost, RC Church of St. Aloysius, Somers Town, London, UK.


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.      Acts of the Apostles, 2:2-3.

50 days after Passover, our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate the feast of Shevuot, a Hebrew word meaning “weeks”. It has several other names, the Feast of Weeks being its current name. Seven weeks after Passover, or (roughly) 50 days, gave it its name. At that time, Greek (not yet Latin) being the universal language of the Roman Empire, they called it Pentecost (“50th”), based on the Greek word πέντε, pente, or five. Originally a Feast of the First Fruits of the Harvest, a great thanksgiving feast would be held in the Temple in Jerusalem, and all Jews who could afford it would come to the city to give thanks. Hence it is one of the three great Pilgrimage Feasts, the others being Passover and the Feast of Booths. Also, by tradition, it took 50 days from the passage through the waters escaping from the slavery of Egypt for the Hebrews to arrive at Mount Sinai where the 10 Commandments were given to them. Hence it is also called the Feast of the Law. So for Jerusalem this was one big day, with the city packed with pilgrims from all over.

Meanwhile, somewhere in that city 2000 years ago, you might have been able to find a bunch of people huddling behind locked doors, scared that they might be discovered, identified as followers of the messianic imposter Jesus and condemned to the same death he had suffered. The entire Christian church was located in one small room, hidden away from the crowds, scared to death. Prospects were grim, you might say.

Then something happened which was to change the whole world.

Literally out of the blue those cowards were confronted with a life-changing blast of wind/breath/Spirit; they heard a loud noise as of wind rushing through the room, and flames as of fire appeared. These flames separated and came to rest upon each person there. There was probably a stunned silence in the sudden peace as they stood terrified, confused, frozen. Then they began to talk, some in Aramaic, some in Greek, some in Hebrew, some in Latin and others in other tongues. The silence gave way to a cacophony of excited and joyous voices which could be recognized by every person on earth, were they there to hear it. In a trice, the linguistic alienation of all people from each other, the curse set on humanity for the hubris of building the Tower of Babel which would defeat God should there be another flood, was erased (Genesis 11:1-9). This new world would see people united again, proclaiming a new, unifying message. Jesus had promised this before he ascended to God, when he told them not to run away until this had been fulfilled. God’s Holy Spirit had now arrived on earth, transforming Jesus’ followers in an instant. These newly minted apostles and friends could not wait to smash open those locked doors and rush out into the streets crowded with Shevuot/Pentecost pilgrims to proclaim, for the first time, the gospel of the Lord. Their cowardice was utterly transformed into the courage and strength of people filled with such Good News that they had to share it with everyone. There were never to be locked doors again. And so the Church was born – the Birthday of the Church resulting from the Descent of the Holy Spirit. And over the years the Jewish feast of Pentecost became overwhelmingly identified as Christian.


Pentecost, El Greco, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

There are three world-changing events which altered all of history. The first is recorded in the 12th chapter of the Book of Genesis. A still small voice spoke to an old man, Abram, telling him to uproot and go to a place the voice would describe. And he did. God had entered the world for the first time, and salvation history began. 2000 or so years later God intervened a second time with an angel sent by God to a young girl to ask her to bear the Son of God, our feast of the Annunciation, the Conception of Jesus. Thus the Messiah appeared and taught us how to live happy, fulfilling and holy lives serving each other, with the prospect of eternal life to follow. And today is the third and final event, the last before the great and final judgement of all people. And if you consider these events, they mark the arrival, first, of God the Father, then God’s Son and today the arrival of God’s Holy Spirit, in whose age we all live today. The Father outlined the pathway all humans should follow as God’s chosen people. The Son, being totally human as well as divine, showed concretely how those guidelines and commandments can be lived in actual life by any of us. In other words, what God truly wishes of us. The Spirit was sent to us to guide us, to inspire us, to be true followers of God’s life-giving rule. The divine plan was complete. And we are here today as God’s holy people, fortunate recipients of the path to true happiness – blessedness – and joy in life. 

Flame, Babbitt, Minnesota Evangelical Lutheran Church, 2003, Tammy and Kevin Gilmore.

Flame, Tammy and Kevin Gilmore, Evangelical Lutheran Church, Babbitt, Minnesota, USA.

When you think of those terrified first Christians cowering in a room in Jerusalem one moment and then bursting into the street talking to anyone who would listen to them about the life message of Jesus, for what greater evidence could one ask?  Here was the actual presence of God and its miraculous effect of God’s Holy Spirit. What other explanation can you think of which would explain people immobilized by dread fear of crucifixion suddenly proclaiming the exact same message of Jesus which had led to his death? It is, I think, the Christian miracle of all time! There is no other explanation for such a complete change of behavior. And that same Spirit rested on us Christians at our baptism. We have no excuse for avoiding the right way of living within God’s holy plan, for in that way we, as God’s children, can achieve true happiness and fulfillment even in this life, as we look forward to even greater happiness in the world to come. 

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Christ the Suffering Redeemer, Mantegna, National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark.


[Jesus prayed:] …they do not belong to the world
any more than I belong to the world.
I do not ask that you take them out of the world
but that you keep them from the evil one.
They do not belong to the world.                                John 17:14-16

Jesus is talking about the “world” in a special way here. Commentators have pointed out at least three different Scriptural meanings of this word. In Genesis, God made the world and was pleased with it. Then, according to John himself, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). So it is clear that these meanings do not apply to today’s gospel.  The world Jesus is talking about here is clearly evil, the world dominated by Satan. And, also, the world we all live in. This is the world of self and greed and corruption. It is the world demonstrated in the movie Wall Street, with its principal character famously declaring that “greed is good”. He was so convincing that Michael Douglas, who played him, won that year’s Oscar for best performance. It is a chilling film, demonstrating in blazing clarity the meaning of Jesus’ words. The movie predictably ends in tears, prison and ruined careers and lives, but I suspect there might be others out there who have succeeded in infamy and have ruined others in hacking their way to the top. All this is exactly what the Lord is talking about. This is the world we live in for better or worse, and it is our job to show the light rather than plunge into the darkness seeking our own good and all others be damned.

Love is the mirror opposite of that dark world Jesus is talking about. Love means that we do not trample over others on our way to the top. Indeed it might well mean that we help others to the top (the essence of a teacher’s job!). Today’s second reading has a remarkable statement that God is love (1 John 4:16), the only time in Scripture that God is so described.  This must mean that concern and care for others trump all other concerns. It is the essence of heroism and other worldliness. We are all here in this world to serve others, not to be served. That is from the lips of the Savior himself (Mark 10:45). And that is the vision which conquers the world which killed Jesus, the world of darkness and evil, if we but dare to live it. It is also the vocation we all share. Jesus prayed that God not take us out of this suffering world, but that God defend and assist us in being Christians in that challenging context. We are here to convert it! How? By setting an example of good living, helping others as necessary, developing our own God-given gifts the better to accomplish that. Never to seek revenge, never to hate, never to bring others down, but always to look on others as God’s own children, be they fallen angels or whatever. A challenging role to play in this world, but that is the one to which Jesus clearly calls each of us. 

And now let us look at today’s first reading. The original 12 disciples were down to 11 with the treachery of Judas. Jesus had ascended into heaven, and they were well and truly on their own. At that point they were still behind locked doors, scared to death that the punishment visited on Jesus would be their destiny as his followers. At that point they had not yet received the Holy Spirit, promised by Jesus before he left them, yet they decided to add to their number to get back to the original 12. A priestly friend of mine has suggested that it was because of all that, that they selected another man and not a woman to fill the vacancy! Who knows? It is an intriguing thought: would God’s Holy Spirit have guided them to such a choice? Is God’s Holy Spirit guiding us to such a decision today to make up for it?

So here we are today, in a world which seems to getting scarier by the day. Nations threatening each other with warfare, pollution damaging God’s environment in multiple ways, unfairness and abuse in the workplace and many other injustices and threats. Where is the light of love and service to others? Well it all starts with each of us, one person at a time, showing what the power of truth and love and care can do. Example can be a powerful weapon for good. And remember we are not alone. Jesus says this very day:

As you sent me into the world,
so I sent them into the world.
And I consecrate myself for them,
so that they also may be consecrated in truth.   
John 17:18-19.

Which means we are not alone in our mission to consecrate the world to God. We have God on our side!

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St. Peter and Cornelius the Centurion, Cavallino, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome, Italy.


This I command you: love one another.   John 15:17

There is the Golden Rule in Scripture, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, a sort of tit for tat philosophy. Jesus, typically, goes way beyond this in commanding his followers to love one another. The clear implication is that a follower of Jesus must love everyone, even those who are doing things which are horrible. Jesus demonstrated this even from the cross itself by asking God to forgive even those who had inflicted that monstrously unjust punishment on him. So the model is there for all who would call themselves Christian. The first reading is a great example of this in practice.

All of Jesus’ first disciples were Jews, and devoted ones at that. For them, the world was divided clearly into two groups, Jews and Gentiles, or non-Jews. Even to mix with Gentiles was frowned on. Anyone who worked with or for them was excommunicated; witness Matthew the Jewish tax collector for the Roman occupying force. He was shunned by his own community. So their initial interpretation of Jesus’ command to love one another they would automatically apply to Jews only. It would be unthinkable for them to accept Gentiles into their midst, let alone love them! But……

The 10th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles is fascinating. Peter the fisherman, and the one clearly appointed as the leader of the apostles, had gone to Joppa, a town on the Mediterranean coast west of Jerusalem. He was staying with a friend. He had gone up to the roof of the house to pray, presumably because it was peaceful and solitary. He became hungry, and saw a vision of all sorts of animals, birds, etc., coming down from heaven. A voice ordered him to kill and eat. Now there were animals in the vision which were forbidden to Jews, such as pigs (see Leviticus 11). So he objected. The voice then said “What God has cleansed, you must not call common” (Acts 10:15). From that moment, all Jesus’ followers were released from the kosher laws of eating. Now the vision threw another curve ball at him. The voice warned him of visitors arriving from Caesarea up the coast, Gentiles, and he was to go with them to the house of Cornelius, a Roman soldier. 

Well, put yourselves into Peter’s shoes. All his life he had obeyed the kosher laws, and also avoided all contact with Gentiles as far as possible. Now both of these injunctions were, apparently, abolished. They cleared the decks, as it were, to allow Jesus’s command to be followed completely. And Peter was the chosen one to undergo the first test. Well, he obeyed, and went to the house of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. Remember that Peter would look on him in various ways. Cornelius was a Gentile, an oppressor of the Jews, being a Roman soldier, he was unclean in that he ate forbidden food, was uncircumcised (see Genesis 17:9-14) and, one imagines, worshipped the alien gods of the Romans. All that would make him toxic in the eyes of a strict Jewish man. Even to enter his house would be verboten for Peter. Yet Jesus’ command, and, more immediately, the rooftop vision, emboldened him to do it. Poor Cornelius was a good and just man and who had also received a vision that he should invite Peter into his house. He was equally overwhelmed, shown by his falling to his knees before Peter, thinking him to be in some way divine. Peter quickly corrected that mistake, then witnessed the Holy Spirit coming down on these Gentiles without any action on Peter’s part. It was blindingly obvious that God wanted these Gentiles, and through them, all the world, to be included among Jesus’ followers. It was a revelation which almost tore the small Christian community into shreds as it was so revolutionary. Yet what Peter witnessed confirmed it. It made jesus’ command to love suddenly take on a universal dimension. Every individual in the world was to be loved as a child of God, no matter what.

Now to be a little Jesuitical for a moment, the command does not order us to like others, but to love them. I believe there is a difference. I am sure there are people in your life whom you simply do not like. You might (or might not) respect them, but you cannot like them on any level. Be that as it may, the command to love must be obeyed no matter how difficult it might be. It is the clear hallmark of a Christian. You must love all others without exception and without conditions. It means Christians must hold every human being in the greatest respect. Recall Thomas More forgiving his executioner, reminding him that he was sending him to God. Edith Stein (more properly, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) and Maximilian Kolbe, both canonized saints of the Nazi concentration camps of World War II, never once declared hatred of the people responsible for running these death camps even though they both died there under horrifying circumstances. 

One final thought. Hatred, holding grudges, desire for revenge are all deadly aspects of non-love. Such negative forces can strangle anyone’s humanity. “Most mental disorders stem either directly from–or secondarily generate–anger, rage, resentment, hostility or bitterness.” (Stephen A. Diamond, Ph.D, Psychology Today, June 3, 2009). Negativity can only beget greater negativity. It is destructive and evil, even if produced by great injustice.  Jesus’ remedy is love, which of course, includes forgiveness. So although we may not like those responsible for evil, as Christians we can love them as God’s children, though perhaps fallen, and hence worthy of our prayers. That positivity will go a long way to guiding us to blessedness in God’s eyes. And remember, to be blessed simply means to be happy in the Lord.

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Jesus the Vine, 15th Century Greek Orthodox, rosarybay.com


Jesus said to his disciples:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.      John 15:1

Well I guess there are limits to literal interpretations of Scripture, as you can see above. It looks more like a summer trip out into the woods with everyone happily swinging on a sturdy branch, swaying in the sunlight. But isn’t that what it is supposed to represent? Jesus and his Father represent the sturdy, healthy, tree trunk, supporting all the others, with the essential help from the Holy Spirit holding it all together. The all-powerful and eternal source of life hands out true life, the greatest gift from God to us. The first reading is an example. Saul, the Jewish pursuer of heretic Christians was determined to put an end to the accursed sect. In other words, his mission was not life-giving but instead, death. On the road to Damascus, something happened to change his entire vision of the world. He was blinded by a supercharged light, and a voice from heaven asked why he was intent on such a destructive course. He was told what to do once in Damascus, and he did. Saul became our St. Paul. The second reading sums up what the new convert now accepted as life-giving truth. He thereupon climbed upon the tree of life – the vine – to accept eternal life and to let everyone know that they too, like him, were also invited. In a sense, then, his source of life changed from a self-propelled life of destruction to one of generous outpouring, coming not from him, but through him, from the eternal source of God and he invited everyone to join him. 

Today, hardly anyone works in the fields, or, in this case, vineyards. Some have gardens and are well aware of the idea of pruning, mentioned in the gospel. It simply means that unfruitful branches are cut off, thereby strengthening the remaining branches to produce even more fruit. And also, grafting is an important element, whereby another fruitful vine branch is attached in a special way to the vine and continues to produce even better grapes. I think Paul’s story fits this in a rather strange way. He was highly successful in destroying Christian communities in Jerusalem, which is why he was allowed to set out for Damascus and do the same there. His conversion transformed that strength for destruction into one for growth and blossoming. He was a successful graft! Judas, on the other hand, was cut off, as his was the barren fruit of betrayal and lies, the idea behind Baudelaire’s masterpiece Les Fleurs du Mal, or Flowers of Evil. Our own evil if unchecked, is enough for us to be pruned from the life-giving vine even by our own hand, then to rot away to nothing. The life-giving words of the Savior, on the other hand, can feed our spirits, keeping us spiritually young and vigorous and pleasing to the vine-grower. It is another way, I think, of underlining the importance of the gifts God has given each of us which are to be developed into skills with which we serve others, which is John’s way of loving “in deed and truth”, from today’s second reading.

So perhaps this special vine is somewhat different from the normal vine on a sunny slope in a valley in the French Champagne region. True, God’s vine can be pruned in the normal way, but previously bad grafts can be reattached to it and produce good fruit. Even those cut off and thrown on the rubbish tip can come back to life if they come to their senses. So on Jesus’ vine, much more is going on than simple vine-growing. The life of this vine is stronger and more, shall we say, miraculous then the regular vines of Bourgogne or Bordeaux.  

So perhaps today’s message is that those of us who try to follow the Lord’s way, try to be good neighbors, try to serve others and each of us generally tries to be as good a Christian as we can, are happily producing the fruit of Christ’s vine, and are blessed as a result, which simply means, in translation, happy. All those other poor souls have to come to their senses; but for us who try to follow the Lord, we have an obligation to help them become happy. And the best we can do that is by example; again, in John’s words, in deed and truth. As Jesus says today, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you,
ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.
By this is my Father glorified,
that you bear much fruit and become my disciples”.


The Conversion of St. Paul, Caravaggio, Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, Italy.

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Christ the Good Shepherd, Catacomb of Domitilla, Rome, Italy.


Jesus said:
“I am the good shepherd.
A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.     John 10:11

The picture above shows a young shepherd taking care of one of his sheep, possibly a lamb. Scholars are pretty certain it depicts Jesus. It stands in the Catacomb of Domitilla in Rome, and dates from the mid-3rd century. It is possibly one of the the oldest representations of Jesus that we have. If any one of us were placed in front of this picture and asked “Who is it?”, Jesus would not be the first person we would think of. No beard, no robes, no long hair, very young looking, utterly different from any of the traditional renditions of the Lord. And yet, compared to our time, it is so close to the time of the Lord….

Well, first of all, there were very few Christian Jews left in the Christian community by that time. 300 years is some time from the first Christians. By then, most Christians were converts from all over the Roman Empire. It means they didn’t have a clue what a young Jewish man would look like! They certainly knew what a young Roman shepherd would look like; most people at that time either worked the land, or lived very close to those who did. If Jesus, not yet 33 years old, called himself the Good Shepherd, then he must have looked like this! And this was one of the very first representations of the Lord that appeared in the Christian community. Note that it was the Good Shepherd, not the crucified One. Crucifixion was still going strong in the Roman Empire, and the shame and degradation associated with such a death was too great for these early Christians to show in statues or pictures. Crucifixes only began to appear once the Roman Empire began to disintegrate, and the punishment by crucifixion began to disappear. 


A more “traditional” view of the Good Shepherd. This style is sometimes rather disparagingly called “Sulpician Art”

Now, in north Wales in the U.K., there is a Jesuit retreat house called St. Beuno’s:


If you go there, you will have a spiritual experience and come close to God in the special Jesuit way. But you will also get to know two other realities: Rain. It rains a great deal. North Wales is one of the wettest areas of Britain. And second, you might learn how dumb sheep can sometimes be. There are 10 million sheep in Wales, accounting for 80% of the country’s agriculture. As you wander the country lanes nearby, you might see a sheep walk up to a hedge, stick its head in it and not be able to get out. The next day you might well see the same sheep do exactly the same thing again. Jesus, calling us his flock, gave us a kind of backhanded compliment I think. Yes, it is comforting to be part of a flock tended by the Son of God, but calling us his sheep is, well, deflating. Are we prone to doing the same dumb things time and again, getting ourselves into messes and scrapes? I’m not going to answer that one. But do you think the Jesus statue above shows a sheep/lamp who has just been rescued from such an embarrassment and is whispering “Thank you Lord” into his ear? 

I just said it was “comforting” to be part of Jesus’ flock. A better term would be life-saving. We have a shepherd willing to give his life for us, as Jesus states. But these are not simply words. The man proved it. He did actually die for us. How? He had preached a message of love and forgiveness for three years. He supported his message with wonders no-one else could possibly do. When confronted with a jealous and enraged authority, supported by angry and disappointed people who had stereotyped him as the all-conquering military messiah they had expected and baying for his blood, he stood by his message despite the threat of condemnation. He was put through a humiliating and degrading public execution, still proclaiming forgiveness and love, neither of which was remotely present. That is the kind of shepherd we have. Nothing stands in his way in his determination to be our shepherd, to defend us to the end. The first reading sees Peter, whom we believe to be the first Christian leader following Jesus, openly preaching the exact same message as Jesus, thereby bringing upon himself the same threat that had killed his Lord. So it seems that being a good Christian requires courage and conviction to the end. Is that the message of today’s readings? Each of us, as Christians, should be fearless in demonstrating that we are total followers of the Lord, prepared to forgive, to love and never to belittle or hate. In other words, to become the good shepherd? Now wouldn’t that be a sight to see? Gandhi is reported to have said “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ”, which may or may not be true; but it should give each of us pause. Our baptism gave us our identity as children of God, and our vocation, to be Christ to the world.  Hence we are called to be good shepherds, now and always. Perhaps that is today’s message. We are all to be good shepherds, helping others out of difficulty, restoring them to dignity in whatever way we can. And when, perhaps inevitably, it is us stuck in some mess. Guess who helps us out of that? 

Here is another takes on today’s theme, where Jesus is calling us “sheeple”:

Wake up, sheeple, it’s Good Shepherd Sunday!

And here is another rendition of the Good Shepherd, several hundred years after our Vatican statue. Jesus now seems to be between a young Roman man and a young Jewish man:


Christ the Good Shepherd, 6th century, Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy.

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cro_v_1“Peace be with you”, Duccio: The Maestà (part), Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena, Italy.


“Peace be with you.”
But they were startled and terrified
and thought that they were seeing a ghost.
Then he said to them, “Why are you troubled?
And why do questions arise in your hearts?
Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself.
Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones
as you can see I have.”                            Luke 24:36-39.

Just as last week, we have the appearance of a supremely confident Jesus amid a bunch of terrified, cowering followers. No wonder he asks “Why are you troubled?”. But I think we can all answer that one. Jesus was supposed to be dead! They were in the presence of a unique pivotal moment in history, one that was never to be repeated, and that had never happened before. Truly unique. Almost certainly they were asking themselves things like: Am I seeing things? Who really is this man? Am I delusional? What on earth do I do? Is this a sick joke? Jesus seems to understand this, hence his reassuring comments about himself: “Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.” That seems to have begun to have won them round, and they allowed themselves to begin to wonder, Is it true? Has he actually conquered death? After all, he shared a meal with them… Pretty convincing you might think. Then he sat them down and began to set this whole series of events within Scripture (just as he had done with the his two followers who were running away to Emmaus). Everything had been prophesied in Scripture during the previous centuries, from his arrival, his message, his suffering and his resurrection. All this was God’s will. Then he states this message, and its consequences, must be preached to the whole world. Sin is forgiven, and Jesus is the source of eternal life and happiness.

This central teaching about the forgiveness of sins seems to be central to Jesus’ message. Remember that during his ministry, he had announced that certain individuals’ sins were forgiven. This had caused enormous scandal, because only God can forgive sins. Yet Jesus pointed out that surely the cure of dread diseases or demonic possession, usually the scene which had prompted his forgiveness of each person’s sins, must be of God otherwise no miracle would have happened. The cure was the proof of the power to forgive sins. Last week’s gospel saw Jesus passing this power of forgiveness over to his followers. We have this power enshrined in the sacrament of Reconciliation in a formal liturgical setting. However, I think today the idea of sin is politically incorrect. Today, it seems that to call even ourselves a sinner is insulting and wrong. Me a sinner?? How dare you. But the evidence is pretty clear, both within each individual conscience, and in the world as seen through the daily news. But digging through our own conscience is much more difficult than being appalled by the day’s horrors on TV. St. Ignatius, the founder of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, has an answer to that. Fr. George Aschenbrenner, S.J., who was my Novice Director when I joined the Jesuits, has this to say about Ignatius’ insight:

Ignatian Examen

Doing this once a day, preferably at the end of the day (or twice a day, as Fr. George recommends), will certainly bring out the light and the shadow of daily life. As we begin to realize what sin means in our lives, how it drags down, how it depresses, how it destroys, how it ruins happiness, will give us the impetus to do something to fight it. It does require self-honesty though, but asking God for that help would be a good starting point. 

Remember it was sin that destroyed Jesus’ mortal body; in fact, St. Paul even says Jesus became sin (2 Corinthians 5:21) taking all our filth and degradation upon himself so that it might be destroyed by his death, which would allow us, equally freely, to take on his purity and goodness through his resurrection. And today’s gospel shows the first fruits of that event; he had conquered all that sin through rising from the dead, and was now sitting down and eating with his bewildered and astonished followers. And he began to let them know what the next step was going to be, that they, in their turn, would go and proclaim the same message, release from sin and entry into a life of happiness. But at that moment there was no hope of that. They were still paralyzed with fear of arrest and death because they were Jesus’ friends. Recall Peter’s responses on being accused of following Jesus when the Lord had been arrested…. Even Jesus returning from the dead was insufficient motivation to take up his message and proclaim it to the world.


Jesus Sends Forth his Disciples, Duccio: The Maestà (part), Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena, Italy.

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